542. ‘The Power of Love’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Frankie Goes to Hollywood complete their hattrick of number ones, with a ballad out just in time for Christmas.

The Power of Love, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 3rd and final #1)

1 week, from 2nd – 9th December 1984

This one starts off very slow, very stately – gentle guitars and sparse piano – and completely out of sync with what’s gone before this year. ‘More is More’ has been the motto of 1984, with even the ballads being that little bit extra. This being Frankie though, there’s still a bit of weirdness amongst the calm… I’ll protect you from the Hooded Claw, Keep the vampires from your door… whispers Holly Johnson over the intro.

It slowly builds, though, into a more dramatic, orchestral beast. Soaring strings come in after the first chorus, in which we are told to make love your goal… There are ominous synths, and even a jazz bar piano at one point. It grows into its OTT-ness, and ends up quite camp. Under it all, it’s a simple enough love song. Yes, there’s a lot of biblical imagery – tongues of fire and souls being purged – but the key line might just be the heartfelt I’m so in love with you… I’ve no idea who it’s about, but I believe he means it.

Was this Frankie Goes to Hollywood making a bid for granny-loving respectability, after the huge controversy around ‘Relax’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Two Tribes’? (I’m not the first person to point out that they went from sex, to war, to religion.) Well, the difference between this and their debut hit is remarkable. The video for ‘The Power of Love’ (directed by Godley & Creme of 10cc) is a straightforward re-telling of the Nativity, with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, making their way to the stable in Bethlehem. And no, the baby Jesus is not kitted out in bondage gear. But the sheer straight-facedness of it is actually what makes this record quirky enough for us not to shout ‘sell-out’.

At the same time, I can’t enjoy this as much as the band’s earlier, genuinely thrilling, chart-toppers. That’s to do with my personal tastes – ballads always have to try that little bit harder to crack my resistance – but also because this one goes on a bit, and has one chorus too many. It veers a little too close to self-indulgence.

But it made #1, and with it Frankie Goes to Hollywood became only the second act in chart history to have their first three releases reach the top. They did so twenty one years after another Liverpudlian act: Gerry & The Pacemakers. Their fourth single, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, would make #2, but when they came back with their second album in 1986 the magic seemed to have faded. It produced just one Top 10 hit, and the band split the following year.

They didn’t last long, but the hits live on. All their #1s have re-charted in the Top 20 at various points in the decades since. ‘The Power of Love’, in fact, has returned to the Top 10 twice, in 1993 and 2000, as well as a cover version #1 in 2012. And before we go, it’s worth noting that releasing songs called ‘The Power of Love’ was something of a trend in the mid-eighties. This one, Huey Lewis’s, and another, mega-ballad that we’ll be featuring on this countdown soon enough…

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Recap: #511 – #540

To recap, then.

This is our third fully ‘eighties’ recap, and I’d say we’ve reached the peak. In fact, the first of these thirty #1s was the Jam’s farewell single, ‘Beat Surrender’. In the context of this countdown, that wasn’t simply a sign-off from Paul Weller to his fans. It was a sign-off to the post-punk, new wave, early eighties. The days of the Specials, Blondie, Adam Ant and Dexys Midnight Runners.

In its place came THE eighties. The chunk of the decade that has become synonymous with the whole ten years: Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet, Wham!, Culture Club… (OK, yes, Culture Club did feature in my previous countdown, but we won’t let that get in the way of the narrative…) I was keeping my eyes and ears peeled for the exact start of what we now know as ‘the eighties’, and I narrowed it down to Kajagoogoo’s ‘Too Shy’ – a record completely of its time, in both sound and haircuts.

After that hit the top, the levee broke and we were swamped by classics of the decade… ‘True’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Karma Chameleon’. At the time I pointed out that, as we’d seen in the 1950s, some of these giant eighties hits were being claimed by acts who pre-dated the scene by a full decade or more. For the middle-aged Bill Haley rocking around the clock, we now had the almost forty year old Rod Stewart’s disco-rock stomper ‘Baby Jane’, and the well-into-his-thirties David Bowie scoring his biggest ever hit.

I did, at times, sound like a broken record in complaining about the production values of the age. There was just something too polished, and slightly joyless, about the state of pop in mid-1983: ‘True’, ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’, ‘Give It Up’ all came and went. All well-written and well performed pop songs. All that bit too smooth for my tastes. I noticed, though, that I stopped complaining about the production (or I at least stopped mentioning it quite as often) when 1984 rolled around…

The ‘greatest year for pop music ©’ saw a shift towards an ‘80s Wall of Sound, with producers and artists literally throwing everything at a recording and hoping it stuck. ‘The Reflex’, ‘I Feel for You’, ‘99 Red Balloons’ and, of course, the two Trever Horn helmed Frankie Goes to Hollywood #1s that have dominated the year so far: ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ (with almost four months at number one between them). They were all a lot more ‘in your face’ than, say, the dinner party vibes given by Paul Young, but also a lot more fun.

Frankie have been given a run for their money, though, by Wham! (never forget the exclamation mark!) and more specifically George Michael, who has scored three chart-toppers of his own in 1984. Two of them were quite retro in their influences: the ‘happiest song ever’ ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and the Motown love-in ‘Freedom’. Oh, and one of the decades most iconic songs, videos, and hairdos, in ‘Careless Whisper’ (that record tipped things back a little too much towards the glossy side for my liking…)

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One thing you might have noticed is that almost every act I’ve mentioned so far has been British. Things haven’t been so Brit-centric at the top of the charts since the mid-sixties. Even in the States these were the days of the ‘Second British Invasion’. What then, of the American acts? They may have been pushed to the margins, but we have had the first two hip-hop #1s: the poppy version from New Edition, and the ultra-cool Prince cover version from Chaka Khan. And we had a pop classic from Billy Joel, as well as two massive slush-fests from Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder. And, oh yeah, we had ‘Thriller’ era Michael Jackson squeaking a week with one of the biggest songs ever

Which brings us on to our awards. The ‘Meh’ Award for forgettability is traditionally awarded first, and to be honest there’s been quite a bit of ‘meh’ around. The 1980s, to my ears at least, can get pretty ‘meh’. But funnily enough, that makes it hard to pick a winner. In some ways it feels wrong giving it to The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’, as that’s a classic. Except, it’s a classic that’s been given a free ride for too long. It’s so beloved of some that I’m giving it the ‘Meh’ Award out of spite! It’s really not that good, people!

Moving on. The WTAF Award for being interesting if nothing else. There have been a few outliers in the past thirty, songs that bucked the popular trends. UB40’s reggae, Paul McCartney’s ode to peace (and his only truly solo #1), Phil Collins’ Supremes cover… And our past two Christmas chart-toppers. The Flying Pickets’ (almost) completely a cappella ‘Only You’ was fun, but nothing in comparison to Renée & Renato’s ‘Save Your Love’. It was a pretty God-awful song, but boy did Renato go for it. He just about manages to bellow it into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. They win!

I was swithering over awarding ‘Save Your Love’ this round’s Very Worst Chart-Topper trophy, but its campy charms persuaded me otherwise. That means the coast is clear. There is only one candidate for the worst of the past thirty: Lionel Richie’s overwrought and overly creepy ‘Hello’, which even a ludicrous video couldn’t save. I gave The Commodores ‘Three Times a Lady’ a ‘Meh’ award back in the seventies, too. Sorry, Lionel… nothing personal.

And so, finally, onto The Very Best Chart-Topper. Which is nowhere near as clear-cut as the Worst. First, honorary mentions must go to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and ‘I Feel for You’. Great pop songs; but not quite all-time-great standard. I have it down to three, then. The one I should choose: ‘Billie Jean’ (I’m not sure I’ll have a better chance to pick a Michael Jackson song). The one I enjoy listening to the most: ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ (the power ballad to end all power ballads). And the one whose cultural impact just feels too important to ignore: ‘Relax’. Only one of these three songs was pulled off on air in disgust by Mike Read, and only one of these songs features the lead singer yelling ‘Come!’ backed by the sound of a fireman’s hose. Frankie Goes to Hollywood win. A victory for shock over substance…? Maybe. So sue me.

To recap the recaps, then:

The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability

  1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
  2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
  3. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
  4. ‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
  5. ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
  6. ‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
  7. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
  8. ‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
  9. ‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
  10. ‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
  11. ‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
  12. ‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
  13. ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
  14. ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
  15. ‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
  16. ‘What’s Another Year’, by Johnny Logan.
  17. ‘A Little Peace’, by Nicole.
  18. ‘Every Breath You Take’, by The Police.

The WTAF Award for being interesting if nothing else

  1. ‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
  2. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
  3. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
  4. ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
  5. ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
  6. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
  7. ‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
  8. ‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
  9. ‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
  10. ‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
  11. ‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
  12. ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
  13. ‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
  14. ‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush.
  15. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
  16. ‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre.
  17. ‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin.
  18. ‘Save Your Love’ by Renée & Renato

The Very Worst Chart-Toppers

  1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
  2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
  3. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
  4. ‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
  5. ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
  6. ‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
  7. ‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
  8. ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
  9. ‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
  10. ‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
  11. ‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
  12. ‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
  13. ‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
  14. ‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
  15. ‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
  16. ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, by St. Winifred’s School Choir.
  17. ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, by Charlene.
  18. ‘Hello’, by Lionel Richie.

The Very Best Chart-Toppers

  1. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
  2. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
  3. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
  4. ‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
  5. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
  6. ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
  7. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
  8. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
  9. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
  10. ‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry.
  11. ‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex.
  12. ‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud.
  13. ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie.
  14. ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer.
  15. ‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie.
  16. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA.
  17. ‘My Camera Never Lies’, by Bucks Fizz.
  18. ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

536. ‘Two Tribes’, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Slap bang in the middle of 1984 comes the year’s biggest hit, from the year’s biggest band.

Two Tribes, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (their 2nd of three #1s)

9 weeks, from 10th June – 12th August 1984

Make that the decade’s biggest hit. No record will spend longer at #1 during the 1980s than this. Nine weeks, in which the best-selling song across the land was an ode to nuclear war. There are very few chart-toppers that have lines like: We’ve got the bomb, Yeah… Sock it to me biscuits now… But this is one. When two tribes go to war, A point is all that you can score…

On this, just their second release, Frankie (and producer Trevor Horn) were clearly sticking to the same formula as their first smash, ‘Relax’. Pounding, aggressive, disco-rock… check. A subject matter (and video) designed to raise eyebrows… check. Just the right mix of catchy and clever…?

Almost. The bass riff is thrilling, the splicing of Russian classical music with high-NRG dance is fun… But to my ears it’s all a bit of a mess, especially in the verses. It’s been a theme this year: hard-edged pop that’s bursting at the seams, constantly threatening to implode but just about keeping it together. ‘Relax’, ’99 Red Balloons’, ‘The Reflex’, now this… Maybe it was the impending threat of nuclear destruction (this is also already the 3rd chart-topper of the year to reference war and/or peace…), or maybe it was cocaine. But something was definitely in the air in 1984.

The video is another event in itself, with Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Konstantin Chernenko throwing one another around a sawdust ring. Chernenko only led the Soviet Union for a year or so – despite being nowhere near as famous as Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev and co., he’s the one immortalised in this video… He grabs Reagan by the balls. Reagan bites his ear off. Holly Johnson drinks it all in as the ringside announcer. As the song reaches its final note, the planet explodes. If I had to choose, though, I think I’d spend my last moments on earth in the ‘Relax’ video, rather than this one.

I want to love this as much as I do ‘Relax’, but it falls short for me… I think it’s because ‘Relax’ is so simple, so gloriously filthy, and so universal. Songs about sex generally work. Songs about geopolitical tension can be hit or miss. Frankie try so hard to make it work – and it is still a banging, clanging, throbbing, pulsing wonder – but I think they overreach and, slightly, overcook it.

There were a million and one remixes of ‘Two Tribes’ – the ‘Annihilation Mix’, anyone? – but I like the classic single mix, with the air raid siren, and the public information announcer opening the song with: The air attack siren sounds like… By contrast, the album version is a little short, and missing the very Russian-sounding middle eight.

No doubt all those mixes helped this record to its giant stay at the top – the longest since 1977 – as well as similar promotion tactics to those that worked so well for ‘Relax’. But that’s not to suggest Frankie Goes to Hollywood weren’t genuinely massive in 1984. As ‘Two Tribes’ set up camp at #1 for the summer, their previous five-week chart-topper climbed back up to #2, making them only the fourth act to occupy both Top 2 positions after The Beatles, John Lennon and, um, John Travolta… They have one final number one coming up this year. And after two synth-rock thumpers, they’ll be changing tack, just in time for Christmas…

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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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