Frankie Goes To Hollywood Biography

Formed in the summer of 1980, this Liverpool, England-based outfit comprised former Big In Japan vocalist Holly Johnson (William Johnson, 19 February 1960, Khartoum, Sudan) backed by Paul Rutherford (b. 8 December 1959, Liverpool, England; vocals), Nasher Nash (b. Brian Nash, 20 May 1963; guitar), Mark O’Toole (b. 6 January 1964, Liverpool, England; bass) and Peter ‘Ped’ Gill (b. 8 March 1964, Liverpool, England; drums). It was a further two years before they started to make any real headway with television appearances and a recording contract with Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records. Their debut single, ‘Relax’, produced by Horn, was a pyrotechnic production and superb dance track with a suitably suggestive lyric that led to a BBC radio and television ban in Britain. Paradoxically, the censorship produced even greater public interest in the single, which topped the UK charts for five weeks from January 1984, selling close to two million copies in the process. The promotion behind Frankie Goes To Hollywood, engineered by former music journalist Paul Morley, was both clever and inventive, utilizing marketing techniques such as single word slogans and the production of bestselling T-shirts that offered the enigmatic message ‘Frankie Says...’ The band’s peculiar image of Liverpool laddishness coupled with the unabashed homosexuality of vocalists Johnson and Rutherford merely added to their curiosity value and sensationalism, while also providing them with a distinctive identity that their detractors seriously underestimated.

The follow up to ‘Relax’ was the even more astonishing ‘Two Tribes’. A spectacular production built round a throbbing, infectiously original riff, it showed off Johnson’s distinctive vocal style to striking effect. Like all the band’s singles, the record was available in various 7-inch and 12-inch remixed formats with superb packaging and artwork. The power of the single lay not merely in its appropriately epic production but the topicality of its lyric, which dealt with the escalation of nuclear arms and the prospect of global annihilation. In order to reinforce the harrowing theme, the band included a chilling voice over from actor Patrick Allen taken from government papers on the dissemination of information to the public in the event of nuclear war. Allen’s Orwellian instructions on how to avoid fall out while disposing of dogs, grandparents and other loved ones gave the disc a frightening authenticity that perfectly captured the mood of the time. Johnson’s closing lines of the song, borrowed from an unnamed literary source, provided a neat rhetorical conclusion: ‘Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?’ The six-minute plus version of ‘Two Tribes’ was played in its entirety on UK lunch time radio shows and duly entered the chart at number 1, remaining in the premier position for an incredible nine weeks during the summer of 1984 while the revitalized ‘Relax’ nestled alongside its successor at number 2. A Godley And Creme promotional film of ‘Two Tribes’ which featured caricatures of US President Reagan and Soviet leader Mr. Chernenko wrestling was rightly acclaimed as one of the best videos of the period and contributed strongly to the Frankie Goes To Hollywood package.

Having dominated the upper echelons of the chart like no other artist since the Beatles, the pressure to produce an album for the Christmas market was immense. Welcome To The Pleasure Dome finally emerged as a double with a number of cover versions including interesting readings of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’, Dionne Warwick’s ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’ and Gerry And The Pacemakers’ ‘Ferry Across The Mersey’. Like all the band’s recordings, the sound was epic and glorious and the reviews proclaimed the album an undoubted hit, though some commentators felt its irresistible charm might prove ephemeral. 1984 ended with a necessary change of style as the band enjoyed their third number 1 hit with the moving festive ballad ‘The Power Of Love’. Thus they joined Gerry And The Pacemakers as only the second act in UK pop history to see their first three singles reach the top. History repeated itself the following year when, like Gerry And The Pacemakers, Frankie Goes To Hollywood saw their fourth single (‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’) stall at number 2.

Thereafter, Frankie Goes To Hollywood was never again to attain the ascendancy that it had enjoyed during the golden year of 1984. A sabbatical spent in Eire for tax purposes meant that the band’s comeback in 1986 had to be emphatic. Having failed to conquer America during the same period, merely increased the pressure. Critics had long been claiming that they were little more than puppets in the hands of a talented producer despite the fact that they sang, played and even wrote their own material. The grand return with ‘Rage Hard’ (the title borrowed from Dylan Thomas) won them a number 4 UK hit, but that seemed decidedly anti-climactic. The second album, Liverpool, cost a small fortune but lacked the charm and vibrancy of its predecessor. Within a year Johnson and Rutherford had quit, effectively spelling the end of the band, although the remaining three attempted to continue with new vocalist Grant Boult. Johnson prevented them using the Frankie Goes To Hollywood name, and attempts to record as the Lads came to nothing. Johnson himself went on to enjoy UK Top 5 solo hits with ‘Love Train’ and ‘Americanos’ and a chart-topping debut album, Blast. He announced he was HIV positive in 1993 and shortly afterwards published his autobiography, A Bone In My Flute. A second album appeared on his own Pleasuredome label at the end of the decade, but Johnson now spends most of his time working as an exhibited oil painter.

The story of Frankie Goes To Hollywood charts a remarkable rise and fall, with the band managing to cram a decade of sales, creativity, and controversy into less than 24 months. In many ways, their fate was the perfect pop parable of the 80s. For a band that was so symptomatic of their age, it was appropriate that the Frankie Goes To Hollywood saga should end not in the recording studio, but in the High Court. In a battle royal between Johnson and his former record company ZTT in early 1988, the artist not only won his artistic freedom but substantial damages which were to have vast implications for the UK music business as a whole.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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