Title: Holly Johnson and Boy George - Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll
Author: Pas Paschali, Mark Simpson, James Collard, Paul Burston, Tim Nicholson, Rose Christie
Publish date: May 1994
If one was asked to suggest two names to sum up pop music in the barren landscape that was Britain in the Eighties, Holly Johnson and Boy George would certainly form the perfect answer. Their careers may not have followed exact parallels, but they did overlap at crucial points and there is a strong argument to suggest that Boy George’s role as the acceptable face of camp helped create a world in which Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s overt depictions of gay sexuality could be indulged. George and Holly’s backgrounds are notably similar: they were born a year apart, both into working-class families; both sought to express their inner selves by creating outrageous looks that never failed to draw the attention they were seeking - Holly with green hair, George with blue. Both had abortive first attempts at stardom, Holly being sacked from the now legendary Big in Japan (home to the KLF’s Bill Drummond, Teardrop Explode’s Dave Balfe, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Budgie and Pink Military’s Jayne Casey) and George booted out of Malcolm McLaren’s pop proteges Bow Wow Wow. Both found fame by pushing back the boundaries, George bending genders and Holly breaking rules. It’s at this point where the huge differences between the two become apparent. The marketing of their respective images meant that George became the family favourite, with the personality and the absence of sexuality to fit into the unlikeliest of situations, while Holly’s message to the family values brigade was ‘lock up your sons’. The final similarity - that both publish autobiographies this year ensures that the names of Holly Johnson and George O’Dowd will always be linked.
QUEER BEFORE HIS TIME
With Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? riding high in the charts, we were in love with the idea of a trannie at number one. The mere thought was revolutionary. In that same week, George gave an interview to the press in which he went on and on about ‘poofs’. Well, we in the gay community were outraged. (This was 1982, a long time before Queer.) He was clearly a traitor and was challenged as such when he tried to gain entrance to London’s premier alternative nightspot of the time, The Pied Bull in Islington, home of the politically correct. The doorman, immediately entered into a wrangle with George. “Someone in your position should support gay rights. I’ll have you know I’ve been beaten up for wearing a Gay Pride badge.” George, with rapier wit, lunged back: “That’s nothing - I’ve been beaten up for wearing a Mother’s Pride badge.” We all thought it hysterical, though we weren’t quick to forgive. Frankie, however, were right in there at the cutting edge. Gay sex, kinky sex, SM sex - they rammed it down our throats and we wanted more. When they went to number one, we were over the moon. Relax reflected a barometer swing in gay politics; Frankie represented a new archetype. Looking back, I suppose George was ahead of his time. Frankie couldn’t have happened if George hadn’t laid the foundations of Queer music before them.
FILTH GLORIOUS FILTH
For me, Boy George was the last foppish flourish of the New Romantics and the last sad gasp of my school days. At the first plaintiff words of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? goosepimples still rise and the sexless wail summons up the unlaid ghost of an unconsummated romance with a boy two years below me during final year at boarding school.
Holly Johnson singing Relax was the soundtrack to my seedy descent into Manchester’s gay underworld; the winsome hot-beverage-instead love of the Boy was quickly exchanged for the debauched desublimation of Frankie. I still wasn’t getting my leg over, but Relax conveyed the popper-fuelled frenzy of backroom action well enough for me to feel a part of it.
I have to admit that I tried not to think too much about Holly. For all Frankie’s glorious filth, I was less likely to connect him to sex than Boy George. Holly always struck me as the kind of boy who probably sung in the choir at school. I never really believed in his performance of gayness; for all his ‘raunch’ he just seemed too showbiz - in the Blackpool Pier sense of the word. Of course, later I was to learn that that’s what being gay is all about.
The Eighties were brash - the politics, the architecture, the mood - and it would be folly to expect popular culture, a pushy, flash area if ever there was one, to be an exception. Pop found itself at odds with the times though, in its continuing wildness, a mood of rebellion not yet entirely packaged. Thatcher was in No.10, but people partied, experimented with drugs and accepted out (or obvious) gay pop stars in the charts.
Boy George and Holly Johnson seemed like opposite ends of a gay continuum. George was more than total mary, he was supermary, wearing a dress for gawd’s sake, and singing “Do you really want to hurt me?” (Answer: yes, with that vocal victim posture, who wouldn’t?)
But Holly strutted around, grinding his groin and talking dirty. Remember their antiwar songs - the pomposity of Frankie’s Edwin Starr cover War, and the bluster of Two Tribes, compared with the gentle charm of George singing “war is stupid” in ditsy queen tones.
They’ve both changed, and their wardrobes are probably interchangeable these days. Most Eighties stars grow rather more bearable with age, both as personalities and as musicians (George Michael, The Pet Shop Boys and so on). And Boy George is no exception. He’s clean’n’serene now, DJ-ing, and re-releasing fine remixed versions of his old hits, looking good and writing memoirs.
Holly has borne illness and the savagery of the press with dignity and courage. He’s been featured at home in Hello! and yes, he’s written his autobiography. If you didn’t like him before, this book won’t change your mind - but perhaps he doesn’t want you to like him. When the charm was dished out, George got the lot.
TEA BUT NO SYMPATHY
I never saw the queer appeal of Culture club. I thought George had a great voice, and some of the early singles were fabulous, but there was something strangely sexless about the whole thing. At the height of Culture Club’s success, George came across as a kind of living doll, a clown. The denials he made (all that crap about preferring a nice cup of tea to sex) only reinforced what was already there in his image. In a strange way, the ribbons and bows were an alibi against the charge that he was queer. It was like imagining having sex with My Little Pony.
Lately he’s been inclined to describe himself as a drag queen. Well he wasn’t a drag queen at the time. To be a serious drag queen you have to fuck with gender, not bend with it. The point is, George wasn’t remotely dangerous. He says this himself now, and attributes it to Jon Moss’ influence over him and the group’s image.
When Radio 1 banned Relax everyone in the Upper Sixth who hadn’t bought it went out and got themselves a copy (well, we were still teenagers after all - just). The song didn’t grab me, although the original video did. I thought Holly looked slightly ridiculous in his leather shorts, but Paul Rutherford looked knowing, like he knew what Holly was singing about.
Two Tribes was a different story. In the days before clubbers became addicted to beats-per-minute, it sounded like a dance record, only faster. Although Relax was the song with the lyric that talked about sucking and cumming, Two Tribes sounded like pure sex. I remember going to a birthday party and the DJ playing it at maximum volume. I was still going through my Cure phase at the time, but listening to Two Tribes forced you to dance differently. You couldn’t just wisp around the place, you had to pump and grind. In other words, it made you dance like a gay man. I’m sure all the boys at school who enjoyed dancing to Two Tribes turned out gay. I don’t know what happened to the girls.
After years of speaking out on almost every topic (apart from sex of course), what else is there left for Boy George to reveal?
Text TIM NICHOLSON and PAUL BURSTON
BOY GEORGE LIKES to talk. Rather more than he likes to listen. An interview with George is not a cosy chat, but an invitation to come and take notes at the feet of one of this country’s slackest jaws. In the twelve years that people have been willing to listen, George has been talking… constantly; about his working-class childhood, about his heavy-handed father, about his clothes, about his lovers, about his fame, about his drug addiction, about his faith, about his friends, about his enemies. In fact, in the twelve years that we’ve been listening, it feels like we’ve heard it all, whether it’s George’s version of the truth at the time, or his more considered recollections.
But for all his talk (and Wogan appearances), he has not become the perennial showbiz schmoozer one might have expected. However safe the environment, he retains the edge of someone whose raw honesty might lead them to say anything, which is why, after all these years, we still want to hear what he has to say.
Like Holly Johnson, George went there, did that and bought the T-Shirt so long ago that the letters are beginning to fade. And also like Holly, he is preserving those letters in the form of an autobiography, before they fade away altogether. The provisionally-titled Take it Like a Man has been a long time in the writing (it was first discussed in print as much as two years ago), and is currently “three-quarters of the way through” and hoped to be ready for publication before the end of 1994. After a dozen years under the microscope, why does he feel the need to invade his own privacy still further?
“I wanted my privacy invaded, on a certain level,” admits George. “I think during the process of writing this book I’ve realised how manipulative I am, how powerful I am and how I’ve abused that power in certain ways. So it’s given me a lot of perspective. I’ve really tried to portray the characters fairly, and be as honest about other people as I have about myself. But I think Jon Moss is going to feel very uncomfortable with some of the things I’ve said about him. Very uncomfortable.”
It won’t be the first time that George has spoken out of turn, but these days the more spiritually-guided chameleon is able to deal with the resultant karma. His embracing of Krishna consciousness has given him a more balanced perspective on life and the people around him. Having tried the hackneyed pop star route of ambiguous sexuality, drugs and rock’n’roll, George finally came out, kicked drugs, move-move-moved away from mainstream pop towards harder-edged dance music and, most significantly, looked east to restore his faith.
“I think the world is beautiful, I think people are beautiful,” he says in such a matter-of-fact tone that those words lose their inherent hippy dippiness. “I’m hovering around the spiritual globe. I hate the word ‘religion’, ‘cos it summons up images of dogma and all those things I really don’t like. I just think Jesus was a really cool guy with a really powerful message, and that message has been warped and twisted by other people’s needs. If Jesus was to come back now, they’d probably kill him. If he was to walk into the church, with his dark skin and his long hair and sandals, they’d destroy him.
“My spiritual beliefs are really haphazard. I was one of those kids who, if I saw a Hassidic Jew walking down the street I’d want to know what they were, you know. I’ve always been interested in India particularly. I loved the smell of the food, the rituals, everything. I think that led me to my interest in Krishna consciousness, or Buddhism. It’s very difficult for me, ‘cos if you show an interest they want you to say ‘I’m a Hare Krishna’ or ‘I’m a Buddhist’. I feel very uncomfortable with those titles. I think you can be attracted to something without wanting to throw yourself into it one hundred per cent. I feel a real need to live in the real world, the material world. I love it in the material world.” Spoken like a true material girl.
Boy George left the material world for the weightless atmosphere of pop stardom in 1982. At the time of release of Culture Club’s debut single White Boy, George had already found celebrity of sorts as a face around town on the London club scene, and as an occasional singer with Malcolm McLaren’s teenage sex toys Bow Wow Wow.
Even before his third single, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? had trolled up to the top of the charts, George was coming on like he was born with a star on his door, happily imparting his views on scandal (“I would never ever sell my sex life to the papers”), on money (“I just want money so that I can be really irresponsible”), on David Bowie (“I think he’s had it really. He’s just there, like Harrods or Frank Sinatra”), on Andy Warhol (“He’s an idiot. Like a big cheesecake on legs”) and Marilyn Monroe (“She was just a glorified transvestite”).
The success followed closely behind the fame, but although the fame has never dimmed, the initial burst of success was relatively short-lived. While George was riding the crest of his wave in the same top ten with the easy listening of Victims, Holly Johnson was bumping and grinding up the charts with the X-rated Relax. The arrival of Frankie seemed to trample the competition underfoot, and Culture Club were among the victims of this full-frontal attack. George’s repeated refusal to categorise himself sexually seemed coy and closeted in the face of Holly and Paul Rutherford’s openness.
“OK, so in the past I didn’t go round saying ‘I’m homosexual’,” he says now, “but surely I made it clear through all the visual statements. What else did I have to do for people to actually say ‘there’s a queen’? Hop, skip and jump across Red Square in a fucking tutu? But I suppose since then I’ve realised I was mentally closeted in a way, even though it was blatantly obvious.”
One of George’s motives for disguising his sexuality at the time (however thinly) was the relationship he was having with Culture Club’s drummer Jon Moss, “a so-called straight man” in George’s words. Their split led to George swearing that he’d never fall for another straight man, although they remain a temptation.
“I love straight men. They’re so gorgeous. The best kind are the ones that flirt with you. They state their boundaries. They say they’re straight. It’s all logistics isn’t it? The number of blokes I’ve been to bed with who’ve said they’re straight. Even with their mouths full.”
George’s promiscuity these days, though, is all imagined, his day-to-day existence being one of contented domesticity in his gothic mansion in Hampstead with long-term lover Michael. This, combined with his faith and the huge underground, if not mainstream, success of his More Protein record label, indicates that he has largely left his troubled past behind. Take it Like a Man closes several chapters and, after a more than bumpy ride, anticipates a long and happy ending, but for the shadow that AIDS casts over all our lives. Holly Johnson’s HIV diagnosis two years ago, is what spurred him on to write A Bone in My Flute. Although, happily, George cannot claim the same motivation, AIDS does play a significant role in his life today.
“I know a lot of people who have HIV,” he says. “It’s something I’ve really had to face up to in the last two years. I’ve lost quite a few friends in that time. It’s wiping out a whole creative community. I guess there’s also a part of me that wants to deny it, that spends a lot of time thinking they’ll find a cure. Every time I hear about a cure I’m full of hope. That hope keeps us going.
“I’ve wanted to write a song about it, to kind of try and convey the feelings you have. I’ve written this song about my friend Stevie who died the Christmas before last. It was such a powerful experience for me being around Stevie. He was smoking a joint in hospital. I was telling him off and he was laughing, saying ‘what are they going to do, kill me?’. Stevie’s humour was extraordinary. Humour is very much about fear; laughing in the face of horror. It really unsettled me. Whenever anybody dies I expect a black cloud to appear. I want it to appear, to acknowledge how I’m feeling. The sad thing is, life goes on.
“You talk about it with your friends, what you would do if you found out you were positive. How, if it was you, you’d fall to pieces. It’s incredible the way people deal with it. So, you know, there’s a lot to run away from.”
But George is no longer interested in running away, or in a life of pretence. He takes it like a man and is willing to face the consequences.
His private life has been the subject of much press speculation, but now Holly Johnson has chosen to make it public.
Text ROSE CHRISTIE
‘BY MARCH 1983, it seemed we were never going to get a record deal. Bob and Sharon put us on at the Camden Palace. The ticket read: “Slum it in Style. Trash at the Palace, every Tuesday 9-3am”. I remember Sharon Johnson covering two sets of wooden steps with tinfoil so that we could chain The Leather Pets to them. We didn’t have the budget for scaffolding. We were hard, rough and sleazy. The Palace’s laser came on momentarily during Relax, but I felt they were a bit mean with it.’
A quote from Holly Johnson’s recently published autobiography A Bone In My Flute sums up the angst of the struggling pop star to be and highlights a scene from Frankie’s early days. Only a year later, in 1984, London’s Oxford Street was awash with white ‘Frankie Says…’ T-shirts, worn by everyone from the disco diva to the inveterate clubber. Frankie Goes to Hollywood had arrived. Brushing against George’s coat at the Mudd Club was old news, but espying Paul Rutherford at Heaven was something new and exciting.
At the time, I never really took much notice of Frankie Goes to Hollywood as a concept. I wondered what all the fuss was about. I was still lost in my Sandinista song sheet, stuck in a post-punk-cum-new-romantic time warp. Beyond the fact that club entrepreneur Simon Hobart re-named his Kit Kat club ‘The Pleasure Dive’ after Frankie’s Pleasure Dome single, I never really gave them a second thought.
I was dubious about reading A Bone In My Flute. I’ve always avoided pop autobiographies like the plague, presuming them to be narcissistic. Far be it for me to admit I was wrong, but this one really charmed the pants off me. I found it glowed with wit, humour and poignancy. It was through reading the book that I discovered, not only the story behind a rags-to-riches rise to stardom, but the real talent behind the Frankie phenomenon.
When I interviewed Holly Johnson, in the week prior to the release of his autobiography, he lamented the cynicism of Doubting Thomases such as myself.
“People have certain prejudices against pop artists and they are somehow not taken seriously as human beings or creative artists. From my point of view, I’ve always found this a bit sad. It amazes me that people say ‘I liked your book’, with great surprise in their voice, as if they didn’t expect me to have any creative talents. I find that a little bit insulting. I have written some really good songs in the past - The Power of Love, for example. Do people not think I wrote it or something?”
A Bone In My Flute catalogues the life of Holly Johnson, from a plastic gun-wielding four-year-old Liverpool lad, through traumatic schooldays to first bands, pop stardom, his court case with ZTT, his solo career and his HIV diagnosis. Humorous, if painful (for Holly, at least) family vignettes are sketched with words from his early poetry and lyrics. Although Holly’s relationship with his parents was fraught (items of clothing such as Holly’s patchwork clogs didn’t go down too well in the Johnson household), you get the feeling that, though they were constantly two tribes at war, they still had a mutual respect for each other. When Holly was diagnosed HIV positive two years ago it was his parents he first turned to.
“I felt a moral obligation to tell my parents before it leaked out into the public domain. I hadn’t communicated with them for several years before I told them and they put aside that past communication problem and came down to London to see me, which I thought was quite touching really. Not all parents would have reacted in that way and I was afraid that perhaps they would disown me further. At the end of the day, they would never see one of their children go hungry. Him going crazy at me for wearing make-up and going to gay clubs was, in his universe, a genuine act of love. He didn’t want to see me on a toilet floor somewhere being queer-bashed. It was the only way that his generation could express themselves. Some journalists have suggested that I’m trying to condemn my parents in the book, but I’m not. I think it’s a thing that has to be discussed.”
During the Seventies, Holly’s close friend and ally against school bullies was one Honey Heath, with whom he would go on record- and clothes-buying sprees. The two rebels not only shared a horrendous attendance record at school, they shared something much more important - an undivided adoration for the then ‘bisexual’ David Bowie.
‘David Bowie was always painfully thin. Most of my immediate family were a bit on the chubby side, from eating a typically Northern working-class diet - chips with everything. I was determined not to be like them, so I started to make myself vomit in the lavatory - nowadays they call this bulimia, and even princesses suffer from it.
‘There was a lack of openness between Honey Heath and me about our true sexual desires. I should repeat that in the early Seventies, bisexuality was fashionable - it meant being like ‘David’ - whereas homosexuality had only ridiculous, stereotyped associations, like John Inman or Larry Grayson.’
When asked if he’d still like to meet Bowie, Holly is emphatic: “No, I wish I’d spoken to the bisexual David Bowie, but I have no interest whatsoever in the heterosexual one.” After becoming famous, Holly got to meet another of his idols. “Using my position as a ‘pop star’ to meet Andy Warhol was for me my best pop art statement. I was always jealous of Nick Rhodes, because he was actually a friend of Andy Warhol. That was much better than just meeting him a couple of times.”
With the early Eighties came success, several permanent relationships and many more one-night stands and backroom experiences at Heaven and the Subway in London. It was prime-time for Britain and its plethora of new talent. Fellow pop star Boy George, his spotlight not shining quite so brightly at that time, was a main mover on the club circuit, renowned for his razor tongue.
‘We had already been attacked in the press by the cosy, cuddly Boy George, who had not yet come out at the time, and who claimed our video gave gay people a bad name - “Cheap, disgusting and very childish” (Record Mirror, May 12, 1984). This Widow Twanky act was, of course, pure green-eyed jealousy. He no longer appeared even slightly controversial. His proclaiming that he’d rather have a cup of tea than have sex was another way of confirming to the world that his suspect sexuality was something to be ashamed of.’
Touché. Later, in 1987, at an International Aids Day event organised by the Terrence Higgins Trust: ‘Boy George was still getting over his heroin addiction at the time and looked sedated, to say the least, though not too sedated however to come out with one of his school yard retorts. I asked him if he had a comb before I went on stage and he replied, “Oh, you Comb-O-Sexual”.’
A turning point for Holly was when he met his current partner Wolfgang at Harpoon Louie’s in Earl’s Court. ‘I asked him where the cigarette machine was (not very original), then I returned to ask for change which he did not have. After getting the cigarettes I returned to him again and asked for a light.’ Holly claims that he was attracted by Wolfgang’s strong personality and the fact that he wouldn’t put up with Holly’s prima donna tantrums. Holly soon fell into step with Wolfgang’s comparatively ‘normal’ lifestyle, which involved far less night clubbing and going to bed at a reasonable hour. But because Wolfgang often toured with the band, a wedge started to be driven between Holly and the rest of the Frankie. As Holly recalls, “They were trying to make me look bad because I wouldn’t live that way. That’s what I found disturbing. They started to slag me off, saying ‘what are you, some kind of nine-to-five person?’ They tried to undermine the way I chose to live my life. That’s what I didn’t like.”
As the rift between Holly and the rest of the band grew deeper, Wolfgang became one of his few allies, standing by him through a messy court case, a patchy solo career and finally his HIV diagnosis, all of which were deeply disturbing to Holly: “The book took sixteen months to write, two months of which I couldn’t face it any more and I gave up. I was having to face going through the break up of the group and the court case over again in my mind, so I kind of stopped at 1985 and thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t face it any more, it’s too painful.’ Then I somehow got a second wind.”
From around 1983 onwards, Holly had the suspicion lurking in the back of his mind that he might be HIV-positive and there are some dark moments in the book where he describes his fears and remembers friends who have already died of the disease. He believes that he contracted the virus in the early Eighties and attributes his current “excellent state of health” to his sedate lifestyle with Wolfgang over the past ten years.
“I don’t think I’d have been alive and speaking to you today if I hadn’t have met Wolfgang, been attracted by his strong personality and changed my lifestyle in the way that I did. I think I would have continued to do the drug-taking and my health would have subsequently suffered because I believe that I contracted the HIV virus in 1983 and obviously, if I’d have continued on the course of going out every night and taking drugs, then it would have worn down my health a lot sooner. In a sense, I think that my relationship with Wolfgang saved my life. I know it sounds melodramatic, but I believe it to be true.”
Although he’s had some pretty low moments (“I can’t pretend otherwise”), Holly is now working on some new songs with Nick Bagnall and “sniffing around for new potential”, despite the fact that record companies these days are giving him the brush-off. “No, I don’t get calls ‘cos they all think I’m tragically ill. There’s still so much ignorance about HIV infection that they all think, ‘Oh, it’s terribly sad, poor Holly’, and that’s that. People write me off. My job is to persuade people otherwise, that I’m living with AIDS, not dying of AIDs.”
Put the book on your shopping list. It’s living proof.
A Bone in My Flute is published by Century