Title: Holly Johnson relaxed
Author: Richard Smith
Source: Gay Times
Publish date: April 1994
Ten years after Frankie went to Hollywood, Britain’s first out gay megastar, HOLLY JOHNSON, talks to Richard Smith about his Liverpool schooldays as a Bowie-clone, his Aids diagnosis and his new autobiography.
Me and Holly Johnson go back years, you know? Both of us were complete girls stuck in a boys’ grammar school. Different grammar schools in different decades, I’ll grant you, but nevertheless our two stories are intertwined.
For some people it’s the Kennedy assassination. For me it was the ‘Relax’ ban. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. January 11, 1984 was a Wednesday morning. I was 15 and on the bus to school. Me and this boy Andrew were chain-smoking Marlboro, copying each other’s Maths homework and pressing our knees together. On the radio Mike Read, DJ and tennis-playing mate of Cliff Richard, was playing yesterday’s chart. He ground to a halt at number six, and in a voice more indignant than angry said he won’t be playing ‘Relax’ because it was “overtly obscene”. Oh, it was fab. Next week the record leapt to number one.
The ban spread like mould to all BBC radio and television. ‘Relax’ stayed at number one for five weeks. Not since the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ had a record so divided the nation. It wasn’t gay against straight. It was young and sexy and naughty against old and prudish and ‘nice’. And it felt great being 15 and on the winning team.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood thrilled and helped lonely, little me in equal measure. Twenty years ago Holly Johnson was in the same situation himself. “I was desperately searching for some kind of gay identity when I was a teenager — and books and films and pop music were one of the ways I found that. It was like that feeling the very first time you go to a gay club — you realise that there are other people like you. It was all quite a revelation. I felt comfortable for the first time in a sense - not completely but it’s important, you know?”
Indeed I do. You see somewhere between the pain of the Smiths, the politics of Bronski Beat and Frankie’s sheer unadulterated pleasure I found myself. In 1984 neither me nor Frankie knew what was round the corner, that they would be the last gasp. But Frankie were the ones that made the future, my future, look exciting. And I was more than a little distraught when Frankie came, he said, and then he went away again.
The first half of Holly’s autobiography, A Bone in My Flute, is a fabulous record of what it’s like to grow up gay in this country; surrounded by cruel boys and crueller teachers, being dragged by his dad to football matches when he’d rather be ice skating in his brown bri-nylon catsuit, or wanking over the underwear section of his mum’s Freeman’s catalogue. A Bone in My Flute is the ballad of a teenage queen camping it up, carrying on and trying to get away. And it’s about how you grab at anything you think will help you get through.
“I’m a big sissy,” Holly confesses. “I was very young when I realised there was some difference to me. I remember distinctly waving at Territorial Army soldiers at the army barracks across the road, thinking ‘don’t they look fab?’ And me mother dragging me away, thinking ‘what’s he doing waving at them men over there?’ I must have only been three or four years old. And then there was the interest in me sister’s Bunty comics. Wanting to join the sewing circle at school. Going ice skating was very effeminate in a sense, but that’s more about theatre and performance, isn’t it? Dressing up was always a big part of it for me, whether it be cub scout uniforms, a bri-nylon catsuit or a choirboy’s cassock.”
Holly found solace in pop. First came David. Then there was Marc. Then Roxy Music and Lou Reed. They helped him feel able to tell people. “Oh, I’m bisexual, just like my hero David”. Holly wanted to say he was gay, but bisexual meant full-on rock-and-roll balls-out sexy glamour with knobs on. And gay meant Larry Grayson.
“Bowie was a more appealing stereotype to relate to. No one wanted to appear like Larry Grayson or John Inman. We were petrified. That was our worst nightmare. I would have much rather turned into David Bowie, put it that way. The bisexual act was helpful, but it was bad in a way because those artists that did come out as bisexual in the seventies were still colluding with the closet. It would have been easier if Elton or David Bowie had just said ‘I am gay’.”
There’s only one thing worse that ambisexual pop stars. Ambisexual pop stars’ fans. There’s a scene in the book where Holly’s all dolled up to go and see Bowie play live at last. He’s so excited, he thinks he’s finally going to meet other people like him. Instead him and his friend, Honey Heath, get beaten up. “I don’t know if it was exactly queerbashed. We were bashed. The fact that we had make up on perhaps was something to do with it. Perhaps it was because we were 13 and we were just not as big as the other lads. Apparently there were a couple of other people in the audience that I met later. There were kindred spirits there but we just didn’t find them.”
As the mainstream moved over and glamour became everyday, Holly found himself having to work that much harder to be different. “The whole point was the outrage of it. Not to be like them. I was a complete exhibitionist and ego maniac. That’s the only way I can really resolve it in my mind. Because I hardly think I would have been sophisticated enough at 14 to have formulated a kind of ‘I’m queer and I’m here’ philosophy. Perhaps it was the lack of attention that I felt at home.”
Raised round the corner from Penny Lane. Holly had the good fortune to be brought up in one of this country’s more homo-friendly cities. Liverpool. (“There’s a wonderful bohemian aspect to Liverpool which is a throwback to the sixties, but it also has an extremely sub-Brookside universe. There’s a certain type of person that has a very macho, thick as pig shit attitude to gay men as well.”) Punk seemed to provide a haven for more open-minded, if not like-minded souls, and in the late seventies he moved into the music scene. But as with his experience of Bowie boys, the scene’s homophilia only really existed on the surface. “There was tolerance of the way I looked because they all wanted to look like that. All the straight boys started to cut their hair funny all of a sudden. But there was still homophobia going down. I liked the attitude, but it was all very lads together. Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks was the only musician that I met that showed any sympathy for gay men.”
Finding Bowie boys, Liverpool and punk had all failed him, Holly ran away to London. He hitchhiked his way across the UK, plucked his eyebrows on the way, shaved his legs and then he was a she. Or something.
“Me and my friend Cathy moved to London when I was 18. It only lasted two weeks. But it was such an adventure. A bit later I used to travel down a lot with this boy lake. We went to the Black Cap and the Coleherne, and those places held such an immense glamour for us. But then when I first came to London I thought it was glamorous to get the tube. It was like ‘Wow isn’t this fab’?’ We weren’t exactly hicks, we were more sophisticated than a lot of people are at our age, but it was exciting seeing these rather masculine-looking men in leather. And me and Jake started wearing leather caps and leather this and leather that.
“The S&M was a uniform, it was another kind of dressing up. Punk had become mainstream and I never really was a punk anyway. I didn’t actually like many of the records. Tom of Finland was quite a big influence. And Mapplethorpe — that really powerful imagery. There’s a sinister aspect to Mapplethorpe. But with Tom of Finland there’s a kind of beauty and an inner happiness with his figures, and that comfort with who you are was an extremely attractive trait. Perhaps it was the first glimmer of sexual happiness that ever saw in the homosexual world.”
When Holly joined his first band, Liverpool’s arty shock rockers Big in Japan (with Jayne Casey and the KLF’s Bill Drummond), they were more perv rock than punk rock (“I was obsessed with William Burroughs at that time. I thought I was a Wild Boy. Andy Warhol and Lou Reed and Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. They were the stars in my imagination.”) When they split up due to ego differences, Holly formed a band with three straight lads he’d bumped into in Virgin Records. And with a name nicked from Guy Peellaert’s Rock Dreams, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were born. At at early gig an old friend of Holly’s, the newly moustachioed Paul Rutherford was so impressed he climbed up on stage to join them and never left.
Liverpool was the land of a thousand bands, Holly thought the only way to get noticed was to outperv them all. “We did it to attract record company interest in London. I knew that it had to be more than Bow Wow Wow had just been, and the only way you could do it was by thrusting not only flamboyant or ferocious homosexuality but the whole lifestyle that went with it in people’s faces. That was the kind of thing it needed to get A&R men to sit up and notice.”
Frankie formed during the Gender Bender boom, which was by and large cautiously sexless. Frankie were the ones who put the sex back into homosexuality, though Holly insists “that wasn’t really our intention. Nothing so worthy. I’m not going to pretend that the position I was in then was anything but selfish. I was never interested in being politically correct like Jimi Somerville was. My view of ‘gay libbers’ as we called them then was that they were just ugly queens who couldn’t get laid. Between the ages of 14 and 24 all I was interested in was having a fabulous time, taking drugs and having sex and going to Amsterdam.”
Frankie were also the first to say the unsayable, and to declare what the Gender Benders had only hinted at. Holly and Paul, the queen and the clone, were the first bona fide out gay pop stars. This worried those who were still in the closet. Boy George, who at that time was still claiming to prefer a cup to tea to cock, wrote an open letter to Record Mirror attacking their ‘Hilda Ogden type view of homosexuality’. Claiming they were ‘not educating people only telling them being gay is like a four-letter word sprayed on a toilet wall — cheap, disgusting and very childish’.
“I couldn’t believe how we were attacked by Boy George as soon as we stuck our heads out of the trench,” Holly remembers. “Although I didn’t express it at the time I was extremely upset. I thought ‘what’s wrong with her?’ you know? She’s had a couple of hit records and we’re just queens on the dole.” A year ago Boy George told me it was the likes of the Frankies that made him stop faffing around and come out. But at the time he clearly felt threatened, “Of course,” Holly says, “I understand that now but at the time I didn’t realise what it was. Now I know George is well adjusted to all of that and will be the first person to admit that he was slightly hypocritical over that situation.”
People might expect all the pop queens to stick together — but there’s very little solidarity. One of the surprises of the book is how Paul Rutherford always sided with ‘the lads’ against Holly. “That was a real illusion though, the lads and the queers. That was a media invention. And it was encouraged for a while by ZTT as part of the unfolding soap opera of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Paul found it difficult to play second fiddle in the group and that affected our relationship unfortunately — perhaps he hoped that if I left the group then he would replace me.”
I always thought the lads were overcompensating — having to assert their heterosexuality as initially people presumed they were gay as well. “They were quite macho. But they were nice lads who were thrust upon this high-pressure situation where people thought they were gay and people thought they were gods all of a sudden. And they were just like lads on a council apprenticeship. That’s why they all went off the rails for a bit. I mean I’d been off the rails since I was 14.”
Things weren’t helped by the group’s somewhat fraught relationship with their record company. ZTT had been formed by producer Trevor Horn in association with music journalist Paul Morley. Many assumed Frankie were mere puppets, which pleased Horn and Morley no end. “They were just out to make a name for themselves and to make money for themselves, exactly the same as I was. I don’t think it was merely exploitative. ZTT didn’t have to tell me or Paul to play up our homosexuality. There was no need for that. But Paul Morley wasn’t interested in promoting the band. You see we’d presented this image to him of this outrageous gay rock band that wanted to be a dance band but he had his own agenda completely. His agenda was to publicise ZTT and Paul Morley.”
Despite Morley’s claim to be the band’s auteur provocateur, even he couldn’t have hoped for a gift like the Frankie ban. Holly remembers he actually felt “very disappointed” when he heard the news. “I thought our lovely beautiful pearl of success had been tainted with a kind of negativity. That was for a moment. And then I thought ‘Oh fab! It’s much more romantic now.’ What I couldn’t understand was that it had been played about a hundred times on the radio. And I thought they can’t get us because I only use the word ‘come’ in the lyric, and it’s only the imagined context of what the word means that is perhaps filth. I really did think it would slip through the net.”
It looked like Frankie were anticipating a backlash and had started to tidy up their act — I seem to remember on their first Top of the Pops appearance, just before the ban, they’d already ditched the leather and perv gear for Yamomoto suits. But Holly corrects me. “No, that's not true. Our first Top of the Pops appearance wasn’t Yamomoto suits. It was borrowed leather trousers and borrowed leather jacks and hired Moss Bros suits. It wasn’t Yohji Yamomoto until mid ‘84. But I was genuinely sick of wearing leather knickers, I tell you. Have you ever gone on stage in a pair of leather knickers? It ain’t easy. It might be for the fabulous muscle boys we see in gay clubs today. But you had to have quite a bit of balls to do in them days. So I was dying not to wear leather knickers. We’d done that.”
Sweaty pants aside, being a queer cause célèbre “was kind of wonderful. It was a very exciting and optimistic time anyway, 1984. Not just for me but for a lot of people. It just seemed anything was possible. It was that feeling of being on a surf board in the sunshine. There was a whole positivity vibe that was coming out of the gay clubs. Records like ‘In the name of love’ and ‘Beat the street’, all this kind of ebullience and celebration of life.”
1984 was also a time of hard times, of the sort of strife and conflict typified by the Miners’ Strike. But Holly remembers the gay scene as pursuing its own agenda. “It was reaching a peak of post-seventies San Francisco celebration. Gay men weren’t suffering, they had good jobs and were making money and they were partying. It was the Thatcherite dream in a sense.”
But were people partying so hard because they knew it might soon be over? Holly, for one, was unaware of the black cloud that was looming on the horizon. “I wasn’t the sort of person to read Capital Gay. I know there was an attempt in the gay media to highlight things like this new gay cancer or whatever they called it in those days. But I was more interested in where the next MDA was coming from or what to wear next Saturday night to really pay attention. I didn’t see anything threatening on the horizon… oh, perhaps I did. I remember one night my gay mother and father took me to Heaven and I had this bizarre LSD experience where I saw Heaven as this Babylonian nightmare slave market and I was being brought down there and they were trying to sell me in this kind of sinister world. I never took a chemical drug again after that.”
You use the line in the book “I didn’t want the tolerance of bigots.” Did you feel like a folk hero, and were you aware that some of it was quite superficial? That like your run in with the Bowie boys, liking a gay star doesn’t always equal liking gay men. “Yeah, but for a while I was completely swept along by it all and thought I was living this wonderful gifted starlit life. I thought it was a good thing that people liked the divine cheek and sheer arrogance of that record. That was great. Although it could have turned into a football chant as well. The fact that it had become mainstream and was number one shocked me actually. Cause it was all of a sudden ‘Oh dear, it’s tupperware now’. Although it wasn’t tupperware, it was black rubberware.”
You also say you felt straight journalists were making too big an issue of your homosexuality?
“Well that how I felt then. I didn’t really want to be a preacher for gay rights. And I felt I didn’t want to set myself up as a spokesperson. I remember talking to other gay people about it and none of them had any answers. Some would say play it down, play it down, some would criticise and say we weren’t waving banners I enough. It was a difficult of course to travel. And it was territory that hadn’t really been sailed before. We weren’t particularly well equipped at 24-years-old to handle it. Although we’re still here. Do you know what I mean?”
After ‘Relax’, Frankie left the sex wars for the Cold War. ‘Two tribes’ spent nine weeks at number one in the summer of 84. ‘Relax’ dutifully climbed back up the charts to snuggle up to it at number two. They also sold a quarter of a million T-shirts and got two other number ones with ‘The power of love’ single and with the Welcome to The Pleasuredome album. The world was their lobster. Then it all started to go horribly wrong. A second album, Liverpool, was made without Trevor Horn, and Holly acquiesced to the lads’ demand to make a rock album. The band began to look like as appetising as yesterday’s sperm and promptly fell apart. In the meantime Holly had fallen in love with a German man called Wolfgang. Wolfgang was presented as Holly’s Yoko Ono — a foreign agent who hastened their demise.
“There’s definitely hostility to the existence of a gay partner in a person’s life, and he’s had to take a hell of a lot being the partner of a gay man who’s lived part of his life in the media. And also for being the manager of a gay singer. I wouldn’t be here speaking to you now if it wasn’t for him. I would have died several years ago if I’d continued on the course of my life that I was heading. Wolfgang’s support and the guidance that he’s given to me has been really important. And it’s always underplayed by other people. Or they make excuses, they say ‘Oh, that person has taken you away from us.’ Because you see before I had this relationship with Wolfgang I was at everyone’s disposal. I was there to work for the band, to manage the band. Think up all the ideas for the band, write the band’s songs. Then all of a sudden I had a life other than the band and they couldn’t really handle that. And the fact that Wolfgang's German — the racism that brings out in British people really is quite incredible.”
After a groundbreaking court case against ZTT, Holly was freed to pursue a solo career. Going ‘ha ha ha’ in the face of his detractors he scored a number one album in 1989 with Blast, but when the follow up, Dreams That Money Can’t Buy, died a death. Holly decided to step off pop’s merry-go-round. Then in November 1991, the same week that Freddie Mercury died, Holly was told he was HIV-positive.
“From the beginning the diagnosis I was given was an Aids diagnosis. And seeing pictures of Freddie Mercury on the cover of the papers looking emaciated, that was really vile. Just knowing that the tabloid journalists were going to wait until they got a really bad picture of me and print the story anyway. And I didn’t want it to come out in a negative way like that. Because there’s been enough of that kind of badgering, let’s face it. But I was also scared, I’d read stories where gay men’s flats had been burnt to the ground. Horror stories. I didn’t know how people were going to react.”
So in April 1993, in a lengthy interview with The Times, Holly came out a second time. “Kenny Everett was forced out several days before I made my announcement and that kind of defused the media attention slightly, which was perhaps good thing. I’d done the interview a good week before, and I’d been talking about doing it for a year. I had it set up but I was absolutely petrified. I thought women would grab their children and run to the other side of the road.
“My fears were on the whole unfounded. It was a huge relief. But it was like a pressure cooker exploding and I went off my head again for a while. Three months after the announcement I was really aggressive. Imagine all this pent-up anger and shit in a pressure cooker for 16 months, not being able to talk about it to your friends. And then it just comes out. I wasn’t a particularly pleasant person to be around at that time.”
You’ve said that your being out in Frankie was selfish, was this more public spirited?
“Well it was Derek Jarman really. I've always been a huge fan of his and he just made me feel ashamed that I hadn’t already made the announcement and that I was farting about in my own psychological suffering when I could have been communicating ideas. And apart from that there was Wolfgang saying to me everyday ‘You’ve got to tell them, you’ve got to tell them…’ Because he knew that it would come out in a negative way eventually if I didn’t and that I’d feel much better. And he believed that there was nothing to be ashamed of in my condition, and that was part of my struggle, coming to terms with what I’d discovered about myself.”
Do you think there’s some parallel between what you did in 1984 and what you did in 1993? Has this country moved on at all, or did we just take one step forward and one step backwards?
“This country is retarded, I’m afraid. I only feel like that because of the vote on the age of consent. It’s absolutely outrageous how we can openly just trail along behind the rest of the world and feel proud of that.”
Do you think this country’s fuckedupness about sex was a factor in Frankie’s rise?
“Yeah. It couldn’t have happened in Germany, could it? Cause it would have been ‘Oh so what?’ It did happen but it didn’t happen in the same shock horror News of the World kind of way. They just got off on the music and the vibe and on what we wore.”
You said as a child you craved attention, but once you’d got it you walked out of the limelight. Was it really that ghastly?
“It was just the superficiality of it all that got to me. The way people reacted to the fame and to the money it generated made me quite cynical. So there was that and there was the business problems. I started to withdraw.
“And it was also the advent of Aids and HIV infection. All of a sudden it was no longer fashionable to be a gay man. It’s been a strange position for me because the first record company I was involved with actively wanted to exploit my homosexuality and the second wanted to downplay my homosexuality. Two extremes really. Also I wanted to make Blast a pop record and some people saw it as me selling out. Wanting to make a record that wasn’t banned, that wasn’t controversial.”
The Times’ sister paper The Sun hijacked the HIV story, and trailed it with the line ‘for the man who boasted of the joys of promiscuous gay sex it was the ultimate punishment’. Did you expect all the ‘wages of sin’ crap?
“It was a bit like that, wasn’t it? I remember being asked about that in about 1985 in Japan. Someone asked me ‘Aren’t you afraid of getting Aids?’ And I did a freak on this poor Japanese woman. My psychology and the way it was set up at the time couldn’t quite cope with that question. There was a lot of denial going on in my life.
“But yes, I knew that was going to happen. That was one of the things that was said to me in my very first counselling appointment at the clinic. There I was sitting there with this big fear and the health advisor said ‘Oh they’re gonna say the propagator of gay promiscuity has now got his just desserts.’ Which I don’t think really was the right way to go about counselling me when I’d just received that news. But there is a branch of counselling that believes we must voice our greatest fears immediately and get them out into the open.”
You stop the book at the point you receive your diagnosis saying it’s too soon to consider your feelings…
“Well look at my position. I started to write the book as a way to cope with the diagnosis and hopefully to release a lot of the shit that I had lying around. The negative ideas and the bitterness and the way that I felt treated by the world. So if I’d have wanted to deal with the last 18 months of me sitting on me arse waiting to die… ‘cause that’s what I felt. ‘I’ve got six months to live I’d better write me memoirs quick.’ I didn’t want to re-examine that. Maybe I’ll do that in the future.
“I’m not saying I completely feel pure now. Or clean or that all my problems are resolved. They’re not, you know? I’m as imperfect as the next person. But there is the sense that some thing’s are better out than in. Definitely.”
A Bone in My Flute by Holly Johnson is published by Century at £15.99