Neil Mason thinks it might just be…
For the pop crowd, for those fed on a strict diet of Top 40 hits, the first side of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s defining debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, was a mind-blower. That Ron Hardy would open his eclectically electric Music Box sets by playing the whole damn thing, all 15 minutes of it, speaks volumes.
It was one movement, two tracks, ‘The World Is My Oyster’, a gentle string-plucker with the merest glimpse of those now distinctive Holly Johnson’s pipes that gives way to the album’s title track. Exotic bird song fades up, a gentle synth swells, Johnson appears again with a refrain from ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ – “life goes on day after day” – which disappears almost as soon as it arrives. And then out of nowhere, a chime ushers in a throbbing, warm bassline and we’re off. It is very much a case of enjoy this trip, because it is a trip.
But who on earth had the balls to make a pop music track that was 15 minutes long? It’s madness now, at the time the madness was off the scale. Those sort of shenanigans were the preserve of prog, acts who by the mid-1980s were going the way of the dinosaurs. At the controls was someone who was no stranger to progressive rock, producer Trevor Horn.
By the early 80s, he was following a trajectory that he didn’t much like. A jobbing session musician with an increasing interest in production throughout the 1970s, he was thrust into the limelight when The Buggles landed a Number One hit with ’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ in September 1979. One thing led to another and before he knew it Horn had joined Yes, replacing Jon Anderson, with his Buggles wingman, Geoff Downes, taking Rick Wakeman’s place. As you do (they shared a manager who thought it’d be a good idea). In 1980, Yes released the Trevor Horn-fronted ‘Drama’ and the pair toured with the band across America and UK. But Horn wasn’t a performer in his heart. He had bigger plans, the seed of a lofty idea to produce glistening electronic pop that sounded like the past, present and future all rolled into one was forming.
“I always saw it in my head as Glen Campbell meets Kraftwerk,” Horn told Electronic Sound magazine. “A pop record, but with the sensibility of a techno record, and the rhythm section of a techno band. It seemed like the most incredibly exotic thing at the time.”
In 1982, along with his late wife Jill Sinclair, Horn bought the SARM West recording studio from Island Records big cheese Chris Blackwell. The role call of artists who had worked there was dizzying – Bob Marley, Nick Drake, Roxy Music, Sparks, The Clash, The Stones, Zeppelin, Genesis, Yes and Pet Shop Boys. If the walls could talk. Under new ownership, it also became home to the ZTT label, which the couple set up with NME writer Paul Morley. The label’s first signing would drive a coach and horses through pop music, realising Horn’s vision and sweeping away everything in its path.
In February 1983, an unsigned Liverpool band called Frankie Goes To Hollywood appeared on Channels 4’s notorious Friday evening music show The Tube. To say they weren’t the finished article is something of an understatement. They debuted a song called called ‘Relax (In Heaven Everything Is Fine)’, a kind of jazz funk durge performed by a band clad in leather, brandishing hand guns, whips and handcuffs. It was memorable that’s for sure.
By May, Horn had signed them to ZTT and work began on their debut single. The first version of ‘Relax’ was recored live, which Horn later described as “pretty awful”. By version two, Frankie were a different band. They were, in fact, Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads whose version was also discarded for being too tame. By version three, Horn and keyboard player Andy Richard were toking the Nepalese dope and they stumbled on the now familiar pumping rhythm while mucking around with the studios new Fairlight. The £18,000 machine had arrived at SARM in 1982, just in time for use on Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Duck Rock’ album. The weaponary got progressively better very quickly and by the time they came to record ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’, kit was king. Did it show? It did.
Released on the 29 October 1984, Welcome To The Pleasuredome didn’t so much tap into the zeitgeist, it was the zeitgeist. At the time, the UK was in the thick end of Thatcherism. Off the back of a recession in the early 80s, her Tory government ran rougshod over the working classes. Sharp interest rate rises, brutal public spending cuts and mass coal pit closures sent employment soaring, peaking at over three million in 1984. Places like Liverpool were hit hard.
Add to that, The Cold War between America and Russia was reaching a crescendo and the threat of a nuclear war seemed very real. In August, during an unbroadcast microphone soundcheck, US President Ronald Regan quipped that “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” All merry hell let loose once that was leaked.
Add a good dose of hedonism, chuck in a heap of sex, and ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ was an album that really spoke to its audience. The ‘I’m sorry I’ve left my card at home’ dole office exchange that follows ‘Fury’ (a delicious cover of Gerry And The Pacemaker’s ‘Ferry Across The Mersey’) can still be recited word for word by anyone who landed up on in the dole queues back then.
Nowhere was their finger more on the pulse than on their second single, the timely ‘Two Tribes’, which addressed the sheer terror and utter pointless of the impending mutually assured destruction, hitting the nail square on the head with the line “When two tribes go to war / A point is all that you can score”.
The 12-inches remixes, which introduced an entire generation to the idea of extended floorfillers, seemed almost endless. They shifted by the absolute shedload. Record shops would clear the decks to accommodate stock. For months, it seemed that the only act selling records in the UK was Frankie. And people were buying 12-inches at that. They exposed a whole new audience to the tools they would require when when acid house landed and smiley faces picked up the baton in 1988. Frankie were the breeding ground for eager teens whose rave adventures were yet come.
‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ shifted 250,000 copies in its first week of release, eventually going triple platinum moving in excess of 900,000 units. Nearly 40 years on, it remains a stone-cold classic. While it makes few of the greatest albums of all-time charts, it really should. While it isn’t obviously packed with dance music bangers, the repackaging of those songs as club remixes, and ringing endorsements from the likes of Ron Hardy, make a solid case for it living among once of the most important dance music albums of all-time. Sure, it would have been leaner and meaner as a gobsmacking single disc, but the ambition, the scale, the sheer balls of the thing earns it that rightful place at the very top table.