The incredible Frankies
THE Mersey beat is throbbing over the country again. That intoxicating Liverpool sound is stronger today than it’s ever been since those heady days in the Sixties, when the Beatles ruled the pop world.
Liverpool is enjoying its second burst of musical glory thanks to five lads from the city who make up the supergroup “Frankie Goes To Hollywood.”
The Frankies have already entered the pop history books yet so far they still haven’t toured Britain so their fans can hear their music live.
Although the boys have been playing together for just two years, they dominate pop’s roll of achievements. Their first three singles all reached Number One in the charts —
Surprisingly, that group wasn’t the Beatles, but they were Liverpool lads, Gerry and the Pacemakers, in 1963.
Perhaps it wasn’t entirely a coincidence that the Frankies featured Gerry Marsden’s anthem to the city, “Ferry Across The Mersey,” as the B-side on the 12-inch version of their smash-hit first single, the infamous “Relax.”
It was the ambiguous —
There was more to come. A video promoting their second single, “Two Tribes,” was banned as too violent, and the cover of their first LP, “Welcome To The Pleasuredome,” was attacked as obscene.
Yet, just recently, the group was officially “blessed” by the British Phonographic Industry. At their prestigious annual award ceremony, “Relax” was named the best single of 1984 and the group saluted as the best newcomers.
The lads in the group —
They are only millionaires on paper so far. Most of their earnings from royalties won’t start flowing in until next year. But it has been calculated that their gross earnings worldwide have already reached £25 million.
Much of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s creative energy flows from lead singer and front man Holly Johnson, who writes the words for most of their songs.
Holly, christened William by his parents, Eric and Pat Johnson, learned to sing in church. He earned sixpence for every appearance he made in the choir of St Mary’s Church, Wavertree, Liverpool.
For a time he sang in the Quarrybank School choir, a school that boasts another famous old boy, John Lennon.
Soon Holly’s love of dressing up was scandalising the neighbours on the council estate where the family lived.
Judy Garland was his idol and at 14 he had bright red hair curled at front, just like hers. He also favoured tartan trousers.
His mother admits that Holly often played truant and, although bright, left school with no qualifications.
Holly is quite open about the reason why. He explained — “I didn’t want ‘O’ levels because that might mean the chance of a proper job. That had to be avoided.”
He went straight on to the dole and passed the time learning to play acoustic guitar. By now, Holly had left home and was living in Toxteth.
His hair was shaved off and he was a local punk celebrity. He became known as the guy who walked around with his dole number dyed on his head.
Meanwhile, a close friendship developed with Paul Rutherford, a year younger, who was studying design at St Helen’s College of Art and singing with “The Spitfire Boys.”
Holly began his musical career playing bass guitar in a band that simply evolved from the mates he met regularly at Eric’s, a Liverpool club. He also took a stab at acting and songwriting.
When the band folded, Holly made a single, “Yankee Rose,” but it didn’t sell.
Despondent because of this failure and a friend’s suicide, Holly went into “self-imposed exile” until 1981.
Then, with a pal, he discussed forming a new group and a name was chosen — “Frankie Goes To Hollywood.” They got it from an old movie magazine headline on a story about Frank Sinatra moving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.
For some time Holly had the name but no sound. Then he met three lads with “proper jobs in manual trades.”
Since leaving school, Peter “Ped” Gill and brothers Mark and Ged O’Toole had spent a year playing in local bands and chasing girls.
They were to provide the raw enthusiasm needed to get the Frankies launched. Holly was soon churning out words to sounds supplied by Mark and Ged.
Their first booking was in a pub in Liverpool town centre where “Relax” and “Two Tribes” had their first public airing.
In the audience was Paul Rutherford. He was soon on his feet singing and from then became a part of the group, his wild dancing added much to their visual impact.
Attempts to fix up a recording contract floundered. The companies were scared off by the boys’ outrageous antics and the sexual overtones of their act.
In December 1982 Ged O’Toole quit. His wife, Karen, was expecting their first baby and they needed a regular pay cheque.
His place in the line-up was filled by a cousin, Brian “Nasher” Nash.
Ged was welcomed back to the group last year to help out with their American tour, and was granted three months unpaid leave from his job with Liverpool City Council.
Then came an invitation to make a video to feature in a Tube special on TV. The appearance on Channel Four’s trendy pop programme was the boys’ first big break.
It led to some radio interest and an approach from millionaire music wizard Trevor Horn. Horn was about to launch a new label —
Once they signed with Horn, the Frankies were ordered not to play live until their sound was just right.
It took five weeks to record the first version of “Relax,” which was released on Hallowe’en 1983. After four weeks it had only reached 54 in the music charts and seemed to have peaked.Continue »
Then “The Tube” came to their rescue once more, inviting “Frankie Goes To Hollywood” on to their pre-Christmas programme.
That gave a new boost to sales and the record climbed to No. 35 and gained that all-important accolade, a spot on “Top Of The Pops.”
The television exposure yanked “Relax” to No. 6 by early January. Then Radio One disc jockey Mike Read refused to play the disc. He said it was “overtly obscene.”
Two days later the ban was extended to all Radio One daytime shows, although “Relax” had already been played over 70 times without causing any offence.
It promptly shot to the top of the charts for five weeks.
Some pop pundits claim that the Frankies owe their fantastic success to that banning —
Holly retorts, “We could have made it in Britain without the sensation but it wouldn’t have been half the fun.
“We’ve had a lot of fun doing this. We don’t regret anything we’ve done, because we haven’t harmed anybody.”
What does he feel now about the banning of “Relax”? “It was a ridiculous fiasco… it was totally overblown,” he says.
However, he accepts that they were happy to exploit the sexual interpretation of the lyrics for publicity purposes.
Demand for the disc was further fuelled with new versions — including the 12-inch version —
Eventually it went on to become fifth best-selling single of all time, outstripping every Beatles’ release.
In June 1984 their second single, “Two Tribes,” was released and went straight in at No. 1, having sold 500,000 copies in two days.
From July 10 to July 17, spurred by endless remixes, “Relax” joined “Two Tribes” at the top of the pop charts. The two discs sold ten million worldwide and took the Frankies into the pop history books.
In good time for the Christmas sales bonanza came the group’s third blockbuster single, “The Power Of Love,” which reached No. 1. And the BBC had a change of heart, permitting “Relax” to be played in a seasonal special.
Meanwhile, the group’s first LP —
All this and the Frankies still hadn’t played live at a big concert.
Holly admitted, “We were extremely nervous about playing Britain, because we felt the fans expected so much.
“So we decided to go into training first. That’s why we played America.”
They were given a rapturous reception on their 12-city tour. And they killed stone dead the rumour that without the sophisticated studio backup the Frankies’ sound evaporated.
On their return from the tour, the boys put on three sell-out concerts in Liverpool to thank their loyal fans. Now their first British tour begins in Sheffield on March 14.