In the liner notes to their 1984 debut album Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Frankie Goes to Hollywood bassist Mark O’Toole writes of the band’s hit “Relax,” “[W]hen it first came out we used to pretend it was about motivation, and really it was about shagging.”
Yes, Mark. We know.
No one at any point in history from the song’s release to the present has ever been fuzzy about the meaning of “Relax”; motivational speeches, after all, rarely invoke the phrase “suck to it.” Lyrically, “Relax” is not subtle (“shoot it in the right direction”); sonically, the track contains enough grunting and gushing to broadcast its intentions to those who don’t understand spoken English. “Relax” is a spewing, spurting geyser of a song.
As a fifth grader in 1985, I knew the “motivation” explanation didn’t hold water. I remember sitting on a bench in the gym with a classmate during volleyball practice, deep in conversation about “Relax.” My friend argued that the word “come,” as in “when you wanna come,” was actually spelled “cum” when used to refer to ejaculation. I had my quiet doubts about this; Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I’d read earlier that year, featured many passages about orgasming, all of which used a more traditional spelling: c-o-m-e. I was too meek to contradict my classmate, and even in fifth grade I knew this was probably a weird hill to die on, so I nodded and agreed with her. As it turns out, we were both right. Those virile chaps in Frankie Goes to Hollywood could have been cumming or coming; it hardly matters.
(I’d like to be able to point to Lady Chatterley’s Lover as proof my tastes in dirty books skewed toward the highbrow in my formative years. They did not; I was an egalitarian devourer of smut. Someday I’ll give you all an essay on Smut I Read Before I Turned Twelve, but today is not that day.)
My classmate wore a sleeveless pastel ESPRIT sweatshirt to volleyball practice that day, which has somehow burned itself into my memory. At that moment, ESPRIT was on the cusp of becoming an eighties fashion juggernaut, and this was my first exposure to it. Her sweatshirt featured the brand name printed in oversized letters: ESP on the front, with the -SPRIT wrapping around under her armpit and across her back. My brain resolved it as two words, ESP and SPIRIT; I assumed my classmate was proclaiming her allegiance to the paranormal realm, which seemed to make a certain amount of sense. In the mid-eighties, people wore their personal credos across their chests all the time. Wham! kicked this trend off in their 1984 “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video, in which George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley wore baggy white t-shirts with “CHOOSE LIFE” printed on the front, while Frankie Goes to Hollywood followed on their heels with shirts that proclaimed “FRANKIE SAY RELAX.” Omnipresent throughout the eighties, the slogan later popped up as a punchline on a mid-nineties episode of Friends.
The subject-verb agreement of “FRANKIE SAY RELAX” often sounds grammatically wonky to American ears, but it’s correct: While American English generally treats band names that sound singular, like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, as singular, British English treats all band names as plural. In other words, Duran Duran is hungry like the wolf in the US, whereas Duran Duran are hungry like the wolf in the UK. Some opportunistic US-based online t-shirt sellers are currently doing what I can only hope is a sluggish business selling t-shirts that read “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX.” This, of course, is heresy and should not be tolerated.
Point being, “Relax” was a ubiquitous song throughout the mid-eighties, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood was (or were, if you’re in the UK) a global sensation. Frankie even had its own Commodore 64 video game, which is surely a benchmark of success.
Frankie frontman Holly Johnson, née William Johnson, took his stage name from trans actress and “Walk on the Wild Side” muse Holly Woodlawn. Throughout the eighties, I tended to confuse Holly Johnson with actress Lynn-Holly Johnson, best known for playing a blind ice skater in the 1978 sports-themed romance Ice Castles; muddying the waters still more is Holly Body, the porn star played by Melanie Griffith in Brian De Palma’s Body Double, which plays “Relax” in its entirety during the deliriously awesome porn-film-within-a-softcore-film sequence. Melanie Griffith is a national treasure, Body Double is a tawdry hoot, and “Relax” is a pitch-perfect match for both.
Although… The oversexed shenanigans in Body Double are all of the hetero variety, whereas “Relax” is a queer anthem. Johnson and Paul Rutherford, Frankie’s backup singer, are both gay, and while “Relax” may be interpreted as an upbeat paean to sex in general, the song is specifically an enthusiastic celebration of gay sex, something the ad campaign for Welcome to the Pleasuredome made clear.
Much like the song itself, the ad campaign is not especially subtle.
Shortly after its initial release in November 1983, so legend goes, the lyrics of “Relax” scandalized BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read enough to make him yank the stylus up from the turntable mid-song and balk at ever playing it again. “Relax” was subsequently banned from all outlets of the BBC, which refused to give airtime to either the song or the video. Controversy gave the song the usual scandal-driven shot in the arm, and it began a slow but lasting ascent up the charts, eventually reaching number one in the UK and most of Europe and hitting number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 by March 1985.
Across the Atlantic, the song received plenty of radio play, though MTV, the killjoys, refused to air the exuberantly raunchy Bernard Rose-directed video. A safe-for-MTV alternate video was produced, which was directed by Godley & Creme, the pair behind Duran Duran’s decidedly unsafe-for-MTV video for “Girls on Film.” The Godley & Creme version features Johnson shimmying in front of a laser light show, presumably inspired by the part of the song where he snarls sexily about getting hit with laser beams.
And then there’s the raunchy original video, the one that made the networks recoil, which follows Johnson and Rutherford as they navigate the sordid waters of a hardcore leather club with pluck and aplomb. Boy George, who bore the mantle of pop music’s scolding aunt throughout most of the eighties, wrote an open letter to the Record Mirror wherein he proclaimed the video to be “Cheap, disgusting and very childish.”
I mean… It’s not an especially tasteful video, but “disgusting” is taking things a bit far. It’s essentially a Tom of Finland exhibit come to life; if you’re cool with that concept, nothing in the video will give you pause. The video kicks off with Johnson meeting Rutherford outside a fetish club. Johnson arrives by rickshaw; Rutherford loiters by the entrance, looking like he’s waiting to hear about callbacks to play the understudy for the Village People’s leatherman.
Inside the club, a corpulent man in a toga is carried on a dais to the balcony, where he oversees the action on the floor. Later, he’ll whip off his clothes and spray the crowd below with exuberant bursts of… oh, who knows? Let’s say it’s champagne. In the video’s most gripping subplot, a chained-up bartender with outstanding hair fights a losing battle to keep her leather corset in place.
Meanwhile, Johnson loses a bar fight and gets forcibly dragged onto the stage to get ravaged by a tiger. He’s cool with this.
The video ends, inevitably, with a great deal of wild groping, tussling, and spilling of fluids; it’s clear Johnson is having a blast. Thrust in the eye of all kinds of seamy behavior, he remains a strangely wholesome presence. Between his preppy attire and his cheery demeanor, he seems less like a dissolute reprobate and more like he’s blowing off some steam after a long week at his dead-end nine-to-five office job. When Monday morning comes, his coworkers will ask about his weekend, and he’ll regale them with blithe tales of gangbangs, golden showers, and semi-consensual erotic tussles with tigers, and they’ll smile nervously before excusing themselves, a little sorry they asked. Johnson will, of course, be completely unruffled by their reaction; he’ll saunter off to the break room for a handful of biscuits and a nice cup of tea before starting his day. Because Frankie say relax, and that’s exactly what he plans to do.