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Frankie Goes To Sheffield

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the pop sensation of 1984, has never risked a British tour. This week all that changes: first stop Sheffield. Andrew Harvey joined the band in the US for a glimpse of Frankie on the road

It was only when his Davy Crocket hat bobbed up for air that you could be sure that Holly Johnson hadnt suffocated in the enthusiastic embrace of the blonde.

Diane Brill, cronie of Andy Warhol and currently leading socialite on New Yorks trendy lower East Side, literally engulfed her guest as he arrived for a party in his, honour with the other Frankies. The Danceteria, a whitewashed warehouse, was overflowing with the exhibitionist young and would be young of the city who, it seemed, had come to be seen by one another as much as they had to pay homage to Britains latest pop phenomenon.

Perched on top of a painters stepladder sat a girl in a white frock and stilettos. She didnt move much because her wide-brimmed hat shone with a dozen small light bulbs connected to a socket above her head.

Johnson was in his element, the magnet for a crush of kisses and hemmed in by photographers who could scarcely get their cameras to eye level in the press of bodies.

Nobody noticed the other four Frankies and within five minutes Paul Rutherford, Mark OToole, Ped Gill and Brian “Nasher” Nash had slipped out.

On their American tour it became obvious that despite their enduring friendship for one another, the Frankies were becoming less of a whole and more of a product of one plus four.

Holly (real name Williams) Johnson, is a star who has come to stay. Glad to be gay, he hates being called camp, has a wonderfully sinister singing voice and writes the lyrics for the Frankie songs. He has the style, and wit to mix at all levels of showbusiness. He is todays pop chic.

While the rest of the band shivered and complained of boredom in Boston, Johnson had flown back to New York to film a guest slot for the pop-video cable channel MTV. And the next day, before the others were out of their beds, he was holding forth on another TV interview.

Just about the only time he was seen with the band was when they were on stage. Afterwards he was invariably swept away by friend Wolfgang whom he flew over from London halfway through the tour to help combat homesickness.

“Hollys Holly. Hes the same as hes ever been,” shrugged OToole, the tall 20-year-old bass player, insisting that unity within the band remained solid and that it was only natural for the lead singer to get most of the attention.

From the start, Frankie Goes to Hollywood understood one of the basic rules of the pop world — shock now, play later. Not for them the patient process of practice makes perfect. They wanted stardom fast and chose an outrageous stage act to attract attention. But with their records and baggy T-shirts generating £20 million-worth of business in their first extraordinary year, they were stung by the insistent innuendo that their success and their two massive hits, Relax and Two Tribes, were due to the brilliance of record producer Trevor Horn and the publicity machine of former rock journalist Paul Morley (the two men who signed them to their fledgling ZTT records).

Even after 18 months of stardom, Frankie Goes to Hollywood didnt have the confidence to play live in Britain. Instead, despite the misgivings of Horn, Morley and parent company Island Records, they chose 22 small venue dates across Canada and America.

“I was extremely annoyed at the suggestion that we were Trevor Horns puppets,” declared Johnson. “I have been working hard for a long time to teach myself to sing in my particular style. We all felt we had to prove it was us on those records.”

Horn flew by Concorde to see their Philadelphia show for himself. The show was a sell-out. The band ripped into their best numbers — the Frankies were rather short on material and the show lasted little over an hour but they had the audience of 1500 screeching for more.

Afterwards Horns spectacles sparkled like headlamps through the smoke and sweat of the crowded dressing room. “I was really impressed. The band are fantastic, theyre going to be great. Hollys got a dynamite voice,” he enthused. “Frankie Goes to Hollywood are dirty, loud and aggressive but theyre very mature and theyve proved tonight they can play.”

His only criticism was that Holly did not banter with the audience enough. “Wind them up, insult them a bit,” he advised as he dived into his limo for Concordes return flight.

Boston came next, another 1400 sell-out. Then New Yorks Ritz Club, just up the road from the World Trade Centre and looking like a half-sized version of Londons Camden Palace, all balconies and video screens. For three nights the band played to capacity audiences, improving every time, while in front Holly, and particularly Paul, acted out a cabaret of camp eroticism. “When we do a live gig we like it to be a bit mental,” said Holly. “We like it to be very spontaneous with crazy things going on.”

The Ritz loved it. Young New Yorkers wearing the Frankie slogan T-shirts went wild on the final night, invading the stage to dance.

And so it went on, Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis (where the stage collapsed under the weight of it all), Denver and finally the West Coast climax at San Francisco and Los Angeles. They knew it would be a gruelling business trying to break into the American market. To underline the point Whams Wake Me Up Before You Go topped the US singles chart while the Frankies were on tour, while their own Two Tribes crept along in the 50s. Elton John stayed at their £200-a-night hotel in New York, but he could probably afford it as he was entertaining 18,000 at Madison Square Garden. Boy George passed close by, filling another 22,000 seats at Meadowlands, New Jersey. The Frankies were specifically not invited by George who appears to have a positive dislike of the band.

Touring can knock the bravado out of any band and the working-class heroes cut off from Paul Morleys hype reverted to type. While Holly was never too tired for a droll observation — “Bands are indigenous to Liverpool because people sing a lot when theyre drunk” — by the tours end even he was hallucinating on the prospect of a return home, “with me mum making tea or having a pint with me dad”.

The day after they appeared on Americas widely watched Saturday Night Live TV show, Ped looked wearily at the endless wastelands of suburban Philadelphia speeding past the bands motorcade and wished he were somewhere else. “Id rather be at home in Liverpool at this moment watching telly,” he mused.

For Ped the tour was proving tough going. He had collapsed through exhaustion during rehearsals. Still, being on Saturday Night Live can give you more status than simply being a pop star, as he discovered when he was taken to a fancy doctors surgery in New York for a vitamin cocktail injection.

The dark and hairy drummer dishevelled in jeans and sneakers, was instantly called to the front of the queue ahead of several smart men in suits. “I saw you on Saturday Night Live,” said the doctor by way of explanation.

Holly and Paul have abandoned the cut-away leather of their early days for the expensive couture of Yohji Yamamoto and the other favourite designers of South Molton Street. In New York Holly spent 15 minutes talking to Andy Warhols video camera about the baggy pale yellow Yamamoto suit he was wearing that day. “I thought it was absurd, but I did it because it was Andy,” said Holly, who admits he spends too much money on clothes.

“I blank out how much things cost because there is this syndrome called ‘Guilt of Success that I dont want to get into where you feel bad about spending a lot of money on things because it could be a young fathers mortgage twice. Its something I dont want to think about, it is something that is tax deductible for me because of the business I am in and it is part of the entertainment of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Peds got three drum kits, Ive got nice clothes.”

For the lads life has not changed dramatically. Mark and Nasher only gave up their jobs as carpenter and electrician with Liverpool Housing Department when Relax was established as a big hit. With Ped, who bought his first drum kit with a £2000 redundancy cheque, they share a mansion flat in Londons Maida Vale known darkly as the Lads Gaff. Here you may find them staggering back from the shops with armfuls of canned beer and boil-in-the-bag-curry to watch video.

Holly is proud of their stamina considering the workload which gave the band only five days off in the year since Relax was released. “I think we have coped really well. We have got a bit tired and a bit down sometimes because the people we are working with have put us through a hell of a lot and not realised how much they have put us through. It seems they have not really cared for our welfare at times and I think ultimately they dont. They have to keep exploiting the situation they have, you know, the wave of success.”