Graded on a Curve: Frankie Goes to Hollywood,
Welcome to the Pleasuredome

Take one very ambitious but rather feckless band of Liverpudians and the biggest manufactured hype this side of Jobriath and what you get is a punchline that just keeps on giving; the words “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” still provoke widespread mirth 33 years later. Why just last week I saw a character in the British TV sitcom Toast of London wearing a “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirt and it was all could do to stop from weeping with laughter.

But let’s relax for a moment and ask, “Was the whole Frankie Goes to Hollywood phenomenon really as risible as all that?” The Liverpool quintet may always remain the personification of the words “flash in the pan,” but there’s no denying the greatness of “Relax” and “The Power of Love.” And the very tribal “Two Tribes” is nothing to sneeze at either. And speaking just for myself, I find it hard to resist a band with the stones to release a very campy take on B. Springsteen’s sacrosanct “Born to Run.”

1984’s sprawling Welcome to the Pleasuredome is a textbook case of overweening ambition; it took chutzpah for Frankie Goes to Hollywood to make their debut a double album, and a conceptual double album at that. But if you’re riding a wave of hype why not make it tidal wave? Vocalist Holly Johnson and mates were nothing if not brash, and you have to hand it to a band that was pure dead certain two albums sides of their fusion of pop, dance, and vaguely tribal “riddims” just wouldn’t be enough. I’m rather surprised they didn’t release a triple.

Unfortunately, the band’s ambition is nearly the album’s downfall; between the sorry “The World Is My Oyster” and the oh so terribly protracted title track Side One is nothing I’ll ever want to put on my turntable. “Ho Ha!” cries the band at the opening of “Welcome to the Pleasuredome.” And they’re followed by Johnson, who portentously recites the opening of Samuel Coleridge’s “Xanadu.” Incorrectly. Come on mate, it’s only one of the best known pieces of Western Lit, so get it right! And like I said all of this occurs at the very beginning of “Welcome to the Pleasuredome.” Don’t even get me started on the song itself. Suffice it to say I can only shelve it under the label “dance prog,” a subgenre I just made up and most dearly wish didn’t exist.

The album doesn’t really get on track until Side Two, but even there Frankie Goes to Hollywood let their “concept” get the best of them. Megahit “Relax” boasts an arena-big sound and is as compulsively danceable as ever; with its big beat and whooshes and washes of sound it’s the perfect soundtrack to dancing on the edge of the abyss. But their attempt to turn Edwin Starr’s “War” into a piece of political commentary on the Reagan-Thatcher years fails because, well, the original song gets lost in the song. Some funky percussion portends funky things; what we get instead is a loose to the point of dissipated ramble featuring a fake Reagan discoursing on love, love, and more love. I hated Ronald Reagan as much as anybody in 1984, but I didn’t want him messing up my songs. I just wanted him out of Central America.

“Two Tribes” is my kind of political rant; the band doesn’t let the message kill the messenger, and what you get is a multi-layered thrill ride of a tune that does what Frankie does best—throw some desperate vocals atop a big beat and lots of clamor. “Are we living in a land/Where sex and horror/Are the new gods?” asks Johnson as the song goes out. Hype or no hype, it’s as good a query as any asked by anybody during that benighted age.

Side Three works but demonstrates what happens when a band short on material goes for a double. And what happens is the band opts for covers. “Ferry (Go)” is a likeably stately take on Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Ferry Cross the Mersey”; “Born to Run” is, well, “Born to Run” and slumming at its best. Johnson’s not really up to the task and neither is the rest of the band but you can tell they’re having fun; makes me hanker for a Mel Torme version, it does. “San Jose (The Way)” takes us from Springsteen to Burt Bacharach and Hal David by some dizzying route that boggles the imagination, but I’ll be damned if Frankie doesn’t pull it off. And the very “of its time” “Wish the Lads Were Here” works too thanks to its complex vocal arrangement and percussion hijinks, while side closer “The Ballad of 32” demonstrates what happens when a New Wave band decides it wants to be Pink Floyd. Roger Waters may not have written this baby but Roger Waters most certainly wrote this baby, if you know what I mean. And while Roger Waters didn’t play guitar on this baby he might as well have been playing guitar on it too.

Side Four opens with “Krisco Kisses,” another foray into tribalism that succeeds on sheer weirdness. “Black Night White Light” is pure dead bass-driven dance pop and as atmospheric as its title; when times get tough these guys go Bee Gee, but they’re too strange to crayon inside the lines. “The Only Star in Heaven” is bad proto-rap and a bit too stiffly mechanical for its own good. Which leaves us with “The Power of Love,” a pomp-driven ballad for the ages that gets me every time. Johnson promises to “keep the vampires from your door” and he sounds sincere; on “The Power of Love” the hype dissolves and Frankie Goes to Hollywood goes straight for the heart.

Like most hypes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood wasn’t fated to play the long game. They put out another studio LP (1986’s Liverpool) that failed to chart like the band’s debut and that was it. But Frankie Goes to Hollywood is more than the sum of the kitsch value of its t-shirts. Welcome to the Pleasuredome is deeply flawed, sure. On it the band’s reach exceeded its grasp. But at their best Frankie Goes to Hollywood produced songs that were every bit as good as those being released by, say, the Pet Shop Boys and INXS. They made better videos too. On Welcome to the Pleasuredome the boys set out to prove that nothing succeeds like excess, and if they didn’t quite pull it off I certainly won’t fault them for trying.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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