Saturday 31 May 2014

FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD: Welcome To The Pleasuredome

(#305: 10 November 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: well…/The World Is My Oyster/Snatch Of Fury (Stay)/Welcome To The Pleasure Dome/Relax/War/Two Tribes/Tag/Ferry (Go)/Born To Run/Do You Know The Way To San José?/Wish (The Lads Were Here) including The Ballad Of 32/Krisco Kisses/Black Night White Light/The Only Star In Heaven/The Power Of Love/bang…

“Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense. Indeed, intensity is the movement of motionless man. It is one of the dynamic characteristics of quiet daydreaming.”
(Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics Of Space, translated by Maria Jolas. New York: Orion Press, 1964; from Chapter 8: “Intimate Intensity”)

“The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.”
(John Berger, Ways Of Seeing. London: BBC/Penguin, 1972; page 128)

The above track listing is a compromise. It isn’t exactly what is printed on the inner sleeve of the original double LP. I have largely stripped the song titles of their mostly gratuitous additional parentheses. The track listing given for the double LP does not include all of its tracks. The CD edition (first print) is different again, and completely fails to correlate to what is actually on the CD. The track “Tag” – a 33-second rerun of the orchestral middle section from “Two Tribes” over which Chris Barrie impersonates Prince Charles talking about orgasms – is listed but does not appear at all (it is there, unlisted, on the original double LP, at the end of side two, or, if you must, side “G”). On the original double LP, “Two Tribes” appears as a very basic, and somewhat drained, remix of its 7-inch; but on the CD we get the full, definitive “Annihilation” mix, complete with the closing Patrick Allen “Mine is the last voice…” tag (a sequence not taken from the original Protect And Survive information films, but written by Paul Morley). Their “Do You Know The Way To San José?,” though listed, does not appear on the CD at all, being unceremoniously replaced by “Happy Hi!,” one of the B-sides of the “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” single, and a song which really underlined how unremarkable Frankie ended up being. There seems to be a continuing conflict whether it should be “Pleasure Dome” or “Pleasuredome.” The cassette edition was different again. I could go on.

What this all signifies – this album whose compiler loves signifiers and the signified – is that there is no definitive edition of the record, and perhaps that is why it has become so little loved. I remember reading Record Mirror and being told that the first Frankie LP was going to be a triple-album boxed set which would include neither of their two colossal hits, and that a third single – “The Power Of Love” – would be released shortly before Christmas but would not appear on the album. Christ, I thought to myself, Morley's trying to do an Escalator.

And then the album, with more than a million advance orders, came out, and went out of the shops pretty well from the moment they came in, or the boxes were opened; there were a couple of, shall we say, premature rave reviews. Pleasuredome tied with entry #310 at the top of the NME 1984 Readers’ Poll Album Of The Year list; had the NME writers’ poll not gone to press much too early, there was, I understand, a very good chance that Pleasuredome would have leapfrogged Womack’s Poet II to come, as it were, at the top of the albums list.

And then people actually bothered to open up the package, or at least remove the records from their luxuriously appointed sleeves, and listen to them; the disappointment was as instantaneous as the initial acclaim. It was a double rather than triple, with no box, and all three singles, including “The Power Of Love,” were present. There were several cover versions, bits of other cover versions, an introductory title track which took up most of side one. This indicated a lack of ready material.

Yet it had, apparently, to be a double; Frankie had become so suffocatingly huge by the late autumn of 1984 that people expected nothing less, despite the single album having been more than enough for ABC, the Human League and (largely) the Beatles. But who would have bought a single album with the title track on side one and “Krisco Kisses,” etc., on side two? The stakes were too high, and I am unsure whether ZTT were really ready for a phenomenon of this size.

And so, as a package, Pleasuredome works brilliantly (at least until you have/bother to listen to it). Or at least it looks, on first impressions, to be brilliant. A deluxe, upmarket double album illustrated by cartoons of beasts of the field doing the basic thing; this was perceived to be McLaren-level irony. Otherwise, Morley floods the inner sleeves with words, unending words, quotes, second-hand observations, letters of complaint which may or may not be about Frankie; nothing that tells me something I didn’t already know. The fan magazine pocket paragraph band interviews go back to notions of packaging adopted in the sixties. There are Python-style advertisements for Frankie merchandise, including the “Sophisticated Virginia Woolf vest for the luxury of life” and the “Andre Gide socks.” References to the models being “ordered about” and the enterprise being “an exclusive piece of ZTT exploitation” don’t make them not so. Ultimately you are conning, and laughing at, the audience who are giving you money to be told how beautiful and discerning they are.

There is even a reading list, which no doubt was intended to give off an air of something beyond ordinary pop thrills, together with quotations from fairly routine sources (the long section about “Youth ends where manhood begins…” comes from Henry Miller’s Rimbaud study The Time Of The Assassins, compulsory reading for younger Beat types). Unfortunately Paul Morley failed to take into account that another smart-aleck would look at this list and wonder (a) exactly what was so remarkable about it and (b) what the hell any of it had to do with Frankie Goes To Hollywood (I believe that the apposite phrase in this context is “Never shit a shitter”).

I’m still wondering what the Pleasuredome reading list is meant to demonstrate other than Morley’s fine taste in literature. There are the standard texts for anxious, pale nineteen-year-olds; The Sickness Unto Death, Les Fleurs du Mal, Dead Souls (you just can’t get away from Joy Division, can you?), The Picture Of Dorian Grey, and so forth. Added to that are a bunch of nineteenth-century books about hoped-for utopias written by prematurely disappointed socialists – Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Peter Kropotkin’s anarchist text The Conquest Of Bread, Edward Bellamy’s exceedingly hope-filled science-fiction epic Looking Backward: 2000-1887 – alas Mr Bellamy wasn’t to know about the real 2000 of PopStars, Florida and chads, but I do note that his character Dr Leete makes the following observation: “According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.” Where does that leave the business of selling and buying a Frankie Goes To Hollywood album?

Also present are examples of what can happen when utopia gets flipped over to reveal its double, Rimbaud’s “A Season In Hell,” very obviously, as well as two studies of seemingly happy and satisfied families whose structure is essentially based on lies, Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck and George Gissing’s novel The Nether World. The main protagonists of both fail because they are dishonest with and about themselves in the context of people they claim to love. The protagonist of Strindberg’s Inferno (also included in the list) reacts so violently (on a psychological basis – persecution mania, they call it) against his own family that he isolates himself from them altogether and even casts a black magic spell on his daughter. This all culminates in Moby Dick – go all the way round the world to find and kill that whale, even if everybody else on your boat drowns as a result; the world and the sea roll on regardless, as the book’s ending makes clear, as if the crew had never existed. Or, one might posit, the pop group.

But even if this is a case of Morley setting himself up as a sort of Harold Biffen against the multiple Jasper Milvains of 1984 pop, he surely envisaged Pleasuredome as being more than New Pop’s Mr Bailey, Grocer (ironically, like Duncan Thaw in a different country and time, Biffen dies because he is completely incapable of understanding or giving love). But I’m not sure that it isn’t. To match what the hype of the package itself promised, Pleasuredome would have had to have been the greatest album ever made; anything less would have been viewed as an effrontery. Unfortunately the reality of the album seems to bear out the sleeve’s Measure For Measure quotation about “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.”

Indeed, when placing one’s needle at the beginning of Side “F,” one wonders for some time when exactly Frankie are going to make themselves known. The side begins with an apocalyptic shriek for (possibly synthesised) soprano and Fairlight which makes the listener think more of Rick Wakeman’s myths ‘n’ legends on ice capers than the Sex Pistols. This dies down to allow Holly Johnson to belch “The world is my oyster” followed by one of his unappetising chuckles.  As with Disco Tex on the cover of Manhattan Millionaire, the immediate reaction is who cares?

Then we get a meandering passage for acoustic guitar and John Barry-type keyboards which appears to have nothing to do with the group whose record this is meant to be. This in turn is followed by a seemingly unending sequence of zoo noises. Perhaps bucked up by the inaudible cat-calls of “Gerronwivit!” from the gallery, the title track finally stutters into life. Inspired by Coleridge, or possibly more so by Rush’s seven-year-old “Xanadu,” Johnson’s introductory spiel is cheekily compelling. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A pleasure dome…EEEEEE-RECT!” is great…but Johnson doesn’t follow it up. There’s an embarrassing pause and then: “Moving on…keep moving on.” The impetus is gone.

Indeed, the song – if it can be said to be a song (perhaps that was the hidden intention; the ultimate pop package, down to hiring David Frost to do the voiceover for the television commercial, containing almost nothing, cover versions and “The Power Of Love” partially excepted, that could be construed as a song – Frankie’s schtick is all chants and slogans) – highlights Johnson’s extremely limited lyrical repertoire. “Keep  moving on,” “Gotta reach the top, don’t stop,” “Shooting stars never stop,” “There goes a supernova/What a pushover” – he is the missing link between Tom Peters and Noel Gallagher.

But there are over thirteen-and-a-half minutes of album space to fill with the title song, and it does so very draggingly, again with an arrangement and production which have little apparent connection to the group. There are quiet bits, slightly louder bits, pauses, acoustic and electric guitar solos, from Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin respectively, a very horrible, dated harmonica puffing its way throughout the entire song, and a ghastly Ladybirds backing vocal group towards the end. It doesn’t reach the same heights as epics like Gil Evans’ “There Comes A Time” or Sun Ra’s “I’ll Wait For You” because, as Lena pointed out while listening to it with me, Frankie do not really swing, or even shuffle; there is simply that dead Linn drum beat pounding nearly all the way through, like a particularly fascistic metronome. The track ends with Johnson thrice reiterating that the world is his oyster, with some New Number 2 laughs which are Fairlit into darkness.

Then side two, and the hits. I can’t think of a single soul in Britain who wasn’t heartedly sick and tired of “Relax” and “Two Tribes” by November 1984 but they return regardless; “Relax” in particular is a very pallid, doubled-up remix whose impact is the polar opposite of that of the original 7-inch mix on Now II. Then it was something new and startling; now it’s the same old same old. 1984 was, to borrow one of Johnson’s phrases, a year where you had to move at a million miles an hour if you weren’t going to get rapidly left behind. “War” has Chris Barrie’s Reagan quoting Hitler again and musing about Che Guevara, George Jackson and Malcolm X, and love being “the prime mover of their struggle,” but Holly Johnson is no Edwin Starr and Trevor Horn, finally, no Norman Whitfield. The appearance of the Annihilation mix of “Two Tribes” on the CD edition seems designed to shame the rest of the record, so obviously and hugely does its symphony-like structure stand out and tower over its supposed peers.

On to side three (side “T”) and will we, can we, learn what Frankie really say? No; there are cover versions. Beginning with the dole office sequence from their cover of “Ferry Cross The Mersey” (which doesn’t actually appear on the album other than in tiny particles, although Gerry Marsden still got royalties from it), we get a thoroughly misguided pub rock cover of “Born To Run.” One does initially admire Johnson’s sheer chutzpah at deciding to have a go at this then nine-year-old monolith of rock (but it is pop!), but by the time we get to the Great Gate of Kiev (i.e. might as well be Keith Emerson) organ in the final verse there is no evidence that the group have actually understood what the song and its writer were trying to communicate. Performing the song onstage in America more or less killed their career there stone dead; audiences not unreasonably saw it as an act of blasphemy and booed them. Had they known anything about Springsteen they would have realised that Born To Run, the album, was a proto-New Pop exercise, full of implied quotes from and references to pop history, both musical and lyrical, being reshaped in ways that would speak to the disenfranchised inhabitant of post-Watergate America (you really couldn’t imagine Frankie making anything more than a dog’s dinner out of, say, “Meeting Across The River”).

But the song’s appearance here suggests another chapter in Morley’s rather pointless history of pop reflitered through ZTT, as does “San José,” done entirely, and boringly, straight, in a 1975 Johnny Mathis manner – another American road song whose deeper implications are overlooked or ignored. Is this what Sid Vicious, or even Ian Curtis, had died for – MoR that would sound nice on Steve Wright In The Afternoon?

Matters are not improved by “Wish (The Lads Were Here),” a dully frantic indie-rocker with some mirthless, laddish studio chat (the overall impression left by Pleasuredome is: what if the first Oasis album had been Be Here Now?) which soon falls asleep and becomes “The Ballad Of 32,” a Pink Floyd soundalike (Wish You Were Here – geddit? Oh, don’t bother) with sub-Gilmour guitar over a porn movie sample, and frankly it’s hard to detect whether any of the group are on this at all; was this Horn and Morley’s great New Pop scandal – sell a record as though it were punk rock resurrected, but actually trick punters into buying a prog-rock concept album? There are points – usually involving Steve Howe – on the title track where one thinks that it has been nearly eleven years since Tales From Topographic Oceans and nothing has moved an inch further (indeed, there was a story that did the rounds in 1985 that there was an abandoned concept album which Howe had recorded with Horn, about somebody who falls into, and gets lost within, a computer – I can’t remember what it was called, but the rumour was that substantial chunks of that lost concept album had resurfaced on Welcome To The Pleasuredome).

Finally, to side “H,” presumably for “Hell,” and here’s the big payoff – you want to know, Horn and Morley appear to ask us, what this group are really about? What they truly sounded like before we got our hands on them? Well, here it is – the band themselves!

And it is mostly appalling. The same songs that had done the rounds of the Radio 1 evening shows s couple of years beforehand, and with “Krisco Kisses” we are given an unlovely bump back into the world of 1981 punk-funk, with bloodless tribal drumming and chanting (“Hunger, HUN-GER!”), requisite scratchy guitar and bass, Gang Of Four stop-start song structures (they make the instrumental break on “Born To Run” sound like Orange Juice – if only!) and more “take it to the top” platitudes. At this point Horn audibly sounds as though he’s lost interest in the whole project; just whack it out, no Blockheads or prog chums to cover up the gaps. “Black Night White Light” is a bloodless bore, reminiscent of a below par Dollar B-side (Paul Rutherford sounds remarkably like David van Day on the choruses), with an arrangement so bland it makes Johnny Hates Jazz sound like Pinski Zoo. Meanwhile, “The Only Star In Heaven” chunders over tedious puddles of cliché (“Live life like a diamond ring,” blaspheming Sun Ra with “Space is the place” – no Martin Fry was Johnson) with a moody, disconnected outro which sounds as though Portishead could sample it and create something genuinely interested.

Then comes, if you will, “The Power Of Love.”

(N.B.: Some of the following, but by no means all of it, has already appeared in my comment on the single on Popular.)

In its non-album context, it remains the greatest triptych of pop singles, one of the most ravishing of all pop schematas; after tackling sex and war there was only religion left – only religion? – and so the video for this particular “Power Of Love” depicted Holly Johnson as an avenging angel. Chris Barrie returned for the 12-inch to recreate Mike Read’s “Relax” ban (much to the chagrin of Read,  who would have been more than happy to come in and redo it himself) and then Reagan again, musing on faith and the passing of beliefs and people.

And yet, as befitted what surely and knowingly was intended as the last will and testament of this thing called New Pop, faith and belief were finally all that mattered. Just as the Martin Fry of “All Of My Heart” finally faced the fear and looked himself in his postmodern mirror, realising that, yes, although love can be analysed, disseminated and deconstructed, it cannot necessarily be put together again, and that the only way to stay meaningfully alive is to surrender to it and embrace it, there is no apparent irony in the Holly Johnson who sings on “The Power Of Love,” cajoled by Horn to sing better than he’d ever sung before. There is a glimpse of his impish grin in the opening pledge of “I’ll protect you from the Hooded Claw/Keep the vampires from your door” but this doesn’t even begin to mask the real and warm smile of reassurance which lies beneath. I’ll be frank here and admit that for me, a little of Holly Johnson’s voice goes a very long way; like Björk, the two or three vocal tricks which he continually essays quickly become tiresome.

And, as I said above, Johnson has never been, shall we diplomatically say, as astute and deft a wordsmith as Fry, but this works to “The Power Of Love”‘s advantage; the lyric is largely composed of slogans and homilies – “Love is the light,” “When the chips are down,” “Let yourself be beautiful,” “Make love your goal” – but Johnson’s blunt candour pulls the song through; on the verge of tears in the line “Sparkling love and flowers and pearls and pretty girls,” his double octave-leading emphasis of “death defying” to reinforce “undying,” the comforting arm around the shoulder of “This time we go sublime.”

What it all conveys is a desire for the revelation that sex can be beautiful and not tacky, that war and death can perhaps both be defeated. And Horn’s production and Anne Dudley’s string arrangement rise with an urgency especial even for them; for both “The Power Of Love” may be their finest hour. Listen to how the strings cushion the suddenly ajar door of Johnson’s first “Make love,” coming in to the solitary acoustic guitar, how the track crescendoes after the second verse, following which there is an unsettling moment as a Fairlight-manipulated Johnson vibrato is echoed by sinister low fuzz guitar as if he’s about to be atomised – but no, we return to the piano of “Moments In Love,” the guitar now high and yearning, the final pause before Johnson, Horn and Dudley (and Morley) summon up everything they know for the rapturously cathartic climax; as everything rises on Johnson’s “dove” one feels the Earth’s axis momentarily disturbed. That having been achieved, Johnson walks off into the long, echoing distance, Dudley’s strings engendering a near-unbearable sadness of sustenato (but isn’t this supposed to be a happy ending?) before Johnson repeats his opening promise and the dream fades into warm unreality.

For the dream was over, and everybody involved in “The Power Of Love” knew it; for those fortunate enough to have experienced the miraculous magic of New Pop it is almost impossible not to become tearful when listening to this record, for it carries within its generous arteries the portents of its own end – it is saying goodbye to New Pop, reluctantly relinquishing all its unfulfilled dreams; and yet the Frankie Goes To Hollywood trilogy ended up being as close to perfection as New Pop could possibly get.

But in the context of the album it was a huge: so what? And so the curtain is brought down on this least satisfactory of New Pop albums. “Let’s Make It A Double.” “It’ll be a pleasure” – did any of the people involved know, or remember, what the first number one double album was? But the whole experience leaves a fairly queasy taste in the mouth. As Barrie’s Reagan takes the album out, over the Brian Wilson/Rick Wakeman-like keyboard cascade which ends Frankie’s “Mersey,” saying over and over again “Frankie Say” and then the world bangs out of existence and “Frankie Say – No More.”

That could be a literal truth – Frankie do no more than say slogans and repeat chants. But far from being the Duchamp “V” sign to the rest of its time’s pop, Pleasuredome can play like a gigantic “V” sign to its audience, who swiftly recognised it as such. And if you are going to make The Record Label your major artwork, remember that Tony Wilson had Joy Division/New Order and Manfred Eicher had (and still has) Jan Garbarek. The tale of Frankie’s frankly shit treatment by ZTT – the £250 advance, the 5% royalty deal, the signing over of their songs to the label’s house publishers – has been told many times from many different angles. Certainly, in his memoir A Bone In My Flute, Holly Johnson very angrily confirms that little love was lost between him and ZTT. Could Horn and Morley have done the same with The Smiths or James or Bronski Beat? I suspect Somerville or Booth or Morrissey would have told them swiftly what they could do with their endless remixes, the seemingly limitless milking of the public’s funds. But 1984 was one of the fastest paced of years; by its end, “Upside Down,” Run-DMC and Zen Arcade were all in the record racks, and ZTT were running out of fashion.

And were Frankie ever really revolutionaries, or was their chart feat as hollow as that of Westlife? The Roxy Music, the Pistols, of 1984; but if that were the case, where were the consequences, the revolution? They were not even the most influential act on ZTT; both Art Of Noise and Propaganda have a much more valid claim to that title. Was one artist, with admittedly the possible and partial exception of Robbie Williams, ever truly influenced by Frankie Goes To Holllywood? They did not play live in Britain until 1985, and audiences were disappointed by their old-fashioned rocking approach. Was Holly Johnson even the hippest member of Big In Japan? It would seem to me that Bill Drummond, with Jimmy Cauty, went on to square the ZTT-type equation to much greater effect with their KLF/JAMMs adventures – and let’s not even mention the Pet Shop Boys, a year away from conquering the charts and elegantly, effortlessly quoting To The Finland Station without needing to come over like a Saturday Post Harold Bloom about it?

I suspect, sadly, that Simon Reynolds’ final assessment of Frankie is the right one; that, if anything, they set the stage for the boy band template. In time both Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh would discover that they didn’t need any art when doing, essentially, the same thing; five guys with little or no control over what they did, as though rock ‘n’ roll were nothing but the greatest of swindles. To listen to Pleasuredome is really the aural equivalent of the withering within the listener of all human hope; with the silent leap of a sullen beast, ZTT seem to have downed and strangled every joy. The paraphrase is of the fifth line of Rimbaud’s “A Season In Hell”; New Pop, game over, screen off.