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