At some point in the early 80s when I was a teen, I finally decided to make the switch from AM pop radio to the FM dial. I was bored of waiting 10 to 20 minutes for a song I liked and was bored of the repetitive rotation. So I discovered CFNY 102.1 in Toronto, which at the time had a standing order to play extended mixes instead of singles. This was my first introduction to the world of the 12″ and, more specifically, ZTT Records.
As a (semi) retired record collector, I can state that there are a handful of artists that sparked my interest in making music — both in terms of composition and presentation. Frankie Goes To Hollywood is certainly high on that list. In fact, fellow ZTT act Art Of Noise was the first artist I heard when I finally broke off with AM. And I was already familiar with ‘Relax’ which was a smash hit everywhere by this time, and the mixes of this were being played on my new station of choice.
But in retrospect, ‘Relax’ was not the Frankie track that had the most impact on me. I was 12, and I don’t even recall being aware of what the song was really about, so the gay context was lost on me. I didn’t even notice the homosexual imagery on the inside of the ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ album, which was the first record I ever owned. I remember telling my mom that I wanted that record for Christmas, and when she caught sight of the photos and graphics, and heard the lyrics to some of the songs, she didn’t actually say anything but I’m sure she had questions. To me, ‘Relax’ was just a good danceable song.
Be that as it may, I wanted the record because of ‘Two Tribes’. This was an absolute banger and I was riveted to the radio whenever it came on. I would listen to the station all day for them to play it. I had my tape deck on pause/record in order to capture the broadcast of a new version I hadn’t heard before, and because there were so many, I was not often disappointed. To me, ‘Two Tribes’ is a perfect song — the energy, the production, the subject matter, the overall presentation — it is simply a masterpiece in the history of so-called pop music.
Lately, I have come to re-analyse my devotion to this record and why it has such staying power in by brain, and I think I have figured it out. Certainly it has a lot to do with the production value and the fact that I am generally fascinated by 12″ mixes of all kinds. But in 1984, I was not typically into the heavy or harder tracks. When you strip away the synthesisers and the electro-style dance music narrative, this is essentially a hard rock song. I was not into rock. So what was it that caused me to embrace ‘Two Tribes’ to such an extreme level?
So, it was 1983 and the US was still locked in a cold war with the USSR since 1979. The Soviets had boycotted the Olympic games in 1980 and tensions were high. Military buildup of nuclear weapons was occuring on both sides. War games were happening (even moreso than we were led to believe at the time). The movie ‘The Day After’ came out. I was 12 and didn’t know anything about politics or war. And yet I was continuously being exposed to the idea that I could potentially be wiped from the face of the earth by a nuclear apocalypse at any moment.
I remember at school, there was a presentation about the ‘clock’ — you know, the one that shows how close humanity is to a nuclear holocaust. They actually brought a giant clock into the auditorium; at the time I think it was five or six minutes to midnight. This was absolutely terrifying. I was also being taught about things like M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) and what the effects of a however-many-kiloton nuclear blast would be to people and things. I was 12! And I wasn’t even an American! Why the fuck do I have to know about any of this? Why are you telling kids this shit?
So thus began my journey into the world of panic attacks. I vividly recall many nights completely incapacitated by fear, unable to close my eyes to sleep. I at times fully expected not to wake up because nukes would be fired at New York or D.C. while I slept, which I already knew would have an affect on where I lived. Hell, I had even heard unconfirmed reports that the Canadian city I lived in was already being targeted by the USSR because of its steel industry and ties to the US. Instead of sleeping, I would be up most of the night battling dread and maintaining a state of cat-like readiness in case the end of the world happened.
So, yeah, that was unpleasant.
Now it’s summer 1984 and ‘Two Tribes’ comes out. On the backs of the records, there were unabashedly included graphs and charts showing things like how many nukes the superpowers had and what the devastating effects of nuclear explosions would be on human life and the Earth. I was utterly horrified. I did not buy the record, despite the fact that I liked ‘Relax’. I wanted nothing to do with anything that could make my anxiety worse.
And then I heard the song on the radio.
I remember that it was the 12″ ‘Annihilation’ mix that they played. A fanfare and then “Ladies and gentlemen, Frankie Goes To Hollywood.” The remix is very electro, with a driving 4-on-the-floor beat, impossible not to be energized by. It was not until a few minutes in that I realized what I was listening to; it became apparent when the spoken words of Patrick Allen came through, warning about impending nuclear destruction, saying things like “Put the bodies outside,” and “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear.” By this point I was invested and had to hear the rest. And when it was over, it was difficult to argue the fact that loved the record, because it just seemed perfectly executed. But I was certainly conflicted about the experience of listening to it.
I did buy the single, several iterations of it in fact. The more I listened, the more I wanted more. I waited for other mixes to appear on the radio, and it was a special moment when I heard the ‘Carnage’ mix for the first time.
And then there was the music video. Another perfectly executed piece which captured and characaturized all the ridiculousness of the cold war. Reagan and Chernenko beat the snot out of each other while their followers cheer and eventually battle amongst themselves to a degree that even causes the two world leaders to pause. Holly and the lads look on and document the melee, witnessing but ultimately not a part of it. Then the world blows up. The ‘Video Destructo‘ long form clip ultimately solidified my love for this song — a piece of altnerative media warping and shaping clips of Nixon and other world leaders to tell the story of a world gone mad.
So why did all of this cause me to turn the tide on accepting the song as one of my most beloved?
When you are in the grips of panic, fear and anxiety, there is nothing more essential for getting through it than understanding that you are not alone. As uneducated and unworldly as I was in the context of world affairs (and having zero control over any of it), I was feeling very much alone in 1984. I was an awkward kid and didn’t have many outlets or people to talk to; I lived in my head most of the time, and it was not always a pleasant place. So this record, recorded by five blokes a world away, with its blatant attempt to rush headlong into the topic, apparently saying all the things I was thinking, was a way through for me. Also, it was my introduction to the idea that music could be political and that it had the power to take control of the fact that you had no control, simply by getting it out there. This record, and others like it, stayed with me when it came time for me to write my own music. And while I never wrote anything as overtly political as ‘Two Tribes’, I certainly have used my conceptions and perceptions of my feelings on world events to drive me in the composition process. Because music is a language and a tool for communicating what you feel. It doesn’t always have to be bubble-gum pop accessible.
Now, in 2021, I still listen to the song often, sometimes I will queue up several mixes in a row and binge them. I am fascinated whenever a new version is released from the ZTT archives. To me, it is a reminder in 1984 and how my 12-year-old self didn’t expect to survive the year, and yet here I am, so maybe there is still hope. The world has become more divisive than I have ever seen it, and so maybe there is no greater time to remember this idea, that things can be better as long as we can call out the bad things, the scary things and the stupid things and stick together to make real change.