Title: This month in 1983… Frankie say relax!
Author: Fred Dellar
Publish date: October 2005
HAILED AS Liverpool’s nastiest new property, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were hell-bent for leather bondage gear. They travelled in the company of The Leatherpets, a couple of kinky females who were always around whenever the band needed to be whipped into shape — literally. On October 24, 1983 they released their shuddering first single, the brilliantly filthy piece of hi-energy S&M, Relax. And nobody noticed.
The first headline of sorts had appeared a few months earlier when NME emblazoned a feature Hollywood Comes To Liverpool and interviewed Frankie frontmen Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford in the British Museum. Sounds was less impressed; after a gig at Camden Palace, it renamed them Bert Goes To Clacton.
A three-piece line-up — Holly plus Mark O’Toole (bass) and Peter Gill (drums) — had already recorded Relax, a song that began life as a lewd rhyme thought up by Holly, at a studio in Clapham. A seedy promo film was made at the Hope And Anchor. ZTT, a new label, signed Frankie after hearing them perform Relax on a Kid Jensen show. Trevor Horn, once of Buggles but now a superstar producer, headed the company along with his wife, Jill Sinclair, and ex-NME journalist Paul Morley. “Hearing Relax on Jensen, I realised how fantastic the song was and I couldn’t believe that Jensen didn’t know what the song was all about,” says Horn, referring to the song’s lyric “when you wanna come”.
Horn was curious to know how Relax would sound if a professional band recorded it. He wheeled in Ian Dury’s Blockheads, whose version was scrapped — though Horn later used Norman Watt-Roy’s bass part. But nothing seemed to work.
In his autobiography, Johnson recalls the night Horn emerged with a new, machine-like electronic version of tile backing track. “Very stoned, I was very excited by the new groove that Relax had and finally I sang my heart out — at four in the morning.” A mix by Julian Mendelsohn completed the task and the single was duly released, replete in a vulgar sleeve copped from an illustration by artist Yvonne Gilbert in top shelf mag Men Only. The critics hated it.
“Basically a chant over the very latest rhythm of the very latest kitchen sinks,” began NME’s Charles Shaar Murray. “It’s the subject of an ad campaign that suggests one requires 19 inches in order to comprehend the music fully. Having been issued with seven, I eventually made do with about three.”
On November 12, the single reached Number 77. Despite Bernard Rose’s new orgiastic video and Frankie’s provocative press profile, it didn’t reach the Top 50 until December. The band was booked for Top Of The Pops; Holly wasn’t thrilled, fearing someone might recognise him and stop his dole money. ZTT put the band on £40 a week.
“The morning after Top Of The Pops, we sold 54,000 records and a week later we were banned,” said Horn. “I was surprised that it wasn’t banned the first minute they heard it.”
The BBC blacklisted Relax on January 10, 1984, after Radio 1 DJ Mike Read declared it “disgusting” live on air. But ban or no ban, Relax always had the potential to be a hit. It stayed at the top of the charts for five weeks, eventually selling over a million copies.
Meanwhile, Morley manipulated the media. Early ads declared the song would “Make Wham! seem like Pinky And Perky and Big Country seem like a back garden in St Helens”, and soon he hit on the idea of baggy white T-shirts bearing the words “Frankie Says… Relax”. Not that Holly was impressed by Morley: “Some people are arseholes and he was the biggest I ever met,” he said later. Which never appeared on a shirt.