Jul 09


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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  1. 31
    MikeMCSG on 27 Jul 2009 #

    It’s a great record rather than a great song but deserves top marks for exposing Mike Read for what he really was.

    Prior to this he was faking it as a credible DJ who supposedly liked New Wave when he was really into prog rock and Cliff Richard. I remember hearing him once extol the virtues of Roger Woddis the man who did puzzles in the Radio Times and thinking how is he getting away with this ?

    That all ended in January 1984 when he blew all that credibility with “the kids” in one burst of self-righteousness and revealed himself as the squarest Tory on the station. By the end of the decade R1 had got rid of him and he’s been a bit of a joke ever since.

    It’s interesting to hear him try and rewrite history since splitting hairs that he didn’t actually ban it when of course his unilateral declaration on the most popular show left the station with no alternative.

    It’s notable that R1 were very wary of banning records subsequently and “Relax” featured on the Christmas edition of TOTP in 1984.

  2. 32
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Has anyone ever covered relax?

  3. 33
    Tim on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Nouvelle Vague have. Inevitable and disappointing, which is a bad combination.

  4. 34
    Conrad on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Mediocre song, good but overrated production. A lot of noise signifying very little. So, around a 6 I think.

    Smashie and Nicey did quite a good spin on the Mike Read incident, in which the Enfield character is seen in the studio saying:

    “I have in my hand a piece of filth by Paul McCartney and The Frog Chorus which contains the line ‘Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum’. I don’t want to hear about your nether regions Mr McCartney and I’m not playing this shit on my radio programme.
    Here’s Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Relax”

  5. 35
    misschillydisco on 27 Jul 2009 #

    i agree, tom, this is definitely an 8. frankie were ultimately style over substance, but they proved to 11 year old me that the vision of life that i was being peddled was not the full story. so for that, i thank them.

  6. 36
    Tom on 27 Jul 2009 #

    #28 one great thing about the E-Rotic singles is the way they tell a little story across the releases. So the chorus of “Fred Come To Bed” goes “Fred come to bed / Cos your Max had sex with his sexy ex”. Where Fritz and the tits fit in I’m not sure.

  7. 37
    wichita lineman on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Re 31: Shock tactics aside, it’s all about production but, uh, when was that ever a bad thing? And I don’t want to play the devil’s advocate but, defending the world’s softest target Mike Read, he never held back from saying what a fan of Cliffie he was even during his New Wave era. Pretty sure he genuinely loved both. Him and the similarly politically dodgy Julie Burchill were great cheerleaders for post-Postcard group The Farmers Boys, and he also wrote and released the Trainspotters’ agit-mod High Rise. On the subject of sexymusic, M Read said that he played The Icicle Works’ Hollow Horse in the bedroom. Really not sure what to make of that.

    Re 35: Style over substance accounts for the bulk of eighties chart pop – unless I’m in for some heavy duty re-evaluations over the next four years of Popular entries; Relax’s stylish production still thrills, though, while Total Eclipse, for instance, sounds a bit silly. A bunch of acclaimed movies of the period (off the top of my head My Beautiful Launderette and Betty Blue), seem similarly daft and shallow in 2009.

    Re 28: It did seem like it was going to remain relatively obscure for a while – from memory it took a while to chart.

  8. 38
    Erithian on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Will at #25 is right – it entered at 35 on Tuesday 3 January and jumped to 6 the following week, before the ban. I don’t know whether Mike Read had played it in his Wednesday morning chart rundown the week it entered, but maybe he only listened to it properly the week it went up 29 places. Normally a single with that kind of momentum would be a pretty sure contender for number one soon afterwards – maybe not a “five weeks at No 1 and one of the ten best-selling singles of all time” kind of hit, but it’s safe to say it would probably have been number one without the ban.

    Mike Read talked afterwards about going into clubs where the DJ would put on “Relax” to taunt him as soon as he walked through the door – his reaction was to hit the dancefloor immediately, to signify that he thought it was a great dance record, just not the kind of thing he wanted to broadcast to kids at breakfast time. Which, to be honest, I find to be a defensible position.

    This is another one which takes me back to finals year – to be precise, the euphoric lunchtime after the last exam of Finals week, when our whole gang, male and female, half-skipped down Egham Hill towards the pub singing chorus after chorus of “Relax” – we weren’t thinking about the subject matter, just the title was the operative word. A golden afternoon in a momentous year.

    At that time, early June ’84, “Relax” was already heading back up the chart to meet its successor in an incredible scenario in July. Its Top 40 run in full: 35-6-2-1-1-1-1-1-2-3-6-16-21-23-21-29-29-31-26-24-21-17-16-11-5-3-2-2-3-3-3-6-7-12-20-22-29. The weeks when it was 11 through to 6 were the weeks when its bunny-embargoed successor was at number one.

  9. 39
    MikeMCSG on 27 Jul 2009 #

    37 – yes I remember the Icicle Works connection. Every subsequent review they had referred to it e.g. “If Mike Read tries bonking to this he’ll do himself a mischief” and so on.It did nothing to remove the “uncool” tag they were always fighting to shed. They were probably the most persistent one hit wonders of the decade.

  10. 40
    wichita lineman on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Does anyone know the release date of Relax? I seem to remember it being on The Tube around Oct/Nov ’83.

    Icicle Works singer Ian McNabb recently published his autobiography, Merseybeast. One of the quotes in the promo blurb was from his mum who said of it “There’s too many drugs and women get treated very badly.”

  11. 41
    Conrad on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Not sure when it was released but it entered the singles chart week ending 12 November 1983, so October 83 sounds about right.

  12. 42
    Matthew H on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Great record. “Event” pop. As Will at #25 points out, it was already well on its way to the top (leaping from No.35 to 6) the week before it was banned, but I’m sure Frankie wouldn’t have been quite the same phenomenon without Mike Read. Still, all good.

    Here’s a nice illustration of the essential paradox of being 11: having bought this disgraceful single, I rushed home and played it a dozen times in succession while making a battle scene with my Star Wars figures.

  13. 43
    Taylor on 27 Jul 2009 #

    #36 – “Fritz Loves My Tits” follows on from the end of “Fred Come To Bed”, which goes “Oh, my Max had sex with his ex last night / Cos he loves her ass and tits / So I tell you Fred, come into my bed / If you don’t, I will call up Fritz.”

    Sadly, the story arc ends with the third single. Further emissions from E-Rotic, while in the same vein, appear to be self-contained – in “Ralph, Don’t Make Love By Yourself” (“I want to taste it / so please don’t waste it / You’re not a hanky panky wanky man”) she does warn Ralph not to “act like Alf”, but unless I’ve missed something this is the onanistic Alf’s sole appearance in this mind-frying porno soap.

  14. 44
    Billy Smart on 27 Jul 2009 #

    It spent 8 weeks hanging around the lower reaches of the top 100 at the end of 1983 before it broke into the top 40. There’s also the great ‘Wild Wet & Willing’ NME cover of November 1983, accompanying a Gavin Martin interview which led to Holly Johnson refusing to talk to the paper for the next ten years.

    I think that I must have the first 18 months of FGTH in my head as some kind of benchmark for monumental pop, a record that hasn’t been matched in the subsequent 25 years. At their peak, Oasis may have made big-sounding records that everybody knew were coming out, but crucially they weren’t about anything and didn’t carry the sense of importance that Frankie did.

    Looking back, I now realise that the sense of importance was largely a pose – do these singles really provoke any sense of sex/ war/ religion? – but if rock people are going to pose, then they might as well do it on this scale. Also the pop/dance nature of these singles makes it a lot easier to take than either the earnestness or signposted irony of U2.

    So when I was 11, Relax was an important document about sexuality, but one that I couldn’t really decipher. What practices were they refering to? It must be some deep – and frankly rather scary – adult secret.

    25 years later, like Taylor, I’ve learned that the lyrics of this don’t really function as coherant innuendo. I can remember talking about formulative pop experiences in a bar with a gay academic in the nineties and him admitting to me “I’ve never really worked out to what each line of that song is supposed to be referring” and being pleased to learn that I wasn’t alone in not getting it.

    I’m not bothered that this doesn’t function very well as a song, because I think that I’ve always approached this first and foremost as an artwork. Certainly, more than any other record on Popular so far, I think that this is the single for which the sleeve forms an important part of the full aesthetic experience. I find it interesting how that cover has always exuded devience to me without ever once striking me as arousing or enticing – an effect magnified by the shocking S & M text on the reverse, which we schoolchildren would shock each other by pointing out.

    I can’t remeber if we’ve discussed this before, but is this the first number one which works better as a 12″?

  15. 45
    Billy Smart on 27 Jul 2009 #

    No-one’s mentioned the tenth anniversary re-release yet, promoted by game but rather-exposed Holly Johnson in lieu of the whole group. Was anybody first exposed to the song by this, I wonder? It seems unlikely, as it never seemed to go away – I’d imagine that the people who bought it just wanted to have it on CD.

  16. 46
    Billy Smart on 27 Jul 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Frankie Goes To Hollywood performed Relax on Top of The Pops twice (Christmas 1984 we’ll come to in the fullness of time);

    January 5 1984. Also in the studio that week (the twentieth anniversary edition) were; Status Quo, Frank Kelly and Slade. David Jensen and John Peel were the hosts.

  17. 47
    Billy Smart on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Two abiding emotional memories of this at the time.

    My big sister (seventies pop veteran of Bolanmania, The Stones at Earls Court, punk, etc) asking me what pop music I liked when she came to visit one Sunday lunchtime, my venturing Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and her attempting to make me uneasy with her reply (delivered with some spite and mock-horror) “But they’re GAY, William!”

    The effect it had of making the more culturally assured children in the class cooler than us. I remember the only boy in the class to go through puberty – an agressive and intellectually combative character – talking loudly with worldly knowledge, explaining the fetishes in the song to us other boys as we walked home from school. A group of secondary school girls in uniforms walking in the other direction (a daily menace) comment with withering sarcasm “Like you’d know about that!”. (With the benefit of hindsight, my sympathy is definitely with the older girl in this altercation. The boy is something big in the Treasury now, I believe). Also, a boy and a girl in my class with hipper and more indulgent parents came to class in ‘RELAX’ T-shirts. I would never be able to compete with such peers…

  18. 48
    MikeMCSG on 27 Jul 2009 #

    40 -It was released in autumn 1983 but they first appeared on The Tube at the beginning of 83 performing a short snatch of Relax (sounding anything but a million seller)and another forgotten song where the camera mainly followed two girls in fetish gear, The Leather Pets who were dancing with them. Trevor Horn was reportedly much taken with their performance and later disappointed when he realised they were not in the band.

  19. 49
    wichita lineman on 27 Jul 2009 #

    The girls they left behind:


    Thanks Mike. That explains why it seemed a while before it charted. A whole year! Jesus. I’ve just been listening to Memory Almost Full (prompted by posts on Pipes Of Peace) and thinking ALMOST? And he’s 20 years older than me!

  20. 50
    peter goodlaws on 27 Jul 2009 #

    I’m inclined to agree that this may well have made the top sans Read’s unilateral ban but that it would not have been half as massive a hit/gay anthem – blah-blah-blah – as it turned out to be. As Erithian says, Read’s objection was that he did not think the track was appropriate for the school run on his breakfast show. Whilst this does sound a little prissy especially over a quarter of a century later, I’m prepared to believe that Read’s actions were mostly genuine rather than self-serving. It would have been extraordinary had a leading national DJ been offended by something like this.

    But something like what, exactly? Despite all the talk of sucking and cuming, “Relax” really is a bit of a train wreck and would be instantly forgetable had the lyric referred to “jump to it” and “when you want to run” to precisely the same arrangement. For me, this was in no part the seismic event people would claim, even though the direct result was two more giant hits for Frankie, which one may not comment on until Bunny grants Royal Assent.

    Rosie # 1 – Waldo tells me that he received his residential preventive training for Customs (now UK Border Agency) at a place called Wyboston, a stone’s throw from St Neots, although just over the county line in Beds. Although the centre had an excellent bar, the delegates made several trips into St Neots. There was laser-gunning (paint-balling but less messy), visits to ruby houses but mostly, of course, drinking. This was done in the aforementioned Wheatsheaf, where one night there was a karaoke. After a few babyshams, Waldo ambled up with a couple of other pitiful visiting drunks and treated the carrot-cruncher locals to a rendition of “Blue Moon” a la The Marcels. This actually went done well, well enough for a group of homeboys to give their own version of it in reply. The asmosphere was nothing other than cordial. By the time the Customs group tumbled on to their specially arranged minibus, everyone was totally wankered.

  21. 51
    Jonathan Bogart on 27 Jul 2009 #

    I suppose the American reception of “Relax” — it did quite well, as noted, and is a mainstay of 80s playlists without ever tipping over into any territory where it’s seen as being much different in style, meaning or importance from contemporary singles by Soft Cell, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, A Flock Of Seagulls, The Fixx, etc. — and yes, the “it’s about teh GAY” murmurs were just as prevalent here, but I think there was a sense in which Americans felt that all British pop was more or less gay anyway — might serve as a clue to how the record would be remembered without the ban.

    As someone who was mostly unaware of the surrounding hoopla until this very post, I’ve always rather disliked “Relax,” at least as listening fodder rather than as a tool for partying/dancing. There’s something bullying in the production, a boorish caricature of gay masculinity with none of the wit or stylishness I associate with a bunny-embargoed duo whose first #1 was first released around this time to disappointing results.

    I suppose that what I perceive as bullying is what people above mean by the “rock” element of the song; the sense that it’s taking itself very seriously indeed.

  22. 52
    Kat but logged out innit on 27 Jul 2009 #

    #45: I made up a dance routine to this in 1994! The whooshing bit was very good for spinning around and up from a crouching position, although I had to be careful not to bang my head on the bunk beds if I got dizzy. Anything that had lazers in was good as well, obviously. I am still very partial to one-note guttural basslines to this day.

  23. 53
    LondonLee on 27 Jul 2009 #

    Re: #51 Not just our pop music, Americans tend to think all British people are gay too. We’re all so slim and well-dressed and probably seem a little prissy by comparison to them (I was once referred to as “that gay beatnik” by the father of an American girl I was dating)

    Forgive me if someone mentioned this already, but isn’t the drum sound on this supposed to have been sampled from a Led Zep record? Or is that just a myth?

  24. 54
    Pete on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Not to bait the bunny, but wasn’t the rise of Relax the second time around due to it having an identical cover to its successor, causing many mistakes in the shops )there was some suggestion that returning the record in a charts return shop would make it count for both). All seems a bit of a naive ten year old story to me now.

  25. 55
    Tom on 28 Jul 2009 #

    #51 I think Holly Johnson’s sinister weediness helps defuse the more potentially bullying elements of the track. Something interesting about FGTH – which I was trying to grope at in the review – is the way Johnson as singer is as much a commentator on the forces unleashed by the music as a focal point of them.

    #47 This is absolutely dead on: “Relax” really drew lines in the playground not in terms of liking it (you had to) but in terms of claiming to understand it and be comfortable with it. I think it broadened schoolboy knowledge enormously and not always accurately.

    #44 Yes, they’re a benchmark for event pop for me too.

    #43 The E-Rotic discography on Wikipedia tantalisingly hints at a second subplot with singles called “Willy Use A Billy…Boy” and then “Billy Jive With Willy’s Wife”.

  26. 56
    Erithian on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Lee #53 – dunno about Zeppelin but kudos to Norman Watt-Roy of the Blockheads, who played the original bass line.

    Re Americans thinking British people are gay: when Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” picked up on the MPs’ expenses scandal, he talked about the Home Secretary’s husband getting two porno films for what seemed a pretty good price, then added, “but don’t forget we’re talking about films showing ENGLISH people having sex”. Cut to a mocked-up DVD sleeve showing a bloke wearing nothing but a traditional Civil Service bowler hat and the title “Stiff Upper Lip”.

  27. 57
    Billy Smart on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Advertising watch: I can remember Relax being used to sell suntan lotion some time in the mid 1990s.

  28. 58
    H. on 28 Jul 2009 #

    frankie were ultimately style over substance

    But surely in pop style is substance.

  29. 59
    Tom on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Truer to say that in pop they should be inseparable.

    One thing that happened in the 80s – it probably happens all the time but it felt really noticeable in the 80s and 90s – is that “substance” got really terrible: records striving for weight (scale, emotional weight, moral heft, and yes borrowed stylistic weight). We’ll be meeting some of them. So it’s understandable why some critics and listeners embrace(d) 80s style so much.

  30. 60
    LondonLee on 28 Jul 2009 #

    Here we go, I knew I hadn’t imagined it:

    The Led Zeppelin percussion sampled in “Relax” was Bonham’s bass-drum sound from ‘When The Levee Breaks’. I’ve never heard about ‘Heartbreaker’ being used. In fact ‘Levee’s drum track has been called the most sampled drum track ever. It’s been used in many songs from pop and rap artists.

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