Title: Q’s 100 best record covers
Author: Ian Harrison
Source: Q Magazine
On 10 January 1984 the 88C banned Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. Radio 1 DJ Mike Read had actually been playing the single for several weeks on his Wednesday morning show. When he finally looked at the sleeve, however, his enthusiasm for the record evaporated. Faced with the bold, sexual image and the suggestive lyrics on the front cover, Read whipped the record off and declared it obscene. The song was soon Number One, a national outrage ensued and the record spent 48 weeks on the UK chart. The picture that adorned ‘Relax’ came from an illustration by Yvonne Gilbert. It appeared in June 1983’s Men Only magazine, accompanying an article called ‘Breastfest’ by one Karl Steiner. "Steiner’s aim is to understand and help out people," it read, "who would otherwise be hailed by society as ‘perverts’." This is not far from the attitudes of Gilbert and her friend Holly Johnson, who was about to achieve national notoriety as Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s singer. "Liverpool was the ultimate cafe society at the time," says Yvonne. "No-one had a job, so you’d go to cafes and bars and meet people. It was a mad, lovely time." In early 1983 she was a professional artist of nine years’ standing, while Holly was doing an art foundation course and singing with Frankie, who had signed to ZTT records earlier in the year. When their first single ‘Relax’ was finally recorded, Holly’s choice of Yvonne’s ‘Breastfest’ drawing was an inspired choice. She recalls that the label’s design department, XL ZTT, needed an illustration immediately "I would have drawn Paul [Rutherford, dancer] and Holly in their fetish gear if I’d had the time," she says - but Holly disagrees.
"It was because she knew what our sensibilities were," he says today. "We were big fans of Tom Of Finland [the homoerotic illustrator whose work also appeared on Sex Pistols T-shirts], as she was, and we thought it would be perfect. So we put it under the record company’s nose. It wasn’t very fashionable in 1983 — I don’t know of any other pop groups until then who’d discussed sado-masochism or gay sexuality with the music weeklies before in such an in-your-face way." This delight in Dionysian abandon was central to Frankie — the gatefold sleeve of their ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’ album, it should be remembered, portrayed a big penis ejaculating Picasso-esque fantasy animals. In retrospect, though, Yvonne has a more wholesome opinion.
"It’s hardly porn," she says. "I always thought my work was rather tasteful. It was pretty naughty then, but a lot of ground’s been broken since, and I think Holly and people like Vivienne Westwood did a lot to bring things into the open."
After 1987 and a second album called ‘Liverpool’, serious contractual acrimony with ZTT saw the band split. ZTT and Holly Johnson later met in court; he won, and enjoyed further success with MCA Records. Eighteen years on, he remains unimpressed with the idea that journalist and marketing man Paul Morley masterminded the band to Number One.
"Well," he muses, "some people are arseholes, and he was the biggest one I ever met. He constantly tried to claim responsibility for it all. But I don’t think he could have come up with a cover like ‘Relax’."
Holly continues to record and paint. Yvonne’s post Frankie works include book jackets and the Royal Mail’s Christmas stamps for 1984 and 1994.
"It was my most ripped-off piece of work ever," she says flatly. "It was on every bloody magazine cover that year — I never even got a credit, let alone a fee. But I still have the original, and it’s been an amazing prestige piece for my portfolio, because everyone remembers it." IH
Knicker Conspiracy - Who is that on the Frankie sleeve?
"Yvonne would use elements from different models," recalls Holly. "There was a girl called Zoe and one called Linda. I remember the guy. He was an artist’s model and a bodybuilder. He used to turn up at parties completely naked."
On ‘Relax’, the man in the leather undies was a one-time Mr Universe called Brian, while Caroline, a student, provided the female interest. "It was great fun:’ says Yvonne, "though they had to be very athletic: it was about how we could use bodies and make it interesting." The models would pose at Yvonne’s direction, and she would select a shot to render in coloured pencil (see left).
“Those pictures were tongue-in-cheek - they had to be humorous:” she says. “I always drew the women slightly bigger than the men — I didn’t want dominant males and insignificant, supplicant females. In fact, in those days you had to fight to draw men at all.”
Yvonne took a picture of someone having their nipple-ring pulled on the back sleeve, too. “No-one had ever seen that before outside of the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe:” says Holly. “Certainly never on the cover of a Number One single.”