Frankie goes to Bethlehem: how The Power of Love became an unlikely Christmas anthem

<span>Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s single The Power of Love was never a Christmas song, Holly Johnson complained, when a version was used on the John Lewis festive ad in 2012. He wrote it in 1983 while still on the dole, having given up his art school grant and unsure of his future in music – even though the band were on the brink of success. The song was a paean not to another person, he explained, but to love itself – “a force from above”; death-defying, vampire-smiting. His voice still contained that silvery archness (wasn’t the “hooded claw” a reference to Wacky Races?) but the emotional heft was real. Was this really the guy from Relax?

But from day one, Johnson never stood a chance extricating The Power of Love from Christmas. It was Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s third single, and third and final No 1. It had just one week at the top, at the start of December 1984, before Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? knocked it off. After the shock and awe of previous singles Relax and Two Tribes, The Power of Love’s video was a straightforward nativity scene that barely featured the band – “chocolate box”, as Johnson later lamented.

While producer Trevor Horn had turned Relax and Two Tribes into special-effects-laden blockbusters, he did very little to The Power of Love in the studio – just speeded it up (you can hear the original, slower version on Frankie’s John Peel session in 1983) and added a lush string section from Anne Dudley of Art of Noise. He says that at the time – and this really dates things – his main worry was how to get a 12-inch out of a ballad when their previous two singles had done so well in remixes. They made an extended version by including a recorded Christmas message called Holier Than Thou in which five drunken Frankies chant a festive rhyme: “Christmas is here once again / So let’s all have some fun / Don’t forget 10 pints tonight / And don’t forget to come – to the lads’ party of course!”

The single came at the start of Frankie’s unravelling, when the forces controlling the band were pulling in different directions. Two weeks before its release, adverts from their label ZTT billed it as their “third No 1”. This embarrassed its distributor, Island Records, which was growing weary of the concepts dreamed up by Paul Morley, ZTT’s maverick marketing manager. Horn, the band’s label boss as well as producer, had the musicians in a punishing record deal – and the two “ferocious homosexuals” (their words) and three scouse “lads” that made up the band were becoming aware of their unusually mean royalty rates, and a clause that effectively made it impossible to leave ZTT.

Some of Morley’s plans stuck. “I’d always had a little pattern that I’d wanted to pursue,” he says now. “The first three singles would be: sex, then war, then religion.” Morley put out The Power of Love with Titian’s Assumption of The Virgin on the cover. Everyone agreed that there was a heavy Catholic power in the song – they just had different ideas about what to do with it.

Film-makers … Lol Creme and Kevin Godley in the early 1980s.
Film-makers … Lol Creme and Kevin Godley in the early 1980s. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

The video for Relax had been set in a gay S&M club: a large man dressed as a Roman emperor ejaculated on Johnson from an upper balcony. In Two Tribes, the presidents of Russia and the US destroyed each other in an amateur wrestling match. Why follow this with a live-action nativity? “There was a feeling that this was going to be coming out in December, let’s make sure the video is spotless for consumption,” Horn says now: they’d had to reshoot Relax three times.

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The men to do it were Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, two former members of 10cc, who had formed the most coveted pop-video directing unit of the early 80s and had worked on Two Tribes. “The Power of Love was like the planets aligning,” Godley says. “It’s coming up to Christmas, the song’s about love, what’s the most appropriate thing we could do? We didn’t set out to take the piss. We wanted it to be as genuine as possible, to hit some emotional marks in the song. I think the film amplifies that in a very appropriate way.”

Creme remembers it slightly differently. “We were told by Trevor and Paul that it could be Christmas No 1,” he says. “We thought, what’s an obvious thing to be watching while people were having their Christmas lunch? The nativity! We hadn’t actually heard the song. It was a nice change from the mad fantasy shit we’d been doing before. We thought, why don’t we try to be Zeffirelli?”

They filmed in the desert outside Jerusalem over one week in autumn 1984. Their “Bethlehem” is an abandoned Palestinian refugee camp: by the time they set up, the breeze-block huts were occupied only by wild dogs. They used local auditions to cast the holy family; several of the shepherds were indeed shepherds. One of the magi, Godley recalls, got the part by claiming to be an expert camel rider: “‘They’re my favourite animal,’ he said. He couldn’t ride one to save his life: we spent hours strapping him in.” Did the locals know of Frankie Goes to Hollywood? “Not a clue,” says Creme.

It was a testing shoot. Climbing a sandhill to get the right aerial shot, the crew encountered an unexploded bomb. There were many scattered around – “a nightmare when the camels wanted to sit down” – and members of the Israeli army, who would often drive by in convoy, had no interest in helping to defuse them. One night, Godley and Creme – “a little wiped out” – accidentally drove through a minefield. When they finished their final shot, they lay down in the desert and drank mint tea as the dawn came up.

Morley tells me the video was shot in Bournemouth, then phones back minutes later to say his memory has played tricks on him: “It only looked like it was shot in Bournemouth, which is the kind of thing I would have said at the time, because I was so disappointed.”

Morley wanted Derek Jarman as director – in fact, he wanted pretty much exactly the same video that Jarman went on to make for Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin in 1987. “I wanted monks and incense, a sense of the gothic – to go that extreme. I wanted the tension between the beauty of the song, and what is spooky about religion: candles, stained glass, dark corners. [But] the result was like wrapping paper.”

Holly Johnson photographed in 1984 for The Power of Love.
Holly Johnson photographed in 1984 for The Power of Love. Photograph: Clare Muller/REX/Shutterstock

Straight as it may be, the video creates a strange reverberation, offsetting the ambiguity in Johnson’s voice and broadening the nature of love from romantic to spiritual. Seeing the magi kneeling before the baby Christ – “flame on / Burn desire / with tongues of fire!” – offers a powerful alternative to pop’s usual, worldly, romantic adoring. Quivering shepherds, facing the archangel, were lit by lights rigged up to generators; very loud noises were used to scare the sheep into running. The angel was filmed in London, and the consequent film layering caused a loss of image quality. “The finished thing looks rather pantomimey, rather than like the great Tintoretto paintings we were aiming for,” says Godley.

Two weeks before the song was released, there was panic at ZTT that the band weren’t in the video. They were hastily superimposed around the edge of the frame with Holly singing upwards in a strange twist of perspective, as in a painted Renaissance ceiling. Godley recalls getting no creative input from the band. “My ego had taken over by then,” admits Morley, “and it was very normal to commission video makers without the band’s involvement. I am sad about that. I always felt it was Holly’s best song. It just seemed to have come from somewhere else. The beauty and the pain of it, and coming off the world at the time, as it was, with Aids … It seemed to be a desperately beautiful song.”

Horn performs a version of The Power of Love with his own band these days. The bit in the original that makes his hair stand on end, to this day, is the way Johnson’s voice soars on the extraordinarily delayed climax. For Johnson, it all still seems painful to talk about. He couldn’t be objective about his non-Christmas song, he said a few years back. In 1988, he took ZTT to court and succeeded in escaping his draconian record contract to pursue a solo career. His own solo version of The Power of Love, released in 1999, remains his favourite. He agreed to talk for this piece, but in the end, he never got in touch.