It was tough being one of two Frankie Goes to Hollywood fans in my suburban/rural Ohio hometown in 1985.
The popular musical force at Elyria West High School was hair metal. The slicker and hookier, the better. Iron Maiden, Metallica and W.A.S.P. had their fans, but Def Leppard, Dokken and Bon Jovi ruled the Art class airwaves. Whenever I would bring my Walkman cassette player and mini speakers to play Echo & the Bunnymen or R.E.M., there would be a near riot from anyone working at a table near mine. Even though we were all art students, these kids hated
this music. They especially hated anything by The Smiths and their most popular target of derision, Frankie. You see, while the favorite insult of choice for this type of music was “That shit’s gay,” in Frankie’s case, it really was.
And that was much scarier to a teenager, including myself, than any Blackie Lawless lyric.
I was insane for Frankie’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink Trevor Horn production, beefy bass, Holly Johnson’s croon, Paul Rutherford’s butt. And the gestating marketing geek in me loved the S&M-tinged, dangerous image, from the single sleeves to the jockstrap-wearing photo sessions.
For a closeted gay teen, Frankie were a godsend. Granted, they weren’t the best of role models, but at least they were honest about who they were…to a point. Much of what they did and said were part of a marketing construct by their label, ZZT, which flooded the market with press releases, oodles of remixes and variants, and yes, “Frankie Say” t-shirts.
I proudly ordered by airmail the “Frankie Say War No More” t-shirt, since the “Relax” one was too obvious. I proudly wore that t-shirt to school at least once a week in late ’84-early ’85, where the reaction was either “What the heck does that mean?” to “Who’s Frankie?”
Imagine my horror months later when “Relax” finally hit the top ten after floundering first, and Spencer’s Gifts helped flood the school hallways with bootleg Frankie shirts. People who just a few short weeks ago mocked my favorite band were now suddenly cool with it all. It was my first taste of indie scorn. I never wore my original Frankie shirt again.
Besides, “Relax” was old news to me. I had already moved on to “Two Tribes” (“Are we living in a land / where sex and horror / are the new gods?” Well, duh.) and the current single “Welcome to the Pleasuredome.” I remember rushing to Midway Mall and Camelot Music every Friday to see the new Billboard Hot 100 posted, tracking the movement of each single, thinking Top 40 status would finally confirm my position as Elyria West High’s musical tastemaker.
“Two Tribes” petered (heh) out at #43, while “Pleasuredome” only got to #48.
Undeterred, I continued to champion Frankie as more than a one-hit wonder. My best gal-pal Tricia and I even lied to our parents to see the band play during their first American club tour, stopping at the grimy old Variety Theater in Lakewood, playing to a crowd of leathermen, drag queens, new wave kids and jaded punks. It was a wild show, much raunchier and more fun than their second pass through after “Relax” hit, this time at the larger Music Hall where Belouis Some opened and Frankie played as teen idols, rather than gay underground renegades. The thrill was gone.
When the second Frankie album “Liverpool” was finally released after much hand-wringing two years later, it was almost an afterthought. I was excited to see how they could follow up their epic double-LP debut, but when I heard Trevor Horn was only “executive producing,” I feared the worst.
Well, it wasn’t horrible. But it wasn’t all at that great, either. I think the band/producer got a little creatively paralyzed at the prospect of following up such a massive debut, so they played it a little too safe. First single “Rage Hard” merely repeats the “Relax” throb and vibe, complete with double-entendre title, only to become somewhat forgettable. After that flopped, the second single “Warriors of the Wasteland” aped “Two Tribes,” even lyrically. Another flop.
The last stab at a hit, though, ended up being the best song on the album. “Watching the Wildlife” was different than anything Frankie had done. It was almost a straight-ahead pop hit, even reminiscent of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. It had a horn section, a break down, an oddly prescient swing part, verses, a chorus, everything Frankie songs normally lacked. It didn’t even chart.
Soon after, Frankie disintegrated. Holly Johnson had a few solo hits in the UK, and even Paul Rutherford put out an album with a surprisingly pleasing single called “Oh, World” that got some club attention. But until an almost reunion courtesy of VH1’s “Bands Reunited” last year, Frankie has said no more.
I’d kill to have that old shirt now.
Download “Rage Hard””Rage Hard” peaked at #42 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music/Maxi Singles Sales Chart.
Download the single version of “Watching the Wildlife"
“Watching the Wildlife” did not chart.