OF COURSE, there were a lot better singles in the pop chart but what can you do? Beige will prevail.
A combination of guilt-tripping peer-pressure and a genuine if naïve and perhaps even misguided desire to make some kind of a difference to the world meant that banal, mindless, oblivious conformity won through in the end.
It wasn’t anything to do with music. It was all about marketing, hype and good, old-fashioned bullshit.
How could we have ever thought that it would be any different? It was a foregone conclusion. Shit floats. Always has, always will. And there are an awful lot of dullards and impressionable kids out there. Thinking about it now, it would have been surprising if the crappy charity protest record didn’t get to the top of the Christmas chart.
Then again, who really gives a fuck about the pop chart at any time of the year, up to and including Christmas? This is not the concern of adults. Teenage girls and people who work in the music industry, I can understand. Anyone else, not so much – and this was just as much the case a quarter of a century ago as it was earlier this week.
Twenty-five years ago to the day, Band Aid’s execrable response to the 1984 Ethiopian famine, Do They Know It’s Christmas? was the Christmas number one – even though everyone knew it should really have been The Power Of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Of course, Frankie were no strangers to marketing and hype, and in fact their PR campaigns were orchestrated by an acknowledged master in the dark arts of hyperbole: former NME scribe and full-time Joy Division obsessive Paul Morley. Morley’s Katherine Hemnett-inspired Frankie Says T-shirts could be seen on every High Street in the land.
Frankie were the first act signed to the label created by Morley, former Buggle and studio wizard Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair. Named after Italian poet and Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s sound poem of the same name, Zang Tuum Tuum aspired to be a “radiant obstacle in the path of the obvious”.
Released in November 1984, The Power Of Love arrived hot on the heels of Frankie’s debut single Relax and the follow-up Two Tribes, two enormous bass-heavy dancefloor monsters which sounded quite unlike anything else around at the time.
For a pop band, I thought Frankie Goes To Hollywood were kind of okay. I bought the 12-inch of Relax – but the idea of them releasing a ballad seemed about as likely as them, well, releasing a Christmas single.
Take this improbable quote from 10-year-old Candy Wallace from Birkenhead, published in kids TV mag Look In around the time The Power Of Love came out:
“I like the group because they sing good songs like Relax and Two Tribes. I think the one who sings is the best, because he has got a good voice. I like the music with its heavy, thudding beat.”
“I wish that Frankie would do a concert tour of Britain, so that I would be able to see them live,” continued the remarkably insightful Candy, implausibly. “People on Merseyside are waiting to see if they become as big as the Beatles were.”
The funny thing is, I actually preferred the achingly sincere power ballad The Power Of Love to the “heavy, thudding beats” of both Relax and Two Tribes. History does not record Candy’s thoughts on the matter.
I didn’t really see much of a contradiction in going to see crusty punk bands like Antisect and Toxic Reasons at the Station in Gateshead one night (I was living in cosmopolitan Darlington at the time) and then the next day buying a seven-inch copy of The Power Of Love – which came in a cute little cardboard envelope with pink hearts and crosses on it.
It was all just music to me. It was either worth listening to or not. I did have a few concerns about buying a record which came out on a subsidiary of a major label, but since the major was Island I managed to ignore these concerns fairly successfully.
At the time, I would have been rocking a cheap black suit, with a white shirt (hanging out the back ostentatiously), and sometimes a green tie, crepes and Sideshow Bob spiderplant hair. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was very, very single at the time.
I may even have bought The Power Of Love to give to Stef, my most recent ex from a good six months previously. Happily, if that was indeed the case, good sense prevailed and I decided to keep it for myself.
If Relax was all about sex, and Two Tribes was about politics, then it seemed only fitting that Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s third single would deal with the remaining dinner party conversational unmentionable – religion. Except The Power Of Love isn’t really about religion, even if it sounds like it is.
The first song to be completely written and performed by the band – Relax had famously been put together with the help of various members of Ian Dury’s Blockheads – The Power Of Love replaces the boom and bombast of the band’s previous singles with gently strummed acoustic guitars and a classy swelling string arrangement by Anne Dudley (later to be an integral part of The Art of Noise).
A simple, tender, understated yet passionate love song clad in the trappings of seasonal schmaltz, The Power Of Love mixes comic book imagery with phrases from the Confessional and an inspiring ‘us against the world’ defiance in the face of bigotry and prejudice.
“This time we go sublime, Lovers entwine, divine, divine,” croons Holly Johnson. “Love is danger, love is pleasure, Love is pure, the only treasure .. Love is the light, scaring darkness away ..”
Remember, a clearly-deranged Thatcher had just literally and metaphorically kicked the shit out of the miners and she was already planning a crusade against Labour-led local councils which somehow managed to defy all rational scientific opinion by ‘persuading’ young people to embrace homosexuality.
Aids was starting to kill a lot of gay men in the US and anti-gay prejudice was widespread on both sides of the Atlantic.
In this kind of climate, the line “my undying, death-defying love for you” wasn’t perhaps quite as glib as it might seem now.
Frankie’s first two singles had gone to number one. The last band who’d managed to hit the top of the chart with their first three singles were fellow Scousers Gerry & the Pacemakers 20 years earlier, so ZTT bought a lot of music press ad space to proclaim the release of Frankie’s third number one single – before it was even available in the shops.
The seven-inch version of The Power Of Love that I bought was just one of a variety of different shapes, sizes, formats and packaging, which were designed to ensnare gullible completist fans and maximise sales in the first week of release.
Combined with a distinctly festive video by Godley & Creme (which had to be re-cut to include more of the group after protests from Christian groups), the marketing did the trick and The Power Of Love, rush-released a week before the Band Aid single, hit the top of the charts at the start of December.
Other songs in the charts that month – a vintage one, in hindsight – included Like A Virgin, Shout by Tears For Fears, Last Christmas by Wham, I Feel For You by Chaka Khan and, um, Nellie The Elephant by the Toy Dolls.
These were the days when singles stayed at the top of the charts for weeks on end, but The Power Of Love lasted just one week before being ousted by Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? which went on to stay at number one for the rest of the month. Not even the mighty Last Christmas could shift it.
This scenario has an eerie familiarity for anyone who has witnessed the ludicrous spectacle of ‘the battle for Xmas number one’ which has taken place in the UK over the last week.
For those of you who missed it, fans of ‘real music’ took a stand against an X-Factor act hitting the number one slot for a fourth consecutive Christmas by buying Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine. They were inspired by an online campaign organised by some couple down south who tried to pull the same stunt last Christmas by telling people to buy a Rick Astley record.
The idea of buying a Rage Against The Machine record as some kind of protest, a way of somehow ‘sticking it to the man’ is clearly ridiculous. Not only are RATM on a major label, they have the exact same parent company as the label that Simon Cowell’s acts are signed to.
If the people protesting against the X-Factor’s perceived Christmas hegemony really wanted to make a statement, they shouldn’t have bought the RATM single. They shouldn’t have bought any music at all.
It just seemed like a truly ridiculous thing to get so worked up about, an oddly British, drearily mundane kind of boil-in-the-bag rebellion, what with all the other stuff going on in the world. I don’t think it means anything and will prove to be a blip, remarkable only because it’s the first song to hit number one based purely on download sales.
The vitriol poured on X-Factor winner Joe McElderry’s head for having the temerity to win a TV talent competition was pretty unpleasant – he seems like a nice, normal, unaffected northern lad to me – but it reflects more on his detractors than McElderry himself.
As it goes, for millionaire ‘socially-conscious’ liberals, Rage Against The Machine actually kind of seem okay. I don’t care for their monochrome, humourless rap-metal or their tedious teenage foot-stamping but I don’t have a problem with many of the ideas they espouse.
The problem is, Killing In The Name is a truly shite tune. It sounds even worse now than when it first came out.
Luckily, thanks to Oxfam in Preston, I am now the proud owner of The Power Of Love once again – although I am also poorer to the tune of £1.99. I think I got the best of the deal. Either way, I know what I’m going to be listening to this Christmas.
And if Candy ever existed in the first place, I think I know what she’ll be listening to this Christmas too.
Joe McElderry. Clearly.