Title: Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Welcome to the pleasure dome
Author: Lynden Barber
Source: Melody Maker
Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Welcome To The Pleasuredome (ZTT IQ1)
BEFORE we’ve even heard a single note we know this record is somehow different. It has already transcended the hum-drum routine of the recording industry, its release becoming something of a media event without having to try. I have a friend who is wetting her pants waiting for this to come out, and you can multiply her by hundreds of thousands. Does anyone here remember a group called the Beatles?
What’s it like?
Wait a moment. During the past few years every loud-mouth with a guitar and brassy shirt has proclaimed a desire to write the “perfect pop song”, but the big mistake was to define such an elusive ideal with reference to pop’s past – it was always “The Monkees”, or “John Lennon” or “The Velvet Underground”, never “A Sound You Have Never Heard” or “A New Noise That Will Twist Your Head Around”. What Frankie have grasped is simple – that only by ignoring received notions and instead sketching the shape of Pop Future can anything of far-reaching excitement be produced. Frankie bring back the shock of the new.
When “Relax” was released in the autumn of 1983 I used to play it often, but never in my wildest flights of fantasy did I imagine it piercing the protective skin around Radio 1 and entering the lower reaches of the chart, let alone the top. Besides being obviously risqué, it was just too hard, too thrilling, so obviously concerned to refuse all possible compromises that I assumed without questioning that radio producers would consign it to the out-tray.
“Relax” broke through because of a mixture of stupidity and sharpness, because some deejays recognised its appeal regardless and others were too dumb to notice that its naughtiness wasn’t nice until it was too late. “Relax” underlined the bankruptcy of the media infrastructure, and provided hope, proved it was possible for ingenuity, effort, talent and desire to bust open that blandness nevertheless. Helped by a solid dollop of luck.
I think what we all like about Frankie – and have you ever come across anyone who doesn’t? – is that they are both modern and excitingly different at the same time. Just as it was becoming impossible to open a copy of Cosmo without being assaulted by articles on “The New Celibacy” or “The Herpes Scare”, Frankie Say Shag. There was a universality to their appeal – not so much gay bandits as cheeky lads. Realising that the sex drive has been going fairly successfully for, oh, a few million years and that people were scared stupid of the bomb, they (and pal Morley) plugged into the collective unconscious with a vengeance.
What I dislike most about this record (LOUD CHORUS – “OH GOD, THE BACKLASH – HOW PREDICTABLE!”) is that it treats the people who buy it merely as consumers. “Relax” and “Two Tribes” respected their audience, flattered it by assuming it had intelligence and wit. Every note sounded as if it could be justified if necessary, nothing was superfluous.
Despite the joke merchandising adverts on the inner sleeve (“The Jean Genet Boxer Shorts” or “The Andre Gide socks” — very Morley), “Welcome To The Pleasuredome” smacks of grasping hands, a double album for the price of one. The gatefold sleeve and mock-Picasso artwork are typically high-grade ZTT but nothing can excuse the inclusion of less-than-stunning tracks and a straight run of “Relax”, “War” and “Two Tribes”.
A whole side of singles? Frankie Say Fuck Yourself, Sucker! This is all too reminiscent of the dubious practice ZTT sank into when they began to release all manner of mixes of “Two Tribes” to see how much money they could possibly milk out of it. Baby, you’re a rich man, too.
But “a backlash”? Well, nothing quite so crass. The opening side of this album is everything we’ve been expecting, a succession of shivers of delight, sound that seep in from the clouds.
The opening is all choral bombast, an hilarious bluster, like the world falling apart under the weight of its own absurdity. “The world is my oyster,” declares Holly, and there we go adoring him again, picturing the sly grin in the mind’s eye. A few zoo noises and we’re into the title track for the rest of the side.
After the suspicion that we might be in for an excess of forced panic, what comes next is a welcome relief, a slipping down through the gears to a place where it’s possible to breathe their music rather than being consumed or attacked by it. It’s great. Too many events occur within its span to enumerate – there are probably many I haven’t even noticed yet, so packed is this music with detail and subliminal splendour.
Frankie Can’t Play? You’re stone deaf if you think that after hearing Mark O’Toole blistering carve-ups on his chosen instrument, the bass guitar. Essentially, “Dome” is a long, cool saunter over the filthiest of basslines, a seriously funky business that allows Horn (you thought I’d forgotten him?) to pluck noises, smear notes across its surface. This music today reminds me of open skies over the Mojave, tomorrow something different.
In this LP I hear, variously: ABC, Sun Ra, The Jonzun Crew, Bruce Springsteen, Chic, Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, Dionne Warwick, but mostly I hear Frankie Goes To Hollywood tossing in musical reference point as some kind of impish joke, just to see if anyone’s paying attention.
The good humour – is one of Frankie’s most endearing features. The whole LP has been designed as an entertaining (very “Sergeant Pepper”, all this welcoming us to the pleasuredome), yet somehow it frequently fails to come off.
“Born To Run” is kind of BEF “Music Of Quality And Distinction” – one imagines them sitting around the studio laughing their heads off as the ideas for cover versions become increasingly absurd — which is to say that it’s all very ersatz, very predictable, very “so what?” Holly sounds like he’s trying to decide whether to have Marmite or Primula Spread on his sandwiches for lunch while he idly mouth “the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive”. Horn, meanwhile, is paid by the decibel. This isn’t very funny, and neither is “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”, though I liked the girl from “Brookside”.
Much of what accompanies these covers on the third and fourth sides is merely flatulent, empty swatches of sound, in fact precisely what the odd cynic suggested about the first two singles (wrongly) – average songs tarted up by an endlessly talented producer.
By including such non-entities as “Krisco Kisses” (Bow Wow Wow having a nightmare in Bournemouth) and “Black Night White Light” (Makes Frankie Sound Soft!) they foolishly try to prove that Trevor didn’t manufacture them, show they still believe in their old songs, yet sadly only drive the point home that without Horn we would not be listening to these songs at all.
“The Power Of Love” is a rancid ballad, Spandau with knows on. Its saving grace, that Holly is loveable, is not good enough. “Balled Of 32” is diverting, Big Country with brains, which translates as “less than staggering”. In many ways even Horn’s production is disappointing on much of these two sides, a throwback to his gloss-job on ABC, all twinkling glissandi and polish, with an overall air of sterility.
All of this is quite listenable, and if this is so that’s because it’s impressive rather than expressive, because it throws glaring colours boldly at the canvas, not because it feels for its subjects. There’s not much here that evokes sorrow or hope or pain or pathos, little to expand the imagination, nothing that makes the music truly come to life and attach itself to the heart.
If a sense of wonder has been extirpated in pop, Frankie and Trevor Horn have been brilliantly successful in bringing it back to life. But given that we desperately want this record to overwhelm, it would be too easy to close ears to its missed targets, it heavily embroidered padding, and kid ourselves that the whole lot is a masterpiece beyond reproach.
MM say: Frankie singles yes, double albums no!