ZANG TUMMM TUMB ARTICLES “the first draft of history”

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 hes 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.

I can?

“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. Yall have a good day, now, and hope yenjoy 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 Britains. Theyve 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 theyll walk through the shopping malls, their adolescent chests chanting RELAX and WAR and, most bizarrely, ARM THE UNEMPLOYED and its all great fun and no ones 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, therell be Van Halen in town, or someone, with a new T-shirt to sell.

Word is that FGTHs label, ZTT, were reluctant to see their little boys leave home and go on the road, fearing they couldnt 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 Horns imagination, a silk purse fashioned from a scouse sows 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 Johnsons 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 boys 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 groups engine room were guitarist Brian ‘Nasher Nash, bassist Mark OToole and drummer Peter ‘Ped Gill: theyve always made a fairly efficient musical unit, evident from the groups 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, Marks brother Ged OToole (once a member of the bands original line-up); and theres 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 dont even need musicians. But without musicians, youd lose the performance, youd lose the feeling. Youd 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 Palmas new movie Body Double. Again, its Holly whos 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 hes complaining. Rutherford, whos 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, dont I? I wanna travel and meet people!”

Gill, OToole and Nasher collectively called “The Lads”, which just about says it, really — have had a ball. Down-to-earth sorts of the scallywag persuasion, theyve 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,” hell reply, and shuffle away.

After good gigs, its a different matter: when the backdoor fans are battering at transit van windows and the adrenalin wont stop racing. At these times The Lads look as wired as youd 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 bassmans 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, Im sad to say, is not talking to the NME these days.

Im 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, doesnt 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.

Whos it for?” he asks, which puzzles me, since I know he knows damn well who its for.

The NME, I reply, all the same.

“Oh no,” he murmurs, grandly. “I dont 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 whod queered my pitch, so to speak. Personally, I never saw anything genuinely offensive in Gavins article. In any event, the views of another writer are no responsibility of mine — I might as well slag Frankie because I didnt 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, Im not proud enough that I have to bear grudges.”

Later, Holly will confide in Joe Stevens (whos both NME lensman and official Frankie tour photographer) that hes 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, Ill own up. But if he really is to become the Major International Star of his dreams, then hell find far worse things than dumb puns to contend with along the way, Im sure.

THEYRE 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 dont bear much relation at all, or to most bands from Liverpool. Weve got nothing in common with Echo And The Bunnymen when were onstage, or on record. In the dressing room later, thats where the similarities might start. We all hung round on the same scene.

“Where youre from does make you what you are, but do you owe it to that place? Its like this whole thing of turning your back on it: Oh, youve 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 dont particularly have fond memories of the place, although its 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 theyd planned for their return from the US, and expressed brazen confidence about the UK tour set up for the New Year.

“Its 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 were talking about a second album, but I think a holiday is top of the list for the band. The record companys not interested in that, but we definitely need a break. Its been a year of hard slog, being jetted round here there and everywhere.

“I mean, that sounds dead glamorous, and it is, but its also very tiring, very taxing. It freaks your head. A rockstars dilemma! Ha!”

This place they call the top. Its tough, then?

“It sounds really cheesey to say all that, I know, but it can get really naff. Its 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 couldnt bear the bangin, so I got up and answered it …”

How does America see you? Whats 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 shouldnt 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 dont play that big a part in our music.”

Perhaps after youve toured here, and around Britain, youll start getting yourselves judged as a band, instead of always being discussed as a ‘phenomenon or something.

“Yeah, thats 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, Weve got this band, can they do it? Whats happening? Everythings blown up, and we mustnt 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, theyre now sending us telexes saying theyd 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, theyre occasionally eclipsed by the people around them, whove 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, its 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 cant do it, and maybe it is this and that, and it really puts this weird doubt in your head.

“And I think thats why gigging is really healthy for us, yknow, because weve actually stood up and done it ourselves, and weve 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, thats a really difficult question. Id 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 dont think wed have become, like, megabig, kinda thing. Maybe wed still be in a rehearsal studio in Liverpool, still trying to get it together, gradually getting more hysterical!”

Paul Morley?

“Oh God … he almost changed the face of music journalism.

So hes got respect, and people know hes 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 Im any better than the band.

“Its obviously a very good working team that weve got: Trevor, Paul, the band, the people at ZTT, at Island, the people on tour with us, the lighting guy, the sound guy. Its a team and were 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 bands image together. No one buys my trousers for me, yknow? 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 didnt 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.”

Didnt you ever worry that Morley seemed to be speaking on the bands behalf, making statements you wouldnt necessarily make yourselves?

“Yeah, but weve told him that, and argued with him. I think in any healthy relationship you face all that. Its like, I dont 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 dont hate them, theyre 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 werent as soft as anybody else.

“But Paul isnt the strongest of people. As a journalist hes ultra-strong, really very brilliant. But he walks away from things when hes not getting his own way. I think hed have shit his pants if Spandau had attacked him at that party. Hes a good journalist but he doesnt know everything in the world, and thats something he has to learn. We all have to learn, were all still basically kids. Weve 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, lets shock everybody, lets freak everybody out. It was just, lets do it, be ourselves. And it was just us being as honest as possible, the whole way we presented it.

“Theres this thing, isnt there, that an artist has to have this mystique and weird pretentiousness about them. And they dont. Most people in bands are quite thick, all they wanna do is play music. But they mask it with, I like this painter and that painter. Its bullcrap. Just do it.

“And when youre honest it appeals to people far more. I think thats 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 youre like us, you swear and you do this and do that; which is the truth.

“Its like, kids are really sophisticated now. They dont 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 wouldnt say a surprise — it came as a shock! It was a jolt for everybody. I dont think any of us has realised how successful weve been, because its happened to us so fast. No ones had a chance to sit back and think about it.”

Given the fuss, all the moral outrage, did you ever think youd stepped over some line, gone too far? Its being said youre a tamer group now than you used to be.

“No. I dont think weve 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 dont wear leather now. Well, leather never ever freaked me out.

“I dont think were any less hard or honest than we were. Okay, so we dont have transvestites and girls jumping round the stage, but its still erotic what we do. I think were still the only band to do it like that. Youve seen us, you know what its like. Theres still something a bit shaky about it, something a bit strange, and still something a bit crude about it. Its just that we have cotton on now instead — Im sure someones kinky for cotton.”

More than Paul Rutherford shaking his bum about, I think what shook me most about the Frankies 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 rocknroll 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 Frankies concern really run? These arent things to be played with.

“Sure. Well, Im the big mouth about that, the one wholl talk about it. But the band are definitely anti-war. We wouldnt have all that if we werent.

“We use it because its very graphic, and hard, and very direct. But we are definitely leftists. Thats socially inbred by being from Liverpool. You just dont dream of voting any other way. I mean, you dont even question Labours values. You just put the cross on the paper.”

THE DAYS 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.