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Aug 09

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD – “Two Tribes”

FT + Popular125 comments • 21,309 views

#536, 16th June 1984, video

In 1982, armageddon came to the pages of 2000AD. The Sov-Bloc, sworn enemies of Judge Dredd, invented a missile defense shield that allowed them to strike at Mega City One with impunity. They did so, having first maddened and weakened its already-decadent populace. In one memorable scene, as the missiles fall, citizens in as yet unbombed zones take advantage of the radiation heatwave to strip down and dance, singing a catchy tune called “Apocalypso”. It was a typical 2000AD touch, absurd but with a kernel of resonant truth. In the face of certain annihilation, what else to do but dance it on? “Two Tribes” – as thrill-powered a record as has ever hit the top – asks the same question and gets the same answer.

The first three Frankie singles, according to their ideologue Paul Morley, took on the biggest themes going: sex, war, religion. But which was which? “Relax” restaged sex as an arena fight, with the British public as the scandalised and delighted audience, thumbs twitching up or down. “Two Tribes”, on the other hand, takes the “Relax” blueprint and makes it even sleazier. More driving and more grandiose, yes, but Holly Johnson’s barks and gasps sound just as depraved, and the crazed robo-bass that thunders through the track – black leather on metal hips – gives “Two Tribes” an anchor in rock’n’roll “Relax” had lacked.

Like several hit records, “Two Tribes” is notionally about the futility of war: like few of the others, it reacts to this with a nihilist lust. If sex and horror are the new gods – and the lipsmacking way Holly asks the question leaves no doubt it’s rhetorical – then what better way to worship than a world sacrifice? Like a Shangri-La’s record, “Two Tribes” taps into pop’s doomed-youth death-drive, except it’s not just some Jimmy or Johnny on that fatal motorbike ride, it’s all of us. The video ends, modestly, with the planet exploding.

The song stayed on top for weeks, then months, thanks to the string of 12″ remixes ZTT rolled out to the public. Each emphasised different elements in the song, threw particular spotlights on its madness: one looped the band’s unbothered scouser voices from an interview: “My name’s Pedz, my name’s Mark, my name’s Nash…MINE. IS THE LAST VOICE YOU WILL EVER HEAR.” Another took the record’s bombastic intro and built it up into Wagnerian muscle disco. A third made too great a use of a somewhat ragged Reagan impersonator. You got the feeling that somewhere there must exist the perfect mix, the one which caught the very best moments of each version. If it were ever played, perhaps the world would end.

The single mix almost works as this imaginary highlights reel – the inhuman bass keeps the juxtapositions and sudden flourishes from seeming too wild, and only the abrupt ending lets you down. Horn had really cracked the technology by now, too, not just triggering the right samples at the right time but making them work in the song’s headspace, so the Eno-esque synth washes float over the hi-NRG thunder like battlefield mist, and the symphonic blurts sound like Pedz (or Mark or Nash) had stepped forward and simply pulled a full orchestra out of his pocket. As that summer wound on and the holidays started, I went round a friends’ house and saw the new walkman he’d just got for his birthday. I asked to give it a go and this was inside, on tape – the first thing I’d ever listened to on headphones. It was the most exciting sound I had ever heard. Still is.

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