Frankie say: the earth moved
Ahead of the release, Paul Lester remembers the two years when the band ruled the world.
Twenty-five years ago, Frankie Goes to Hollywood were the biggest British pop group since the Beatles and the most controversial since the Sex Pistols. They had just spent nine weeks at No 1 with their second single, Two Tribes, the 12in version of which, subtitled Annihilation, was propelled by an immortal bass line and featured almost 10 minutes of lavishly orchestrated (by the producer Trevor Horn and the arranger Anne Dudley), thunderous disco rock, interspersed with air-raid sirens and voices instructing us—
Its predecessor, a blast of synthesized boogie called Relax, which extended to a positively tumescent 16 minutes on the 12in Sex Mix, had been banned by the BBC for its allusions to orgasms, although that didn’t prevent it reaching No 1 and becoming the seventh best-selling single ever in the UK.
By the time the third single (and third No 1), the sumptuous ballad The Power of Love, came out in November 1984, people were so accustomed to scandal from the Liverpudlian five-piece that they took one look at the Nativity scenes filmed by Godley & Creme for the accompanying video and imagined sacrilege where there was none. Frankie were pin-ups and pariahs.
“I would always defer to Boy George,” says Holly Johnson, considering the question of who the biggest pop star in Britain was back then, walking through Fulham to the house he has shared with his boyfriend, Wolfgang Kuhle, since Frankie’s heyday. The front man does, however, concede that his was a more subversive presence than his quaintly flamboyant rival’s. Indeed, Johnson and the band’s dancer and backing vocalist, Paul Rutherford, were talked up by their record company, ZTT, as “ferocious homosexuals”. “George was more cuddly and accessible,” Johnson decides. “I was the dangerous option.”
One of Frankie’s brilliant coups was to have Johnson and Rutherford out front, while the three token straight men—
“What we had that the Sex Pistols didn’t was the inflaming of people’s sexual morality,” says Johnson, pouring tea in his front room, surrounded by art books and his own paintings on the wall.
He is less keen on the notion of Frankie—
“You can talk about production all you want, but the idea was there,” says Horn, who points out that Gill and O’Toole proposed that Frankie should combine the rock theatrics of Kiss and the pulsating proto-electro of Donna Summer. The “beautiful bass line” underpinning Two Tribes was also O’Toole’s, and as for those song lyrics, which caused so much furore in 1984, they were Johnson’s, as was the band’s image-consciousness. “That all came from Holly, a painter with a certain vision. People like me, we enable people. It’s my job to turn somebody’s idea into a reality. But you have to have a band that people are interested in, and for that year people were interested in Frankie—
Horn knew that ZTT, the label he founded in 1983 with his wife, Jill Sinclair, and Morley, was on to a winner when Top of the Pops nervously agreed to allow Frankie to perform Relax in January 1984, with the condition that “there should be no messing about, naked women or bad behaviour”. “That,” Horn decides, “made me think, ‘This could be really good!’” It was this air of menace, as much as the technological arsenal Horn brought to bear on the sound, that “kicked Relax into the stratosphere”.
If anything, Two Tribes—
Much of this success, although this was a heretical contention in the Frankie camp, was due to the ingenious marketing of Morley. By means provocative and playful—
“The group would have been quite happy to be more conventionally packaged,” says Morley, who insists he was merely trying to make them seem “bigger, stronger, bolder, in the way that Trevor took their songs and made them bigger, stronger, bolder”.
His intention was to find out whether “it was possible to take the unusual and unexpected into the charts” via “exuberant blasts of the imagination”. Continue »
Morley’s argument, then as now, is that there is a greater capacity among audiences to accept strange, outlandish ideas than they are given credit for. He loathes the “continuing abuse of the British people”, who, he says, “have their own genius to respond to unusual things, as they’ve proved time and again—
It’s a wonderful thesis: that Frankie’s success was the result of the combined imaginations not only of the five band members, their producer, the marketing man and the business whiz Sinclair, but of the record buyers. By a supreme collective effort, we managed to will superlative pop records up the charts for one shining moment.
Of course, that moment couldn’t last, despite Morley feeling, at the height of Frankiemania, as though ZTT and the band “were ruling the world”. Welcome to the Pleasuredome, their debut double album, was an act of hubris too far: the title track and fourth single became their first “flop”—
“I probably should have left earlier,” Johnson reflects. An attempt by VH1 to reunite the band in 2004, despite talks, came to naught when Johnson had to “step back into a dynamic that didn’t work in the first place”, although he is loath to “forensically dissect the personality clashes within Frankie Goes to Hollywood”. He would rather remember those amazing first few records.
Horn, despite a high-profile court case in which Johnson managed to extricate himself from his contract with ZTT, resulting in the pair not communicating for more than two decades, has only fond memories, saying: “Like anything, when lots of money comes into it, success can be tricky and people start to change.”
He is delighted when I tell him how well Johnson, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, is looking, and believes that Frankie’s best records remain lustrous artefacts from an innovative era. “They sound like modern records,” he says. “In fact, they still sound like they’re from the future.”
It’s this futuristic quality that means Morley—
Frankie Say Greatest is released by UMTV/AATW on November 2