531. ‘Relax’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Heresss Frankie! In a way, I dread coming across (filthy pun very much intended…) #1 records like this. Huge megalithic-hits that have had everything written about them, and then some. But we gotta cover them all, so…

Relax, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 1st of three #1s)

5 weeks, from 22nd January – 26th February 1984

That’s not to say I dislike this record. Far from it: this is almost the perfect number one. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, it’s a real cultural moment… and it pissed off all the right people. In fact, that first bit – ‘Relax’s catchiness – is the one aspect of this song that possibly gets overlooked.

Let’s do the music first, then. An ominous intro floats in – I’ve always wondered what is being sung here (it’s M-i-ine, Give it to me one time now…) – before giving way to some grinding synths. I’ve been a bit down on synthesisers at times in this blog, but these are great. These are played like guitars, and could flatten a skyscraper. Apparently, singer Holly Johnson was the only band member to feature on the recording. Producer Trevor Horn – last heard on another synth-pop classic ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ – took complete control of what was a jingly demo, and created a monster.

A monster that demands to be played loud. This is no shrinking violet of a song. It’s all out there, slapping you about the face… Which brings us on to the lyrics. Everyone knows what this one’s about… Relax, Don’t do it, When you wanna suck it to it… (there’s some debate about those lyrics, but the band have apparently confirmed them) When you wanna… Come! For reasons of public decency, I will be spelling it as ‘come’ throughout, when we all know it should be… Anyway. Question is, did anyone ever think ‘Relax’ was about anything else? The band half-heartedly claimed it was about ‘motivation’ when the song was first released, but by the time the album came out bassist Mark O’Toole confessed it “really was about shagging.”

And not just any old shagging. The video sees singer Holly Johnson entering a gay bar in his sensible work suit, and after three minutes of face-spitting, banana-licking, tiger-fighting, and cage-wrestling, he ends up straddling a writhing mass of bodies… and that’s just the edited version. Meanwhile, a Roman emperor unleashes a torrent of piss from the balcony (putting the ‘number one’ in number one single…) on the biggest Come! of the song, complete with a super-soaker sound effect. It’s gloriously tasteless, clearly designed to get a reaction. And get a reaction it did…

Two weeks before ‘Relax’ made top spot, the BBC had banned it from being played before 9pm. Radio 1 DJ Mike Read even pulled it off (the record, that is…!) live on air, in apparent disgust. For the five weeks that it was #1, ‘Top of the Pops’ showed nothing but a picture of the band. MTV followed suit. You can kind of see why – even today the video raises an eyebrow – but at the same time would this record have been as huge if they’d just played it without blinking? Maybe not.

But the band new what they were doing. Two of the members were out and proud, and the song’s promo played on this with gay abandon. One ad saw keyboardist Paul Rutherford dressed a sailor, alongside the phrase “All the nice boys love sea men.” The record sleeve, above, which Mike Read took such exception too, features a man and a woman in a little bit of leather and not much else. If you’re of a negative disposition, you could argue that all this represents the worst of the 1980s, a triumph of image and promotion over substance. But… pop music has never just been about the music. Even before Elvis wiggled those hips, pop and sex have been inextricably linked. ‘Relax’ was just the latest update on the theme. Sadly, as we know all to well, this didn’t herald a sea-change in British attitudes towards homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was just around the corner, and Section 28 would be in place by the end of the decade. Yet for the five weeks that this was #1, it must have felt like quite the moment.

It all ends in a cresecendo, and one final, bellowed Come! Then we all slink off to the bathroom to hose ourselves down… 1984 truly will be Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s year. Three chart-toppers with their first three releases (the first act to do this since fellow Liverpudlians Gerry & The Pacemakers), and fifteen weeks at number one. Two of the biggest-selling hits of all time. And their very own t-shirt. Is ‘Frankie Say…’ the most famous rock logo, aside perhaps from the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue? Possibly. So, much more to come from Frankie, then, before long. Though it is worth saying that, of their three #1s, this is my favourite. Everything that was great and gaudy about the mid-1980s wrapped up in a four-minute mini masterpiece.

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24 thoughts on “531. ‘Relax’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

  1. (keep it positive…keep it positive) What I remember about this the most? The 80s T-Shirt craze with RELAX on them with black type against a white shirt. I honestly remember that more than the song.

  2. The ‘Anarchy in the UK’ of the 1980s in a way, although it was marketed much better and sold many times more copies. It says much for the PR and controversy that they shifted singles by the shedload throughout 1984, but their second coming (ouch!) two years later generated one less successful album, two more singles, and then they caved in. It didn’t hurt their credibility that ‘Relax’ was in effect a Holly Johnson solo record created and masterminded by Trevor Horn and session musicians. I’m old enough to remember the indignation in 1968 when it was revealed that ‘Everlasting Love’ by The Love Affair was really a Steve Ellis solo song with orchestra and chorus. But it was probably a foregone conclusion that as a band Frankie weren’t going to have a long shelf life (even the once-maligned Pre-Fab Four, The Monkees, sustained more of a career than they did), so the image-makers did the right thing in milking the phenomenon as much as they could before everyone lost interest and moved on to the next fad.

    • Yes, on the one hand they were very disposable, and very much style over substance, and everything that a purist might hate… On the other hand, ‘Relax’ is an absolute banger, and anything that gets people like Mike Read’s knickers in a twist is fine by me!

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  4. I loved the song and my 17 year old self knew what it meant and it made me giggle. Your description of the video, I don’t remember. The video I remember was just Frankie singing in a giant smoke ring with a bright light behind him…and the band. Your video is new to me. We got this one:

    • Yeah, I think this was filmed after the original video, when it became clear that that wasn’t going to get any airplay… The BBC banned it completely, regardless, but I guess this version made it onto MTV etc.

      • I guess they figured it wouldn’t fly in the US, either. I was just reading the details of Holly’s battle with Trevor Horn (of The Buggles) & Jill Sinclair…and, where he got his name. I remember his HIV diagnosis and that he had died (obviously a false report).

  5. yes, agree with all that, it’s a monster of a record occupying a musical world of its own so it’ll never date because it didnt sound like anything before or after. The ban annoyed me so much I immediately bought the record because I didn’t want to be told what I shouldn’t listen to, the nonsense was it had already been on Top Of The Pops, the Radio 1 chart show and The Tube so that ship had already sailed. Plus side, all those people who didnt get to hear Relax due to the ban bought it when the follow-up was on a very long run at 1, giving Frankie a 1-2 in the charts over the summer of 84. There was an alternative innocent laser-show video that got the TV exposure (ooerr), and the “immoral” nature of the song didn’t “corrupt” me in any way – I wouldn’t be aware that sort of lifestyle existed in reality for another 17 years – so the handbag clutchers could have kept their pearl necklaces (oooerrr) calmly in place.

    I’ve never got bored with hearing this record, its a giant of the 80’s, and Trevor Horn in my eyes never did any wrong on any project he was involved in, from Dollar, ABC, Pet Shop Boys to Seal and beyond. But let’s not forget Frankie, Holly Johnson’s vocal is amazing, what a great singer, the song is great, and the Scouse amused stroppy naughtiness of the band was a delight. Ticked all my boxes…oooeerrr missus. Frankie Howerd lives! Frankie Says More Innuendo!

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