The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #195: Relax! by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #195: Relax! by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

What better way to start this blog post than by talking about one of the most controversial yet, most commercially successful songs of all-time! “Relax!” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood is a song that means many things to many different people. To some, it is an offensive, overtly sexual song that has no place being played on the public airwaves. To others, “Relax!” is a novelty song and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as those “proper songs” by more esteemed musical artists. Still, for some, this song is a celebration of a lifestyle that, at the time (in the mid-19802) remained frowned upon by society at large. Finally, for some people, “Relax!” is simply a good song with a nice beat that is easy to dance to….checking off all of Dick Clark’s boxes from American Bandstand. Well, regardless of your view of this song, the data tells the tale so, without further ado, here is the real story of “Relax! by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood was a group of predominantly Gay musicians who formed in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The band consisted of lead singer, Holly Johnson, Co-lead singer, Paul Rutherford, lead guitarist, Brian Nash, bassist, Mark O’Toole and drummer, Peter Gill. Frankie Goes To Hollywood were never a Punk Rock band but, they did ride the coattails of that movement and the politics it espoused. Societal change in the UK at the time wasn’t limited to talk of race or social class, the politics of sexual orientation were starting to become a topic of fierce debate, too. Frankie Goes To Hollywood sought to de-mystify the gay lifestyle through song, much in the same way that American groups like The Village People were doing across the Pond.

Their debut album, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” was released in 1983. The first single released was “Relax!”. To put it mildly, the subject matter of “Relax!” is about sexual encounters and, specifically, being able to prolong one’s “endurance” before culminating the task, as one might say. Needless to say, the lyrics of this song were met with equal, and opposite reactions from listeners. Some loved it and demanded that it be played on the BBC. Others thought it offensive and crude and demanded that the song be banned by the very same BBC. What happened was that there was a DJ on the BBC who agreed with those listeners who found the content objectionable and, on air, he declared “Relax!” to be banned. As is often the case when you publicly ban some, intrigue around the song and the record skyrocketed and “Relax!” rose in the charts all the way to the #1 spot, despite being “banned”. Not only did “Relax!” reach #1, it stayed there for six consecutive weeks; selling over two million copies in the process. But, not only that, the song stayed in the UK Top 40 for a full calendar year! And, not only that, as “Relax!” began to slide down the rankings after a few months, Frankie Goes To Hollywood released their follow-up single, “Two Tribes”. As that song climbed the charts, “Relax!” rebounded and reached #1 again; making it one of the very few songs in all of UK music history to reach #1 twice by the same artist with the same version of the song. But, not only that again! With “Relax!” at #1, “Two Tribes” reached #2, making Frankie Goes To Hollywood the only band ever (along with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) to occupy both the #1 and #2 positions on the charts with two different songs at the same time. Needless to say, the BBC dropped their ban. “Relax!” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, when all is said and done, has gone on to be one of the top ten best selling singles of all-time in UK history. Not bad for a song about Gay sex…..that was banned for most of the time period when it enjoyed its’ most success.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood ended up being like a great many bands who explode out of the gate with a monster debut….they struggled under the weight of expectations for a follow-up and were never able to duplicate the success that they had with “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”, despite several attempts over the course of multiple albums released in the decade that followed. Eventually, the band split up; with lead singer, Holly Johnson, heading out as a solo artist and the rest of the band trying to stay together and resurrect to Frankie Goes To Hollywood brand. As I type these words, neither portion of this split has achieved any noteworthy success. But, as it turns out, they didn’t need to do so. They have become immortalized as cultural icons in the UK and will be forever remembered for their debut single, “Relax!”.

If there was ever any doubt as to the significance, or reach of this song, one need look no further than how the phrase, “Frankie says, Relax!” became a catch-phrase on the highly successful US TV show, “Friends”. You may recall that when main characters Ross and Rachel finally became a couple, Ross used to own a t-shirt with that phrase on it. The t-shirt became Rachel’s, who wore it to bed whenever she and Ross attempted to make love. Thus, without saying anything, the show gave us, as viewers, a sneak peek into the quality of their lovemaking by having Rachel wear a shirt that bears the message that was originally meant advise lovers to slow down and exercise more self-control during sex.

Some songs turn out to be far more than what one might have expected from them and, “Relax!”, with all of its records for sales and chart positions, is certainly a case in point. So, get ready for one of the songs that defined the 1980s and that made music history in the UK….here is “Relax!” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Enjoy responsibly.

The link to the video for the song, “Relax!” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for being brave and playing all manner of songs by all manner of artists and bands. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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