Title: How Frankie built their pleasure dome
Source: The Sunday Times
Publish date: 4 November 1984
How Frankie built their pleasure dome
Jon Savage on pop’s biggest construction job
THE RELEASE of the first album from Frankie Goes to Hollywood last week sees the culmination of a process which has created this year’s biggest pop industry sensation.
Whether or not the advance orders of well over a million copies represent the biggest in pop history, as is being claimed, there’s no doubt that Frankie are currently riding a tide of success extraordinary even by pop’s jaded standards. Despite strong competition from heavyweights such as Wham!, Duran Duran and Culture Club, “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” is bound to be the record stuffed into most stockings this Christmas.
The group’s first two records, “Relax”, released in October 1983, but only reaching number one in February this year after an injection of marketing and “Two Tribes”, which held the number one spot through June and July (for several weeks paired with “Relax” back again at No 2) are among the ten best-selling singles of all time, with sales of 1.7 and l.4m respectively, while T-shirts bearing their “copyrighted” slogans - bons mots such as “Frankie Say Arm The Unemployed” - sold in their hundreds of thousands, becoming this summer’s most visible fashion item.
But, just as important, Frankie became a media sensation as pop’s new Bad Boys, with banned records, banned videos and the usual crop of sensational quotes, moral hysteria and bad behaviour attendant upon such a role.
Yet despite their lingering news value as “shockers”, what Frankie are really about - as the music on “Pleasure Dome” and its instant hyperbolic success attests - is not controversy, but success itself and their celebration of it.
“Welcome to the Pleasure Dome” consequently sounds like the soundtrack to Frankie’s own myth. The most important figure here is the producer Trevor Horn whose past credits include Yes, ABC and Malcolm Maclaren’s “Duck Rock” album with its successful “Buffalo Girls” single. His talent as a producer is to take the standard percussive bass of modern pop music, beef it up, and then, by adding layer upon layer - of synthesiser, guitars, voices and sound effects - to create a depth of sound reminiscent of Phil Spector.
His playfulness and grandeur of vision are perfect for Frankie, but his dominance as a producer robs their music of much identity. Indeed, “Relax” and “Two Tribes” arc the most distinctive material over the four sides of this double album, much of which is a brilliantly conceived exercise in how to make a fair amount go a long way. The first side is taken up by a sixteen-minute piece of music which can only be described as an overture. This mixes snatches of the single with impressionistic washes of sound, and themes rather than songs the key lyric is “Shooting stars never stop / Even when they reach the top.”
The anticipation this creates is resolved by a 15-minute up-tempo “segue” of “Relax” and “Two Tribes” with Edwin Starr’s “War,” on side two. So far so good, yet the second record shows signs of wearing thin. Apart from a ballad, “Krisco Kisses”, the new Frankie material, though attractive, isn’t as strong as the singles, and the side of cover versions - songs such as “Born to Run” and “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey” - is curiously anonymous. Apart from singer Holly’s distinctive vocal inflections and a certain brio in the bass playing, you wouldn’t necessarily know much of this record was by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
In fact, Frankie are very much a studio creation. They haven’t backed up their success with live appearances and it’s only now that they’ve decided to get their feet wet and play conventional concerts in their current tour of America. Theirs has not been a traditional career path.
Frankie are a perfect example of how to use all the blanking devices currently available in the music industry - videos, different mixes, scandal, clever marketing - to hustle success. The depth of their market penetration reflects their broad-based appeal, for they are a group of many parts and these are celebrated in “Pleasure Dome”: their naughtiness (the album sleeve contains a fair Picasso pastiche of an animal orgy); their dance-floor success (side two is a perfect disco mix); their actual audacious marketing (order forms for “The Edith Sitwell Bag” and “Andre Gide socks” emblazoned with the Frahkie logo); their artistic and intellectual references (to Nietzsche, Nerval, Gissing and Sacher-Masoch, inter alia); their rebelliousness, “Never doing what I’m told” runs another key lyric); their Liverpool origin (dialogue from “Brookside” turns up in the mix); their complicated but comprehensive sexual appeal (two of the group are homosexual, the other three heterosexual), and finally, that success again (“Their goes the supa nova/What a pushover, yeah.! runs Frankie’s equivalent to a football chant. With all this going for them, Frankie can justifiably claim to refresh the parts that other, more staid, pop groups like Culture Club and Duran Duran don’t reach.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood were a gamble that paid off, beyond their wildest dreams. It is to their credit that they have seized the power which it has given them and made their pleasure dome a place to dream. The album’s attraction - apart from its plain cheek - is that it lives up to the references in the title, creating a lush, fervid environment which stimulates the imagination.
Yet in its completeness and the completeness of Frankie’s success, lies the seeds of decline - a decline already anticipated on the inner sleeve as a group member states: “but if it all ends tomorrow, we’ve had a good ride, we’ve seen what it’s like.”
The people ‘who queued up on Monday morning to buy “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome” were participating, as they were fully aware, in an event. In buying Frankie they were buying the idea of success as much as what the group have to offer.
Yet this begs a question: what happens when Frankie aren’t successful? Where do they go from here? The record ends with an orchestral theme which states: “Frankie Say… No More!”, a strong hint that they would prefer to disappear rather than suffer anti-climax.
“Welcome to the Pleasure Dome”, ZTT, £6.99. Jon Savage’s book “The Kinks: the official biography is published by Faber on Nov 19, £5.95.