Title: Local hero
Author: Steve Sutherland
Source: Melody Maker
Publish date: February 4, 1989
HOLLY JOHNSON LOCO HERO
WITH HIS DEBUT SOLO SINGLE, ‘LOVE TRAIN’, CHUGGING UP THE CHARTS, HOLLY JOHNSON TELLS STEVE SUTHERLAND THERE IS LIFE AFTER FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. PICS: TOM SHEEHAN
“EXCUSE ME WHILE I PULL MY trousers down.”
Holly gives a wicked little wiggle and laughs.
“God, I don’t think I should wear the tie, do you? The buttons are nice, aren’t they? I remember now - that’s why I bought this shirt, because of the buttons.” The tie is kipper and green. The buttons are mother of pearl. The trousers are down.
“Will you look at this? When you’ve got curly hair, there’s one day a month when it does the right thing.”
The make-up lady asks him if he knows it’s a full moon. I ask him if he’s ever tried to straighten the unruly locks which are breaking forth from his forehead like cresting waves?
“God yes, with curling tongs, everything. Everyone wants what they haven’t got, don’t they? David Bowie was one of my first heroes, so I just had to have poker straight hair.”
Holly wriggles his trousers back up, tucking in his shirt tails. I tell him that, of all the people I’ve interviewed, more have said Bowie doing “Starman” on “Top Of The Pops” was the moment they wanted to be in a band than any other single event.
“Really?” He flicks his quiff and struggles with a glove. “For me it was probably Marc Almond doing ‘Jeepster’ or ‘Metal Guru’ or…”
Don’t you mean Marc Bolan?
“Yeah. Marc Bolan. Sorry. I met Gene Pitney on Tuesday…”
HOLLY Johnson is back where he belongs in front of mirrors, messing with make-up, gathering poise to face the cameras. With Frankie Goes To Hollywood a glorious memory that tarnished in the courts, he’s braced once more for the big-time. His first solo single, “Love Train”, put him back on his beloved “Top Of The Pops” - still a thrill after all he’s been through, all he’s seen and done, all he’s learned…
“What have I learned? Oooh, that’s a hard one! Um… to get photo approval. It doesn’t matter what they say about you in the interview, if the photo’s good, it’s alright. I love to see good photos of people whether they be David Byrne, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, anyone.”
You don’t believe, like some primitive tribesman do, that every time you have your photo taken, you surrender a little of your soul?
“I think, possibly, it’s true, but it’s probably the vain part of yourself which is taken away, which ain’t a bad thing. There’s a certain amount of self-centredness in performers and singers and all the attention can increase that. D’you know, quite a few of the people I know have said, ‘I don’t envy you’ and I don’t envy me either… ha ha!”
But surely Holly is enviable. I mean, when you’re little, you want to be an astronaut, or a lion-tamer or a pop star or something. You want to be Holly Johnson, you never want to be a brickie or an accountant.
“I wanted to be a magician or an archaeologist or in a movie like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. I wanted to be those kind of things.”
So you’re attracted to glamour.
“Glamour! We’ve arrived at glamour! Glamour is a completely illusory thing, a completely media-made existence. There is no such thing as glamour except in the eye of the beholder. Y’know, I find a great deal of glamour in a photograph of Tom Waits, although what he’s about is anti-glamour isn’t it? But that man can’t take a bad photograph - he looks great in every photo I’ve ever seen of him.”
I think people shouldn’t believe in glamour but that it can be inspirational, don’t you?
“Oh yeah! Glamour isn’t just red lips and sunglasses, which a lot of people think it is.”
Do you think pop has a responsibility to be larger than life, to be an escape from the humdrum?
“Yeah, I tend to be attracted to people who are extreme and I think pop music should be larger than life, or more intense than life normally is. I think the responsibility is definitely to inspire, to take people from the humdrum, to move them.”
Do you get emotional about it?
“I’m not emotionally easily moved by pop music. Only some things will amuse me or make me feel passionate. The older I get, the fussier I get, the more critical. There were records that made me feel passionate, that I would just listen to endlessly for six weeks and want to learn every chord and every lyric. There aren’t as many albums like that any more. Maybe it’s just that there’s less mystery involved for me in the making of records.
“I think the mystique of a record has a lot to do with the love of it, not knowing too much about how they did it and what their relationships were like. For example, those albums by David Bowie and Brian Eno hold a great mystique for me. The Smiths albums work on that level as well.”
Are you saying you don’t cry easily?
“Oh, it depends! I’m very good at holding back tears but I’m a sucker for the sentimental. I do believe in sentiment and romance and I think cynical people who frown upon them are really missing out in life.”
Hasn’t AIDS done it in for romance? Isn’t writing songs about love and sex just moon and June stuff now, fantasies in the face of the horrific reality?
“Well, for me, ‘Riding The Love Train’ is the actual sexual act and I think it’s realistic.”
“Keep me up all night…” “Stoke it up…” There’s a lot of ooo-er innuendo in “Love Train” isn’t there? Part of the thrill must have been to slip some darker purpose or more devious pleasure past the self-appointed censors of our morals, to, in some way, have polluted the mainstream.
“If it doesn’t work on two levels for me then I don’t feel I’ve achieved the right balance in the song. If I feel that I haven’t managed to write a populist tune and I haven’t been able to slip some kind of twist into the lyric, then the song isn’t good enough for me.”
HOLLY’S finished powdering his nose so we break from the interview for the photo-session. Holly goes through all his moves, as ever reminding me of The Riddler in “Batman”.
His manager/mentor/minder and lover, Wolfgang, is lounging in the far corner, under a parachute, on a chaise-lounge.
“You look like you’re in an opium den,” Holly informs him.
“Oh, I wish… with the opium being served by naked young boys. And coffee… the black being served by white boys, the white by black…”
Wolfgang seems to delight in administering mild shocks. While I’m hanging around, he fantasises about going down on Jack Nicholson, narrates the tale of an aging singer-songwriter who unsuccessfully tried to pick him up in the bar (“I said ‘You wrote “The Road To Amarillo”, you f***ing take it!’”) and asks me if I have enough interview yet to stitch Holly up.
“He was called Holly Fatty Arbuckle once!”
“That was Record Mirror,” says Holly. “I remember stuff like that. I have a little black book. I have a strange memory - I can remember, perfectly, conversations I had three years ago and then I can’t remember where I put my glasses.”
BACK in the dressing room, Holly changes gloves and I ask why he quit on Frankie?
“It just ceased to be my baby. I no longer had the amount of control over it that I wanted. It went too far away from my original image of it. Musically it was no longer seductive, rhythmically. That’s it basically. That’s what I like in music - the seductive image in the groove - and it became too white boy for me. Y’know, there is some rock music I do like and I kind of went along with it to a certain degree, but only up to a certain point…”
Do you ever regret it?
“Not at any time have I regretted the decision, no.”
Holly’s refusing to touch the cotton wool because, unless it’s wet, he says, he has a thing about it - it sets his teeth on edge. Then he wonders if I’ve ever interviewed Bonnie Tyler because she’s always so nice to him when they meet on TV shows, not like that Marc Almond who always looks away when you pass him in the street.
I say I’ve never met Bonnie, but she always struck me as a female Shakey which makes Holly laugh. Then I say, as an onlooker, it looked for a while as if Frankie ruled the world, as if they could get away with anything, could get away with murder. Frankie could do no wrong.
“Or Frankie could do every wrong! I think a lot of that was to do with it being a particularly good summer in 1984 and certain people were excited by what we were doing. It was an illusion that we all took part in, both the onlookers and the perpetrators. I think we all fooled ourselves slightly or, in our youthful exuberance, enjoyed that epic aspect of what was Frankie Goes To Hollywood.”
I CAN see Frankie’s legacy everywhere. The fact that their rebellion was a sham, controlled from within ZTT, inevitably led to those sons of Trevor Horn - Stock, Aitken and Waterman - following suit, dumping the outrage, just keeping the control. And poor old Sputnik would surely have been given more of a chance if we hadn’t grown wise to Frankie’s shenanigans.
Holly says he sees Frankie’s legacy in the unashamed hedonism of Acid House. Philosophically, it’s a throwback to the pleasure principle Frankie once espoused and, musically, he considers the Frankie 12inches have been influential in the way they shifted moods and sampled vocals.
The difference, of course, is that Frankie were built on personality, on the star system, and Acid House is the opposite, almost totally anonymous.
“Yeah, it’s a faceless thing, but then that’s great isn’t it because it gives those people with zero charisma an opportunity to make successful dance records. Being in a pop group is about entertaining and charming people, but there are very talented people in the world who aren’t capable of doing that. For example, Vini Reilly from Durutti Column played on a couple of tracks on my album and I think he’s an immensely charming person but he doesn’t have a particularly strong visual image. He’s painfully shy and he can’t project himself in the way that, say, George Michael can. What a shame that is.”
That’s funny - I had you marked down as a real advocate of the star system. I always thought you wanted to be the ultimate star.
“Yeah, well, I think we all had a sense of charm in Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It’s like Alan Bleasdale said: ‘Everyone from Liverpool should have an Equity card’.”
Does Liverpool still mean a lot to you or have you become cosmopolitan now?
“I don’t think I’m cosmopolitan at all. I have travelled quite a bit but I think I’m really, really English and quite provincial in a lot of ways. I live in London, but I’m trying to remedy that. There’s some great aspects about London but it’s so dirty and I hate drinking the water - I try to avoid drinking the water as much as possible.
“London’s really not the social centre that it’s supposed to be. It’s not conducive to having friends or living life to a high quality. It’s conducive to getting really out of your brain, which a lot of people have to do to cope with the everyday hard work that you need to survive here.”
How do you relax?
“I watch far too much television and painting and drawing’s great when I can calm myself down enough to do it. My painting’s rather primitive, it really is. It’s not abstract, but it could be classified as expressionist.”
Would you like to exhibit?
“Um… not yet. It would be bloody… imagine! Having to be there at the opening of the exhibition dressed up like a dog’s dinner, pretending to be drinking champagne and… oooh! That sounds hideous to me. If I could do it in complete disguise under an assumed name, then I might. Imagine… ooooh! Mind you, it might be quite amusing if I didn’t take it to heart.”
WE arrange the details of Holly’s photo approval - we promise not to use shots he doesn’t like if he promises to get the session back to us by 10am, Tuesday - and I wonder whether he really considers this a fit job for a grown man?
“It’s not a very respectable job for a grown man at all and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m afraid I don’t think I’d want to do it if it was respectable. I’m still juvenile enough to enjoy that.”
Is it as much fun, as much of a crack as it used to be? After all, there was a context created around Frankie - a lot of sloganeering by Paul Morley, a fabrication of a modernism of which Frankie were the vanguard. There was a political atmosphere, a turbulent playpen, whereas “Love Train” just slipped out like any other single.
“Yeah, that’s true, but our atmosphere wasn’t a Socialist one or a Conservative one. It didn’t adhere to anything like that. It couldn’t have fitted into Red Wedge’s scenario. It was definitely its own thing. I suppose it was a humanist approach. Like, for example, what pisses me off is factories buying toxic waste and putting it next to a council estate. I suppose it sounds a bit hippy but that’s just one aspect of me.
“There’s something essentially optimistic about every song I write and, so, in that respect, I’m on a crusade to cheer everyone up.”
How much of what you’re doing now is motivated by having to prove yourself, especially as a lot of people would have been looking for you to fall flat on your face without Trevor Horn, without ZTT, without Frankie?
“Like success is the best revenge? I’d say there was definitely that aspect to my character. I can’t deny that, but it’s not the sole motivation and neither is the financial reward. The greatest motivation is being creative because that’s what I really enjoy doing. I feel worthless if I’m not working on something or creating an object that wasn’t there before. I love doing that, whether it be writing, painting, writing a song or singing, just creating something out of nothing.”
You used to revel in performing so much, I wonder if you miss it?
“I love doing TV and video. That’s the thing that I enjoy most and feel that I’m best at. As far as live shows are concerned, I like them when they’re very theatrical, when there’s lots going on like fireworks and costumes and make-up and lights.”
Maybe you should be acting.
“Hm… that is a whole talent in itself and a whole lifetime of experience. It’s not that I don’t fancy it, but I’d step into it very carefully.”
You’d be scared?
“Oh yeah! Absolutely, because everybody’d be looking at Holly Johnson the singer trying to be an actor.”
The David Bowie syndrome?
“Well, I would never presume to compare myself to David Bowie, but it is difficult for singers to become actors because they get very dependent on ‘Okay, this is me, this is my persona and work and people love me’ and they find it very hard to break out of that. That was explained to me by Alexandra Sandra Pigg recently.”
It seems bloody unfair that actors like Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue can make hit singles but singers can’t make hit films…
“Oh, well Sting does doesn’t he? He’s one of the very few people who can actually act.”
A debatable point.
“Well, I think he pulls it off a lot better than certain people. And, of course, there’s Phil Collins - he’s a natural.”
I TAKE a deep breath after that one and Holly says he has to go to the studio to oversee his album’s final mix which has two or three working titles, none of which he’ll reveal just yet.
Wolfgang’s hovering, so I fire a parting shot or two: What’s the high point in your career so far?
“I don’t know. I really enjoyed getting an Ivor Novello Award. Y’know, it sounds like I’m bragging a bit, but it was quite a nice little statuette and it looks very nice on the mantelpiece.”
Is there anybody you’ve met through being a pop star that you’ve been really excited about?
“Andy Warhol. It was quite a thrill meeting Annie Lennox because I think she’s really beautiful and really talented. But it was just such a thrill to meet Andy Warhol because I’d been such a fan of his since I was about 15 and, y’know, David Bowie and Velvet Underground and his links with that. I was always trying to get into his films when I was only 15 and they were X films.
“He was my first view on art. I got interested in art through anti-art and it was just great meeting him. The second time I met him, I said, ‘Do you know Quentin Crisp?’ and he just picked up the phone, dialled a number and handed me the receiver. Quentin Crisp was on the other end of the phone which I just thought was great. I invited Quentin Crisp to a concert which he sadly declined and I just gave the phone back to Andy. It was a great experience, I’ll just never forget it.
“I found him quite normal in a way. Another thing I said to him was, ‘How do I get to be on the cover of Interview?’ and he said you had to sleep with the publisher, which I thought was rather good. He had this kind of strange plastic beige thing in his ear which was an acupuncture thing for him to lose weight which I thought was a bit odd.”
Were you shocked when he died?
“I was really, really surprised because, to all extents and purposes, he was really healthy and had started to be quite productive again. I think there was some negligence somewhere along the line from what I’ve heard. The worst fear that comes to mind is that he was bumped off by a sinister art world.”
Is there anyone you would really like to meet that you haven’t? Alive or dead.
“Jean Cocteau. What I liked about him was he was a dabbler - he dabbled in all kinds of things and called everything a poem whether it was a sculpture or a film. He was a self-publicist and a stylist but with a real talent and there aren’t any artists like him anymore.”
Holly also expresses a liking for the English Vorticist movement. He mentions Wyndam Lewis, David Bomberg and William Roberts, says he’s tried to incorporate some of their style into his record covers and bemoans the fact that any other country except England would have celebrated these talents more.
“It’s a real flaw in the English personality. What was it Queen Victoria said? ‘Never shake hands with an artist, you never know where his hand’s been’. There’s this strange attitude towards anything slightly bohemian.”
We British don’t like Renaissance men. We like people to be good at one thing…
“But not that good. English people worship the underdog. They worship people who are unsuccessfully doing something brilliantly. Commerce is a dirty word, like money and… glamour. Ha Ha…”
The British are very jealous of success aren’t they?
“Yeah, especially when it’s their friends. My relationships have been affected. No one likes to see their friends get on, although they don’t like to admit that.
“There’s a subtle change that occurs between ‘I’m as good as he is. I should be doing as well’ to ‘He’s as good as I am, so how did he get so bloody lucky?’
“I think I’m a really lucky person because I’ve been allowed to indulge myself pretty much completely on an artistic level. I’ve been able to play my joke so to speak. Yeah, I’m dead lucky.”
So apart from taking your life, what would be the worst liberty someone could take from you?
“Oh, I’d hate not to be able to go shopping again.”