24
Jul 09

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD – “Relax”

FT + Popular110 comments • 14,549 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. 1
    rosie on 24 Jul 2009 #

    A scandal because none of the band played on the track, huh? Once again I say, nothing new under the sun!

    Although one suspects that this will become increasingly true from here on, as the producer elbows unpredictable things like performers out of the way.

    Having failed to complete on the house I was looking at, I’m now ensconced in a strange flat above and behind a butcher’s shop in St Neots High Street (which was then the busy A45 from Birmingham to Harwich and Felixstowe). As my day consists of getting up at the last possible minute to start work across the car park, coming home for my tea and spending the evening in the Wheatsheaf pub round the corner, I get to hear very little music. The Wheatsheaf had a jukebox but its use was not exactly encouraged. So I didn’t get to hear much contemporary pop at all.

  2. 2
    Tom Lawrence on 24 Jul 2009 #

    Eight is bang on. I love the sadomasochism metaphor you used there, too, so writer points ++ on that.

  3. 3
    Michael Daddino on 24 Jul 2009 #

    Until now, I had never seen the “banned” video in its entirety. Simulated golden showers, people.

    MTV briefly showed this odd “megamix” version of “Relax” with harmless bits of the banned version, the laser-lightshow version, the in-concert version, and some bizarre tie-in to (IIRC) Brian De Palma’s Body Double with Holly Johnson taunting the lead actor. And you know, after all that Frankie exposure, I still didn’t think of them as “gay” so much as “really weird.”

  4. 4
    wichita lineman on 24 Jul 2009 #

    “There’s barely a song” – I’d never thought of it that way but, yes, that’s a two-note chorus! Congratulations, Mr Horn. It’s the kind of song I think I hear in pubs or bars all the time, but listening to it today I realise I haven’t heard it in years. The heavenly chord into Germanic one-note bassline is one of the all-time ‘event’ intros; we’re on hallowed soil. Indeed, aside from the odd, fey keyboard squeak and glugging noise, the production still sounds so heady. Should I be surprised? Well, I heard a much more recent Trevor Horn Popular entry recently and was sad to only feel as if I’d had my ears varnished.

    I always think of pornographers as being far more reposed than uptight Holly. ‘Pinched’ is right, his vocal is certainly seedy, sadistic – it could just sound hissy and unappealing but up against the melancholy chord sequence it ends up as ecstatic.

    Has any other single song launched a fashion craze?

  5. 5
    Steve Mannion on 24 Jul 2009 #

    I’d go higher – 9 maybe even 10, and I prefer this to the follow-up so don’t see any reason to mark it down as such personally. Pop as a brilliant bolt from black space happens a lot even among chart-toppers but this ticks pretty much every box for me being high-concept, ambitious, modern/futuristic OTT and yet still “just” a fun pop song you can dance to. Amongst other things I love how it’s so maximal yet can be defined almost entirely by the signature bass note (channelling the Jaws theme? really hope that was intentional).

    To 6 year old me they were just the same as any bunch of pop lads (e.g. Duran Duran) looking like they were having a great time and demonstrating why pop star looked like the 2nd best job ever after train driver. Okay I must’ve missed th more lurid bits of the video at the time and all the naughty stuff inc. the lyrics went way over my head as you’d expect. Great on TOTP tho.

    There was some talk about Jacko being robbed when it came to #1s during his peak. For me the same is true of Trevor Horn even tho Frankie here were about to go on a remarkable run.

  6. 6
    Michael Daddino on 24 Jul 2009 #

    wichita, I remember the video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” sparking a mad rush for fluorescents in my school. But you said “song” and not “video” so uhh….

  7. 7
    rosie on 24 Jul 2009 #

    I’m fairly indifferent to this, actually, if not pig-sick of it from exposure over the years. What I will say about Frankie is this.

    A couple of year ago a friend of mine, knowing me to be an electrosceptic, sent me a mix which included the full-length version of Welcome to the Pleasuredome (the track, not the whole album, although the track probably takes up a goodly part of it). Although I was pretty indifferent to the mix I was blown away by WRTTPD. Anything that references S T Coleridge can’t be all bad.

    Was this the first number one to be launched along with a full-blown merchandise marketing campaign – FRANKIE SAYS RELAX tshirts and all that? I’m not exactly terribly receptive to that sort of thing I’m afraid.

  8. 8
    wichita lineman on 24 Jul 2009 #

    Rosie, I don’t remember the t shirts until the summer – which makes sense – when they had their second single out (I’ll keep schtum). If it was purely merchandising it would have been dull, I agree, but I think it was grass roots.

    I wish I could remember the slogans on some of the cheaper bootlegged shirts, I’m sure there some crackers. All I remember is seeing a girl in Chester wearing one in the distinctive ‘Relax’ block print that read ‘OK Ya’. As in the Sloane slogan. What would a modern equivalent be – a David Cameron t shirt which somehow referenced Tinchy Stryder? God, the 80s were difficult.

  9. 9
    Miguel Toledo on 24 Jul 2009 #

    Definitely not agree with giving it just an 8; “Relax” sure goes all the way to 11 and then some. But I’m with you in comparing this to the Sex Pistols; it didn’t even need videos, lyrics or controversy, just those basses and drums were as much an armageddon as anything on “Nevermind the bollocks”. I also like to think there’s an analogy between the way “Nevermind the bollocks” destroyed music and then PIL + The Clash picked up the pieces to rebuilt it into something different, and the way “Welcome to the pleasuredome” destroyed a house the Art of noise would later rebuild.

    I like the fact Jackson’s being mentioned here because there sure is a link between ZTT and him; both of them being the vanguard of pop music in the early eighties. I’m sure Jackson & Jones had to hear these albums at some point; the weirdness in the sexuality expressed in “Pleasuredome” had to have an impact in them and the way “Bad” turned out to be. I mean, in hindsight, when you consider Jackson’s traumas, being influenced by the dirtiness and brutality of ZTT now seems inevitable. Weirdness was already there; after all it was present Thriller disguised either as camp or confessional; but in the world post-frankie, it mutated into something much more brutal and disturbing. See how the lyrics in “The Way you make me feel” sound harmless, but the bass and drums are almost apocalyptic; can’t help hearing a struggle between repression and expression there, and how the seeds of that were planted by Frankie.

    BTW I seem to recall that at some point Jackson was planning of making an album with Horn as producer.

  10. 10
    Miguel Toledo on 24 Jul 2009 #

    And also Holly going “hit me with your laserbeam/laserbeam me”; that’s to me the most disturbing part of the song AND at the same time the sound of pop going nova or something like that. Now that i think about it, I suppose it pretty much summarizes why this is such a relevant song.

  11. 11
    Steve Mannion on 24 Jul 2009 #

    It’s not a link I’d considered before but, well, maybe bits of ‘Bad’ contain Horn’s influence directly or are just tapping into the same techno mine (the stuttery mechanics of ‘Speed Demon’ could be directly influenced by AON?).

  12. 12
    LondonLee on 24 Jul 2009 #

    There was a t-shirt which said ‘Frankie Say Arm The Unemployed’ that I fondly remember (I’m actually in the middle of writing something about those slogan shirts for me blog at the moment, though more about the originals designed by Katherine Hamnett)

    After the string of rubbish chart toppers we’ve just had I’m tempted to give this a 9 or even 10 just for being a breath of fresh air and NEW. I once had to translate the lyrics of this for a Spanish girl in a nightclub in Alicante, “Quando quieres orgasmo” was the best I could do.

  13. 13
    Miguel Toledo on 24 Jul 2009 #

    “Acabate cuando quieras” it’s a good translation. Can’t think of any spanish-speaking mainstream band saying something like that.

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 24 Jul 2009 #

    8 seems fine for me as it’s not my top Frankie hit. However the combination of sleek disco pulse with sublime rock dynamic is a compelling one.
    The song had an early pre-Horned debut on an edition of the Tube the previous year – and I seem to recall John Peel, introducing the band on TOTP, taking pride in announcing that he had given the band a session on his show in 1983.
    Holly always sounds lusty and lascivious to me – as if he’s savouring every moment – compared with Marc Almond’s more ambivalent tones.

  15. 15
    LondonLee on 24 Jul 2009 #

    Unfortunately my O-Level Spanish didn’t teach me the verb “to come” so I had to wing it. She understood.

  16. 16
    TomLane on 25 Jul 2009 #

    A 9 for sure, 10 sometimes. This went to #10 in January 85 in the U.S., after being re-released from April ’84 where it got to #67. This was the only Top 40 hit for them in the U.S.

  17. 17
    Izzy on 25 Jul 2009 #

    Another 10. I’d have this as the greatest of all number ones myself. It’s everything that pop can be – short, hooky, irreverent, and, above all, insanely popular. The daring of the whole circus is fascinating and an event worth celebrating in itself – I’d stretch the lineage to Madonna, KLF and the Spice Girls, and I suppose the early Stones deserve a mention as pioneers. Plus the sleeve looks fantastic. The crowning glory is the avant-gardità of the production – even today it still sounds like the future, there’s nothing like it.

    It’s weird how the ubiquity and the ban went together. I was only eight at the time, and though I remember well all the number ones from the period, I only knew Relax from hearing bigger boys singing it – it’s unfathomable now how a ban from Radio One and Top Of The Pops could be so inhibiting. I can only surmise too that no-one really knew why it had been banned, because the idea of so many protoscallies falling in love with a concept like this is still one of the delicious things only pop pulls off.

  18. 18
    AndyPandy on 25 Jul 2009 #

    Never really liked this – before the ban it was played quite a bit on Radio One and despite its later status thought it was a bit of an overproduced noise of a record.Unfortunate in my opinion when Trevor Horn had been/was to be responsible for such good stuff.

    Fuckin Mike Read if it wasnt for that self-publicising twat (and the only reason he must have had for wanting the ban is for some weird way of getting himself publicity) we probably wouldnt be having this conversation 25 years later…as it was going nowhere fast before the ban despite being all the plays…

    For me this record sums up the time when I finally knew the halcyon days of early 80s pop were over and the leaden completely unfunkiness and ugliness of the mid-80s had taken over. Still only 3 years till the entry of the house stuff in 1987/88 turned things around…

  19. 19
    logged out Tracer Hand on 25 Jul 2009 #

    #17: The crowning glory is the avant-gardità of the production – even today it still sounds like the future, there’s nothing like it.

    S Reynolds does a wonderful, extended investigation of how the song was pieced together in “Rip It Up” – he makes a good case that no song had ever before been so mercilessly in sync with itself.

  20. 20
    Steve Mannion on 25 Jul 2009 #

    #18 depends how strict your definition of funky may be but ‘Hangin’ On A String’ was a hit a year or so after this right? Plus ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, ‘White Lines’, ‘Somebody Else’s Guy’, ‘Change Of Heart’, ‘Twilight’, …surely these are not unfunky or ugly unless you’re wholesale opposed to digitisation/synth-soul.

  21. 21
    Izzy on 25 Jul 2009 #

    As an eight-year-old I was obviously not particularly on top of Frankie-as-cultural-phenomenon, I just knew the catchy tune. I’ve seen it described briefly using phrases like ‘beer monsters’ and ‘great tabloid fodder’ – I assume there was more to it, but would appreciate an insight from posters who were actually there, please.

    (inspired by seeing a ‘Frankie Says Relax’ t-shirt while in the west end twenty minutes ago, a rare enough event to feel like some sort of sign!)

  22. 22
    Steve on 25 Jul 2009 #

    It’s a bit unfair to say “none of the band played on the final cut”. You obviously haven’t seen the film clip of the band playing the song BEFORE Trevor Horn got hold of it – several weeks before it hit the charts. Admittedly listening to the “bare bones” of the song seemed exactly like that – viewing a skeleton before the real meat was placed over it – but credit to them for creating the frame for Horn to work on.

  23. 23
    Alan on 25 Jul 2009 #

    The Frankie game in a web/java spectrum emulator emua includes awesome music

    review in Your Spectrum

    even with the ban, good fun though this was, it was only just whisper ‘hey you know what it’s about, right?’ added excitement to being any other number 1 (excepting the very recent rub) at school. but it became exciting some weeks later (as we will see) when stuff going BACK UP the charts became VERY IMPORTANT AND AMAZING. and it was basically their summer.

  24. 24
    Billy Smart on 26 Jul 2009 #

    #2 Watch – a week of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’, then two week’s of ‘Radio Ga Ga’ by Queen.

  25. 25
    will on 26 Jul 2009 #

    Re 18: I think Relax would have still got to Number One even without the ban. It had entered the New Year chart in the 30s, got played on TOTP and then shot up to number 6 before Read got hot under the collar. His intervention ensured that Frankie became a phenomenon rather than merely the next 80s pop stars with an angle.

  26. 26
    Mark M on 26 Jul 2009 #

    Didn’t like it then, don’t like now. I half get and don’t get it – that bwangy bass sound sums up the time as much as anything else, and I understand the tension/release business, but beyond that, eh… I had no real idea who Trevor Horn was when I first heard this, but there was something going on that I really wasn’t going to enjoy (with a couple of exceptions) over the years to come. As for Paul Morley’s hype machine, I wasn’t exposed until I was back in Britain later in the year, but I didn’t take to that either – I’m sure will discuss that a lot more over Popular installments to come. Morley on Late Review=good, Morley as pop provocateur=tedious.

  27. 27
    lonepilgrim on 26 Jul 2009 #

    having watched the video again after many years I was more struck by the tiger than anything else – did the Daily Mail not react to this flagrant feline filth?

    IIRC the video was shown late on Channel 4 – helping to stoke C4s image as porn merchants to the nation – yet another conributing factor to the records success.

  28. 28
    Taylor on 26 Jul 2009 #

    At my school, it was said (in whispers) that the chorus went “relax, don’t do it, when you want to suck and chew it.” I winced even then, I think.

    It’s amazing how camp signifiers would drift over everyone’s heads in those days. So many people just didn’t seem to catch on – from Queen to Village People to The Smiths. Even when Frankie made it this explicit, there were plenty who still didn’t get it. Especially kids: those of us who’d heard that there were GAYS in FGTH disagreed over which of them it might be. Hmm, the scruffy, drunk-looking Scousers obsessed with Pink Floyd, or the neat dancer in the pink vest with the clipped “Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart” moustache? Different times. We grew up slowly in them days. Pleasing to recall how little the gay thing bothered us, mind. Something tells me a similarly out(re) gay-oriented act would not find such favour with 12-year-olds today.

    The whole “I heard they didn’t even play on the record” stuff is hilarious, not least for the musical illiteracy it displays. People were genuinely shocked when the news got out. Presumably these people had heard “Relax”, and assumed that was the sound of a power trio?

    My favourite moment in “Relax” is when Holly shouts “come… HUH!!!” and there’s that grotesque gushing noise, like gallons of industrial semen charging down a sewer pipe (is that the “Caligulan piss” bit in the video? I haven’t seen it for ages, and I’m not going on YouTube now as I’m supposed to be working and I’d be on there for hours). But at the risk of sounding like an old dad or a bad stand-up, the lyrics remain incomprehensible to me. Relax, don’t do what? Don’t come? Is this a premature ejaculation pep talk? The only bit that connects is “hit me with your laser beams”, which is kind of cleverly naughty, I suppose.

    I think I prefer the follow-up, even though this may well be the “better” record. I’m not sure why – maybe the idealistic cynicism of Frankie / ZTT works best for me when it’s outward-looking, rather than public/private, pseudo-sensual. Maybe it’s my innate dislike of the calculated sex-as-marketing approach: “Relax” would be phenomenal as an obscure gay disco track, but the fact that it’s so self-conscious, designed to shock and tease more than to thrill… that almost takes the edge off a great, great record. Mind you, I love that Eurodance stuff like E-Rotic (“Max Don’t Have Sex With Your Ex”, “Fred Come To Bed”, “Fritz Loves My Tits” etc), so perhaps I just don’t know what I’m on about.

  29. 29
    Izzy on 26 Jul 2009 #

    I checked out the ‘New York Mix’ of this last night – there’s a fantastic tightly-wound almost electro sound to the first half of it which doesn’t really join up with other pop movements, at least those that I’m aware of. It’s fairly close to Arthur Baker’s production on New Order’s ‘Confusion’ (again a track a little disconnected from their other singles, to my ears) so I’m willing to believe this was the authentic sound of New York clubs of the era – but it’s never really made it onto my radar. I’d like to hear other stuff like it.

  30. 30
    Rory on 27 Jul 2009 #

    “Relax” is indelibly linked in my memory with being on the bus home from matric, part-way through the hour-long 25-mile journey, hearing it sung by a guy from the year above us who had perfected not only the BOM bom BOMs but Holly Johnson’s orgasmic “huuAAHHH!”, for all the bus to hear.

    Not that we necessarily even thought of it as orgasmic; naivete, and lack of exposure to the banned video (in Australia as here), meant that our only explicit clue was the lyric “when you wanna come” – and its preceding instruction to relax and not do it was perfect misdirection, because why wouldn’t you want to do that? Surely Frankie was telling us not to bother coming to Hollywood.

    Okay, we can’t have been that naive, not at sixteen, but the tame replacement video did mask the innuendo to a surprising degree, given that the whole track is soaking in bodily fluids, practically spraying them out of the speakers with every beat. It was still obviously a hit to us, even though it only reached number five in Oz (where INXS and Pat Benatar were lording it over the charts at the time); all those 12″ versions were surely evidence of its importance. Record companies wouldn’t release more than one version of a single just to cash in, would they? Next you’ll be telling us those T-shirts weren’t a spontaneous gesture of solidarity from the fans. Frankie Say Consume.

    I never bought any of the “Relax” singles, though, and didn’t even hear Pleasuredome until a few years ago. My Frankie album was a review copy of Liverpool sent to our student mag at uni a few years later. The review I wrote was mixed, at best, and tells me that I didn’t rate much of their stuff apart from “Relax” (and “Warriors of the Wasteland”).

    So this might have scored a 6 from me back in the day. It’s grown in my affections, and I can definitely see how it could be worth an 8 or 9 to others, but to be honest to Tom’s rating guidelines I’ll have to call it a 7. I can happily go years without hearing or thinking of “Relax”; its abundant musical heirs have left it less essential than it once might have been. Even if I have had BOM bom BOM running through my head all weekend.

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