Title: England’s crazy about Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Author: David Thomas
Source: Rolling Stone
Publish date: October 11, 1984
Singing about sex and war, this Liverpool band is setting U.K. sales records.
By David Thomas
Forget Culture Club. Forget Duran Duran. The most important pop group in Europe right now — in fact, the biggest pop phenomenon since the Sex Pistols — is a band called Frankie Goes to Hollywood. From debutante balls in English country houses to downbeat bars on the Spanish Costa del Sol, the soundtrack this summer has been the same — the clashing hard-rockmeets-gay-disco of Frankie’s two singles, “Relax” and “Two Tribes.” Chances are, too, that a walk down any British main street will result in the sighting of half a dozen white T-shirts bearing messages from the group in large black letters: FRANKIE SAY ARM THE UNEMPLOYED or FRANKIE SAY WAR! HIDE YOURSELF.
And that’s not all. Despite a total radio and TV ban by the BBC, “Relax” has now had the second longest run of any record ever in the British charts — forty-three weeks. The single has sold 1.6 million copies in the U.K. alone, and it is expected that by the end of the year “Relax” will have outsold England’s biggest-selling single ever, Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre,” which sold 2.1 million copies. Total worldwide sales for “Relax” now stand at around 6 million copies.
The success of Frankie Goes to Hollywood can be attributed, at least in part, to one thing: “Relax” is an outrageously sexy song. It was that fact that caused the BBC to ban the record, and it was that ban that caused Frankie to become Britain’s most popular pop group almost overnight.
The BBC ban was instigated by Mike Read, a squeaky-clean Radio 1 deejay. Read had been playing “Relax” on his top-rated breakfast show for several weeks before it dawned on him one day last January just what the band members meant when they sang, “Relax, don’t do it, when you want to suck it to it… when you want to come.” Read complained to his superiors, the BBC duly banned the song (as well as its video, which is set in a gay bar and features one particularly memorable scene suggesting “golden showers”), and suddenly “Relax,” which had been selling sluggishly for some time, shot to the top of the charts.
But it took “Two Tribes” to put Frankie totally over the top. The song, which the band’s label has modestly called “the first genuine protest song of the last eight years,” was written during the Falkland Islands crisis in 1982, shortly after Frankie Goes to Hollywood formed in its hometown of Liverpool. “I was really worried we were all going to be drafted,” recalls Holly Johnson, one of the group’s two lead singers. “It seemed such a pointless war.” The tribes in the song are the United States and the Soviet Union, and the song’s video which the BBC has banned from prime time but approved for latenight viewing — features a hand-to-hand fight between actors portraying Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko, set in a cockfighting pit.
Released in June, “Two Tribes” entered the charts at Number One, sold 500,000 copies in its first week in Britain alone and reactivated sales of “Relax;’ which moved back up to Number Two.
With “Two Tribes” and “Relax” firmly entrenched at the top of the charts, the HMV store on London’s Oxford Street, which prides itself on being Europe’s largest record shop, announced that its third best-selling item was the official Frankie Goes to Hollywood T-shirt. England had been conquered.
The secret of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s success is in the combination of talent that surrounds the band. The Ronettes had Phil Spector to make them sound great; the Stones and the Sex Pistols had Andrew Loog Oldham and Malcolm McLaren to tell the world how shocking they were. Frankie has people to take care of both their sound and their fury.
The band is signed to Zang Tuum Tumb (ZTT), a record label whose two public faces are producer Trevor Horn and former music journalist Paul Morley. Horn, a short, stocky man who wears thick prescription glasses, is the person whose record production brought Yes back from the dead. Indeed, Frankie’s sound may best be described to American ears as “Owner of a Lonely Heart” with a dose of amyl nitrite. Working in near-total privacy, Horn creates a modern, crystal-clear wall of sound. At one point during the sessions for Frankie’s first album, Welcome to the Pleasure Dome — a two-record set that is due out in late October and will include versions of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “Born to Run” — he stopped a track, turned on his mike to address Holly Johnson, who was recording vocals, and said, “I’m going to put fireworks there — whiz-bangs and everything.” This is production with the kitchen sink included.
Morley, 27, is the publicity merchant — a hype master in the classic rock tradition. Ask him about Frankie’s forthcoming U.S. tour, which is set for October, and he says, “It’s the only way I can finish off what I wanted to do — make history.” He claims to see the band as a cross between the Monkees and the MC5 pop but with a dangerous rock & roll edge. He wants, rock to stir things up again, to get away from the anodyne conformity of contemporary stars. Morley says he and Horn chose Frankie as the vehicle for their ideas “because of their sheer exuberance, sheer energy. [They were] rude bastards, you know, horrible People, and they had lots of style at a very basic level.”
In the restrained surroundings of their record company’s offices, Frankie’s twenty-four-year-old lead singers, Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford, come across as pretty regular guys. They seem to be neither the lowlifes of Morley’s description nor the queens of Fleet Street portrayals. (Both have admitted to being gay.)
For Johnson and Rutherford, music was virtually the only means of escape from Liverpool, a city where chronic industrial decline has led to unemployment rates of more than fifty percent for young people in some areas. Taking their name from a poster announcing Frank Sinatra’s movie debut, the group earned a local reputation for itself by recruiting two Liverpool sisters who called themselves the Leather Pets and dressed in thigh-length boots and leather corsets. During Frankie’s shows, the Pets would be tied to the drum kit while Johnson and Rutherford paraded before them in leather shorts and the three straight band members — Peter Gill (drums), Brian Nash (guitar) and Mark O’Toole (bass) — wondered what all the fuss was about.
“We were so outrageous,” recalls Rutherford. “But all that leather stuff really had more to do with Mad Max II than it did with S&M. People kind of confused it.”
By early 1983, the group began making London appearances at the Camden Palace, the high-style disco run by Britain’s king poseur, Steve Strange. There they were watched by every record exec in town, but to little avail. “We were in danger of splitting up because we got so close so many times,” recalls Rutherford. “Record companies gave us money to do demos, and then we did a video a company paid for. But they’d come [to the shows], and we’d have the girls and the leather shorts, and they’d really gag and say, ‘Well, what the hell do you expect us to do with that?’ “
Morley and Horn knew precisely what to do, and now, millions of record sales later, the streets around ZTT’s headquarters in the Portobello area of West London are constantly filled with groups of teenage girls wearing Frankie T-shirts and waiting to see one of their idols.
Meanwhile, inside ZTT, Frankie’s image is being toned down a bit. For one thing, the band members’ sexuality is no longer a big topic of discussion. “We used the gay bit as ‘a publicity stunt,” says Johnson. “We’re not waving any banners. If I’m interviewed now, it’s as a musician. If I want to be gay after tea time, it’s entirely my affair.” In addition, the band members have adopted a straighter look — they’re not likely to be wearing leather shorts when they appear in the U.S. (The Leather Pets are also history, having been dropped from the act before Frankie signed to ZTT. “There was a danger of them being taken too seriously,” says Rutherford. “It was too much like we were a cabaret act.”)
No matter, Frankie Goes to Hollywood has created the biggest pop furor in England in some time. Parents worry about their children’s devotion to such an apparently perverse outfit, and even Boy George has said that he’s worried about the degree to which the band flaunts its sexuality. But Paul Rutherford claims those people don’t really understand. “We’re not trying to seduce you into bed,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is to get you to bloody dance.”
But on the streets of London these days, one can see Frankie foes wearing their own T-shirts. They look just like the official Frankie T-shirts — the same bold, black letters, same declamatory tone. Only the message is different: WHO GIVES A FUCK WHAT FRANKIE SAY?