Title: The year of the scally wags
Author: Paul Du Noyer
Publish date: 22/29 December 1984
The year of the scally wags
Paul Du Noyer goes to Atlanta as the Frankie pleasure dome engulfs the American nation. While Holly Johnson pretends he’s Greta Garbo, Paul Rutherford explains the pride, passion and pain of their 1984 success story. Photo: A.J.Barratt (above) and Joe Stevens (right).
“YOU CAN hang this on your knob, sir,” the hotel porter said to me.
“Yes sir, you can.” He produced a short length of cardboard with the word ‘Privacy’ on it. “Place it outside the door, like this, and your room will not be disturbed in the morning. Y’all have a good day, now, and hope y’enjoy Atlanta Georgia.”
Ah! I see… I slipped him his dollar tip and shut the door with some relief. After all, the Frankies only got here an hour ago — and surely even they need more than 60 minutes to corrupt the morals of an entire city.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA, finds these Frankies two weeks deep inside their premier tour of North America — their first tour anywhere, come to that.
Sell-out shows, sporadic fan hysteria, massive media interest, satisfactory record sales: these are the payoffs to a cunningly contrived invasion plan. Videoage America seems like a changed place, where the music market has grown almost as fickle and fad-happy as Britain’s. They’ve embraced the Frankie scam, all this painstaking pleasure-giving, like willing conspirators.
In the concert-hall lobbies, kids queue with the Yankee dollar to put on those T-shirts. Tomorrow they’ll walk through the shopping malls, their adolescent chests chanting RELAX and WAR and, most bizarrely, ARM THE UNEMPLOYED and it’s all great fun and no one’s any more sure what Frankie really says or means than we were back in Britain, and here they care even less. And three days after tomorrow, well, there’ll be Van Halen in town, or someone, with a new T-shirt to sell.
Word is that FGTH’s label, ZTT, were reluctant to see their little boys leave home and go on the road, fearing they couldn’t cut it. A million cynics would see their point. As it turns out, though, the band has acquitted itself very well.
Pegged from the start as figments of Trevor Horn’s imagination, a silk purse fashioned from a scouse sow’s ear and hyped to the heavens — a process that reached its vinyl apotheosis in the flawed yet magnificent conceit of ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’ — the musicians of Frankie Goes To Hollywood treat this tour as a declaration of independence. Look at us, say Frankie, we really exist.
They really do. I watched them play New York and saw their status change, over the course of a short-ish set, from objects of curiosity to objects of desire, and admiration, and a little bit of respect even: the usual stuff accorded a genuine live act who put on a superior live show.
Holly Johnson’s vocal chords were an early casualty of the rigours of nightly performance (compounded by all the offstage mouth-work required by the Frankie machine promo-blitz). But the boy’s carefully nurtured charisma count covered for the high notes he had to hold back on. His sideman Paul Rutherford bossed the visual department with a dashing display of dance dynamics. (As well as backup vocals and, quite literally, a little bare-faced cheek.)
In the group’s engine room were guitarist Brian ‘Nasher’ Nash, bassist Mark O’Toole and drummer Peter ‘Ped’ Gill: they’ve always made a fairly efficient musical unit, evident from the group’s earliest Liverpool outings, but recent months of rehearsal have honed their attack to an impact of surprising power.
For the live shows these five are backed and beefed up by another guitarist, Mark’s brother Ged O’Toole (once a member of the band’s original line-up); and there’s keyboard player Peter Oxendale. All together, they manage a decent approximation of the records — the most ambitious and renowned sounds of this year — but the chief achievement is their successful translation of those epic melodramas into a viable live feel: still grand, yet more human.
As Trevor Horn told Newsweek: “All of this equipment means you can basically do anything with sound and you don’t even need musicians. But without musicians, you’d lose the performance, you’d lose the feeling. You’d lose the only thing that has any magic to it”
HOLLY GOT to meet Andy Warhol in New York: this seems to please him greatly.
And a few weeks previously, Frankie finally got to Hollywood. They filmed a performance of ‘Relax’ for a brief scene in Brian De Palma’s new movie Body Double. Again, it’s Holly who’s most enchanted by dreams of the silver screen. But Paul Rutherford found the experience “dead boring. Like making a video where the biggest star is the other side of the camera”.
Not that he’s complaining. Rutherford, who’s perhaps the most approachable Frankie and the most willing to perform the PR chore of spokesman, regards the whole circus with easy-going detachment.
“I just like getting to see the world, I suppose. Sound like a beauty queen, don’t I? I wanna travel and meet people!”
Gill, O’Toole and Nasher collectively called “The Lads”, which just about says it, really — have had a ball. Down-to-earth sorts of the scallywag persuasion, they’ve each got sensible trades behind them; two of them worked for Liverpool Corporation, where their boss Derek Hatton arranged a year off, so they could see how this pop star bit worked out.
Unaccustomed as they are to full-scale tours of the North American continent, The Lads reach Atlanta ravaged by fatigue, propped up with emergency injections of vitamins. I keep being told that nightlife on the road is sincerely wild when the Frankies hit go-mode, but for the moment all I see are bleary-eyed zombies who shuffle through airports and hotel lobbies.
“How yer feelin’, Ped?” somebody will say. “Uhhh, fuckkked,” he’ll reply, and shuffle away.
After good gigs, it’s a different matter: when the backdoor fans are battering at transit van windows and the adrenalin won’t stop racing. At these times The Lads look as wired as you’d expect of any three scals, plucked from nowhere and set to bask in a sudden mad access of sex, cash and attention.
How yer feelin’, Mark? I ask, after the bassman’s left a stage that got swamped by a hundred Frankie-daft fans, through a frantically ragged replay of ‘Relax’.
“Fuckin’ smaaart,” he declares. “What, girls grabbin’ yer nuts an’ everything? Fuckin’ grate!”
Randy scouse git.
HOLLY JOHNSON, I’m sad to say, is not talking to the NME these days.
I’m in the hotel bar, having this pleasant interview with Paul Rutherford, when the lead singer glides into the room and sits at our table. (Holly, I noted, doesn’t exactly enter rooms any more, he just sort of materialises in them: always spectacular, dark glasses and huge coat draped over his shoulders, very star-like. By his side, his ever-present friend, German chap name of Wolfgang.) I smile and say, Would you like to join in, Holly?
Holly, however, appears to be playing Greta Garbo for the day.
Who’s it for?” he asks, which puzzles me, since I know he knows damn well who it’s for.
The NME, I reply, all the same.
“Oh no,” he murmurs, grandly. “I don’t talk to the NME.”
And with that, he sweeps out again. Followed by Wolfgang.
It had been a brief and elegant performance. Initially, I guessed it was a case of Holly rehearsing a routine he feels will be expected of him if he ever becomes a Major International Star. But Paul Rutherford leans over and tells me that Holly has never forgiven NME for what he believed were snidey anti-homosexual comments in the Frankie cover story we ran in 1983 the very feature, ironically, which gave the group its first major publicity.
Gavin Martin, then, was the writer who’d queered my pitch, so to speak. Personally, I never saw anything genuinely offensive in Gavin’s article. In any event, the views of another writer are no responsibility of mine — I might as well slag Frankie because I didn’t like a U2 record, since they both work for Island Records.
Paul Rutherford takes a more relaxed attitude: “The article was a bit unnecessary,” he shrugs some of the things he said. But then, I’m not proud enough that I have to bear grudges.”
Later, Holly will confide in Joe Stevens (who’s both NME lensman and official Frankie tour photographer) that he’s also sore about a recent NME piece which showed contrasting pictures of him in his old Big In Japan days and as he is now, under the headline “Frankie: From Wallyhood To Hollywood”.
The headline was one of mine, I’ll own up. But if he really is to become the Major International Star of his dreams, then he’ll find far worse things than dumb puns to contend with along the way, I’m sure.
THEY’RE A long way from home. Paul Rutherford sips at a drink, draws on a cig, and thinks of Liverpool.
“It made us as strong as we are. It took these five scallies to do it, to stand up and not be pretentious about it, to just do it And to laugh at it, and laugh at ourselves.
“Everyone mentions The Beatles to us, especially in America. But we don’t bear much relation at all, or to most bands from Liverpool. We’ve got nothing in common with Echo And The Bunnymen when we’re onstage, or on record. In the dressing room later, that’s where the similarities might start. We all hung round on the same scene.
“Where you’re from does make you what you are, but do you owe it to that place? It’s like this whole thing of turning your back on it: Oh, you’ve moved to London now. I dunno, they lay on this really weird guilt trip. I personally had a really hard time there. I used to get kicked in the face at least twice a night for being a puff and dressing weird, being a punk or whatever. I had a horrible time at school. I don’t particularly have fond memories of the place, although it’s great when I go back now. I always had a better time when I got out.”
He talked with relish about the home town shows they’d planned for their return from the US, and expressed brazen confidence about the UK tour set up for the New Year.
“It’s gonna be dead cushy for us, after the hit records. And I think the kids are really behind us, dead into us.” (Funnily enough, I got back to England to find the album being out sold by an Ultravox compilation. But we shall see.)
“At the moment we’re talking about a second album, but I think a holiday is top of the list for the band. The record company’s not interested in that, but we definitely need a break. It’s been a year of hard slog, being jetted round here there and everywhere.
“I mean, that sounds dead glamorous, and it is, but it’s also very tiring, very taxing. It freaks your head. A rockstar’s dilemma! Ha!”
This place they call the top. It’s tough, then?
“It sounds really cheesey to say all that, I know, but it can get really naff. It’s really boring sometimes: Oh, do I really have to get out of bed? For a while we just wanted to lock our doors. In fact, I did for a while — but I couldn’t bear the bangin’, so I got up and answered it…”
How does America see you? What’s the media attention been like?
“A lot of them have their minds made up, and they make it as difficult as possible for you to explain yourself — though you shouldn’t have to justify why you do anything. I think cos of the reputation we had in England, they want to talk about all the crap — Boy George, the bitchiness, all the superficial things, the gay bit, all the crappy bits that don’t play that big a part in our music.”
Perhaps after you’ve toured here, and around Britain, you’ll start getting yourselves judged as a band, instead of always being discussed as a ‘phenomenon’ or something.
“Yeah, that’s been the hard thing. I think everyone in England, like our record label, has been treating us as a phenomenon. They got shit scared (ZTT) cos they thought, We’ve got this band, can they do it? What’s happening? Everything’s blown up, and we mustn’t lose it.
“A hell of a lot of pressure was put on us to deliver. And I think they were a bit freaked, cos our attitude was, like, so easy. They were scared to send us out on tour, a bit timid about it. They never wanted us to play England. But because the gigs are going so well here, they’re now sending us telexes saying they’d really like us to tour. Loads of swallowing of pride is going down over that side!”
And a smile of feline satisfaction curls upward, meeting either end of his moustache. Yet, phenomenal as the Frankies have been this year, they’re occasionally eclipsed by the people around them, who’ve received almost as much coverage as the band itself. Is that an irritation?
“We walked into it with our eyes open. We knew we were gonna take this flak, it’s just that when the hundredth person in one day asks you about it, you kinda react quite strongly. As I say, so many people try to convince you that we start thinking, well maybe we can’t do it, and maybe it is this and that, and it really puts this weird doubt in your head.
“And I think that’s why gigging is really healthy for us, y’know, because we’ve actually stood up and done it ourselves, and we’ve won people over. Daddy Trevor came to see us in Philadelphia and he really enjoyed the show…”
Would you ever have made it without Trevor Horn?
“Now, that’s a really difficult question. I’d like to say, Yeah, but that would be presumptuous. We kind of had made a reputation for ourselves before we even signed, we got our first NME piece (26/2/83) before we ever got near a record label. I don’t think we’d have become, like, megabig, kinda thing. Maybe we’d still be in a rehearsal studio in Liverpool, still trying to get it together, gradually getting more hysterical!”
“Oh God… he almost changed the face of music journalism. So he’s got respect, and people know he’s eloquent, so they give him a lot more credit than they would give us. He plays a really important part, but every member of the team knows their job. It should never become a battle of egos, thinking I’m any better than the band.
“It’s obviously a very good working team that we’ve got: Trevor, Paul, the band, the people at ZTT, at Island, the people on tour with us, the lighting guy, the sound guy. It’s a team and we’re not in the game to score points off each other. Who needs that? We give Paul his due.
“I once read something that was so stupid: it basically said that he got the band’s image together. No one buys my trousers for me, y’know? No one buys any of our clothes for us. If anything, ZTT just marketed this crazy little entity. That was his role in it, he wanted to market something that didn’t seem marketable. He wanted to make it acceptable to have Frankie Goes To Hollywood on primetime TV, ‘cos he thought it would be a real feat. Which I suppose it is.”
Didn’t you ever worry that Morley seemed to be speaking on the band’s behalf, making statements you wouldn’t necessarily make yourselves?
“Yeah, but we’ve told him that, and argued with him. I think in any healthy relationship you face all that. It’s like, I don’t hate Spandau,” (a reference to one ZTT ad which slighted Kemp and co, prompting an erroneous press story about a showdown between the two groups at a Thompson Twins party). “I took flak for it, but I don’t hate them, they’re dead nice lads. Sometimes that was a real pain in the arse. Again, that was just very clever marketing as far as Paul was concerned. It was dead hard. And we were hard. We weren’t as soft as anybody else.
“But Paul isn’t the strongest of people. As a journalist he’s ultra-strong, really very brilliant. But he walks away from things when he’s not getting his own way. I think he’d have shit his pants if Spandau had attacked him at that party. He’s a good journalist but he doesn’t know everything in the world, and that’s something he has to learn. We all have to learn, we’re all still basically kids. We’ve got a hell of a lot to learn.”
For a time, you were never just Frankie Goes To Hollywood. You were always, the controversial Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Did you enjoy it?
“Yiisss! Loved it! Well, kind of. None of us felt controversial. It was just us being ourselves. We never thought, let’s shock everybody, let’s freak everybody out. It was just, let’s do it, be ourselves. And it was just us being as honest as possible, the whole way we presented it.
“There’s this thing, isn’t there, that an artist has to have this mystique and weird pretentiousness about them. And they don’t. Most people in bands are quite thick, all they wanna do is play music. But they mask I twith, I like this painter and that painter. It’s bullcrap. Just do it.
“And when you’re honest it appeals to people far more. I think that’s why Frankie are as successful as they are. The kids love that I remember some Frankie fans saying to us, We really like you because you’re like us, you swear and you do this and do that; which is the truth.
“It’s like, kids are really sophisticated now. They don’t need to be sheltered. Little girls wanna be fucked, teenagers, little boys, they wanna fuck. They do!”
If, as you say, you were only being honest, did the massive reaction take you by surprise?
“I wouldn’t say a surprise — it came as a shock! It was a jolt for everybody. I don’t think any of us has realised how successful we’ve been, because it’s happened to us so fast. No one’s had a chance to sit back and think about it.”
Given the fuss, all the moral outrage, did you ever think you’d stepped over some line, gone too far? It’s being said you’re a tamer group now than you used to be.
“No. I don’t think we’ve censored ourselves at all. In fact, I see it as being stronger in other ways. People say, Oh, your image has really calmed down and yers don’t wear leather now. Well, leather never ever freaked me out.
“I don’t think we’re any less hard or honest than we were. Okay, so we don’t have transvestites and girls jumping round the stage, but it’s still erotic what we do. I think we’re still the only band to do it like that. You’ve seen us, you know what it’s like. There’s still something a bit shaky about it, something a bit strange, and still something a bit crude about it. It’s just that we have cotton on now instead — I’m sure someone’s kinky for cotton.”
More than Paul Rutherford shaking his bum about, I think what shook me most about the Frankie’s stage show was the opening, when the back projections show images of America, Russia, the bomb, and shots of napalmed Vietnamese children. After the happy-happy rock’n’roll build-up to the show, it puts the most eery and chilling edge on the set to follow, illustrating the themes of ‘War’ and ‘Two Tribes’. But those children belong so much to the real world, it disturbed me that their suffering might be used to give mere dramatic effect to what is, after all, just a pop concert. How deep does Frankie’s concern really run? These aren’t things to be played with.
“Sure. Well, I’m the big mouth about that, the one who’ll talk about it. But the band are definitely anti-war. We wouldn’t have all that if we weren’t.
“We use it because it’s very graphic, and hard, and very direct. But we are definitely leftists. That’s socially inbred by being from Liverpool. You just don’t dream of voting any other way. I mean, you don’t even question Labour’s values. You just put the cross on the paper.”
THE DAY’S labours done. I returned upstairs to my hotel room. The business with Holly had left me somewhat troubled, so I sought that comfort of lonesome travellers the world over, namely the bedside Gideon Bible.
I opened a page at random, in the time-honoured fashion. If nothing else, I reasoned, it might give me a jokey intro to begin this article with. But what I got, and I swear it, was a passage from the Book of Samuel, something about Saul and his servant going into town. They went, said the Good Book, “to seek the asses”.
Damn, I thought, no use. Nobody would believe that least of all in a Frankie feature.
I closed my Bible with a sigh, hung the ‘Privacy’ sign on my knob and had an early night.