Scandal! Ban this filth!
Arm-slashing. Boob-flashing. Doll-mangling… Here’s our pick of music’s most scandalous images.
FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
In 1983 they flaunted their sexuality with saucy images and the mucky Relax video, shot in a gay club.
ONE OF THE GREATEST SINGLES OF the ‘80s, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax was a potent demonstration of what can be achieved with a mildly salacious lyric, a simple bass line and catchy chorus, lavish sprinklings of studio technology and a huge heap of outrage. It is also perhaps the best illustration of the BBC’s dire sense of strategy, and of aggressive marketing at its most cunning: Relax was a triumph of capitalist, libertine excess over the Nanny State’s limp defensiveness.
The melody was written by Holly Johnson one day while walking down the road, and was soldered to a bass line a few hours later in a rehearsal studio. The song gained an underground reputation through an outrageously tacky performance video featuring simulated sodomy, Paul Rutherford’s bare bum and a group of bondage freaks called the Leather Pets wearing studded mini-dresses and suspenders, chained to scaffolding.
Although obviously too hardcore to be broadcast, the first Relax video led to an appearance on new music show The Tube. Trevor Horn, then producer of ABC and Dollar, vowed he could make it a Number 1 single, and called the group up a few months later.
After several scrapped recordings, Relax finally came out in November 1983, its sleeve featuring an “erotic” illustration from Men Only magazine. It entered the chart at Number 77, and went down the next week, before beginning one of the longest chart ascents in pop history. A second performance on The Tube pushed it to Number 35, where it stayed over Christmas.
The big break came when Frankie were invited on to Top Of The Pops. In his autobiography, A Bone In My Flute, Holly Johnson describes meeting Paul Gambaccini, who fatefully mentioned that “he was amazed the record was being played. He said no one had got away with such obvious sexual innuendo since Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side.”
TOTP thrust Frankie up to Number 6, and the following week they made Number 2. Relax was one of the most played records on national radio. All over the country, kids were singing along with that filthy, infectious chorus: “Relax, don’t do it, when you wanna come.”
And then it happened. The ban.
“I didn’t ban Relax. I didn’t have the power to ban it because I’m just an individual. What happened was that my producer went home one day to find his two young children messing around with the video recorder, rewinding and watching over and over again a clip from the Relax video in which two men simulate buggery. And, not surprisingly, he was very upset.”
The following day, according to Johnson, Read denounced the record on air as “obscene”. Read is reluctant to discuss this point. “I didn’t ban it. The decision was taken to stop playing it on Radio One.”
Did he agree with the decision?
“I don’t know if it was good or bad—
Ah, but it wasn’t. The banning of Relax became the subject if a huge media hoo-hah, with Read cast in the role of a pink-jacketed Mary Whitehouse. “It was all concocted by that great manipulator, Paul Morley,” explains the DJ (Morley, at the time, was “Artistic Director” of ZTT). “He needed a focal point, and I was it. I was the face of children’s TV, so it was a good choice. But it didn’t bother me. That’s what pop music’s all about: let’s be as outlandish as possible and see what happens.”
What happened was seven weeks at Number 1 and sales of more than a million. “ZTT immediately claimed credit for the band’s success,” wrote Johnson in his autobiography, with just a tinge of bitterness. “Paul Morley wanted to appear as the mastermind of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, instead of the journalist interviewing famous and talented people and feeding off their dreams.”
Invited to comment, Johnson displayed similar levels of grace and equanimity. “No, I would not like to talk to Q magazine,” he announced. “I would like to tell Q magazine to piss off.”