Written by the group's lead singer Holly Johnson, bassist Mark O'Toole and drummer Peter Gill, "Relax" was the first Frankie Goes to Hollywood single, and by far their biggest American hit (they had two other chart-toppers in their native UK: "Two Tribes
" and "The Power Of Love
The basic idea of "relax, don't do it" came to Johnson one day in winter 1982 when he was late for rehearsals "walking very quickly along the central reservation of Princes Avenue in Toxteth." At that point, the band only consisted of Johnson, O'Toole and Gill.
The lyrics are relatively ambiguous, although the line "when you want to come" is clearly a reference to orgasm. The song is essentially a guide to delaying ejaculation.
To throw censors off the scent, when "Relax" first came out, the band claimed publicly that it was written about "motivation." Later, they confessed it was actually about "shagging."
In America, any sexual innuendo contained in this song got little attention, but it caused plenty of controversy in the UK. The song entered the UK singles chart at #77 on November 12, 1983, and was at #35 when Frankie Goes To Hollywood performed it on Top Of The Pops January 5, 1984. The song jumped to #6, and on January 11, 1984, BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read announced on air that he refused to air "Relax" because of the single's controversial artwork and lyrics. He didn't know it at the time, but the BBC was planning to ban the single, and do so soon afterward.
This was big news, and many in the UK sought out the song to hear why it was banned. Record stores had trouble keeping it in stock; a spokesman at the Aberdeen, Scotland record store One Up explained at the time: "Banning the record seems to have created an air of mystery about it. We have had people coming in asking to hear the record to find out what all the fuss is about." Some commercial radio stations in the UK put it in hot rotation, boasting they were playing "the song that BBC banned."
The song rose to #2 on January 21, and it hit the top spot a week later, becoming the first banned UK #1 since the steamy Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin duet "Je T'aime" in 1969. "Relax" was no flash-in-the-pan: It held the top spot for five weeks and stayed on the chart until October.
The BBC threw in the towel and lifted the ban in December 1984 so the band could perform it on the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops. This sent the song back up the chart for another run; it made two more chart runs in 1985.
A parody of Read's on-air rant was included on some of the releases of the band's third single, "The Power Of Love."
Originally when questioned on the matter, the press was told that the line that sounds something like "when you want to suck to it" was really "when you want to sock it to it." Later, once the song was successful, Holly Johnson confessed the line is, "When you wanna suck it, chew it."
In 1984, "Relax" initially spent 48 weeks on the UK Singles Chart with five of those weeks consecutively in the #1 spot. When the band's second single, "Two Tribes
," was released in the summer of 1984, that song climbed to #1 while simultaneously "Relax" rose back up to #2. This was a feat only previously accomplished by Elvis Presley, The Beatles and John Lennon.
After 48 weeks, "Relax" fell off of the chart, but re-appeared soon after for four more weeks, giving it a total of 52 weeks on the chart.
Three music videos were made for this song. The first depicted the band in a Roman Empire bondage fantasy featuring simulated sodomy, Paul Rutherford's bare bottom and a group of bondage fetishists chained to scaffolding. It was banned by both MTV and the BBC.
The second video, shown primarily in the UK, featured the band (pretending to) perform the song while standing in front of green laserlight.
The third video, shown primarily in the US, featured the band in a live performance setting (performing along to the studio track) while being kissed and hugged by adoring concertgoers.
The song was produced by Trevor Horn, a former member of the bands Yes, The Buggles and Art Of Noise. When it hit #1 in the UK the week of January 28, 1984, "Owner Of A Lonely Heart
" by Yes was at #1 in the United States. Horn produced that song as well, making him the only producer to score simultaneous #1s in the UK and US with songs by different artists. Other acts Horn produced include ABC, Godley & Creme, Paul McCartney, Seal, Simple Minds, Lisa Stansfield, Rod Stewart and Tatu.
When "Relax" was first released in the US in the spring of 1984, it peaked at #67 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band came to America in October 1984, already with three UK singles to their credit. They pushed the song "Two Tribes," performing it on Saturday Night Live in November, but couldn't come anywhere near their homeland success; that song stalled at #43.
The group fared better in early 1985 when a re-released "Relax" got attention on radio and MTV, climbing to #10 in March. In America, it is by far their most popular song.
The release of "Relax" was promoted by a variety of widely distributed T-shirts bearing the legendary "Frankie Say..." quotes, such as "Frankie Say RELAX Don't Do It."
This shirt gets a cameo in a season 3 episode of the TV series Friends during a scene where Ross (David Schwimmer) is taking back his stuff from Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) after the breakup. Knowing she likes to sleep in the shirt, he asks for it back, even though it hasn't fit him since was 15. He puts on the way-too-tight T-shirt and declares, "I'm going to take the rest of my stuff and relax in my favorite shirt." He later returns the shirt in a sign of reconciliation.
Trevor Horn discovered Frankie Goes To Hollywood shortly after creating his record company ZTT when he saw the band performing "Relax" and "Two Tribes" on a Channel 4 show called The Tube
. Chris Squire
(of the band Yes) commented, "This band looks really interesting. Why don't you sign them up?" Horn didn't think much about them until months later when he heard them again on BBC Radio 1 DJ David Jensen's radio show. When Horn contacted them to sign them, he was unaware that the band was on the brink of breaking up because they felt unsuccessful.
Producer Trevor Horn recorded Frankie Goes To Hollywood performing this song in his studio but was dissatisfied with the outcome. He recorded a second version of the song using musicians from Ian Dury's backing band The Blockheads, but didn't like that recording either. He recorded a third version with producer/engineer Steve Lipson, keyboard player Andy Richards and Fairlight synthesizer programmer JJ Jeczalik, then informed a surprised Holly Johnson and Steve Lipson that he wanted to start from scratch a fourth time, using a beat he had once made on a LM-2 drum machine. He added a programmed bass line, Lipson on guitar, Richards on keyboard and Jeczalik making "funny noises" on the Fairlight synthesizer to create what would become the fourth and official recording. Richards and Lipson added sound effects with a few different Roland synthesizers. Johnson and Rutherford added vocals to complete the track.
Trevor Horn used an array of electronic devices to form the backing track. He explained to Sound On Sound: "It was a combination of Page R and the Conductor and locking it to a Linn drum machine. So the basic track was eights running in a Fairlight ('eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh'), fours on a bass ('ee ee ee ee') and a set of LinnDrum machine patterns locked to Page R played on top of each other. It was an amazing feel."
A little translation: Page R is a sequencer included with the Fairlight synthesizer. The Linn was one of the first programable drum machines that sampled real instruments - he used the LM-2 model. The Conductor is a unit that allowed Horn to connect the Page R sequencer to the Linn. It's something he also did on the Yes album 90125.
The record company's ad campaign for this song started with a quarter-page ad in the British music press featuring an image of backup singer/dancer Paul Rutherford in a sailor cap, accompanied by the phrase "ALL THE NICE BOYS LOVE SEA MEN" and declaring "Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming ... making Duran Duran lick the s--t off their shoes."
It described the 7" and 12" vinyl singles of "Relax" as "Nineteen inches that must be taken always."
The band's first-ever studio venture resulted in a 1982 demo of "Relax" and "Two Tribes" for Arista Records, but the company chose not to go further with the band. "Relax" was also rejected by Phonogram Records, leaving them free to sign with Trevor Horn's ZTT.
Fellow New Wave artist Gary Numan
once said of the song: "When I heard this it plunged me into a pit of despair. The production was so good, the sounds so classy that it seemed to move the entire recording business up a gear - we were all left floundering, trying to catch up."
"Relax" was the only song on the album that was mastered on analog tape. The rest was mastered on a Sony F1 digital tape machine.
Holly Johnson once shared that Top Of The Pops
presenter Paul Gambaccini "was amazed the record was being played." He said no one had gotton away with such obvious sexual innuendo since Lou Reed's 'Walk On The Wild Side
BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read once explained, "I didn't ban 'Relax.' I didn't have the power to ban it because I'm just an individual. What happened was that my producer went home one day to find his two young children messing around with the video recorder, rewinding and watching over and over again a clip from the 'Relax' video in which two men simulate buggery [a British term for anal sex]. And, not surprisingly, he was very upset."
This was used in the film Body Double, a 1984 suspense movie in which Holly Johnson, while lip-synching to the song, leads a man into a sex bar. The man eventually performs a sex scene as the song plays. This scene of the film virtually serves as a music video within the film. Backup singer/dancer Paul Rutherford also appears as a patron at the bar.
"Relax" was also featured in the 1984 Miami Vice episode "Little Prince," and in the 2001 Ben Stiller movie Zoolander.
In 1999, a man named R.D. Turner copyrighted the name Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the US and formed a band called The New Frankie Goes To Hollywood, which began playing shows in the US and abroad. Turner falsely claimed to be Davey Johnson, a brother of lead singer Holly Johnson. The band also sold new versions of the band's signature "Frankie Say" shirts for $20 each online.