Title: Frankie say buzz off
Author: Jim Sullivan
Publish date: February 1985
Well, Holly Johnson, lead singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, would use a more explicit four-letter word than buzz to express his feelings toward anyone who would suggest his band is something less than the sum of its parts or something less than the sum of the parts spliced together in the studio by production wiz Trevor Horn, seen by some as FGTH’s version of Malcolm McLaren.
“I’d say ‘Fuck off, asshole, what do you know?’” Johnson states without hesitation when the hypothetical question is raised. “(Horn) does his job. No one asks Michael Jackson about Quincy Jones.”
Touchy issue. Paul Rutherford, Frankie’s backup singer, is less combative, more pragmatic. “It wouldn’t sound the same without him,” he offers, “but then again he couldn’t do it with anybody else. He’d never had the same success with any other bands. It’s a working team.”
There’s been a lot of talk in certain circles about this Frankie Goes To Hollywood. A lot of noise. A lot of fuss. A lot of controversy. And, in Britain, a lot of record sales.
Frankie-mania descended upon Merry Old when this working class, Liverpudlian quintet released the erotic anthem of 1984, “Relax.” Boasting a massive, throbbing bass line hook, the song extolled the pleasures of carefree sex. It also managed to stir up both proper British sensibilities and the proper authority — namely the British Broadcasting Company which banned the song after figuring out what the damn thing was about (this monumental task took the BBC two months to complete).
“Relax,” however, had a bit of a twist from your usual sex song like, say, “Star Star” or “Je T’aime.” “Relax,” sang Frankie, “Don’t do it, when you want to suck it to it/Relax, don’t do it, when you want to come.” Boom! Bump! Pelvic thrust! Basses, guitars, synthesizers and drums merge to form the musical equivalent of an orgasm. And as sung by Johnson and Rutherford, both gay, the song took on implications rarely found in the pop mainstream. You see, controversy’s one thing; mass popularity is quite another. Consider the statistics and record-setting data. Prepare to be overwhelmed:
— “Relax,” is the fourth biggest-selling single in Britain, the second biggest-selling 12-inch. Ever.
— “Two Tribes,” Frankie’s followup, spent nine weeks at the top of the pops. Frankie is the first group to score consecutive number one hits on their first two attempts since Gerry and the Pacemakers did it back in 1963.
— With advance orders of 1.1 million in England, Frankie’s double-LP debut, Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, entered the British chart at Number One.
— Frankie issued a series of oversized t-shirts with messages on the order of “FRANKIE SAY WAR! HIDE YOURSELF” and “FRANKIE SAY ARM THE UNEMPLOYED” that became Britain’s fashion rage, prompting, of course, the backlash t-shirts: “WHO GIVES A FUCK WHAT FRANKIE SAY” (Rutherford is especially fond of the latter: “I thought it was quite funny.”)
In America, and on tour for the first time, the Frankie buzz has spread. The clubs are packed and the journalistic jackals are nipping at Frankie’s heels. What sort of character is this Frankie? The spunkiest, hippest band on today’s pop music scene or just another foppish glam band from Britain? What about the contrivance? What about the controversy?
“I don’t find us controversial at all,” he says, pausing to pick an alternative position. “We’re a band that definitely can stimulate ideas in people. But, then again, maybe that’s being too pretentious. Maybe it’s just like a band that wears nice clothes.”
This elicits a hearty chuckle. Johnson’s outfitted in a dapper white suit, bow tie, a crucifix over his heart, black gloves, sunglasses and a coonskin cap. He looks not unlike a young Elton John. At 24 years of age and seeing the world for the first time, Holly Johnson is nothing if not cavalier.
He’s also a bit weary at the moment, the moment being an hour after Frankie’s sold-out Boston show at the Metro Club. Johnson’s backstage at the post-gig party gulping Gatorade. “I’m not a heavy drinker,” he says. “Occasionally I have an Irish coffee with my meal.”
Johnson sighs when examples of Frankie-mania are brought up. “It’s tiring,” he sighs. “I mean, a lot has happened to us since January of (1984).”
“It was quite a shock to all of us,” adds Rutherford, 25. “It’s happened so fast, I don’t think anyone’s got to grips with it yet. Pretty crazy.”
There are two basic schools of thought on Frankie. One, that they’re a modern version of the Sex Pistols, the most controversial and confrontational force on the pop scene; two, that they’re just an updated Village People, a bunch of campy poseurs who were lucky enough to hook up with Trevor Horn.
The truth of the matter — which becomes more evident in concert — is that Frankie is neither. In spirit, though, they’re much closer to the Pistols. They’ve guilefully adapted the credo of Pistols’ impressario and consumer fraud expert Malcolm McLaren — sex, style, subversion — and set it to adventuresome, expansive music: sleek, but raw and dynamic. Frankie’s got an edge and Frankie’s got the beat. Band members cite influences from Donna Summer (“when disco had soul” — Rutherford) to Pink FIoyd (“[Ballad of 32] was ripped off totally, we thought we’d pay tribute to Pink Floyd” — bassist Mark O’Toole.)
Live, Frankie can cut it. The show, with its tunes drawn from Welcome To The Pleasuredome, vanquishes the it-must-be Horn’s-production swipes leveled prior to the tour. The music has breadth and sweep: the mixture of disco rhythms and hard rock chops, of swirling textures and sharp accents, of unapologetic hedonism and left-leaning politics. Sure, you’ll hear more visionary anti-war songs than “Two Tribes,” but considered on Frankie’s terms — it’s tough to have fun during a nuclear shower — it works wonders. Johnson’s a crafty frontman — lots of terse gesturing and could-it-be-meaningful? eye movement — and a flexible singer. That is, he can lead chants like “Relax” and “Two Tribes,” rockers like “Born To Run” and step back for a swooning, sincere ballad like “The Power of Love.” Rutherford dances and handles backup vocals, playing the free-wheeling foil. These boys just want to have fun.
The duo also serve as Frankie’s co-spokesmen. “I suppose we’re the pretentious ones,” observes Rutherford. “The other guys aren’t so bothered about it. They’d rather bash the drums and go out for a drink.” And yes, backstage after the Boston show it seemed that bassist Mark O’Toole, guitarist Brian Nash and drummer Peter (Ped) Gill were doing just that and having a fine time. Young mates, first time in America, drinks, girls, fun…
Sequestered on a couch in the corner, Johnson is cast as the Frankie spokesman of the minute. And an artful dodger he is:
Q: As you become more successful, do you worry about the record industry trying to make you more of a palatable product, trying to make you more mainstream and less outrageous?
Johnson: See, I don’t think we’re particularly outrageous. We just have fun.
Q: Yeah, but like tonight, before doing “Krisco Kisses” you asked the audience if they knew what Crisco was for.
Johnson: It’s a cooking shortening.
Q: But isn’t it used for other purposes?
Johnson: Well, some people use it as a sexual lubricant, yes, but I didn’t say that.
Q: You implied it.
Johnson: Well… it’s our little joke. A straight audience can use it as a sexual lubricant also. Wow. Crisco will probably sue me.
Q: How popular do you want to be?
Johnson: As popular as Ronald Reagan.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood was formed in 1982 by Johnson. He took the name from a magazine headline he spied on a poster in a rehearsal studio. The picture under the headline showed a young Frank Sinatra getting off a plane and being mobbed by bobby-soxers. “Really, to me,” says Johnson, “[Frankie] means five Liverpool lads lead the glamorous life. Almost.”
In the early days Frankie played Liverpool club gigs (“but no gay bars,” says Johnson) and cultivated a kinky image. At one point, they employed the Leatherpettes, two scantily clad young ladies who spent a good deal of time chained to the drum kit. But Frankie was going nowhere, except for getting tagged as a campy cabaret act. Before recording “Relax,” they were on the verge of breaking up, “despondent and lazy,” according to Rutherford.
Their career took a radical upward turn when they were spotted by Horn on The Tube, an English TV show. Horn signed them to Zang Tuum Tumb Records, a new company he’d formed with ex-New Musical Express journalist Paul Morley, and set about recording “Relax.”
Frankie registered a seismic upheaval on the Nastiness and Notoriety Scale upon the release of the first “Relax” video, a Fellini-esque clip shot by Bernard Rose. The video found Frankie squirming and slithering in a leather bar, participating in all sorts of debauchery. (You won’t find it on MTV; the all-music channel’s airing a lipsynch performance video.) Even Boy George — once an object of sexual controversy himself — has taken umbrage at Frankie’s posturings. “If you’re going to go out and say you’re gay,” complained Boy to a Boston Globe reporter, “why don’t you present to people an intelligent side to homosexuality, instead of going out and saying, ‘Look, I’m a seedy queer who screws in gay bars’?”
(To which Johnson replies: “I don’t really care. I don’t like to make comments on other people’s work and I’m not really interested in other people’s comments about us. He obviously just misjudges us totally.”)
After setting the wheels of controversy in motion with “Relax,” Frankie kept them spinning with “Two Tribes,” a frantic disco-rocker that pitted Russia and the U.S. against each other.
The 12-inch version features a series of band introductions (“My name is Mark,” “My name is Ped,” “My name is Nash”) followed by actor Patrick Allen intoning gravely, “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Don’t be alarmed.” Johnson repeats his refrain, “When two tribes go to war/Money’s all that you can score.” At one point he’s so caught up in the song’s pace he exclaims, “We got the funk! We got the funk!”
The video, made by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, features Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko lookalikes doing bloody battle in a cockfighting ring. It’s the closest rock video has come to Raging Bull (ugly, not gratuitous) and it added fuel to the fire. The BBC restricted the video to non-prime time; MTV refused the original version and aired a tamer edit. A Russian ambassador in London got hot and bothered, taking offense on behalf of the Russian people (who of course never saw it).
This is controversy! But wasn’t there a plan, just a scintilla of manipulation…?
“We never did anything!” protests Rutherford. “That was the media. We’re just simple little boys. We are, really. We’re of a very simple nature, very ordinary. I don’t think anything is really controversial; nothing ever shocks me. I suppose it’s because I went through the whole punk thing in England and it broadened my attitude.”
As for the modest impact of “Two Tribes,” Rutherford opines as to how “if you’re in a position to say something it’s just healthy to voice an opinion now and again. The song was saying, ‘Hey, listen, we’re the little guys down here and we don’t even get a say and it’s all about our lives, really, and we’re the ones that are going to take it in the end.’ It’s a little cliched, it’s a little hippie. It’s not protest. It’s no real weird attitude. It’s a very ordinary, light, honest, human attitude. You only get one life to live.”
Fair enough. But when the going gets tough, Frankie can put up his dukes. Noting that the band had played only about 20 live gigs prior to its “Relax” breakthrough and U.S. tour, it’s suggested that Frankie could have played Britain first. Reward the locals and all.
“Well,” answers Johnson, “when you have a million advance orders on an album, it’s pointless going out to promote it.”
Might that strategy alienate your English fans?
“I don’t know. I really don’t care. I don’t think you’ve got a duty to your fans; they don’t create you. You know, you’re doing your job.”
A good job is hard to find. Frankie’s doing a good job. What about the message, you ask? Is Frankie just a big jumble? What’s the overriding theme of a Frankie show?
“You paid 13 dollars,” laughs Johnson. “For heaven’s sake, have fun! That’s it, really.”