Title: Frankie say rehash
Author: Max Bell
Publish date: December 1993
Frankie Goes To Hollywood are back. Last month, a new listening generation took ‘Relax’ back into the charts, while those who bought it the first time are snapping up their Greatest Hits. Holly Johnson explains how the prejudices of the band have been greater than public cynicism
On October 31, 1983, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s first single, ‘Relax’, was released by ZTT Records. On January 13, 1984, the BBC banned the record after Big Brother DJ Mike Read denounced its contents as “obscene”. This misguided attempt at censorship provided FGTH with the kind of propaganda ZTT could never have afforded, even in their wildest dreams.
‘Relax’ went on to sell five million copies worldwide — it was featured in Brian de Palma’s marginal porn movie Body Double and as frat material in Police Academy; it was the biggest-selling single of the decade — and the rest, as the Frankie lads would say, is fucking history, la.
It could be argued that ‘Relax’, by kickstarting the 12-inch mix, multipleformat craze which helped spawn Rave/Techno and popularised disco beat in a fresh guise, actually hastened the demise of the pop single, though nobody foresaw that happening in the affluent ‘80s. As singer Holly Johnson recalls “we spent £30,000 recording ‘Relax’. Bands make albums for less now. The singles market has changed; it’s all about rapid turnover, not longevity”.
The next two FGTH singles, ‘Two Tribes’ and ‘The Power of Love’, were also Number Ones, giving the group the odd distinction of becoming the first act since Gerry and the Pacemakers to enjoy three successive chart toppers. (Co-incidentally enough, FGTH did a cover version of Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey — how the world turns!) Fact-mongers should remember that ‘Two Tribes’ was another platinum record, selling three million copies worldwide. Its bass menace and amyl-nitrate pulse quickener are still used to provide the adrenaline rush for such televised sporting (non-)events as Benn vs Eubank—Judgment Day (Not).
Before they became absorbed by multimedia Muzak, ‘Two Tribes’ and ‘Relax’ seemingly offered a ticket to amorality with their sado-masochistic lyrics and commercial dance rhythms. Disco (dance), hitherto the province of underground gay clubs, became publicly acceptable.
Consequently, when the intellectually challenged Tony Dortie introduced the re-released, remixed Jam and Spoon ‘Relax’ on Top of the Pops, his remark that “it’s hard to see why that was so controversial” passed unnoticed, though without FGTH, “hetero” teen acts like Take That wouldn’t get away with their peculiar brand of homo-erotica.
FGTH’s story is, of course, music’s archetypal rags to riches and back to rags again tale. These days, most of the group live in rented accommodation. None has a recording deal. Ten years ago, when they first heard that ‘Relax’ had reached Number 35, necessitating a TOTP debut, Brian Nash and Mark O’Toole were still working as an electrician and fitter, respectively, in Liverpool’s Old Swan market. Peter Gill, Paul Rutherford and Holly Johnson were scraping to make ends meet between dole office and dream factory.
By 1985, FGTH had an American Top Ten hit, their debut album Welcome To The Pleasuredome had been Number One in Britain, if only for a week, they had collected all the BRITs gongs and topped various readers’ polls; and all five men were tax exiles in Dublin.
But after the second album, Liverpool, it all went horribly wrong. Sales dwindled embarrassingly and singer Holly Johnson became embroiled in a court case with ZTT over contracts and royalty payments that effectively killed the creative force. Johnson won his case but the demise of the band was accompanied by resentment and bitterness as thieves fell out.
On paper, FGTH ought to have been fantastically wealthy. “The riches weren’t what the public or the group perceived them to be,” says Johnson. “We took questionable advice at the onset and perhaps the spotlight put on us by the media contributed to our falling apart. It was very thrilling but also disturbing and it definitely backfired on us. There was potential controversy the whole time. The imagery of bondage and sadomasochism I introduced was simply to attract attention because I believed people wanted sex and spectacle rather than serious musicianship.”
For 18 heady months, the Frankie story had everything: sex, whores, controversy and ruined hotel rooms, with the classic sub-text of hard drugs, discarded teenyboppers, loose women, loose men, violence and vegetable oil. No British group since has come close to FGTH’s general level of behaviour. But what is remembered now are the quaint “Frankie Says…” slogans, the ludicrous merchandise (still got your boxers, big boy?) and credibility damaging allegations that outside musos (The Blockheads) had been drafted in to play the parts on Welcome To The Pleasuredome that FGTH could not manage.
Their producer and ZTT head honcho, Trevor Horn, played The Beatles card whenever he was asked about the allegations. “Nobody ever complained about George Martin adding electric piano to certain Beatles songs. The producer’s job is to enhance the band’s ideas. Only an outsider would see it as interference. People said I was a Hitler in the studio, that the album was all my work. That was complete rubbish.”
Critically, Horn didn’t produce the hideously expensive second album Liverpool. “That album was a bad idea,” says Johnson. “The musical direction wasn’t what I wanted. I was never interested in making a stadium rock album and cracking America. That was a fantasy of the lads in particular and the hippies who worked on the record in the studio.”
If Johnson doesn’t have entirely negative memories of the Frankie experience, likening it to “a supernova that exploded-but rather that than a 35-year glimmer”, some grudges die hard. “I’d like to point out how effortlessly ‘Relax’ dived into the Top Five again without the assistance of that mediocrity called Paul Morley. He was somebody who totally leeched on other people’s dreams.”
Johnson makes no secret of his antipathy towards Morley, ZTT’s arch-strategist, who once quantified the FGTH recipe on Naked City (Zzzz) as: “Eighty per cent Trevor Horn, 15 per cent Paul Morley and 5 per cent Frankie Goes To Hollywood,” adding that Holly Johnson’s talents qualified him for stewardship on the QE2. Ooh, the minx.
By contrast, Johnson is very positive about Horn’s expertise and taste, pointing out that “you can hear the Frankie sound in loads of records. For instance, the KLF borrowed a lot of ideas and the Pet Shop Boys have used many people we were involved with… like Trevor Horn, Andy Richards and Julian Mendelsohn.”
The second coming of ‘Relax’ prompted new bosses WEA to offer certain, but not all, Frankie members reasonable inducements to regroup to promote Bang… The Best Of Frankie Goes To Hollywood properly. Here the boys are united. Paul Rutherford refuses to entertain the idea, saying “it would make Frankie seem like The Tremeloes”. Johnson turned down a deal to lip-synch on TOTP. “It would be stupid to promote the record actively again after the court case. In fact, I tried to get the group together for an AIDS benefit 18 months ago and met with such hostility from some members that it couldn’t possibly have worked.”
Meanwhile, the lads are rarely in touch. Mark O’Toole moves between Los Angeles, Florida and Kirkby, pursuing his own career. Peter Gill has done some drum programming with Johnson in the past and is currently living in Hull. Brian Nash is living in London, working with his new group Doctor Jolly’s Salvation Circus. Nasher is adamant that “there isn’t enough money in the world to get me back into Frankie. I’ve spent five years trying to distance myself from it all. It’s funny being a pop star again but the success of ‘Relax’ just shows up the retro indie movement. Even the club scene must be into nostalgia because they were playing the mixes in the clubs for weeks before the record came out.”
One further irony: since the group have only recently gone into the red on their original deal, they will make far more money pro rata from Frankie — The Repeats. Oh yes, and Gerry Marsden will be laughing all the to the Ferry. God bless him.