For the third in this series we look at one of the biggest selling and most controversial records of the 80’s…
It’s hard to convey now to those fortunate to be young enough not to have been there exactly how big Frankie Goes To Hollywood were for a brief period of time. It was 1984 in fact when they bestrode the charts in the UK and beyond in quite astonishing fashion. Three number one singles in a year was a pretty impressive achievement. The first two ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ still feature amongst the UK’s best selling singles of all-time, the first one being the sixth-biggest selling UK single of all time, the second entered the charts at number 1 and stayed there for 9 weeks, the longest stay at number one by any artist in the UK charts in the 1980’s.
When it comes to Frankie Goes To Hollywood it’s about more than simply sales figures and statistics. This was a pop event, not completely unlike the Sex Pistols and their brief and explosive reign just 7 years earlier. FGTH were fronted by two openly and obviously gay singers with three straight street kids behind them and dealt in sex, war, taboos and did so in an arty manner with immaculately produced records thanks respectively to music writer Paul Morley and producer and ex-Buggle Trevor Horn. I’m old enough to remember, being 11 turning 12 at the time, and can remember the moral panic, the drama, and the sheer ever-presence of them. Yet as Morley pointed out in The Guardian “It’s like a weird hallucination: here were two of the biggest records of the 80s, yet somehow they’ve been slightly lost,”
FGTH were spawned from the late 70’s Liverpool punk scene as a band initially called Sons Of Egypt. After going through a couple of line-up changes they changed their name which they took from a pop-art poster featuring Frank Sinatra printed in a copy New Yorker magazine lead singer Holly Johnson had been reading. At this time they had a female vocalist alongside Johnson. Paul Rutherford – he of the iconic hat and moustache look – joined the band and ousted her after quite literally joining them on stage one night having become so enthused about their performance.
By 1983 the band, who mixed driving funk beats with a show featuring two leather clad female dancers with the band similarly attired, were still unsigned but had acquired enough of a reputation to be invited on to both John Peel’s Radio 1 show to record a session and the then-popular music TV show The Tube where they performed the original version of ‘Relax’. This exposure brought them to the attention of Morley and Horn who signed them to their newly-formed Zang Tuum Tumb label and immediately set-about creating a whole campaign of publicity for the band.
When it came to record ‘Relax’ Horn was unsatisfied with the band and instead hired Ian Dury’s backing band the Blockheads to the studio instead. Eventually Horn took sections of these sessions and created a brand new version of the song layering keyboards and electronic rhythms to create a pulsating, sexually-charged dance record.
When it was released the first posters featured Johnson with a shaved head and wearing rubber gloves and Rutherford in a sailor’s hat and a leather vest and the phrase “ALL THE NICE BOYS LOVE SEA MEN” emblazoned across the bottom. Subsequent posters and adverts would continue in a similar vein.
The original video for the song (below) features the band in some kind of bacchanalian S&M gay-club fantasy featuring some sort of emporor character and Johnson being thrown to the lions (well, a lion who must have been drugged for the shot or the tamest wild animal ever). It’s a truly bizarre video which was subsequently withdrawn and replaced with a much tamer ‘laser beam’ version.
Yet despite receiving a fair amount of radio airplay it seemed to be stalling in the charts until a Top Of The Pops appearance helped send the song to number 6. The final push up the charts would however require some outside help. Playing the song on his Radio 1 show, DJ Mike Read (an odious man who last year released a risible mock calypso song sung in a mock Caribbean accent in support of far-right political party UKIP which you watch at your own peril) suddenly cottoned on to the sexual content of the song’s lyrics particularly the lines “when you want to suck to it, relax don’t do it, when you want to come” and announced on air that he was banning the song from his show.
A blanket ban of the song by BBC quickly followed (although John Peel still played it, as a gesture of defiance one can imagine) and the controversy levels hit a peak sending the song to number 1 a couple of weeks later where it stayed for the next 5 weeks. When ‘Two Tribes’ hit number 1 later that year ‘Relax’ returned to number 2 making them the first band to hold the top two places in the charts for over 20 years.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s star burnt very brightly for a short amount of time. When their fourth single, the title track from their debut lp Welcome To The Pleasuredome only hit number 2 it seemed to signal the beginning of the end. They had come out of the traps so hard and fast that ultimately they could never top themselves and in 1987 after their second album Liverpool had proved to be a relative flop they split with Johnson going on to have a reasonably successful solo career.
As I mentioned earlier I can remember the furore surrounding FGTH, and to be honest it existed more in the media than it ever did in people’s minds. Sure, the homophobes amongst us probably hated it, as did your parents who probably simply loathed the music itself more than any message it contained. In reality ‘Relax’ was one of the most ubiquitous records of its time becoming a hit all over the world even reaching number ten on the US Billboard Hot 100. Here in Britain the ban became embarrassing for the BBC making them seem stuffy and out of touch and by the end of the year it had been lifted.
‘Relax’ left its mark, as did Frankie Goes To Hollywood. However, maybe the sheer size of their brief impact has kind of been forgotten over the years. FGTH brought a brazenly sexual rush of excitement in to the charts in 1984, and created the kind of impact that, in Britain at least, few other bands have before or since. Which is a shame, because it’s bands like this that make pop music live and breath.