Book Review: Exit Stage Left (The Curious Afterlife Of Pop Stars) by Nick Duerden

The story goes that The Human League’s Phil Oakey smashed the phone to pieces immediately after hearing from his manager that ‘Don’t You Want Me’ had gone to number one in America.

There was a creeping suspicion that he had peaked too early, and the only way was down.

Maybe it was a natural reaction in those competitive, cut-throat pop years of the early 1980s, but little did he know that that song would probably come in very handy over the years and pay for kids’ school fees, parents’ homes, tax bills, etc etc.

Nick Duerden’s gripping, important new book ‘Exit Stage Left’ doesn’t interview Oakey but does many others from the pop pantheon who have had some early success and then swiftly asked ‘Is that all there is?’ after a career downturn or ‘change of musical direction’.

Duerden has a formidable contacts book and gets candid quotes from some surprisingly big names. Shaun Ryder tells of having to pay back huge debts after being hit with a legal bill in 1998. Robbie Williams discusses his surprisingly lonely, low-key bachelor life when moving to Los Angeles after becoming the UK’s biggest pop star.

Suzanne Vega relates the shame of having to ‘downsize’ her band and crew mid-tour when audiences failed to fill large enues and The Boo Radleys’ Martin Carr discusses saying no to licensing requests for ‘Wake Up Boo’, trying to hold onto his punk credentials, but then ‘teaching himself to say yes’. Ex-Frankie Goes To Hollywood guitarist Brian ‘Nasher’ Nash talks about his PTSD diagnosis (as do a few other artists).

Elsewhere there are fascinating interviews with Lloyd Cole, Natalie Merchant, Roisin Murphy and Wendy James on the relative benefits of success and the words of Kevin Rowland, Musical Youth’s Dennis Seaton and Ed Tudor-Pole are touching and somewhat humbling.

Duerden writes with compassion and has a winning way of summing up his interviewees’ physical essences – Stereo MC’s Rob Birch ‘never rose to his full height but rather hovered in a perpetual half crouch, as if his bones were made from elastic bands.’ Billy Bragg ‘looked like he would sunburn easily and so was best kept far from exotic beaches.’

‘Exit Stage Left’ is a sobering read and will ring true to anyone who’s ever been stung by the business, or had their dream job whipped from beneath them. Thanks to Duerden’s witty, fast-moving style, it’s pithy and powerful but never too depressing.

The book also touches on areas generally not touched with a ten-foot (Tudor) pole by the music biz – mental illness, poverty, shame, family estrangement, divorce, burnout. Like any other industry, the music biz sure has its casualties. And if the more discerning, slightly cynical reader may at points be shouting: ‘Why don’t you just go and get a NORMAL job?’ – well, a surprising amount of the interviewees did just that.

Along with Simon Garfield’s ‘Expensive Habits’, Eamonn Forde’s ‘The Final Days Of EMI’ and Seymour Stein’s ‘Siren Song’, ‘Exit Stage Left’ is one of the most illuminating books this correspondent has read about the music industry – how it really operates. As Duerden says, ‘Successful businesses tend to be the most ruthless, and the music business is very successful indeed.’ Don’t miss.

Duerden talks about ‘Exit Stage Left’ in this recent WORD podcast.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood @ Wembley Arena: 35 Years Ago Today

35 years ago today, on 12 January 1987, Frankie played the first of two nights at Wembley Arena on their final European Tour.

It’s oft forgotten that, even at their commercial peak, they played live. A lot. In fact they were on the road pretty much non-stop between autumn 1984 and summer 1985. And, make no mistake, they were decent musicians.

It’s not surprising they were so eager to show that they could cut it live. ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ were mainly made in the control room by Trevor Horn and associates (Steve Lipson, JJ Jeczalik, Anne Dudley, Gary Langan, Andy Richards et al).

And vocalist Holly Johnson was getting most of the publishing royalties (fair enough, his Reagan-baiting lyric for ‘Two Tribes’ is brilliant: ‘Cowboy number one/A born-again, poor man’s son/On the air America/I model shirts by Van Heusen/Working for the black gas…’).

As Holly told NME in November 1983: ‘We were wary of being Trevor’s puppets at first but as soon as we met him that all went out of the window. He’s just a human being. He’s that little guy that used to be in The Buggles’!

So, initially at least, there wasn’t much bad feeling – they occasionally even let Uncle Trevor play live with them, as in this excellent performance on ‘The Tube’ from June 1984, augmented by Luis Jardim on percussion, a couple of keyboard players (wearing interesting shorts) and an extra guitarist (names please?):

According to (ZTT strategist/sleevenote-writer/A&R man) Paul Morley, Horn and his label boss/ manager/wife Jill Sinclair were convinced Frankie could break America, becoming something like The Village People! After all, ‘Relax’ made #10 in the US pop charts.

But surely the Sex Pistols is a better comparison (Frankie as punk’s last gasp? There’s a whole book there…). After all, Horn had just worked with – and hugely admired – Malcolm McLaren. For his part, Horn allegedly hoped the band would split up after ‘The Power Of Love’, their third UK number one in December 1984.

But Frankie didn’t split up. Instead, on their US tour of 1985, they would often open their set with Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’. In the new Bruce-obsessed/Reagan-blessed America, this didn’t go down too well…

By 1986/1987, the thrills and spills had gone but Frankie had drastically improved as musicians and became a very slick live unit. They toured second album Liverpool extensively, using a lot of pre-recorded backing tracks and retaining an extra keyboard player and guitarist.

The very good quality tape of the first Wembley gig is well worth listening to. The crowd seems made up of screaming teenage girls and there are excellent versions of ‘The Power Of Love’ and ‘Two Tribes’.

‘Maximum Joy’ becomes a whole new thing even if the rest of the Liverpool material doesn’t deviate much from the album. And it’s always a laugh hearing Holly’s laconic between-song banter.

Rumour has it that backstage after this first Wembley gig the band had the mother of all fall-outs. But somehow they got through their 1987 European tour, and found time to play again on ‘The Tube’ for the last time (Faith No More were definitely watching, at least from a sartorial point of view).

Maybe they could they have carried on but it didn’t seem enough to be a ‘good band’ any more – people wanted events, sensations. Also Holly was itching for a solo career, still smarting at the terrible deal the band had signed with ZTT.

Anyway, we hope Holly, Paul, Nasher, Peter and Mark are OK. And hopefully still playing music, in some form.

Did you see Frankie live? Leave a comment below.

The 17 Weirdest Record Company Freebies Of The 1980s

Pity the poor marketing manager of a 1980s major record label.

Everyone was telling you the future was in PR. The musicians were no longer running the music industry – the suits were. Millions of pounds were sloshing around but a dodgy decision could cost you your job.

Label MDs had read their Dale Carnegies or at least their Peter Yorks. Everyone wanted to hobnob with Branson. And for every proverbial ‘fifth member of the band’ manager like Paul McGuinness or Ed Bicknell, there was a PR like Magenta Devine.

And, as James Grant of Love And Money (more from them below) once told movingtheriver.com, people had breakdowns over this stuff. But is it any wonder when staffers were sending radio programmers and promoters gifts like the following? (All are 100% authentic, and based on extensive research*.)

17. Doobie Brothers dope kit
It included a Doobies logo’d stash pouch, rolling machine and ‘skins’…

16. INXS pyjamas
These sartorial delights were embroidered with the time-honoured phrase ‘I Need You Tonight’. Groan…

15. Prefab Sprout snow globe
This cute little number featured some mini skyscrapers and bore the legend ‘Hey Manhattan!’ Unfortunately it couldn’t hype this Paddy classic into the top 40…

14. 10,000 Maniacs ceramic elephant teapot
A useful mammalian kitchen implement that was sent around to promote the Blind Man’s Zoo album.

13. Simply Red dressing gown
A his’n’hers, terry-towelling dressing gown to promote the Men And Women album. See what they did there?

12. Bob Seger windcheater
It was sleevless, quilted and defiantly macho, as befitting the proletarian singer/songwriter. And it was sent to promote…you guessed it… ‘Against The Wind’!

11. Brothers Johnson zippo cigarette lighter
The funk legends’ PR machine came up with this curio for fans to hoist aloft during ‘Light Up The Night’.

10. WASP bottle of ‘house red’
This disgusting blood-coloured beverage was sent around to promote the Live…In The Raw live album.

9. Billy Bragg teabag
As befitting the socialist icon, a marvellously utilitarian artefact to celebrate the release of the Brewing Up With… album.

8. Kirsty MacColl kite
Yeah?

7. Love And Money road atlas
This hand-bound tome failed to hype ‘Jocelyn Square’ into the top 40, though it remains a great single.

6. Madness pacamac
It was advertising their downbeat single ‘The Sun And The Rain’. And why not?

5. Eurythmics umbrella
To promote…you guessed it…’Here Comes The Rain Again’. Obviously did a pretty good job, to be fair – the single reached #8 in the UK charts.

4. ZZ Top frozen meal
Those naughty boys from Texas sent this around to promote – of course – ‘TV Dinners’.

3. Frankie Goes To Hollywood condom
One of Paul Morley’s better ideas, actually…

2. PiL jigsaw puzzle
A very strange object sent around to promote Johnny and the boys’ 9 album.

1. Kane Gang walkman
No, me neither…

*Copied from a Q magazine listicle circa 1989

21 Great 12″ Singles Of The 1980s

To some, the advent of the 12” single in the early ’80s was musical sacrilege; but others it was a new dawn, a chance to hear your favourite song in widescreen format, expanded into an epic and not bound by radio conventions.

The 12” came about at an exciting time in music when a few things were colliding: the cult of the ‘star’ producer, club culture, sampling, dub techniques, electronic music moving into the mainstream and an ‘anything goes’ post-punk ethos.

Talented sound designers such as Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Shep Pettibone, John Potoker, Francois Kevorkian, Alex Sadkin and Steven Stanley were in the right place at the right time. And it probably helped that sales of 12” singles contributed to weekly chart positions, so the stakes were high.

So let’s have a look at some key artefacts of the 12” revolution, a great time in music when anything – well, almost anything – went. A few of these I now prefer to the originals.

21. Paul Young: ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (1985)

Laurie Latham’s completely mad mix seems entirely designed to annoy the neighbours. A cacophony of metal guitars, Pino Palladino’s floor-shaking, P-funk-influenced bass and bizarre samples. And is that a jazzy riveted cymbal slinking into the mix from time to time?

20. A Guy Called Gerald: ‘Voodoo Ray’ (1989)

A timeless collection of house music tropes which doesn’t ever seem to date. Simplicity is the key, with subtly-shifting riffs.

19. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (Slipstream mix) (1982)

This one seems impossible to find on the internet or any other compilation album apart from the marvellous Slipstream 2-LP set which came out on Beggars Banquet in 1982. It’s a feast for the eardrums with gorgeous, spacey delays and twinkling Moog lines sprinkled into the mix.

18. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)

Remixer Gary Langan skillfully juggles of all this classic track’s trademark features: Trevor Rabin’s chiming guitar figure, the ethereal backing vocals and those crazy samples. Plus you can really hear Alan White’s drums here – never a chore.

17. Joni Mitchell: ‘Shiny Toys’ (1985)

Joni’s a name you probably wouldn’t expect to see here but remixer Francois Kevorkian had great raw materials to play with – Thomas Dolby’s dub-style treatments, Mike Landau’s lush rhythm guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta’s killer drums and all the silly vocal overdubs.

16. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

Trevor Horn ups the ante with a cool, extended lounge-jazz intro and lots of little musical motifs, a new bass part and some new guitar solos.

15. Michael Jackson: ‘PYT’ (2017)

I can’t resist including this recent discovery – someone has somehow got hold of the Thriller masters and put together a real classic. It’s even funkier than the original, if that’s possible.

14. Madonna: ‘Open Your Heart (Maxi Extended Version)’ (1986)

Steve Thompson And Michael Barbiero’s exciting mash-up of Motorik sequencers, Jonathan Moffett’s sick drums and Madonna’s strident vocals, all adding up to an ‘I Feel Love’ for the 1980s.

13. Phil Collins/Philip Bailey: ‘Easy Lover’ (1985)

Mixing engineer John Potoker cut his teeth working with Miles Davis and Steely Dan, and his sonic mastery shows through with this stunning reimagining of a somewhat corny single, bringing the originally-submerged drum machine right to the fore and adding loads of top-end. His nickname wasn’t ‘Tokes’ for nothing…

12. Scritti Politti: ‘Hypnotize’ (1985)

Gary Langan was at the controls again for this stunning collision of ’50s B-Movie voices, swooning synths, rhythm guitars and bangin’ machine beats. The only thing missing is some serious low-end.

11. Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel: ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ (1984)

Sylvia Robinson arguably laid down the groundwork for all future 12” singles with this 1984 classic.

10. Prince & The Revolution: ‘Mountains’ (1986)

If you – like me – are always frustrated when this track fades out on the album/single version, have no fear because this remix carries on for another six minutes in the same vein, and turns into one of the sickest grooves Prince ever committed to vinyl.

9. Peter Gabriel: ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986)

Another entry helmed by John ‘Tokes’ Potoker, this one boosts the top-end again, adds some scary reverbs and focuses on David Rhodes’ guitar, Gabriel’s piano/vocal ad-libs and Manu Katche’s drums to superb effect. I now prefer this version…

8. Eric B & Rakim: ‘Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness Mix)’ (1988)

Coldcut put together this sonic feast, one of the most sampled 12”s of all time. You’ve probably heard almost everything on this remix 100 times on other tracks.

7. Thompson Twins: ‘Lies’ (1983)

Alex Sadkin brings his Compass Point mastery to this remix, adding a real drummer (Sly Dunbar?) and bass player, and pushing the sequencers and percussion right to the fore.

6. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)

‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ is possibly the more artful Grace remix, but this is included for its irresistible groove, and the fact that I always want the original single to go on for twice as long as it does. Also I love the ‘false’ ending and off-stage shout (Horn?) at 3:40.

5. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Dance Version)’ (1982)

You could hardly go wrong with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien at the controls, but this remix just brings out the sheer luxurious beauty of this single, and various sections are repeated and amplified to superb effect.

4. Will Powers: ‘Adventures In Success (Dub)’ (1983)

Chris Blackwell’s protegé Steven Stanley was in charge of this fascinating dub, completely dispensing with Lynn Goldsmith’s vocals and delaying the reveal of Sting’s bass for as long as possible.

3. Propaganda: ‘Duel’ (1985)

Included mainly for Steve Lipson’s beatific long guitar solo during the outro, and the fact that it sounds like it could go on forever…

2. Paul Hardcastle: ’19 (Destruction Mix)’ (1985)

A chilling remix which brings out a little more detail of the single version, adding more spoken-word excerpts from the ‘Vietnam Requiem’ documentary and lengthening the funky drum breakdowns.

1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Rage Hard’ (1986)

Stephen Lipson and Paul Morley created this insane confection, a kind of Young Person’s Guide To The 12”, featuring Pamela Stephenson introducing all the clichés of the genre, Viv Stanshall-style. Only ZTT can do this. (It seems sacrilege to leave Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes (Annihilation)’ out, but this gets the nod for sheer balls).

Propaganda: Wishful Thinking

ZTT Records – under the auspices of Trevor Horn – really used the remix format.

No throwaway, rush-released projects for them. Their remixes were petri dishes for sonic experiments and situationist pranks, many worthwhile and innovative.

And of course several remix albums were released on ZTT – Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm was essentially one song done eight different ways, and there was also a whole Frankie Goes To Hollywood LP dedicated to ‘Two Tribes’ remixes.

But maybe a lesser-known example is Propaganda’s Wishful Thinking, a reworking of the Düsseldorf unit’s seminal 1985 album A Secret Wish, originally produced by Stephen Lipson (with one track – ‘Dr Mabuse’ –  helmed by Horn).

A Secret Wish’s stock seems to keep rising year after year, gaining more fans and sounding better than ever. But Wishful Thinking is a weird project, to say the least.

Co-remixer (alongside former tape op Bob Kraushaar) Paul Morley’s absurd liner notes quote Goethe and boast that the album is the result of ’39 studio hours’, which, by ZTT’s painstaking standards, doesn’t actually sound like much.

But it’s a thrilling, epic collection just the same, regurgitating many of the original album’s sonic motifs but in a different order and a different place on the stereo spectrum.

‘Machined’ reimagines ‘P-Machinery’ as a mid-tempo minimalist piece, featuring mainly Claudia Brucken’s vocals and gentle drums.

‘Jewelled’ fuses the two versions of ‘Duel’ from the original album, mixing her ‘angry’ vocals with the backing from the ‘pop’ version. It’s pretty funny and genuinely surreal.

Hidden elements embedded in the original mix are subtly revealed, like Lipson’s chiming guitars on ‘Laughing’. ‘Loving’ exposes and amplifies Andy Richards’ gorgeous piano and synth from ‘The Murder Of Love’, finally revealing it as the fantastic pop song it is.

The two versions of ‘Dr Mabuse’ bring out Horn’s genius and natural flair for the dynamic, showcasing not one but two brilliant bass vamps and a whole host of other sonic delights (thrillingly, one version is used in the absurd opening credits of John Hughes’s 1987 movie ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful’).

But possibly the best track on Wishful Thinking is the closing ‘Thought’, an excerpt of the band’s version of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’.

All in all, it’s an epic, exciting hour of music, and a real one-off. For anyone still fascinated by A Secret Wish, as this writer is, it’s required listening.

The band probably hated it, though Brucken did donate one of her paintings for use on the cover (but then she was married to Morley at the time…).

1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em.

Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable bits that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening.

Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

37. Greg Phillinganes’ synth bass on Donna Summer’s ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’, especially the ‘squelch’ at 2:53 below:

36. Lee Thompson’s sax in the second verse of Madness’s ‘My Girl’

35. Marc Almond’s spoken-word line in Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’

34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’
There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it…

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’
Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!‘ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 
Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’
Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’
The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’
Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’
Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’
Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!‘ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’
Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs
Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’
Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’
Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’
Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’
It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’
It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’
Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Liverpool 30 Years Old Today

frankie_1309776451It’s well known that FGTH’s deal with ZTT was one of the worst recording contracts in pop history (outlined in embarrassing detail in vocalist Holly Johnson’s ‘A Bone In My Flute’ autobiography).

But the band were already starting to show signs of subordination by late 1984 – they refused to record the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ as the B-side to ‘The Power Of Love’, part of ZTT ideas man Paul Morley’s bizarre plan* to get the label’s acts to write a history of pop through cover versions.

FGTH also scuppered ZTT’s plan for them to star in a sci-fi movie which was to be scripted by Martin Amis and directed by Nicolas Roeg (actually, that sounds brilliant…).

The band then insisted that they actually play on their second album Liverpool rather than let session players lay down the basic tracks, a request that seems to have been granted. Guest players this time were few and far-between, and it’s quite hard to identify Trevor Rabin, Steve Howe and Lol Creme.

Sensing trouble, Trevor Horn took the role of ‘executive producer’ and passed production duties over to the gifted Stephen Lipson, who clearly had his work cut out. A schism was opening up between Holly Johnson and the rest of the band, or ‘The Lads’, as he dubbed them (Lipson discusses the making of Liverpool in this excellent podcast).

Tensions were also running high in the UK – by mid 1986, unemployment had topped three million and anti-Thatcher feeling had reached its peak. Oxford University refused her an honorary degree. So the frivolity and epicurean excesses of Welcome To The Pleasuredome were definitely out.

frankie_say_war_hide_yourself-_t-shirt

Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford

Still, Liverpool is a sumptuous-sounding album, with immense care taken over recording, mixing and mastering – apparently to the tune of a whopping £760,000.

It stands up pretty well today especially if taken as a separate entity to Pleasuredome, even if the songs – not surprisingly – are not as memorable as the debut’s.

Lipson pulls out all the stops, playing some superb fuzz-toned lead guitar, particularly on ‘Maximum Joy’ and ‘Rage Hard’, and piecing together an album of musically-rich, prog-influenced hard rock.

Synth players Andy Richards and Peter-John Vettese contribute intriguing intros and outros, often involving backing vocalist Betsy Cook too.

And though Liverpool is obviously a more ‘serious’ album than Frankie’s debut, there are still amusing spoken-word inserts in broad Scouse (‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!).

‘Warriors Of The Wasteland’, ‘Rage Hard’ and ‘Kill The Pain’ are tough techno-rock tracks which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on It Bites’ debut album. ‘Rage Hard’ was also subjected to a fantastically overblown extended mix featuring Pamela Stephenson (doing her best Thatcher impersonation?) taking us on a tour of the 12” single.

‘Maximum Joy’ is superb; pure ZTT bliss, while ‘Lunar Bay’ is also brilliant, balls-out prog/pop in the style of Propaganda’s A Secret Wish.

‘For Heaven’s Sake’ is a completely barmy anti-Thatcher ballad (‘She should buy us all a drink’) in queasy 6/8 time, featuring a melody that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic Broadway musical, some Native American chanting by Holly and a weird music-hall middle section.

‘Is Anybody Out There’ is a fitting end to Frankie’s recording career, a majestic, distinctly Suede-like ballad (the guitar solo is totally Bernard Butler) with some beautiful Holly vocals and a subtle Richard Niles string arrangement.

The album was not a commercial disaster, reaching #5 in the UK album chart and the top 10 in many other European countries, but a disappointing #88 in the US. And Thatcher still had four years left in Downing Street.

*Morley’s influence was apparently running amok, evidenced by Liverpool‘s fairly ridiculous liner notes (‘Best wishes to Stan Boardman’) and a choice of album title that suggested he was pretty certain the band would soon be returning to their hometown, banished from pop’s high table. Holly apparently hated the title…