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
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
, 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
, 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.