It's a long way from 1980s cult stardom to life on a small island in the Hauraki Gulf. Phil Taylor talks to former Frankie Goes To Hollywood singer Paul Rutherford about the band, the break-up and how he ended up in New Zealand.
Thirty years ago this month BBC Radio banned the song Relax, for what it judged as homo-erotic lyrics, thereby ensuring the blazing success of both the song and emerging Liverpudlian band Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Relax and the next two singles went to No 1 in the UK charts, making them, along with Gerry and the Pacemakers, the only band to achieve the feat. And then, a few short years later, it was over. Their last gig was before a crowd of 65,000 at Wembley Stadium in 1987, delivered after a backstage punch up. The band members have seen each other only once in the ensuing years and are flung far around the globe. Phil Taylor traced the band's co-singer and chief dancer, Paul Rutherford, to Waiheke Island where during an afternoon of wine and sunshine he told his story of how a little bit of Frankie came to Waiheke.
Fancy you living here on Waiheke Island, in the Waitemata, in Auckland, in the little country in the South Pacific, so far from home...
I don't think I would have made it this far if it hadn't been for Perry [his Kiwi civil union partner, Perry Newton]. We came to New Zealand in 2003 and have lived on Waiheke for eight years. Frankie never played here. We were booked to play the antipodes after a European tour in 1987 but we split up before we played that tour. We went to court over the Australian thing because it took a bit for the promoters to organise. But there was no way we were going to get back together again. We were absolutely over each other by that time. When I say over, we had split into two camps, Holly and the other four of us.
[The smouldering division erupted in fisticuffs between one of the band members and singer Holly Johnson as their intro music played at a concert at Wembley Stadium. It became the bands final gig, in their original line up. "That", says Rutherford, was "our Spinal Tap moment".]
You and lead singer Holly Johnson were great mates?
I'd been a friend of Holly's from before the punk days. I met him about 1976, in gay clubs. This music club called Eric's had started. I used to hang around there with a girl called Jayne Casey who was in a band called Pink Military. She was big in Liverpool and big in Japan. Holly and Jayne used to be in a band called Big In Japan, one of the first punk bands in Liverpool. Jayne was like my best friend. That's how it started. I was in art college. I wanted to do fashion. I worked for Jayne in her secondhand shop. She also used to make clothes. Then Eric's opened. The first time the Sex Pistols played in Liverpool it was at Eric's. We all went. Peter Burns from Dead or Alive was there, Pete Wylie from Wah Heat, Julian Cope from Tear Drop Explodes. All the music business that was in Liverpool was at that gig. It created a beautiful creativity. Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie (Peter Clarke, drummer, Siouxsie and the Banshees, later married Siouxsie) were around.
I got invited to rehearse at The Clink an old prison where lots of bands rehearsed with some guys which became The Spitfire Boys [included Clarke, Wylie and, briefly, Burns]. That's where it started. Opportunity. I always believed I'd have a life in fashion. I was making clothes for people. I was going to college in the morning, the boys would pick me up in the van and we'd disappear up to Leeds and play a gig. Then I'd go to sleep and go to art college in the morning and they'd pick me up again and we'd drive to Glasgow, and this was going on for a while. It was exhausting but I was a kid, 17 or 18. I was drinking lots of beer and it was very exciting. They were signing all the punk bands in England and we ended up with a record deal and made a record, British Refugee [the first Liverpool punk band to release a single]. I was lead signer. There were lots of incarnations of bands after that. Punk had changed and become aggressive. Skinheads and meatheads had got into it. It was time to move on.
Me and Holly got a band together, The English Opium Eaters, a name suggested to us by Mick Jones of The Clash. We played support for them a few times. Life was playing, then going to see another band till four or five in the morning and we'd talk and talk and then get up and go to another town and do it again. Life was like that for quite a few years for everyone I think. It was about the discovery of yourself. You grow with it and you go with it because it's your life; this is what you do. It was the most exciting thing. No one was famous, in fact it was anti all of that. The people that were famous then were people like Iggy Pop and David Bowie, who for us as punks were still making relevant records. They were involved because they would turn up at gigs with The Clash or the Pistols. In a way it felt like you were plugged into their thing, these really big people. It felt like [success] was very possible. The music was suddenly there. I'd be on the guest list of The Clash and The Sex Pistols. But despite the great name, The English Opium Eaters never got beyond rehearsal.
I went to New York to stay with my sister for a while. When I came back, Holly invited me to join his new band called Sons of Egypt, an early incarnation of Frankie. Hambi, a Liverpool Greek guy, asked me to tour Europe with his band Hambi and the Dance as backing vocalist. Hambi played Liverpool and the Frankie boys supported, with me performing with them as well. That was the first gig and everyone loved it. That was the very start of Frankie.
Where did the name come from?
Sons of Egypt didn't fit anymore and when they got the support gig with Hambi, a new name was needed. Where we used to rehearse there was a poster from The New Yorker, a painting by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert (who painted Bowie's Diamond Dogs album cover) of a newspaper featuring Frank Sinatra getting off a plane in Hollywood. Holly said 'just call the band Frankie Goes To Hollywood for now and we'll come up with a better name'. People were saying 'that's such a stupid name, it doesn't make any sense'. And then when we played, everyone was like 'the name's fantastic'. It kind of made sense because we had this S & M mad kind of glamour going. It was kind of tinged with disco and San Francisco and New York and Hollywood obviously; we used to use a lot of Disneyland themes. And it was connected to the rock family tree if you like. For such an odd name it made complete and utter sense. It was kind of divine really.
We were doing tons of gigs around Liverpool. It was quite fantastic. We were dressing up, we were making it exciting for us. We'd done this punk thing, so we had the hangover of that. We wanted it to be a bit more and we had the Hollywood thing so we employed two girls, sisters, who we called The Leather Pets, and we used to chain them up on stage in all the kind of S & M gear, and they were beautiful. We had a girl called Elise Farber who brought real Hollywood glamour. She was from LA and she wore fifties clothes and she had a bleached David Bowie quiff and she'd come on an introduce us and just hang out because we created this little kind of gang. We wanted it to be like 'a happening'.
What are we going to do today? Let's fill the drum with glitter, or we are going to hang fishnets from the wall. Or a theme with guns everyone would have a gun. We'd have drag queens and motorbikes. It was spontaneous and the crowd loved it they'd be wondering what we were going to do next. Suddenly, the music press got hold of it. The NME reviewed a gig and said 'these are the new ones to watch'. Relax was part of the set. We had enough material only for about 45 minutes then.
We made a video in the Hope and Anchor in London and sent it to everybody. It was basically our little stage show. Relax, In Heaven Everything Is Fine is what it was originally called. The Tube liked it but said it was too risque and said if they could come and film their version they'd put it on the TV. Trevor Horn, from Yes, saw it and thought we had something going on. It was just when he was starting his record company, ZTT, and he offered us a deal and well, the rest became history.
We would play two or three clubs a night all over England, just doing Relax and a couple of other songs. We started in October and by the time we got to December we were nearly in the top 20 and if we could push Relax into the top 20 it gets stuck in the Christmas charts for two or three weeks which means it gets on the play lists every BBC radio station would have to play it. There was huge business involved. They knew we had potential but the thing they had to sell was not the music, it was actually us a bunch of lunatics, kids just enjoying themselves. It was part of the punk thing, the anarchic thing. You could be a performer and not have to apologise for your drunkenness or your bad behaviour, your swearing because it was a bit more real. I think it was part of the evolution and not just of music.
You had smash hit after smash hit?
The first three singles [Relax, Two Tribes and The Power of Love] went to number one and the fourth [Welcome to the Pleasuredome] was number 2. Two Tribes and Relax are two of the most lasting tunes. They still define the 80s. [A catalyst was] BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read banning Relax. People thought it was about gay sex because of what we wore. It was about sex for everybody. It was more whatever happens on earth, when you get to heaven it's over. No one got that. All they saw were codpieces and chains. When we got banned our managers thought it was fantastic because every newspaper wanted to talk to us.
Holly and I were the gay ones, the others are happily married with kids. The only time we came up against homophobia was in America where we were asked to tone our act down. We didn't. It wasn't about gay rights, it was about all rights and if they couldn't handle that ... We were being ourselves and we didn't like being told not to be.
It all happened so quickly. When Relax hit No 1, we were still signing up for social security. In fact the girl at the social security office had seen us on The Tube and she said to me, 'do you think you're entitled to this, do you think you should be doing this'. Money did come, but it became very easy to run up bills. I've never had a driver's licence I think the world is safer place for it! but I had a Mercedes, a very nice car. I just never travelled in the driver's seat.
We travelled in a tank too. We hired a tank to drive us on public roads to record-signings. New York wouldn't let us do it. LA did, and Toronto said, 'yes, you can do that'. We'd play tricks. There'd be a thousand people waiting and we'd lock the tank and pretend to refuse to come out. Fun? Absolutely, it was like Five Go Mad. That's why when we split up it was such a shock. What went on in that last year was it was too much too soon really. We were still promoting Relax two years after its release, flying to Japan to do TV for it, and at the same time promoting our third single. We got quite confused. We be up at 6am to get a plane somewhere. I mean, I wouldn't trade it for the world. We'd be doing 10 interviews in a row. Holly and me were the talkers, the boys just used to take the piss out of everything. You might as well just send them to the bar.
Tell me about you and Holly?
We were big friends, really big friends. We used to live together, along with the bass player for the Spitfire Boys. [Rutherford was that band's singer prior to the formation of Frankie]. Three of us in this mad one-room old Georgian house with a couple of Rastafarians on the other floor.
The Frankie guys were all from big families. It was huge ... wild drinking scouses back stage. No we didn't drink water. One night after the first song, I bowed down. I thought the gig was all over. It got to the point where before the encore we'd come off, have a nose up and come back on. You learn to come through that. It becomes your life, your real life and [Frankie's] was very short. Our crew was a heavy metal crew, people who had worked with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, ACDC, hard boys. We'd ask what would those boys be doing? And they'd show us. It was a really fantastic way to see the world.
What drew you to Holly?
The first time I met Holly, he was dressed in a doctors coat and a silver paper mask and he was lying on the bonnet of a car singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. We were kids, 17 or 18. We'd been at some gay club in Liverpool. I'd never met Holly. Black Anne she was a lesbian and like an all-in wrestler; she wore a party gown and her hair bleached-blonde, she was amazing. Anyway, she said 'Oh Holly's coming'. And there he was lying on a car bonnet, in a doctor's coat with a silver mask on, singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. How could you forget something like that! We became best friends and we loved each other me and Holly. We were proper tight, proper tight. Money does different things to people. Fame does different things to people. It made me freer; it made him more insular in a way. I think he had more to protect and I don't feel like protecting things.
Later he contracted HIV. He was on his way out, on the brink. New drugs saved him. My partner Joe died of AIDS, he died in my arms in July of 1991. Sometimes, I suddenly realise I'm living through this bizarre history like of the world. At that time I was over music even though I was working on a record [of dance music]. I couldn't get really behind it because I had to go home to [take care of Joe]. And it takes a lot of money to make an album. It was a mess but what's money? You survive and I have been so damn lucky. I have definitely had more than most. I know that.
You sang and danced in Frankie. What about instruments?
I tried the guitar and the violin but no. It was better I sang and danced. I became a little bit afraid of instruments.
What about fame?
Perry: I didn't know how famous he was. You still see that when we go back to London. He still gets recognised. It doesn't really happen here. People on the island know who he is now. They'd already become friends with him before those stories got out. A lot of people still pull out their old [Frankie] vinyls and get him to sign them. At home we have the gold records on the wall. We have an original Frankie T-shirt. He didn't keep anything but I've managed to find a few things.
Paul: There was so much of it about at the time it just became rubbish.
Perry: You could even get Frankie condoms. If you have one now you can get 50 quid for it!
Paul: But if you use it, you get pregnant and then it costs you a lot more! Waiheke is very sociable. Kiwis are like Australians. You meet them in the pub and then get invited to their BBQs. Liverpool's the same but the weather is not clement enough for BBQs.
Tell me about meeting Perry, when was that?
We met in 1994, well after Frankie had broken up. We've been together 20 years. Perry hadn't visited his parents in Auckland for a long time and I'd never been to New Zealand so, it was like 'why don't we go have a look, go meet the folks?'.
Perry: "We stayed with some friends in Queenstown, they gave us a car and we drove up to Auckland. We fell in love with Queenstown but thought we could only do three years there. We weren't skiers but we loved the area. We were the first queens in Queenstown to have our civil union eight years ago now. I didn't know he was in a band when we met. I was bar manager of a big London club called Heaven when we met. He came to pick me up after work one night and all my staff were just fizzing. They all knew who he was. Later I said to Paul, 'I hear you're in a band. Was it Ultravox?'. Paul said, 'if that's a joke it's a brilliant one; if it isn't, f**k off!'. I liked the look of him. Still do actually."
One Christmas, a friend rented a house on Waiheke. It was pouring with rain and it just looked like Cornwall. I feel in love, I said 'this is where I want to live'. We rent a place here, we've not bought. I still get royalties from Frankie songs. I spend money on different things. I always have. I spend money on living, on things to have fun with. Travel. I've always loved a map. It's not about bricks and mortar too me. I've never been like that, I don't know how to be like that, I don't want to be like that. Some of my best friends have never owned a house and they are the most creative people in the world. Does it make you a better person, does it make your life last longer, does it give you any other problems? The answer is like no, no, yes. You just carry on having a great time, you have your cake and eat it too. You can leave any time.
What is the writing tattooed on Perry's calf muscle?
It's a lyric from a new song of mine.
"And when trees fall down on centuries of leaves
the sap and the oil will blend my friend
and when we're called back down into this mortality
I hope we fall on better times"
It's one of the songs that brings him to tears. It's about, we'll find a place on this journey to settle down me and you and the dog [Lucy]. We were walking along Onetangi one day and I suddenly realised. It was little doggie that made sense of it. The song's not been released yet because we're trying to organise a choir and an orchestra for it.
Describe a typical day now:
Lucy sleeps on the bed, so does Macy, the cat. It's a very busy bed! Perry goes off to work. I make tunes. [He recently put out an Acid House record called Get Real and performed this year at a House music reunion concert in the UK]. I read a lot of books and listen to a lot of music. I walk with Lucy on the beach twice a day. She's my proper baby. She's very bright, she's so quiet. I'm very doggy these days, I'm very doggy about her. I take photos in the early morning and evenings for my mates in England and put them on instagram, @rutherpuff. Rutherpuff that's what they called me at school. [Rutherford told an interviewer that it wasn't a case of him coming out, "I was never in." Growing up gay in 1970s Liverpool could be tough, but he and Johnson would dress up anyway. "We took it on the chin."]
Do you see or hear anything of the other band members?
I still speak to Nasher [Brian Nash, guitar]. I haven't spoken to Holly and Mark [O'Toole, bass] and Peter [Gill, drums] in quite a few years. No, none of them have been down here.
[In 2003 a British programme, Bands Reunited, brought the original members together in London in the hope that they would perform impromptu on the show. Johnson didn't want to perform. He had reservations about the contrived circumstances but also thought it better to leave history as it was. They did perform a year later for a Prince Charles charity concert before 10,000 at Wembley with stand-ins recruited for Nash and Johnson.]
It was a shame Holly wasn't there because it would have just blown it apart. Yes, it would be nice to see Holly again.