Relax, it’s red alert time at Popular. Hello?

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Relax”, 28 January 1984

“Relax” is indelibly linked in my memory with being on the bus home from matric, part-way through the hour-long 25-mile journey, hearing it sung by a guy from the year above us who had perfected not only the BOM bom BOMs but Holly Johnson’s orgasmic “huuAAHHH!”, for all the bus to hear.

Not that we necessarily even thought of it as orgasmic; naïvete, and lack of exposure to the banned video (in Australia as in Britain), meant that our only explicit clue was the lyric “when you wanna come”—and its preceding instruction to relax and not do it was perfect misdirection, because why wouldn’t you want to do that? Surely Frankie was telling us not to bother coming to Hollywood.

Okay, we can’t have been that naïve, not at sixteen, but the tame replacement video did mask the innuendo to a surprising degree, given that the whole track is soaking in bodily fluids, practically spraying them out of the speakers with every beat. It was still obviously a hit to us, even though it only reached number five in Oz (where INXS and Pat Benatar were lording it over the charts at the time); all those 12” versions were surely evidence of its importance. Record companies wouldn’t release more than one version of a single just to cash in, would they? Next you’ll be telling us those T-shirts weren’t a spontaneous gesture of solidarity from the fans. Frankie Say Consume.

(I had to double-check to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me: the original T-shirts said FRANKIE SAY, not SAYS—Frankie referring to the collective band rather than the individual—leading to hours of playground cognitive dissonance.)

I never bought any of the “Relax” singles, and didn’t even hear Pleasuredome until a few years ago. My Frankie album was a review copy of Liverpool sent to our student mag at uni a few years later. The review I wrote was mixed, at best, and tells me that I didn’t rate much of their stuff apart from “Relax” (and “Warriors of the Wasteland”).

So this might have scored a 6 from me back in the day. It’s grown in my affections, and I can definitely see how it could be worth an 8 or 9 to others, but to be honest to the rating guidelines I’ll have to call it a 7. I can happily go years without hearing or thinking of “Relax”; its abundant musical heirs have left it less essential than it once might have been. Even if I have had BOM bom BOM running through my head all weekend.

The song’s first performance on The Tube, which is knocking around The YouTube, is an eye-opener; it all sounds rather pedestrian and dated, and Holly Johnson’s look is in-your-face leather rather than the grey suit of the banned video. One particular camera-shot up his red leather shorts is very Brüno. What goes around, comes around...

Nena, “99 Red Balloons”, 3 March 1984

I feel sorry for UK listeners on this occasion, because we in Oz had the proper version, and unlike the Americans we sent it all the way to the top—for five weeks, too. The missing unstressed beat from “NEUN-und-NEUN-zig LUFT-bal-LONS” in the “Red Balloons” version jars every time, and the opportunity to hear German in the English-speaking charts is so rare that it should definitely be savoured. Nena’s vocals sounded so much gutsier in the original, too, like a German version of Kim Wilde at her 1981-82 best, which was fine by me.

I’m not surprised that the 1984 UK record-buying public wasn’t ready for the German version, though, given that when I moved here two decades later British attitudes towards Germany still seemed to be stuck in the “don’t mention the war” episode of Fawlty Towers. But if it keeps the stag parties away from the most exciting city in Europe, who’s complaining.

My first German-language single was one of the first two I bought, and that was actually by mistake, but I loved it then and still do. I’d heard the song on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 and went looking for it shortly thereafter, but when I took my new purchase home it turned out not to be the plodding rock of one-hit wonders After the Fire, but the sharp tones of Falco, singing his original version of “Der Kommissar”. That title also evoked the Cold War and even the SS, but the song itself seemed to be more about “my funky friends Jack und Joe und Jill”. It would be another year before we got this much more direct Cold War song... but most of us hearing the German version only knew it was a Cold War song because others told us; the video didn’t give much away.

I remember liking “99 Luftballons” at the time, but didn’t buy the record; unlike too many ’80s hits, though, this is one I can happily listen to anytime. It’s probably one of my favourite one-hit-wonder number ones, and its unique qualities came in handy for one of mein satirikal Internet writinks.

As this is the English-language version I should probably give it 6, but I’ll give it 7 für ein Lied für dich.

Lionel Richie, “Hello”, 24 March 1984

Man, Lionel Richie. I had my fill of his songs in 1983-84, when this and “All Night Long” topped the Oz charts for nine weeks between them, and I’d be happy enough never to think about them again. They just oozed blandness, and put me off anything to do with soul and R&B for a long time.

Not that anyone forgot this catchphrase in a hurry. Not if you had wise-cracking friends and siblings. Ring, ring. “Hello?” “Is it meeeee you’re looking forrrr...”

It would be a few years before I could neutralize its heinous neural effect with a much better musical take on the word. I want a Mr Slater’s Parrot/Lionel Richie mash-up death-match, stat.

In the interests of Science, and because other comments made me think I should give it another chance, I just watched the video again. Hello? Is it inappropriate teacher-student relationships you’re looking for? And the chin on that bust! The song is harmless enough—I quite like the guitar break—but it’s never going to be one I love. The benefit of the doubt would give it 5, but I must punish it for its crimes, I must. 4.

1 August 2009 · Music