Relax. Despite all the bravado and bombast, Frankie Goes to Hollywood is not going to save the world, at least not with its debut album, "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" (Island 7 90232-1-H). The expertly hyped five-man unnatural act from Liverpool are not the new Beatles -- they're not even the new Gerry and the Pacemakers. In fact, on the evidence of this lavishly packaged but gassy double-disk, the group may well sink without a ripple in America, where pop fads aren't as universally absorbed or as earthshakingly important as in England.
"Pleasuredome" is a fitfully entertaining record that seems to be striving for the diverse adventurousness of a "Sergeant Pepper." Producer Trevor Horn gives the band a spacious, overstimulated sound, decked out with lots of Beatle-esque giggling and goofing between tracks. But sound effects aside, there is scarcely enough substantial music here to fill one record, let alone four sides.
The Frankies seem to have spent their time sloganeering rather than songwriting, resting on their singles' reputation and relying on Horn to make something out of nothing. The result brings up the question -- where does Frankie stop and Horn begin?
Where most producers have been content with "realistic" reproduction, Horn and his brethren, most notably New York mastermixer Arthur Baker, begin with the raw material provided by the artist, then tear it apart and reconstruct it from the ground up, adding instruments and radically rethinking the original recording.
Horn has been given limited raw material to work with here. The group seems little more than a disco bar band, the songs are still in the idea stage, and lead singers Holly Johnston and Paul Rutherford are not much to listen to -- there's little Horn can do to flatter their strangulated yelping and flat crooning.
"Pleasuredome" opens with a sidelong synth/symphonic suite, a movieless sound track that strives for fantasy but sends off 15 minutes of flatulence. It's full of ear-catching sounds -- an aria, jungle noises, birdcalls, synthesized voices, chants, snatches of backwards records, disco divas -- intended as a grand gesture, but based on a fragment of a song.
The album's concept seems to be the dazzling illusions of fast-food sex and success, but the theme is poorly served by the banal slogans dished up as lyrics: "The world is my oyster," "Shooting stars never stop, even when they reach the top."
Horn has whipped up yet another remix of the twin anthems "Relax" and "Two Tribes," bridged by a cover of Whitfield/Strong's antiwar "War," and nothing on the four sides can touch this triad. Both hits are perfectly polished pop gems built on the surging, glistening disco pulse of high-energy/gay disco, ornamented with Horn's blobs of sound, starbursts and tremulous screams. But the only thing really extraordinary about these songs is the attention and uproar surrounding them.
The lyrics to "Relax," ostensibly the reason for the much-publicized BBC ban, are inconsequential, and actually rather tame when read. All they're saying is relax -- sex is no big deal, and who wants to die in a nuclear war? The subversion is in the sound -- a series of climactic moments built up of panting breaths, yelps and moist electronic noises.
Side three features attention-getting cover versions of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and Dionne Warwick's "Do You Know the Way To San Jose" that don't work musically but are interesting stabs. Despite the clumsy rhythm and Johnson's whiny vocal, "Born to Run" still seems a tribute rather than a sendup, an attempt to translate the pent-up energy of the song from New Jersey to the parallel hell of unemployed British youth. "San Jose," sung in deadpan Steve Lawrence drag by Rutherford, comes across as camp at first, but on later listens comments on disillusionment with illusions.
A Pink Floyd track wanders in from the ozone to end side three, with a ludicrous panting porno sound track dubbed over loopy electric guitar. In fact, Frankie is well suited to be the Pink Floyd of the '80s -- instead of providing a sound track for sex and drugs, they make Muzak for sex and drugs and No Nukes. And on side four, Frankie gets frank, offering a smirky, innuendoish paean to backroom sex in "Krisco Kisses" and a limp ballad on "The Power of Love."
It's all very lush and ornate, but this self-indulgent "Pleasuredome" is disappointingly hollow.