Title: Frankie talk dirty!
Author: Chris Heath
Publish date: April 1985
After a year at the top, Frankie Goes To Hollywood have got a reputation to live up to. Chris Heath finds that they’re only too happy to oblige.
Join us for an evening of conversation, insults, sex, and, in the end, violence.
Hello,” says the reclining figure on the sofa in front of me, “I’m Holly.”
Nervously I smile. As I clumsily lower my shoulder bag to the floor I try to acknowledge both the faces greeting me in this empty Brixton Academy dressing room, but as Holly and Paul are on opposite sides of the room it’s difficult.
Paul rises. “You can do it if you like,” he says to Holly, as if referring to an earlier contingency plan that has just been confirmed by their first impression of me. “I’ll go on to the pub.”
“OK,” Holly replies, and Paul quietly slips out the door through which, only seconds before, I had entered. I sit down tentatively on the edge of Holly’s sofa, rummaging in my bag for my tape recorder, my excuse for being there. Hoisting himself slightly more upright with his elbow Holly turns and stares at me, big bold eyes through tortoise-shell rimmed glasses:
“What’s your name then?”
It’s impossible not to love Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and it’s impossible not to hate them. So sudden, so strong, and so strange has been their rise to success that they have transgressed nearly every rule and anti-rule of pop music, for which they are both cheered and jeered. If you’re the average Jamming! reader — slightly ‘alternative’ I suspect — then maybe the things you’ll cheer are: the assault on taboos (sex, war), the use of anti-Reagan and anti-nuclear propaganda, the powerful antidote their music provides to the dishwater pop of Wham! and Duran Duran, and the use of art, artifice, and intellect in the marketing of pop. And the things you’ll jeer: the wimp-out third single, the re-emergence of the hackneyed rock’n’roll stereotypes, the intellectual masturbation of their most excessive marketing ploys, the way they’ve sold you the same song again and again in a different shirt, the way they shy away from any definite political comment or commitment.
And if anyone thought Frankie were to be the great 80s alternative, the monumental destruction of all that went before, they’ve been disappointed. If they are the voice of a generation it’s only of a generation that despairs at the very idea of having a voice of its own. If you go to Holly Johnson expecting the arrogant dismissal of the past as compared with the (artist’s own) present which has become de rigeur for all budding pop messiahs all you get is talk of Bowie (“fabulous”) and The Rolling Stones (“they’re not ‘just another pop group’ — they’re The Rolling Stones!”)
But if (and I think this is a good idea) you instead look at Frankie as today’s truly great exponent of the contradictions in music between marketing and honesty, pleasure and paypackets, love and macho guitar posing — then you might understand why Frankie Goes To Hollywood are, if not a wonderful group, a truly wonderful phenomena.
Wham! may have “made it big” in terms of record sales, video shoots and suntans, but it’s Frankie who hove actually made it. It’s Frankie who’ve actually rediscovered the heights, with all the excess, fantasy, mystique, naivety, charisma, calculated ness, legend, and unreality that makes pop music something which anyone intelligent must simultaneously love and loathe.
And Holly is, of course, the spearhead of all this. Some people see ZTT as the core and essence of Frankie, but these days they’re wrong. ZTT may have been almost totally responsible for Frankie’s genesis and early growth but nowadays, as Holly persuasively points out, “to the people in the street the five of our faces are Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It’s got our faces stomped on it and they can’t take that away from us. No-one’s going to shout ‘Frankie’ at Paul Morley or Trevor Horn in the street.”
Put like that it does sound a little ridiculous, doesn’t it?
“I don’t do many interviews or things like that,” explains Holly, looking away as if a little embarrassed about trying to make me feel privileged. “I select them very carefully, because I don’t really like doing them. Mainly because of the past results. It would enhance your reputation,” he explains, angling his palm towards me, “a lot more if you said ‘Oh, I met Holly Johnson and he was on absolute arsehole and talked a lot of drivel’, and misquoted me. You’d be the boy of the week on the paper, hove a good laugh, and it would be to your advantage. And that’s what happens.”
I reply silently with my beseeching ‘well you can trust me, can’t you?’ look, and wonder if he believes me. Then we talk. I ask and he answers, confident, modest, intelligent, guarded. Sincere? I don’t know — he may be too clever. Often he laughs: “ha ha ha, ha ha ha”. It’s a nice laugh, but then Holly’s a disgustingly likeable person. I hate it when journalists go on about how nice people are — it smacks of a mixture of awe, sycophancy and self-congratulation — but Holly really is quite charming. Though I doubt he’s an angel.
“It’s felt like luck, incredible luck, the last twelve months. Though there were some people when it happened who stood up and said ‘I created this, this is my baby, I’m responsible for this’. That was typical of certain people.”
You mean Paul Morley?
“I’m not naming any names. Just saying that I find all that ridiculous. Not even I created Frankie Goes To Hollywood, nor Paul Rutherford, Mark O’Toole, Brian Nash or Peter Gill. It was just the right people in the right place at the right time, and it worked. There was no central genius or ‘very-clever-person’ that invented the whole thing.”
What of Paul Morley’s role anyway? He seems to have disappeared into the background of late. (A long silence, then Holly answers hesitantly) “That’s alright by me. (more silence). Actually we’re getting on quite well at the moment, better than we ever did. But I feel sorry for anyone who had to grow up in Manchester.”
Do you meet him often?
“I meet him occasionally”.
Does he have much say in what you do now?
“He just suggests interesting things. I rung him last week and said ‘We’ve got to get Gilbert and George to do an album cover’ and he said ‘Yeah, yeah, definitely, I was going to ask them to do a video’. I thought ‘brilliant, we’re on the some wavelength at last’.”
Aren’t Paul Morley and Trevor Horn two of the most unlikely people in the world for you to have ended up as friends with?
“Extremely unlikely. Trevor more so than Paul, but then I can have a much longer conversation with Trevor because you can discuss music with him. You can’t discuss it with Paul. You can only discuss concepts with him, or a T. Rex single or two.
“I’d like to do three albums, then think ‘can I cope with this?’.”
And the next one is called “Warriors Of The Wasteland”?
“Yes it is.”
That sounds like a Block Sabbath title.
“It does, but only if you look at it from a certain point of view. But if you look at it in terms of The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot, and the warriors from the film The Warriors, just street kids, then it gives a much more interesting slant.”
So is that how you see yourselves — Warriors of the Wasteland?
“In so much as everyone has to be. A warrior is just a term for an angry man.”
But it’s particularly a word for those who rise up out of, and claim to represent others in their positions, isn’t it?
“Yes, it has got that nuance to it. It’s romantic. Self-glorification. Which is what pop music is all about to a degree.
“No, it will not be a double album. We want it to be an ordinary album at an ordinary price. I thought ‘Pleasure Dome’ was a bit expensive.”
Are you proud of it?
“I think it’s a good album. Note that I didn’t say it’s a good double album. The main weakness was that too much time was spent on the title track. It did need to be good, but it was dwelt on too much and some of the other tracks suffered. Like ‘Black Night White Light’ — that could have been amazing.”
And now there’s a fourth single, a remixed, re-edited (but not re-recorded) version of ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’, backed by T. Rex’s ‘Get It On’ (the Peel Session version) and a new song, ‘Happy High’. Do you feel a great pressure to have a fourth number one?
“I don’t. I reckon Island and ZTT do. Incidentally I originally envisaged ‘Pleasure Dome’ as our third single. My plan was ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Relax’, ‘Pleasure Dome’ then ‘The Power Of Love’,”
Is there any truth in the rumour that Island need a fourth single to repromote and help shift the remaining copies of the LP?
“I think that might have something to do with it. But I don’t think there are many left.”
So for the Frankie campaign has been beautifully orchestrated in the smooth way each single has been impregnated with a ridiculous significance — ‘Relax’ — the sex single, ‘Two Tribes’ — war, ‘The Power Of Love’ — religion/love.
“Ooooh, I know” (as if confessing a guilty secret).
Do you hate that?
“No, I think the symbols are awfully cute. I like the way it altered the whole thing and made it feel special. But I would have been happier if it had been done in a less obvious way. Because it put a pressure on the writing team to come up with a main life subject.”
But weren’t all the songs written before that campaign was thought up?
“Yes, but not with that in mind. They were just normal songs.”
So what’s the symbol for “Pleasure Dome”?
(Evasively) “I haven’t seen the artwork.”
Someone walks in and lobs a grey crumpled paper bag at Holly’s feet. He feels inside and brings out two shirts. Gifts from a fan outside. “Are they for me?” he asks, as if they could be for anyone else. “I hope they fit,” says the accompanying note. “Kenny from the fan club said you were a 24.”
One is grey. “It’s not a bad shirt, this,” squeals Holly like a mother at the soles. “It’s nice. I might wear this.” The other is white, short-sleeved. He looks dubious. “This one’s a summer shirt. Maybe I won’t wear it. Though if I ever go to Barbados I will. It’s the kind of shirt you should wear in Barbados.”
Suddenly he discovers a small cheap pin-on brooch. “A little lizard! With green eyes!” he exclaims excitedly. “I’ll wear this on a special occasion. It’s sweet.”
These things happen if you’re a pop star.
As I mentioned earlier the accepted folklore is that ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ are the masterpieces; ‘The Power Of Love’ is the embarrassingly flabby sequel that broke the spell, burst the bubble. I’d beg to disagree. Paul Morley (him again) used to annoy everyone when he went on about the magic of the perfect pop record, but he was on to something. And ‘The Power Of Love’ is a good example. The real celebration, the true exuberance, that pop can carry are here. Yes, that’s right, it does revel in cliché, it is blatantly bold — but isn’t that what the power of love is actually like? When it can, love screams and shouts, and does so in all the obvious ways because they’re the only ways it knows how — its boldness (the way it’s embarrasing, if you prefer) is perhaps the principle thing that convinces you that it’s real. Love doesn’t wait till dark and then tiptoe quietly into the room if it can help it. It promises the dual threats of a total freedom and a frightening acceptance of possession: “I’ll protect you from the hooded claw/keep the vampires from your door”. Wimp that I am, ‘The Power Of Love’ has made me cry more than once. Of course I don’t tell Holly that, though I’m sure he’d understand:
“I think it’s a classic, infinitely better than ‘Relax’ or ‘Two Tribes’. They were rock grooves. ‘The Power Of Love’ is a song. Anyone could sing ‘The Power Of Love’. Frank Sinatra could — which I think is the mark of a good song. What do I think of those people that are cynical about it? They’re the ones who’ve got C.S.E. English, aren’t they? It’s the sort of song old people can sing in a pub, which I think is fabulous.”
So what reaction would he rather, I wonder, — two lovers swooning to it or a guy sitting alone in his bedroom aching to it?
“I’d much rather people sung it in a pub,” he insists, “or at a football match. That’s the mark of a popular song. Or walking past some building workers and seeing a painter up a ladder whistling it. That’s writing a prole song.
“It’s the only good song I’ve ever written. That’s why I feel so protective about it. It may be the only good song I ever write.”
Holly has plenty to say about other pop stars. Like Sade. Frankie gave her a rather over-the-top thumbs-up in the N.M.E. poll forms they handed in, and at first Holly tries to insist that “ooooh, we think she’s fabulous, so stylish”. But after a bit of goading he admits they hate “the vibe she’s laying down. Very Face magazine — a cocktail bar with Humphrey Bogart in the background wearing a white tuxedo”. Later he reveals that they all call her “The Marquis de Sade”.
Bronski Beat next: “I must say I thought ‘Ain’t Necessarily So’ was a fabulous thing to do, but I’ve heard on the grapevine that they hate us. And I don’t like their extreme leftism. I find the whole thing about the Pink Triangle redundant. But they’re sincere and they definitely have a place in the scheme of things, because there’s that group in the Oxfam trenchcoats who like them and The Smiths.”
Ah yes, The Smiths… “I liked the album cover with Joe Dallesandro. There’s something I love about them and something I don’t love. They’re in danger of becoming a bit Howard Jones-y. Lyrically though, that album (‘The Smiths’) was a bit of a masterpiece. That is to say a masterpiece from living in a city that is perpetually under a grey sky. Morrissey’s aware of his appeal and uses it to full advantage. There’s a definite cloak of alternativism there. There’s the pretence of not being a pop idol, but he’s far more a contender for pop idoldom than I am.”
I refuse to believe this. Despite his protestations to the contrary the Holly Johnson before me, hair swept back (“I can’t do anything else with it”), smartly preened, even to the extent of wearing a tie-pin (“because I always get dinner on my ties otherwise”) is probably the ultimate candidate for pop idoldom. Still, he’s right in suggesting that Morrissey isn’t far behind.
Holly smiles. “I think we’d better go to the pub.” And we walk out into the evening breeze, past the fans sitting on a parked van outside the back exit. They say nothing, just stare as we pass.
“They’re kind of part of the furniture,” Holly explains, a little embarrassed that people actually spend their days waiting for a glimpse of him. “But one day they won’t be there, and they weren’t there last year.” Will it be a better day for them when they’re gone? “They won’t be so cold,” he answers with a wry smile.
“Even the President Of The United States sometimes has to stand naked”, once rasped someone called Bob Dylan. “Ooooh, I must have a wee,” announces Holly on the walk to the pub. The effect isn’t quite as strange, but the similarity is illuminating.
“It’s a full moon,” he observes, looking up, “maybe that’s why I’ve got a sore throat.” We go into the pub.
I take a stool between Nasher and Holly. Opposite me are Ped and Mark — Mark’s arm encircles Zoe, an extra from their latest video. Paul sits detached from this circle, quietly chatting to Regine, their press officer. Changing to suit the mood of the new situation Holly grabs my notebook off me and sarcastically starts to recite my rough list of questions for the earlier interview. “What have the last 12 months meant to you! Ooooh!” I rise and wrestle to get it out of his hands until he releases it. Then the Lads — Ped Nasher and Mark — start. As they speak I copy down their words, to their chagrin, onto the pad on my knee. The Lads, as you will soon see, are the three rudest people I’ve ever met.
Mark: “Who are you?”
“Hi I’m Chris.”
Ped: “Do you wear tart’s nickers?”
I don’t answer.
Ped: “My name’s Jack The Lad and I’m dirty as fuck. I’ll kick your fuckin’ head in.”
I scribble down his words.
Nasher: “You cut me out of the picture (Nasher was missed off the last Frankie Jamming! cover, issue 19). I’m not fuckin’ talking to you.”
Mark: “Paul Morley’s got nothing to do with us.”
Ped: “I’m going to get someone to show your arse off and show your balls to your chin.”
Nasher: “I’m not talking to magazines anymore except when I’m sober. If you print anything I say I’ll show your chin your balls.”
Ped: ‘Write this down: ‘Testicles!’ ‘Balls!’ Write that down! If you’re an iron hoof you’re going to get decked. Do you know what an iron hoof is?”
I wait for elucidation.
Ped: “A poof! Are you a poof?”
Mind your own business.
Ped: “You are, aren’t you? (Pause) You’re just trying to be like Paul Morley, aren’t you (to the others) He’s a bit of a Morley, isn’t he?”
Holly (to the others): “You all hate Morley!”
Mark: “No I don’t!”
Nasher (to Holly): “We hate you. But we don’t want that in the press.”
Mark (to Holly, pretending to be servile — this is all a joke) ‘Would you like me to polish your shoes? (to me) Have you ever tried to tongue your own hoof?”
Not often, I answer sarcastically.
All: “So you have tried then?”
Nasher’s food arrives. What’s he having today? Yummy. A pastie, chips, baked beans, and one of those small bits of lettuce known as ‘salad’ in pubs. He literally smothers it all in HP sauce and, carefully disregarding everything his mother ever told him about etiquette and nutrition, gobbles it up. I venture a question.
Do you like being famous?
Nasher: “No, I like Cornish pasties.”
Ped (with ridicule): “You’ve got cords on! Jumbo cords! He’s got cords on! Ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
Ped is wearing a black and white cloth shirt, old jeans and training shoes.
Mark (about me): “He’s a Hesham boy.”
Holly (to me): “Are you a Hersham boy? (to Mark) What’s a Hersham boy?”
Ped (about me): “He’s trying to get up us.”
Nasher: “You’ve actually caught us at a bit of a weird moment after four pints. (To Holly, about his own messy haircut) I get it cut at Smiles in Knightsbridge — where David Bowie gets his done.”
Ped (to me): “Why don’t you ask us some questions?”
Nasher: “You’re a bit of a Morley, aren’t you?”
Mark (to the others): “He’s that arty he doesn’t even interview people.”
We rise together to return to the Academy for photos, Holly is in a hurry — a dinner date. On the way out Nasher furiously feeds 10p pieces into the fruit machine. “Need the cash, eh?” I inquire. He doesn’t answer. Suddenly, behind us, a fight erupts.
Apparently what has happened is that the locals at the bar, who’d obviously been unhappy about the invasion of their territory throughout our drink, had offered up an empty insult like “Frankie fuck off” as we left. Which on the face of it was no more of an invitation to respond than the offensive treatment I had just received from the Lads (which was so offensive that, in the context, it actually seemed totally inoffensive). But Frankie’s new minder, eager to prove his credentials, moved up to the bar to challenge them. Fists pile on top of him and the place erupts. I thought this only happened in the movies. All of a sudden he’s on the ground and I watch, as if in slow motion, as one of the aggressors raises a chair and deliberately brings it down on his head. Then Frankie’s road crew pull him clear and we all walk briskly away. The minder is covered in blood running down from a wound on his head. Back at the Academy an ambulance is called, and he’s taken to hospital.
“We don’t need minders; this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been there,” says Paul softly. He seems the furthest removed from these antics, and the most troubled by them.
Later on an argument breaks out. Ped reckons they need more minders so that they can win the fights next time. The others, thankfully, insist he’s wrong.
For once, Nasher looks depressed. “This is the price of fame,” he scowls.
“I’ve never seen Spandau get fucked,” retorts Ped, still trying to argue his case.
Nasher explodes: “They don’t go to fuckin’ ale houses, do they?”
…myth and reality…
…the ad for Frankie’s new single (‘The Next Best Thing’) parades ‘THE BEST THING — listening to Mark O’Toole whisper words of wisdom in your ear while he strokes your inside thigh’… …as my interviewees drift away I wander round the deserted Brixton Academy. Below me is the fully set-up stage with its backdrop of huge geometrical rises, all lit up with brilliant whitebased lights. I turn round to see Mark O’Toole over in the darkness at the entrance of the foyer. He’s with Zoe. Slowly he leans over her shoulder and with gentle confidence kisses her deeply again and again and again…
These are the contradictions that make up Frankie. Holly, however, isn’t one of The Lads. No, he talks about Picasso (“I know it sounds corny but I really like him”), Duncan Grant (“an English artist from the Bloomsbury Set — I’d love a carpet designed by him”), and The Sun. “I’m actually scared of them,” he reveals, abandoning his earlier boast that Frankie can use them. “They constantly ask you about sex, drugs, and now Aids. I don’t like that kind of interview I think it’s bad.” He chats about the ‘banned’ Frankie book (out soon) — “the others were stupid enough to get interviewed in the cupboard in ZTT; I got taken out to dinner” — how much he likes ‘San Jose’ (“I sung it lying on the couch with the words in front of me — the Lads don’t like it though”), and about Prince: “He asked me to present that award to him. I’ve never met him. Would I like sex on the phone with him? Not in the least. I’d rather ask him questions like ‘what synthesiser did you use on ‘Erotic City’ or where he gets his clothes from. He isn’t my idea of sex on the phone.”
And the final whispers. Any regrets?
“Je ne regrette rien. Ha ha ha. No, it’s important not to regret anything, just to think ‘oh, I’ve been there’.”
Words for his disciples?
“I could only say something silly like the Bhuddah would say to his followers, ‘whatever I say to you is ridiculous, you must find out for yourself’.”
‘Relax’ in retrospect?
“It’s one of those records. ‘Relax’ will sound great in ten years time, like ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’, or ‘My Generation’ or ‘All You Need Is Love’ do now. It’s a monster. There’s nothing we can do about that, I’m afraid, It was just an accident.”
The most anybody could expect of you?
“To arrive on time. Ha ha ha, ha ha ha.”
And now, world domination?
“It would be great. The total realisation of the arrogance of the name. It would be the total thing and I would enjoy it loads. Frankie Goes To Hollywood as the 1980’s Beatles…”
The 1980’s Beatles? We’ll see. I’ve no doubt they’ll have further exuberant triumphs, but also tears and tragedy before the spectacle of Frankie Goes To Hollywood is finally ironed out and stuck in place in the history books. Maybe they’ll end up fat and disgusting, or abandoned and bitter, or happy and accepted, or maybe worse, more unthinkable, disasters will grip them. Whatever, I know the image of Frankie Goes To Hollywood that will remain with me: Holly, centre stage, his right hand raised, pinching his forefinger and thumb delicately together as if catching an invisible butterfly. Then with his eyes to heaven, letting out a smile that is between a sigh and a gasp, releasing it. All of the passion, the control, the daring, the contrivance, and the indescribable magnetism of Frankie Goes To Hollywood is captured in that gesture. And I’ll think of the stolen lies carried with ‘The Power Of Love’ …men are but bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind… words, what are they? one tear will say more than all of them… dreams are like angels, they keep bad at bay… and I’ll know that for us, if not for them, it was all worthwhile. But I don’t envy them.