No one could touch us—people were scared
No band has dominated a 12-month period like Frankie ruled 1984, with three singles all at No 1. Yet today they rarely get cited by other musicians. So what’s the legacy of the band that scandalised Britain?
It is August 1984 and Frankie Goes To Hollywood are in their pomp. They have just spent their ninth week at No 1 with Two Tribes, that ultimate cold war-era document with the annihilating bassline that sounds, in the words of Capital Radio DJ Roger Scott, “like the end of the world”. To celebrate their final performance of it on Top of the Pops they are wearing matching white wedding jackets with black trousers and bow ties. After all the controversy surrounding Frankie—their previous No 1, Relax, was banned for its “obscene” content, and the video for Two Tribes was banned for being indecent—even this choice of outfit seems like a provocative gesture.
To further playfully mark the occasion, drummer Peter “Ped” Gill and bassist Mark O’Toole have swapped instruments, while singer Holly Johnson, to the bemusement of the BBC cameramen, prefaces his performance—with a mixture of relish and disgust—by tearing up a copy of the Sun, the newspaper that has been doorstepping his parents in Liverpool for quotes about their gay son.
Meanwhile, Relax has just climbed back up the charts to No 2, making this the first time anyone has occupied the top two slots since Hello Goodbye and the Magical Mystery Tour EP in January 1968. It’s official: Frankie are the most scandalous affront to decency since the Sex Pistols and the biggest band, Liverpudlian or otherwise, since the Beatles. “It was more than we imagined it could be,” marvels Paul Rutherford, Frankie’s co-frontman and dancing clone, of their 1984 heyday. “We just couldn’t see it coming at all. But God, we rode it. There’s been nothing like it since.”
Frankie were a blip, albeit a seismic one. Relax and Two Tribes are the sixth and 22nd bestselling UK singles ever—above Relax there are just charity records (Band Aid, Candle In The Wind) and novelty songs (Mull of Kintyre, You’re The One That I Want), give or take Bohemian Rhapsody. Frankie’s achievements—first three singles all No 1, a double debut album with advance sales of more than a million—are colossal. Yet they rarely get cited by other bands: they didn’t, for example, feature in the NME’s recent cover story on the 100 Most Influential Artists. But that’s because it would be impossible to recreate what they did.
They were a one-off: two self-styled “ferocious homosexuals” up front, backed by three prototype Liam Gallaghers, who were known as “The Lads”. Their symphonic future disco came in sleeves full of literary allusions and they issued missives in T-shirt form: Frankie Say War! Hide Yourself, Arm The Unemployed and Bomb Is a Four Letter Word. The hi-tech sonics were the work of producer Trevor Horn; the intellectual subterfuge was courtesy of former NME writer Paul Morley.
The latter—one of the founder members of Frankie’s label Zang Tumb Tuum (ZTT) along with Horn and Horn’s wife Jill Sinclair—might consider Frankie a “Dada boy band”, but in a way they were a prequel to Public Enemy, the rap collective with multiple auxiliary members: Rutherford was a less camp Security of the First World, Horn a one-man Bomb Squad and Morley the Minister of Information.
“It was an unexpected combination of energies,” muses Morley, ever the pop theorist. “You had a truly great producer—the best in the world along with Quincy Jones—you had a slightly narcissistic journalist, you had this heterosexual scouse energy and this very exploratory gay energy, all mixed up in one place. It was a ridiculous formula and you couldn’t have planned it—it was too toxic. But the toxicity of it worked well creatively and commercially for a few months, until we woke up and realised we all hated each other, or certainly that we were very different from each other.”
The core five-piece—completed by Brian “Nasher” Nash on guitar –never envisaged Frankie in such conceptual terms, which accounts for later problems when they complained of being manipulated by ZTT. Their aims were relatively modest.
“We were a bunch of boys, bent on getting pissed and having a laugh,” says Rutherford, making them sound like Oasis when they were the very antithesis. “We used to dress [The Lads] up in leather clothes and S&M stuff and they loved it. It was meant to be fun: ‘Let’s drop a little acid and go nuts.’ It was controlled mayhem.”
He admits, however, that there was a point to the pleasure. “We were discovering our sexuality at the same time that the world was,” he notes. “We were at the forefront of that, making sense of gay rights.”
They were born out of Liverpool’s postpunk scene: Johnson had been with local heroes Big In Japan, Rutherford was in Hambi & the Dance, The Lads in Sons of Egypt. Their initial forays as Frankie were, recalls Rutherford, “highly anarchic”.
“We had that ‘fuck-it’ Liverpool attitude,” he says. “We were a gang, and no one could touch us. People were scared.”
In February 1983, they appeared on Channel 4’s The Tube, where viewers caught a shocking glimpse of Frankie in fetish wear, joined by a pair of writhing PVC-clad females known as the Leatherpettes. Among those viewers was Chris Squire, bassist with Yes, the prog band whose 90125 album Horn was then producing. Squire recommended that Horn make them ZTT’s first signing. “He [Horn] thought the gay thing was the most dangerous thing about us, but he loved that, and the fact that we were overtly sexual,” says Rutherford.
That sexual energy was harnessed by Horn for Relax, four minutes (16 on the tumescent 12in Sex Mix) of pulsating shagtronica. Released in October 1983 but not a hit until January 1984, it took ages to come.
“It got trashed by the press,” remembers Horn, whose lavish aesthetic was deemed insufficiently authentic—most of the backing track was pieced together by ZTT musicians (to hear how much Horn brought to Frankie, listen to the Radio 1 session versions of Two Tribes and Relax and compare them with the hit versions). “We had fun making it, but it didn’t do anything for three months. Then they appeared on Top of the Pops and it went through the roof.”
No band has dominated a 12-month period like Frankie ruled 1984. Continue »
“The reason I hired a journalist [to work at ZTT] was because I realised what journalists did: they took normal things and romanticised them,” says Horn of Morley, who was routinely reviled—ironically, by his peers—for being pretentious. “And I thought, that’s what we need: someone who makes legends. There’s no doubt Paul caused waves—people were horrified by some of what he did. His original cover for Pleasuredome had depictions of 32 different sex acts between animals. Luckily, we picked it up before it got to the factory because there would have been real trouble. But some of his ZTT artwork was absolutely brilliant.”
Gill, Nash and O’Toole—despite doubts about their musical input—were similarly essential, lad archetypes to offset the band’s arty epicureans. “They were Geordie Shore, three decades early,” laughs Morley. “They were the guys who, today, would be having sex on reality TV. A show that followed Frankie on tour would have been horribly sleazy. And yet their enormous capacity for vulgarity was part of the energy of the band. They may not have played on the records, and Trevor might have had night sweats about some of their exploits, but there’s no way you could have had Frankie without them.”
Like the Pistols, they enjoyed one year of glory. By February 1985, their fourth single Welcome to the Pleasuredome had stalled at No 2. There was an expensive, anticlimactic second album, Liverpool, in 1986, followed by the band’s own equivalent of the Pistols’ final gig, at Wembley Arena in January 1987, when a bust-up backstage between Johnson and O’Toole signalled the end.
“The brightest star shines half as long,” decides Rutherford. “We ran out of steam and we split up. It’s sad. But the memories are amazing.”
Frankie were arguably the last great British pop sensation. Will we ever see their like again? Horn believes not.
“Pop music’s wide open if you’ve got the imagination,” he suggests. “There’s no saying what you can’t achieve. But it’s not easy. I don’t know if I can see it happening quite like that again.”
As for Morley, he likes the unrepeatable nature of the event. “It’s like a weird hallucination: here were two of the biggest records of the 80s, yet somehow they’ve been slightly lost,” he reflects. “The fact that something was so successful yet is part of a shadowy history is ultimate proof that it was special. They were like some contorted, profound novelty band.”
If not musically influential, he can detect Frankie’s impact whenever a Miley or a Kanye, a Beyoncé or a Bowie, demonstrates “how spectacular a pop hype can be”.
“I see those sorts of reverberations every day,” he says. “After Frankie there was a lot of commercial music being packaged beautifully, and videos with artistic impulses. They were part of a change in pop in terms of sophistication that continues to this day. It’s still going on like it’s 1984, as though they’re still competing with Frankie. But that’s not something I would say in public, for fear of being taken off to the funny farm.”
The Inside the Pleasuredome Ultra-Deluxe box set is available from ztt.com