Songs of 84: Relax / Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Frankie Says….

If there was one band who dominated the attention of the media and the record buying public so intensely in 1984, it was Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The band were hell bent on shaking up society’s norms in the most vibrant, glamorous, and confronting way possible.

To illustrate the point, they even named themselves after a newspaper headline about the biggest pop star the world had ever seen trying to become a matinee idol – Frank Sinatra having a tilt at acting on the silver screen.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, or FGTH for short, were formed in Liverpool in 1982. After a false start and premature breakup, the band reconvened early in 1983 with the lineup that would become legendary. They captured some attention early, scoring a spot on northern English music program The Tube and a couple of radio sessions for the John Peel Show. Those radio spots caught the attention of producer Trevor Horn, who owned a recording studio and had started a label with NME journalist Paul Morley. The new label, called ZTT (distributed through Island Records, which meant they were distributed through Festival Records in Australia), had first signed the agit-prop synth group The Art of Noise, but they were looking for a pop group to make a big splash with. Frankie seemed to be that group.

Label co-owner Morley worked with the band to create a carefully curated and highly provocative image for the group, something akin to a post-punk version of the Village People. Morley described the band’s image in an interview with The Guardian as having “combined the ‘exploratory gay energy’ of [vocalist Holly] Johnson and [keyboardist Paul] Rutherford with the ‘heterosexual Scouse energy’ of the other band members.”

Not everything went smoothly in their lurch towards world domination, however. The reconvened lineup featured something of a “novice” guitarist (Trevor Horn’s words) in Brian Nash, and his lack of ability made things difficult in the studio, not to mention when playing live.

Reviews of their early gigs were not promising either. Writing in Sounds magazine in 1983, writer Rose Rouse thought their provocative image was an insult to gay culture. “Their dishwater disco/rock deserves to be cremated without wreaths”, she wrote. She found them more like work-a-day labourers in gaudy S&M cosplay outfits, commenting that “Bert Goes To Clacton” would be a more appropriate name.

Meanwhile, Horn was having his own issues in the studio. Trying to mix synth tracks with live instrumentation performed by the band was less than satisfactory, in his opinion. He chose to re-record the instrumental tracks by playing them himself and with members of The Blockheads (Ian Dury’s backing band). In the end, the only member of the band to perform on the track was vocalist Holly Johnson (pictured below). That is, unless you count the sound of the entire band jumping into a swimming pool (at 3:09 on the original single version) that was sampled into a synthesiser for the track.

He spent an incredible 6 weeks and a (then) whopping 70,000 Pounds on the production of the single. Afterwards, he remixed it numerous times and created copious amounts of edits, making it difficult to keep track of all the versions that were ultimately released.

Upon the single’s first release in the UK in October 1983, it was a slow starter on the charts. After one spin on Radio 1 by Mike Read, who announced he was never playing that on air again, it was banned from airplay by the BBC due to its highly sexualised lyrics. This turned out to be highly embarrassing for the Beeb as all the commercial stations in the UK continued to play the track. Within a matter of weeks the ban was lifted and FGTH were given a performance spot on BBC TV’s Top Of The Pops.

It hit #1 in late January 1984, replacing fellow Liverpudlian Paul McCartney’s single “Pipes of Peace”. The track went to #5 in Australia in 1984, bettered by the two follow up singles “Two Tribes” and “The Power of Love”, both of which topped out at #4.

Soon enough, there were t-shirts and merchandise everywhere with “Frankie Says Relax” on it. The debut double LP “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” was a million seller on advance orders alone in the UK. It was a gold seller in Australia, reaching a top spot of #7 on the LP charts.

It was to be a short-lived phenomenon, however. By the time they came around to making a follow up album, the gay iconography of the band and the risque subject matter had been absorbed into pop music, leading to other acts like Dead or Alive and the Pet Shop Boys carrying that mantle further into the 80s. The 1986 sophomore release “Liverpool” is no slouch of a record. It sounded more in line with the indie pop of the day, like Echo And the Bunnymen or The Smiths. It sounds nothing like the high NRG dance pop of “Pleasuredome”, and as such it didn’t set the charts alight.

Relax has since been reissued as a single several times, both in its original form and also in loads of remixes. It is a hit record that just refuses to go away and it still sounds timeless, no matter what the format.

David Kowalski, a writer and podcaster, is celebrating songs that turn 40 this year.

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