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Frankie goes to work

Were living in a land where producers and their Fairlights are the new Gods.

Is this the future of Rock n Roll or the epitaph of musicianship?

At last Mike Nicholls prises the true story from the three scallywags comprising the backbone of the big, beautiful band.

THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN around for long but already the brief career of Frankie Goes To Hollywood has been a whirlwind of controversy. A banned single, two banned videos and more positively, their first two releases yielding number one platinum-selling singles.

For a while Two Tribes and Relax occupied the top two positions in the charts — an ideal opportunity for the knockers to move in. True to form Fleet Street, attempted a backlash — one of a technical kind, tboot.

They both reported that it wasnt the Frankies who played on Relax, now amongst the Top 10 biggest selling 45s in this country of all time, but Ian Durys old backing band, The Blockheads. And that as the group doesnt have a keyboard player, producer and owner of their record company Trevor Horn had to bring session players in to complete the gaps.

As a result of this story and an interest to hear how the UKs top group makes their records, I spoke to the three musicians in Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Holly and moustachioed Paul Rutherford might be the two front men but their colleagues are beginning to get an equal amount of publicity and they do write all the music. They call themselves ‘The Lads and comprise Mark OToole (bass), Peter “Ped” Gill (drums) and Brian “Nasher” Nash (guitar).

All 20 years old (four years younger than the others) they can best be described as typical Scousers, quickwitted, streetwise and with a natural flair for cocky arrogance of the most endearing kind. Each of them played in other groups around Liverpool before the Frankies formed but had known Holly, a prominent character on the Merseyside music scene since his Big In Japan days on the late Seventies.

Marks brother, Jed, was the original guitarist “but had to leave, like, ‘cos he got married and a mortgage and all that so it was a bit insecure for him,” says Ped.

Right now he must know exactly how Pete Best, nearly of The Beatles, must have felt. Eventually Jed was replaced with Brian who saw them from the audience at one of their early gigs.

In the same way as The Crucial Three of Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie never actually got round to playing a gig, the Liverpool scene of that period was full of stops and false-starts, combos never coming together, breaking up after two rehearsals and so on. As such none of them can remember the name of this early Mark/Holly/Nasher prototype Frankie, but they can remember their first gigs and getting turned down by lots of record companies.

“We played some in Leeds and Coventry and other weird places but our first was in Liverpool supporting Hambi And The Dance. Then in the Autumn of 1982, which was only a few months later, we appeared on The Tube. Thats where Paul Morley (the writer who works with Horn) spotted us which led to us getting signed to the new label ZTT (Zang Tuum Tumb) being set up,” says Nasher.

“Wed already been round the record companies. Phonogram didnt want to know and neither did Arista, even after they had paid for us to do demos of Relax and Two Tribes!”

Hooked up to ZTT, the band went into the studios with Trevor Horn in early ‘83. It was at this preliminary stage that the Blockheads entered the picture.

“At first we were like 18 and Trevor thought ‘they mustnt be able to play very well, like, but he hadnt even heard us,” begins Ped. “It was only natural that a man of his calibre was gonna think like that. He thought that using seasoned musicians like The Blockheads would be the best way of breaking a new band, like.

“Then he realised that they were too good, too slick and he couldnt use what amounted to their demo. So he used ours instead. When we saw all that in the papers we thought ‘If we find out whos responsible for that, theyre not gonna live, like. The newspaper actually phoned us up first and said, ‘If you dont give us a quote and deny all this, were gonna print it anyway.

“So we let them. We thought ‘theyre going to try and make prats of us anyway ‘cos were number one and number two, so let them go ahead. Then of course there was all that stuff about our instruments not being on the records, just the gadgets. Well a lot of bands use lots of electronic stuff but they wont admit it. And its a stupid attitude ‘cos its just dragging music back.”

Much of the material that The Frankies played at their first gigs will appear on the forthcoming album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome. Both Relax and Two Tribes were written a while ago — “in my bedroom”, Mark points out — which should at least put paid to suggestions that The Lads dont write their songs, either.

Recently they all moved into their own flat in Maida Vale and with the help of a Portastudio were able to start preparing demos for the LP. Mark takes me on a guided tour of the lounge:

“Weve got a Sequential Circuits Drumtraks, a Sequential Circuits Sixtraks synth, a Teac Portastudio and a set of JBL speakers with a Quad amp to power it all. Then theres an MXR Omni effects rack, which is just a few effects in one unit, really.

“For the guitar Nashers got an Arion Hot Watt which is like a mini-amplifier with headphones, but you can DI it through and use it as an effects rack. Like its got sustain, distortion, echo and chorus on it which is like really useful for my Fender Precision bass and Nashers Strat. Then we might borrow stuff off the studio like a 12-string or a Linn which Ped knows how to programme.

“Its all dead simple, you know. People must think we got into a big studio and are lost but its just a case of us writing the music and then giving it to Holly to get inspired to write a lyric.

As for Paul (Rutherford) he doesnt really write though he is an important member of the band visually, dancin around and giving it loads while Holly is singing, taking some of the pressure off him.”

“Without anyone member of the band, it wouldnt work,” Mark assures me.

Having demoed the backing tracks at home — prior to acquiring the flat they used Nomis rehearsal studios but found neighbouring wine lodges too much of a distraction — they take them over to Horns Sarm West studio where they are prepared for Fairlight computer and keyboards. This is where the boffins move in, though at this stage Trevor Horn himself remains relatively uninvolved.

“Weve got an established team of ourselves, Trevors engineer John (JJ) Jeczalik and a session keyboard player. At the moment were using Don Snow who used to play for The Strawbs,” laughs Ped. “Actually Trevor met him when he was working with Foreigner although more recently hes been with Nik Kershaw. Someone called Andy Richards played on Relax but when we play live we want to get our own keyboard lad. Someone off the streets, just like us.

“Although the group prepare the samples for the Fairlight themselves, they admit that it is JJ who programmes it, being as he is specifically Horns Fairlight engineer. But do they know how one works?

“Thats not our job, really,” replies Ped. “If you see someone like Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, hes got a Fairlight but when it comes to playing gigs you ask him if he knows how to work one and hed say ‘no. Same with us. But we sample the notes into it, although by the time they come out theyre so distorted that it wouldnt really matter,” he continues with the utmost honesty.

“Thats the whole idea of the Fairlight — to distort sound. If you wanted a more realistic sound youd use a Synclavier because thats what theyre there for, but we havent used one of them much. The Fairlight does something to the sound but still makes it sound good. Its just the same as when you give your tapes to a producer and they come out sounding different after hes mixed them or whatever. Its still the same song even if it does come out sounding different.

So why use one in the first place?

“Because it gets us to number one,” explodes Nasher. “It makes us rich and famous. No, seriously, the sounds are better. We want to make the best records in the world and the only way to do it is through technology, yknow.”

“Nobody goes into a studio now and says ‘Lets spend three weeks setting up a drum track and if we cant get the right sound well settle for second best,” adds Ped. “So rather than trying to use 18 different kits in three different studios, its best to use modern tools like the Fairlight. Some people think theyre putting musicians out of business but theyre really just another instrument. Others are just being really petty, especially older musicians with the attitude, ‘were musos and were going through the old routine. But I mean, does it really matter if a drum sound or a bass sound comes from a fuckin machine? Like were playing them in the first place and they end up sounding the same only perfect, exactly how we want them.

“The best drummer in the world cant play exact spot-on 4/4 time arid anyone who claims they can is a liar,” he concludes.

Once the cuts have almost been completed with the engineer, Mr Horn makes his grand entrance to have the final say.

“Hell come in every now and then and say, ‘I dont like this, I like this or ‘why dont you change this? He directs us, basically, like a film director,” explains Mark.

“Then hell go back into his office (ZTT and Horns Sarm West studios are housed in the same building) where he might be dreaming up a masterplan for the album or something. Hes a great thinker and a great one for asking everybody else what they think.

“He might go into another studio and get an opinion there. Or play us a mix and watch the reaction on our faces regardless of what we actually say later. We can wind him up and tell him something is really shit but hell have sussed what we really think.

“Hes set all the standards, basically, so he can do what he wants. He doesnt have to listen to Steve Lillywhite or any other producer to see what theyre doing to try to copy their style because he sets the pace. He picks information off people no matter how stupid they are. Hell listen to the cook whos just as likely to come up with the right opinion as a top producer since hes a member of the public who buys the record.

“Trevors going to do the opening speech at this years music biz seminar in New York. When everybody asks him how he makes his records hes going to give ‘em a load of rubbish and send ‘em off on the wrong track. I mean, why should he give any secrets away?” the drummer goes on with a smirk.

Requesting opinions aside, Horn remains a perfectionist and ends up only following to the letter that which he himself thinks — or feels.

“Thats why the records take such a long time to make” says Nasher. “And thats the difference between ZTT and other record companies. Anywhere else something has to be out by a certain date but with us nothing goes out until were completely satisfied with it. Two Tribes was out way after it was scheduled and we still havent got the perfect mix! The basic 7" (that topped the charts for more than two months and has followed Relax into the biggest — selling single record books) wasnt very good. We dont like it.”

Once the LP is out, the band intend to turn their attention to touring. Having plucked their aforementioned keyboard player “from the streets, and maybe a percussion player as well because theres a lot of percussion and we dont want to use tapes and stuff,” for stage purposes the Frankies intend to dispense with machines altogether; computers or otherwise.

“Whenever you see bands that use tapes, you always walk away thinking youve been cheated,” complains Mark. “Id rather see live musicians no matter how shitty they sound. On Midsummer Nights Tube everybody was playing live. The other musicians were the studio players (including Trevor Horn on bongos) who played on the record so it was only right to let them on telly.

“We wanted to show that were not just the puppets of Trevor and his machines. If that were the case hed do it himself and take all the money.”

So once they take to the road itll be a case of sticking to traditional instruments as much as possible. In addition to his Fender Stratocaster, Nasher has recently acquired a Yamaha SG3000, confessing “I wanna be a really obnoxious bastard and own loads of guitars!” As for the possibility of using a guitar synthesizer, well, perish the thought:

“Guitar synths?” he snorts, “When you get down to it its a guitar youre playing and if you wanna synth, get someone to play one, like a keyboard man. Forget the SynthAxe. If youre gonna spend three hours mucking about with it before you can get a sound, you might as well have an extra synth player.

“I mean, Christ, that Roland Guitar Synth G707 with the sustain arm. What up-and-coming band could afford one and what an ugly bugger to have to play.

It might be all right if youre at home making four-track demos but… if you want to get a brassy sound from a guitar and say ‘its polyphonic!, get a Jupiter 8 and plug it in. Get a bigger brass sound altogether!

“When you think about it, you can only go so far with guitar synths and at the end of the day they break(!) Great if youre like Andy Summers and you havent got three session keyboards behind you and need that extra boost, but basically, get another musician. At least, were gonna!

“So you see, were not really into guitar synths,” murmurs Mark dryly. Meanwhile what does the handsome bassist go for?

“In addition to my Fender Precision bass Ive used a Wal and this thing that Trevors got — a Music Man Cutlass. He got it in America as a present off Foreigner. It has a graphite neck and is a brilliant bass.”

As for Ped, in the best Liverpudlian tradition (say, Ringo Starr) hes the proud owner of two Ludwig kits with 13", 14", 16" and 24" shells, and a small Sonor kit for the studio. “Ill be looking forward to hitting the bigger kits,” he says, “but first weve a few things to tidy up at Sarm.”

Have you been working almost office hours on the album? I remember Martin Fry once saying that Trevors basically a nine to five man, arriving fresh each day in a clean shirt.

“Its the only way to do it,” agrees Ped. “In any case, evenings and weekends we need at home — thats when we write. I was talking to Steve Levine (producer of Culture Club amongst others) and he said ‘Once it gets past daylight you dont really wanna know about it. Youve got too much on your mind.

“Then Steve Lipson, whos engineered for the Stones was telling us how ridiculous it was working with them. Apparently it would be arranged that everyone would be in the studio by 10 oclock and by two in the morning the Stones would roll in. This went on for a couple of months.”

“Now you can understand why Keith Richards looks the way he does,” Mark points out, “but its not so clever. Wed rather treat it all like the business that it is.”

Maybe it is this above all which explains the escalating success of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. They may be following in the footsteps of the early Stones as far as controversy is concerned and their rhythms might be just as hard. But their attitude is quite the opposite of how one would expect from a band whose records and videos have been banned.

Theres a rich irony in a band like Yes seemingly enlisting the services of Trevor Horn. It shows RocknRolls wheel of fortune not only turning full circle but also reversing back the opposite way. But there are even greater riches ahead for Hollywoods adopted sons. Providing they dont relax. Too much.

Mike Nicholls