Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In 1984, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s debut single was dominating the charts, while simultaneously banned from the airwaves by the BBC. The song was a synth-pop masterpiece, and took its time to get there. Producer Trevor Horn worked through several versions of the song and a changing lineup of musicians to get the desired sound for the “Relax” – a song which would be used to launch his new record label, ZTT, to the public. Despite a slow start and censorship by the BBC, “Relax” became one of the decade’s most important and superbly produced records.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood were formed in Liverpool in 1980. Singer Holly Johnson recalled writing the song while walking down the street: “Relax was written in my head, and I sang it out loud to myself walking down the middle of Princes Avenue in Liverpool, laughing as I went.” The song is credited to Holly Johnson, Mark O’Toole, and Peter Gill
The band was signed to ZTT Records by Trevor Horn after the producer saw the band playing an early version of “Relax” on The Tube. Horn focused his attention on “Relax” from the outset. They first worked on the song at Manor Studio. Johnson recalled: “Trevor discovered that the band really couldn’t play along with the machine sequences he’d devised. We were great live, but very raw, so Trevor wanted professional musicians who could play to a metronomic beat.” The only sound from these early sessions that was kept was the sound of the band jumping into the swimming pool that was sampled into the Fairlight.
At one point in the process, Horn brought in Ian Dury’s backing band, The Blockheads, to record the song, but even those sessions were eventually replaced. Finally. Horn recruited keyboardist Andy Richards, as well as J. J. Jeczalik to program the electronic sounds. He also discovered, by chance, that engineer Stephen Lipson was the perfect guitarist for the project. Horn explained:
“…one Wednesday, I heard someone in the studio playing exactly the guitar part I wanted. I thought it was the Frankies’ guitarist Nasher, and I rushed in, but the band were all up in Liverpool. It turned out to be our engineer, Steve Lipson. He’d caught the spirit of what Nasher was doing and transformed it.”
The final version came together through this final group. Horn told the Guardian. “On the final single version, I was recording with three brilliant people: Steve Lipson, Andy Richards and JJ Jeczalik. We were all frustrated because it felt like we were going nowhere. I admitted defeat. Sometimes when you do that and give it one more go, you get lucky. All the work we had put into these different versions suddenly coalesced.”
“Relax” was released in November of 1983 to a slow start….It first charted in the UK at spot number 67 and rose to number 37 after an appearance on Top of the Pops on January 5, 1984. The song was on its way to Number 6 on the charts, when Radio 1 DJ Mike Read announced that he would no longer be playing the song, because of its sexual meaning. The BBC soon followed with their own ban just as the song hit number 1.
The ban may have stirred additional awareness of the song, but its consequences were also a disappointment for a group of young musicians finally achieving their dream. Johnson told the Guardian in 2021:“We had already performed it on The Tube and Top of the Pops’ 20th anniversary show, which catapulted the single up the charts, but were unable to play Top of the Pops when Relax reached its peak position. This was a disappointment as it was every young kid’s dream to appear on that show with a No 1.”
The song remained in the number one spot for 5 weeks, in spite of the BBC’s ban – which was eventually dropped late in 1984, allowing the band to perform the song at Christmas edition of Top of the Pops. Despite its slow start and the opposition it faced, “Relax” remains fresh and exciting to this day.
Watch the full video on Relax with Warren and Stephen Lipson