The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 13, Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax

Amid 80s homophobia and repression, this gleeful banger about banging thrust its way to the top of the charts, its success boosted by a BBC ban

In 1983, Margaret Thatcher swept to general election victory on a moralistic platform of “Victorian values”. The Victorians are well-remembered for their culture of sexual repression, and – as a direct result – their obsession with sex and erotica. So perhaps Thatcher should have seen it coming: mere months later, the country’s No 1 single was the most gloriously filthy in chart-topping history.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, the ultimate banger about banging, made little impact on its first release on ZTT Records in late 1983. But after a performance on Top of the Pops in January 1984, it shot to the top of the charts and stayed there for five weeks, beginning a year of total chart dominance for the Liverpool group. It remains the sixth bestselling single in British history, beaten only by Band Aid, Candle in the Wind, Bohemian Rhapsody and some novelty songs. Its immense success proves that, besides charity, nothing brings the UK together quite like extreme horniness.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Relax – video

With not only its flagrant innuendo, but its wide-open synths, and swooning, psychedelic disco structure, the song was a complete wildcard – and the band performing it even more so. Frontmen Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford were both openly gay, still a rarity in pop at the time, and courted controversy with the use of fetish wear in their performances and videos. Famously, it was censorship from the BBC that propelled the song to its peak: when it was at No 6 in the charts, BBC Radio 1’s breakfast DJ Mike Read yanked it off air after taking a cursory glance at the lewd lyrics and cover art. He declared he’d never play it again. The BBC backed him by banning it across all its shows – including TOTP. For five weeks, Frankie were announced as No 1 – and then the show played out on a different track.

The song’s runaway success was testament to the fact that censorship and repression don’t work. It was a powerful message at the dawn of the Thatcher era: this was towards the beginning of the HIV/Aids epidemic that would devastate the LGBT community and lead to a dangerous increase in homophobia, and just three years before Thatcher would introduce the regressive Section 28 amendment. It was an era of hate, in which homosexuality was pushed even further to the fringes of society than it had been before. And yet, Frankie Goes to Hollywood prevailed.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2014, journalist Paul Morley – one of ZTT’s masterminds – reflected that the group’s success was like a “weird hallucination … The fact that something so successful yet is part of a shadowy history is ultimate proof that it was special.” It’s true that their dominance of British pop culture was momentary: they had two further No 1 singles and a bestselling album in 1984; 1986’s Liverpool flopped, and Johnson went solo to some success. But at a pivotal, deeply conservative time in Britain’s history, their crowning glory was what they brought out of the shadows and thrust into the light.


Aimee Cliff

The GuardianTramp

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