Monday, 24 February 2014

Relaxing with Frankie

As I hurtled into my teenage years, my enthusiasm for music continued to grow unabated. I was still heavily influenced by the charts at the time so anything ‘new’ was usually discovered on a Sunday evening via Radio One, or through Smash Hits, the essential weekly for the budding pop fanatic. Adam Ant’s solo career declined even faster than his fame in the Ants grew.  I wasn’t terribly impressed with his second post-Ants album and was waiting for the next sensation to happen.  

Frankie Goes To Hollywood is a prime example of hugely effective, imaginative marketing. So rarely is such a concept accompanied by such bloody good, and highly original music. Everyone knows Relax and the story that goes with it.  Funny how it received radio airplay during the tail-end of 1983 and even got the band on Top Of The Pops and still the powers that be at the Beeb didn’t know/care about the lyrical content. It only got banned in January 1984 once Radio One DJ Mike Read took exception to the bondage imagery on the sleeve in a hilarious on-air rant.

That’s when Frankie Fever took off. As is often the norm, banning a record from the airwaves achieves one result – it sells by the bucket-load. Censorship – it really works! Relax was number one within two weeks, stayed there for five and became one of the biggest selling UK singles of all time. The controversy was clearly deliberate. The British have traditionally been rather prudish when it comes to the subject of sex, and anything sexual that’s ‘out of the norm’ was treated with derision. Relax was a record that was outrageously overt – its lyrics included the lines:

Relax, don’t do it
When you want to suck to it
Relax, don’t do it
When you want to come

However you want to dress it up, the sexual overtones could not be hidden. This in itself would have been enough to get the conservative moralists twitching, but add to it the more-than-suggestive sleeve and the less-than-subtle video and suddenly we have outrage! As if that wasn’t enough, two of the band members were *shock-horror* gay! So it’s about gay sex! To some, everything that could be wrong with popular music was encapsulated in this one single. To us more enlightened souls, it was revolutionary.

I wasn’t even 13 yet though, so much of the sexual stuff actually went over my head. I didn’t even see the sleeve for a while. I bought
Relax on 7” a few weeks into its chart reign and by then it was mainly appearing on store shelves in a plain black sleeve, its cover art deemed unsuitable for display. I just loved the sound of it. It had a real dynamism to it, and it had sounds I simply hadn’t heard before. It was clearly leaning towards the dancefloors of nightclubs, but it had enough of a rock feel to set it apart from the rest of the unimaginative electro-pop that was out there.

Throughout 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood became a phenomenon. Their next single, Two Tribes, was MASSIVE! It was somewhat heavier than its predecessor and it subject matter - the Cold War - couldn't have been more appropriate, being as we were at the mercy of bonkers world leaders feeding fear and paranoia to its collective masses. Two Tribes entered the chart at number one and stayed there for a whopping 9 weeks.
Relax remained in the chart throughout and rather than drop out as most records did, it actually climbed all the way back up to number 2, giving the band the top two slots on the singles charts for a couple of weeks.

Trends were being broken, none more so than the release of Frankie’s debut album ‘Welcome To the Pleasuredome’ which, of course, I rushed out and bought right away. It was a double album for starters – usually the preserve of prog-rock bores and heavy metal live albums, not pop pioneers. Perhaps more unusual for a mainstream pop record, it contained yet more obscene artwork and gratuitous references to sex throughout its extensive pseudo-intellectual sleevenotes. The first record contained just four songs – a 15-minute version of the title track, plus remixes of the two singles and a cover of the Edwin Starr classic War. Side three featured a sequence of cover versions, and the whole thing was interspersed with various odd little soundbites and soliloquies, including Chris Barrie[1] impersonating Prince Charles and Ronald Reagan. It was all rather odd, yet hugely compelling, and mightily impressive.

For me, it also forged a connection to some of the cooler kids at school. Being a Frankie fan and owning their album meant you could engage in conversation with some of the kids we might refer to today as ‘hipsters’[2], though of course we were just 13/14 at the time. The likes of Phillip Jones and Owen Lodge were in my form, but while I knew them well enough to talk to, it wasn’t until Frankie came along that I could be taken even semi-seriously by them. FGTH was my initial gateway into ‘cool’.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, like so many, had a rather short shelf life. Just three years later they were history, but I bought pretty much any record by the band that I could track down. There were multiple 12-inch remixes, special 7-inch mixes, anything in fact to capitalise on the time they had. Of course, it was ZTT, the label they were signed to, that was responsible for much of this cynical, exploitative marketing, but to me it was great. Frankie Goes To Hollywood was the most interesting thing I had come across to date. Looking and listening back, I still think what they and the people behind them did was just brilliant. The music still stands up today, and the whole Frankie concept - the multi-format records, the obscene artwork, the circumlocutory sleevenotes, the fashion, the controversy - everything about it was, and still is absurd, but groundbreaking and utterly wonderful at the same time.  It wasn’t just about the music, it was the complete package. You didn’t just buy a FGTH record, you bought into the whole ideal that pop music is art, a statement, a manifesto even. Let’s face it, if you didn’t have a ‘Frankie Say…’ t-shirt in the mid-80s, who were you?


[1] Chris Barrie: later known to many as Rimmer in Red Dwarf.
[2] 'Hipsters’ are awful though, aren’t they.  Phil and Owen weren’t like that, even if they did have a tendency to disappear up their own backsides from time to time.  They never tried to be cool and intellectual like today’s hipsters (with their skinny jeans, thick-framed glasses (that don't always have lenses in them!), sculpted haircuts and godawful beards), they just seemed to be naturally cool. I could be completely wrong about this however; maybe they did try really hard and I just didn’t notice because I simply wasn't cool enough, or in fact, at all.

1 comment:

  1. I was waiting for Frankie.. and Frankie came.. oops, sorry.. FGTH was more than just great music, it was a clever idea, they were funny, more than a little silly, interesting and, for a 14-years-old as I was at the time, almost scary. Twenty years later, and nobody has the guts to take on important issues in a pop format anymore. I blame this navel-gazing generation.