Title: The making of relax
Author: Johnny Black
Source: Q Magazine
They were a bunch of cack-handed dole fiddlers. The producer was a technomaniac control freak. The radio wouldn’t play the record. None of that stopped Frankie Goes To Hollywood selling 13 million copies of Relax.
Holly Johnson (vocalist): Frankie Goes to Hollywood, in various line-ups, had existed since about 1980. One day in winter 1982, I was late for rehearsals, walking very quickly along the central reservation up Princess Avenue in Toxteth, and I made up this little rhyme in my head, which was ‘Relax, don’t do it…’
There were only three of us at this point — me, Mark (O’Toole, bass) and Peter (Gill, drums). When I got to the rehearsal room, they were jamming on a one-note bass line and I sang this little rhyme along with it.
Our manager got us £600 from Arista to make a demo, so we did Relax and Two Tribes. We also made a very amateur video in the Hope R Anchor in London, with girls chained up in skimpy leather outfits, very like our stage act. We sent it to various record labels who all found it too outrageous, but a new TV show, The Tube, liked the look of it. They came to The State in Liverpool, and re-shot our video rather more professionally, then showed it on the programme.
Jools Holland (presenter, The Tube): It was my birthday, and I got horribly drunk. I remember saying, Well, they’re not going to get anywhere then.
Trevor Horn (producer): This video came on with a whole load of kinky stuff going on. Chris Squire (Horn’s band mate in Yes) said, "This band looks really interesting. Why don’t you sign them up?" Jill (Sinclair, Horn’s wife) and I had just started ZTT but we hadn’t signed anyone. I thought they were pretty good even though there were some obvious faults to the track…
Holly Johnson: That first version had a very convoluted middle eight which changed the rhythm and the harmony. We simplified it later.
Trevor Horn: I didn’t think much about them until I heard them again several months later on David Jensen’s radio show, doing a BBC session for Relax.
Holly Johnson: Then Trevor got in touch and asked if we wanted to be on his label, ZTT. We were totally blown away, because he was the most technologically advanced producer in the UK at that time. By then, we’d been together for ages, and all my mates in Liverpool seemed to be getting famous, and we were going nowhere. We were on a downward trail. If Frankie hadn’t taken off, I and the other members of the band could easily have been dragged into the sewer. I was going to go to art school.
Trevor Horn: We had no idea that they were on the verge of splitting, or that other labels had turned them down.
Holly Johnson: The only other interested label was Beggar’s Banquet. They offered us £40 a week each for the next year, but they didn’t have Trevor Horn. So we signed to ZTT with a very unfair £250 recording advance between the five of us, and then we had to wait four months in the summer of 1993 for Trevor to become available.
Trevor Horn: So they came to me with the simplified version of Relax, but still a great combination of rock and Donna Summer dance music, with this Liverpool four-on-the-floor shagging beat that remained the root of the song right through. The first thing we did was at the Virgin Manor Studios. I recorded them jumping into the swimming pool. I just thought it might be useful, and we did eventually use it in the Sex Mix.
At that same session, I played Holly and Paul a sample on my Fairlight — the only computer-sampler that existed then — where I’d synced the bass together with a Linn drum beat, and I could see they were very interested.
Holly Johnson: Then Trevor discovered that the band really couldn’t play along with the machine sequences he’d devised. We were great live, but very raw, so Trevor wanted professional musicians who could play to a metronomic beat.
Trevor Horn: I was pretty ruthless in those days so I brought in Ian Dury’s backing band, The Blockheads, to give the Frankies an example of another way to approach the song. That was when the Blockheads’ bass player, Norman WattRoy, came up with a descending three note bass part that I decided to include.
We spent two and a half weeks on that third version of Relax, but there were communication problems between me and the Frankies, partly because it was going to be the first record on my label and I knew it could be a hit, but it had to be done absolutely right.
Then, one Wednesday, I heard someone in the studio playing exactly the guitar part I wanted. I thought it was the Frankies’ guitarist Nasher, and I rushed in, but the band were all up in Liverpool. It turned out to be our engineer, Steve Lipson. He’d caught the spirit of what Nasher was doing and transformed it. We spent four hours rehearsing it with Andy Richards (session musician) playing eights on the keyboard, J.J. Jeczalic (Art Of Noise} operating the Fairlight and me singing, just to give them a guide vocal, then performed it more or less live to 24-track analogue. We ended up using the first take.
About 11 pm, Holly and Paul arrived at reception and I went to down to meet them at the door. I told them the track had changed again. How much? asked Holly. A lot, I said. A lot? Almost completely. Oh God, said Holly, Not again.
Holly Johnson: We’d already spent three months in SARM West, recording and scrapping two complete versions. It cost £30,000 while I was travelling back to Liverpool every week to sign on.
Trevor Horn: Holly ran down to Studio One but, when they heard it, him and Paul immediately started to dance, and so did the rest of us, just dancing around the control room. When it stopped, Holly said, "That’s fantastic." I felt we’d snatched it from the jaws of disaster. I put a huge orgasm in the middle, the biggest orgasm that had ever been had by anybody, which we achieved with a sound Andy Richards had worked up on the keyboards some while before.
By the time Holly sang the vocal at 4am, he was so totally hyped up, he was crazy, like a Doberman with a rabbit in its teeth. After he was done, I said I thought one bit was out of tune, and Holly asked me to play it back, so I did.
Holly Johnson: It wasn’t out of tune. I was doing little slurs with my voice, using microtones. It was quite deliberate.
Trevor Horn: I listened again, and I had to agree with him. It sounded great. I was totally blown away by that performance. I got home at eight in the morning and said to my wife Jill. "I think we’ve got it". All we did after that was to overdub a couple of little keyboard lines and, of course, the mixing.
Holly Johnson: It was released in November, and took the longest ever time from release of a record to reaching Number 1 in the UK.
Trevor Horn: It got some really bad reviews and, after a while, I started to lose faith in it, but Jill never lost faith and insisted we keep working it.
Holly Johnson: One week it dropped back down from 73 to 74 and didn’t look like it was going to happen at all. Then we got another performance on The Tube, and that pushed it back up to 35 which got us on Top Of The Pops. At that point I went to ZTT and said "I can’t sign on the dole any more cos if we go on Top Of The Pops we’ll get nabbed by Social Security." So they put us on £40 a week…
Trevor Horn: The morning after Top Of The Pops, we sold 54,000 records, and a week later we were banned.
Mike Read (DJ, Radio One): After I took it out of my programme (in January ‘84) many people came up to me and said they were really pleased I had done so.
Derek Chinnery (controller, Radio One): We could have said there’s a dual meaning to the song, that it’s a nonsense song about relaxing. But when the band confirmed that it referred to fellatio and ejaculation, then it didn’t seem to me appropriate that we should play it at all.
Trevor Horn: The line "When you want to come," is definitely in the song, but the ironic thing is that if you listen to the record, Holly very clearly sings "sock it to it" but ZTT’s publicist, Paul Morley, had printed on the cover "When you want to suck it, do it". That’s not on the record, but was why the BBC decided to ban it.
Holly Johnson: What I sang was "When you wanna suck it, chew it". And I should know. I wrote it. The ban was really disappointing though. Not being able to hear it on the radio took some of the pleasure away from being Number 1.
Paul Morley (Publicist ZTT): It was in the back of our minds (that the song might be banned) all along. Well, it was in mine and Trevor’s. But when it was banned, we were shocked, from the point of view that we’d got away with it for so long. It didn’t upset me, ‘cos my taste lies in line with things like that — that would get banned or wouldn’t get airplay.
Holly Johnson: ZTT have always been cagey about how many copies of Relax we sold, but one estimate was 13 million, worldwide. I think we were the first group to have our first two singles and our debut album all go platinum, and I’ve no idea how many T-shirts were sold. They were being bootlegged so much. What it didn’t immediately achieve was a decent credit rating for me. I went to my bank — the NatWest, Knightsbridge — and I put our gold disc down and said Here’s my collateral. Now, will you give me a £500 overdraft? And he said, Let me show this to somebody, and he came back and he wouldn’t let me have it.
Thanks: Bruno Hizer, Mark Cunningham, Jonathan Wingate.