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Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Liverpool’s long list of pop music sensations went into uber-drive when Scousers FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD emerged from relative obscurity to have an inaugural run of three consecutive UK chart-toppers in the mid-80s: `Relax’, `Two Tribes’ and the Xmas chart-topper `The Power Of Love’ – alternative-pop, if not “rock”. Not since Merseybeat gate-crashers GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS stole some spotlight from their Fab Four neighbours in 1963 – a la `How Do You Do It?’, `I Like It’ and `You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – had the land of the Liver Birds been so de rigueur. Named after a headline concerning singer-actor Frank Sinatra or, much more believable, the news of Liverpudlian crooner Frankie Vaughan embarking on a career in Hollywood for 1960’s Let’s Make Love movie, FGTH unveiled an anything-goes agenda, an agenda that irked the conservative BBC, middle America et al,
Splitting their audience into er.. “two tribes” (homophobia playing its part on the “loathe them” side of the barbed fence), Frankie’s frontman Holly would openly flaunt his ballsy, bravado sexually to the max; not even the overtly visible BOY GEORGE (then of CULTURE CLUB), who preferred er… tea to sex, felt free to truly open up – a long way from today’s easy-going, no-holds-barred approach and same-sex marriages.
The TEARDROP EXPLODES and ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN were reaping their respective rewards and singular promises when FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD set out their stall between 1980-82. Abandoning their moniker Hollycaust for their more ambiguous title, main man HOLLY – as he then called – cast aside time as bassist with post-punk diversions BIG IN JAPAN and a two-single solo career (`Yankee Rose’ and `Hobo Joe’) at the turn of the 80s, to concentrate on creating something fresh and fruitful.
As the Sons Of Egypt alumni, Gerard “Jed” O’Toole (bass), his cousin Brian “Nasher” Nash (guitar) and Peter “Ped” McGill (drums) found the going tough, in came singer Holly Johnson for Nash, while guitarist Jed’s brother Mark O’Toole (bass) was added to female vocalist Sonia Mazumder for their debut gig (supporting HAMBI & THE DANCE) at The Warehouse in Leeds. On that hot August night in 1982, up stepped dancer Paul Rutherford (ex-Spitfire Boys), whom the lads preferred over Sonia , and who didn’t quite fit into FGTH’s pro-gay, leather-clad motif; note that only Holly and Paul were homosexuals. On the back of some TV exposure that October and a session for John Peel (recorded 24 November), a switch of personnel resulted in Jed’s berth being filled by a returning Nash.
After an invitation to appear on Channel 4 TV’s fledgling pop programme (shocking viewers witnessed an embryonic video of `Relax’) and on to another Radio 1 session, this time on disc jockey David Jensen’s show, ex-BUGGLES and YES musician Trevor Horn and former NME journalist/marketing campaigner Paul Morley, gave the group the thumbs up and their proverbial foot-in-the-door via new imprint, ZTT Records; Arista and Phonogram had earlier turned the 5-piece down.
With producer Horn’s astute and meticulous production, the all-new `Relax’ was soon unleashed to the buying public in October 1983. The strategic debut 45 – complete with risque ad campaign – slowly climbed into the Top 40, but as Xmas closed in, the record seemed to have dropped off the radar. Then came an appearance (5 January 1984) on Top Of The Pops that rocked the boat somewhat with its more than suggestive lyrics aired for the first time on the BBC. On hearing its pro-gay stance (and eyeing the S&M sleeve shot), conservative Beeb jockey Mike Read decided not to play the record, in turn helping it get banned from day-time airplay. The rest was, as they say, history, and by 24th January, it was atop the British charts, accompanied by a still-pic of the band when the big-wigs at the BBC were forced to play the “anthem” on the aforementioned TOTP.
In June ‘84, with `Relax’ still relatively high up the chart, FGTH’s follow-up, `Two Tribes’, went straight in at pole position, giving a new lease of life to their discommended debut (a resurgence saw the platter back up at No.2 while their follow-up was No.1). Attracting a large share of controversy once more (mainly for its video – directed by GODLEY & CRÈME – which featured Cold War lookalike premiers Reagan and Chernenko battling it out in a wrestling ring), the `Two Tribes’ single was more than a political, pseudo-prophetic anti-war cry, it was an anthem, an earworm to the masses.
It was fair to say America didn’t get FGTH, with only minor positions within their charts for the aforementioned pop classics and their forthcoming album. Released in October ‘84, the hour-long double-LP, WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME {*8}, was as expected, OTT: full-on kitsch, camp, and decidedly calculated. Without its attendant hits, including their history-making third No.1 `The Power Of Love’, and coy covers by way of SPRINGSTEEN’s `Born To Run’, EDWIN STARR’s `War’, BACHARACH-DAVID’s `San Jose (The Way)’, plus some recurring water-chimes of “the Mersey” within side two opener, `Ferry (Go)’, many critics would’ve panned its grooves under the trade description act. Mirroring GERRY & THE PACEMAKERS (a la `I’m The One’) for a final time, as a much-edited title track stalled one place from a record-breaking fourth consecutive No.1, the prog-dance, 13-minute marathon album version overshadowed the best of the rest, namely `The Ballad Of ‘32’ and crowd fave `Krisco Kisses’.
After a year and a half lay-off, FGTH returned to the Top 5 in September 1986 with the rockier `Rage Hard’, a taster from the Stephen Lipson-produced sophomore suck-up, LIVERPOOL {*6}. Mediocre and generally lambasted by the critics, the equally-chart-performing LP was no match for its playful but poignant predecessor. In retrospect, they’d set the bar too high, and in follow-on tribal chants `Warriors Of The Wasteland’ and `Watching The Wildlife’ (Top 20 and Top 30 respectively), their descent and fall from fashionistas to baristas was sharp but truly offhand. Holly’s unintentional but plummy impersonation of BILLY MACKENZIE on `For Heaven’s Sake’ was well out of touch, although in the heavenly `Maximum Joy’ (highlighting backing vocalist Betsy Cook) and the anthemic power-ballad `Kill The Pain’ (both features on side one), it was a game of two halves. Incidentally, B-side covers around the period were:- BOWIE’s `Suffragette City’, The DOORS’ `Roadhouse Blues’ and The ROLLING STONES’ `Satisfaction’.
There was not to be a third outing and, with in-house fighting over direction and everything else under the sun, Holly decided to quit during a tour. Although fulfilling commitments, the remaining non-Hollywooders were left holding the baby, while the lead singer battled in the courts to allow him to vacate ZTT Records. Needless to say, PETE WYLIE (of the collective WAH!) turned down an opportunity to front FGTH.
Early in 1989, free of contractual restraints, HOLLY JOHNSON was a solo artist on M.C.A. Records; he subsequently charted high with the singles, `Love Train’ and `Americanos’, which previewed his chart-topping debut album, `Blast’. Meanwhile, his former partner in musical crime, PAUL RUTHERFORD teamed up with ABC’s Fry and White for the release of his one-and-only stab at stardom: the Euro-only dance album, `Oh World’ (1989).
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jul2016

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