Involuntary Pelvic Contractions

Frankie were a T-shirt to me, way back before I heard a note of theirs.  As I remember it, back when I was 12 I started noticing all these ‘Frankie Says Relax’ T-shirts when I was on holiday with my grandparents in Somerset and wondered what it all meant.  The T-shirts spread like a cotton plague, proliferating and mutating beyond all reason; ‘I don’t give a sh*t what Frankie says’ being my eventual favourite.  The fact that you couldn’t actually hear any of their music because it was so rude it was banned, obviously, just made it even more intriguing.  So springing into action immediately, I waited until my friend Miles got interested in them and bought all their stuff months later.

Frankie Pleasuredome 01

Was it rude? well ‘Relax’ was, but I couldn’t really work out why until I saw the video years later, which was also banned – apart from the fact it prominently featured the word ‘suck’, I couldn’t really see it myself.  I really like it now as an artefact of a certain time, but ‘Two Tribes’ and its Reagan -v- Chernenko* wrestling video, with all its speech excerpts and dispassionate nuclear detailing and just the general we’re-all-fucked-so-let’s-fuck ambience (although that was a bit lost on me then) got me excited.  There also seemed to be about six different versions of it, all with slightly different vocals and speech, very puzzling.

Frankie Pleasuredome 05

When the double LP Welcome To The Pleasuredome hit it was a bit of a baffling one.  The bit that me and all my friends liked best was a 35 second excerpt of a prince Charles sound-alike talking about orgasms:

It was all very glossy and alien to us country folk, all sorts of references to Andre Gide and Jean Genet lost on teenagers just looking for good tunes and mucky lyrics 30 years ago.  I taped it but quickly found that I only really ended up listening to the singles, in my opinion you could have shaved off all the extraneous fluff and ended up with a killer LP – 15 years after I picked up the vinyl in a charity shop, for nostalgic reasons, I still think that actually.  I really like their version of ‘War’, more so than Bruce Springsteen’s actually and even ‘The Power of Love’ has grown on me, possibly just because I’ve heard it so many thousand times – it really does show Holly Johnson’s voice off to full effect.

Frankie Pleasuredome 04

My favourite track here though is ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, which taps Caligula, (artfully misquoted) Coleridge and Studio 54 all to equal effect.  The arch emphasis Holly Johnson places on the final word in the line ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a pleasuredome erect …’, is worth the entry fee alone.  I love it, plain and simple.  It’s a slow-building pretentious, opulently appointed disco-pop epic and the music is flawless.  The sort of thing that the Scissor Sisters aped on their, rather excellent, track ‘Invisible Light’.

As well it should be, as producer Trevor Horn roped in fellow ZTT label mates Art of Noise, including the ultra-talented Anne Dudley to handle all the arrangements, as well as sub-contracting all the playing out to a fairly stellar cast of session musicians, including (and I only just found this out) Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin of Yes.  Norman Watt-Roy of the Blockheads provided the brilliant bass line on ‘Relax’ and the Blockheads feature heavily throughout.  In fact, apart from Holly Johnson’s vocals the only recorded contribution from the other band members on, for example ‘Relax’, was their jumping into a swimming pool.  I rather like this fact although once upon a time I’d have got all hot under the collar about authenticity and bands who couldn’t play properly – that just misses the whole point of Welcome To The Pleasuredome, it’s a glittering, shiny, superficial artefact from an equally facile and shallow time.  Frankie couldn’t have cared less about our qualms they just wanted to and did, sell records.

Hmm, all these fig leaves - what can it mean?
Hmm, all these fig leaves – what can it mean?

In fact I would say that there are definitely similarities between Welcome To the Pleasuredome and that other triumph of a ‘created’ band, Sex Pistols The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.  Frankie weren’t a band created by their record company, they existed and had written their best tunes before they signed, but one who were heavily altered by it, in the same manner that for all his crowing otherwise, I don’t believe McLaren ‘created’ the Pistols, other than in the sense of throwing together a horrible gang of oiks.  Arguments about authenticity also raged around The Pistols by 1978, guest singers, sackings, orchestral interludes, other bands playing on the LP – my favourite being Ronnie Biggs on ‘No One Is Innocent’, the disco versions of songs and ‘L’anarchie pour le UK’.  The 1978 version of the Pistols met it full-on by claiming (or having the claim made on their behalf) to be a pre-meditated swindle; six years later those battles had been won, nobody cared too much by the time Frankie were pumping out their plastic version of ‘Born To Run’*^.

Frankie Pleasuredome 03

It’s pop and it’s a transitory noise, no matter how you dress it up in Paul Morley’s** purple prose.  I also really like the way that Frankie Goes to Hollywood foregrounded their homosexuality too (even though only two of the band were gay, I think I’m right in saying) in their aesthetics and sound – projecting an upmarket in-you-face gayness that seemed as decadent as the last days of Rome and far from the usually acceptable, to mainstream buyers, cuddly campness, yet without compromising their vast commercial success in the UK; they had an, ahem, harder time in the US I think.  There was a lot to be applauded in their Technicolor brashness.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood marketed their singles so aggressively and rather cleverly, by issuing, re-issuing, 7″s, 12″s, badge packs, picture discs, cassette singles^, poster sets, different B-sides and mixes that they actually caused the gods in charge of the charts to change their rules so that only three versions of a single would count for chart sales – this prevented the simple-minded with the collection-aholic gene to stop exploiting ourselves silly.

Too much unbridled hedonism can do this to you
Too much unbridled hedonism can do this to you

Transitory Cultural Significance 4 – Lasting Musical Significance 4; it’s all a bit of a score draw.

343 Down.

*surely you gotta be impressed I remembered that without Googling it? at that point in history there seemed to be a new leader of the USSR every month.

*^although Frankie could never and were never equipped to make the same global cultural impact as Cook, Jones, Rotten and Matlock.

**ZTT label owner, NME writer, always a very interesting talking head on documentaries, but pretentious as sin in print.  A lot of the inner sleeve nonsense here is his.

^was there ever a more unloved format? I had a load, of course.

24 thoughts on “Involuntary Pelvic Contractions

  1. “a horrible gang of oiks.” I’m going to use this phrase in general conversation today. I hope you don’t mind.

    As for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, I always liked “Relax”, in-particular because of its use in the Brian DePalma film ‘Body Double’. It became the centerpiece to that movie, really. For the most part dance music has never really played a big role in my musical wanderings. Remixes, hour-long extended versions, etc…I could never really get into it. Maybe because I never frequented clubs. As I’ve got older I do appreciate dance/club music more. LCD Soundsystem helped me with that. I may have to play ‘Pleasuredome’ today, just for the hell of it. But as far as a band, Frankie always seemed rather obnoxious in interviews back in the 80s. Just sorta disingenuous. Maybe it was the interviewers as much as it was the interviewees.

    1. Did you manage the oiks?

      I think it’s just a big 80’s thing. I always bang on about how much I despised the 80’s but its not really true, it’s when I did my growing up and it all gets buried inside you either as stuff you embrace, or react against and there was some great stuff around, some great chart stuff too. Which is where Frankie came in, I think they knew they were on a crest of a wave and that it wouldn’t be a long term career for them – they just wanted to make a big, colourful splash and I think the hits do really stack up.

      1. I know, I know. The 80s aren’t nearly as bad as they seemed in 1993. Really, some of the best radio pop came out of the 80s. Only in the 80s could the Art of Noise had been played on mainstream radio.

  2. Such a frustrating record this one. There’s amazing stuff on it but all the covers in the middle part are just boring and kill the album. War and Born to Run are OK… But then San Jose and Ferry. They should have just cut a lot of that stuff out like you said and it would have been much better…

    1. Maybe one for the 1537 time machine, I could go back and give them the benefit of my mighty future knowledge and tell them to cut out all the nonsense. Surely they’d have been better off putting out some crap originals from a royalties point of view too? pah! pop stars!

      1. To be fair, I’d probably be better off preventing the second World War, or disturbing Justin Bieber’s parents that night they were feeling a bit frisky 19 years ago.

      2. Whoa! I think that’s a damn cool example of the whole three degrees of separation thingy. if only he’d played them to his nephew, the world could be different.

      3. Unfortunately, no — this was 2012. Bieber was already inflicted upon us.

        Another fact — my buddy Craig who works at the radio station had an autographed pic of Bieber in the studio behind him. “Watching him,” as he likes to say. Well he was on vacation last week, and somebody took it and sold it for $2000.

      4. So when Bieber has a 2 year hiatus and comes back with a live show incorporating faithful covers of By-Tor & the Snow Dog and Cygnus X-1, we’ll know who to thank? cool.

      5. I’m happy for him to cover either track in a rap-style; I think it’s an element that’s been sadly lacking in Rush’s recorded output so far.

  3. Can an album be important and inconsequential at the same time? And how many seas must a white dove sail?
    Nice write-up, Mr S. Though I’m ever so slightly disappointed that this piece wasn’t called “a slow-building pretentious, opulently appointed disco-pop epic “. Or perhaps “extraneous fluff” (which would be a brilliant name for a pop band, don’t you think?).

    1. Cheers – If it’s okay with you I won’t actually be in Extraneous Fluff, I’ll just be a dark Svengali-type figure in the background whilst jobbing musos from Yes play all the proper instruments for our carefully chosen mannequins.

      I know if a FGTH ‘Two Tribes’ plays in a forest with no-one to hear it does it truly make a sound? such are the imponderables of life; The Imponderables ? another great band name – I see them as a twee indie outfit?

      1. I can’t see them smashing up hotel rooms / spanking groupies / getting into a fight with chain-wielding Hells Angels anytime soon – Perfect!

    1. Just don’t bother is my advice, just enjoy the singles if you happen across them on the radio. Just state of the art 80’s machine-tooled pop and damn enjoyable for it too.

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