Written by Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘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. The band got its start in the late 1970s in Liverpool.
Johnson claims that the basic idea of “relax, don’t do it” came to him in winter 1982 when he was late for rehearsals.
The lyrics never seemed ambiguous to me; 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, when Relax was first released, the band said that it was written about “motivation”.
In the USA, any sexual innuendo in this song got little attention, but it caused plenty of controversy in the UK. It entered the UK singles chart at Number 77 and moved up to the 35th spot when Frankie Goes To Hollywood performed it on Top Of The Pops two weeks later. The song jumped to Number Six, but BBC Radio DJ Mike Read announced on air that he refused to air Relax because of the lyrics. He didn’t know it at the time, but the BBC was already planning to ban the single, and did so soon afterward.
This was big news, and nothing sells like being banned. Record stores had trouble keeping it in stock. Some commercial radio stations in the UK put it in top rotation, boasting they were playing “the song that BBC banned”.
Relax went to Number One a week later, becoming the first banned UK Number One since the steamy Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin duet Je T’aime Moi Non Plus in 1969. Relax held the top spot for five weeks and stayed on the charts through the rest of 1983.
The BBC finally gave up and lifted the ban in 1984 so the band could perform it on the Christmas edition of Top Of The Pops. This sent the song back up the charts and it stayed there through 1995.
Originally when questioned, the press was told that the line that sounds like “when you want to suck to it” was really “when you want to sock it to it.” Later, once the song was successful, Johnson confessed the line is, “When you wanna suck it, chew it.”
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 song was produced by the brilliant Trevor Horn, a former member of the bands Yes, The Buggles and Art Of Noise. When it got to Number One in the UK, Owner Of A Lonely Heart by Yes was Number One in the USA. Horn produced that song as well, making him the only producer to score simultaneous Number Ones in the UK and USA with songs by different artists.
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 shit off their shoes.”
Fellow New Wave musician Gary Numan 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.”
The video for the song, directed by Bernard Rose is true to the sexual lyrics of Relax. In it, lead singer Johnson goes to a seedy Ancient Rome themed S&M club. The club features an obese emperor and people in cages and fights that break out for his amusement. But when Johnson wrestles a tiger, the emperor is pleased. So pleased, he strips off his toga.
The video isn’t afraid of what the chorus refers to. Near the end of the video on the final word of the line “When you want to come,” Johnson and Rutherford are covered in champagne streams. Viewers who still thought “come” meant “arrive” finally had clarification.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood were unabashedly gay. Their unflinching and, pardon the pun, frank lyrics were paired to brilliant music. Thier debut album Welcome To The Pleasuredome is a masterpiece. But as good as their album was, it was their music videos that really makes them Gay Icons.
The song is used the Brain DePalma film Body Double (1984) where Johnson lip-synchs to the song as he leads a man into a sex bar. The man eventually performs a sex scene as the song plays. Rutherford appears as a patron at the bar.