To say that Welcome To The PleasureDome (Zang Tuum Tumb) saved my life in a small way is putting it lightly, or perhaps the statement in itself is a bit too boastful, a bit too grandiose. Looking back, the music on the debut album by Frankie Goes To Hollywood did pull me put during a time in my life when I was wondering what was going on, unsure of where to go and what to do next, despite the fact my circumstances were fairly small. Looking back, it helped put me on a path that gave me a focus when I felt I didn’t have it.
Upon its release on October 29, 1984, I had been a FGTH fan for less than a year. I knew of “Relax” as it was one of the biggest UK singles of 1983. You could barely hear it on U.S. radio not because it was banned in the UK, but because U.S. radio stations didn’t feel it was hit worthy. With people like Prince and Madonna coming out with powerful American pop that year, something as insignificant as FGTH seemed like small news. Forget the fact that the group’s first two singles, “Relax” and “Two Tribes”, both went to #1 and it seemed the U.S. didn’t care too much. They were mentioned a bit on MTV as the next big thing, someone following the likes of Duran Duran and Culture Club but the group were stuck between overhype and underwhelming. Some felt they were going to be one-hit wonders, forget the fact that at the time “Relax” hadn’t been an American hit yet. It would take three tries from Island Records until “Relax” finally caught on to American eras and by then, FGTH had already gained four hit singles and a fairly successful album. To most Americans, Welcome To PleasureDome was a confusing slab of wax to some buyers, as a few wondered if the album was just nothing but hits and a whole lot of filler, or just two slabs of waste. The album went as high as #1 in England and New Zealand and would gain #10 status around the world, with the exception of the U.S., where it went as high as #33 on Billboard’s Album Chart. Was it too much too soon, or did people not understand or want to get it?
Frankie Goes To Hollywood was a mixture of superhype from the Zang Tuum Tumb empire, which also included a number of myths and truths. Part of this seemed to be too overwhelming for a group who, for some, were nothing more than two gay singers and three straight lads, and unlike Duran Duran, where people got to know Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes, and the three Taylors, perhaps it was hard to grasp onto the semi-legends that were Holly Johnson, Paul Rutherford, Mark O’Toole, Brian Nash, and Peter O’Toole. Maybe it was hard to grasp because of their producer, Trevor Horn. Horn already had massive success in 1983 and 1984 with Yes’ comeback album 90125, reviving the career of a formerly-dead progressive rock band and made them 80’s pop superstars. Horn also produced music by ABC and also was one-fifth of the function that was Art Of Noise, whose production and creativity essentially paved the way for much of England’s music in the early 80’s and the rest of the decade. It seemed that at the end of the day, what exactly was Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who was the real group and who really made the music?
Regardless of the correct answers, it was a unified structure. The group were fronted by two singers, the lead vocalist being Johnson. The band definitely played their own instruments, although half of their musicianship was mixed in with sounds created by Horn’s production team, which included Art Of Noise and a number of side musicians. In a way, it was not unlike Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and Michael Jackson’s Thriller where the headliner was backed by “a cast of millions” in order to achieve a powerful sound. However, with a group that were solely known for hit singles and steered as hit makers, how could they come up with an album? Fortunately, they did.
Side 1 (Side “F”) began with a dramatic and operatic introduction, the start of the show before going into a delicate acoustic piece, backed by keyboards. Eventually, we formerly enter the pleasuredome, with natural sounds and a stream of water. While the cover art showed the illustrated group offering subliminal innuendo and a gatefold that didn’t leave much to the imagination, it was a way to want to know what the pleasuredome was. After a build up of two and a half minutes, a synthesized voice says “welcome to the pleasure…dome” and the wall of keyboards, the funky bass and the powerful drums began their jungle call. The pleasuredome was not only sexual, it was very much erotic, it was playful, joyful, it sounded like a place you wanted to enter and never escape. The drum pattern made things sound energetic while the guitar gave the atmosphere its funk, as if it showed the influence of Chic. The tribal chants saying “OOH HA!” could be hypnotic if you allowed it to, it was the pleasuredome’s heartbeat, its heart of noise, and while the song told about its path to the inevitable destination, Johnson and Rutherford would continue to say this place was a “long way from home”, but how far would one have to go? The songs pace barely slowed down and while it did stop at one point, it was only temporary. It was a bit of a marathon, a heated endurance test of a sexual nature, and you wanted to feel every sensation. When the female singers (uncredited) begin singing “shooting stops never stop, even when they reach the top”, the gospel element enters as if the group wanted to bring or reveal a hint of disco to their world, or wanting to bring them onto their trip to the pleasuredome. It builds and builds until the ladies sing “there goes a supernova, what a pushover” and then it leads to a powerful “YEAH!” that holds for a few seconds until it heads to an exhausting “wooo!” All you wanted to do was dance and jump, gyrate and feel every pulse of the rhythm, even if you didn’t know what the rhythm was doing to you. The instrumentation slowly quiets and Johnson is only heard singing “the world…is my oyster”, followed by sinister laughter. His voice gradually slows down until it is realized he is the leader of the show, and we’re allowed to stay for the next 45 minutes.
Side 2 (Side G) was a chance for the group to highlight the hits and then some. As their singles in a number of different formats, it was a way to hear their songs in different mixes than what was previously released. “Relax” was the release of the album, or that what you wanted to hold back from until you could release your energy to a place known or unknown. “War”, their cover of the Edwin Starr classic, was a non-LP track on the “Two Tribes” single and found a place to talk about peace, politics, what it meant and if it really has any place in the world, or if it should matter when there are better things to be concerned about. The side formally ends with a new mix of “Two Tribes”, which barely got any attention in the United States except for the video, due to the feud between the fake President Ronald Reagan and the fake Russian leader Konstantin Chernenko. People were more into the theatrics than the song itself, even though the songs was incredibly funky and equally as theatric, if not more.
The side properly ends with a segment that is common throughout the album: taking from the multitracks from other songs, isolating them and using them to create something else. While not credited on the album, it’s the Russian orchestral portion from “Two Tribes” featuring a voice talking about penetration and orgasm. It may not have related to what “Two Tribes” was actually about, or perhaps it was a way to combine love and war, or love and hate.
Side 3 (Side T) was the beginning of the second half of the album and while I never had a problem with it, I can see how some people may have played Welcome To The PleasureDome and asked themselves “what is this?” “Ferry (Go)” is a much shorter version of their cover of “Ferry Cross The Mersey”, the Gerry & The Pacemakers song that was originally on the “Relax” 12″ single. In this case, it’s just the vocal track from that song, added with an all new instrumental backing. Only the first verse is heard before a dialogue is heard. It then cuts into a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run”, fitting the boys and lads into tramps of the American dream. It may not have fit in with what Frankie Goes To Hollywood represented at this point, but maybe they were in love with Springsteen. It allowed the band to rock out a bit, complete with mean bass riffs from O’Toole and a grunting Johnson getting hot and bothered.
This is followed with what may be the strangest cover on the album, and yet somehow fitting: Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”, simply titled “San Jose (The Way)”. The most interesting thing from this song is the bass riff that starts the song and is heard throughout the song. While O’Toole’s bass work is heard in the song before, the bass track isn’t O’Toole at all but a sample of Yes’ “City Of Love” from the 90125 album, played by Chris Squire and produced by Horn. I remember when I first heard this and wondered why it sounded familiar. Horn was already recycling himself, or perhaps it was the Art Of Noise production team wanting to dip into their own bag of sounds.
The following song was one I wished FGTH and ZTT would’ve/should’ve released as a song, the funky “Wish (The Lads Were Here)”. The vibe and lyrics seemed energetic to me, and what I always loved was how the song changed tempo and style during the bridge, getting funky and into a dirty disco groove before driving itself back to the faster tempo it began with.
This goes directly into “The Ballad Of 32”, a moody instrumental that comes off like a temporary instrumental or even a song of romance and sensuality, especially when the orgasmic moans are heard in the last half. Keyboard sounds from what sounds like “Relax” are heard here too, but the weirdest part is what sounds like a random phone conversation coming through the moans. What is being said, and what does it have to do with the moans? It had nothing to do with anything, or maybe it did and I didn’t know it?
“Black Night White Light” was a mid-tempo song that almost borders on being a ballad, and had it been rearranged or rewritten with a stronger bridge and better last verse, it could have been a hit too. Johnson’s vocal track from “Two Tribes” are borrowed and used in the last third of the song as an accent but what also worked for me was Rutherford’s background vocals. That in itself could’ve helped the song become a hit, in the same way they showed on their next album with “Rage Hard”.
“The Only Star In Heaven” is next and while I love the song too, I think what doesn’t make it work is that it sounds like an idea that doesn’t come to full fruition, like “Black Night, White Light”. In fact, on the album version, it ends cold before it reprises itself with another chorus segment from the multitracks. It sounds good but doesn’t work. I prefer the piano outro from the instrumental version on the alternate 12″ single, had that been attached to the end of the album mix, it could have worked wonders. Perhaps the somewhat confusing lyrics of “got to shake you tail to break away (FISH!)/got to shake you tail to make a wave (SHARK!)” made people question their motives, what did the oceanic metaphors have to do with anything. Then they get into a bit of Sun Ra inspiration with the “space is the place” reference, so they move from the ocean to the universe to going to Hollywood for something promising, but is it marriage, a dance, or something unknown. In a way, it comes off like a bunch of random ideas written on Post-It notes and turned into a song that goes nowhere. The chorus is great, but the rest of it I still question if I have to.
The album’s last full song is “The Power Of Song”, FGTH’s third single that doubled as the band’s holiday single in late 1984, which became their third #1 song. It tied in with a religious-themed video, but the song in itself was powerful about the strength of the song title. With lyrics like “Love is the light scaring darkness away” and “make love your goal”, it was obvious to see how it could have double meaning with its spiritual video, which may have been nothing but promotional hype to get people aware of the song, but it worked. The string arrangement from Anne Dudley is beautiful and very much sounds like what she had done with Art Of Noise and “Moments In Love”, but much more grand. If Art Of Noise offered a mere moment, she helped FGTH to create a love power.
The album ends with another extraction from the multitracks, this time the keyboard ending heard in “Ferry Cross The Mersey” but now mixed with the mock Ronald Reagan heard in different remixes of “Two Tribes” and “War”. This time, mock Reagan brings the album to a conclusion and states that after his voice, there will be “no more”. The end. Pure genius.