Sunday, March 04, 2007

Classic Album Corner

Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Welcome To The Pleasuredome
ZTT/Island Records

The saga of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, seen through the prism of time, shows a remarkable example of the full convergence of marketing, hype and music colliding into one big ball at just the right time. Destined to have a short shelf life, Frankie nevertheless milked as much as possible from their moment in time, and produced some of the most memorable records of the 1980’s. Remembered almost as much for the T-Shirts ("Frankie Say...") which popped up all over that summer, the singles went a long way toward justifying the fuss.

The long awaited album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, followed the enormous success (particularly in the UK) of their first two singles, “Relax” and “Two Tribes”. The themes of the songs, sex and politics, respectively, were common and universal. Match that up with a pulsating, danceable song and you had the recipe for widespread success. Trevor Horn’s impeccable production, along with the proliferation of countless remixes helped keep Frankie on everyone’s radar throughout the summer of ’84. The biggest boost of all came courtesy of the BBC, whose radio division saw the need to ban “Relax” from their airwaves, allegedly after one of the DJ’s looked at the cover of the 12” single and was taken aback. With the forbidden fruit thing now in play, “Relax” surged back to the top ten, and at one point Frankie had both the #1 and #2 songs on the UK Pop Charts. Pleasuredome was scheduled for a fall release, and the factories were allegedly working overtime to press enough vinyl to meet the overwhelming demand.

For the purposes of Classic Album Corner, I’m reviewing the CD version, released in 1988. This was, in my view, a superior release, cleaning up some of the ennui from the original album, and adding preferred remixes in place of single versions.

The record kicks off with what amount to an eighteen minute version of the title track. It’s an epic beginning, with the “Hoo Hah, Hoo HAH” backing vocals along with lead singer Holly Johnson singing about Xanadu and Kubla Khan. A subsequent attempt to make a single out of this just didn’t work, as it seemed to work much better as an extended outing. One couldn’t shake the feeling that the actual band had very little to do with the song, though, as Horn brought in a solid group of backup musicians (including Yes axeman Steve Howe) to augment the band. In that aspect, I tend to view “Frankie” as more than just the five listed members of the band, since without Horn none of this would have been possible.

Of course. “Relax” and “Two Tribes” are here. The album used shortened single versions of each, which were okay. The CD, however, wisely chose the best remix of “Two Tribes”, clocking in at over nine minutes. It remains in my view the most powerful of all the versions, using the disembodied voice which mentions what to do when you hear the air attack warning. It is chilling, theatrical, and danceable all at the same time, and it is nothing short of brilliant.

A cover of Edwin Starr’s “War”, done seemingly to hammer home the point made in “Two Tribes”, was passable, but not much of an improvement over the original. Adding the voice of a Reagan impersonator added some uniqueness, and made it topical at the time, but now dates the record. The band wasn’t done with cover versions, however, not by a long shot. Ranging from campy (“Do You Know The Way To San Jose”) to a tribute to their home city of Liverpool (“Ferry Cross The Mersey”) to downright ballsy (“Born To Run”!), the band handled each with typical aplomb. “San Jose” was left off the CD release, replaced by the gorgeous “Happy Hi”. “Happy Hi” showed a different side to the band, and proved they were capable of more than sexual/political songs. It’s lilting keyboard riff and subdued vocal evokes the feeling of a lazy day in the park.

The album wraps up with what amounts to the remainder of the Frankie original catalog. The tunes are best described as mid-temp mid-80’s white boy funk. “The Only Star In Heaven” and “Black Night White Light” fall into this category. "Wish (The Lads Were Here)" and "Krisco Kisses" maintained the upbeat nature of this section for the record nicely. The closing tune, “The Power of Love”, represents Frankie’s attempt at a lush, sweeping ballad. As expected, the production is excellent, but the lyrics leave something to be desired. Declaring your love for someone is one thing, but mentioning vampires and hooded claws ventures into some freaky territory. The fact that the video for the song was released around Christmas and depicted the Nativity just added to the confusion. Of course, just in case you didn’t get the point yet, the album ends with a audio T-Shirt of the Reagan voice intoning “Frankie Say… more”.

Frankie went on to release another record in 1986, the more subdued Liverpool. While a decent follow up effort, it was obviously never going to generate the buzz of Pleasuredome. The band toured in support of the record, then dissolved in 1987 amongst infighting between members. The VH1 show Bands Reuntied did a segment on them, and they all seemed to be pretty happy and well adjusted since the bands demise. Lead singer Holly Johnson, however, proved to be quite the diva, and scuttled the attempted reunion by refusing to perform. Too bad for us Frankie fans, but maybe we’re better off hanging on to the memories from back in the day.

Frankie's Allmusic entry
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