Title: Welcome to the pleasuredome
Author: Richard Cook
Publish date: 3rd November, 1984
Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends. Richard Cook gropes his way round Frankie’s pleasure dome and decides… hey, this is fun!
Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Welcome To The Pleasure Dome (ZTT)
It is, of course, brilliant. And nothing more so than the last glittering shards, the final breaths taken in this pleasure dome.
After the echoes of ‘The Power Of Love’ have been borne away there is a concluding shower of sparks from the wand, a teasing adios from the carnival that wants never to stop — as if the whole business is about to start up again. Horn signals a keyboard cascade that sounds like a seraphic fanfare for Christmas itself to begin, and that voice intones the familiar “Frankie say…” The sound gets louder, and a crashing of gongs doubles the anticipation. “Frankie say” sez the voice again, the the pulse quickens at the prompting.
Is this it? Do we at last discover what Frankie really say?
The sound shatters like a crystal ball bursting. “Frankie say NO MORE”. There is your solution, if you wanted one.
Except, as Todd Rundgren once noted, there is always more. If you need an immediate shot of it, simply flip back to the massive cinerama overture which covers all of the first side. It’s something that the feel of this large and expensive package encourages: immaculately conceived and supremely ordered as the whole thing is, there’s something flexible about this perfect fluency too. Drop the stylus anywhere, it says: the pleasure is all yours.
Looking back through this brief era of Frankie, it’s amusing to recall the early whispers of these smooth-cheeked young men as shamana of disgrace dribbling KY like modern children of The Fugs’ ‘Dirty Old Man’. Beside these babyfaces, Duran Duran are old slags. Gamely, Frankie try and live up to their outrage: there they are on innersleeve one, cradling huge animal horns, their eyes beseeching explanation. Early in the great gush of ‘Pleasure Dome’ itself Holly perverts his schooling: “In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a pleasure dome EE-R-R-R-ECT!” Not Quite what Uncle Sam Coleridge had in mind? O, beware, beware, those flashing eyes, that floating hair!
Why such a relentless crush of success? It can’t be crystallised into a neat menu of responses, perhaps, but at the core of Frankie’s graceful razzle, Morley’s games and Horn’s genius for sound in the first operation to strip pop naked by paradoxically clothing it more sumptuously than ever before — insisting that all the pretence and drivel and false investment in meaning and feeling could be exposed by first playing all those cards better and louder than anybody else and then spreading the tremors in other directions, in every area a pop phenomenon could possibly reverberate.
ZTT might be the first to act on the notion that pop can be about more than other pop.
It’s the loudness, though, which is Frankie’s ace. ABC and Heaven 17, the germs that Morley wanted to grow into epidemics against the mainstream, were just too quiet about it; Sylvian is a boy too deep in shadow to do more than his minor, pleasing bit. When those groups chose to evaporate, to reduce to craftsmanlike gesture and disguise, they lost all their moisture, their chance to jam the cogs. Frankie went ahead and built a new machine. Frankie — along with Horn’s empire state of sound and Morley’s mile-high words — bawl their bloody heads off.
This has been part of the recent impoverishment of pop music — it just hasn’t been loud enough. Compare The Jackson Five’s still astonishing ka-boom of ‘I Want You Back’ with the miserable politesse of records like ‘Careless Whisper’ to see what’s been lost, what’s dropped out as sound has grown ever more cooly high-tech. Any passionate hot-jelly attack was displaced by milestones like ‘Love Action’ — a new, paler, soothingly insidious standard became the benchmark for strong ‘80s pop.
No matter how steamed up people got in their tropical videos, their records never broke a droplet of sweat. Could something be made that followed this lineage and put its trust back in volume? Here it is.
Unless you approach ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’ in this spirit, of belly laughs over smirks and orchestras over palm court manners, it will yield nothing but a big brassy racket. It begins with a taunting of suggestive false starts: a doctored dive-bombing from the strings, Johnson decliming that “the world is my oyster” and a chattering backdrop from Whipsnade before ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’ itself is launched.
It’s that elegant gelling of slogans which Frankie have substituted for songwriting, leaving the music as a girder structure of brash, pumping-heart chords which the magician Horn can weave his wonders around. This is mood music which dismisses the inertia of the discomix: rhythm fades in and out, a guitar stolen from Steve Howe plucks a twinkling melody, huge shafts of synthetics beam past the ornaments and fountains playing below. It’s a cinematic phantasmagoria of light and sound, assemble and dissolve, expand and retract. And this is only the beginning? It’s the first side.
The second is Frankie saying their peace: ‘Relax’, ‘War’, ‘Two Tribes’. I’m afraid I can’t identify which mixes these are for you, but ‘War’ is here postioned around a text about love and pride delivered in the talking head manner of The Voice. Though angry names like Ché Guevara and George Jackson are passed on in the flow the listener hardly registers the talk: for the background is full of the dazzling pulse, the shocking bass. Horn never sleeps.
And when Frankie turn to the song itself, something falters — Holly can’t quite catch it. Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ targeted not because it was black and beautiful and raging with soul passion, but because it was superbly urgent, legitimate pop. When Holly goes “Good God, Yawl!” he is merely apeing pop.
It’s a clue as to why the enjoyable versions that fuel the third side are finally served up cold. ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’, an almost straight replay of ‘Born To Run’ with cannon-fire drums, and a pretty, perky ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose’: they’re recorded with such fine skill and judgement that they can’t be deemed pastiches. But they are hollow vaults, strangely distant interludes in the show, as if they were some obligation to remember ‘real’ pop. It’s almost a relief when the ‘genuine’ Frankie return at the end of the side with ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Ballad Of 32’.
Here and in the closing quarter is the ‘proper’ Frankie LP, though ‘Ballad’ is a routine instrumental plus orgasm (muskier than Prince’s; not as violent as Yoko Ono’s). With horseplay between tracks and what sounds like the band actually playing in the studio, Frankie are asked to prove their mettle. ‘Krisco Kisses’ is a gallop under a glitterball sun, ‘Black Night White Night’ the sort of music Dollar might’ve made if they’d followed their worst instincts and popped something a little harder, and ‘The Only Star In Town’ becomes a hilarious nonsense of Eurobeat and mid-Atlantic vulgarity which only Horn could have threaded into a coherent piece of music.
Perhaps the amazing accomplishment of the entire circus is best shown by the note on which we’re ushered regretfully out of the dome, ‘The Power Of Love’. The title tells enough of what it’s about, and it’s something even Garland might have been embarrassed to sing. The miracle is that camp is kept at bay. What should have been even more glutinous than Culture Club’s ‘Victims’ is transported by Horn’s sumptuous warmth. But if it’s not camp — it isn’t serious enough, as serious as this elusive private moment may be — it is kitsch.
Too kitsch to be pop? Perhaps. It could be that what’s bewildering a biz made sick by this maverick, mountainous success is that it doesn’t even seem to be pop music! And just as the songs have no verse-chorus-middle eight formality, so Morley has ensured that the delicious absence of those period marks extends through every level. He’s covered every millimetre of the package with little hints and itches, suggestions to be spread through the enormous public consumption which awaits the LP. There are pocket interviews with each member, wittily outrageous souvenirs to send for, even a reading list.
And Trevor, well, sound has seldom found such a good master. If it seems incredible when he confesses to having a poor knowledge of studio gadgetry, that recedes when one realises how instinctual this music is. The concept of ‘feel’ is a bit of a lark where pop’s concerned, but Horn actually seems to hold these mixes in his hands to size them up — nothin too dense, too sour, too abrupt (certainly nothing too soft). As I say, it’s all very brilliant.
As one scans the credits and notes how The Art Of Noise are also involved, Frankie themselves seem to fall even further into the distance. But ZTT couldn’t have done this with Fiction Factory or Alphaville: they want to be musicians and writers, they want feeling and meaning in the old, lying manner of rock. Frankie — they just want to be stars, supernovas. To let them have their way their svengalis have constructed the Cosi Fan Tutte of pop for them to gambol in, even if it only lasts 65 minutes or so - scarcely an operatic duration.
It’s the kind of extravaganza one needs a ticket to now and then. By next week I’ll be tired of it, but today this ‘play’ is funny, sharp, gorgeous.
OK Paul, you win. Bang.