There’s nothing quite like a radio ban to guarantee the enduring success of a song or its singer.
Where would Judge Dread have got if people had actually had radio access to his pretty samey string of deliberately controversial 1970s hits? And as for Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s breathlessly erotic Je T’Aime, it might have found use as an asthma commercial rather than charting three times.
So what about Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s 1983 smash Relax?
Well, after umpteen remixes it was plodding along quite nicely and looked like peaking at around number six when in the second week of 1984, DJ Mike Read, then of BBC Radio 1’s influential breakfast show, stopped the song mid-spin and refused to air it again after reading its lyrics and reviewing its cover art.
Presumably until then he’d been too busy being a dj to actually listen to what he was playing and later said, “They are an exciting, competent new band, but I just feel the lyrics are overtly obscene.”
The rest of the BBC soon followed suit but other UK radio stations then bragged about playing ‘the song that the BBC banned’ – a move that sent the song to number one for five straight weeks.
Clearly a lyrical whizz kid himself – his own musical Young Apollo (about the life of Rupert Brooke) didn’t do well; Oscar (a 2004 show about Oscar Wilde) was derided by critics and closed after one performance) and Cliff – The Musical closed after just three months in the West End – he’d done the band the best of favours.
Still, it must have been easy to miss lyrics such as: “Relax, don’t do it
When you want to go to it
Relax, don’t do it
When you want to come
Relax, don’t do it
When you want to suck it, chew it
Relax, don’t do it
When you want to come
When you want to come.”
Maybe he’d been cueing up the next breakfast track when FGTH sang: “But shoot it in the right direction
Make makin’ it your intention
Live those dreams
Scheme those schemes
Got to hit me (hit me!)
Hit me (hit me!)
Hit me with those laser beams
Ow ow ow!
Laser beam me” …….etc etc etc.
Comprising of a motley crew from the lesser light Liverpool music scene, in February 1983, the group was invited to record a video for Relax by the Channel 4 show The Tube at the Liverpool State Ballroom. After the broadcast, an earlier John Peel session was repeated on radio, and a new session recorded for the BBC, comprising Welcome to the Pleasuredome, The Only Star in Heaven and Relax. These performances, along with a repeat of the Tube video, convinced producer Trevor Horn to sign the group to his new label, ZTT Records, in May 1983.
Relax was released by ZTT in October 1983, with production and remix directed by Horn, and received a modicum of airplay, allowing it to make steady progress into the Top 40.
It was also accompanied by a full frontal, so to speak, promotions campaign.
ZTT promotions guru Paul Morley intentionally courted scandal with an ad campaign featuring images of band member Paul Rutherford in a sailor cap and a leather vest, and frontman Holly Johnson with a shaved head and rubber gloves. The images were accompanied by the phrase “ALL THE NICE BOYS LOVE SEA MEN” and declared “Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming … making Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes … Nineteen inches that must be taken always.” A second ad promised “theories of bliss, a history of Liverpool from 1963 to 1983, a guide to Amsterdam bars”.
Following a debut on the BBC’s Top of the Pops on 5 January 1984 while at number 35, the single rose to number six the following week.
But two days after the Read ban – almost three months after the single’s initial release, and eight days after the group’s Top of the Pops appearance – the BBC banned the record from all its TV and radio outlets. Its future was assured even though te BBC could not feature the nation’s best-selling single on Top of the Pops.
The BBC lifted its ban at the end of 1984 to allow the band to perform it on the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops (it had been, aside from Band Aid of which Holly Johnson was a participant, the biggest-selling single of the year).
As for which band members were actually on the finished product it’s a bit like asking how many Monkees does it take to make a hit?
Trevor Horn loved Relax but wasn’t happy with the band’s performance of it in the studio. He brought in Ian Dury’s backing band The Blockheads to record it, but was not satisfied with that recording either. He then recruited engineer Steve Lipson, session keyboard player Andy Richards and Fairlight programmer JJ Jeczalik to perform the song, but still wasn’t pleased with the results. After a few weeks of recording, he found an old rhythm he’d made on a drum machine and started from scratch a fourth time with Lipson, Richards and Jeczalik, building the song around this beat. FGTH members Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford were called into the studio that night and both recorded vocals on the track until 4am – making them the only two band members who are featured in the final version of the track. After Relax (b/w Ferry Cross The Mersey), and second single Two Tribes (b/w War), the entire band was featured on the later recordings beginning with Power Of Love.
At first, to calm controversy, the band claimed the song was written about “motivation” to make a case for radio play, but never fully committed to the guise bassist Mark O’Toole wrote in the album liner notes: “Everything I say is complete lies. Like, when people ask you what Relax was about, when it first came out we used to pretend it was about motivation, and really it was about shagging.”
For his part Holly Johnson tweeted in 2013: “Never complain. NEVER EXPLAIN … it’s not an order it’s a motto that I refer to when asked to explain the meaning of songs.”
He had earlier claimed that the words of the song came to him as he was walking in Liverpool: “I mean they were just, you know, words that floated into my head one day when I was walking down Princess Avenue (in Liverpool) with no bus fare, trying to get to rehearsals – I mean there was no great sort of calculated, ‘Oh I’ll sing these words and this record’ll be banned’.”
Relax ultimately became the seventh best-selling UK single of all time. It also won the 1985 Brit Award for Best British Single. Their debut album, Welcome to the Pleasuredome, reached number one in the UK in 1984 with advanced sales of over one million. After the follow-up success of Two Tribes and The Power of Love, the group became only the second act in the history of the UK charts to reach number one with their first three singles; the first being fellow Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers. This record remained unbeaten until the Spice Girls achieved a six-single streak in 1996–97 followed by a number two then three more chart toppers.
In the USA Relax reached 67 in late 1984, but after the release of Welcome To The Pleasuredome, the song re-charted with the much higher peak of 10 in early 1985.
|Peter Gill, Holly Johnson, Brian Nash, Mark O’Toole
|Hi NRG, New Wave
|Frankie Goes To Hollywood
|EMI (UK) Electra (USA)
|24th October 1883