Frankie Goes To Hollywood are perhaps best known for their 80s hits Relax, Two Tribes and The Power of Love, but there’s far more to the band than meets the eye. Formed in Liverpool in the early 80s, the group’s line-up was subject to several changes before Holly Johnson, Paul Rutherford, Peter Gill, Mark O’Toole and Brian Nash were established as the band’s core members.
With the line-up settled, the group shot to fame in the early 80s, garnering widespread critical acclaim after their first three singles debuted at No. 1 on the UK charts. But their success was destined to be short-lived, and they went on to disband in 1987 – just four years after the release of debut single Relax.
Here are 20 things you might not have known about this classic 80s band.
20. Their name was pinched from a magazine headline about Frank Sinatra
The name Frankie Goes to Hollywood was nabbed from an old New Yorker headline about Frank Sinatra.
The article concerned Sinatra’s relocation from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and was chosen by a friend of the band’s called Ambrose Reynolds.
Frontman Holly Johnson explained the origins of the group’s name on the B-side to the group’s first single, Relax.
The group’s unique name helped catapult them to superstardom and even inadvertently started a widespread 80s fashion trend.
Fans of the band rushed to buy T-shirts with the words ‘Frankie Say Relax’ emblazoned on the front.
The original shirts were designed by British designer Katharine Hamnett and also featured the words ‘Don’t Do It’ written on the back.
19. Holly Johnson nearly made an album with Simon Cowell
You might associate Simon Cowell with acts like Leona Lewis and One Direction, but he actually almost produced an album with Frankie frontman Holly Johnson.
Johnson was in ill health in the early 90s, having been diagnosed as HIV positive – and according to the singer, Cowell was one of the “very few people” who came round to make sure he was OK.
“He knew that I wasn’t in the best of health and he had seen me walking my dog Funky on Parsons Green in Fulham when he was visiting Sinitta,” Johnson told the Mirror in 2012.
Cowell also propositioned Johnson during this time, suggesting that they work together on an album.
“I got a message that he wanted to work with me, so I sent him some demos of new songs and he came round and suggested that I do an album of cover versions,” Johnson said.
“It was very kind of Simon but, as a songwriter, I felt I would rather perform my own songs than the Unchained Melody type of song, which I know he likes,” Johnson said, explaining why the album was never made.
18. Relax was banned by the BBC after DJ Mike Read branded it “obscene”
Back in 1983, the group released their debut single Relax. Although it initially made the charts, the song struggled to get any higher than No. 35.
That was until 1984, when the group performed the song on Top of the Pops, sending it straight to No. 6.
Then, the following week, BBC DJ Mike Read expressed his feelings about the track live on air.
The disc jockey branded the song “obscene” and refused to play it despite its high position in the charts.
Read’s distaste backfired, as his comments generated significant intrigue surrounding the song and subsequently boosted sales.
After his outburst, the track quickly progressed to No. 2 and then No. 1. During this time, the group were also banned from performing the song again on Top of the Pops, despite remaining in the No. 1 spot for five consecutive weeks.
17. Holly Johnson spent the 90s “in and out of hospital” following his HIV diagnosis
Johnson revealed the extent of his health struggles in the 90s while speaking to the Mirror in 2012.
“Towards the end of … 1989, I had already started to suffer health issues so I had an inkling that there was something wrong,” he said.
“But there was little point in being tested at that time. Partly because I was afraid of what the result would be and also there was no medication.”
“By 1991, my health had got so bad and I had to be tested. I found out that I was HIV positive a few days before the death of Freddie Mercury,” he continued.
“For some reason, I survived with a compromised immunity but I was very well looked after by my partner Wolfgang [Kuhle] who went beyond the call of duty in caring for me.”
“He really kept me alive until the advent of combination therapy in 1996. But until that point I was in and out of hospital every five minutes.”
16. They were originally called ‘Sons and Egypt’
As aforementioned, the group swiped their name from an old New Yorker headline about Frank Sinatra.
But before they settled on Frankie Goes to Hollywood, they toyed with the name Sons and Egypt.
Around this time the group comprised of Johnson, Peter Gill, Brian Nash, and Jed O’Toole – brother of Mark O’Toole, who went on to become the bassist of Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
The group performed a number of local gigs in Liverpool under the name Sons and Egypt before disbanding.
But only a few years later, Johnson, Mark O’ Toole, and Peter Gill reunited to have another stab at forming a band.
Brian Nash returned to the group as newcomer Paul Rutherford was brought in on vocals, and thus, Frankie Goes to Hollywood was born.
15. They were rejected by both Arista Records and Phonogram Inc
With Ivor Novello awards, NME awards and a BRIT award to their name, it’s fair to say that Frankie Goes to Hollywood are one of the more acclaimed bands to come out of the 1980s.
But it wasn’t always obvious that Frankie were going to take the world by storm, and the group struggled to land a record deal in their early days.
Back in the early 80s, Johnson and co toured locally with an all-female group called The Leatherpets.
The money they earnt from performing enabled them to raise enough money to fund promo videos and record track demos.
However, Arista Records and Phonogram Inc weren’t convinced and refused to sign the group.
Ultimately Frankie signed a deal with ZTT (Zang Tumb Tuum) in May 1983, and it’s likely Arista and Phonogram came to regret their decision.
14. The Power of Love was never intended to be a Christmas song
The Power of Love is now widely regarded as a classic Christmas song – but according to Johnson, the song’s writer, it was never intended to be that way.
“The Power of Love was never about Christmas or consumerism. The lyrics and melody came to me after thinking a lot about the subject of love,” the singer-songwriter said, speaking to Metro in 2012.
“Christmas was the last thing on my mind, even though it was late 1983,” he said.
“I was still unemployed in Liverpool. I’d signed recording/publishing contracts that paid little in advances. I’d also given up my art college grant in order to give music one last chance with Frankie Goes to Hollywood,” he explained.
“The song’s spiritual language seemed very natural, although I hadn’t attended church since I was a ten-year-old choirboy.”
“It’s a paean to love, rather than another person, and I think that’s why it remains universal and resonant.”
13. Despite the band’s Liverpudlian origins, they were never Beatles fans
You’d think that any band from Liverpool would be proud to follow in the footsteps of the Fab Four and cite them as heroes.
But according to Brian Nash, Frankie weren’t so keen on the Beatles, despite their Scouse origins.
“People always say that if you’re from Liverpool you must be into the Beatles and all that,” Nash said in a 2017 interview with The Brighton Source.
“Whilst we recognised what the Beatles stood for, they were the music of our mums and dads.”
“We were into Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Manoeuvres because that was music from Liverpool but from our generation,” he continued.
“You would see these people walking around town, you’d see Ian McCulloch getting on the bus. I never saw any of the Beatles on the bus.”
12. Holly Johnson and Mark O’Toole had an explosive backstage row at Wembley Arena in 1987
The band were hanging on by a thread during their 1987 tour. Tensions were running high as Johnson was at the time distancing himself from the group, and hardly speaking to the others offstage.
Things escalated one night when O’Toole and Johnson got into an explosive row backstage following a gig at Wembley Arena.
Johnson’s relationship with the rest of the band deteriorated so much after this that singer Pete Wylie was approached and asked to replace Johnson. He ultimately declined the offer.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood disbanded after Johnson quit the group following the end of the tour.
“The brightest star shines half as long,” Rutherford said of the group’s demise, speaking to the Guardian in 2014.
“We ran out of steam and we split up. It’s sad. But the memories are amazing.”
11. An imposter band marketed themselves as ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ in the 1990s
It’s normal for popular bands to have tribute groups modelled after them. But Frankie Goes to Hollywood were once subject to a group of out-and-out imposters.
The fake group called themselves alternately Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The New Frankie Goes to Hollywood featuring Davey Johnson.
They began touring in the United States back in 1998 and weren’t even marketed as a tribute act.
They were also formed without the knowledge or consent of the members of the real Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
The frontman – ‘Davey Johnson’ – claimed he was Holly Johnson’s brother, despite Johnson debunking this claim.
The imposter act were dropped by their booking agent once Johnson confirmed publicly that the act was wholly unauthorised and by 2000 they had stopped performing.
10. Holly Johnson was sued by the record label when he tried to go solo
Following the group’s split, Frankie frontman Holly Johnson was offered a solo recording contract with MCA Records.
However, Frankie’s label Zang Tuum Tumb (ZTT) had other ideas and tried to force Johnson into continuing to work with them.
ZTT argued that Johnson should have to release all of his solo material through their label.
This was supposedly in accordance with the original contract Johnson signed, which stated that Frankie had to release multiple albums with ZTT.
The lawsuit embroiled Frankie and ZTT in a scandal that lasted two years. A decision was only reached in 1988, two years after Johnson had tried to leave.
The High Court ultimately ruled in Johnson’s favour and held that the terms of the original ZTT contract were so restrictive they declared it an “unreasonable restraint of trade.”
9. There’s a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video game
At the peak of their fame in 1985, Frankie Goes to Hollywood became the subjects of their very own video game.
The game was developed by Denton Designs and published by Ocean Software for use on the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum home computers.
The game was entirely based on the band’s music, imagery, and slogans and was simply called Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
In the game, the player would explore the town of Mundanesville in order to find the Pleasuredome.
In order to reach the Pleasuredome, the player had to become a ‘full person’ by filling their four attributes (sex, war, love and faith) to 99%.
The four attributes referred to various symbols used on the covers of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s albums.
8. Holly Johnson narrowly missed dying in the Lockerbie air disaster
Frankie frontman Holly Johnson was meant to board Pan Am Flight 103 back in 1988.
However, he and his manager were running late and hit busy rush hour traffic when they left for Heathrow.
When they reached the airport they found that they had only narrowly missed the flight.
Of course, Pan Am Flight 103 turned out to be the plane targeted in the Lockerbie bombing attack.
Although Johnson did not board the flight, many fans continue to erroneously believe that Johnson did perish in the bombing – a clear example of the Mandela Effect in action.
On board the plane was another musician, however – Paul Jeffreys, the bass guitarist from Steve Harvey & Cockney Rebel.
7. There are four official videos for Relax
The music video for Relax has been ensconced in scandal since the first one was released back in 1983.
The first video for the song depicted the band simulating various sex acts. It was subsequently banned by both the BBC and MTV.
The second one was primarily shown in the UK and feature the band performing the song amidst green laser light.
The third, created primarily for a US audience, featured the band performing the song live while being hugged and kissed by fans.
The fourth video was actually directed by legendary American film director and screenwriter Brian De Palma.
The De Palma video is based on his film Body Double and sees the band performing in a nightclub.
6. Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm was supposed to be Frankie’s second single
Grace Jones’ biggest hit is arguably Slave to the Rhythm. Released in 1985, the song hit no. 1 on the US charts for dance club songs.
It also peaked at no. 12 on the UK charts and reached no. 4 in both Germany and the Netherlands.
But Jones’ biggest hit almost never was, with the single very nearly given to Frankie Goes to Hollywood instead.
The song was a Trevor Horn production, and he’d written the song with the intention of it being Frankie’s second single.
Apparently, Horn worked exceedingly hard on the track and had hoped that it would go on to become one of his most successful songs.
Although the single went to Jones and not Frankie, it’s safe to say that Horn’s work was still a resounding success.
5. Holly Johnson tore up a copy of The Sun during a Top of the Pops performance after the paper doorstepped his parents
It’s no surprise that the outspoken and outlandish Frankie were unafraid to make political statements on stage.
Back in August 1984, the group had just spent nine weeks at no. 1 with their hit single Two Tribes.
To mark the occasion of their final performance of the song on Top of the Pops, the group wore white jackets and bow ties.
The group also had Ped Gill and Mark O’Toole swap places – putting Gill on bass and O’Toole on drums.
The performance then began with Johnson tearing up a copy of The Sun newspaper on stage.
The paper had been pestering his parents back home in Liverpool for any salacious quotes about their son.
4. Johnson was bullied for being openly gay growing up
In an article published in 1986, Johnson recalled the difficulties of growing up openly gay in Liverpool.
“I used to wear ‘40s jackets with big shoulders and walk round singing ‘rock-a-bye your baby with a Dixie melody’,” he said.
The article goes on: “he sported a blond skinhead cut (“with me social security number written on the back of me head”).”
He also briefly had his hair styled in “a mini-mohican” and for a time “had his hair painted green and red.”
“You used to get people writing to the Liverpool Echo, saying ‘who’s this Martian walking round town?’”
“I used to get battered,” Johnson said, recounting his experience of being bullied and attacked as a young man.
3. Paul Rutherford joined the band after jumping on stage at one of their first gigs
Frankie Goes to Hollywood played a very important gig at a local pub back in spring 1982.
They secured the gig supporting Hambi and The Dance – who featured Paul Rutherford on backing vocals.
The group performed three songs they’d written: Love’s Got A Gun, Relax and Two Tribes.
While most in attendance that night were there to see Hambi and The Dance, one audience member was more intrigued by the supporting act.
Paul Rutherford was so enthralled by the group that he actually leapt onto the stage towards the end of Frankie’s set.
On the spur of the moment he decided to leave Hambi and The Dance after being asked by Johnson if he’d like to join Frankie permanently.
2. A review of one of their first gigs branded them “dodgy” and “weirdos”
Back in the summer of 1982, Frankie headlined at an open air festival in Liverpool called Larks in the Park.
Johnson, in true, racy Frankie style, turned up on stage with a hole cut out of the bottom of his jeans.
A contemporary review of their performance read: “Franke Goes To Hollywood […] are THE name to drop right now and what a name.”
“With their showbizzy act, all steamy leather-clad sex and tongue-in-cheek sleaze, goes a truly funky sound —
Another review read: “Frankie were getting a little wild, to say the least […] Very dodgy.”
Ultimately their on stage antics resulted in several record companies shying away from signing them, until ZTT came along and signed them up in 1983.
1. Holly Johnson found Andy Warhol “dead funny”
Before Johnson took the plunge with pursuing a music career, he studied art and had floated the idea of becoming an artist.
According to an article by the band’s label ZTT, Johnson’s favourite artists are Duncan Grant, Picasso, Matisse, Michelangelo and Andy Warhol.
After rocketing to fame in the 80s, Johnson actually had the chance to meet Warhol himself.
He recalled the meeting in an interview with Reader’s Digest: “In 1984, I was offered a seat on Virgin’s maiden flight, alongside Gary Numan, Anita Harris and Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy.”
“We played in New York and Madonna came to one of our shows. I kept asking about Andy Warhol and suddenly the word came through that he wanted to meet me.
“I was a bit nervous, but he was dead funny and very normal. Well, normal for Warhol! He asked if he could take a photo of me. I managed to buy the original a couple of years ago, and it remains one of my greatest treasures.”