It’s fair to say that the impact that Frankie Goes To Hollywood (FGTH) had on the 1980’s was pretty substantial. Their rise and fall was spectacular – but rather than limp on like a wounded animal like so many of their contemporaries, reforming for reality show’s and nostalgia tours, FGTH have remained somewhat of an enigma.
Lead singer Holly Johnson launched a brief solo career following the split, but none of the other members really made much impact on the music scene past the end of the 1980’s. It’s easy to forget that at the height of their powers, FGTH had numerous number 1 singles, courted controversy at a level not scene since the Sex Pistols, had a brand t-shirt (Frankie Says…) that became one of the iconic images of the decade. Not bad for a band of Liverpuddlian journeymen that only released two albums.
This article is not about Frankie as a phenomenon, nor is it about their first album Welcome to the Pleasuredome. This article is about their second album Liverpool, an album I believe to be something of an underrated classic of the 1980’s.
But we need to throw some context in first, and that does mean returning to the phenomena that was Welcome to the Pleasuredome. It’s easy to suggest that this album deserves an article more than the second, but enough has already been written about this album – there is nothing meaningful I can personally add to what has already been written. The album is hands-down a classic of the 1980’s, one of the most ambitious, arrogant, bombastic, creative and entertaining pop records recorded by a mainstream band. Even the ‘filler’ tracks are good. The only other mainstream pop album I can think of that matches the sheer scale of ambition of Welcome... is Prince’s Sign ‘o The Times. So following up on such a phenomenal debut was always going to be an impossible task.
There is a tangible air of boredom and frustration that permeates the album – not with making the music itself, but at the grind of fame, the emptiness of celebrity culture.
I don’t think the world was expecting FGTH to release a second album. The whole thing at the time felt like a glorious one off project – a brainwave of producer Trevor Horn, realised through the personalities of Frankie. As a fan of the band and the album, I was not expecting a follow up release. Welcome… is a colossal slice of pop wonderment, a really truly epic feeling collection of songs that battered 1980’s pop sensibilities into pieces. There is an energy, menace and mischievousness in tracks like Two Tribes, Relax, their frenetic cover of Born to Run (I prefer it to the original) and their reinterpretation of classic soul track War. It still retains that vital energy after all these years.
What first struck me about Liverpool is how political the album is. It came out in 1986, just as the excesses and indulgences of the post punk, new romantic ideal were on the wain. Industrial strife, a recent miners strike, and Thatcherism was in full swing in the UK. Young people were starting to realise that being a teenager in the late 1980’s wasn’t looking a great prospect. The opening lines of the first track Warriors of the Wasteland, sets the tone for the first side of the album:
From diamond mine to the factory
Everybody’s doing what you’ve got to keep on doing for society
Make this world a good place to be
Let livin’ be but don’t work for free
It seems to me that the powers that be
Keep themselves in splendour and security
Armoured cars for megastars
No streets, no bars, your wealth is ours
This sounds like a post euphoria rant, a comedown after the hope of The World is My Oyster from Welcome…, a reaction to rising inequality, rising youth unemployment, rising house prices and wage stagnation. The emptiness of stardom and media hype are also reflected on this album. On listening to the album again for the first time in 20 years, I am struck by the anger and cynicism that permeates the first half of the album.
Warriors ends with:
We’re rats in a cage
Suicide a go-go
And drops straight into Rage Hard;
Rage hard, into the light
Rage hard, doing it right, doing it right
Rage hard, against the dark
Rage hard, make your mark
Let the tournament begin
Don’t give up and don’t give in
Strength to rise up, strength to win
Strength to save the world from losing
What’s particularly interesting to me is just how political the videos for both Rage Hard and Warriors of the Wasteland are. Admittedly, the band had already set out their stall with the infamous Two Tribes video, but the anti-war, anti-establishment theme is very evident in both videos. What I think is remarkable is just how little we see of this sort of posturing from modern day bands. With the world arguably in a worse state politically than it was at the end of the 1980’s, I find it incredible that more contemporary bands are not producing videos or songs that express political views so overtly. In fact, this was a feature of many mainstream acts in the 1980s – everyone seemed to do a political song, and not just bands like Killing Joke or Dead Kennedys. The Human League even did one – it was called The Lebanon. It was clumsy but it was still a good song.
But its not all despair. Like Welcome…., there is light and shade – against the anger, hope and against the cynicism, songs about love. But ultimately, the whole album feels like an ode to working class life with all its frustrations, (false)hopes and desires. Welcome… touched on these themes too, but amongst the Cold War/anti-war paranoia that featured on the album, that album ended with a song about hope and love – The Power of Love. The second half of Liverpool is a lighter affair, more frivolous, exploring themes of love and desire, aspiration and the power of dreams.
There are shades of Welcome… throughout Liverpool, musical motifs and nods – Maximum Joy for example, sounds like a out-take straight from a studio session from Welcome…. Liverpool maybe a less cogent overall offering than Welcome…, but despite a couple of filler tracks, there are some genuinely great songs on this album. Overall, the album feels like a loss – a last hurrah of a band that seemed by the end of the B-Side to have ran out of steam. There is a tangible air of boredom and frustration that permeates the album – not at making the music itself, but at the grind of fame, the emptiness of celebrity culture. By the end of Liverpool the listener knows that there will not be a third Frankie album.
The band split up not long after Liverpool was released. Holly Johnson wasn’t happy with the album and expressed dissatisfaction with the whole recording process. Maybe it shouldn’t have been released as an album. Maybe it would have worked better as a 5 track EP. But for all its faults and niggles, as a whole piece of work, it sounds great. I’d not heard Liverpool for 20 years before I wrote this review. It’s been a pleasure to listen to it again, and I think, well worth more people listening to it again. As a piece of social pop history it’s worth a re-visit.