Title: Holly Johnson – Farewell to the pleasure dome
Author: Robin Eggar
It has taken Holly Johnson just 18 months to travel from unemployment in Liverpool to enormous fame and success in the pop world. Along the way in his unconventional life, he has tried it all: from drink to drugs to promiscuity. But, as Frankie Goes To Hollywood goes to Japan for the concert tour that will finally tip them into the millionaire bracket, Holly explains to Robin Eggar why he turned against drugs and how his personal life has settled down…
“We’re living in a world where sex and horror are the new gods,” a leather clad lad with a shaven head shrieked from the stage. Those words summed up the spectacle perfectly. The music was a diabolical cacophony, the show a compelling vision in bad taste.
This Liverpudlian lad had a dancing partner called Paul, a taller moustachioed gent wearing a pair of black leather cowboy chaps. His bottom was stark naked. The lads then proceeded to chain two blonde girls — known for obvious reasons as the Leatherpettes — to a pillar and appear to whip them. And each other!
The singer’s name was Holly Johnson. The band — Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The date and venue — December 1982 in a sleazy Leeds rock ‘n’ roll dive. The audience — sparse.
Times change. Next week the now wildly successful Frankies go to Tokyo to face the final acid test for any super-group: a mass audience in Japan.
The infamous five will return to Britain in October for a brief visit. When they do, Liverpool will have five new millionaires and one of the most remarkable rags-to-riches stories in recent pop history will have been completed.
Since January 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood have smashed most known pop records. Their first
three singles all reached Number One, their fourth made it to Number Two. More surprisingly, the Frankies built up a huge following of young fans and created a unisex symbol in Holly Johnson despite, or perhaps because of, his avowed gayness.
In Europe and Australia the band have collected Number Ones like other people collect Luncheon Vouchers. In America they have sold over a million copies of their LP Welcome To The Pleasure Dome.
But for Holly Johnson the land of the rising yen is the one remaining frontier. “There is a tremendous difference between Europeans and the Japanese,” he says. “Frankie music is a taste that has to be acquired. Japan will be a big test for us.”
Holly Johnson is 25. Nowadays he knows just what he wants and what he doesn’t have already he intends to get.
He has escaped from the poverty trap that is Liverpool and has no intention of returning.
Lunching in a chic London restaurant, he cleans every morsel of vegetarian pie from his plate. Holly has not yet forgotten the days when his plate was often-empty.
He is slightly built, of medium height and nondescript features — hardly sex symbol material. His naturally red hair has been bleached for the grand tour, his homely face is a mass of freckles.
Holly has never disguised the fact that he isn’t interested in girls. His gentle accent mixes Scouse and Kenneth Williams with frequent little “Oohs” and fluttering eyelashes. But, unlike Boy George, he eschews bitchery.
It is hard to imagine Holly in the days before the group’s biggest hit single Relax, when he was living the song’s philosophy to the hilt. Then he would try anything. “Our idea is to seduce everyone into a life of pure pleasure — but not necessarily debauchery,” he said just before Christmas 1983. “I am searching for the ultimate experience. Life for most people is dull and boring.”
Those were the days when Holly scoffed at the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. Not any longer. “AIDS certainly calmed down my excesses,” he shudders. “I saw this dear friend of mine die from it last summer. In six months I saw a really fine, healthy, successful man deteriorate into something that looked like a Belsen victim. It freaked me out totally.
“It made me cry. The last time I cried was when I was about 17.
“Those were the days when I was so scared of mediocrity that I walked around Liverpool with green lips, black eyes and pink hair,” Holly recalls.
“Ten years ago I set loose a monster inside myself. Only now have I regained control of it because only now have I got what I wanted.”
He was born William Johnson on February 2, 1960, in the Wavertree district of Liverpool, a mere brick’s throw from the Penny Lane made famous in a Beatles song. His father Eric is a taxi driver, his mother Pat is a nursing auxiliary. He has two brothers, John and Jim, and a sister Clare.
“Billy was always such a good little lad,” says his mother proudly. “A very tidy little boy and always very clean. He was affectionate too. He loved to sit on my lap for a cuddle. We used to have a great time watching old movies on television.
Holly sees his childhood through different eyes. “Even when I was very young I did odd things like writing poetry instead of playing cowboys and Indians. Then in my teens I went through every image from David Bowie to Judy Garland. Having done it all, I don’t need to do it any more.”
Unsurprisingly, school was a disaster — Holly left with nothing but the burning desire to be different, to be somebody.
“Every teenager has a bad patch,” says Holly. “The reaction at home to my lifestyle wasn’t too hot. My dad used to think he had a walking freak show for a son and he knocked me about a bit. So at 17 I left and got a flat in Toxteth. I was 22 before I started to make friends with my parents again.”
By the time he was 15, Holly was an habitué of local nightclubs. He was given his nickname because he resembled Holly Woodlawn, an outrageous transvestite cabaret performer on the New York Club circuit. And it was at a club that he met Paul Rutherford, now the backing singer for the Frankies.
“It seems now that to be a teenager and gay in Liverpool is the bravest thing I’ve ever done,” says Holly. “But it wasn’t something I had any choice about. I’ve had relationships with girls. And I’ll probably have them again. God knows what I’ll be doing in 20 years’ time…”
Having left home and sorted out what he really wanted to be, Holly pursued his other great love: music.
“I started out in 1976 playing bass guitar in a band. I thought I was great, I performed quite well and wrote fairly good words.”
That band was called, hopefully, Big In Japan. In 1979 the band split and two solo records by Holly flopped, but he still refused to get a steady job.
“I was living on £23.50 a week on the Social. Then in 1979 the DHSS stopped my Social. They wanted to send me off to Birmingham to take part in a rehabilitation course as a cuddly-toy maker or a gardener.”
For nearly a year, Holly gave up music completely. For a while he thought of going to art college. But in 1981 he emerged with a new band, Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The name was taken from a Fifties poster advertising a visit to Los Angeles by Frank Sinatra.
Their first show was explosive and daring. But it was 18 months before the outrageous Frankies could persuade anyone to let them loose in a recording studio. Mark O’Toole on bass, Brian Nash on guitar and drummer Ped Gill were still working in their day jobs when the call came for a performance on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops.
“At the time Relax came out I was exploring the seedier side of life,” explains Holly. “I was a nightclub haunter, I tried anything, anybody. I dabbled with pleasure enhancers. I was a visitor to the edge — a voyeur. But it all got too much for me. I was being shunted from place to place promoting the records, and by this time people were offering us cocaine. Luckily I have always considered cocaine to be the most overrated drug. It keeps people up all night talking rubbish.
“I just thought either I can keep treating the music like a game and burn myself out in a few years or this is my passport to a happy life. The only way was to do it properly not to be too late for appointments, not to let people down, to try to do the work on time. It was time to get my act together.
“What happened? A friend gave me a filing cabinet. A small one with files that said ‘bank’, ‘insurance’, things like that.”
Apart from achieving the success he craved, Holly has also settled down. “Now I have an anchor in my life, a partner who is a bit older than I am and a bit more sensible. I have a shoulder to cry upon.
“I’m not that domestic. I still won’t make the bed or do the washing up! But I go to bed before 1 a.m. and get up early. And there are absolutely no drugs around.”
Although he is very discreet about his relationship with Wolfgang, Holly’s German friend travels everywhere with the Frankies.
All the Frankies have now left their home town — although that is irrelevant in 1985, as virtually the whole year will be spent touring and recording abroad.
“I’m not going into tax exile,” insists Holly, with what looks like a wink. “But I don’t want to pay taxes while Margaret Thatcher is in power.
“I believe in free enterprise, but I’m anti that woman because of what has happened in my city,” he says.
There is still one outstanding ambition for the boy who used to cuddle up with his mum to watch old movies. “I would give it all up to be courted by any of the big film companies or to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. I know that sounds pretentious but people don’t really respect pop songs.
“Relax will be around for 15 to 20 years because it is a good piece of work, but I need to make a greater impact. I’d really like to publish a book of my poems illustrated by my own sketches.”
For the moment, however, Holly Johnson has to content himself with being a travelling minstrel; dashing off postcards to his mum and his few close friends; checking into anonymous hotels under the name of Harvey Wallbanger…
“I may never get another chance to do this,” he says. “It has made me more confident. I used to be shy and unforthcoming and people described me as a putrid wimp!
But what of that distant sleazy night in Leeds?
Holly laughs. “Whatever you may say Frankie Goes To Hollywood are good clean family entertainment. We always have been,” he states.
And he strolls off to Selfridges to buy himself another filing cabinet — a portable one, ideal for those long tours out of reach of the taxman.