A band - name from a 40s Frank Sinatra film-promo blurb. Lead singer Holly Johnson had roots in post-punk Liverpool, a peer of such future rockstars as Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch. The late-blooming FGTH signed to ZTT and were ZTT-hyped into a craze, helped by the "lewd" lyrics and video for "Relax" (which, like their debut album, was mainly Holly + Art of Noise). No such thing as bad controversy. Broke up amidst internal rancor and litigation over the harsh ZTT deal.

Relax, don't do it
When you want to suck it to it
Relax, don't do it
When you want to come

   -- Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Relax

Frankie Goes To Hollywood is an example of what a great voice, a few well-written and very well-produced pop songs, and a hype machine gone out of control can bring. Their legacy is as a symbol of the 1980s: flashy and overproduced and overpromoted, but still rising above it all with a few amazing songs.

This band formed in 1982 in Liverpool, England, and almost immediately drew a club following for their hard rock sound with a bit of a danceable twinge to it. They got quite popular around the Liverpool area. The group eventually built this into an appearance on the British radio show Peel Sessions in late 1982, made a few more radio appearances in early 1983, and were almost immediately signed to the record label Zang Tuum Tumb. The group consisted of Holly Johnson on lead vocals, Mark O'Toole on bass, Brian Nash on guitar, Peter Gill on drums, and Paul Rutherford on backing vocals. The record label was attracting a lot of attention to itself because of its high profile and its adoption of electronic sounds and remixing techniques, which wasn't lost at all on this band.

During the fall of 1983, the group went into the studio to record an album's worth of material. The band to this point mostly performed hard rock oriented material, but when they reached the studio, the group quickly realized that their label was headed in a different direction. This later would cause a split in the band, but at the time the group was all in favor of trying a new sound.

The band had two extremely catchy rock songs written: Relax and Two Tribes; over the next few months, these were crafted carefully into something quite unusual (for the time) and catchy: a fusion of hard rock and electronic dance music.

When the first single from the group, Relax, came out in December of 1983, it shot like a rocket up the charts because of its unusual sound, coupled with an energetic appearance in January 1984 on Top of the Pops. Ironically enough, just as the popularity was near the leveling off point near the top ten, the song was banned by BBC Radio in the UK in early 1984 for the song's sexually suggestive lyrics. After that, with the media coverage and notoriety from having their first song banned by the BBC, the song absolutely exploded, flying to number one in Britain in early 1984. The group quickly produced a very over-the-top video for the song and it was sent to the United States and received some exposure on MTV; the song began to take off there as well in early 1985, reaching the top ten.

Looking to follow up quickly, the group released the single Two Tribes (with a fantastic b-side War) in the spring of 1984, accompanied by an extremely elaborate video featuring, among other things, US President Ronald Reagan and USSR Premier Konstantin Chernenko sumo wrestling. Again, this provided another publicity shot in the arm, and along with a catchy single, it again produced magic (see Ice, Vanilla). The single shot to number one in Britain in late spring of 1984, dragging their slowing first single back up to number two by August, becoming the first band since The Beatles to hold both the number one and number two positions simultaneously on the British pop charts. In seven short months, the group had gone from being completely unknown to utterly dominating the British music scene.

The band went back to the studio during the summer of 1984 to touch up their debut album which was to come out in the fall. By the time the album was released in October 1984, the double album Welcome To The Pleasuredome had presold more than a million copies in Britain alone, the biggest preorder success since The Beatles. The group's third single came out at the same time, Power of Love, and it reached the number one slot in Britain around Christmastime.

Their touring once the album was released was incessant and well-marketed. The faddish wearing of t-shirts sporting the phrase "Frankie says" followed by one of many different phrases in bold black letters on white were quite popular as 1984 closed, and became something of a symbol of the faddish nature of the band itself. The group was insanely popular throughout 1984, incomparable to anything except for the heyday of The Beatles in the UK.

But the magic was starting to fade. Their fourth single, the title track from Welcome To The Pleasuredome peaked at number two on the UK pop charts in early 1985. Compounding the problem was the fact that almost monthly, their record label Zang Tuum Tumb was releasing a remix of the group's popular singles. It got to the point by April of 1985 that it was becoming a joke in Britain; the popular comedy show Spitting Image had a skit featuring a puppet of Holly Johnson singing a parody of Relax with the chorus "Remix, reuse it..."

The group began to implode in the studio in late 1985 and early 1986, putting together the album Liverpool. The other band members tried to throw lead singer Holly Johnson out of the band several times, but each attempt failed by a slim majority vote because there really was no replacement for his voice. The first single, Rage Hard, came out in August and peaked at number four in Britain, and the album came out in October of 1985, peaking on the albums chart at number six. The second and third singles (Warriors Of The Wasteland in November 1986 and Watching The Wildlife in February 1987) both made the top forty, but were nothing like the success of their earlier stuff.

This didn't stop their label from remixing these songs into the ground like their earlier works, and by April 1987, the band broke up. Holly Johnson went on to have a middling solo career, but most of the rest of the band faded into obscurity.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood is best remembered for a few great songs, especially Relax and Two Tribes, both of which are excellent fusions of hard rock and electronica. They should also be remembered as a symbol of the 1980s, an era which really demonstrated the power of marketing in music with the advent of MTV and the music video as a marketing force.

Frankie says relax.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Between Two Pillows
-


After the explosion, silence. 1984 was an explosive year for pop music, but I was only eight years old, not yet aware of the world, and I did not perceive the concussion. Instead, I experienced the silence, the void, the cavity left behind by the piercing bullet, tissue slowly regaining its former shape, distended by shock, blood vessels ruptured. Frankie Goes to Hollywood did not strike a major organ; they were not a life-changing experience. They passed through the body and out the other side, their transit taking less than a year. Their transition of the Sun was brief. A small mark, but a mark nonetheless, a wound. On rainy days we still feel it.

My enduring memory of Frankie Goes to Hollywood is this. It is 1987. I am in a pub, the Penruddock Arms in Wiltshire. It is summertime. There is an arcade machine; Pleiades, an anonymous and undistinguished imitation of Gorf. The television is showing a repeat of The Goodies, and is thus tuned to ITV (the comedy group originated on the BBC, but moved to ITV, and consequently the BBC refused to air repeats of their shows, despite them being very popular in their prime). It is very sunny outside. The sun is shining through the windows, the rays visible in the smoky air. There is a snooker table. From the radio comes Madonna's "La Isla Bonita". That is my most enduring memory of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It does not actually involve Frankie Goes to Hollywood at all, except that I remember thinking about them at the time. Frankie Goes to Hollywood had in fact been and gone by 1987.

Another memory. It is 1988. I own a Sinclair Spectrum, the most popular home computer in the UK at the time, although by now its lead is being eroded by a new wave of games consoles, and by the 16-bit computers. Its decline is accompanied by a rash of compilations, as games companies attempt to exploit their back catalogues; the hits of a year or two years before are repackaged in A4-sized cardboard boxes containing a plastic frame, two tape cassettes, and a sheet of instructions. It has been a long time since computer games came on tape, in large cardboard boxes. In the 1980s, computer games had a very short shelf-life, perhaps only a few weeks. Even the most fondly received - Manic Miner, Elite and so forth - these games were swept from the shops a few short months after release, replaced by newer models, such was the vitality and churn of the computer games industry at the time.

In this environment only the most garish of peacocks could find a mate, and the late 1980s saw inflationary box wars, especially in the 16-bit arena. During the first years of the 1980s most games had been packaged in simple cassette boxes, boxes which by the mid-80s were exclusive to budget-priced games, abandoned for full-price titles in favour of large cardboard containers, in some cases converted video cassette boxes. Elaborate packaging had been around since the earliest days; the text adventures of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were packaged with their respective novels, whilst a company called Nexus experimented with solid plastic "cartridge" boxes that resembled futuristic cigarette cases. The maxim was that you could make a small, expensive package valuable by making it heavy, and games were laden were novellas, stickers, posters, pewter figures, lead ballast, suet pudding, and cheesecake.

The rise of thte 16-bit machines presented games companies with a new dilemma. The games came on 3.5" floppy discs, which were smaller and thinner and weighed less than a tape cassette. 700-800kb of game data took up less space than 48kb. Large packaging became the norm. Psygnosis were the pioneers in this field, with Brattacas, Shadow of the Beast and many others pushing the envelope of what could be stocked on shop shelves. Brattacas could not be heavy, and thus it had to be large; a floppy disc, a flip of paper and a t-shirt were packed into a box the size of Wales, adorned with a licensed Roger Dean painting. Psygnosis continued this strategy well into the twilight of the 16-bit era, often adding a second floppy disc containing a short and generally irrelevant animated overture for the game. When Roger Dean was not available, Psygnosis turned to John Harris, Chris Foss, Peter Elson, and other young British sci-fi book cover artists. The paintings bore no relation to the game, because they had been painted years before for unrelated science fiction novels. But they stood out from the endless, tawdry parade of poor-quality cartoons of men pointing guns at the viewer, of spaceships, of giant ants and so forth.

But I digress. In 1988 Ocean Software released a compilation of popular games called The Magnificent Seven]. Its contents spanned the period from 1985 to 1987. The games had been published both on Ocean's main label and on its Imagine subsidiary. Along with Rainbird's 1988 compilation Supreme Challenge (which included Elite, Starglider and The Sentinel, three of the most auspicious British entertainment software achievements of the 1980s) it was one of the best collections of Sinclair Spectrum titles. The Great Escape, Wizball, and Short Circuit were solid titles, Arkanoid and Cobra were minor classics, the latter very different and superior to its C64 incarnation. Wizball, Short Circuit and Cobra in particular had excellent music, the latter a hip-hop Spectrum version of Martin Galway's C64 Arkanoid theme. Yie Ar Kung Fu was a dull arcade fighting game, an ancestor of the Street Fighter games, yet inferior to the simpler, more brutal Way of the Exploding Fist of a year or so earlier. It was a bonus game, and thus The Magnificent Seven actually had eight games on it. With the exception of DJ sets, compilations are not generally respected in their own right.

The highlight of the compilation was Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond's Head over Heels. Indeed, this was the highlight of the Sinclair Spectrum games scene in 1987, and thus for me the highlight of 1987. It was the ultimate evolution of the isometric 3d platform game, a genre inaugurated in 1984 by Ultimate, now Rare, with Knight Lore. Three long years had seen the genre done to death, the three-quarters graphic perspective a cliche, overfamiliar from most of Ultimate's subsequent output and many other titles, too many to list. Head over Heels was more attractive and better-written than Ultimate's games, its rooms more mysterious and devious, the presentation slicker and more professional. Ritman's master stroke was to combine the isometric platform game with another venerable genre, one which does not have a name. In this genre the player takes control of several different characters, each of which has a single rigidly-defined talent (for example, one might be able to pull blocks, one might push blocks, another might pick things up, a further robot might be able to light fires). The gameplay of this genre presents the player with a set of puzzles which can only be solved by a certain combination of characters; furthermore, the layout of the rooms frustrates the player's ability to move those particular characters into the right place.

Head over Heels featured two dog-like creatures, one of which could run quickly and pick things up, whilst the other could jump great distances with aerial control, and fire tranquilising doughnuts at the meanies. When the two creatures met up, Head could sit atop Heels, creating a double-sized gestalt combining the powers of both. The game was designed so as to split the creatures as much as possible, there being a genuine sense of achievement when the player managed to bring them together. The environment was large and diverse, the puzzles were entertaining, and it was very rarely unfair. Unlike Ritman and Drummond's previous 3d outing, Ocean's 1986 version of Batman, Head over Heels gave the player six different ways to complete the game, firstly by escaping from captivity back to the creatures' homeworld, and secondly by liberating one or several of five captive worlds. So successful was Head over Heels that the 3d isometric game died a death immediately thereafter, the last organic example perhaps being Audiogenic's Wreckers for the 16-bit machines in 1991.

There was another game on The Magnificent Seven. It was Frankie Goes to Hollywood, based on the pop group and released just after the height of the group's success. When I was young pop music was not the social force it had once been. Whereas children of the 1960s and 1970s had been taught and guided by pop music, my generation was instead educated by computer games. I do not know at which point computer games started to make more money than pop music, but as a child the thought of spending money on a pop music single was alien to me. There is a sad and generally unimpressive history of attempts to combine the fields of pop music and computer games, just as the history of pop musicians who turned their hand to acting is an unfortunate one. During the 1980s and 1990s a motley bunch of pop stars and faded has-beens were pixellated, ranging from Michael Jackson (in a game based on his film "Moonwalker"), Sigue Sigue Sputnik, The Thompson Twins, Aerosmith, and latterly the Spice Girls and 50 Cent have failed in one way or another to make the transition between the world of the users and the world... on the other side of the screen.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood remains the most successful translation of a pop group into a computer game, on account of the fact that it bears no relation to Frankie Goes to Hollywood bar some spurious iconography and a generally cryptic attitude that evoked the work of Paul Morley, the group's publicist. At the time I knew nothing about the band apart from the sound of "Relax" and "Two Tribes", I knew nothing of their image or their infamy. "Relax" had been hugely popular in the UK at the beginning of 1984, and "Two Tribes" was only slightly less popular so during the middle of the year. Together the singles spent months at the top end of the pop chart, at one time occupying both the top two slots. The singles went on to become two of the best-selling singles of all time, thanks in part to a steady stream of twelve-inch and cassette remixes and re-releases, all of which counted towards the final total. Although the music that carried Frankie Goes to Hollywood's name was lost amongst the t-shirts and the hype, the group's best songs were excellent examples of stadium-sized dance music, catchy as anything and produced to sound like a million pounds by Trevor Horn, his Fairlight CMI, and Ian Dury's backing band, at a cost of only slightly less than a million pounds. Even today "Two Tribes" in particular sounds huge and awe-inspiring, like nothing else from 1984 that did not have Trevor Horn's name on it somewhere. Only the old-fashioned sampled kick drum, handclaps, and cowbells date it. "Relax", on the other hand, now seems unusually slow and spartan, whilst the group's third number one single, "The Power of Love", has become a Christmas standard. "Frankie Say" t-shirts were the most popular t-shirts in the UK in 1984 and 1985, and inspired a run of knock-offs that read "Frankie Says".

So the story goes, Trevor Horn's wife was with child and thus unable or unwilling to have sex with him during the sessions which produced "Relax", and Horn channelled his pent-up erotic energy into the song's production. Trevor Horn was at that time famous as the bespectacled lead singer of the Buggles, whose hit single "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first to be shown on MTV. The thought of Trevor Horn in a sexual context does not, curiously, connect with my own sexual impulse; rather, it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable. The computer game was written by Denton Designs, who later wrote Wreckers as mentioned above. It was a curious graphical adventure with arcade sub-games, a little bit like some of Lucasarts' subsequent graphic adventures. At the time it was briefly popular but made very little impact on Britain's computer gaming consciousness, and it almost wholly obscure nowadays.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood produced three number one singles and an album, Welcome to the Pleasuredome, that sold over a million copies before it had been released. The album was a two-disc set consisting of the three number one singles which everybody already had, and a fourth single which only reached number two because everybody had just bought the album from which it came, indeed it was the title track. The rest of the album was filler, including a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song and the late Edwin Starr's "War". The album remains a common sight in second-hand record shops today. Frankie Goes to Hollywood re-emerged a year later, without Trevor Horn, with an album called Liverpool which is not a common sight in second-hand record shops on account of the fact that no-one bought it when it was new. For no obvious reason the band rose again, posthumously, in the late 1990s, with a surprisingly popular Best Of compilation, whilst their first album again reached the charts having been re-released at budget price.

But I digress. My memory of Frankie Goes to Hollywood is of a pub in Wiltshire with Madonna coming out of the radio, in 1987, a year after the group had disbanded. My memory of Frankie Goes to Hollywood does not have Frankie Goes to Hollywood in it, yet it is my memory of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Memory is a strange thing.

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