Credit where credit’s due: Many thanks to Catwoman for the article scan
Title: The coming of the sex captains
Author: David Fricke
Source: Melody Maker
Publish date: December 1, 1984
THE COMING OF THE SEX CAPTAINS
New York style-watcher David Fricke has just emerged from FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD’S American blitz. Will Americans continue to love Frankie or are they laughing up their sleeves. The Maker Say Read On! Photos by Janette Beckman
FRANKIE SAY BUY ME!
THE last provocative chord of “Relax”, a fireball crescendo of bass guitar throb, brittle staccato guitar and hallelujah synthesizer, has come crashing down around the audience. Momentarily stunned, they watch Frankie Goes To Hollywood take a final bow. Then suddenly, as Frankie gallop off stage and the final embers of that chord die down, their hands shoot up in the air right behind the delirious cheers of “More!”.
A slide lights up on the backdrop curtain; it reads “Frankie Say No More.” And there isn’t. After a 50-minute dash through most of “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” with two encores, the New York debut of Frankie Goes To Hollywood - the first of three sold-out shows at the Ritz - is over.
But the marketing goes on. Downstairs in the small Ritz lobby, the exit is choked by a logjam of teens waving American green - mostly 10 and 20 dollar bills - at the tee-shirt vendors. There are three different “Frankie Say” shirts for sale at a reasonable (for rock concert souvenir wear anyway) 12 dollars apiece. Matching buttons are an extra dollar.
Business is brisk. And as the 1600-plus fans file down the stairs past the tee-shirt table, it soon verges on the hysterical, following a trend that hit an early peak at Frankie’s Philadelphia show four nights earlier. There, customers lined up 50 deep bought all three shirts and all three buttons, the kind of panic buying last seen in these parts at the Jacksons concerts.
It doesn’t end in the Ritz lobby either. At a group autograph session the next day in the giant Tower Records store in Greenwich Village, “Pleasure Dome” albums bearing prized new Frankie scrawl walk out the door practically to the exclusion of all else. All along the Frankie tour route, radio stations fall all over themselves trying to get a piece of the Frankie frenzy; in the Industry tipsheet Album Network, in the tour’s first week, 55 of the publication’s nearly 70 reporting stations listed Frankie as hot, a band to break, a record to play.
The selling of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in America, a campaign planned with Napoleonic ego and greedy vigour right down to the last minute detail, is in full swing and, in all apparent respects, paying off in spades. There is only one loose end. Just what exactly are we buying?
FRANKIE SAY LOVE ME!
“WE’RE from Liverpool - so clap!”
If Holly Johnson thinks that kind of arrogant snip is going to get him landslide applause, he’s got another think coming. He couldn’t have gotten a bigger yawn if he’d said: “We’re from Bayonne, New Jersey.”
But it is obvious that on Frankie’s first US tour - indeed first official tour anywhere proper attitude must be maintained. The Frankie that arrived in North America October 30 for this 22-show tour had already been elected God’s Gift to Pop ‘84 in Britain. They had sold over a million copies each of their only two releases and launched an improbably successful line of tee-shirts - actually the size of a small Bedouin desert tent - that would in doubt have gone platinum if the garment industry had such an award.
Yet in very practical terms, at least from an important Yankee perspective, Frankie Goes Hollywood became a phenomenon without actually doing much. They didn’t perform live. As their producer, Trevor Horn turned two good songs, basically disco-funk with an axe to grind, into ribald, cinematic magic. As their chief propagandist, Paul Morley gave them snide promotional poesy and an epic romantic profile. And would it be out of line to suggest the banning of “Relax” by BBC radio was more important, in a commercial sense, than the actual making of it?
It seems from here that merely being Frankie has made Frankie Goes To Hollywood English pop’s biggest thing since, ahem, Adam Ant. So, Frankie, as one English journalist once said to our own David Johansen - okay, what makes you so fucking great?
IT’S definitely not the dry ice. Frankie makes liberal use of it in the show. - to heighten their otherwise quite matter-of-fact entrance on stage before launching into the opening salvo “War”, to give Holly Johnson’s energetic reading “The Power Of Love” the proper epic setting. It’s also definitely not the staging, a surprising modest arrangement of briefly diverting slide shows (including a mildly X-rated series of playful porno for “Relax”), periodic flashing of the militaristic Frankie logo and bombastic taped theme music (actually “well…” and “bang...” from the LP). For a group traveling to America on the wings of extraordinary hype, Frankie zips through its paces with unexpected diffidence.
Indeed, the live Frankie show sends out confusing signals. The flimsiness of the staging doesn’t match the awesome boom of the band (supplemented on tour by Peter Oxendale who handles keyboard duties and a second guitarist backing up Brian Nash with auxiliary fretwork, fattening the Frankie fury with a little neo-metal crunch). In the lower registers, when bassist Mark O’Toole and drummer Peter Gill lock into the fearsome dub-wise passages of “Relax” and “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome”, Frankie can rattle your ribcage with extraordinary power, summoning up a groove thang that at the time - caught up in the Sensurround swirl of the live mix - seems, impossibly, the equal of the records. Tonight the incredible kick in “Krisco Kisses” - already fortified by the sassy tribal grunts led by Frankie sex captain Paul Rutherford, vigorously towelling his ass with the arrogant cheek (literally) of a Times Square stripper - is righteous enough to put a big hole in the Ritz back wall.
Yet with all that physical and emotional power at their command, why is the pacing of the show so illogical, so careless? “Relax” is played twice, once at the start of the set and in a very short, perfunctory manner like a brisk, severely edited single, and then as a more expansive funked-up second encore. Barely two songs into the show, Holly suddenly brakes for the grand ballad, “The Power Of Love”.
And after the randy opening blasts of “War” and “Relax”, the song’s epic gestures sound improbably puny, so MORdinary. In yanking the songs out of the album’s carefully considered sequence, Frankie has stripped them of their essential operatic context and dramatic momentum in “Pleasure Dome”. They become merely good, sometimes undeniably great, pop songs, but no longer the design for living ZTT propaganda would have you believe.
Which isn’t such a bad thing. Before all else, Frankie Goes To Hollywood is a pop group. And before all else, pop groups are human. This show is perversely refreshing because it reassures us how ordinary Frankie can be. Holly Johnson doesn’t always hit those high notes in “The Power Of Love”. Paul Rutherford’s exaggerated bump’n’grind is a wicked pleasure to behold, a welcome lampoon of cliched gay disco camp. But it is his only significant contribution to show, hilariously trivial compared to his much-vaunted role as Frankie’s self-appointed Minister Of Style.
It’s good to see Frankie stumble once or twice, to be underwhelmed by the staging, because it shows just how powerful they really can be when “Relax” kicks in or ‘‘Wish (The Lads Were Here)” accelerates into its exhilarating disco locomotion. All other things being equal, Frankie Goes To Hollywood are a very special pop dance band.
Unfortunately, they have sold themselves - or allowed themselves to be sold, depending on how seriously you take the puppeteering here - as immortal. Subsequently, in America they are being judged as such. The Frankie concert experience simply does not glow with the same kind of playful meticulous detail that has gone into their media presentation. It does not transfix you with the same articulate mischief and smart-alec condescension.
Holly Johnson is certainly an arresting presence on stage in his white military-style tuxedo and black gloves. But he sings everything in a declamatory bark that sounds more like a command to party than a gleeful declaration of independence. And “Two Tribes” is taken at a reckless, impossibly fast pace that cheats you of the carefully orchestrated blood rush in the multiple Trevor Horn mixes.
You have to admire Frankie for daring to tour America, even on this abbreviated scale for trying to beat its system on its own terms. Indeed, when they could have come on as a living larger-than-life jukebox with every cheap trick at their command, Frankie Goes To Hollywood cuts away most of the bull and plays it straight and hard. But while it is brave of them to come out from behind the hype to make their stand as a band, they have also set themselves up for a mighty fall. Believe me, Americans are not going to love you just because you tell them to.
“This second rate disco group is what Britain has been saying is the freshest thing to happen to the pop scene in years,” sneered the critic from the Philadelphia Inquirer in his review of the show. “This collection of smug twits that performs for less than an hour is our new set of rock stars?”
Well, yeah, maybe.
FRANKIE SAY WE’VE ONLY JUST BEGUN
“I HAVE little doubt that America will be as beguiled by us as Britain has been,” declared Holly Johnson to the Philadelphia Inquirer in an interview shortly before that critic bared his fangs. He has good reason to be confident. The numbers certainly bear him out. An Island Records spokesperson in New York claims advance orders for “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” totalled an extraordinary 400,000 copies, just a mere hundred thousand shy of gold certification. Island sales reps, she adds, were worried that even if they were able to fill those initial orders, re-orders on the album would come so quick that pressing plants would not be able to keep up with demand.
Their worst fears may be confirmed. In November 24 issue of the American record industry bible Billboard, the Frankie album debuted at number 57 on the LP chart, a strong showing for a debut album. (The new Culture Club LP, alas, debuted on the chart at 30, but Frankie had Big Country’s “Steeltown” beat by almost 40 places.) US concert promoters who have a piece of the Frankie action on this tour have discovered that, in some cities, they could have sold out their shows three and four times over. And it is worth noting that the same American concert booking agency that handles Frankie’s affairs here - and enjoying every minute and dollar of it - is taking a beating with their Culture Club tour of less-than-sold-out hockey arenas. What young America takes with one hand they nevertheless give with the other.
But this Frankie tour is only a stepping stone. One source close to the cash registers admits quite openly that this series of high-profile shows in low-key venues – mostly large dance clubs and colleges - is designed to generate so much hype and exposure that Frankie can return to these shores in February or March for a major tour of, gulp, large arenas. ZTT and the band consider this venture to be an investment in a rosy American future. The consensus in US industry trade, publications is that it’s not Frankie Goes To Hollywood, it’s Frankie Goes To The Bank.
What about the media relations on this tour? Quite frankly, there really haven’t been any. The group did no significant national music press interviews. Instead, they pumped ticket sales (in those rare cities where the shows did not sell out within days of going on sale) with phone interviews with local dailies and stroked their egos with fashion photo layouts for high-priced spreads like Esquire and Vanity Fare.
It was an astute move. Because of the monthly frequency of most music publications in this country and their lengthy production and distribution schedules, any Frankie interviews done now would not appear in print until well into ‘85. Frankie’s promotional effectiveness is based on the instant Zap, catching you unawares, shocking you just when you’ve seen it all. What little media exposure Frankie needed to prime the dollars pump had to be immediate.
The result so far has been immediate. The Jacksons tour slogs along, raking in millions but getting only occasional headlines back near the obituaries. As a concert act, Boy George is an astonishing stiff, the result of a sub-standard new album and over-familiarity. The current American Prince tour is breaking ticket sales records with casual regularity, but his sudden overwhelming popularity is actually the result of a slow patient penetration of the white rock market over nearly four years. Frankie? In less than a month, they have a top-selling album and a concert ticket you can’t beg, borrow or steal.
But will it last? Central to Frankie’s scheme - indeed it seems central to a great deal of British pop exported to this country - is the premise that pop music is a survival mechanism, a lever with which to move the world or at least the bastard part of it that weighs you down. Of course, the Frankie idea of dressing up and revelling in your sexual fantasies is a rather creative way to beat an oppressive system responsible for so much unemployment and personal misery. Yet Britain believes and I say hurray to any pop unit that can cause so much glorious stir.
In America, though, pop music stopped being a weapon for revolution as soon as Madison Avenue figured out how to package Woodstock as a leisure activity. Stateside, Frankie is just another novel New Wave act, an eccentric English pop group with an engaging, sometimes titillating twist. What’s more, the backlash is already in motion. “Who Gives A Fuck What Frankie Says” shirts are appearing in New York with surprising frequency. “That’s okay,” Holly insisted in that interview. “We are here to stir things up. Even people that hate us have to admit that we’ve already succeeded in doing that. Love Frankie or hate it - that’s just what we want, a strong reaction.”
For the time being, anyway, what Frankie wants Frankie has.