Title: Frankie say see you in court
Author: William Shaw
Publish date: August 1988
Frankie say see you in court
INTERVIEW BY WILLIAM SHAW
PHOTOGRAPHS BY RUSSELL YOUNG
Despite rampant early successes, the Frankie Goes To Hollywood saga ended in a bitter courtroom battle. Now freed from his ZTT contract, frontman Holly Johnson is about to forge a solo career. But can he afford to relax?
Sitting outside a restaurant in the New King’s Road, with the remains of a pineapple-topped pizza before him, is erstwhile Frankie Goes to Hollywood mainman Holly Johnson. For an hour or so he’s been reluctantly answering questions about his past, but now he’s just about ready to blow his top. Sometimes he’s answered the questions politely; more than once he’s groaned and said something flippant to indicate how bored he is with the topic of his own history. Finally exasperated, he explodes; “Look, I’m not interested, I’m not interested in talking about ZTT, I’m not interested in it, I really don’t want to know.”
Holly Johnson is now legally a solo artist with a solo recording deal, but the 28-year-old singer is finding it a bit frustrating that, up till now, his past is as yet considerably more concrete than his future.
When Johnson was about to sign a solo deal in July of last year to MCA, ZTT tried to stop him, claiming his contract to them was still binding. Johnson fought them on the grounds that his contract with ZTT constituted “unfair constraint of trade” and that the group’s recording costs, charged to the group under the terms of their contract were “excessive”.
The High Court Judge agreed with Johnson and dismissed ZTT’s case, leaving Johnson to sign a new contract with MCA. ‘This was not a fair deal,” announced Mr Justice Whitford. “Mr Johnson, who I found entirely reasonable, was, in my judgement, entitled to free himself of these onerous obligations. He is a singer. He wants to make a living singing.”
But the last few years have taught Johnson what a tricky business it is making a living singing.
It was around the time when Frankie Goes To Hollywood released their second LP, Liverpool, that Johnson began announcing he wanted to record a solo album. It wouldn’t have been his first solo venture; after all, he’d released two singles on his own before he joined up with Frankie (though it must be said that ‘Tokyo Rose’ and ‘Hobo Joe’ were thoroughly unsuccessful and, even in the light of his later fame, have never got much of a critical thumbs-up. But it’s taken Johnson longer than he might have imagined to extricate himself from ZTT and to relaunch that solo career. “Well,” he philosophises, “I suppose if nothing happens this year it’ll happen next year. Obviously I want it to be as soon as possible. I want to get something out to break the ice that has surrounded me over the past year, but the music business is a slow beast. It’s been extremely frustrating.”
And when that solo career does get underway, will Holly Johnson flourish without Frankie? Without ZTT? Without Trevor Horn? At this stage, before his material is recorded, it’s anyone’s guess, though Tony Powell, the newly appointed managing director of MCA, says he’s quite convinced of Johnson’s talent. He’d heard the demos which Johnson had recorded before the court case, and which were to form the basis of his new solo material. He and David Simone, MCA’s new chairman, were sure that Johnson was the fresh talent that the company needed.
“Someone he’d been involved with managed to get the demos to us,” says Powell, and we liked what we heard because we’d been fans of Frankie before. The situation was that Holly had this court case pending and that finance was going to be needed along the way. We made it very clear that we would be willing to support him in his court action, and at the end of that court action Holly decided to sign with us”.
Powell hopes to be unveiling Johnson’s first MCA single this September. In fact that seems unlikely, since at the time of the interview Holly was still casting around to find the right producer for the project. He admits he treads a lot more warily in these areas now. But though Johnson’s publicist is keen to play me demos of his new material as proof that there is something around the corner, Johnson himself is reluctant. “Oh no, I don’t know about that,” he says, “I don’t think so.”
So we’re going to have to wait a bit to discover whether Holly Johnson - solo - is a viable proposition.
His oldest friend, Jayne Casey, has no doubts: “I’ve heard all his new stuff and I think it’s great,” she says, “I think he’ll survive as a solo artist. I really believe he’s great. Because of the fact he worked with Trevor Horn, people underestimate his ability and his talent. But everything that Holly does is timed to perfection, like taking Trevor Horn to court. There’s a hundred thousand cases against record companies every year but Holly’s became the Mega Court Case.”
Years ago, Casey sang with Big In Japan while Johnson played bass. Then she moved on to front Pink Industry. These days, she’s director of performing arts at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Art Gallery.
“It must have been about 1974 when I first met Holly,” says Casey. “He was about 14, a schoolboy bunking school. I used to work in a hairdresser’s in Liverpool and there was a sort of group of us before punk started and it was a very expressive group. Burnsie (Pete Burns) and his wife Lynn worked there, and one day Holly turned up bunking school and we liked the way he looked. He was young. Very young and sensitive and lonely. He’d gone to a very tough working-class school, but though he was quite sensitive, he had this very strong tongue, he knew how to attack people. And he looked extraordinary. He resembled Judy Garland. I think she was his heroine of the moment…”
William Johnson was born in 1960, the son of a taxi driver and a nurse. He adopted the name of Holly at the age of 14, apparently taking it from Holly Woodlawn, transvestite friend of Andy Warhol.
At the age of 14 he was going through a bit of a “difficult” phase. Inspired by his idols, Warhol, Bowie and Bolan, he dyed his hair, wore odd clothes and was generally a bit of an attention-seeker. His schoolmates threw bricks at him.
“Did you hear about the ballet tights and the hair painted green?” asks Johnson, laughing. “I was completely into self-expression. Looking different I suppose was the mark of an unbalanced person.”
His father, so the story goes, was so upset that he sometimes refused to let his son leave the house for weeks at a time.
“You think that’s absolutely bizarre?” asks Johnson. “Well it’s not bizarre. If you knew the way I looked then, you would understand that my father didn’t want me out in the streets. You’d understand his viewpoint. I understand it now…”
“We were horrible,” says Casey. “Really horrible. We really enjoyed getting up people’s noses because they’d got up our noses. It was kind of revenge, really.”
In those early precocious teenage years, Johnson started writing poetry and getting interested in art. He bought his first guitar for 13,000 cigarette coupons, which he’d swapped for his collection of David Bowie photographs. He still writes poetry - last year he says he wrote a book called Howling Lust but he hasn’t tried to get it published - and he still paints a fair amount. He’s got one or two of his own paintings up in his flat and, when it looked like Frankie Goes To Hollywood were getting absolutely nowhere after a year together, Holly was all set in the summer of 1983 to go to art college, where he’d earned himself a place.
But instead Frankie Goes To Hollywood were offered a recording deal by the hot new independent label ZTT.
Signing that contract entangled Johnson in the mess of legal problems that led to this spring’s court case. The contract was an anachronism and ZTT now put that down to inexperience. “I’d never done a record contract before then,” said Jill Sinclair, the business end of ZTT and Trevor Horn’s wife, though subsequent contracts with Das Psych-Oh Rangers and Propaganda have also ended in legal difficulties.
As far as Frankie were concerned there were four important aspects of the deal. Firstly the contract set the group’s royalties at a low rate. For example, their royalty for LP sales in the UK was 8 percent, just over half the standard rate for a successful group. Secondly, ZTT were allowed the last word in the choice of recording studio, producer and how much would be spent on any recording session. Thirdly, the contract claimed that any member of the group who left Frankie would remain contracted to ZTT. Fourthly, alongside the record contract, Frankie signed a publishing deal with Perfect Songs, also owned by Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair. Altogether, it would be argued later, the balance was tipped unfairly in favour of ZTT in so far as it constituted “unfavourable restraint of trade”.
There was another problem around the corner too. When Frankie became famous it would often turn out that ZTT were actually billed bigger than the group - sometimes by the company but especially by the press. The group found that part of their image was that they were semi-talented louts…
1984. The golden year. Three consecutive Number Ones. ‘Two Tribes’ sales approached the two million mark and the group found themselves dashing around the planet promoting their success. Holly Johnson was famous and had all the attention anyone could ever want. But within a year the shine had already worn off. Divisions had appeared between Johnson, the group and the record company.
“Holly had been the centre of attention since he was 13 or 14,” says Jayne Casey. “There he was with these Liverpool lads who’d never had any attention in their lives. By the time Frankie Goes To Hollywood were famous he’d grown up to a degree. He thought it was silly.” And the growing image of the Frankie ‘Lads’ - Ped, Mark and Nasher - didn’t suit Johnson either.
“Holly’s gay. He hated all that mild sexist male mentality he was surrounded by,” Casey says, “and he does definitely react against it. He’s a lot calmer now than he was, but the lads, who were so wild and crazy, just sat on their arses while Holly took ZTT to court and that’s what the difference between them is.”
Something else had changed too. By now Johnson had his own personal manager, Wolfgang Kuhle, and he was becoming aware of the pitfalls of his contract. Kuhle is also Johnson’s boyfriend, and though there are obvious drawbacks in mixing personal life and business, this particular relationship has resulted in a horrendous amount of flack. In court, ZTT’s barrister made frequent references to the relationship, and Jill Sinclair said later that she thought “Wolfgang was heavily instrumental in Holly leaving the band. Like Yoko Ono or whatever. Holly brought in Wolfgang as his personal manager after their relationship started. The first tour they ever did was awful because Holly took him on tour with him”. The tabloids caught a whiff of this and piled in with headlines like HOLLY’S SIX FOOT HUNK SPLITS FRANKIES. The stories were helped along by the fact that Kuhle is some twenty years older than Johnson.
As a consequence, Johnson is somewhat paranoid when it comes to discussing their relationship, business or otherwise. No, he says, it’s not difficult being managed by him. The court allegations about him and Kuhle? They were totally unkind and totally wrong. Why did he feel he needed a personal manager? Because he felt the whole business side of Frankie had got out of hand. “I don’t think I should discuss my private life and his private life,” he says when asked how he first met Kuhle. “It’s not only an infringement of my life, it’s an infringement of somebody else’s life too.”
Jayne Casey: “People assume that it was Wolfgang who was making Holly grow up, but Holly was growing up before. There is a lot of bad feeling about Wolfgang because he’s another man. There are a lot of homophobes around in the press and in record companies. They assume that one person is the dominant partner and the other is the passive partner, which is not necessarily so. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about it.”
On July 23rd 1987, Holly Johnson told ZTT that he intended to leave the label. ZTT countered with an injunction to prevent him signing to MCA on the grounds that this constituted a breach of that original contract he’d signed four years before. Johnson and Kuhle had employed lawyer Tony Russell to act for Johnson. He was the man who had already acted for George Michael and Andrew Ridgley in their case against Innervision in 1983 - although the matter was eventually settled out of court. That case had been based on “unfair restraint of trade” and now the same phrase was being used against ZTT’s contract, coupled with an allegation that the company had overspent on recording costs. When it came to court, ZTT’s case involved a demonstration that Frankie Goes To Hollywood had been largely the product of ZTT’s marketing and musical skills, and the court was taken to the Sarm West studios to see the array of technology which had been responsible for the Frankie sound. Furthermore, it was implied that any difficulties that Johnson was encounterirg were of his own making. The court was told that he was sometimes “impossible to work with”, and that he “didn’t turn up for meetings”. What’s more, it was implied that, if there were problems with the second LP, it was because Johnson had affected the mood of the rest of the group with his aloofness. It was alleged that he only turned up for twenty-three days of the seven-month recording schedule, and had refused to work late at night like the rest of the group.
Johnson’s main line of attack was to detail the huge sums of money spent on Liverpool. “My complaint was that they were irresponsible with the amount of money they were spending. They were spending it willy nilly.”
And after all, this was not ZTT’s money that was being spent, it was Frankie’s potential future earnings. The larger part of the recording cost consisted of the expense of Trevor Horn’s fastidious remixing of tracks, which delayed the final release date and made it unlikely that the LP would show a profit.
“The stress involved in the case was unbelievable. There were the eight months previous to the build up, having the injunction placed upon me and knowing that things would eventually happen, and then there was the fact of having to sit in court and be insulted by the other side’s barristers for two months before I ever had a chance to speak, arriving every day to flashbulbs from the press. It was very strange. It was like public sadism.
“It was stupid. Absolutely revolting. It made me physically ill. It was hilarious on one level because there was this judge, who seemed to be a very nice man, taking it all in and they were trying to explain to him how they spent £800,000 on Liverpool by trying to impress him and by saying, ‘this is how we created Holly Johnson’s voice with our whizzo machinery’.
“I think that between them, ZTT and their barristers cooked up quite a convincing case. They even showed pictures of Frankie Goes To Hollywood in bondage gear before being signed and then in nice smart suits after being signed. It was absolutely ridiculous. In the end it was stupid because they were saying, ‘Holly Johnson is a disgusting obscene person who can’t sing, and yes, we want to keep him.’”
“Yes, it was devastating for him,” remembers Casey. “And of course, now, it’s made him very cautious of the whole record company process. But then he’d ring up and one minute he’d be talking about how devastated he was by this - imagine being dragged though the courts to prove you can’t sing! - and then he’d be planning what he’d wear the next day in court.”
A year later, in the summer of 1988, ‘Relax’ is on the small screen again, though now in a rather less contentious setting, as the soundtrack to the Ambre Solaire advert.
Mr Justice Whitford, the very nice man, has freed Johnson of his “onerous obligations” and has informed us officially that Johnson is “a singer”.
Johnson’s only problem now is to prove this to the rest of the world. “What do I want to have done by this time next year? I want to have got a bloody record out, that’s what. Isn’t that tough enough these days?”