The road to the pleasure dome
A little over a year ago, a punk-funk five-piece from Liverpool with a hardcore leatherboy look released a record called “Relax”. Few people noticed they had struck a renegade stance until the BBC decided to ban them. By then it was already too late. They had cleaned up their act and were about to clean up entirely. For the first time, Kevin Sutcliffe tells the full and frank story of Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
1976: Liverpool’s unemployment rate is rising as fast as the docks are closing. The young are bogged down in the quicksand of an empty future, without even a music to call their own, while the city’s turntables churn out reminders of Liverpool’s glorious pop heyday to help the population forget the grey decay of the present.
In the cramped bedroom of a small terraced house in the rough working-class neighbourhood of Wavertree stands 15-year-old William Johnson, his pulse racing.
On his wall is a poster of Aladdin Sane. Before him, reflected in the mirror, the image of an innocent-looking young man, dapper in black suit, white gloves and shock of red hair modelled on mid-period Judy Garland.
His appearance is for a friend, Peter—
Unable to accept the fact that their scholarship son—
But it’s Saturday and only bullets will stop ‘Holly’ (a name he was given after dancing to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”) leaving the house and heading like most of Liverpool’s youth for Church Street, the city’s pedestrian precinct…
His friends, who hang out around a hairdresser’s there and are several years his senior, form the Bowie Crowd—
Their days are spent getting new haircuts, drinking coffee and discussing the emergence of punk. The evenings pass in seedy gay clubs such as The Bear’s Paw and Jody’s Bar.
“Liverpool was a tough, straight town,” recalls Jayne Casey. “They were the only places where you could dance to Bowie, Roxy and the Velvets without getting battered.”
By early 1977, a cafe and clothes market, Anti-Wackys, had opened in Mathew Street (near the site of the Cavern Club). A welcome alternative to precinct life, with its bitingly cold Irish Sea winds and scarifying Scouse abuse, it quickly became the centre of Liverpool’s burgeoning counter-cultural activity—
Reminding many people of a Lucien Freud painting, Holly had shaved his head and taken to wearing long overcoats with huge brightly coloured brooches in the lapels. These were the early days of punk, but Holly and his friends hardly noticed. Flamboyance and outrage had always been their pastime. “Instead of calling you queer, people would shout punk at you on the streets,” recalls Holly. A local punk celebrity, his schooling was over and, living away from home and on the dole, he was teaching himself acoustic guitar and harbouring musical aspirations. If this was nothing unusual, the serious nature of Holly’s ambition was already clear.
“I didn’t want ‘0' levels because that might mean the chance of a proper job,” he admits. “That had to be avoided. I simply decided not to get any qualifications.”
Although outwardly bright and sharp-tongued, the negative reaction at school and home to his avowed homosexuality had left Holly wary of showing his delicate and raw emotions; it made him difficult to get to know well.
At this time, into Anti-Wacky’s looking for a Saturday job came a tall, gawky and painfully shy 15-year-old from Cantrell Farm (a massive Sixties council housing disaster in West Liverpool)—
Meeting Holly he found they shared the common experience of growing up gay in rough, working-class areas of Liverpool. Becoming good friends they often went to the newly-opened Eric’s club along with the rest of their fluid social coterie.
Inevitably, perhaps, a band began to develop at Eric’s. With a line-up including Budgie on drums, Jayne Casey on vocals, Bill Drummond on lead guitar and Holly on bass, Big In Japan began to play their first gigs.
They produced a sordid hi-energy punk and saw themselves as Eric’s band—
Holly, in particular, viewed this apparition with suspicion (mainly for the way in which Morley had seemed to manipulate several of the Manchester punk bands he had already written about). However, his favourable article on Big In Japan did much to ease disquiet. Then he was gone.
“Things were going very well at this time,” remembers Jayne Casey, who was by then sharing a flat with Holly and Paul. “It was a time of great excitement, creative activity and sexual exploration.”
Sartorially elegant and a talented designer (making clothes for his friends including a skirt for Holly), Paul Rutherford was having second thoughts about his enrolment at St Helen’s College of Art. A supposed bastion of liberal attitudes, they were objecting to his dress (bondage trousers and spikey hair). His reaction was to put more time into singing with his band The Spitfire Boys. Holly by comparison always got dressing up a little wrong.
“There was always something uncool and over-the-top about whatever he wore,” said a close friend. Between signing on the dole, a stab at acting and casual jobs, there were visits to London for Holly, some made with the intention of staying. Continue »
Not content with their involvement with Big In Japan and sometimes frustrated by its inertia, Holly and Jayne began writing songs together and duetting as The Sausages From Mars. Covering Velvet Underground songs nicked from an EP they found in a junk shop, they paid Julian Cope and Pete Wylie beer money to liven up their performances by abusing them from the audience.
This began the Anti Big In Japan Society: a loose alliance of mainly working-class college kids based at Eric’s. Their principal members were Cope, Wylie and Ian McCulloch. They were renowned talkers—
Big In Japan’s influence, though, was far reaching. Their example was eventually to inspire McCulloch, Wylie and Cope (the Crucial Three) and many others on Merseyside to form bands. Even so, in 1979 there was great delight at Big In Japan’s demise—
After much taunting and cajoling and against his better financial judgment, Pete Fulwell, the manager of Eric’s Records, was persuaded to release a record of Holly’s material featuring the song “Yankee Rose”.
Fulwell’s scepticism was soon vindicated when the record failed to sell (it was, until recently, a staple of Liverpool record store discount bins). The only joy of the entire escapade came when Granada television invited Holly to perform “Yankee Rose” on one of their children’s programmes. Those who saw his performance, sat astride a wooden rocking horse, looking like a frail Hopalong Cassidy, became even more convinced of his ability by the relaxed and natural way he played to and worked for the cameras. He had never been in front of them before.
However the record’s failure, so close to the void created by the demise of Big In Japan and the news that Cathy, one of Holly’s friends, had committed suicide, crippled his confidence and will to compete.
By now living alone in a small flat, Holly was visited by Pete Fulwell who, for an hour, tore into him about the “Yankee Rose” debacle, destroying what confidence he had left by telling him he was finished as a performer.
Holly’s interest in music began to wane very quickly. His friends were now widely dispersed (Eric’s had closed) or were into heroin (which was becoming rife in the city). Directionless and disconsolate, he retreated back into the gay underground and little was seen of him for over a year.
“Big In Japan fucked everyone’s head up,” recalls Jayne Casey, “and in many ways Cathy’s suicide came to symbolise for many of us the passing of an era.”
Holly emerged from his self-imposed exile in 1981 cautious and unsure. He began a musical collaboration with Steve Lovell (now Flock Of Seagulls’ producer) and Ambrose from Jayne Casey’s new band Pink Military. Ambrose provided the project with a name: Frankie Goes To Hollywood (filched from an old American movie magazine about Frank Sinatra’s move from Las Vegas to Los Angeles), but nothing came of their work except a name.
Little was heard of Holly again for a few months until one day he turned up at Jayne Casey’s flat, enthusing over three scaliwags he’d met in one of the town’s discos, and who Holly had agreed to start a band with. Peter (Ped) Gill, Mark O’Toole and his brother Ged were young working class lads who, unlike Holly, were holding down ‘proper’ jobs in the manual trades. They’d spent the last year in gangs, playing in local bands and chasing girls around the estates.
Four years older than ‘the Scals’ as Holly called them, he saw himself as their leader, offering guidance and experience. Continue »
By the spring of 1982, Holly was adding words to Ped and Mark’s riffs and, keeping the name Frankie, they were readying for their first booking as support to Hambi And The Dance at Pickwicks, a pub in the town centre.
That night, with an audience full of old friends from Eric’s wishing him and the band well, Holly took the stage—
Towards the end of their set an enthusiastic Paul Rutherford (who had been singing backing vocals for Hambi And The Dance) rose from the audience to sing with the band and stake his claim in Frankie’s future. Paul’s acceptance into the band added a new dimension: style. With help from Holly, he began to work on the band’s image. In the meantime, Holly wrote more lyrics to add to the lads’ riffs.
They began rehearsing for their next performance at the annual three-day televised music festival—
By the time they took the stage in Sefton Park the light was failing and the crowd dispersing in search of pubs, off licences and warmth. First off The Leatherpets—
Frankie soon went down in Merseyside folklore, though no-one could work out whether Holly’s backside was blue from flagelation or exposure. It was July 1982 and Frankie were already saying that “sex and horror are the new gods.”
“It was all a giggle and very tacky,” remembers photographer John Stoddart, who covered the event. A few weeks later, Holly tracked him down to his studio to look at the pictures he had taken of their performance and to arrange a photo session based on the Sefton Park show.
“Paul and Holly turned up in leather gear heavily influenced by Mad Max,” reckons Stoddart. “They had an idea that they wanted Mapplethorpe-type photographs. They had a good image. I just pointed the camera. It was great fun—
Although the three lads were not overly impressed by the first and subsequent photo sessions, Stoddart noted how the band’s relationships began to develop, split into its two component tribes, gay and heterosexual. “The lads will always pull up Paul or Holly if they’re posing too much. Then they exchange sharp, often cruel and cutting remarks about each others’ sexuality. But that is easily misunderstood—
By August reports of a leather-fetish band had reached the financially atuned ears of Bob Johnson. Continue »
It was a performance Johnson described as “a horrendous mixture of heavy metal and funk which inspired either fierce loyalty or disinterest in the audience.” Despite what his eardrums heard, through the rawness Johnson saw excitement and ideas. And, most importantly, a band with a ready-made image and marketable songs.
Convinced that record companies would “love” Frankie, he offered, and they acceptped, his management services. He told them a record deal would be “a piece of piss”.
Arista Records were the first company to be approached. In October 1982, they parted with £1,500. It was enough to demo “Relax” and “Two Tribes” and make the band’s first promotional video—
It was the same story at Phonogram, after they had paid for the recording of “Love’s Got A Gun” and the engagingly titled “Get Out Of My Way Arsehole (Junk Funk)”.
Ignoring these early setbacks, Frankie assembled an impressive press package containing many of the original Stoddart session photographs which were then circulated to the media. This tactic drew a live Radio One interview with Steve Blacknell and an airing of the Arista demo. It was followed by a John Peel session in November for which the band recorded “Krisco Kisses”, “Two Tribes”, “The World Is My Oyster” and “Disneyland”.
All possible remaining record companies were approached. All turned them down. Privately, many of the A&R men enthused about the band but no-one would risk signing them with their gay leatherboy image. A typical comment was: “My reps have to go out and sell that, and my reps are married men with children.”
The London office of Island Records showed considerable interest and posted the video out to boss Chris Blackwell in the Bahamas, only to receive the reply: “Not the sort of image for my company.”
In December as Ged O’Toole left the band to be replaced by his cousin Brian (Nasher) Nash; a series of live performances were lined up, supporting Fashion in Birmingham and Manchester, headlining at the Warehouse in Leeds and the London club Cha Chas at Heaven in the hope that a live set might entice one of the record companies back. Yet by the time the band were set to play Cha Chas as it was obvious record company interest had evaporated: none of the A&R men had accepted their invites to the gay club and the last hope was a representative from the booking agency Cowbell.
Booked as support act at Cha Chas was a 20-stone Turkish ‘mutilator’. Unannounced and dressed in a leopard skin leotard he waded into the audience pushing skewers into his body, screaming and breaking fake blood capsules. Within minutes the place was virtually empty. When the band came on suspended in a cage from the ceiling, they were met by a few desultory claps and embarrassed smiles of feigned encouragement from the die-hards taking refuge in the shadows. They continued their set in the hope that Cowbell’s agent would sign them. But he didn’t turn up either; having been beaten up outside by two gay clones he had abused when they made a pass at him. Needless to say the agency passed too.
It was Christmas 1982 and Frankie were the most talked about band on Merseyside, but it had been three months since the ‘piece of piss’ promise. Things looked bleak. Worse, Frankie were being overtaken by other Liverpool bands such as The Lotus Eaters and The Pale Fountains in the race for contracts.
In Liverpool at this time was a Tube researcher looking to interview Dead Or Alive for a Tube special on Liverpool. Continue »
The video was shot in the city’s State Ballroom—
Radio interest was beginning to pick up again, with John Peel repeating his session and Kid Jensen commissioning “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome”, “The Only Star In Heaven” and “Relax 2" for his early evening show.
To capitalise on this and resurrect record company interest, Frankie performed at the Camden Palace. It was only their eighth ever appearance live and few argued with Sounds’ review the next week… “A massive piece of bullshit… their dishwater disco rock deserves to be cremated without a wreath.” Only Beggar’s Banquet disagreed, offering a £500 advance on a one single deal.
Compounding the agony of their Camden Palace debacle came the news of the sudden death from cancer of hi-energy producer Patrick Cowley, who’d agreed to work with the band. His death was a major setback. The prospect of failure loomed larger than ever. The band’s cohesion broke down, the acid banter and in-jokes that helped sustain them dried up. They were at each other’s throats, frustrated and desperate. Each week it seemed to be the turn of another band member to be threatened with the sack.
Elsewhere in Basing Street, West London—
Horn, who gave Island their first ever number one hit with Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star”, a producer with a reputation for being a perfectionist, is the mix-master behind the seamless pop of Dollar and ABC, as well as a member of ‘progressive’ rock group Yes. One of his first decisions was to recruit 25-year-old ex-NME journalist Paul Morley—
Employed as a sort of cut-price Malcolm McLaren (with whom Horn worked on “Duck Rock”) Morley’s role was ‘conceptualising and marketing’. This marriage of talents—
It was Morley who named the new label Zang Tuum Tumb (after a piece by the Italian futurist Marinetti). Abbreviated to ZTT it competes with CBS, EMI, RCA in the logo battle while remaining a gentle parody and an indication of what was to come from Morley, who was by now engrossed along with Horn in the search for the ZTT’s first signing.
Back in Liverpool—
Two days after the session was aired, Trevor Horn arranged a meeting with the band and placed before them a deal: £250 advance on one single release with an option on a second.
ZTT would pay all the recording expenses and Trevor Horn’s production talents would come free of charge. But there was a catch: ZTT would only put the band under contract if they also sold their publishing rights to ZTT’s Perfect Songs publishing company —for £1,000.
After some ‘discussion’ over this slender advance, the figure was raised to £5,000. Frankie Goes To Hollywood signed to ZTT in May 1983. The £5,000 was split between the band and soon swallowed in expenses.
Morley and Sinclair immediately moved to take control of the band’s affairs and ostracize their current management—
From the moment they signed to ZTT Frankie appear to have relinquished (or delegated) responsibilities. Style transfered from Rutherford to Morley and sound from ‘the lads’ to Horn. In effect ZTT were acting on Bob Johnson’s comment that “first and foremost, they were a studio band with a live sound that could be whipped into shape any time.”
By now Holly and Paul were hanging around the ZTT office with Morley, kicking ideas around while they waited for Trevor Horn to finish work on the new Yes album before they could go into the studio.
Two months later in early September they entered Manor House studios to begin recording their proposed debut single, “Relax”.
Once in the studio, Frankie’s musical ineptitude quickly tried Horn’s patience; he removed the band and hired Ian Dury’s group The Blockheads to play a version of “Relax”. Frankie were “seriously pissed off” with Horn’s actions but were helpless, knowing full well that for a £250 advance, with the publishing rights bought and paid for, one false move could result in their dismissal. They bit their tongues.
Fortunately, The Blockheads’ version of “Relax” sounded, according to Holly, like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and Frankie were reinstated. Five weeks and an estimated £70,000 of recording time later the first version of the single was completed to the satisfaction of Trevor Horn.
The band came out of the studio older, wiser, better musicians with a radically different sound. Their emotional intensity was now buried deep in a mid-Atlantic megamix.
Bernard Rose was commissioned to direct a promo video. Producing a Fellini-esque bacchanal that drew on some of Frankie’s early ideas, it cost £15,000 and was ready for the official launch of ZTT and release of “Relax”, appropriately enough on Halloween 1983.
Dripping with mystery, taboo, innuendo, ambiguity and above all sex—
The Tube invited the band to play live on their pre-Christmas programme. It was exposure they badly needed (so far “Relax” had been sustained on radio airplay and music press hype alone). Continue »
That one appearance pushed the record up to 35 in the first chart of the New Year and garnered them an invitation to appear on Top Of The Pops. Scrubbed clean, the leather swapped for Yamamoto and fresh linen, Frankie Goes To Hollywood gave a spotless, trouble-free performance which projected the record up to number six in the following week’s chart.
Then, on January 10, Radio One DJ Mike Read refused to play their record on his breakfast show because he claimed it was “overtly obscene”. Two days later the ban was extended to all shows on Radio One in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the station had been the one constant factor in Frankie’s shifting fortunes; playing “Relax” over 70 times and keeping the band in regular session and interview work for over a year.
The sales momentum generated for “Relax” by their one Top Of The Pops appearance was enough to push the record to number one on January 24; it also won a simultaneous BBC TV ban because of its ‘unsuitable’ lyrics. “We got egg all over our faces,” Michael Hurll, producer of Top Of The Pops, was to complain later.
Frankie stayed at number one for five weeks—
“I don’t think we are threatening,” laughs Holly. “There’s innuendo of course but I think it’s people who are really desperate to find rudeness because of what journalists have said is there. Mothers ask me where the rudeness is and I’m not sure myself. Neither do I care.”
For completely different reasons neither did Fleet Street; press attention to Frankie and ZTT didn’t have as its primary object understanding the meaning of lyrics like “Relax, don’t do it, when you want to come…” What was wanted was a soap opera scale series of headlines to sell papers—
In the middle of this hailstorm of hype one popular misconception came out loud and clear time and again. It was so clear it must have been planted: that Frankie Goes To Hollywood were the invention of Morley and Horn’s busy and clever imaginations. It may or may not have been planted by Morley, but he was certainly conspicuous in his efforts not to deny it.
“Things started to get a little lopsided,” admits Frankie’s PR Regine Moylett. “I don’t think the band thought Morley would go that far… it made them look like puppets and that pissed them off.”
Paul Morley seemed to be trying to slip in his pet theories of pop, with Frankie as the model, hoping the press would swallow it.
“But the irony,” laughs Holly, “is that he can never create the ultimate teenybop group—
At the height of “Relax’s” popularity Frankie moved down to London to the Colombia Hotel on £5-a-day expenses from the record company—
Indirectly, the band have Morley (a director and minor shareholder of ZTT) to thank for an income beyond the usual record company minimum. Noticing that Katherine Hamnett’s outsized polemical t-shirts of ‘83 were being knocked off in the high street by the spring of ‘84, he concocted a series of bold slogans for Frankie’s second release: ‘Frankie Say Relax’, ‘Frankie Say Arm The Unemployed’, ‘Frankie Say War, Hide Yourself’. 250,000 t-shirts bearing these words have been sold to date, plus twice as many pirate versions.
The band, through their current manager, set up a company into which all royalties funnel. Neither Morley nor Horn (though he requested it) gets a slice of that action. And with royalties for their records not due until at least 1986, it is this that keeps Holly and Paul in Yamamoto clothes and the Scals, whether they play it up or not, in beer and girls.
The ‘Frankie Say’ t-shirts had optimum exposure in the teen marketplace when the whole Top Of The Pops audience wore them to fete Frankie’s return to acceptance with the energetic but safe protestations of “Two Tribes”. On June 4th, Frankie’s second single entered the charts at number one, selling 500,000 copies in two days. From July 10 to 17, spurred by endless remixes, “Relax” joined “Two Tribes” at the top of the charts. Frankie had entered the pop history books. Ten million copies sold worldwide. All that remained was for them to become a real pop group, with fans (as opposed to consumers), albums and tours.
This they mean to do via the latest package, “Welcome To The Pleasuredome”, a double album of music and a vehicle for everybody’s fantasies: Frankie’s, Horn’s, Morley’s, yours (to quote an imaginary ZTT ad). The album is worth inspecting as the ultimate Frankie artefact thus far.
It contains a number of their favourite songs, some of Trevor Horn’s favourite sounds, many of Paul Morley’s favourite quotes (as well as a list of sources) and a few shared jokes and obsessions: snatches of Brookside, speeches from Reagan (courtesy impressionist Christopher Barrie), versions of Bacharach/David and Bruce Springsteen songs. It presents a spectacle of inviting junior bachanalia, mitigated by Penguin Modern angst. As with their contemporary in tamed outrage Prince, the message is love not war, sex as release from strife. “Not sex exactly,” says Holly. “I prefer to call it pleasure.”
For the record, it sounds like Queen on acid. The music is over-wrought, the sleeve notes over-written. But underlying this is the vulgar energy of Frankie themselves, riding the rollercoaster. With over a million copies already sold in Europe, and the final total likely to be between three and five, the record stands to gross a million pounds apiece for the Frankies, more for Horn, while the bulk of the return goes to the major investor, ZTT. And then there is America…
“The thing I like best about America,” says Holly, smirking, “is the strength of the dollar!”
Frankie’s tour there at the moment is their next gamble; they’ve even hired an American manager to help the odds. Yet, so far, little has come of Morley’s style of promoting Frankie—
These are the concerns of ZTT, if not Frankie. There is little that is subversive or inspired about ZTT—
Frankie always wanted to be sold. They won their notoriety, but lost their potency. As pop grows flaccid again, we have ZTT to thank. Continue »