Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Liverpool quintet that is as much the British pop rage as another Liverpool quartet was 20 years ago, gave its first American concert in Washington Tuesday night. That's also where the Beatles began their invasion, but it's a little hard to tell how successful this particular Atlantic crossing will be. There's a world of difference between the innocent pop of "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and Frankie's two monster hits, the pro-sex manifesto "Relax" and the antiwar anthem "Two Tribes."
Still, Frankie's brazen celebration of the pleasure principle, at the root of both rock 'n' roll and advertising, has apparently struck a responsive chord. If it sometimes sounds like the dance band on the Titanic, there's no denying that Frankie's accommodation between provocative pop and vanguard technology is visceral and invigorating.
A packed house greeted the band Tuesday night at the Ontario Theatre. The group's sloganeering agit-pop and deca-dance floor esthetic made for an exhilarating show as long as the tempo was fast and fractious. This was particularly evident in the elastic, sensual insistence of "Relax," done once early and then done better as an encore, and Edwin Starr's angry "War." Both were perfect vehicles for the declamatory-style choruses that have invigorated pop from the Four Tops to Adam Ant and have found a new champion in Frankie. The band's currently limited repertoire also included "Welcome to the Pleasure Dome," with the band sounding a wee bit like Steppenwolf filtered through new wave sensibilities. And the cute but unnecessary rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," filler on the album, was also filler in concert.
For the most part, though, Frankie was ecstatic in looking for the perfect beat on songs like "Krisco Kisses" and "Relax." The homoerotic underpinning of much of the band's material seemed irrelevant to most of the standing-room crowd, content to dance the night away even as they turned the concert into a camp meeting.
When things slowed down, as on the turgid ballad "The Power of Love," Frankie slipped down to the level of Rod McKuen and the Moody Blues, but this direction seemed more an anomaly. For the most part, they quieted charges that they are merely untutored puppets of their mentors, superproducer Trevor Horn and rock provocateur/theoretician Paul Morley. The playing was terse and explosive when it needed to be, with lead singer Holly Johnson relying on a surprisingly lyrical half-growl, half-moan.
Like so many of the new British bands, Frankie Goes to Hollywood has yet to prove its legs away from the dance floor, but it's taken the first step by proving it can carry a show from a stage. In doing so, it also closed the distance between merely being a pop phenomenon and playing phenomenal pop.