Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Frankie Goes To Hollywood (FGTH) was one of the biggest, most controversial and most marketed UK pop acts of the 1980s. The band was fronted by Liverpudlian singer Holly Johnson, and was supported by Paul Rutherford along with Peter Gill, Mark O'Toole and Brian Nash. Its debut single "Relax" was famously banned by the BBC and subsequently topped the UK singles chart. Along with "Two Tribes" and "The Power of Love", FGTH became only the second band in the history of the UK charts to reach number one with their first three singles.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood have recently begun touring again with new lead singer Ryan Molloy.
Emerging from the late 1970s Liverpool punk movement (key member Paul Rutherford had previously been in bands including The Spitfire Boys), FGTH are said to have taken their name from a newspaper headline referring to either Frank Sinatra or, more likely, Frankie Vaughan. Both names were mentioned in early interviews, though the Sinatra explanation is the one that has stuck. (This could be seen as meaning that the famous "Frankie Say..." quotes are from Vaughan, or Sinatra, although they obviously are not from either).
Lead singer Holly Johnson, a fellow Liverpool punk veteran from the band Big In Japan (which also featured future Lightning Seeds frontman Ian Broudie), recruited Rutherford as co-singer. Local musicians Peter Gill (drums), Jed O'Toole (bass) and Jed's cousin Brian Nash (guitar) then joined. The band set out playing shows around the locality. O'Toole quit shortly afterwards but supplied the band with a replacement — his younger brother Mark O'Toole, whom Jed had taught how to play (Jed also taught Nash the guitar).
FGTH were signed up to Trevor Horn's new ZTT record label after a raw video for the song "Relax" was shown on music programme The Tube. With a brief from the band to make them sound like "a cross between Donna Summer and KISS", Horn set to work on their debut single.
The final cut of "Relax" was released at the end of 1983 and got a modicum of airplay, allowing it steady progress into the UK Top 40. After an appearance on Top Of The Pops, the song shot into the Top 10 — and then would come the incident which would propel both song and band into pop notoriety forever.
BBC Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read was playing the record on his show when he noticed the mild sexual imagery used as a design on the front cover, including one of the more salacious quotes from the lyrics. This prompted him to listen more intently to the words, and his reaction was such that he removed the disc from the turntable live on air, snapped it in two and branded it "disgusting".
On January 10, 1984, two months after its release, and without Read's knowledge or input, the BBC decided to ban the record from all its TV and radio outlets. A surge to buy the single and find out what the controversy was about followed. Music journalist and ZTT associate Paul Morley immediately started a PR campaign which led to a massive demand for the band and song.
"Relax" immediately shot to Number 1 in the charts and stayed there for five weeks, leading to the ludicrous and embarrassing situation for the BBC whereby they couldn't feature the nation's best-selling single on their flagship chart shows on TV and radio.
Also getting in on the act was fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, who designed a range of minimalist, sloganeering T-shirts based around her famous slogan Ban Nuclear Weapons NOW : "Frankie Say Relax Don't Do It", "Frankie Say War Hide Yourself", "Frankie Say Arm The Unemployed". (T-shirts with "Frankie Says" were fakes.) Prior to these, Hamnett had also designed the familiar "Choose Life" T-shirts worn by Wham! on their video for "Wake Me Up before You Go Go".
The offending nature of "Relax" was difficult to decipher entirely, although outrage was expressed in some quarters.
Allegedly the expression ...when you want to suck it to it... which appeared on the sleeve and caused Read's outrage was, in fact, a deliberate inaccuracy placed on the sleeve to cause extra interest and intrigue. The real words were, in fact, ...when you want to SOCK it to it.... As for the expression ...when you want to come..., the imagery is inescapable. The design, meanwhile, depicted a man and woman pressed against each other, back to back, with clothed upper bodies but bared buttocks. In a relatively liberalised mid-1980s period this was saucy at best, not shocking. The video, however, was unsurprisingly banned as it depicted an S&M den (filmed in a Liverpool nightclub called The Coconut Grove, near Johnson's home at the time).
Adding to the controversy surrounding the song, rumours began to circulate after its release that the single had actually been recorded by session musicians. Some time later, producer Trevor Horn admitted that in fact he had cut a 'demo' version of the track with The Blockheads, the renowned backing group for New Wave icon Ian Dury. He then cut a second version with FGTH, but was unhappy with the result and took the tape away to work on it. The perfectionist Horn then spent five weeks refining it, augmenting the basic tracks with extensive overdubs by session musicians. "Relax" was a massive gamble for Horn and his record label, ZTT, and its failure could well have bankrupted him. By the time it was completed, it had cost £70,000 in studio time alone, with the video clip costing an additional £15,000.
"Relax" was followed into the charts by "Two Tribes", a topical song about nuclear war. Featuring sirens, the unmistakable voice of Patrick Allen (who voiced the British Government's actual nuclear warning ads two years earlier) and another hard-faced, electronic backing, it went into the UK charts straight in at Number 1 and stayed there for a phenomenal nine weeks (the first to do so for seven years).
There were no problems with the song this time, but again the video was not shown on British television, this time due to its overtly violent nature. Directed by the renowned duo of Kevin Godley and Lol Crème (half of '70s rock band 10cc) it featured lookalikes of Cold War leaders Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko wrestling in a marquee while band members and others laid bets on the outcome. Ultimately, the globe was seen to explode.
What made the reign of "Two Tribes" at the top even more notable was the continuing success of its predecessor. "Relax" had made a natural decline down the charts but on the release of "Two Tribes", sales of it began to rise again to the extent that FGTH held the top two spots in the UK charts, the first act to do so since the posthumous clamour for singles by John Lennon at the beginning of 1981.
The Power Of Love
FGTH released a third single, "The Power Of Love", at the end of 1984. A surprisingly thoughtful, well-arranged ballad, it went to Number 1 in December and gave the band the honour of being the first act for two decades (since Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1964) to achieve chart-toppers with its first three releases. The video was not banned on this occasion but still caused strife for the group — it depicted a nativity scene, lumping it (wrongly) in the category of Christmas-only records. As a result, to this day radio stations seem to give it airplay only during the festive period. The lyrics are not directly concerned with Christmas, however.
The Band Aid project, for which Johnson recorded a message for the B-side, meant that FGTH managed only one week at the top this time. 1984 also saw the release of their debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, but this was poorly received by the critics and didn't sell as well as expected. Along with the singles and title track, it featured a mixture of thrown-together covers (including "Born To Run" from Bruce Springsteen, "San Jose", "Ferry Cross The Mersey") and humour-free Liverpudlian asides and skits.
The BBC lifted its ban on "Relax" at the end of 1984 to allow the band to perform it on the Christmas edition of Top Of The Pops (it was, aside from Band Aid, the biggest-selling single of the year).
The album's title track, "Welcome To The Pleasuredome", was released as a single at the beginning of 1985 and peaked at Number 2, leading to absurd claims that the band was on the decline. It turned out the snipers were correct, however, but not for the alleged 'failure' of a Number 2 hit. In fact, the demise of the band was more down to lack of material and skill. Contrary to popular belief, Frankie could play their instruments, as two world tours testified, but their attitude was in question after such immediate success.
Decline, split and aftermath
In August 1986 the new single "Rage Hard" reached #4 in the UK. But the corresponding album Liverpool, released in October, was panned by the music press, and chart results declined rapidly on the followup singles "Warriors" (#19) and "Watching The Wildlife" (#28). In the midst of these diminishing returns, a backstage altercation between Johnson and Nash at Wembley Arena in January 1987 reflected the collapsing relationship between the lead singer and the rest of the band. FGTH completed the tour, but Johnson left the group immediately thereafter.
In the aftermath of the split, Johnson was offered a recording agreement with MCA Records. ZTT, which had invested heavily in Liverpool (to the point where the digital recording system used to record the album was very nearly treated as a sixth member of the band on the sleeve of the "Warriors" single), had other ideas, and promptly sued Johnson in an attempt to hold him to his original contract with the label. Among other things, ZTT believed that as the departing member of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Johnson was required to release all solo material through the label until the band's original multiple-album agreement was fulfilled. The suit was bitterly fought, exposing the inner workings of the ZTT/Frankie machine to a giddy UK music press. After two weeks the High Court found in Johnson's favor, holding that the highly restrictive terms of the contract constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade.
Johnson's solo career at MCA commenced in 1989, with a succession of high-placed singles and the reasonably successful album Blast. The remix collection Hollelujah followed, trailed by a second studio album Dreams That Money Can't Buy. He would later become a reclusive but successful painter after announcing in 1993 that he was living with the HIV virus. The following year, Johnson recounted his version of Frankie's history in his autobiography A Bone In My Flute. His self-issued 1999 album Soulstream included a re-recording of "The Power Of Love", which was also released as a single. Rutherford, the other openly gay member of the band, released the ABC-produced album Oh World and a handful of singles before retiring with his partner to a farm in New Zealand to raise a family. The 'other three', as pop magazine Smash Hits labelled them, continued to work behind the scenes in the studio on other people's projects. As "Nasher", Nash released a 2002 solo album entitled Ripe.
The band's name lived on to the extent that re-issues of "Relax" and "The Power Of Love" both returned to the UK Top 10 in 1993. Remixes of "The Power Of Love" (which became a dance anthem from its original lite-jazz ballad format) and "Two Tribes" were Top 20 hits in 1997, while "Welcome To The Pleasuredome" also got successful remix treatment to the extent of a Top 20 placing four years earlier. ZTT keeps the FGTH back-catalog alive into the new century with periodic reconfigurations, remasters, and further remixes by an ever-growing pool of dance producers, continuing the tradition that began with the multiple variations of the "Relax" 12" issued in 1983. "Two Tribes" was later played in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
A band called "The New Frankie Goes To Hollywood" appeared, fronted by Davey Johnson, who claimed to be Holly Johnson's brother. The band plays a few Frankie tracks, but actually has nothing to do with FGTH. Likewise, "Davey Johnson" is no relative of Holly's. The band is also not to be confused with the Frankie Goes To Hollywood conventions related to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Reunion and comeback
In 2003, the VH-1 program Bands Reunited brought Johnson, Rutherford, Gill, O'Toole and Nash together from the far corners of the world in hopes of their performing on the show. By all appearances the bandmates got on well enough and enjoyed seeing one another again, but none of them seemed particularly surprised when Johnson scuttled the envisioned mini-concert with his (literal) last-minute refusal to perform with the rest of the band.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Trevor Horn's involvement in the music industry, in 2004 a special concert took place at Wembley Arena in November which featured three of the FGTH personnel. Once again an exception was Johnson, who announced via the Internet that he would not be appearing, and who stuck to this decision despite much worldwide protest from fans yearning to see the five play together again. The band held an open audition for a new singer for the concert and recruited Ryan Molloy as a result. Nash also declined to take part in the concert for his own reasons.
Observers of FGTH's era state that despite the presence of openly gay members and suggestive lyrics and sleeves, the band's raw, aggressive sound avoided alienating a heterosexual male audience, leading some to change their attitudes towards homosexual people. Thus, even though ultimately many do not consider their music to be the best of the vibrant mid-'80s era, FGTH is considered by some to have been a very important band for reasons beyond music.
In 1985, a Frankie Goes To Hollywood computer game was created, based on the music of the band. The objective of the admittedly-strange game was to explore Mundanesville and find the Pleasuredome.
FGTH 1980's members
- Holly Johnson - Vocals (-1987)
- Mark O'Toole - Bass
- Brian Nash - Guitar
- Peter Gill - Drums
- Paul Rutherford - Backing vocals, dancing and merchandise modelling ("just for the smell of it")
FGTH Today members
- Ryan Molloy - Vocals
- Mark O'Toole - Bass
- Jed O'Toole - Guitar
- Peter Gill - Drums
- Paul Rutherford - Backing vocals
- Bang!… The Greatest Hits Of Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1994)
- Reload - The Whole 12 Inches (1994)
- Maximum Joy (2000)
- The Club Mixes 2000 (2000)
- Twelve Inches (2001)
The original singles released during the time the band was together:
- Relax (1983)
- Two Tribes (1984)
- The Power Of Love (Nov 1984)
- Welcome To The Pleasuredome (1985)
- Rage Hard (1986)
- Warriors Of The Wasteland (1986)
- Watching The Wildlife (1987)
- Frankie Goes To Hollywood Official Site
- FGTHOnline - Home of the Frankie Wiki
- ZTT - Two Decades (fan page about ZTT - incl. FGTH)