Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Hooked On Polkas" - Part II: Weird Al, Trevor Horn, Yes, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Q: Want to know how to have an instant UK #1 hit? A: Hire a hot producer, promote the single with outrageous homosexual imagery, and get banned by the BBC. It worked for Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

For about five seconds, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were the biggest band in the world. In England. In 1984. Their debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, topped the British charts and produced three #1 hits in a row, including "Two Tribes" and "The Power Of Love." The album also included a version of Edwin Starr's "War" that featured a Ronald Reagan impersonator reciting dialogue such as "Then of course there is revolutionary love, love of comrades fighting for the people, and love of people, not an abstract people, but people one works with; when Che Guevara talked of love being at the center of revolutionary endeavor, he meant both," and a version of Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" that manages to be less bombastic than the original - and this is Frankie Goes To Hollywood we're talking about here. But the song that made them infamous in both the US and the UK, then and for all time, was "Relax."

It turns out that Frankie Goes To Hollywood wasn't much of a band at all. Mostly it was just producer Trevor Horn.

Trevor Horn was the brainchild behind the Buggles. Yes, that Buggles.

In the most obvious career move ever, Horn and fellow Buggle Geoffrey Downes joined progressive rock dinosaurs Yes. While Horn didn't remain an official member of the band for more than one album, he produced two more, including 90125, which featured the shockingly non-progressive rock comeback hit "Owner of a Lonely Heart" (also skewered in Weird Al's polka medley along with "Relax").

Let's not forget ABC's The Lexicon Of Love (discussed elsewhere), avant-garde synthpop collective The Art of Noise, former Sex Pistols manager (!) Malcolm McLaren, Grace Jones, a couple of late '80s Pet Shop Boys songs ... the list goes on. Hell, Trevor Horn could probably receive a blog series of his own, though I doubt I'll give him one. The point is, he was hot.

While basking in his hot producer-ness, he caught Frankie Goes To Hollywood on TV, playing an early version of "Relax":
Horn described the original version of "Relax" as "More a jingle than a song", but he preferred to work with songs that were not professionally finished because he could then "fix them up" in his own style ... Ultimately lead vocalist Johnson was the only band member to perform on the record; the only contribution by the other members was a sample crafted from the sound of the rest of the band jumping into a swimming pool. Horn explained years later, "I was just . . . look, 'Relax' had to be a hit." Despite the band's absence from the record, Horn said, "I could never have done these records in isolation. There was no actual playing by the band, but the whole feeling came from the band."
Sure it did. The band may not have performed the music, but they certainly performed on some level:
ZTT initiated the ad campaign for "Relax" with two quarter-page ads in the British music press. The first ad featured images of Rutherford in a sailor cap and a leather vest, and Johnson with a shaved head and rubber gloves. The images were accompanied by the phrase "ALL THE NICE BOYS LOVE SEA MEN" and declared "Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming ... making Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes ... Nineteen inches that must be taken always." The second ad promised "theories of bliss, a history of Liverpool from 1963 to 1983, a guide to Amsterdam bars".
Sign me up.
On 11 January 1984, Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read expressed on air his distaste for both the record's suggestive sleeve (designed by Anne Yvonne Gilbert) and its lyrics. He announced his refusal to play the record, not knowing that the BBC had just decided that the song was not to be played on the BBC anyway. In support of their disc jockey, BBC Radio banned the single from its shows a reported two days later (although certain prominent night-time BBC shows — including those of Kid Jensen and John Peel — continued to play the record, as they saw fit, throughout 1984). The now-banned "Relax" rose to number 2 in the charts by 17 January, and hit the number-one spot on 24 January. By this time, the BBC Radio ban had extended to Top of the Pops as well, which displayed a still picture of the group during its climactic Number One announcement, before airing a performance by a non-Number One artist ... The ban became an embarrassment for the BBC, especially given that UK commercial radio and television stations were still playing the song. Later in 1984 the ban was lifted and "Relax" featured on both the Christmas Day edition of Top of the Pops and Radio 1's rundown of the best-selling singles of the year.
Well all's well that ends well. So surely the video was scandal-free, right?
The original video was directed by Bernard Rose and depicted a gay S&M parlour where the band members were admired by muscular leathermen, a bleached blonde drag queen and a large-bodied gentleman dressed as a Roman emperor. The video featured a scene where one of the band members wrestled a live tiger, to the admiration of the clubgoers, and ended where the "emperor" was so excited he shimmied out of his toga. Filmed in the unused East London theatre Wilton's Music Hall, it was promptly banned by both the BBC and MTV, resulting in the production of a substitute video directed by filmmaker Brian De Palma to coincide with the release of his film Body Double.
Here's the original video. It's no "Sex Dwarf," but what is?

Now here's the "substitute" video. Will someone please tell me what makes the "substitute" video any less questionable than the original video?

Not only are there several different "Relax" videos, but the band (and Trevor Horn) also released an endless variety of "Relax" mixes. There's the "New York" mix, the "Sex" mix, the "Disco" mix, the "From Soft To Hard" mix, the "Come Fighting" mix, the "Warp" mix ... it goes on.

All this hubbub seemed to overshadow the supposed musical merits, or lack of merit, of the song itself. Honestly, when I listen to "Relax," I hear a somewhat generic if vaguely amusing '80s dance-pop single, nothing more and nothing less. It fascinates me to no end that such an ordinary song could spark so much outrage. I mean, why would "Relax" be banned, but not "Ghost Town"? OK, so he says "come." That means it's about sex? If anything, the song's about not having sex, since he sings "Relax, don't do it," which you might assume to be a suggestion not to have sex, but I guess the BBC can do whatever it wants.

And yet, now that all the dust has settled, whenever I hear "Relax," I'll never think of the controversy, the BBC ban, or even Trevor Horn's production. Nope, all I'll think of is Weird Al playing an accordion and making raspberry noises on Dare To Be Stupid.


Herr Zrbo said...

Great find on that Relax video, I've never seen that version, and I think I only have a passing familiarity with the alternate version you posted. The version I know is here.

Same goes with the Video Killed the Radio Star, that version you posted is so.. robotic (the audience appears to be in a coma).

I knew that Frankie was a manufactured group of sorts, but I didn't know the Buggles connection.

Oh and while we're at it, Within Temptation (with Sharon den Adel/my Belinda Carlisle) have been posting weekly covers for the past few months and recently they covered... The Power of Love! Here you go, enjoy!

Little Earl said...

Hopefully it didn't show, but I must admit that this was one of the more difficult blog posts I've ever managed to post. I wasn't sure if I wanted to post about the entire Frankie Goes to Hollywood album, or only about "Relax," or do an entire post about Trevor Horn, or somehow tie it into my Weird Al series. But I think I pulled it off.

I was attempting to post the official video for "Video Killed the Radio Star" (which is famously known as the first video ever broadcast on MTV), but that was the best clip I could find. I assume that's not the official video then? Perhaps Trevor Horn's lawyers have blocked it from YouTube, as revenge for YouTube having killed the MTV star.

And yes, how many versions of a "Relax" video can you have, right? Apparently not enough. Don't thank me - thank YouTube. I'd seen the "laser beam" version floating around, and it sounds like that's the one that's been aired the most in the U.S. But as for these other two versions, I'm having a hard time deciding which one is more ridiculous.

The first one has:

*Johnson being escorted to the club in a...rickshaw?
*Some biker dude in a latex top holding a flashlight and a banana
*A roman emperor whose face is being applied with shaving cream as he watches Johnson wrestle with a live tiger
*Transvestites in cages

The second one has:

*A woman waltzing down the stairs a la Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.
*Melanie Griffith as a sleazy leather-clad prostitute
*A woman getting strangled to death by a telephone cord as the lead singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood watches through a telescope

I mean, if that's not your idea of the ultimate music video, then I don't know what is.

Herr Zrbo said...

Yeah, that's not the original video for VKTRS, but like you said, I'm unable to find it on Youtube either. Copyright, shmopyright.