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.

Cor Baby, That’s Really Croydon: Captain Sensible, Bowie & The Sex Pistols

Downtown Croydon, yesterday

I don’t know if it was sparked by reading MOJO’s recent article about the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, but everything’s going punk round my way at the moment.

I’ve been enjoying Steve Jones’s hilarious autobiography, revisiting Jon Savage’s essential ‘England’s Dreaming’ and the superb BBC doc ‘Punk And The Pistols’.

Then I was pleased to find myself near the site of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Sex shop during a King’s Road sojourn last week.

There’s a unifying factor joining all these aspects that I’d never noticed before: Croydon. Yes, Croydon. For those readers outside the London area, it’s a large town just to the south-east of the capital (and these days officially a London borough) with a pretty bad rep as far as popular culture is concerned.

David Bowie possibly spoke for many in 1999 when he told Q magazine:

‘I’ve got this thing about Croydon. It was my nemesis. It represented everything I didn’t want in life, everything I wanted to get away from. I think it’s the most derogatory thing I can say about somebody or something: “God, it’s so f***ing Croydon!” I haven’t been back in a few years but I guess things take on a certain beauty if there’s distance…’

But maybe Bowie got it totally wrong. Maybe Croydon has various claims to hipness. After all, the opening chapters of ‘England’s Dreaming’ outline what an influential place the Croydon School Of Art was in the late ’60s: key Sex Pistols agitators Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid studied there, as did future ‘Pop Muzik’ star Robin Scott who described it as ‘like nowhere else’, adding that ‘the Saturday morning market in Surrey Street was full of intrigue and corruption, very lurid.’

All three were involved in various anarchist/Situationist hijinks during their time there, laying the foundations for the Pistols.

But it’s ex-Damned bassist Captain Sensible who perhaps best evokes l’essence de Croydon. This song, performed hilariously in the aformentioned ‘Punk And The Pistols’, kickstarted his ’80s solo career.

I have nothing but good memories of his music around this period and I’ll be revisiting it. It’ll be hard to top this affecting little number though – about all our hometowns.

Why I Can’t Throw My Cassettes Away

compact-cassette-157537_960_720‘We’re not in the music space – we’re in the moment space.’

Daniel Ek, CEO/Founder of Spotify, quoted in ‘The Song Factory’ by John Seabrook

Spotify undoubtedly has many things going for it, but its boss’s comment might make many a true music fan take pause. It definitely goes some way to explaining why I’ll be hanging on to my cassettes.

They are anti-moment, demanding patience and time-investment. The famous soliloquy in Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’ explains the gentle art of compilation construction. Who didn’t try to woo someone with a well-crafted comp?

I’ve still got mutant compilation tapes made 20 years ago which mix up tracks from all kinds of sources: albums hired from the library, albums borrowed from friends, tracks taped from the radio and maybe even a bit of homemade Zappa-style spoken-word weirdness by myself or a few friends.

Then there are the teenage band rehearsals recorded on a brilliant Philips boombox. Wish I still had that. I swear it made better recordings than a lot of digital four-tracks I’ve heard since. And then there’s the cache of gig tapes recorded directly from the sound desk of various London venues. I barely listen to them but there’s no way I’m gonna chuck ’em.

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Then there are the official album releases. I like the way they sound slightly different on every player. My favourites are probably the grey and black Warner Bros ones of the late-’70s/early-’80s: to this day, Little Feat’s Time Loves A Hero, The Doobie Brothers’ Livin’ On The Fault Line and John Martyn’s Glorious Fool sound so much better on cassette than on CD, with improved dynamics and top-end.

Cassettes were always subtly subversive too – Malcolm McLaren masterminded his band Bow Wow Wow’s (cassette-only, of course) release of 1980 mini-album Your Cassette Pet as a reaction to the ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’ protest. He also named their debut single ‘C-30 C-60 C-90 Go!’ in tribute to the humble tape.

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And the ‘punk’ element of cassettes has also definitely been picked on by Zack Taylor, director of a new documentary called – you guessed it – ‘Cassette’, showing later this month at London’s East End Film Festival.

It features the likes of Henry Rollins (right), Thurston Moore and Ian McKaye waxing lyrical about the format which seems to be enjoying a resurgence in the US – cassette sales are on the up and there are reportedly more cassette-only labels than ever before.

This is all great news. Long live the cassette.

White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me.

I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought the albums several times on various formats.

 

On Earth, Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection.

He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting.

My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.

The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album.

Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ featuring excellent, much imitated fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.

Techno-rocker ‘White City’ should be covered by someone. Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself’ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording.

And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.

Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’).

But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.

Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a respectable #14 in the UK album chart, #35 in the US.

Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout’s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog.

But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth