Once upon a time in a space far, far away, because boy things got really weird and wild, there lived a makeshift band dubbed Frankie Goes To Hollywood [Frankie]. As bands go, this one was almost science fiction.
Unleashed on an unsuspecting world was a recording so epic, so massive, so seismic – a publicity tsunami washed ashore in the United States and the existence of Frankie was undeniable. Despite Frankie's heavy British flamboyance the act was still irresistible and, for a time, resistance was futile. Yes, Frankie was all the rage with the arrival of the aptly titled mammoth seller of pure, unadulterated, shameless, unapologetic pop pleasure, Welcome To The Pleasuredome .
Today, I still listen to this indulgent gem of a recording that seemed to tap into the zeitgeist of the mid-80s. To dub Frankie a one-hit wonder on the basis of Relax is entirely unfair as they were clearly a one-album wonder. If there was ever an act that dominated the global music scene in 1984 it had to be Frankie. Nowhere had sadomasochism [S&M] mixed with pleasure pop and fashion more seamlessly than through the quintet of Frankie's Holly Johnson [vocals], Paul Rutherford [vocals, keyboards, dancing], Peter Gill [drums], Mark O'Toole [bass] and Brian Nash [guitar].
Of course, in many respects, the true mastermind behind the outfit was then producer extraordinaire Trevor Horn. Horn churned out sterling production after production effortlessly for years particularly during the 1980s. Frankie was his greatest studio experiment and the act seemed to capture the look and sound of a decade of excess through excessively good fun in well-executed and cleverly crafted pop. Horn's credentials are worth mentioning too. He was a supreme master of sound and mixing. Horn's trademark is perhaps best known through his personal stamp on The Buggles' Adventures In Modern Recording  especially Video Killed The Radio Star [best remembered as the first MTV music video], ABC's magnificent The Lexicon Of Love , Yes' 90125  [a recording of pure resurrection by commercial standards for the progressive rock band], The Art Of Noise's Who's Afraid Of (The Art Of Noise) , Pet Shop Boys' Introspective , Simple Minds' Street Fighting Years  and Seal' Seal . He continues to leave an imprint today, but like any special thing of strange magic that connects to its moment in time Horn's special touch was never more intoxicating than his work throughout 1980s and Welcome To The Pleasuredome said it all. Horn was THE man to tap for production. He was the go-to producer who worked compelling pop structures that ranked on the A-list of producers next to the likes of Ian Stanley, Nile Rodgers, Rupert Hine and Alex Sadkin to name just a few. With Horn's name attached to a project you were immediately intrigued and desperately sought to delight in the wonder of his latest.
With this assessment it would stand to reason that Frankie's disappearance following the ambitious Welcome To The Pleasuredome was largely the result of Horn's departure and a band with little if any talent at all. That's certainly how the critics envisaged things or at least painted them. Horn's influence certainly cannot be understated, because it was Horn who molded that raw talent into shape. Thus British publications immediately savaged Frankie with the arrival of the dismal Liverpool , a grim rock record by comparison. They had good reason to be unkind. Suddenly – gone was all of the fun, the pop hooks, the sheer boundless, unbridled energy of the outfit's magnum opus replaced with a whimpering, raunchy, undisciplined, under produced rock record of disastrous proportions that sorely lacked innovation and technical craft. FRANKIE SAY, LET'S FORGET THAT ONE.
Stepping back two years prior to the stroke of genius that was Welcome To The Pleasuredome, the team of Frankie with producer Trevor Horn, cultivated one of the biggest, cheesiest, but tastiest pop morsels ever to grace the inner ear canal. I remember kids in my high school classes walking around with FRANKIE SAY WAR! HIDE YOURSELF and FRANKIE SAY RELAX! t-shirts. For weeks on end it was Frankie mania the world over. There was even a stint at my school.
So, let's face it, when you're on top of the pleasuredome, jet-setting and kicking the world's ass with an endless stream of Frankie product, you know what's coming next. Frankie wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last to fall hard. No, they weren't The Beatles, but for a period the hysteria connected at that level of intensity for this amalgamation of gay and straight men. Oddly, Frankie hailed from the home of the Fab four's Liverpool too [along with Dr. Who's Elisabeth Sladen]. In some ways, time had indeed changed the complexion of Liverpudlian output.
Johnson and Rutherford brought a flamboyant and racy face to their pop act. In fact, Johnson, when interviewed, was just downright bizarre for the sake of being bizarre. The man rarely made any sense at all. His right hand man, the under appreciated Rutherford, was a mustached, silky, soul-filled crooner. Not since Freddie I Want To Break Free Mercury had a singer sporting a mustache been so popular in pop music. These were gay men that could sing, put on a performance and sport a mustache with the best of them. The wild range of Holly's unconventional, booming voice was the the true face of the band making the cover of many magazines including The Face. Nevertheless, Rutherford added the spice. He was indeed the smooth foil tag to Johnson's fury. Perhaps unfairly the remaining three, Gill, Nash and O'Toole, were often considered puppets for the production machinery that was studio Horn.
The eccentric Holly Johnson. Where did it all go wrong? Frankie is simply one of those great wonders of the music world. Like those "shooting stars" Johnson would sing about on Welcome To The Pleasuredome, Frankie briefly burned strong and bright into the dark night before dismantling forever. Recapturing that chemistry is a rare thing for any act and it was never to be for Frankie. You might recall an effort by VH-1 for Bands Reunited to reassemble Frankie, but even then it was a no go. The obstinate Johnson beat to his own drum, had moved on and refused to play along for a brief performance. While many fans would have enjoyed that spontaneous potentially brilliant explosion that was Frankie and seeing the band lay it down for five minutes on VH-1, it simply wasn't to be. There's no denying that Frankie was ultimately the creation of production. It wouldn't have been the same without Horn and maybe Holly Johnson's refusal to play nice was somehow an affirmation of the band's past glory.
Like so many of the recordings we've looked at here on the 80s Music scene, Welcome To The Pleasuredome is a work of pure genre art and still remains untainted by the hands of time. Evidence of its staying power arrived in the form of the two-disc 25th Anniversary edition of the recording that was issued in the UK in 2010. It's rare to see a concept album of this magnitude today.
Analyzing it today, I'm still blown away by the epic thirteen minute odyssey that is the title track, a personal favorite for my money. The opening seconds is like a stroll through the jungle is a bit like a walk through the local zoo before engaging in a persistent, tight and magnificent groove. As you might imagine, Welcome To The Pleasuredome never plays it safe. There's nothing typical about its weave through funky rhythms complemented by ad-libbed verse in the hands of Rutherford's fabulous foil. It is a powerful pop tribute to the long and winding epics of the progressive rock era, yet positively bold and ambitious in its own pop construction. It's positively major. It remains a stunner.
Relax, arguably one of the biggest pop songs of the 1980s, even if it only barely scratched the top ten in America. Relax is an over-the-top salute to sex. It bursts, it spews and it absolutely explodes with a kind orgasmic energy. One instantly recalls Rutherford and Johnson parading through the laser beam light show in the music video. That, of course, replaced the Brian DePalma [Body Double] production that replaced the banned S&M parlor number complete with leather bondage and drag queens, a clip befitting the track. Still, time and distance has been kind to these songs. I defy anyone to scoff at these selections as anything less than some of the most brilliantly crafted pop numbers ever made. This is bad ass pop music, a culmination of talent and studio experimentation that makes Britney Spears sound positively robotic.
Two Tribes tapped into the zeitgeist of a globe dominated by American/ Soviet Cold War politics. Ronald Reagan pressed the Soviet Union to the economic brink inevitably bringing about its eventual dissolution in 1991. That standoff is dramatically captured through a video brawl between Reagan and then Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko. Chernenko would die in 1985. It represented the ongoing political struggle between two nations and two ideologies with Holly Johnson as the circus ringmaster. It also symbolized the stranglehold those political winds had on nations across the globe. The geopolitical front changed dramatically thereafter.
The remainder of the album is topped with the gorgeous ballad The Power Of Love, which was accompanied by the controversial nativity-themed religious video. The track further emphasized the band's complete immersion into taboo subjects of politics and religion, heaven and hell, sex and love. The act artfully engineers such risks into a complete canvas of originals and reinventions. Remakes of Ferry, War, Born To Run and San Jose are delightful treats exhibiting Frankie's absolute balls to audaciously cover everything from Gerry Marsden to Bruce Springsteen to the Burt Bacharach-penned Dionne Warwick number. Frankie had the audacity to break all the rules.
The remainder of Welcome To The Pleasuredome is notable for a selection of far more impressive and compelling originals from Wish (The Lads Were Here) and Krisco Kisses to the Rutherford-infused sensuality of Black Night White Light and his portion of The Only Star In Heaven.
Yes, Welcome To The Pleasuredome may have been tinkered and toyed with endlessly to achieve perfection, but achieve it Horn and company did. To prove that point, and this is entirely subjective, I have heard every remix under the sun for these classic, original productions and there has yet to be one that has improved upon these originals. I'm sorry, but better mixes don't exist.
The anniversary release delivers a never-before-released lost track. The catchy little oddity is called Watusi Love Juicy. And, of course, all of the weird audio and narration bits are still in place. The only major omission, for me, was Happy Hi from the US edition of the recording, which can be found on the remastered Frankie Say Greatest  compilation. It's essentially a Johnson solo, but it's not to be missed.
If ever there were desert island discs to be mentioned Welcome To The Pleasuredome would assuredly secure a place among them. Frankie's music has since been endlessly recycled, repackaged and regurgitated to the point of embarrassment. All of those efforts include selections from Liverpool. Trust me, most of those products are skip worthy affairs. The only recording worth a shag for the shelf is the remastered Welcome To The Pleasuredome complete in all its snazzy gatefold glory replete with original artwork, photos and other S&M tweaked goodies [nipple pinches, etc.] that the band foisted upon the world back in their hey day. Of course, if you're into that sort of thing then double prizes for you.
I've since read Holly Johnson's book, Bone In My Flute , where he frankly [to use a word] recounts his HIV diagnosis in 1991 and it's a solid page-turner. Johnson, post-Frankie, went on to release what amounts to four solo recordings and Blast  stands alone as just that, the best of the bunch. It's easily the most memorable and fun with loads of catchy melodies and hooks including Americanos, Love Train and Heaven's Here. American Producer Stephen Hague [New Order, Pet Shop Boys, OMD, Erasure] had a hand in the project and on two of the best aforementioned selections.
Paul Rutherford sans the mustache. Now Paul Rutherford always received the least attention of the two gay leads and his vocals, along with his dance moves, were more complementary than full-on lead in his Frankie support role, which I always found a shame. Rutherford's silky, soulful voice was a gift in its own right and had a significant impact on the proceedings on the Frankie debut. Rutherford released a truly odd collection of songs called The Cowboy Years  under the pseudonym Rutherford/ Butt Cowboy. Now if that isn't a truly proud gay man I don't know what is. You have to love and respect the colorful Frankie boy. Unfortunately The Cowboy Years lacks all of the heart, soul and shining brilliance of his one and only true solo outing, Oh World .
Yes, Rutherford's house-inspired groove project, Oh World, is a must own recording. The production, fueled with great melodies, even received production input from Martin Fry and Mark White [ABC], and is criminally underrated. It's the acid house counterpart to ABC's own Up . Oh World surpasses the best of Johnson's solo work and was reissued in 2011 as a two disc remaster. Seek it out with the Frankie original while you can. You can't go wrong with classics like the title track, Get Real, the string heavy beauty The Gospel Truth, Seduction and a cover of Chic's I Want Your Love. So if you're out there Paul, reconsider a proper Oh World sequel. Fans the world over are waiting for it.
With Frankie Goes To Hollywood at the top of the world, you knew the backlash was inevitable. You may recall a scene from director Alan Parker's The Commitments  that sums up the end pretty well. Jimmy Rabbitte assembles a soul band and the musicians have a few choice words about Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Hearing things like that was like a knife to the heart for the fans of '80s music. I love The Committments too. I love rock and I love soul and I love pop too. Isn't there room for all?
If so, be assured, the tour de force that is the magnificenty constructed Welcome To The Pleasuredome is perfect for exercise, cruising, dancing, political debate and sex. There's a reason that for a time it was the play vehicle for one of the planet's most unexpected, unlikely pop arrivals. In 1984, the world was indeed the oyster of the decadent and unstoppable Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
"We are living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods." That line from Welcome To The Pleasuredome may have seemed bloated and over the top, but one has to wonder if Frankie, like the band, didn't have a relevant point. The production is loaded with a kind of poetic excess, but a pleasure it is. [If you think I'm merely selling it, just take the title track which literally lifts verse from the stanza of Kubla Khan  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and reorganizes it in grand Frankie fashion]. To be blunt, like an orgasm, these guys made things exciting, exhilarating, fast, furious and put you in their grip even if but for a few minutes within the respective music timeline. It's no wonder the whole thing disintegrated in a heap.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood Discography: Welcome To The Pleasuredome [1984; remastered 2 CD 2010] */ Bang! / Liverpool / Bang! The Greatest Hits Of Frankie Goes To Hollywood / Reload! Frankie: The Whole 12 Inches / Maximum Joy / The Club Mixes 2000 / Twelve Inches / Rage Hard: The Sonic Collection / Frankie Say Greatest . * The Sci-Fi Fanatic Say Greatest!
Holly Johnson Discography: Blast  */ Hollelujah / Dreams That Money Can't Buy / Soulstream .
Paul Rutherford Discography: Oh World [1989; reissued 2011] */ That Moon Ep [w/ Pressure Zone] [1989; reissued in 2010]/ The Cowboy Years  [Paul Rutherford & The Butt Cowboys].