Bruce Springsteen was 24 when he wrote “Born to Run,” a bombastic, ambitious and successful endeavor to craft the rock-song equivalent of the Great American Novel. It’s all at once a love letter to a girl and a paean to the automobile as a symbol of untrammeled liberation, and it packs a rock opera’s worth of narrative and tension-and-release into four and a half delirious minutes. The indelible saxophone solo that bisects the tune alone is encoded into rock ’n’ roll’s DNA. I’m not particularly even a fan of it, but credit where it’s due: “Born to Run” could well be THE quintessential pop song of the American mythos.
So what did it mean when a British band with openly gay members who celebrated debauchery covered it at the height of the Reagan era?
Frankie Goes to Hollywood were a massive, massive, out-of-left-field success in early ‘80s England. Their first three singles all reached #1, an accomplishment not even the Beatles matched (Gerry and the Pacemakers were the sole precedent for that feat). Their debut album was a 2XLP called Welcome to the Pleasuredome, an ambitious, charming, and often glorious album that cemented their status in the UK, where it went to #1 on the basis of over a million pre-release advance orders. But in the US, though the singles “Relax” and “Two Tribes” did very, very well, Frankie read as an overhyped fluke. Reagan-era America wasn’t going to go all in for a band whose video was banned for a simulated gay orgy, and the revelation that, due to the fussiness of producer Trevor Horn, much of the album had been recorded not by the actual band, but by members of Art of Noise and Ian Dury’s Blockheads acting as studio musicians, harmed their credibility (a silly matter—if only rockist “purists” had any idea how many of their favorite albums were recorded in part by guns-for-hire studio musicians…). Their Saturday Night Live appearance was supposed to blow them up in the States, but their choice to perform the anti-war anthem “Two Tribes” and Springsteen’s “Born to Run” came off to the normals less as audacity than as sacrilege.
Frankie Says ‘More after the jump…’