Frankie Say One-Hit Wonder?: While “Relax” is pretty much all the Liverpudlians are known for on this side of the pond, I’d add “Two Tribes” in there at the very least and “The Power of Love” if you live anywhere outside the U.S. So why should you like a group that had basically one good year in the mid-’80s, then dissipated? The evidence, please:
Sleazy, Raunchy Filth: There’s a reason BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Reid famously took “Relax” off the air (in the middle of the song, no less) and declared he was no longer going to play such garbage. While the band winked at reporters and insisted the song was more about “motivation” than sex, the single sleeves and original video told a far different story. “Relax” was Donna Summer tricking with the Sex Pistols, and that throbbing, sexual sound spilled all over their songs Á¢€” “Two Tribes,” “Rage Hard,” “Krisco Kisses” (’nuff said on that one). Label ZTT may have buffed their image with a pop-idol-friendly sheen, but the little girls (and boys) understood. The original clip for “Relax,” with its suggested Roman orgy and golden shower, had a sinister element that still stops people short 25 years later (possibly NSFW):
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Frankie Under Covers: When producer Trevor Horn and the band hit upon the ridiculous idea of making the debut Frankie release, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, a sprawling double-album epic, there was one problem…the band didn’t have enough material. So listeners were treated to remakes of “San Jose” (dear Lord, why?), Edwin Starr’s “War” (yes, please), a bit of “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey” (lush) and most controversially, Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” With the exception of the execrable “San Jose,” FGTH brought something new and unique to each. The notion of a proto-disco band like FGTH covering a classic rock staple like “Born to Run” isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds at first. Horn envelopes the proceedings in bombastic synth chords, sweeping strings and cinematic drums Á¢€” wasn’t Bruce all about widescreen epics anyway? Á¢€” while Johnson’s Broadway vibrato croon makes the plea for small town escape truly universal: straight or gay, black or white, rich or not so rich. In place of Clarence Clemons’ iconic sax solo, the band does the previously unthinkable and substitutes a bass solo, of all audacious things. Since then I’ve always pondered what a Horn-produced Springsteen album would sound like. Quite brilliant, I’d imagine.
Life Beyond “Relax”: Topping or even matching their debut was a nearly impossible feat, and the second FGTH album, Liverpool, was almost universally panned forÁ¢€¦well, not being Pleasuredome. An unfair thing to be judged upon, especially since free of Pleasuredome’s filler, Liverpool ends up being the more cohesive and stronger album. Songs have actual structure instead of being propped up by simple bombast, the focus is more mature and the quaint manufactured controversies are set aside to let the music take the spotlight. Horn was out, producer Steve Lipson was in, pushing the band towards a more rock sound that Holly Johnson wasn’t entirely on board with. The push and pull between rock and dance comes through, and although the conflict resulted in the group splitting up, the results are fun for the listener to experience. “Kill the Pain” features a borderline-Lydon vocal from Johnson coupled with a wall of guitars, and the results sound like a soothing, melodic Public Image Limited, if you can believe such a thing exists. Liverpool‘s centerpiece is “Lunar Bay,” the closest the group came to pure dance on this go ’round. The studio version drowns in synth flourishes and unnecessary effects with barely a hint of guitar, but live, the song features Brian Nash’s funky guitar front and center Á¢€” the difference between the album and live versions supports Holly’s claim that Liverpool‘s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production hampered its chances:
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Their Crowning Moment: Ignoring the obvious answer of “Relax,” the band’s brightest moment is also its longest Á¢€” the Pink Floyd-meets-Village People 14-minute epic “Welcome to the Pleasuredome.” A sprawling, ambitious showcase with no dull moments, “Pleasuredome” goes from quiet moments in the headphones to funky bass on the dance floor, then back again, the quintessential FGTH track. “Pleasuredome” is every reason you should like Frankie wrapped up in one song Á¢€” and while the band never reached that peak again, there are plenty of other decent tracks worth exploring.