24
Jul 09

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD – “Relax”

FT + Popular110 comments • 12,999 views

#531, 28th January 1984, video

In the beginning was the ban. Oh, there’d been a Frankie before, and a “Relax” before, but the ban was the B of BANG!, that Paul Morley-driven hyperconcept which when completed would lead to….. well, something. (A computer game, as it turned out.)

The ban, of course, was consensual. Relax, in its flesh-and-leather sleeve, ached for punishment – as public and official as possible. Mike Read duly doled some out. The record became an instant legend and soon had the sales to match the publicity. Classic McLaren playbook, as many a veteran must have pointed out. And the really clever thing was, when you played it it was hardly obscene at all: its filth was all in the aura and the rumour.

Or almost. “Relax” had Holly Johnson, after all. Holly wasn’t a sexy performer – he sang like he looked, mocking and pinched. But he had a seediness to him that was perfect for the material. He turns the hi-NRG workout of “Relax” into pornography by the simple trick of sounding like a pornographer: there’s a grubbiness to every grunt, gasp and sneer. Every time he gasps “when you wanna come” he’s part master of ceremonies, part voyeur, part swept-away joyous victim.

He’s also the only thing in Frankie you can grab onto. Years later there was a minor scandal as it transpired none of the band played on the track – but surely nobody was shocked? There’s not a band on this record – there’s barely a song, just a collection of gorgeous Fairlight fragments posing and wheeling to the unending catwalk beat. And thanks to Trevor Horn it all sounds immense. Or almost all: a couple of the keyboard runs are a bit BBC wildlife show, and the sampled splash effect that accompanies a cataract of Caligulan piss in the insta-banned video just sounds on record like something’s broken. He could – and would – push and polish the machinery further.

But that wasn’t the point of “Relax”: the point was to provoke and delight and suggest, and make people dance. And “Relax” was an absolute, enormous success on those terms. The queer and BDSM imagery Morley and the band built “Relax” around dropped a little into the background – leathers switched for tight, slogan-dense T-Shirts – and Frankie became a bona fide event. The Sex Pistols restaged as burlesque? Sure, but oh how it worked.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    Billy Smart on 24 Sep 2009 #

    NME Watch: 5 November 1983. Out of touch old-timer Charles Shaar Murray is unconvinced – Move over, grandad!;

    “I played the B-side of this first by mistake, and found a dubbed-up interview with the band in which they explain how they decided to work with each other and then recount their recording history. “It’s not that exciting a story, really”, says one of them. I agreed with him heartily and played the A-side anyway. Basically a chant over the rhythmic vibration of the very latest digital kitchen sinks, ‘Relax’ is the subject of an ad campaign which requests that one requires 19 inches to comprehend the music fully. Having only been issued with seven, I eventually made do with about three. Presumably the band who converse so fascinatingly on the B-side are present somewhere in all of the general Hornery of the A-side. As ever, I await further enlightenment.”

    CSM awarded a joint single of the week to ‘Lifeboat Party’ by Kid Creole & The Coconuts and Eurythmics’ ‘Right By Your Side’. Also reviewed;

    Ian Dury – Really Glad You Came
    The Style Council – A Solid Bond In Your Heart
    The Rolling Stones – Undercover Of The Night
    JoBoxers – She’s Got Sex
    Bob Dylan – Union Breakdown
    The Assembly – Never Never
    The Cure – The Love Cats
    Genesis – That’s All
    Yello – Lost Again
    Captain Sensible – I’m A Spider
    Death Cult – God’s Zoo

  2. 92
    Chelovek na lune on 10 Sep 2010 #

    Absolute crap. Aggressive bass-heavy monotone thumping, overblown sound effects, pub rock turned camp, the triumph of marketing, t-shirts, slogans, computer games, and the musical forebears of Milli Vanilli. No more than a more bigged-up Sigue Sigue Sputnik. My goodness the grimness of shiny facile materialism of the mid-80s was fully upon us. And how horrid it was.

    Warranted hero of good things past Trevor Horn turned to zero.

    ZTT did much better (Snobbery and Decay!); hell, Holly Johnson did better solo, just about (Heaven’s Here, Heaven’s Here)

    1984 was when pop turned bad again. Frankie says…buy all the dross, and the public shamefully submits, as they often do before well-marketed dross.

    This week the second (and arguably the better of the brace) single from ABC’s criminally underrated “Beauty Stab”, “SOS” enjoyed its one week in the top 40, at number 39.

    And later in the year, much later, something far more genuinely experimental with electronics and technology, and far more enjoyable and….well just musical, really, their “(How to be A) Millionaire”….stiffed, if you will excuse the expression in the context of this crude and grotesque piece of japery – had Frankie never heard of the expression “too much information”, with two weeks at a lowly number 49.

    I fear that I can only give this song another one out of ten, the same that I gave to the very very different number it replaced at the top. Not a good start to the year. But I suppose it was bleak year in many ways, in the real world as well as the world of the charts.

  3. 93
    Martin F. on 1 Dec 2010 #

    #42 – The essential paradox of being 11. Perfectly put!

    #46 – So the future Father Jack was on the same show as Frankie? Seems somehow fitting. DRINK! FECK! RELAX! HUH!

    #85 – Hard not to fanboyw?!nk over that post, but still: HUH!

  4. 94
    swanstep on 1 Dec 2010 #

    Interesting to read through these comments. Much of what I’d want to say about Relax has already been said by others (8/10 feels about right to me). One point that hasn’t been fully addresed, however, was just how truly God-like Trevor Horn was already seeming at this point (esp. if you were in a band or knew people in bands). Yes’s Horn-hyper-produced Owner of a Lonely Heart was a surprise #1 for a couple of weeks in the US in Jan 1984. Even though Yes were has-beens compared to Frankie, their scoring a #1 with a record with a full selection of Art of Noise bonkers bits in it, and with a completely mad, Bertolucci-esque video by the late Peter Christopherson from Throbbing Gristle and Coil (gotta believe that the art of noise and ztt brains trusts must have had some input into getting Christpherson that job!) is almost as amazing as breaking Frankie. Yes’s follow-up single ‘Leave it’ in March 1984 (again with a nifty high concept vid. that no one has ever forgotten) was also a kind of production landmark – the track for which the phrase ‘Fairlighted up the wazoo’ might have been coigned! Both of these records seemed to me at the time to set the table for Prince’s various very weird-sounding but also instantly classic records later in the year. Anyhow, I mention all this in part just to get across that, even without Frankie, at this point Horn was the hottest producer on the planet. Then Relax went nuclear with a good-old-fashioned banning and tabloid dust-up… well, you could only wonder what might come next… Taking either Relax or Owner of a Lonely Heart as its kick-off, then, 1984 was a year of intense, massive-sounding hits that in some respects haven’t been equaled or surpassed since for their general weirdness and impact. Both Frankie’s three #1’s and Prince’s three big Purple Rain hits (2 #1’s and a #2 in the US) feel like truly incredible pop events to me now – as far out as the charts go.

  5. 95
    Conrad on 1 Dec 2010 #

    92, Chelovek na lune – I think you are pretty much spot on there, with regards to Frankie, 1984 and the excellent “Beauty Stab”.

    I find the whole Frankie sound really unpleasant and ugly somehow.

  6. 96
    punctum on 1 Dec 2010 #

    Agree fervently about Beauty Stab – one of the sanest and deepest commentaries on eighties Britain, especially its second side (the backing vocals on “S.O.S.,” by the way, were provided by FGTH) – and How To Be A Zillionaire which pre-empted in both style and content the group responsible for a possible Phantom Popular entry from later in 1990 (significantly the latter did much better in the States than here).

  7. 97
    swanstep on 1 Dec 2010 #

    “From Land’s End to John o’ Groats…” That final track from Beauty Stab is a ripper and should have become a standard… Maybe the return of tough times and tories will see it re-discovered.

  8. 98
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 1 Dec 2010 #

    As I noted way above, this song’s uneasiness, ugliness and TMI are all job-well-done rather than flaws of execution — it isn’t intending to get everyone to love it

  9. 99
    thefatgit on 1 Dec 2010 #

    Reading upthread about the most sampled drum break ever @60…I’d have to counter with The Winstons’ “Amen Brother”, more commonly known as the “Amen Break”. There’s an interesting piece on it here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SaFTm2bcac

    Ironically, his explanation of the origins of the Amen is recorded on a dubplate.

  10. 100
    Cumbrian on 2 Dec 2010 #

    Isn’t the most sampled break ever “Funky Drummer” by James Brown? A quick google around leaves me none the wiser (except that it’s either the Amen Break, Funky Drummer or The Honeydrippers dependent on which web page you read) – so this is a genuine question, if anyone has an answer.

  11. 101
    swanstep on 2 Dec 2010 #

    So, the claim is that that the kick/bass drum in Relax is the kick drum from When the Levee Breaks? That may be so, but I can’t hear it, certainly not in anything like the way I can when WtLB’s drums are sampled in Beastie Boys’ Sabotage and elsewhere in hip-hop. Frankie’s kick is powerful but also very dry/not at all echoey, right? whereas WtLB’s kick is *the* ultimate recorded-in-a-big-room echoey pulse. Horn and his techs may have used a sliver of a WtLB’s bass drum beat, i.e., just it’s attack really, attack to spice up the drum machine sound they had is my guess. At any rate, under no circumstances would I consider Relax’s kick the sample of a drum break (the Beasties and others sample the whole WtLB break the way everyone does funky drummer, ashley’s roach-clip, et al.).

  12. 102
    thefatgit on 22 Sep 2011 #

    Going back to this after remembering that Nasty Rox Inc’s “Ca$h” album makes full use of WtLB’s break, most notably on “Wubba Wubbaa II”. Ironic then, that NRI were signed to ZTT probably at the twilight of the label’s illumination of the pop landscape. And who were they, this Nasty Rox Inc? Step forward CJ Bolland and Dave Dorrell. I’m willing to wager that Horn/Lipson/Dudley contributed to the sound and feel of that album behind the mixing desk as well.

  13. 103
    punctum on 23 Apr 2014 #

    Struck me that I haven’t posted a link to my TPL post on Now II, which can be found here. Observant readers will note that I have minimally remixed my above comments on “Relax” and incorporated them into the piece. I am likely to do the same with their other two number ones but tbh this is a standard TPL practice of mine insofar as (a) if the writing’s good enough, it can stand recycling and (b) putting it in a different (but parallel) frame gives the writing a new context and also reminds people that it was written, thereby saving it from becoming forgotten. I suppose the challenge to me really is whether I feel the same about a piece of music several years after writing about it, and if not I can change the writing about quite radically. This applies to some number ones but by no means to all of them.

  14. 104
    Patrick Mexico on 22 Oct 2014 #

    Mike Reid, perhaps the definition of a Situationist prank.. ;)

  15. 105
    Mark G on 22 Oct 2014 #

    “FREE SECONDS TO RUNARAHHHND!!!”

    Mike Read, on the other hand, …

  16. 106
    glue_factory on 22 Oct 2014 #

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Hra8IP07Zg

    Mike Reid when he was bit more urban and gritty

  17. 107
    Mark G on 22 Oct 2014 #

    READ!

    oh never mind…

  18. 108
    weej on 23 Oct 2014 #

    #106 – Obligatory companion-piece – https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=ELKb-lcW4e0#t=71

  19. 109
    hectorthebat on 28 Nov 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    NBC-10 (USA) – The 30 Best Songs of the 80s (2006)
    OUT (USA) – The 25 Gayest Songs of the 1980s (2011)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 126
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1980s (2008)
    HarperCollins GEM (UK) – Single of the Year 1949-99 (1999)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 86
    New Musical Express (UK) – NME Rock Years, Single of the Year 1963-99 (2000)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 150 Singles of All Time (1987) 123
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 24
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 204
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Q (UK) – The 80 Best Records of the 80s (2006) 11
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 13
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Uncut (UK) – 100 Rock and Movie Icons (2005) 79
    Uncut (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles from the Post-Punk Era (2001) 14
    Vox (UK) – 100 Records That Shook the World (1991)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Kerrang! (UK) – Singles of the Year 5
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 37
    Schlager (Sweden) – Singles of the Year 9
    Spex (Germany) – Singles of the Year 1

  20. 110
    Michael K on 21 Oct 2015 #

    The success or even the existence of this record has to have been situated on the most tenuous of connections. Horn sees them and the song on The Tube but it’s the Kid Jensen session version that sparks his interest (remember that session? No, neither does anybody but Trevor).
    The Mike Read interest in the sleeve artwork is another moment of turning point that a knock on the door from the tea lady could have made a non-happening. There was certainly nothing on the record that had alerted anybody, even when singing along happily.
    Most of all, only a bizarre camaraderie between Horn and Morley could make for a high-profile in-yer-face popkid assault upon homophobia (which hadn’t even got a name yet)!

    Frankie were some kind of miracle alright. In the annals of ‘manufactured bands’ their milestones are blink and they missed it.

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