Frankie Goes To Liverpool
Frankie Goes To Hollywood
The superbly produced music of Frankie Goes To Hollywood embodies the whole spirit and character of modern hi-tech recording methods. With the release of their long-awaited second album 'Liverpool', it seemed an opportune moment for Paul Gilby to discover if there is more to the band than Trevor Horn's production techniques.
The new Frankie Goes To Hollywood album, 'Liverpool', marks a more direct approach to recording for the band that emerged from the h|-tech production house of ZTT. Paul Gilby talks to their drummer, Ped (Peter Gill), and discovers there is more to Frankie than mere production technique...
In a city like Liverpool, so rife with musicians and bands, you would have thought that somebody would have made reference to the place in an album title before. Not so it seems. That honour goes to Frankie Goes To Hollywood who have adopted the city name for the title of their second album release, the long-awaited follow-up to the hugely successful Welcome To The Pleasure Dome LP. So who came up with the name?
I put this opening question to Ped, the band's drummer, who their press agent reckoned was the best to interview if I wanted to 'talk technical'. However, sitting in the press office unable to dismiss from my mind the infamous Musicians? Naagh - we're just the hammer that knocks the nail in quote that embellished the opening grooves of the Two Tribes 12-inch, and confronted by the man himself, I began to have grave doubts.
Settling into the interview, it soon became apparent that the band's anti-musician stance in the media was originally either manufactured ZTT propaganda or else their views had mellowed of late. Ped, surprisingly, was more clued up than most star-names when it came to discussing details of FGTH recording sessions. Encouraging after all.
But back to the album title. Who was responsible for it?
"We were all sitting around thinking of a title for the new album," Ped explained, "and I think it was Paul Morley at ZTT who came up with the name Liverpool."
Did the title reflect the album's contents I wondered? Did it contain songs written specifically about Liverpool?
"Well not so much Liverpool, they could be about any city that's a bit depressed. The single Rage Hard, for instance, was saying 'Let's get out of this mess, let's push forward'."
Having been removed from the environment that supplied the original impetus for them to make music, were the band finding it difficult now that they were London-based to retain the spirit and energy they had back in Liverpool?
"Well, we were born in Liverpool and I don't think we're going to lose it that quickly. It's only been like two years and we haven't lost it yet," replied Ped in his best scouse accent. "Anyway, I still go home back up to Liverpool every few weeks."
Talking more specifically about the recording aspects of the new album, I was keen to discover whether Ped was happy that the production team at Sarm West Studios - Trevor Horn, Steve Lipson et al - were still managing to convey the energy of the band on record?
"Yes, they do it very well actually. They help us to get over what we are trying to say and they understand what we want. Steve Lipson has produced the new album and Trevor has been executive producer this time."
Has that role change affected the way the band write and record material?
"We've always written the songs the same way, though this time we've been using a little 4-track to get our ideas down first. We usually just sit in a room with the gear and maybe Mark will play a bass line, or I'll come up with a rhythm on a couple of drum machines or something.
I've got a Sequential Drumtraks which is good for writing because you can programme patterns into it very quickly. It's quite variable and you can make up interesting rhythms with different timings. So I use that, and when I have something interesting I play along with it on my acoustic drum kit, filling in bits or playing a back beat.
We don't sit down and write a song by saying, 'Play chords C, D then go into F sharp'. It's really just a jam and then we record what we think is suitable onto our little 4-track. We then give the tape to Holly who's upstairs in his room with his own 4-track. He sticks the tape in and sees if he can come up with a melody. After that, we all listen to the result and see if it's any good before taking it a step further and arranging it a bit more."
Okay, that covers the songwriting side, but what about the recording?
"We've recorded this album in a different way to the last one. This time we were in a studio in Amsterdam - very different from Sarm. Also, on the first album there was more stuff like Synclaviers in the studio than people, we could only just about get in! There was a Synclavier here, a Fairlight there, a PPG... you name it! There wasn't a lot of Synclavier at the start of this album, all there was at first were a couple of drum machines, a Roland JX8P, Juno 106 and an Emulator II."
Having made rough 4-track demos of the songs that the band wanted to record for the new album, the next stage in the selection process was to play them to executive producer Trevor Horn. Ped takes up the story...
"Trevor would go through the songs and say, 'They're good, throw that one away, keep that one etc', until we had the final bunch of songs. We then went into the studio and set a click-track running and played through each of the songs."
After that initial recording, with a basic framework for each song down on multitrack tape, it was left to producer Steve Lipson to decide whether one bit of a song was too long or if the second verse required changing, for example. This whole process continued until each song had an improved structure and then the band would play that version of the song, record it, and keep trimming it down until they got something that was good enough to keep.
"At that point," Ped announced, "we would start to overdub guitars and keyboards, then two weeks later the guitars might get taken off again and a new part recorded! It took about eight weeks to get the backing tracks down because Steve would sometimes go across to England and play the tapes to Trevor, to find out what he thought of the songs, then come back and change the odd bit."
The enthusiasm for using music/studio technology evident from hearing the recorded output of ZTT/Sarm is certainly shared by members of Frankie Goes To Hollywood it seems, as Ped took quite an interest in informing me of the equipment he used for the Liverpool recording sessions.
"I've got an old Roland TR808 drum machine which has a set of trigger outputs and I use these with either a Dynacord Percuter or a Roland DDR30. I usually programme a pattern into the TR808 and use some of the outputs to trigger the Dynacord and the others for the DDR30. Once I've got a nice little groove happening along with the track we've already recorded, I just use an SRC Friendchip synchroniser to lock the two together so that I can add a few electronic drum sounds to the basic three-piece foundation of guitar, bass and drums already recorded. I also use a Roland Octapad and assign the outputs to play samples on the Emulator - oh, we've been using a Linn II drum machine out in Amsterdam as well."
With the recording of the backing tracks for the new album completed at Amsterdam, the band members, production staff and tapes returned en masse to London's Sarm West Studios to add keyboard overdubs and to prepare for mixing.
"We still had quite a bit of recording to do" Ped proclaimed. "There's no keyboard player in the band so we had to come back to add those. The keyboard parts have been played by Peter Vitesse (ex-Jethro Tull, ex-Go West) and Andy Richards."
It wasn't until they got back to London, Ped informed me, that the more advanced machines like the Synclavier started to be used on the recordings.
"I don't know much about how to use the Synclavier at all. I can push the buttons and get it to work as a drum machine, but that's about it!
It was used on various sections - on a track called Watching The Wildlife it was partly used for the rhythm. We used it to play some drum parts where it sounded better and left my good parts where I sounded better. It was a mixture of both really. It wasn't used on whole tracks like on the Grace Jones album.
Our first album was heavily Synclavier, really technical, and some of those tracks you can spot a mile off! This time we've gone for more of a 'band' sound and tried to retain the feel.
There's still bits of Synclavier and Fairlight on the album, but only for little sequences or chords here and there."
Even though the technology involved on this Frankie album has been played down somewhat, recording in this fashion must surely be a very different experience for the band. Could Ped remember what it was like making demo tapes back in the early days of the band?
"Yeah. The way we used to record when we first got together was to go into a studio and someone would shout 'Go!' and we would just play. Nasher would play his guitar and Holly would sing just as if we were playing live. We used to record wherever we could for the cheapest price. We'd all chip in with a bit of money and do what we could in the time.
When the recording was finished we would send cassettes off to record companies, like every other band in Liverpool, and wait for the replies.
We used to do all the recording live with just the odd overdub - it was a really heavy production number for us if we ever did an overdub!! "
Ped's recollection of playing live prompted me to ask what his equipment set-up was on the Frankie tour, and how they managed to translate the heavily studio-oriented songs to a stage environment...
"My main acoustic kit is a Sonor. For the tour I didn't use any electronic stuff. The PPG keyboard played many of the sequences and I had to use a pair of headphones on stage so that I could hear the timing. We wanted to play the long version of Welcome To The Pleasure Dome, but on the album it has all these overlapping sequences and there was no way we could play that live, so we had to use a backing tape for that track."
So you kept your live playing fairly simple?
"Well the last album wasn't hard to play in terms of weird time signatures or chords, it's just simple stuff but very well produced."
As Ped seemed to be giving such frank and honest answers (not many people would own up to using backing tapes live!) I decided to broach the subject of musical influences. Who, I enquired, had been his biggest influence back in Liverpool before Frankie really took off?
"When I started playing the drums at 15 my hero was John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. I just think he was the best. Not because he was very technical, 'cos he wasn't, there was just something about his drumming style that was really solid. I was well into records by Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and all the stuff from that time. I was a bit of a little rocker, you know!
When I used to go and see live stage shows I would think, 'Wow, these are Gods,' with all the lights and sound. They're not really, I know that now, but it looked very impressive and I always wanted to be like that as well."
Success, they say, has a way of changing people, so I asked Ped whether the band's unbridled success and his close exposure to the high standards of production that Trevor Horn sets have changed his attitude to the music he listens to?
"Yes, I'll listen to anything now! Before I had the blinkers on, but now it's different, though I still don't go out and buy anything. I'll give things a good listen on the radio or while I'm at a club. It's certainly changed my views on production as well. I now like to listen to really well produced records. I listen to records and say things like 'That's an edit there,' or 'That's a bit of backwards guitar'."
So exposure to the recording process at close quarters has had an effect on him. But has it made listening to music more enjoyable I wondered?
"Well I think it makes it more interesting. If you sit down and listen on a good stereo - cos it's no good listening on a little trannie radio - and you listen to something like the Grace Jones album, it's brilliant! Unfortunately, some of the production you hear today has gone totally over the top and back up its own arse! It's getting bigger than the actual songs. You now hear the shittiest songs covered with all the Fairlight 'brass stabs' and 'orch stabs' - everything you can possibly imagine from the last three years of record making is on it! It may sound 'smooth' and great on your stereo, but the song's still basically a load of shit.
That's precisely what we have been trying to avoid on the new album. The problem for us is that what Trevor was doing originally, everybody else is now copying, as more people have got access to Synclaviers and Fairlights. But you have always got to have a good song."
True. And Ped is in no doubt that the eight songs on the new Frankie album, Liverpool, are good. Take a listen and judge for yourselves.
It's hard to believe it, but Frankie Goes To Hollywood, commercially speaking, have only been with us for just over two years. But that is plenty of time to view the music business from the inside. So what were Ped's own thoughts about the industry now that he was an established part of it?
"When you're a teenager you think it's a big, heavy glamour thing, where everything is really nice and happy. It certainly looks that way from places like Liverpool. You always think of it as the bright lights, Top Of The Pops etc.... I'm not saying it's all good, there are bad bits and some tricky times. One slip and you're gone. A duff album and you could be totally out of it, back looking at the other bands on the telly instead of being one of them. That's where you rely on a good support team."
With the heavyweight Horn/Lipson production team behind them, and the skilful marketing of ZTT Records, the band could hardly want for better support. Even so, when their first single Relax was suddenly banned by the BBC there must have been a few doubts! How did they react?
"We thought, 'Oh shit!'. It had got to number five before it was banned and we were all sick. Then the next week it went to number one and everyone thought, 'Bloody hell, what's going on here?'. Then we realised that people were buying it because it was banned. It was really funny because on Top Of The Pops they would come to the chart rundown at the end of the programme and say, 'And at number one it's Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood', and then say goodbye without playing it...
Nobody would play Relax and yet it stayed at number one for five weeks! Then Two Tribes went to number one for nine weeks. It was great. We all used to go down to the BBC studio and do TOTP, but after a while it became a chore and so they would show some of the previous weeks' appearances. It got a bit silly though. On one show we all swapped our instruments around and I was playing the guitar, someone else played the drums - it was mad."
Whatever you may think of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's records, they have certainly helped resurge interest in studio production techniques and in the application of technology in music. But they usually manage to back it all up with a good song. As a parting question, I asked Ped what he thought of the music that's coming along from the young bands of today...
"I think some of them are doing the right thing and not listening to what has been done in the last three years and just doing what they want. Others are making a stupid mistake by trying to do what we did two years ago and copying all the sampling and heavy production stuff. The thing is that if they haven't got a good song to start with, it's no good spending loads of money on a demo because the A & R men aren't going to say, 'Did you hear that Fairlight orch stab, and that sampled chord? They must have spent ten grand on making this! ' They'll just see straight through that. They still want to hear a good song."
Interview by Paul Gilby
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