FRANKIE SAY COME AGAIN
The T-shirts. The gay sex imagery. That BBC ban for “Relax”. Nine weeks at No 1 with “Two Tribes”. For one amazing year —
And suddenly there came a bang! It is early one November morning in 1984, at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City. There is a loud knock on my door and the sound of three lads’ raucous laughter. It’s 3am, and the heterosexual wing of Frankie Goes To Hollywood wants to play.
“Room service, go ‘ed!” demands guitarist Brian “Nasher” Nash.
“Are youse ‘avin’ a wank or wha’?” enquires drummer Peter “Ped” Gill.
“Getcha scuzzies on an’ come down to ours. We gorra li’l surprise,” teases bassist Mark O’Toole.
Dancing down the corridors, the Lads fill me in. They’ve decided to celebrate the opening night at the Ritz club as only the Lads know how.
Frankie singer Holly Johnson and his art dealer boyfriend Wolfgang Kuhle (euphemistically his manager-cum-bodyguard), who are staying at the swankier Berkshire Place uptown, have spent the evening at Andy Warhol’s townhouse, admiring the Jean-Michel Basquiats and Keith Harings. Fun lovin’ Paul Rutherford has opted for the black-light warehouse rough and tumble of the Meat Packing District.
Ped, Bri and Mark, meanwhile, have dialled up some escort entertainment.
“And what is fookin’ top is they’re a Brazilian mother and daughter,” they babble excitedly. “Get a load of that, la! Five hundred dollars the pair, sunshine. Get yer expenses out yer Calvins, yer tight c***. Youse up for it? Or are you, as we suspect, a FUCKIN’ COCKNEY ‘OMME!”
In the boys’ room a welcoming party is arranged. Two Lads plus yours truly must sit stock still in the closet while the third Lad does the dirty deed with some bird who probably isn’t from Ipanema, and her mum. Or vice versa.
Within seconds of the rat-a-tat-tat, the Lads are in hysterics. I make my excuses and stay.
It’s always too much fun when you’re out and about with Frankie in 1984. Since the previous summer I’ve been bumping around their mad world and haven’t stopped laughing once. The story will end in tears and bitter recriminations on stage in Rotterdam and in the High Court, but at least no rock stars will die in the making of this production.
You have to pinch yourself. Inside a year Frankie have gone from being Two Ferocious Homosexuals and Three Scallies to The Only Noise In Town. Two Tribes, the gay and the straight, West and East, Reagan and Chernenko, are all messed up in their colossal second single. One of the most emphatically addictive records ever made, “Two Tribes” is a bass-tripped, Omni-effected, Arion Hot Watted nuclear explosion, ejaculated on seven and sundry 12 inches of pleasure. Take cover!
“Two Tribes” is the bomb, before that phrase is invented. By summer ‘84 those Frankie Say T-shirt slogans Max Bell —
Frankie does. He’s measuring his sales in megatons. He doesn’t read his press —
If The Beatles were the sound of 80,000 crumbling houses and 30,000 people on the dole, Frankie are the sound of the North rising, and fuck the recession. Political pop? Imagine a studio full of teenagers wrapped in Frankie Say Arm The Unemployed T-shirts in front of 10 million Top Of The Pops viewers. This actually happens. They’re Oasis fronted by two S&M clones. They’re the original Spice Boys. No, they’re the disco Beatles. Scratch that, they’re the Hi-NRG Sex Pistols.
Frankie’s story begins in all the no-mark wannabe Liverpool bands that span 1977 to 1981: Dancing Girls, Spitfire Boys, Sons Of Egypt, The Opium Eaters, Reynard, Hollycaust, as well as one of the most influential: Big In Japan, the archetypal legend in their own lunchtime, a veritable Liverpudlian supergroup featuring William “Holly” Johnson on bass and flat-top, future KLF subversive Bill Drummond, Jayne Casey of Pink Military/Pink Industry, Ian “Lightning Seeds” Broudie and Budgie, later of the Banshees.
The Ziggy-crazed Johnson also makes two solo singles, “Yankee Rose” and “Hobo Joe”, which end up in the bargain bin —
Frankie Goes To Hollywood, their name plucked from a headline about Frank Sinatra spotted by Johnson’s mate Ambrose in a vintage issue of Variety, are only going to the dole queue until Johnson recruits O’Toole, his cousin Ged and Peter Gill, a self-styled “animal who bashes drums”. Occasional singer Sonya Mazunda doesn’t hang around long. Rutherford forces his way in when that version of Frankie support Hambi And The Dance at Mr. Pickwicks. He leaps on stage during “Relax” (like “Two Tribes” already a rehearsal room staple), saying, “Youse lot are fuckin’ great!” Get in, my son.
Liverpool-born photographer John Stoddart chronicled such ramshackle beginnings from 1982. “That was when they were just a pathetic band on the pseudo-Bowie/Roxy gay scene,” he recalls today. “But they developed fast once Paul joined, and they looked terrific. I’m a witness to the fact they were better and had more raw energy before Trevor Horn got his hands on them. I saw them at Larks In The Park, in Sefton Park, when they had these secretary sisters called the Leatherpettes [Julie and Marie Muscatelli] who dressed in stockings. Continue »
Having been shown the door by every record company in London, including Phonogram, Arista and Island (whose boss Chris Blackwell heard their tape and didn’t get it —
Fate intervenes in the lanky post-punk shape of notorious ex-NME journalist Paul Morley, a Manchester City fan, much to the chagrin of the Lads, died in the wool “Red Musos”, apart from Toffee Man Ped. Morley decides this lot will be the Second Coming after The Art Of Noise and before Propaganda for the newly formed Zang Tuum Tumb label (ZTT), where he’s employed to A&R by Trevor Horn of Buggles/Yes fame, and his wife, Sarm West studio manager Jill Sinclair.
Motor of mouth, arch strategist Morley is a storm trooper compared to the Gauleiters who infest the music industry. He makes the right impression with Zang Tuum Tumb, an onomatopoeic description of the noise made by Russian cannon in the Crimean War. Utilising Morley’s futurist/situationist schtick, ZTT market Frankie like no band has ever been marketed before. Ironically, early press releases are quaintly Carry On. Tastefully cropping a deviant arse-and-chains image of a musclebound fag and a rubberised dyke (another idea purloined, this time from Vivienne Westwood’s infamous Pistols T-shirt of two cowboys with their dicks out), ZTT wet the whistle.
“The amazingly different Frankie Goes To Hollywood make their debut vinyl appearance with 12 and 7 inches of aural pleasure —
Luckily, this Biggles Flies Undone approach is ditched as “Relax” bruises the national psyche in winter ‘83. Next time we see’ em, the Frankies have colonised ad pages with slogans like: “All the nice boys love semen. Soap it up… rub it up… making Public Image seem like men of goodwill, making Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes.”
These inflammatory metaphors are unheard of in polite pop circles, where everyone pretends rock stars aren’t cocaine-snuffling degenerates. Even Boy George persists with the “we might dress funny but we prefer a cup of tea with the Queen Mother to sex” nonsense when he writes to Record Mirror complaining Frankie are —
Rutherford and Johnson’s brand of homosex is considered dangerous. ZTT and Frankie exploit the myth as they “make Wham! seem like Pinky & Perky… Big Country look like a back garden in Surrey… Style Council the cover of a Barbara Cartland novel.”
“Relax” disgusts most conservative A&R types tapping a toe to such bland, benign contemporary ditties as “Karma Chameleon” and “Love Of The Common People”. Lines like, “Relax, don’t do it, when you want to suck it to it/Relax, don’t do it, when you wanna come” are too much information. “I’ve got a daughter. I can’t let her listen to this,” complains Arista Records’ Dick Rowe.
Later, Holly Johnson will pretend “Relax” is about “motivation and achieving your potential” when really it’s a short sharp amyl nitrate fuck up against the wall in a dark alley. Continue »
Two weeks into January 1984, sanctimonious DJ Mike Read, a close personal friend of Cliff Richard, decides that “Relax” is obscene. He flings it across his studio and snaps it in half on air. On January 10, the BBC bans the single. Pandemonium breaks out as tabloids jump on the story. One Sun journalist gets them a shock-horror front page with such earth-shattering revelations as: “They swore at me! They threw popcorn at me! They insulted Gene Kelly!” “Relax” climbs to No 1 without Auntie Beeb’s blessing, although she’s played it 71 times, including repeated sessions with John Peel and Kid Jensen.
Stoddart again: “Once ‘Relax’ was a hit, ZTT stuck them into an upmarket flophouse apartment block in Maida Vale. I went there once and they’d locked a girl in a wardrobe, which smelt of piss. When they let her out she was just wearing panties, which was unusual because they used to drape the knickers over the chandelier. They’d get the girls hanging round outside to buy their fags and chuck water over passers-by. They were teenage blokes having a wild time. It was like ‘The Young Ones’, only worse. They had nothing in the fridge except Holsten Pils and a Vesta Chicken Curry, which Mark stuck in the microwave. It exploded all over the ceiling.”
Finally let off the leash by ZTT, who fear they can’t reproduce their hi-tech sound in the flesh (it’s rumoured that Ian Dury’s Blockheads provided the instrumental flash on their singles), Frankie release their debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, in November ‘84. They have just played three shows at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre and proved their detractors wrong. The stage is invaded by teenage girls and boys, the seats are sticky and the scent of musk is so thick you could suffocate. The Frankies’ third single, “The Power Of Love”, hits the No 1 slot a week before Christmas, equalling a record set by fellow Scousers Gerry And The Pacemakers.
One December evening I’m sitting in a limousine with Mark O’Toole, Frankie’s PR girl (“a fookin paddy c*** ,” according to the drummer) and none other than George Michael. Everyone’s been hard at the ale and the Christmas snow and somewhere near London Michael jumps out the car at the lights and throws up all over his white jeans. Mortifying for the bouffant-haired soul boy, but damn good sport for everyone else.
I first meet Frankie in October 1983, a week before the release of “Relax”. Taking the 9am train into Liverpool’s Lime Street station, you leave the countryside for industrial sprawl before passing through sandstone tunnels of grime festooned with white painted tags: “Cockneys Die”.
There are the Lads standing on the platform with photographer Stoddart. Liverpool is far from its current regenerated, city-of-culture self. Thatcher and Derek Hatton’s Militant have ripped the 18th-century city apart. Shops are boarded up in the wake of the ‘81 Toxteth Riots; shopkeepers cower behind metal grilles. Over pints in the Beehive, an old haunt of John Lennon’s, Mark, Pedro and Nasher introduce themselves.
O’Toole is a joiner for Liverpool Corporation, erecting signs in Old Swan fruit market. He lives at home with his parents, five siblings and his nephew. Nasher is an electrician. Ped is a frustrated drummer with no job (“I wanna be a guitarist but me hands are too small to reach round”).
The day continues with a ferry’ cross the Mersey. Typically, Stoddart brings along a stripper called Sandra, all fur coat and no knickers. “The Lads shagged her the following week. Together,” he later tells me.
Older and more sophisticated than the rest —
Afternoon takes in Harvey’s burger bar. At the Ministry rehearsal rooms, Frankie play me “Two Tribes” (“Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?“), “The World Is My Oyster”, “Disneyland” and “Welcome To The Pleasuredome”. I’ve never heard anything quite like them.
The Lads seem chuffed by my reaction. “Paul and Holly want us to be Boys Town but we’re a fookin’ rock band,” decides Ped. “We’ve been represented as two faggots with us as backroom boys, but we write the music. Holly’s a great lyricist and he’s the voice. Paul’s the Dance Master, and he always looks a million dollars, like.” What’s the score, lads? Nash sums it up: “Frankie is all about sex and having a good time, at someone else’s expense.”
Beers later, Johnson swans in. “I’ve got flu,” he sniffs. “And why are we in Kirklands wine bar?” he sneers, clocking Liverpool footballers John Barnes and Craig Johnston as they pull some judies over the way. “I’d rather be in the Dorchester. It’s the sleaziest place imaginable,” he chirrups in best sing-song camp Scouse. “It’s by the Bull Ring flats. Fierce. Sooo over the top.”
While the Lads jump on his head shouting, “You fuckin’ ‘omme,” Johnson describes his modus operandi: “My job is to manipulate sensationalism.
We want front pages. We want Quincy Jones. We want America. It isn’t just two ferocious homosexuals with a back-up band. Know what I mean? Underneath it all we’re just Scallies. But we’re hip Scallies.”
Anyone who thinks Frankie are thick can get off the bus now.
Johnson’s ambitions will come true in June ‘84: the moment “Two Tribes” neutron-bombs the charts. Accompanied by Godley & Creme’s trailblazing video, it spends nine weeks at pole position. “Is this the next Christmas No 1?” wonders a semi-serious John Peel after Frankie’s umpteenth performance of the single on Top Of The Pops in August.
Rutherford and Johnson are by now receiving letters from girls in Glasgow begging them to spunk into plastic bags and send the emissions back to Scotland, while the aptly named Mark O’Toole is wearing “kecks that make me look as though I gorra big pahhket.” Frankie are giving it loads. They rule.
How cheeky, how audacious are they at this point? They all swap instruments on Top Of The Pops. Another time on TOTP, Johnson rips up a copy of the Sun and drags out Spitting Image impressionist Chris Barrie to deliver his Reagan skit to an overture of nuclear warning sirens. They dress as Cossacks, incurring the displeasure of the Russian Embassy, and pull Nazi salutes out of the bag whenever possible.
Months after peaking, “Relax” steadily climbs back up the charts to No 2, behind “Two Tribes”. It’s historic stuff. The music press are on strike at the time, so can’t take any credit. But are Frankie rich? No. They’re on a wage and thankful for those merchandise sales.
“Every time I see someone in one of those T-shirts, I think, Whoa, there’s another 27p in the coffers,” smirks Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Lads have Yuppified themselves, traded Ped’s knackered Ford Capri —
Johnson has his eye on a bigger bird. An eagle.Continue »
“It’s funny,” he says, “but this is very ‘Frankie Summer Of 1984'. We’ve marked it like tomcats. Like Roxy Music marked 1973. But ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ are over. America’s the next phase.”
FGTH’s debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, its title inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic opiated poem Kubla Khan, is loved on both sides of the Atlantic on its release. Some punters puzzle over the question, “Who knows the secret of the black piano?” I already know. It refers to a juicy sesh at Sarm West where Mark O’Toole is said to have serviced a groupie while the other Lads secretly recorded her moans. Turn it up. You’ll hear it.
Advance orders for Pleasuredome are 1.25 million in Blighty, making it the biggest shipping order for any album to date. America wants 500,000. Frankie’s buzz precedes the North American tour, which begins in Canada before hitting the USA at the Washington Ontario Theatre, mimicking The Beatles’ opening blitz at the Coliseum in DC in ‘64.
There’s no getting bored in the hotel before showtime. The band arrive for album signings in military jeeps, or, in Los Angeles, in a small Sherman tank. Andy Warhol, Tom Waits and Todd Rundgren come to NYC and the aftershow party.
“That first US tour was a non-stop, get-fucked-up fast fest,” O’Toole admits to Uncut in April 2004. “We were wild Scousers just out of Liverpool, let loose on an adoring American college circuit. We behaved as you’d expect. It was great playing shows and having girls jump on stage and grab yer nuts. Plus there was always someone who would get you drugs —
The Lads draw the line at smack, however. As O’Toole says: “Most of the people I knew back home were on heroin at the time. You’d get on a bus and see 12-year-olds doing smack in the back seats. It was good to get away from that hometown smack scene. One thing, though. We never played wasted. Only after your job was done. Apart from TV. Who cares what you look like on TV?”
If 1984 sees world domination, 1985 is a year of Tax Exile. But ZTT are still busy with the rhetoric. Press ads for the “Pleasuredome” single scoff: “Only Pleasure Is Worthwhile… We hate all American AOR pensioners. Bleed them!” Not all of the band approve.
In spring ‘85, Frankie escape the Inland Revenue by decamping to Boris House, Co. Carlow, in the Republic of Ireland. They are soon bored shitless. I remember them rehearsing tracks for the second album, Liverpool, in between racing Ped’s Orange Go Mobile at terrifying speeds on dirt tracks to the nearest pub, drinking vast quantities of Guinness, and driving back even faster. The house, full of antiques, coats of armour and agreeable furniture, is trashed frequently.
Johnson and Kuhle are not amused; rifts develop. Two tribes. Mark vs Holly; Yohji Yamamoto vs casual wear; tea on the lawn vs white line fever in U2’s favourite Dublin club, The Pink Elephant, where the Lads strike up a friendship with fellow exiles Def Leppard. Between them they empty Peru.
But tax exile fucks Frankie. They sneak home whenever possible. On O’Toole’s 22nd birthday, January 6, 1986, he throws a party in his rented London home. The other Lads order him a strip-o-gram, who arrives dressed as a policewoman. As the night grows rowdier, two real coppers arrive. Invited inside, they end up shagging their fake colleague in the garden.
The following day O’Toole is so homesick he orders a mini cab and gives the driver £200 to take him back to Liverpool.
The two years between Pleasuredome and second album Liverpool do Frankie’s head in. Continue »
The rampage also includes a TV show in Hamburg where the band absconds to the car park and decimates a movie prop car. Johnson takes an iron bar to its lights and wing mirrors while O’Toole rearranges the body work with a railway sleeper. Partners in crime, yet the friction between singer and bassist is proving critical.
On the ‘87 European tour, Johnson and Kuhle travel apart from the rest of the band, while Paul Rutherford is caught between two warring factions.
It doesn’t help that Liverpool’s singles, “Rage Hard” and “Warriors (Of The Wasteland)”, are comparative flops, while the album, produced by Steve Lipson and executive-produced by Horn, costs a staggering £500,000. It stalls at No 5 on release in November ‘86 and makes no impression in the US. ZTT’s accountants are getting uneasy, while Morley moves up and away.
One night in Rotterdam I go for an Indonesian meal with all the Frankies. The evening is a disaster. An embarrassing food fight degenerates into a slanging match. And worse. O’Toole and Johnson go for the jugular. Boots go up arses. O’Toole is shaking with rage. Johnson is simply shaken.
An almost psychotic performance at Wembley Arena is followed by another row. The band can’t be bothered to don costume wigs, nor flash their bare arses at the audience, as had been the norm in happier times.
The Frankie phenomenon fizzles out on stage at Rotterdam’s Ahoy! in spring ‘87. On March 21 they assemble for the very last time on Channel 4’s Saturday Live. The following week ZTT announce the band have split up. There follows a blizzard of lawsuits, culminating in Johnson successfully claiming restraint of trade against ZTT. Disputed royalties trickle back, while ZTT will subsequently put out three compilations of hits and mixes, including Hard On!, which the band collectively hate.
What began with a “Bang” ends with a whimper. The last great British pop group are finished. Frankie say no more.
The Frankie Goes To Hollywood episode of Bands Reunited will be shown on June 23 at 9pm on VH1.Continue »