21 July 2009

"Oh, how you brought me down ... (down, down)..."

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Frankie by Sister Sledge. Possibly the most twee Number One single of the 1980s, which never quite dived further into all-out novelty status, though it certainly threatened to.

It was Sister Sledge's first original release for more than a year and indeed, we'd never see them again in the UK Top 40 aside from yet more remixes of their Chic-backed disco anthems.

The premise of this song was of a woman accidentally bumping into her childhood flame who was, worryingly, 15 years old when she was just 12. Now, in illiberal USA, that would have been stamped upon very quickly by parents, law enforcement officers and anyone else with a duty to maintain the moral compass and American dream. However, the plot thickens as the song was, supposedly, written with a certain Francis Albert Sinatra in mind. Assuming Sinatra was informed of this, he may have had good reason to threaten the services of his legal people to rubbish and remove any claims that he chased 12 year olds when he was pubescent.

We'd last heard anything fresh from Sister Sledge (don't you think they got it spot on by not calling themselves the Sledge Sisters, or just the Sledges?) a year before, when that brilliant chicka-chicka guitar riff opened up Thinking Of You. But it was obvious from the two remixes that followed that the 70s floorfillers they sung on were still deemed to be their most reliable source of income. That is, until Frankie came along.

What we got, essentially, was four sisters all singing vocals as individuals about one man whom they see for the first time since he broke off their childhood liaison. Love songs are generally better off with one person singing about another or, in the case of a duet, one person singing to another. The song was obviously written with a solo artist in mind, totally in the first person, but nonetheless we ended up with four sisters singing together about their memories of one man. He must have been knackered when he was 15. And imagine the catfights.

Realising this was an unusual and awkward premise, the video was made as a big pisstake of the contradiction between song and artist. The eponymous chap wasn't a bow-tied crooner with mafia connections and long cigarette holder, but a rotund, avuncular-looking postie. Wherever he went - work, lunch, in the travel agents window, at the ball game, in a clothes shop - the sisters followed him, cooing the lyrics his way and offering flashbacks from the same places while he looked bamboozled and tried to escape, allowing us a chortle at the sight of four simpery girls gaily and amusingly chasing one fat bloke about. As was always the case with Sledge songs, one Sledge did the verses and the rest joined in on harmonies and chorus.

Now look. If, when you were 15, you were offering your manly services to four sisters at once (and, presumably, quad sisters at that, given that they claimed to be 12), is it the sort of thing you'd forget about? I know we all do daft things as teenagers as we become aware of the opposite gender, but you don't forget the ones which were most appalling or the most fantastic, just the average encounters in between. Even if you didn't recognise them by face by the time you saw them as proper adults with legal bumps and bits, surely there wouldn't be a great list of quad sisters you'd played tonsil hockey with? "Oooh, now which foursome would *that* be?" And yet daft old "Frankie" kept buggering off, frightened and confused, every time these four women chucked themselves at him. The strange line "I looked into your big eyes and said to myself 'we could-a have twins'" was, on reflection, correctly said to yourself, petal, because saying it aloud to a 15 year old lad when you're only 12 can only cause you further strife...

Eventually, of course, he finally recognises them during the last round of choruses as they sing the song in a bar he frequents, and holds out his arms, cheering, and going on to the stage for a quartet of hugs, beating off a doorman on the way as the Sledges again and again sing the line "do you remember me?". Well, thank Gerald for that... the plot of the video comes to a nice round end, not dissimilar to Frankie's own.

The song itself, written by Denise Rich, entered the UK charts in the first week of June 1985 and, after climbs to 29, 11 and 2, hit the top spot at the end of the same month. It stayed there for four weeks, meaning it was at the helm of our charts on the day of Live Aid. Sister Sledge did Top Of The Pops several times, though on one occasion only three of them turned up because, as Mike Smith explained in his link to camera: "Kathy is about to become a mother."

When all four were on, it allowed them to do a short rock 'n' roll dance routine in pairs during that extremely jaunty, boppy and near-annoying middle eight sequence and sudden key change. However, when Kathy went off sprogging (and how on earth did she manage such a physically demanding routine when she was eight and half months gone?), one of the sisters (I never know which is which, but there was always one much less womanly than the others) had to do an uncomfortable-looking solo quickstep while the other two carried on swaying together. I bet she got the box room and the fish fork when they were kids, too. Poor mare.

It was severely twee, but on the sweet side of twee. The last, post-gap flourish of "Fraaankie!" at the record's climax caught out every single disc jockey when it was initially released. Given that Frankie Goes To Hollywood were dominating the scene and the press at the time (though in actual fact their career as a group was essentially dead by the summer of 1985), Now 5 felt the need to point out in their sleevenotes that Frankie (Side 3, Track 1) was "not about Holly, Paul, Mark, Ped and Nash, but supposedly about Francis Albert Sinatra". Strangely, the Wikipedia page on the song alludes to this too. I doubt anyone for a moment really thought that an American song, by an American group, written by an American woman, would be about a bunch of scallies from Liverpool.

It hasn't dated well, of course, while punchier remixes of their disco standards have managed to maintain the Sledge name. One follow up emerged after Frankie, later in 1985, called Dancing On The Jagged Edge. It only got to Number 50 and I can't say I've ever heard it.


Brian Rowland said...

The most incredible thing for me about Frankie is that Nile Rodgers was still in the producer's chair.

Excellent piece. I guess the FGTH connection cited by all DJs in 1985, while wildly wide of the mark, could have had minor credence, as Relax had been a top ten hit in the US by early 85. So they did mean *something* there, even if it was as a pure novelty.

Also, worth noting that Thinking of You may have been a hit in 1984, but it was an old song. It's on the We Are Family LP (released five years earlier), and I've often wondered why it was belatedly released as a single.

JM said...

Nile Rogers rejected the song out of hand when the girls brought it to him and asked him produce it.

Next day he phoned them up and confessed he'd been singing the melody all night and realised it was a smash waiting to happen.

For all the cynicism, it is one of the greatest pop songs of its era.

Brian Rowland said...

It did quite badly in America. I think it only got to fifty-something over there.