The story behind the song #4: Two Tribes

Let’s go

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score (Score no more, score no more)

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score (Workin’ for the bad guys)

Cowboy number one, a born again poor man’s son (Poor man’s son)

On the air America, I modelled shirts by Van Heusen (Workin’ for the bad guys)

Hear me more

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score (Score no more, score no more)

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score (Workin’ for the bad guys)

Switch off your shield

Switch off and feel

I’m workin’ on lovin’

I’m givin’ you back the good times

I’m shippin’ out, out

I’m workin’ for the bad guys

 

Tell the world that you’re winning, love and life, love and life

Listen to the voice sayin’ follow me

Listen to the voice sayin’ follow me

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score

We’ve got two tribes (We got the bomb, we got the bomb)

Somethin’ this good died

 

Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?

 

When two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score

___

Today, America apologised for being late for World War 1 and World War 2, but promised to be really punctual for the next one.

My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

These jokes from the satirical show Not The Nine O’clock News and President Ronald Reagan capture the atmosphere of the world in the early eighties. The Cold War was in its fourth decade. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the Soviet Union was in its death throes. It was a great tine to be Kremlinologist as Soviet leaders were dropping like flies. In the space of two years they had had three leaders Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. The last one didn’t last long either. He would be replaced by Gorbachev after just over a year in the job. At the same time we saw the rise of two Western leaders who did not want to coexist peacefully with the USSR. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were Cold Warriors. Conflict seemed inevitable. And remember, we were still living in the age of MAD, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction; you destroy us – we will destroy you. Each side had the capability to destroy the planet many times over. How did we ever get up every morning?

The fear of nuclear annihilation was reflected in popular culture. In 1982 When the Wind Blows, a graphic novel, by British artist Raymond Briggs, shows a nuclear attack on Britain by the Soviet Union. The novel’s protagonists, a retired couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, face the aftermath of a nuclear conflict with a WWII mentality. Briggs offers a searing critique of the government’s civil defence plans. In 1993 the film War Games, a young teenager, played by Mathew Broderick, hacks into the Pentagon nuclear defence system thinking he is in a computer game, and almost starts Armageddon. Red Dawn a 1984 movie had World War III start with a surprise Soviet and Cuban invasion of the United States. Fortunately a heroic band of teenagers including Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen were able to fight off the commie invaders. It would have been even easier if Sheen hadn’t drunk all the Molotov Cocktails. Curiously, this masterpiece was remade in 2012. The baddies were going to be the Chinese, but this would have hit receipts at the Chinese box office, so it was the North Koreans who invaded. However, more than films I remember television. ABC’s The Day After (1983) and the BBC’s Threads (1984) spring to mind. The latter in particular, with its vivid depiction of what happened to the city of Sheffield in the aftermath of a nuclear war, was a social phenomenon in the UK. Music also got in on the act with Nena’s 1983 hit 99 Luftballons, in which a young woman accidentally triggers a nuclear holocaust by releasing balloons. This was the cultural zeitgeist at the time five Scousers emerged on the scene.

The group was Frankie Goes to Hollywood (FGTH). Their frontman Holly Johnson (vocals) was accompanied by Paul Rutherford (vocals, keyboards), Peter Gill (drums, percussion), Mark O’Toole (bass guitar), and Brian Nash (guitar). According to Johnson they got their name from a page in The New Yorker magazine, featuring the headline “Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with an accompanying picture of Frank Sinatra.

1984 was their annus mirabilis. Let’s be honest what really set the group apart was not their music, but their brilliant marketing strategy. In Paul Morley, a former music journalist at the NME had founded ZTT (Zang Tumb Tuum) Records along with record producer Trevor Horn, and businesswoman Jill Sinclair. With their use of slogans, T-shirts, and homoerotic videos, FGTH were able to generate enormous controversy in the UK. They were undoubtedly aided and abetted by the BBC, who banned their first single, Relax. The song had been at number six in the charts, but after censorship had worked its magic, it went to number one, where it would stay for five consecutive weeks. I had forgotten the story of how it came to be banned. On 11 January 1984, BBC Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read was playing the record on his show when he noticed the front cover design; he was outraged by the “overtly sexual” nature of both the record sleeve and the printed lyrics. He actually removed the disc from the turntable live on air. This is the type of publicity you just can’t buy. Perhaps Read should have saved his outrage for Jimmy Savile, who he would have been working with at the time:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Although it was on its way down, Relax was still in the charts when FGTH released their new single in May 1984. Two Tribes had first been performed as a John Peel session in 1982. But it would be some two years before it would actually be released. The song’s title derives from the line “when two great warrior tribes go to war“, from the film Mad Max 2. The song featured the distinctive voice of Patrick Allen, the voice of the Protect and Survive public service films, which had been released a couple of years before:

If any member of the family should die whilst in the shelter from contamination, Put them outside, but remember to tag them first for identification purposes.” This was not satire; reflected real government advice. They also used the voice of Chris Barrie as Ronald Reagan:

You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times over, but the goddess of the eternal court of history will smile and tear to tatters the verdict of this court – for she acquits us.” This was an allusion to Adolf Hitler’s concluding speech when he was tried for the Beer Hall Putsch in 1924.

I have stressed the importance of marketing. But we should not forget the brilliant job producer Trevor Horn did in the studio.   There was a standard issue plus a total of five remixes including the first 12-inch mix (“Annihilation”), which started with an air-raid siren and the “Hibakusha” mix a limited edition appearing on the Japanese-only Bang! album in 1985. They used images of the group wearing American and Soviet-style army uniforms. The original cover art featured a Soviet mural of Vladimir Lenin and images of Reagan and Thatcher. And then of course there was that video.

Directed by two ex-members of 10cc Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, the video featured a wrestling match between lookalikes of Reagan and Chernenko Ultimately, the audience – consisting of other world leaders – were brought into the fight, and eventually Earth was seen to explode. Due to some violent scenes – Reagan and Chernenko biting, gouging etc – the unedited video could not be shown on MTV, and it had to be replaced with an edited version.

Two Tribes went straight into the UK charts at Number One and stayed there for nine weeks. This was a considerable success in its own right, but what made it more impressive was the continuing success of Relax. With the release of Two Tribes its sales had begun to increase again, to the extent that FGTH held the top two spots in the UK charts during July 1984, a feat that had not been achieved since the 1960s. The album Welcome to the Pleasuredome was also a number-one hit. However, Frankiemania was over almost as soon as it had begun.  By the time their second album, Liverpool, came out in 1986, the band’s audience had virtually disappeared.

Now the Cold War is a distant memory. We won. I do like to speculate what would have happened if we had rewound the video and played it again. Would the result have been the same? How close did we really get to Armageddon? Anyway, history did not end in 1989. Now we live in a multi-polar world. The threat of nuclear annihilation does not feel as overpowering it did back then, but the world also feels like a less stable place. I will definitely be preparing for the North Koreans. They ain’t gonna take me alive.

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