As someone interested in how sub cultures have influenced American culture as a whole, I find it particularly intriguing how aspects of black and emerging gay culture have made such significant inroads into the mainstream. Gay popular culture for instance has gone from hidden and silent to loud and proud and in your face.
Gay and club culture were in many ways one in the same. After the Stonewall riots, the gay community became progressively more public in the fight to win legislative approval and public opinion. Less than a decade later gay club cultures influence on the mainstream would propel the Disco movement in its early years. While the ‘70s was a period of growing awareness, the ‘80s represented the movement going both full camp while gaining a more mainstream profile.
The Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club and Soft Cell were just a few outwardly gay acts who helped shape the look and sound of ‘80s pop, but none have created so intense a media storm and controversy in such a short time as Frankie Goes To Hollywood (FGTH).
FGTH was initially a British sensation after they manage to get banned by the BBC. The notoriety of such of course made them the biggest thing since the Beatles thanks in part to the right mix of showmanship, provocative lyrics and hi-energy. It didn’t hurt either that Trevor Horn’s lush and excellent production was well suited for Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford’s dramatic antics.
The band may have come from punk rock roots, but it’s act was firmly planted in modern pop rock with a penchant for glam. Think of Queen’s Freddy Mercury, but amped up with a bit more stylized gay camp. For many the over the top intro with Holly Johnson proclaiming that “the world is my oyster” was the first thing they may have heard of the gay new sensation that was FGTH. That statement set the stage for one of the decade’s most ambitious albums Welcome to the Pleasuredome.
“Relax”, the band’s first hit was actually around since 1983 and lived a half-life in the gay clubs of Europe before being re-released on Welcome to the Pleasuredome a year later. The song became popular in the United Sates after a slow rise from the dance charts. By that time, MTV was playing a alternate version of the song for Americans that looked less like a Robert Mapplethorpe photo shoot. Regardless of what the video might have suggested, the song’s lyrics were indisputably sexual, hence more controversy in the prudish Land of the Free only fueled its popularity – just like in England a year earlier.
Like a lot of Trevor Horn’s productions, Welcome to the Pleasuredome was actually a musically accomplished album. Its lush cinematic soundscape was a pleasure to listen to in headphones due to the intricate layer production. Every song seemed to have been made with the video format or stage in mind. The contrast between the critics expectations of a throw away novelty act vs the depth of talent must have fuel some of the bias the band experienced in the U.K. (not so much in America).
The albums second U.S. hit “Two Tribes” portrayed a WWF styled wrestling match between President Ronald Regan and Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko. Another track “War” continues the Reagan theme with a convincing impression of the President’s voice over a dramatic instrumental. It was both creepy and funny. One of the albums surprises was an oddly placed ballad “The Power of Love” and an interesting take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”.
By combining glam rock, post disco and rock elements, FGTH created a thourly modern record that still holds up well today. Its legacy of controversy and camp might seem quaint by the jaded standards of today where sauciness and vulgarities are the new norm.
FGTH hoped lightning would strike twice, but Liverpool their 1986 follow up got less attention, despite being arguably a more balanced collection of songs. The rest of FGTH’s discography would be remixes and compilations with little to no new material of note. Way to go out in a whimper.