The story of Two Tribes

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“Just think of it. War breaks out and nobody turns up”

It took the music world a little by surprise and when it was all at its peak, you were imagining that there’d been nothing so euphoric or hysterical since The Beatles. For the best part of 1984, Frankie were everywhere you were or went, on vinyl, on the radio, on posters, on t-shirts and most of all, in your head.

I had a few of the t-shirts (bought from Our Price) and the three 12″ singles, Annihilation, Carnage and Hibakusha.

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Having already courted controversy with their single ‘Relax,’ Frankie Goes To Hollywood sealed their place in history by writing and redording this eloquent summary of the political landscape at the beginning of the ’80s. The Cold War was back in the headlines; American nuclear missiles sat on English soil in Greenham Common and old emnities between East and West had resurfaced.

Two Tribes appeared in the form of six mixes, including “Annihilation”, “Carnage”, “Hibakusha”, “Cowboys and Indians”, “We Don’t Want to Die” and “For The Victims Of Ravishment”.

Recorded by ’80s producer, Trevor Horn, the song was very much of its time, which may explain why so few artists have covered it. However in terms of the song’s ability to capture the paranoia and futility of the last days of the Cold War, it remains peerless.

The first 12-inch mix (“Annihilation”) started with an air-raid siren, and included advice from Allen about how to tag and dispose of family members should they die in the fallout shelter (taken from the public information film Casualties). This version appeared on CD editions of the album. “Annihilation” was the basis for the “Hibakusha” mix, which was originally released in a limited edition, and appears on the Japanese-only 1985 album Bang!.

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“For The Victims Of Ravishment” appeared on the LP and cassette editions of the album Welcome To The Pleasuredome. It is the shortest version, at 3:27 minutes. This mix derived from the “Carnage” mix, which prominently featured strings as well as vocal samples from Allen and the group’s B-side interview.

With membership of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) at its all-time highest, popular opinion amongst the young was very much against old imperialist thinking. Recognising this, Frankie released ‘Two Tribes’ with its introduction taken directly from the UK Government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ public service broadcast: meant to be shown in the event of imminent nuclear attack. And if that wasn’t provocative enough, the song came accompanied by a video (directed by ex-10CC stars, Godley & Creme) which showed lookalikes of US president Ronald Reagan and USSR president Konstantin Chernenko duking it out in a bare-knuckle arena.

“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.

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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.

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.

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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.

The band’s stay was a short one but Two Tribes has been around now for 35 years and remains an iconic pop song and like nothing we will never hear again.

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