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If only they could relax – how the Beeb helped Frankie get to No 1

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Singer of scandal: Frankie’s lead vocalist Holly Johnson. Yui Mok/Pa

Singer of scandal: Frankie’s lead vocalist Holly Johnson. Yui Mok/Pa

Banned aid: Frankie Goes to Hollywood during their 1980s heyday

Banned aid: Frankie Goes to Hollywood during their 1980s heyday

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Singer of scandal: Frankie’s lead vocalist Holly Johnson. Yui Mok/Pa

The thumping bassline and memorable melody have kept it a staple of classic hits radio. But Frankie Goes to Hollywood's debut single became a smash, ironically, thanks to being banned.

Thirty years ago, BBC DJ Mike Read lifted the needle off the groove midway through 'Relax', describing the outré lyrics and sleeve-design as "obscene" and refusing to play it.

The BBC had decided to ban the song anyway, but Read's cri de coeur made headlines – and brought the song to public attention.

'Relax' was originally released in November 1983, sluggishly reaching No 35 in the UK charts. The ban – as well as a provocative marketing campaign and video set in a gay S&M club – sent the re-release soaring to the top where it stayed for five weeks, becoming the seventh biggest-selling single ever. It also propelled Frankie to a brief but hugely successful career.

Stuart Clark, assistant editor with Hot Press magazine, remembers listening to Mike Read that evening. "I just thought, 'What a self-important prat'.

"Back then Radio 1 was horrendous, with these smug, 'Smashey and Nicey' DJs, and there weren't many alternatives on radio.

"Listening to it now, 'Relax' sounds quite innocuous.

"There was a culture of self-importance. Much power was concentrated in few hands – Radio 1 had something like 15 million listeners, and these DJs thought they were gods.

"That's part of the reason Frankie became so massive: any teenager hearing this guy old enough to be their dad [he was 35] will do the exact opposite of what they're told.

"Frankie were rubbing their hands in glee. I certainly remember Read being the reason most people I knew bought 'Relax'."

Dave Fanning, then as now a 2FM broadcaster, takes a kinder view of Read, though he still feels the DJ "made a bit of a fool of himself. In fairness, I don't think he was looking for publicity, he just got angry and lost it. And if he felt that way, it was right to do what he did.

"There was definitely an element of seeking controversy. The people behind Frankie would have known how it worked. It doesn't matter if the song's any good, if your parents hate something, that's all you need.

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"2FM didn't ban it; I'd say it didn't even occur to them. Maybe the powers-that-be didn't want to draw attention to it."

Interestingly, while our forebears prohibited books and films like they were being paid to do it (metaphorically and literally), very few songs fell foul of the censor's wrath, in contrast to the more liberal UK. Christy Moore's track about the Stardust disaster was outlawed by the courts as libellous, while the 'MASH' theme was banned because of the line "suicide is painless".

Stuart says: "I don't remember much being banned here; perhaps they just didn't play them, instead of making a big deal out of it. Sometimes ignoring something is a more powerful tool.

"But the BBC had a history of looking for trouble. They had this Auntie Beeb thing of looking after people: 'We have your best interests at heart.' So there was almost an industry in using their moral outrage to boost your career. Same thing with those 'Parental Advisory' stickers in the States: if a heavy metal album didn't have one, kids wouldn't buy it. It became a badge of honour. Censorship never really works, and with hindsight looks ridiculous."

He adds: "If 'Relax' came out now, it would barely make a ripple. Same with the Sex Pistols. It was so easy 30 years ago to create outrage. Having said that, Frankie were a good band: they could play, great tunes, great videos, the T-shirts . . . all the elements just came together."

Dave isn't so enamoured with them, saying: "We'd put on Lark in the Park back then, and the amount of teenagers wearing Frankie T-shirts amazed me. It was a huge phenomenon . . . for five minutes.

"I interviewed them around the time they were playing in Dublin: a big, flash gig, well-choreographed, quite good. But they were idiotic to talk to, awful. And their music was utter crapola. Not even a good chapter in the history of bad pop!"


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