Title: The Frankie Goes To Hollywood story
Author: Chris Heath
Source: The Smash Hits yearbook 1986
THE FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD STORY
WORDS: CHRIS HEATH
“They kind of said,” recalls Holly Johnson, laughing about his teachers at schooL, “he’s either a genius or a fool.”
Holly’s parents — a cab-driver father and nurse mother — just thought young William (as he was christened) was a bit odd. Especially when, after his thirteenth birthday, he dyed his hair bright red like his hero David Bowie. From then on he just got weirder and weirder — next came his Judy Garland period.
“That was fab,” he remembers. “A great big D.A. (hair do) with a huge peak. I used to wear ‘40s jackets with big shoulders and walk round singing ‘rock-a-bye your baby with a Dixie melody.’”
After that he sported a blond skinhead cut (“with me social security number written on the back of me head”), a mini-mohican (“just a square of blond hair and a beard”) and even, for a while, had his hair painted green and red. “You used to get people writing to the Liverpool Echo,” he laughs, “saying ‘who’s this Martian walking round town?’. I used to get battered.”
Most of his friends at the time were also pretty strange — amongst them Pete Burns, Paul Rutherford and Jayne Casey (of Pink Industry). It was on the dancefloor at one of the gay bars he used to frequent with Jayne that he got his nickname. Holly, while dancing to the opening lines of Lou Reed s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’:
“Holly came from Miami FLA
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she…”
Holly really set his mind on a career in music when he joined Big In Japan as bass player, though before that he’s reputed to have supported local bands on his own, playing David Bowie’s doomy “My Death” on acoustic guitar, Big In Japan, who included Jayne Casey and Budgie (now in Siouxsie and the Banshees), quickly became the trendiest group in Liverpool by being very daft on stage and singing songs about committing suicide, Meanwhile Paul, by now a student at St Helens College Of Art, was dressing in bondage trousers, making clothes for friends (including a dress for Holly) and singing in a punk band, The Spitfire Boys. Both bands eventually split up.
Fed up with Liverpool, Paul bunked off to America to live with his sister while Holly got depressed, flitting from one never-completed or failed project to another. He launched into a dismal solo career, releasing two singles, “Yankee Rose” and “Hobo Joe”, on a local record label. Even an appearance, singing “Yankee Rose” astride a rocking horse on a Granada children’s TV programme didn’t help — no-one bought it anyway. By 1980 he tried again with Hollycaust, featuring drummer Phil Hurst and Ambrose Reynolds (from Pete Burns’ band of the time, Nightmares In Wax) but that project also failed to get off the ground.
By now he was pretty fed-up but still he persevered. Another few months working on songs with Ambrose and Steve Lovell also came to nothing musically, though Ambrose, spotting a headline in a US movie magazine about Frank Sinatra’s move from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, at least found Holly a name: “Frankie Goes To Hollywood.” All he needed now was a band.
One day Pedro Gill, Mark O’Toole and his brother Ged wandered into the Virgin Records shop — Mark was trying to “cop off with this girl in this clothes shop round the corner”. Inside, a mutual friend introduced them to Holly who was in there buying records. He decided that their youthful enthusiasm was just what he needed. Not long after. Frankie Goes To Hollywood were rehearsing, Ped on drums, Mark on bass and Ged on guitar. Once Ped himself had been a guitarist, modelling himself on the likes of rock stars like Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Pete Townshend (The Who) and Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath). Trouble was, he wasn’t very good — “I could work one hand but not the other” — so it was probably a blessing when his generous parents gave him a drum kit for his sixteenth birthday. Quickly getting the hang of it, he played by night in “terrible” bands like Dancing Girls and Sons Of Egypt, while by day holding down a job as a wood machinist until he was made redundant. Mark also had a job — as an apprentice joiner with the Liverpool Corporation.
By spring 1982 Frankie Goes To Hollywood were ready for their first booking, supporting Hambi And The Dance (featuring Paul Rutherford on backing vocals) in a town centre pub. Holly bounded on stage in a turquoise and yellow baseball jacket alongside The Lizard Woman, a backing singer clothed in a large nappy, and led the band through the three songs they’d written: “Love’s Got A Gun” (later known as “Wish The Lads Were Here”), “Relax” and “Two Tribes”. Two years later two of those songs were to be the fifth and tenth best-selling singles of all time in Britain; that night the only person they really impressed was Paul Rutherford, who leapt onto the stage to join in near the end. Afterwards he was asked to join the band permanently.
By their next performance Frankie were getting a little wild, to say the least. Last on the bill at the Liverpool open air festival Larks In The Park, they tied their new backing singers, the Leatherpets, to posts and once Paul and Holly (a hole cut out of the bottom of his jeans) had whipped each other, they whipped the girls. Very dodgy. It was behaviour like that which soon got their name around, though record companies were reluctant to commit themselves. Arista Records gave them £1,500 to record demos of “Relax” and “Two Tribes” but sent them away when they heard the results, convinced that this sort of thing would never catch on.
In December 1982, fed up with the band’s lack of progress, Ged O’Toole left the band to get a proper job and get married. His replacement was Ped’s old friend Brian ‘Nasher’ Nash, who was also Mark and Ged’s cousin. That winter things started moving. Though still not the world’s most popular band one review of the time said “their dishwater disco rock deserves to be cremated without a wreath” — they got to play “Relax” live on The Tube (if only because Dead Or Alive, who The Tube would have preferred, weren’t available). Soon afterwards they were summoned to meet very famous producer Trevor Horn. He was setting up a new record company to be called Zang Tuum Tumb (or ZTT for short) using his technical skills, his wife Jill Sinclair’s business ability and ex-journalist Paul Morley’s gift for publicity. Frankie, he had decided, were to be his first signing.
The money offered to the band was pathetic (£250 record advance, £5,000 for their publishing rights) but ZTT did invest around £100,000 in recording and videoing just one song, “Relax”. Afterwards there were, however, many accusations that the five Frankies didn’t actually play on the record at all. The truth? To start with Trevor Horn was unimpressed by the lads playing abilities and threw them out of the studio, replacing them with The Blockheads (some session musicians who used to back Ian Dury). But their version of the song was too tame, so back came Frankie. They worked on the energetic final version until Horn, having recorded what he could, threw them back out again, but only after programming their instruments into a Fairlight computer. He then finished the song off with some friends (most of them in the Art Of Noise). A lot of trouble, but it was worth it.
On Oct 31 1983, “Relax” appeared in its slightly naughty sleeve and magazines were full of adverts hinting at the song’s sexual meaning and boasting things like “Frankie: making Wham! seem like Pinky! and Perky!”. Nevertheless “Relax” took ages to catch on —finally entering the chart (at No. 35) on Jan 3. The next Tuesday it shot to Number 6 — already looking a likely contender for next week’s Number 1. The following morning DJ Mike Read made sure of its success. Noticing the “naughty” lyrics on the sleeve, he took the record off halfway through and, snapping it in half, declared it “obscene”. ZTT milked the subsequent total BBC ban (it had already been played over 70 times) for all it was worth while Frankie innocently pretended that they didn’t understand what all the fuss was about anyway.
“When it first came out we used to pretend it was about motivation,” Mark admitted long after, “and it was about shagging.”
After “Relax,” everyone supposed the follow-up would be an anti-climax. They were wrong, “Relax” was about sex — “Two Tribes” was about war. The song, of course, had been written long before (Holly apparently getting the line “we are living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods” from a ‘40s movie) but it was endlessly remodelled by Trevor Horn into different mixes (“Annihilation”, “Surrender”, “Carnage” and “Hibuska”) featuring the imitated voice of Ronald Reagan and nuclear attack warnings. On June 4 it entered the charts at Number 1 where it stayed for nine weeks, for some of the time also joined by “Relax” back up at number 2.
At the same time Paul Morley hit on the idea of ripping off trendy designer Katherine Hamnett’s oversize message t-shirts (like CHOOSE LIFE), First RELAX DON’T DO IT then WAR (HIDE YOURSELF), ARM THE UNEMPLOYED and BOMB IS A FOUR LETTER WORD t-shirts became the summer’s fashion craze. Around 250,000 authorised versions (which the band get money for) were sold and around half a million unofficial ones.
It was obvious now that Frankie were here to stay and they found that suddenly everyone wanted to know them. Nasher, at least, was a bit surprised. “It’s hard to cope with people screaming at you especially when I think that only two years ago I was working and no-one was screaming at me but my boss.”
In the public eye the band were split into two groups — Holly and Paul, the gay pair, and the other three, the ‘lads’. In reality, says Holly, “that’s a load of rubbish”, though he’s also been quoted as saying of the others “they don’t like some of the things I like, and that gets on my tits. I don’t like some of the things they like, which probably gets on their tits.” Holly and Paul are both also very wary of being stereotyped as being gay. “I still fancy some girls. Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean that you stop finding women attractive,” comments Paul. “I’ve always had plenty of girlfriends. One of them bought me my tattoo (an ace card on his left bicep) for my twenty-first birthday when I was nineteen. The idea was that an extra card would be added each year until they totalled 21, but it never happened because I haven’t seen her since!”
Still, while Holly and Paul bought themselves a flat each, the lads all got a flat together in Maida Vale, London where, by all account, they live in a frightful mess, getting up late, being rude to each other and “getting bladdered” a lot.
Not that you couldn’t tell them apart. Mark (much to the other two’s displeasure) seems to get the most attention from girls, is a model car enthusiast, despises Cyndi Lauper and is, according to Nasher, “vain” and “lazy” and “a totally unreliable bastard.” Nasher has a girlfriend, Claire Bryce, a nurse from Liverpool (who he got engaged to early in 1985), has bought a retirement home on his earnings, used to gas fish with bunsen burners at school, has a cat called Clancy and despises Sade. Ped used to pinch the teacher’s cane, wanted to be a bike rider in his teens till he cycled into a car and scarred his lip when turning to watch a girl and is “really bad when he gets up in the morning.”
At the end of 1984 the long-awaited “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” LP finally arrived. It had advance orders in Britain of over £1 million (a record) but, after mixed reviews, sold slowly. Lots of people slagged it off for the over-the-top packaging, the fact that some of the songs went on a bit and because of the ridiculously expensive and pretentious merchandise like the £8.99 Jean Genet (a famous French gay writer/criminal) boxer shorts. Even Mike Read, who suddenly couldn’t stop saying how much he always liked them, and who did a TV advert for them, couldn’t help.
Nevertheless the third single, “The Power Of Love” (this time it was love and religion not sex or war), made number one, equalling Gerry and the Pacemakers record of getting their first three releases to number one. But it only stayed there a week even though Holly reckoned it was “the best song I’ve ever written”. Now that the hype and promotion wasn’t working quite so well the Frankies started muttering that they were a bit fed up with it.
“It has worked to our advantage,” admitted Nasher, “but we don’t want Frankie to go hand in hand with controversy because it’s a bit like a gimmick. People get bored with gimmicks. Skateboards didn’t last long, did they?”
More than anything else they really got narked when people suggested they were nothing more than ZTT’s puppets.
“To people in the street,” pointed out Holly, “the five of our faces are Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It’s only a certain elite that thinks otherwise. No-one’s going to shout “Frankie” at Paul Morley or Trevor Horn in the street. It has got our faces stamped on it and they can’t take that away from us.”
To prove the point they played their first concerts in Liverpool before last Christmas, then left to tour America (rejoined on stage by Ged). “I’ve always known we can knock spots off anyone else,” boasted Paul beforehand. “There’s no-one as exciting as us. The shows will prove that. When Frankie play I don’t want anyone to go to the toilet. At all!”
And they didn’t. Meanwhile Frankie enhanced their reputation as a bit rowdy and drunken by their performance at the BPI Awards ceremony (they won “Best New Act” and “Best Single — ‘Relax’”) — Holly particularly causing a bit of a stir by announcing Prince (who’d specially asked for Holly) with the words: “I’ve never met this person but I’ve had sex on the phone with him!”
“I don’t think he was very amused,” admitted a rather sheepish Holly the week after. More and more they began to wear expensive clothes, be photographed with other pop stars — like drinking partners Duran Duran and George Michael (who joined them on stage in London) and behave like proper decadent pop stars. Meanwhile, against their wishes, a fourth single was taken off the LP. Optimistically posters around Britain’s major cities announced “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” as their fourth number one single. But it wasn’t to be — it peaked at number two. Dismissing accusations of being down the dumper (a number two single isn’t that bad) they left Britain (presumably for tax reasons) to tour America and then record a second LP, provisionally titled “Warriors Of The Wasteland”. Which will probably be another huge success. Though, if Nasher’s to be believed, they don’t care that much:
“It’s a complete joke. It’s a complete joke that people can have so much success and so much money out of just entertaining people,” he says. “But if it all ends tomorrow we’ve had a good ride, we’ve seen what it’s like.”