Of all my teenage years, 1984 stands out in my mind as the most memorable. It was in this year that a great deal about me changed. It was the most formative of my formative years. In those 12 months, I made a raft of new friendships, many of which last to this day, I discovered girls ‘properly’, became politically aware and discovered a great many things about myself as an individual.
It began with me starting my third high school in two years, the result of my parents divorcing and my mother remarrying. I know my mother regrets this sequence of events and how it might have affected her offspring but I think we turned out ok. And that constant change, whilst not something I would wish to put my kids through, can have a positive, mind-broadening effect. I am in no doubt that it caused me to mature mentally far quicker than many of my peers.
In January of ’84, I started at the new high school. Within the first few months, I had established a good set of friends, many of them girls, goaded the school hard nut and duly received a battering, after which we became friends because he liked how I was into music and liked the stuff he liked, and discovered that Drama, English and Music were my favourite lessons, bar none. All three of these subjects have served me in good stead since.
From a musical perspective, the landscape was rich, varied, prosperous and buzzing. The crest of the new wave… er… wave, had crashed down and the resulting surge saw music and technology forging new and lasting roads, picking us young kids up in its wake and dragging us along for the ride. Not only were musical boundaries being pushed, but sexual and political ones too, none more so than by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Their début single, having been released in the final months of the previous year, had now been ‘banned’ and the resultant furore had only served to fuel its popularity and notoriety rather than quell it. For us thirteen year olds, it was unavoidably attractive. There were those of us who ‘got it’, those of us that pretended to ‘get it’ and those of us who had no idea. But it was banned. The cover had semi naked people on it and referenced unhygienic sexual fetishes. It was like a giant pot of honey, and we were bees, powerless to resist its attraction. Frankie became the ultimate cool band. I don’t personally remember anyone mentioning, let alone caring about whether some of the band were gay. It made no difference to us. I’m quite proud to say we were quite an open-minded group of kids. The girls loved them, the boys wanted to be them, and we all revelled in the overt naughtiness promoted in the music, the artwork, the marketing and the press. Kids love to love something that the grown ups don’t. Frankie were our forbidden pleasure.
And as Relax started to wane, sliding back down the charts, we awaited the next chapter. What would it be?
To say that the next single was nothing short of a master-stroke is an understatement. And it is this song that, to this day, perfectly encapsulates me in 1984. No other song holds so much meaning, so many memories nor evokes such a raft of emotions. Let me try and explain why.
We Got The Funk, Yeah…
First and foremost, the thing about Two Tribes, the thing that transcends all else and still has immense power today, is the sheer groove of the song. Forget the technicalities, the socio-political message and the associated mixes and marketing as we’ll come to those later. As a piece of classic dance music, Two Tribes is rarely bettered. Building up the BPM on its predecessor, it features a thumping kick drum, a funky bass riff and a percussion shuffle to absolutely die for. And that percussion shuffle, to this day, still mesmerises me. It’s a blatantly simple combination of a four to the floor kick, a cabasa on the 16th’s, accented on the 3, 7, 11 and 15th beats, that accenting highlighted by an identical hi-hat line and a cowbell on the same off beats as the cabasa accents. Some simple congas add some other interest and the claps are frenetic on and off beat events with varying levels of velocity. The off beat thing is pretty common in dance music, typically being performed by an open hi-hat. It’s the “tish” in “Boom Tish”, if you will. But this subtle, yet relentless, percussion line is what everything else in the track hangs off. It’s pretty much the only constant and gives the whole track that danceable feel. And if you listen to a lot of Trevor Horn productions of the era, you will hear the same or similar percussion part used. It’s a killer. The snare is bullet-like, punching through the entire mix, and all of this is smattered with rolling tom fills and big, crashing cymbals.
Then, of course, there is the bass line. It’s difficult not to use weapons-based metaphors with this song but the machine-gun-like bass is the funk part of the whole song, played in contrast to the more classical elements; a blend of American and Russian musical influences, as Holly Johnson would later imply. I remember watching Mark O’Toole playing this bass line (or at least miming it) on Top of the Pops and thinking it was a superb piece of playing, and I’m sure Mark could belt that out no problem, but over the years, I’ve discovered that this part was a combination of possibly six different performances, some of them human, some of them computer driven. Steve Howe, legendary guitarist of prog legends Yes, recalls how Trevor Horn asked him to have a go at playing it and Andy Richards tells of how he spent ages programming it on to a Fairlight, a PPG Waveterm A, a Synclavier and a Roland Micro Composer. If you listen to enough of the various mixes of the song, you can hear that the sound and timbre of the bass line changes during the song, flitting between a clearly electronic version to a more natural sounding version that clearly has a human feel and sound to it. I think it is safe to say that we’ll never actually know which part is which but it is testament to the production and mixing skills of Trevor Horn and his team that they used different elements for different effects.
Two Tribes, by its very title, is a song of contrast and so it is with the massive orchestral parts, scored by Anne Dudley, that fight against the funk in such a spectacular way. In typical Horn fashion, the production gives so much space for all of these elements to play around in that it just sounds natural to have this melee of technology and old school musical styles in the same melting pot. And of course, you can’t ignore the guitar that gives the whole track its rock element.
Listen to the voice…
After the first few plays of any given day, I would stop shuffling around my bedroom, pretending to be Mark O’Toole with a tennis racket strapped around my neck by trouser braces, and actually start to listen to the song, deconstructing it and trying to work out how it all worked and what all the parts were. Mentally, I could probably break down every mix of Two Tribes and tell you what was going on in each section. By 1984, I had become obsessed with making music with technology and knew that the Fairlight CMI was at the heart of most of the stuff I liked, including Frankie, although Trevor soon migrated to a Synclavier for most of the work he did. Knowing that a lot of what I was hearing was made on a computer based system was all the convincing I needed that this was the way forward and the way all music would be made in the future. But there was more to this production than just programming and it was also this track that convinced me that Trevor Horn was nothing short of a genius producer, capable of crafting so much space in a recording that there was a place for everything and everything was in its place.
Go to war…
Another important reason that this song stuck with me and so many of my peers was its capturing of the Zeitgeist. By 1984, the Cold War was at its height, with TV, radio and the press full of posturing on both sides of the east/west divide. The intricacies of the stand off weren’t that apparent to us kids, but the consequences were. Impending nuclear doom was increasingly spoken of. CND were protesting routinely, noble ladies were chaining themselves to military bases at Greenham Common in protest of the delivery of cruise missiles and every form of expressive art was depicting the bleak outlook and aftermath of World War Three. There were books like Raymond Briggs’ ‘When The Wind Blows‘ and Robert Swindells’ ‘Brother In The Land‘, films such as ‘The Day After‘ and ‘Threads‘, video games like ‘Raid Over Moscow‘ and songs like Two Tribes.
This only served to fuel the paranoia of a teenage boy for whom nuclear war held a morbid fascination. The absolute terror and totality of such a conflict still fills me with dread, but certainly not as much as it did then, with so much of my life left to live. At that time, I used to live (and still do) close to an RAF base, with a squadron of Phantom F4′s stationed there, not to mention two USAF bases in close proximity. I distinctly remember, one day at school, hearing a siren test from this base, the rise and fall of that wailing horn wafting across the Suffolk countryside and the sense of utter dread it filled me with. We used to speculate as to what we might do should we get a four minute warning, coming up with all sorts of scenarios, varying from the sublime to the ridiculous. and the soundtrack to this paranoia was Two Tribes. The song, the video, the imagery on the sleeves was all based on a nuclear conflict between The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The video showed Reagan and Chernenko look-a-likes slugging it out in a sand-filled pit, the sleeves listed nuclear arsenal figures and philosophical writings on the futility of such a conflict. Frankie themselves dressed in military garb. This was in-your-face, unapologetic protesting of war and conflict that you could also dance to. Holly’s menacing vocal, ranging from snarls and shouts, to softly spoken, tunefully sung pieces, only reinforced the conflict at the heart of the track and its meaning. I wouldn’t go as far to say that no-one has done it better, but I’d be hard pushed to find an example.
All of this was given even further power and gravitas by the snippets of Patrick Allen re-enacting his narration to the British public service film, Protect & Survive, those deep, authoritative tones increasing the menace and inherent fear implied by the song.
Ship it out…
One of the most memorable aspects of Two Tribes were the numerous versions and mixes. Unlike their début single, where ZTT had released three distinctly different versions of the Relax 12″ in identical sleeves with the same catalogue number and little way of knowing what you were getting until you played it, this time they did it properly. There were two 7′ singles, one regular, one picture disc. Then there were the classic 12″ singles. Of these, there were four separate releases with 3 unique mixes, known as Annihilation, Carnage and Hibakusha. The fourth of these was released as a double A side, with the b-side, a remix of Frankie’s cover of Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ being the A side and the Carnage mix of Two Tribes taking the AA slot. Then there was a picture disc 12″ of that War/Carnage AA side. Hibakusha was also very rare, being limited to 5000 copies. Topping this all off was the cassette single with even more mixes, all cleverly blended into 20-odd minutes of mayhem. Far from ripping off fans, each instalment gave them another way of appreciating the song as well as the artwork. Everything was treated as a unique piece of the overall puzzle. They even had a different mix on the album that followed five months later. And to this day, it is estimated that there are at least 40-50 official mixes available and countless fan mixes. Even Blank & Jones contributed to the collection just last month.
For a cash strapped, provincially located teenager, however, it was almost impossible to keep up. In fact, it was only this year that I finally completed the collection of all the original UK releases from 1984. But it was fun, and still is if I’m honest.
And the marketing was typical ZTT. Authored by Paul Morley, fashioned by XL, it was relentless and inventive. All of these things conspired to keep Two Tribes at number one in the UK for 9 straight weeks.
Looking back, it was an exciting time for so many reasons. I was so wrapped up in the whole apocalyptic frenzy that I even wrote and directed a short film for an end of term school show on the subject. I gathered up a group of fellow drama students, went to my drama teacher’s house and shot it one evening using fledgling video technology. My mother was the voice of the radio announcer, uttering the official words of doom, interrupting a party, my friends urged to act as natural as they could and react in a realistic way to emphasise the sheer horror. We cut in scenes of nuclear explosions and images of Japanese children suffering from horrific burns. I may be wrong, but I am pretty certain that Two Tribes was deliberately playing in the background of the ‘party’. It was potent stuff. So much so that many parents complained about its graphic nature and the head teacher was forced to pull it from the two subsequent performances. I was livid as hell but happy that I had made my point so well. I heard, some time after I left school, that the English Dept. were still using it in lessons. I haven’t seen it since the time it was shown at that end of term performance and would dearly love to.
Listening to Two Tribes now, 30 years on, it has lost none of its impact, none of its appeal and none of its magnificence. I still hold it up as a benchmark of quality and aspire to make music that good myself, one day. I will probably request that it plays at my funeral and insist that everyone gets the fuck up and dances their arse off! And I’m not alone. The song is still played to this day. It’s used in films, in TV shows and sports broadcasts. It is as synonymous to conflict and battles as Prince’s ’1999′ is to end of 20th century parties. It is a multi-layered work of genius that epitomises the art of the twelve inch single and the art of the remix.
Most of all, it sound-tracked a pivotal and desperately important year of my life. It is like an old friend and I love it dearly.
Two Tribes was released in the UK on Monday, 4th June 1984, and went straight to number 1 on Sunday, June 10th 1984. It stayed there for nine weeks and saw me through my 14th birthday at the end of July. It won the songwriters, Messers Johnson, Gill and O’Toole, an Ivor Novello award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically that year, and was the longest continuous number one single on the UK chart between the years 1978 and 1991. It sold over 1.5 million copies.
Happy 30th Birthday, Two Tribes.
Courtesy of Kevin Foakes, fellow Frankie & ZTT aficionado, who has curated the artwork for ‘Inside The Pleasuredome’, and runs the magnificent Art of ZTT website, has very kindly donated some recently uncovered images from the Two Tribes campaign and granted permission for them to be given a sneak preview here. My deepest thanks go to Kevin, aka DJ Food, for his continued support and hard work in ensuring this material continues to be seen and appreciated.