How Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Gay, Controversial Music Videos Shaped the ’80s
These days, Frankie Goes to Hollywood are considered a one-hit wonder — or a punchline. A “FRANKIE SAY RELAX” shirt is an easy shorthand for cheap comedies to say “Hey, the 1980s existed!”
But, during their time, Frankie Goes to Hollywood were a big deal — and were unabashedly gay. Their unflinching and, pardon the pun, frank lyrics were married to brilliant music. The debut LP Welcome to the Pleasuredome is a masterpiece. But as good as their album was, it was their music videos that really solidified their place in the canon.
If you’ve only seen the most common video for their debut (and most famous) single “Relax,” you might be surprised:
The video, directed by Godley and Creme, is just the band playing the song on a soundstage. As one would expect from Godley and Creme — directors of acclaimed music videos like Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” — it’s beautifully shot. Unfortunately, it’s also boring; performance videos have to truly be something special to be memorable.
If this is the video for their most famous hit, why are they so renowned for their music video work? Because this is the second version of the “Relax” video. The first was much more engaging — and also banned.
The first video, directed by Bernard Rose, was much truer to the explicitly sexual lyrics of “Relax.” In it, lead singer Holly Johnson goes to a seedy Ancient-Rome themed S&M club. An obese “emperor” in a makeshift toga oversees the club which features people in cages and fights breaking out, all for his amusement. But when Johnson wrestles a tiger (!!!), the emperor is pleased. So pleased, in fact, he strips off his toga.
The video also isn’t afraid to make it clear what the chorus refers to. Near the end of the video on the final word of the line “When you want to come,” Johnson and bandmate Paul Rutherford are covered in champagne streams. Naive viewers who still thought “come” meant “arrive” were swiftly disabused of that notion.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood re-teamed with Godley and Creme for “Two Tribes,” their next video. The satirical song gleefully embraces the idea of a nuclear war — a common theme on Welcome to the Pleasuredome. The song also includes a number of creepy samples from British “Protect and Survive” public information films. (In the United States, they’re called “public service announcements.”)
The “Two Tribes” video is pretty straight forward — actors portraying President Reagan and Russian leader Konstantin Chernenko wrestling at the United Nations. The video captures the absurdity of professional wrestling — the showboating and drama. Unfortunately for the world, it soon turns vicious as global destruction becomes imminent while the band gleefully looks on.
Like “Relax,” the video for “Two Tribes” had a few different versions. However, while “Relax” was completely reshot because of the sexual content, “Two Tribes” was merely re-edited for MTV to remove violence, like the scene where Reagan bites Chernenko’s ear.
The video — which remains scarily relevant today — was a critical success. “Two Tribes” even hit the height all music videos dream of: It was played several times at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
“The Power of Love”
Compared to its predecessors, “The Power of Love” is downright wholesome. Released during the 1984 Christmas season — despite not being a holiday-oriented song — the video is a gorgeously shot retelling of The Nativity Story.
Another collaboration with Godley and Creme, “The Power of Love” is beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly interesting unless you’re in the mood for Christmas. Still, there’s enough innovation in the staging that it’s not surprising that “The Power of Love” is still a Christmas favorite in the United Kingdom.
“Welcome to the Pleasuredome”
As you might expect, both the song and video for “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” riff on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan.” Like the poem, the lyrics and poem warn of the dangers of debauchery. In the video, the band steal a car to go to the titular Pleasuredome where they’re greeted with all manner of fun. However, there’s a definite sinister edge to the fun as sex and violence combine.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood went back to Bernard Rose, the director of the first “Relax” video and re-ignited controversy. There are a number of similarities between the two videos. Brief shots of nudity, an aesthetic that deftly combines then-contemporary style with retro sets, loads of leather daddies and S&M gear, and a shot of band members fighting animals. (In this one, Rutherford fights a bear and Johnson a snake.)
Unfortunately, many people missed the point of the video; they assumed it was glorifying a hedonistic lifestyle rather than being critical.
“Rage Hard” was the first single from the followup album Liverpool. That album teamed Frankie Goes to Hollywood with a new producer, and gave the act a more rock sound. Like the album, the video for “Rage Hard” brought in a new director, Paul Morley.
Morley co-founded Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s label, ZTT and was a member of Art of Noise. While this was Morley’s first video for the band, he was the man behind the marketing and promotion of Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Unfortunately, Morley didn’t have much experience as a music video director — only having done “Duel” for Propaganda before. It shows — “Rage Hard” is a barely memorable collage of performance video, superimposed text and stock footage of war. The video was even voted the worst video of 1986 by viewers of The Chart Show, a British music video show.
It’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s first failure, and a harbinger of things to come.
“Warriors of the Wasteland”
“Warriors of the Wasteland” was the third single in a row based on a literary reference. While “Rage Hard” referenced Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” “Warriors of the Wasteland” refers to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
It’s not as boring as “Rage Hard,” but the animated video departs from the look of previous Frankie Goes to Hollywood work to its detriment. While the videos for Welcome to the Pleasuredome are all iconic and feel like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Warriors of the Wasteland” could be from anyone. The closest touchstone is Elvis Costello’s far superior “Accidents Will Happen” video, directed by Max Headroom creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton.
“Warriors of the Wasteland,” on the other hand was another new director, Nick Burgess-Jones. Though he’d gone on to make a number of other videos, this was his first. While Burgess-Jones had worked for Jankel and Morton, his debut doesn’t have a spark. Combining cheap-looking animation with propaganda and collage, it’s another miss. The public agreed — it was the first single to not hit the Top 5.
“Watching the Wildlife”
“Watching the Wildlife” was the final Frankie Goes to Hollywood single and video. Tensions between the band, combined with the failure of Liverpool, caused the band to break up at the end of their tour promoting the record.
As with all the Liverpool albums, “Watching the Wildlife” was directed by another newbie, Mike Perterly — who never directed a video again. It’s not hard to see why — while there’s some inventive staging, at its heart, it’s just another performance video. It looks like a decent amount of money was spent on it; they perform on a platform surrounded by water and fire. Sadly, the tensions between the band members is visible, making it clear no one’s having a good time, including the viewer.
Oddly enough, the Music Video Database lists an alternate “Underwater” version of the video — though if it exists, it’s not online.
While Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s videos for the first album proved a huge influence on the art of music videos, it’s sad to watch them fall so far. The Liverpool videos are more about chasing trends than making them.
Still, Frankie Goes to Hollywood are still a respected act. Remarkably for a band with only two albums, there are 13 different compilations of demos, remixes, and greatest hits. There were even a couple reunion tours, though they didn’t include Johnson nor original guitarist Brian Nash.
Holly Johnson did have a successful solo career. Johnson released six albums under his own name, and his debut, Blast, was a number 1 hit in the UK. In 1991, Johnson learned he was HIV positive — he feared he would soon die, so he wrote an autobiography, A Bone in the Flute. Thankfully, he was mistaken — he’s still alive and doing well; his last single was released last year on the Eddie the Eagle soundtrack.
Johnson’s bandmate, Paul Rutherford also released a solo album, Oh World, however it didn’t do nearly as well. He left the music industry and now lives in New Zealand with his partner Perry Newton.
The other three members of the band, Peter Gill, Mark O’Toole and Brian Nash, mostly stayed in the music industry and released solo records, though none had the success of Johnson.
Still, while none of the members reached the heights of fame that Frankie Goes to Hollywood did, their work remains well-regarded and influential. And, besides, not too many bands had their own video game featuring chiptune versions of their tunes!
Did you know the backstory behind Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and their music videos?
This article was originally published on September 2, 2020. It has since been updated.