The Frankie Goes To Hollywood story
“They kind of said,” recalls Holly Johnson, laughing about his teachers at schooL, “he’s either a genius or a fool.”
Holly’s parents —
“That was fab,” he remembers. “A great big D.A. (hair do) with a huge peak. I used to wear ‘40s jackets with big shoulders and walk round singing ‘rock-a-bye your baby with a Dixie melody.’”
After that he sported a blond skinhead cut (“with me social security number written on the back of me head”), a mini-mohican (“just a square of blond hair and a beard”) and even, for a while, had his hair painted green and red.
“You used to get people writing to the Liverpool Echo,” he laughs, “saying ‘who’s this Martian walking round town?’. I used to get battered.”
Most of his friends at the time were also pretty strange —
“Holly came from Miami FLA
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she …”
Holly really set his mind on a career in music when he joined Big In Japan as bass player, though before that he’s reputed to have supported local bands on his own, playing David Bowie’s doomy “My Death” on acoustic guitar, Big In Japan, who included Jayne Casey and Budgie (now in Siouxsie and the Banshees), quickly became the trendiest group in Liverpool by being very daft on stage and singing songs about committing suicide, Meanwhile Paul, by now a student at St Helens College Of Art, was dressing in bondage trousers, making clothes for friends (including a dress for Holly) and singing in a punk band, The Spitfire Boys. Both bands eventually split up.
Fed up with Liverpool, Paul bunked off to America to live with his sister while Holly got depressed, flitting from one never-completed or failed project to another. He launched into a dismal solo career, releasing two singles, “Yankee Rose” and “Hobo Joe”, on a local record label.
By now he was pretty fed-up but still he persevered. Another few months working on songs with Ambrose and Steve Lovell also came to nothing musically, though Ambrose, spotting a headline in a US movie magazine about Frank Sinatra’s move from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, at least found Holly a name: “Frankie Goes To Hollywood.” All he needed now was a band.
One day Pedro Gill, Mark O’Toole and his brother Ged wandered into the Virgin Records shop —
By spring 1982 Frankie Goes To Hollywood were ready for their first booking, supporting Hambi And The Dance (featuring Paul Rutherford on backing vocals) in a town centre pub. Holly bounded on stage in a turquoise and yellow baseball jacket alongside The Lizard Woman, a backing singer clothed in a large nappy, and led the band through the three songs they’d written: “Love’s Got A Gun” (later known as “Wish The Lads Were Here”), “Relax” and “Two Tribes”. Two years later two of those songs were to be the fifth and tenth best-selling singles of all time in Britain; that night the only person they really impressed was Paul Rutherford, who leapt onto the stage to join in near the end. Afterwards he was asked to join the band permanently.
By their next performance Frankie were getting a little wild, to say the least. Last on the bill at the Liverpool open air festival Larks In The Park, they tied their new backing singers, the Leatherpets, to posts and once Paul and Holly (a hole cut out of the bottom of his jeans) had whipped each other, they whipped the girls. Very dodgy. It was behaviour like that which soon got their name around, though record companies were reluctant to commit themselves. Arista Records gave them £1,500 to record demos of “Relax” and “Two Tribes” but sent them away when they heard the results, convinced that this sort of thing would never catch on.
In December 1982, fed up with the band’s lack of progress, Ged O’Toole left the band to get a proper job and get married. His replacement was Ped’s old friend Brian ‘Nasher’ Nash, who was also Mark and Ged’s cousin. That winter things started moving. Though still not the world’s most popular band one review of the time said “their dishwater disco rock deserves to be cremated without a wreath” —
The money offered to the band was pathetic (£250 record advance, £5,000 for their publishing rights) but ZTT did invest around £100,000 in recording and videoing just one song, “Relax”. Afterwards there were, however, many accusations that the five Frankies didn’t actually play on the record at all. The truth? To start with Trevor Horn was unimpressed by the lads playing abilities and threw them out of the studio, replacing them with The Blockheads (some session musicians who used to back Ian Dury). But their version of the song was too tame, so back came Frankie. They worked on the energetic final version until Horn, having recorded what he could, threw them back out again, but only after programming their instruments into a Fairlight computer. He then finished the song off with some friends (most of them in the Art Of Noise). A lot of trouble, but it was worth it.
On Oct 31 1983, “Relax” appeared in its slightly naughty sleeve and magazines were full of adverts hinting at the song’s sexual meaning and boasting things like “Frankie: making Wham! seem like Pinky! and Perky!”. Nevertheless “Relax” took ages to catch on — finally entering the chart (at No. 35) on Jan 3. The next Tuesday it shot to Number 6 —
“When it first came out we used to pretend it was about motivation,” Mark admitted long after, “and it was about shagging.”
After “Relax,” everyone supposed the follow-up would be an anti-climax. They were wrong, “Relax” was about sex —
At the same time Paul Morley hit on the idea of ripping off trendy designer Katherine Hamnett’s oversize message t-shirts (like CHOOSE LIFE), First RELAX DON’T DO IT then WAR (HIDE YOURSELF), ARM THE UNEMPLOYED and BOMB IS A FOUR LETTER WORD t-shirts became the summer’s fashion craze. Around 250,000 authorised versions (which the band get money for) were sold and around half a million unofficial ones.
It was obvious now that Frankie were here to stay and they found that suddenly everyone wanted to know them. Nasher, at least, was a bit surprised. “It’s hard to cope with people screaming at you especially when I think that only two years ago I was working and no-one was screaming at me but my boss.”
In the public eye the band were split into two groups —
Still, while Holly and Paul bought themselves a flat each, the lads all got a flat together in Maida Vale, London where, by all account, they live in a frightful mess, getting up late, being rude to each other and “getting bladdered” a lot.
Not that you couldn’t tell them apart. Mark (much to the other two’s displeasure) seems to get the most attention from girls, is a model car enthusiast, despises Cyndi Lauper and is, according to Nasher, “vain” and “lazy” and “a totally unreliable bastard.” Nasher has a girlfriend, Claire Bryce, a nurse from Liverpool (who he got engaged to early in 1985), has bought a retirement home on his earnings, used to gas fish with bunsen burners at school, has a cat called Clancy and despises Sade. Ped used to pinch the teacher’s cane, wanted to be a bike rider in his teens till he cycled into a car and scarred his lip when turning to watch a girl and is “really bad when he gets up in the morning.”
At the end of 1984 the long-awaited “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” LP finally arrived. It had advance orders in Britain of over £1 million (a record) but, after mixed reviews, sold slowly. Lots of people slagged it off for the over-the-top packaging, the fact that some of the songs went on a bit and because of the ridiculously expensive and pretentious merchandise like the £8.99 Jean Genet (a famous French gay writer/criminal) boxer shorts. Even Mike Read, who suddenly couldn’t stop saying how much he always liked them, and who did a TV advert for them, couldn’t help.
Nevertheless the third single, “The Power Of Love” (this time it was love and religion not sex or war), made number one, equalling Gerry and the Pacemakers record of getting their first three releases to number one. But it only stayed there a week even though Holly reckoned it was “the best song I’ve ever written”. Now that the hype and promotion wasn’t working quite so well the Frankies started muttering that they were a bit fed up with it.
“It has worked to our advantage,” admitted Nasher, “but we don’t want Frankie to go hand in hand with controversy because it’s a bit like a gimmick. People get bored with gimmicks. Skateboards didn’t last long, did they?”
More than anything else they really got narked when people suggested they were nothing more than ZTT’s puppets.
“To people in the street,” pointed out Holly, “the five of our faces are Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It’s only a certain elite that thinks otherwise. No-one’s going to shout “Frankie” at Paul Morley or Trevor Horn in the street. It has got our faces stamped on it and they can’t take that away from us.”
To prove the point they played their first concerts in Liverpool before last Christmas, then left to tour America (rejoined on stage by Ged). “I’ve always known we can knock spots off anyone else,” boasted Paul beforehand. “There’s no-one as exciting as us. The shows will prove that. When Frankie play I don’t want anyone to go to the toilet. At all!“
And they didn’t. Meanwhile Frankie enhanced their reputation as a bit rowdy and drunken by their performance at the BPI Awards ceremony (they won “Best New Act” and “Best Single —
“I don’t think he was very amused,” admitted a rather sheepish Holly the week after.Continue »
More and more they began to wear expensive clothes, be photographed with other pop stars —
“It’s a complete joke. It’s a complete joke that people can have so much success and so much money out of just entertaining people,” he says. “But if it all ends tomorrow we’ve had a good ride, we’ve seen what it’s like.”