Friday, January 8, 2010

Better as a Single: "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

It's difficult to imagine a phenomenon so large leaving so little legacy. But from the perspective of 2010, it's all but impossible to imagine just how large and 'significant' Frankie Goes to Hollywood were in their time, when now they're a track on “80's Flashback” CD collections sold over the TV. The excitement drummed up around FGTH, and what they did for camp/gay visibility, for making art of cold-war hysteria, and for integrating a traditional rock band with studio- and synthesiser-based 'modern music', made them seem highly significant tat the time. They completely reinvented the 12-inch, they were unstoppable. They had the chutzpah to release a double album as their début. It sold over a million on pre-release in the UK alone. They had their own video game. Even their t-shirts were social signifiers. And then...? Well, you could say they used it all up on the début. You could say the times and the fashions were just moving too quickly. But just as sudden as their entrance, they were gone. And almost completely forgotten.

What did they leave behind? Well, the second album's not even worth discussing. Their legacy is this incredibly confused, occasionally brilliant and occasionally terrible album. And, more to the point, those brilliant twelve-inches. The double album of our dreams would have put each of the four twelve-inch singles on one side of vinyl. That release would have greatly improved Welcome to the Pleasuredome as a listening experience. But oh well...

As it is, I admit that my single-disc is little more than 'the singles and some covers'. But I do think it makes for a decent enough listening experience – certainly moreso than, say, listening to side four of the original from start to finish...

Welcome to the Pleasuredome

Side one
  1. Welcome to the Pleasuredome (13:38)
  2. (Tag) (0:35)
  3. Relax (3:56)
  4. Born to Run (3:56)
Side two
  1. Two Tribes (3:23)
  2. San Jose (the Way) (3:09)
  3. Black Night White Light (4:12)
  4. The Ballad of 32 (4:47)
  5. The Power of Love (5:28)
  6. Bang (1:08)

Well... / The World is My Oyster: lose

An ostentatious start to an ostentatious album, this is a bit of pesudo-operatic trilling followed by Holly Johnson saying “the world is my oyster” and then laughing. Not a song at all, it's just a bit of silliness to start the album, and to start its opening side-long epic. Why it's seperated into one, or two, additonal tracks, I have no idea. But it doesn't really add much to the album, and we'll get by fine without it.

Welcome to the Pleasuredome: keep (side one, track one)

What Trevor Horn and the ZTT label gave FGTH that they would otherwise never have had is a hugely expanded pallette. At its best, this album and its attendant singles are filled with the sense that, sonically, anything you can imagine in your head you can reproduce on vinyl. I have no doubt that the process was painstaking, and the album is certainly filled with many a descent into laziness probably borne of the enormous effort tracks like this required, but when the results were good, they were very good indeed. I imagine everyone involved was taken with the hubris of releasing a side-long song. The title track, as a composition, was probably the best candidate, with a good bass-line, a decent chorus and silly Coleridge-inspired lyrics. What they stretched it out into was really a song in two parts: the first half is the song proper, every bit the equal of the other three classic singles from this album, and the second half is a studio-created extended 'variations on a theme' – largely instrumental, cinematic in mood, and all in all quite impressive. At times, downright Floydian, which I think no one expected from FGTH. I'll still maintain that there are few 13-minute songs out there that couldn't be improved upon by being, well, shorter than 13 minutes, but this one holds up well. It doesn't bore, it holds the attention. And that's entirely to do with Trevor Horn, the Art of Noise and whoever else ZTT had holed up in those studios while the lads themselves were presumably down at the pub.

This is a case where the title track is obviously designed to be the opening piece (even after a bunch of fiddly bits on the original). Animal sound effects and a line of "Ferry Cross the Mersey" are as good an intro as the opera singer, and lopping off those bits lets me put two more songs, and a fiddly bit, on side a as well.

Relax (Come Fighting) (side one, track three)

The 'classic'. Their first hit and the only one anyone seems to remember today. Their one real mark on history. What can I say about it? Compositionally, it's not up to much, really. It's a decent amount of cheek masquerading as a song, really. Scandal, etc. Seems pretty timid all these years later. Also, seems pretty timid in the sadly pedestrian version we get on the album. It's very merely the song, no more no less. Amidst all of the bells and whistles on this double, FGTH's greatest hit is pretty unadorned. Still great, in its own way, but it could have been more... I don't know, more in-your-face. More elaborate. More memorable.

The double album is a bit top-heavy, crowding all the singles on the first disc. In a sense, I maintain that, even though I put two of the singles on side a and two on side b. I think my three-song a-side works well in context. The three songs don't have much to do with each other, but they play together well. And I think it's important to give 'Relax' a prominent place on the album, so it comes immediately after the opening track (less a fiddly bit).

War (...and Hide): lose

The b-side of "Two Tribes" is an adequate but not life-changing cover of "War" by Edwin Starr. The wonder of that "Two Tribes" 12" (which I'll salivate over in a minute) is that it was made up of individual songs, but they somehow all flowed together. This is much more in keeping with the spirit of that single than the next track on the double is, with the Ronald Reagan impersonator cleverly evoking Che Guevara and George Jackson. Subversive, sure, but ultimately what I'd have liked was this production applied to that song. Because instead what we have is six-plus underwhelming minutes (and crap congas) on okay-but-ultimately-boring (and really crap congas).

Two Tribes (for the Victims of Ravishment): keep (side two, track one)

When this album was originally released, it came out in a different version on CD and on vinyl. One of the main differences was in “Two Tribes”. The CD got the 12” version, while the vinyl album got a remixed and rejiggered version. The difference couldn't be more extreme: the ten-minute album version is about as great as it comes, a radical reinvention of the song that puts you straight in the middle of 1980s cold-war paranoia, way better than the single version and a million times better than this current version, which adds female backing vocals but rushes through the song, leaving little more than its basic structure. This version sounds like the band was already bored of the song but felt compelled to include it on the album. A pity, but a shadow version of this great song is still great in its own way.

Side two of the original album seems to conflate war and sex in a bit of a silly fashion. I think it's better to put 'Two Tribes' on the other side of the vinyl from 'Relax', as they're quite different songs. So here I let this epic begin side two. Wouldn't it be great if it started with an air raid siren like the 12" did?

(Tag) (side one, track two)

I'll admit it: even in my thirties, I still find this funny. It's nothing at all, really: 35 seconds of Art of Noise noodling over which a Prince Charles impersonator talks about orgasm. But it makes me laugh. And this sort of nonsense is part of what made Frankie stand out back then,

I like using this as a brief segue from the opening 'epic' into the rest-of-the-album. And I think it's a fun intro into the sex-talk of "Relax". So I think it fits as side one, track two very well (making side one a four-track side, even if it's only three proper songs).

Fury (Go): lose

A relatively drab version of “Ferry Cross the Mersey”, inexplicably retitled “Fury (Go)”. Holly sings it well, otherwise there's really nothing to say about it.

Born to Run: keep (side one, track four)

Frankie Goes to Hollywood were a five-piece: one lead singer, one Bez, one guitarist, one bassist and one drummer. No keyboard player. Left to their own devices, they were a trad 'rock' band. And I suppose that, on this album, this is about as close as we get to hearing them as they are. Which is odd, because in the context of the FGTH public image, a cover of a macho 70s stadium-rock powerhorse such as this would almost certainly be a piss-take. But, clever as they are, it's not. It's done about as straight-up as possible, with no real camp and with, amazingly enough, a belief in the sentiment of the song. It feels completely sincere, and however they did it, it rocks with every ounce of the rush that Bruce Springsteen's original has. A terribly intrusive synthesised conga comes along later and bruises this song's machismo, but other than that, this is an amazing performance, and even if it is just a make-weight cover, entirely merits inclusion.

I'm not entirely sure why I feel this song fits with the two singles on side a of the album. I think it's that, as entirely unsexy as I find motorcycles, I can acknowledge that there is something sexy about this song. And perhaps it's the fact that it's such a completely different kind of sexiness than "Relax" that makes me see them as effective bedfellows. Plus, it's a great side-closer.

San Jose (the Way): keep (side two, track two)

The other side, then: from hard and macho to soft and fey, from crunching guitars to pesudo-marimba and bossa-nova beat. It's good, in its own sincere-camp way, and the sequencing must have been intended as a challenge. Knowing that his band prefers the one and his producers prefer the other, one wonders which of the two, Springteen or Bacharach, Holly Johnson himself preferred. The CD I had of this album I had back in the day didn't have this song, repacing it with the truly atrocious “Happy Hi!”. So thank you very much, reinstated vinyl version.

I admit that this is a bit of a weak point in my selections: okay, but ultimately little more that pseudo-exotic karaoke. But I think it's that different texture that appeals to me, and I think putting it on side two, after "Two Tribes", lets that different texture shine.

Wish (the Lads were Here): lose

After 'Frankie takes on 70s journeyman rock' and 'Frankie takes on 60s wine-bar pseudo-bossa-nova', it's tempting to hear this as 'Frankie takes on cheesy 80s corporate-pop'. But alas... this is the real thing. This is actually FGTH attempting to sound 'contemporary'. It reminds me of nothing so much as this; in the 1980s, film studios would bait their summer blockbuster movies with two or three 'singles', which they would then release on 'soundtrack albums' accompanied by seven or eight deplorable pieces of hackwork that were never meant to be heard anyway, they merely filled out the twelve inches of vinyl. “Wish” sounds exactly like those 'efforts', and it brings everything that was cold and synthetic about the eighties back to vivid life.

The Ballad of 32: keep (side two, track four)

Three covers, a terrible original, and an instrumental... side three of Welcome to the Pleasuredome is ultimately as filler-filled as anybody's side three tends to be. At least the atmospherics of this Ennio Morricone-rip make it a pleasant experience. Who knows if any member of the actual band had any involvement with this (despite their being credited as composers), but it has a nice feel and texture to it. It's perhaps a bit overly similar to the second half of the album's title track, but on this comically eclectic album, that's perhaps not such a bad thing either.

I think my goal in programming this track was to keep it as far from the title track as possible. And since the climax is a given, this fits in right before it, as side two track four, also distancing the climax from some of the cheesier moments on the album.

Krisco Kisses: lose

A dissonant, messy track built on its walloping drums and with little else on top, the best thing you can say about this track is that it's short. But it's nothing anyone would like to hear more than once, either. I suspect it's a little bit of (horrors!) FGTH-ZZT. Nothing very pleasant then.

Black Night White Light: keep (side two, track three)

Like much of the second disc here, this is largely 'professional' eighties-pop, nothing you'd be surprised to find on a Simply Red album, really. But it's done well enough, and has a decent guitar riff behind it, so you can overlook the fact that somehow it seems designed to soundtrack a business meeting. That's a bit harsh, I admit. But 'not bad' is as far as I can get with this song.

As the only non-single vocal original on the whole album to 'make the cut', this song really represents 'what there was to Frankie beyond the videos' on my album. And... er, well, it's not going onto anyone's 'best songs ever' list, is it? So, side two track three: the home for songs that don't embarrass but don't really impress, either.

The Only Star in Heaven: lose

This hopelessly confused track could be described as a medley of four or five entirely different songs. In fact, one wonders if it wasn't merely thrown together to give certain half-developed ideas a home. By the end, it's become half-decent in its own side-four way, but it's a long journey towards 'half-decent'. And the dismal fact is that the song begins with Holly Johnson rapping, perhaps the worst fifteen or so seconds on the whole album. Enough to sour the rest of the song, I'm afraid.

The Power of Love: keep (side two, track five)

Apparently, this is one of the songs the band wrote before their association with ZTT, so it's not fair to call this entirely Anne Dudley's work. But it's tough to imagine what the 'lads' would have come up with without her and it's tough to imagine it could hold a candle to the sheer lush beauty of the orchestration here. Sincere? Not a bit. The lyrics are still 'camp' (hooded claw?) and that tongue still pushes itself, by force of habit, back into that cheek. But none of that matters: strap on your suspension-of-disbelief, pretend it has something to do with Christmas and the Nativity (it doesn't, but the video does, and the fact that it was released in December makes it a 'Christmas song) and just let it swell all over you. It's gorgeous. It's magnificent. It makes you forget just how rubbish everything else on side four has been. And that is one hell of a feat.

As it is on the double, this could never be anything but the climax to the album. And I`m happy to give it that position here, too: side two, track five. Turn down the lights, grab your partner for a final slow dance before heading home.

Bang: keep (side two, track six)

A final little piece of silliness. I saw a review that referred to this as a 't-shirt advertisement', and I suppose it is, but it's still clever. And since cleverness was a big part of the FGTH experience, we might as well have it here too.

Does it undermine "The Power of Love" to have this stuck after it, like "Her Majesty" on Abbey Road? I don't know... if nothing else, it leaves you with a more realistic picture of what FGTH really was. And it reminds you to go out and buy those t-shirts...