30 years on: Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

by 5:4

For reasons as much to do with priorities as anything stylistic or aesthetic, pop music doesn’t get featured on 5:4 very often. But it would be remiss of me not to make some mention of today’s 30th anniversary of one of the most exhilarating debut albums ever made, Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s Welcome to the Pleasuredome, originally released on 29 October 1984. i was 11 at the time, and discovered the album among the record collection of my best friend’s mother (i encountered Thriller the same way). First contact was more to do with the packaging than anything else; two vinyl records in a gatefold sleeve covered with wonderfully bizarre, perverse paintings imitative of Picasso, featuring imagined beasts engaging in a Dionysian orgy and entering two-by-two into the head of a giant phallus (see below). What 11-year old boy could resist the temptation to go further and hear what sounds had been married to these outlandish images?

Certainly not i, and from its opening moments the album establishes a soundworld as strange, evocative and dream-like as its artwork: a wordless operatic female voice, soaring and reverberating above a fanfaric sequence of crashing chords, heralding the immortal line from Holly Johnson, “the world is my oyster”. It’s a truth immediately borne out by the album’s title track, a 13½-minute behemoth that would be to the 1980s what ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was to the previous decade. In many ways it encapsulates the wildly overoptimistic hedonism of the ’80s, filling its titular dome with a host of birds and animals, surrounded by the hot, heady atmosphere of plants and waterfalls, like a cross between a jungle and the Eden Project (small wonder that the song includes both singing and tribal chanting). Johnson’s lyrics paint a picture of a place where passion and riches abound, where the mind and the senses meld into each other in a floating endless act of infinite bliss.

Moving at one million miles an hour
Using my power, I sell it by the hour
I have it so I market it, you really can’t afford it

Shooting stars never stop even when they reach the top[…]

I will give you diamonds by the shower
Love your body even when it’s old
Do it just as only I can do it
And never ever doing what I’m told

This place, the famous chorus claims, is both “a long way from home” yet, going there, we are also “on our way home”. i like that paradox, the idea that seeking out something life-transforming or even briefly ecstatic can turn out to be both a wild excursion from the norm yet at the same time a homecoming to our true self. A song setting out on such a journey as this can’t be straightforward, and ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’ is a masterclass in controlled digression, always rooted in the verse-chorus archetype but regularly shifting gear into parallel areas of repose and rumination, turning over nuggets from the lyrics as though they were precious gems. Its epic conclusion is climactic in every sense, the harmony blazing from minor to major before collapsing, understandably spent.

Opening the album with such unbridled ambition is a risky thing to do; how do you follow something like that? The answer is with a triptych of tracks that push that ambition into new and more aggressive territory. ‘Relax’, famously banned by the BBC—just as timid in the ’80s as they are now—strips away the soft-focus dreamland of ‘Pleasuredome’ in favour of full force fuckery and body fluids, Holly Johnson’s voice whispering, shouting, speaking, groaning and screaming in response to the music’s angular, edgy contours. Alongside sex, war is a minor theme of this album, and both of the following tracks, ‘War’ and ‘Two Tribes’, focus on it. The former is heard here in a hugely effective version starting with gradually fleshed out drum patterns that slowly accrete elements of the song, until its up and running before one even realises it. Quotations from Adolf Hitler put into the mouth of a pseudo-Ronald Reagan stoke the song’s (f)ire, words that intermingle love and violence, leading to the song’s true beginning (two thirds through its duration), an eruption of verse and chorus now famous:

War — what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

“There’s got to be a better way” sings Johnson; true then, true now, not that anyone seems to have been listening. ‘Two Tribes’ focuses that disdain on the Cold War, which was particularly strong at this period. To a child growing up in Cheltenham, where, believe it or not, in both primary and secondary schools we were regularly told of the likelihood of our town being one of the first to be targeted in a nuclear war (due to GCHQ), this song made a lot of sense, its unstoppable momentum as unsettling as its potent closing question, “Are we living in a land / Where sex and horror are the new gods?”

In some ways, following a curious little piece where an imitation Prince Charles discusses the mystification of orgasms(!), this is where the conceptual aspect of Welcome to the Pleasuredome comes to an end. Yet it’s only the album’s mid-point, and the second half features a series of songs, many of them cover versions, that in their own way extend and elaborate the thinking that led to that awesome first 30 minutes. One might call them ‘appendices’, although that perhaps downplays them too much. ‘Fury’, a short beautiful rendition of ‘Ferry ’Cross the Mersey’ testifies to the love of one’s homeland (and, of course, more specifically to the band’s home town of Liverpool), while ‘Born To Run’—in what is surely the most glorious version ever made of this song—speaks also of love while revelling in the sheer joy of travelling at “Chrome wheeled, fuel injected” high speed. The inclusion of ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’ seems incongruous until one considers its focus, once again, on home, and its familiar, safe stability compared to the fickleness and transience of celebrity:

Fame and fortune is a magnet
It can pull you far away from home
With a dream in your heart you’re never alone

Dreams turn into dust and blow away
And there you are without a friend
You pack your car and ride away

I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose
Do you know the way to San Jose?

It was brave for the band to be quite so ‘easy listening’ as they are here, but it works as an episode of poignant wistfulness, albeit one that finds an alternate outlook in ‘Wish (The Lads Were Here)’, where the lack of old friends is—temporarily at least—mitigated by the pleasures to be found away from home; the pleasuredome meets the prodigal son, perhaps. Its under 3-minute duration is frustrating as the song is such a frenetic celebration of the most loved-/drugged-/fucked-up emotional highs, but then, highs never last long. That song, with its recurring ‘wish you were here’ motto, suggests Pink Floyd as does its instrumental successor ‘The Ballad of 32’, where guitar-driven melodies hint (but only hint) at the mannerisms of Dave Gilmour, in addition to very Floydian static shimmering chords in the background; the track’s slow pace is revealed to have an acutely erotic charge by the sex-fuelled breaths and gasps that emerge at its conclusion.

The closing portion of the album features four original songs, each wonderful in the way they ramp up the pervading tone to new levels, yet with disarming (and deceptive) subtlety. ‘Krisco Kisses’ energetically continues the sentiment of ‘Relax’ and ‘Wish’, its repeated lyric “You fit me like a glove” carrying an obvious double-meaning, reinforced by the almost voyeuristic physicality of Holly Johnson’s middle 8 reverie. Both the mood and the lighting seem softened in ‘Black Night White Light’, but its lyrics are an invitation to an underground world to be found “the other side of midnight”, another realm of transcendent pleasure where sex and drugs are held up as objects of worship; flashes of intent rear up in the song’s malevolent chorus. ‘The Only Star In Heaven’ is perhaps the album’s weakest point, with its pretty diffuse focus of lyrical attention, although it more than makes up for it with the brilliance of the music—restless basslines, huge synth stabs, hocketing backing singers, unexpected but entirely wonderful boogie-woogie moments, and Johnson’s voice has never sounded better—as well as its delightfully convoluted structure. Ecstasy pervades this song at the fringes, whereas it subsumes entirely the final song, ‘The Power of Love’. The enduring nature of this song, evidently loved as much today as it was 30 years ago, is surely above all due to the way it tries to capture the utterly overwhelming reality of what love feels like. In this context, it acts as a point where the hedonism, aggression, raw physicality and passion (both love and lust) can be focused and encapsulated all at once. It may have all the trappings of a ballad, but there are layers and layers of meaning and connotation at play here as well, a summation of everything Welcome to the Pleasuredome seeks to explore.

Simultaneously of its time yet timeless, it’s an album that made and continues to make such a huge statement due to the combined efforts of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, producer Trevor Horn and label guru Paul Morley. The band’s material would subsequently be subjected to endless/countless/shameless/pointless/worthless remixes by the ZTT machine, and their subsequent music (collected on second album Liverpool) never matched the effortless immensity and clarity of Welcome to the Pleasuredome. It would be too easy to describe it as a folly, a mere exercise in hubris; on the contrary, it is nothing less than the monument of everything Frankie Goes To Hollywood stood for, the celebrations and warnings, the joys and desires, the mishaps and mayhem. British music of the 1980s rarely saw such a masterly marriage of ambition, execution and presentation; 30 years on its message is still potent, its energy still infectious, its invitation still irresistible: Welcome!

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I cannot mention a better first 20 minute album opening. A masterpiece!


Best opener (side F) ever….?

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