In 1984 it reached #1 in the UK Top 75 singles chart. One of the decade’s most controversial and most commercially successful records, “Relax” eventually sold a reported two million copies in the UK alone, easily ranking among the ten biggest-selling singles ever. It remained in the UK Top 40 for 37 consecutive weeks, 35 of which overlapped with a radio airplay ban by the BBC (owing to lyrics perceived as overtly sexual).
In the US “Relax” was released in a different, shorter version and ranked #1 for the year on Los Angeles “alternative rock” station KROQ, as voted for by listeners. In 1985, a release of “Relax” that was far more similar to the UK hit version reached #10 in the Hot100. In January 1989 the single was certified gold by the RIAA.
“Relax” features on the soundtrack of the films Body Double (1984), Zoolander (2001), and T2 Trainspotting (2017), in the game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (2006), in the fictional in-game radio station Wave 103, and on the soundtrack to the 2018 interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Singer Holly Johnson has claimed that the words of the song came to him as he was walking down Princess Avenue in Liverpool: “I mean they were just, you know, words that floated into my head one day when I was walking down Princess Avenue with no bus fare, trying to get to rehearsals – I mean there was no great sort of calculated, ‘Oh I’ll sing these words and this record’ll be banned’.”
ZTT Records signed Frankie Goes to Hollywood after producer-turned-ZTT cofounder Trevor Horn saw the band play on the television show The Tube, on which the group played an early version of “Relax”. Horn described the original version of “Relax” as “More a jingle than a song”, but he preferred to work with songs that were not professionally finished because he could then “fix them up” in his own style. Once the band was signed, ZTT co-founder Paul Morley mapped out the marketing campaign fashioned as a “strategic assault on pop”. Morley opted to tackle the biggest possible themes in the band’s singles (“sex, war, religion”), of which “Relax” would be the first, and emphasized the shock impact of Frankie members Holly Johnson’s and Paul Rutherford‘s open homosexuality in the packaging and music videos.
Horn dominated the recording of “Relax” in his effort for perfectionism. Initial sessions with the group were held at The Manor Studio: the band were overawed and intimidated by Horn’s reputation, and thus were too nervous to make suggestions. Johnson said in his autobiography, “Whatever he said we went along with”. When attempts to record with the full band proved unsatisfactory, Horn hired former Ian Dury backing band the Blockheads for the sessions, with Norman Watt-Roy providing the original bass line. Those sessions were later deemed to be not modern-sounding enough. Horn then constructed a more electronic-based version of the song with keyboards by session musician Andy Richards and with rhythm programming assistance from J. J. Jeczalik of Art of Noise. Horn developed this version of the recording in his west London studio while the band remained in their hometown of Liverpool. Horn had made three versions of “Relax” prior to Richards and guitarist Stephen Lipson joining his ZTT Production ‘Theam’ in late 1983.
Ultimately lead vocalist Johnson was the only band member to perform on the record; the only contribution by the other members was a sample crafted from the sound of the rest of the band jumping into a swimming pool. Johnson later said that “Trevor didn’t like the band’s standard of playing as he couldn’t sync it to his machinery”. Horn explained years later, “I was just… Look, ‘Relax’ had to be a hit.” Despite the band’s absence from the record, Horn said, “I could never have done these records in isolation. There was no actual playing by the band, but the whole feeling came from the band.” In a 2021 interview, Horn said that “the band we signed weren’t quite the band who had appeared on the original demo (of “Relax”), though we didn’t know that at the time”: the demo had featured Mark O’Toole‘s brother Jed on guitar, who subsequently left to pursue a 9-to-5 career and was replaced by Brian Nash, who was a guitar novice at the time the single was recorded, although Horn acknowledged that he developed into a good guitarist by the time Welcome to the Pleasuredome was completed. Horn completed the recording having spent £70,000 in studio time.
Morley intentionally courted scandal with the promotion of “Relax”. ZTT initiated the ad campaign for “Relax” with two quarter-page ads in the British music press. The first ad featured images of Rutherford in a sailor cap and a leather vest, and Johnson with a shaved head and rubber gloves. The images were accompanied by the phrase “ALL THE NICE BOYS LOVE SEA MEN”, a pun on the music hall song “Ship Ahoy! (All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor)“. It declared “Frankie Goes to Hollywood are coming … making Duran Duran lick the shit off their shoes … Nineteen inches that must be taken always.” The second ad promised “theories of bliss, a history of Liverpool from 1963 to 1983, a guide to Amsterdam bars”.
When first released in November 1983, the initial progress of “Relax” on the UK Top 75 was sluggish. First charting at number 67, by its seventh week on the chart it had progressed only to number 35, even falling back slightly during that time. But then on Thursday 5 January 1984, Frankie Goes to Hollywood performed “Relax” on the BBC flagship television chart show, Top of the Pops. The following week it soared to number 6. On 11 January 1984, Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read expressed on air his distaste for both the record’s suggestive sleeve (designed by Anne Yvonne Gilbert) and its lyrics, which centred on the oft-repeated “Relax, don’t do it/When you want to sock it to it/Relax, don’t do it/ When you want to come.” He announced his refusal to play the record, not knowing that the BBC had just decided that the song was not to be played on the BBC anyway. Holly Johnson contends that the lyrics were misheard – rather than “When you want to sock it to it”, the lyric is “When you want to suck, chew it”.
In support of their disc jockey, BBC Radio banned the single from its shows a reported two days later (although certain prominent night-time BBC shows – including those of Kid Jensen and John Peel – continued to play the record, as they saw fit, throughout 1984). The now-banned “Relax” rose to number 2 in the charts by 17 January, and hit the #1 spot on 24 January. By this time, the BBC Radio ban had extended to Top of the Pops as well, which displayed a still picture of the group during its climactic Number One announcement, before airing a performance by a non-Number One artist.
The ban became an embarrassment for the BBC, especially given that UK commercial radio and television stations were still playing the song. Later in 1984 the ban was lifted and “Relax” featured on both the Christmas Day edition of Top of the Pops and Radio 1’s rundown of the best-selling singles of the year.
Throughout the “Relax” controversy, the band continued to publicly deny that the song’s lyrics were sexual. Nevertheless, by 1984, it was clear that the public were aware of the sexual nature of the lyrics, but the scandal had fuelled sales anyway. In 1985, with the release of the Welcome to the Pleasuredome album (which included “Relax”), the band dropped any public pretence about the lyrics:
Everything I say is complete lies. Like, when people ask you what ‘Relax’ was about, when it first came out we used to pretend it was about motivation, and really it was about shagging.— Mark O’Toole, Welcome to the Pleasuredome album liner notes
The first official music video for “Relax”, directed by Bernard Rose and set in an S&M themed gay nightclub, featuring the bandmembers accosted by buff leathermen, a glamorous drag queen, and an obese admirer dressed up as a Roman emperor, played by actor John Dair, was allegedly banned by MTV and the BBC, prompting the recording of a second video, directed by Godley and Creme in early 1984, featuring the group performing with the help of laser beams. However, after the 2nd video was made the song was banned completely by the BBC, meaning that neither video was ever broadcast on any BBC music programmes.
Another MTV video of the studio version includes footage from the Brian De Palma film Body Double. Body Double, a popular 1984 erotic thriller film, contains a film within a film sequence in which Frankie Goes to Hollywood performs Relax on the set of a porn film.