25 Years On: Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome
, April 14th, 2010 07:11
Wyndham Wallace celebrates the remastered reissue – with bonus disc – of an unfairly neglected classic a quarter of a century since its title track’s release as a single
Songs about sex, love and the Cold War. A 14 minute song referencing Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a song where President Ronald Reagan quotes Hitler. A song in which Prince Charles discusses orgasms, and even a song about fisting. Songs banned by radio stations, their videos banned by TV controllers. Songs that bore little resemblance to those written by a band who perhaps scarcely even played on them. Out of all these things came Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome. For Thatcher’s Children, a generation too young for punk – and here your correspondent admits he’d never understood the fuss about a band he thought was called The Sex Bristles – this was the real Never Mind The Bollocks.
One can’t help but wonder whether such a debut, a sprawling, overambitious, 65 minute grand folly, could ever hope to see the light of day in these times of lowest common denominator, marketing-led pop. And yet this oft overlooked, barely remembered, rarely respected hour of preposterous indulgence stormed to the top of the UK charts upon release with advance orders said to be in excess of a million. It inspired a nation to adopt uniform designer T-shirts, even now such an historic and iconic fashion statement that parodies like ‘Frankie Say Xanax’ or ‘Frankie Say Chillax’ remain available. It provoked controversy unseen since the days of punk (and arguably never since). And yet these days – singles aside – it’s seen, by critics at least, as best forgotten, a moment of madness on the part of a British public fuelled by Thatcherite consumerism. If it’s praised, it’s only for Trevor Horn’s production techniques. If it’s referenced, it’s normally in the context of discussions about the extravagance of 1980s popular culture. And if its songs get played, it’s rarely anything but the singles.
Undeniably far from faultless, Welcome To The Pleasuredome nonetheless challenged notions of authenticity, ridiculed the establishment, confronted taboos, embraced artistic and cultural literacy and dissected contemporary paranoid society. Then, much as happened to The Stone Roses a decade later, the band fell apart in an ugly jumble of disappointment and legal wranglings so great that they rendered the band little more than a cautionary tale. Unlike The Stone Roses, though, Frankie’s debut remains largely uncelebrated, excluded from the canon of great records established by the adult music media, a blot on the 80s landscape mapped out by revisionist historians who see the likes of ABC and Sparks as the great innovators worthy of praise. Hell, even Sade’s been brought in from the cold.
Perhaps it was the overkill which has seen Frankie largely ignored ever since, as though there’s nothing left to say following the mass of groundbreaking remixes (some included on this reissue’s accompanying bonus disc), the endless stream of tabloid headlines, the perceived arrogance that saw them release the album’s title track as a single with posters deeming it their "fourth number one" even before it had reached the high street. (It actually peaked at Number 2, and it was downhill all the way from there.) Possibly it was the debate about whether any of the band were actually responsible for their music that means they’ve been filed alongside Milli Vanilli, Boney M and other acts thought to have been little more than record company puppets. (Quite apart from Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley and J. J. Jeczalik of Art of Noise were significant contributors to the album, as were Yes’ Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin, while one fifth of Frankie, Paul Rutherford, was little more than a leather-wearing, toy gun wielding, backing vocalist Bez prototype.) Maybe it’s simply that people consider Welcome To The Pleasuredome to contain too much filler, a swollen pustule of glossy style over little substance. But all of these things are what make this record so extraordinary, because Welcome To The Pleasuredome is much more than just music. It’s a manifesto, a satire, a historical document, and a masterpiece whose weaknesses may be evident but whose strengths are overwhelming.
Let’s put to one side whether or not the band had much to do with the album. Producer Trevor Horn, label mastermind Paul Morley, band leader Holly Johnson, Frankie Goes To Hollywood themselves: let’s just think of them as one. It’s not important who did what. One only has to watch the band’s first performance on The Tube to realise they could write songs but needed Horn to make them work, and one only needs to read a few words of Johnson’s interviews to realise he was a pop theorist but needed Morley’s media savvy to bring this to fruition. What’s important is what they did as a whole, and that that was to adopt the aesthetic of Thatcherite culture, greedily, with little thought for the consequences, throwing everything and the expensive chrome kitchen sink into the mix. Then they slung the resulting multicoloured, slick yet sticky result back at the world. Excess was not only Frankie’s forte but their entire raison d’être. If stockbrokers and estate agents could spray London bars with expensive champagne, then Frankie would simply go one better, spraying their territorial jizzings in every direction. "Hey Zang", read Morley’s sleevenotes, "Yes, Frankie?" "Let’s make it a double." "It’ll be a pleasure." And pleasure was their goal.
But it was far from mindless pleasure. The album opened with an overture of opera and vast orchestral crashes before Johnson declared that, "the world is my oyster". Further birdsong and jungle ambience continued – naturally – until finally the almost 14 minute long title track got under way. Frankie might have initially seduced the public with the deceptively simple pleasures of ‘Relax’ and the aggressive in-your-face disco of ‘Two Tribes’, but they were confident enough to make fans wait for the unveiling of their next pop thrill. They understood the trembling tension one felt back then – before the days of MySpace previews, leaked mp3s and carefully considered three month pre-release campaigns – when one first played a record and had no idea what treasures might lie within. Forcing their audience to wait patiently for the record truly to begin – these were still, let’s not forget, the days of cassettes and vinyl, where skipping forward actually involved effort – was a masterstroke of cock-teasing, an act of foreplay that few caught up in mainstream pop would dare. But Frankie were never short of spunk, and all of their remixology, the various extended versions of 'Relax' and 'Two Tribes', had (in retrospect) only hinted at this title track, an epic that brought the intellectual athletics of prog rock to the world of chart pop. This was bombast at its apex, a glittering, towering achievement whose tangled lyrical imagery nodded to Coleridge’s ‘Xanadu’ and spoke of supernovas, diamonds and lovers, Johnson’s puerile glee at delivering the word "erect" in the opening line especially enjoyable. Its subsequent release as a four minute edit was doomed to relative failure: its original expansiveness was as much a reason for its existence as anything.
After an opening like this – the entire first side of the double vinyl – it must have been hard to maintain the pace, so the solution was the thudding, crunching, visceral ode to anal sex that was 'Relax', a song considered so vulgar that DJ Mike Read took it off mid-song on his Radio 1 show, an act parodied on the bonus disc. (His virtue backfired: Frankie’s notoriety boomed. Read has twice been declared bankrupt) But Frankie had plenty more to come. A cover of 'War' (made famous by Edwin Starr) saw Chris Barrie doing his best Ronald Reagan impersonation while philosophising about war, beauty and truth, subversively and slyly quoting Hitler (from his 1924 failed putsch trial) over the top of a rich bassline and cowbell-heavy percussion track. Even this was merely paving the way for the apocalyptic 'Two Tribes', which fed on Cold War paranoia by employing Patrick Allen to satirise his voiceovers for the British government’s Protect & Survive infomercials about nuclear attack. The integration with dramatic Eastern European orchestration of another thunderous, relentless bassline stolen from American funk was a stroke of subtle genius matched only by Johnson’s clever lyrical allusions to Reagan’s past advertising shirts – "On the air American / I wear shirts by Van Heusen" – in a song that was otherwise far from understated.
Unable to match the ferocity of this first half hour, however, the album then takes a curious left turn, with '(Tag)' little more than a short skit featuring a sexually puzzled Prince Charles mimic: "Is it just involuntary pelvic contractions or is one having orgasm?" From there they drift into a prematurely curtailed burst of their ‘Ferry Across The Mersey’ cover (originally a b-side to 'Two Tribes') entitled 'Fury', and then, even stranger, they pick off two more covers, a rocking but ill-judged version of Springsteen’s 'Born To Run' and what one can only assume was a tip of the hat to Johnson’s more playfully camp side, an escapist take on Bacharach’s 'San Jose'. After the breathless excitement of the album’s first half this middle section flags, almost as though it were simply an opportunity for 'The Lads' – as the band called themselves following Johnson’s departure in 1987 – to hog the spotlight for a while at the expense of Johnson’s more literate excursions. They continue with 'Wish (The Lads Were Here)', a largely forgettable piece of white funk pop, while 'Krisco Kisses' was mainly notable for its titular reference to a margarine sometimes used as anal lubricant and a lyric that includes the lines "Let’s take it to the top / With a fist way past the wrist" and "You fit me like a glove, my love / My little puppet glove". Fortunately the lengthy instrumental 'The Ballad Of 32' helps, recalling Pink Floyd’s 'The Great Gig In The Sky', Clare Torry’s vocals mischievously replaced by the moans of an ecstatic female. (These were claimed at the time to have been the result of drummer Ped’s 'work' in the studio, but later revealed as having been lifted from erotic movie Babylon Pink.)
Following this rambling path, however – one that nonetheless remains entertaining and vital, not unlike the endless diversions of a shaggy dog story – the album reaches a surprisingly sensitive climax with the lover’s hedonism of 'Black Night White Light' and at last, following the bizarre rap / rock / barbershop / soul hybrid of 'The Only Star In Heaven', the band’s most unlikely triumph, 'The Power of Love'. As a single this had milked the band’s controversial status with a video that recreated Christ’s birth in an attempt to achieve Christmas Number One status. (Band Aid inevitably knocked it off the top spot) But it’s far from a novelty, despite its jokey references to Penelope Pitstop – "I’ll protect you from The Hooded Claw" – and is instead one of the decade’s finest recordings, its sweeping strings perfectly suited to Johnson’s sentimental, unashamedly romantic lyrics and his Scott Walker delivery. Cheeky it may be – "Make love your goal" is a playful motto, let’s face it – but it’s as sincere and as impressive as another of the era’s finest but often-thought-of-as-guilty pleasures, George Michael’s 'Careless Whisper'. It brings the record to a close on a peculiarly solemn note, with only a short but sparkling instrumental left until Ronald Reagan returns to announce, "Frankie Say: No More".
There was more, of course. They returned two years later with Liverpool, but it could only be an anticlimax. They could never compete with their debut, and in 1987 Johnson headed off towards a solo career inevitably overshadowed by Frankie’s success. But the legacy of Frankie remains, unrecognised though it may be. Their harnessing of tabloid power, their acknowledgement that the studio is as important an instrument as the guitar, their 360˚ approach to their craft – music, image, t-shirts, performance, videos and personality – are now the goal of every band, whether they know it or not, and Frankie designed the template. These things, however, distract from the fact that, at its best, Welcome To The Pleasuredome is one hell of an album, its peaks made even mightier by its failures. We were "living in a land where shock and horror are the new gods", but Frankie illustrated these with as much intensity as humour. Who cares who played the songs? Who really cares who wrote them? Frankie and Welcome To The Pleasuredome were a crucial pop experiment, messing with formulae and heads in equal measure. You could call them a singles band, but it’s only when you explore their entire Pleasuredome that you can really appreciate their value. Never mind the bollocks. Here’s the whole fucking package.