“Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?” proclaims Holly Johnson towards the finale of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s rousing anti-cold war epic. What would have they thought if they could see where we are now, where terrorist atrocities and beheadings are uploaded onto social media like pictures of puppies? What would have been the refrain if they had seen the ease which primary school children share sexually explicit images (of themselves or others) using their smartphones? “Two Tribes” was the sound of the future rooted in the cold war realities of the 1984 present which, it could be argued, is still as disturbingly relevant over 30 years later.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood were a very 80s phenomenon: a group that seemed to be focused on creating the most glossy of mainstream pop (under the “guidance” of uber-producer Trevor Horn) whilst also having one foot firmly in the post-punk culture of Liverpool where they originated. They counted the more NME friendly likes of The Teardrop Explodes, The Lightning Seeds and Echo & The Bunnymen among their contemporaries, with members or managers having a shared history in the legendary (in their own minds?) “reverse super-group” that was Big In Japan (reverse in the nature that their various members became famous after being in the group).
Holly Johnson took this confrontational attitude from his time with Bill Drummond, and took it into the heart of the 80s mainstream pop system when he joined with Mark O’Toole (on bass), Brian Nash (on guitar), Peter “Ped” Gill (on drums) and second vocalist Paul Rutherford (who danced rather aggressively too). They recorded a rough version of their debut single, “Relax”, dressed in leather shorts with a couple of skimpily dressed dominatrix whilst playing in a boxing ring for a video segment on cutting edge Friday-night music show “The Tube”. They were not presenting themselves in a cute and cuddly family friendly way. No, there was a threatening sexuality present. And the music was rough and funky too. It would take the production genius of Trevor Horn to turn them into the chart conquering colossus that they eventually became.
Frankie had already reached tabloid scaring infamy through the release of “Relax”, a gay sex anthem that delighted in the waves of outrage it created through the Daily Mail reading population. Frankie found themselves striking at the heart of the establishment as the BBC were expertly manipulated both within and without to ban it (sending it inevitably soaring to the number one position for maximum embarrassment).
“Two Tribes” is a driving, forceful funk-rock epic that ramped up the expected outrage factor with the accompanying video which featured lookalikes of then USA president Ronald Regan and then USSR leader Konstantin Chernenko in a pit-fight to the death, surrounding by clamouring, exploitative media correspondents and an increasingly even more violent crowd of spectators. The video was banned almost immediately (which obviously resulted in almost everybody wanting to watch it, which was more challenging in those pre-YouTube days). The song drives along on a rushing, pounding bassline (treated by the Fairlight synthesiser to give it that signature Frankie sound) that perfectly expresses the relentless race towards global Armageddon, with an almost gleeful expression of self-destructive energy, that perfectly captured the nuclear arms race of the time.
When two tribes go to war
A point is all you can score
Score no more
Score no more
When two tribes go to war
A point is all you can score
Working for the black gas
However, “Two Tribes” is a much more complex musical beast than perhaps it might seem on the first listen. Whilst that driving bass is often the domineering sound, there are guitar elements that appear to be influenced by American funk music which gives it an underlying feel of sophistication which is often missing from so much pop music – have a listen to some of the notorious 12inch mixes where the various elements become much more separated and noticeable than on the single mix. Then there is the orchestration, thrown at us through two distinct variations. There is lush backing orchestration in the manner that had become the signature sound of another Horn production, ABC’s “The Lexicon of Love”. However, this is easily missed due to the dramatic stabs of Russian style military orchestral power, made even more precise by being deployed via Trevor Horn’s production toy of choice, the Fairlight synthesiser. Having successfully experimented with this technique on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” by Yes, on “Two Tribes” it is used as technique of masterful dramatic intensity.
“Two Tribes” is one of those moments where band and production team all conspire to work together to create something that somehow manages to completely convey the intention of the song through musical and lyrical means. If you want to know what it was like living back in the 1980s, when life seemed to be overshadowed by the threat of nuclear Armageddon, and the leaders of the world threw this threat at each other as if it were a thing of no consequence, then look nor further than Frankie’s “Two Tribes”. This was a time of madness, when my friends would have serious conversations about what would they do with the last three minutes of their lives when (not if) the sirens went off that indicated the start of the nuclear war. Yes, I talked about this. I was probably 14 or 15 at the time, and I fully expected that it was going to happen.
Sorry, what was that? What was the conclusion of my conversations? Oh, well isn’t it obvious? I was a hormonal teenage boy who had never had a relationship that had lasted for longer than a couple of days let alone long enough for serious sexual action beyond some “tonsil hockey” as it was called back then. When the three minute warning went, I naturally assumed that a girl would throw herself into my arms for slightly less than three minutes (who am I kidding…probably less than one minute) of gratuitous sex before we dissolved into atoms in the nuclear blast. Of course, being a boy, I didn’t really talk to any girls to discover whether they had any similar intentions, or indeed whether I featured in any of their planned sexual adventures. I really need to invent time travel to go back and talk to my younger self about the nature of shallowness!
It must be difficult for this generation to be growing up without the threat of complete annihilation hanging over your head. Yes, there are terrorist organisations that do all types of terrible, tragic and disgusting things these days but does that compare with the potential of what was known as “mutually assured destruction”? The idea that the planet would be incapable of supporting human life in what was called the “nuclear winter” was terrifying. Why would the USA and the USSR even consider the possibility of killing all life on the planet? “Two Tribes” was one of many songs at the time that explored the issue of nuclear Armageddon. It is perhaps the only song that communicated through the entirety of its combined musicality and lyrical content that managed to convey the madness of the march towards the end of everything.
Oh, and that is without mentioning the voice of Patrick Allen, and actor who provided narration for a film called “Protect and Survive”. This was a public information film that was intended to provide UK citizens with advice concerning what to do in the case of a nuclear attack. The advice concerning the disposal of relatives’ bodies from “Protect and Survive” is completely chilling, and is used to devastating effect in “Two Tribes” (especially in the various 12ich mixes – but more of that later). “Two Tribes” offers us a vision of politics and pop in a beautifully controversial package – oh, if only they were here today to put their spin on the whole Donald Trump thing. Ah, if only.
Cowboy No. 1
A born-again poor man’s son
Poor man’s son
On the air America
I modelled shirts by Van Heusen-yeah
Working for the black gas
So far so Soviet… (yeah, trying saying that after a couple of your favourite pints of alcoholic beverage).
Let’s take a diversion… (yeah, I know you love it when I divert… there are times when everybody benefits from a good diversion).
There was another aspect of 80s culture that fascinated and delighted me – remix culture. Oh yes, I loved a good 12inch (errrrrrrrr… stop thinking that now)!
“Two Tribes” featured a whole raft of 12inch mixes that chopped up the song and then rearranged it in a variety of interesting and rather imaginative ways. I loved buying 12inch singles back in the 80s, primarily as I just couldn’t afford to buy albums as my family seemed to be one of those bearing the brunt of Thatcher’s economic slash and burn through the working classes. The 12inch single seemed to provide better value for money compared with the traditional 7inch single. I could find enough money for a 12inch single whereas saving for a album was a longer term investment. Trevor Horn and Zang Tumb Tuum records (commonly known as ZTT) seemed to be masters of using the format of the 12inch single to do something really interesting and creative with the idea of the remix. Hey, have a listen to the Annihilation mix:
Wasn’t that interesting?
ZTT decided to release a weekly stream of remixes back in the days when all this creativity was allowed and could still impact upon the chart success of a single – before record labels started to use remix culture in a way that was cynical and deliberately designed to manipulate poor quality songs higher up the charts. Paul Morley, who was a music journalist from the NME, would create sleeve notes of quality and distinction. Everything just spoke of the desire to stretch the boundaries of what was acceptable and experiment. Compare the creativity of the Annihilation mix with the Carnage mix which offered a far more traditional vision of extending the song by adding additional instrumental sections. ZTT at its best when it was all about pushing those boundaries, whether they were musical, political or social.
I loved how one song could be imagined in one way and then reimagined in a completely different manner. I loved how you could show qualities of imagination and creativity that were not possible in the restrictions of the 7inch single format.
Frankie went onto create more moments of greatness, including one of the greatest Christmas singles ever created with “The Power of Love” (which I will probably decide to write about later in the year when I decide to do some festive specials). Then they created the difficult second album, “Liverpool”, which ramped up the rock sound and even made the politics a more explicit part of the Frankie experience. People didn’t like it. I liked it – but then I knew that I didn’t fit it with ordinary society. They didn’t want genuinely angry expressions of the betrayal of the working classes. They wanted shock, horror and controversy.
“Two Tribes” provided it with so much energy and enthusiasm that that pop culture would have to worships at the twin alters of sex and horror for many more years to come! Enjoy the scandal!