Title: This is your life part 3: Holly Johnson
Author: Max Bell and Paul Bursche
Source: No. 1
Publish date: Oct 5 1985
Sordid and seedy. That’s how Frankie Goes To Hollywood were regarded in the early days. This Image people had of the group came about through people seeing the very strange pictures of lead singer Holly and Paul Rutherford. But times change and Holly Johnson has now moved from that Image to a more respectable position: that of acclaimed songwriter with Frankie. Holly has always been the central figure in the group and his continuing success as lyricist should see the group remaining central to the British pop scene.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – This is your life part 3: Holly Johnson
Interviews: Max Bell and Paul Bursche. Pictures: Mike Prior and John Stoddart.
Full name: William Holly Johnson
Born: February 19, 1960, 206 Rathbone Road, Liverpool 15
Family: Father — Eric, Mother — Pat
Brothers — John, 31, Jimmy 21. Sister — Clare, 28
Education: St Mary’s Church of England, Rathbone Road, Liverpool. Liverpool Collegiate for Boys, Shaw Street
Occupation: Lead vocalist, Frankie Goes To Hollywood
"Our Billy, who you call Holly, is 25. He’s the second youngest of our kids. Two of them have red hair, the other two have black hair. Billy was always a very quiet kid. Because he was more withdrawn than the others but he was a happy lad.
He liked to run around and kick a ball but tended to be quite subdued. He was brave about his eye and insisted on wearing the patch because he knew it would improve his sight. He’s got a lot of guts though you might not think so.
Billy’s interest in music started as a teenager. He bought himself an Anteus guitar for £4 when he was 13. A year later I bought him an acoustic Epiphone Jumbo from a fella for £59 on May 1, 1975. I’ve still got the receipt.
Billy wasn’t a clever scholar although the Collegiate is a good school. My auld fella went there. Billy was good with words and interested in arts subjects but he always wanted to get into music. He messed about in little groups for years.
As a teenager he was a way out dresser with red and orange hair and spikey crops. Ahead of his time. I was ashamed to look at him. If I saw him coming down the street I’d cross over. He certainly stood out.
His heroes were T. Rex and David Bowie and he’d sit in front of a tape recorder playing the chords along to their records. I’d say: "Why don’t you learn Country & Western? Fellas can earn a fiver a night and their ale in the pubs.’ He’d just laugh and say ‘what and play to drunkards?’
He always said he’d be famous but we’d just laugh. That happened to The Beatles but not to people we knew. He was happy enough, so we let him carry on.
He never gave us bother except that he started playing truant and the attendance officers were always coming round. He’d leave for school and then bunk off. He was rumbled. That was his problem.
Billy was very independent, more than the other lads who are more rough and tumble. He liked to go away and live on his wits. He left home at 16 and lived in various flats. He got on with student types, men and women, actors, poets, a bohemian crowd. There were loads of places in town where he’d go where you didn’t need much money. Just sit and talk and have a glass all night.
When he was 17 he was in Big In Japan doing gigs. They’d lose money but they were happy to play. I knew Jayne Casey and I remember the tall Scottish fella (Bill Drummond, later Echo and the Bunnymen manager).
The people in the know all met at Eric’s Club (famous Liverpool nightclub where the likes of Holly, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes began their careers). This was in 1975.1 know the guys who ran the club — Roger Eagle and Pete Fulwell — because they used our cab firm.
Billy would come home once a week to eat us out of house and home, otherwise I didn’t take much I notice of him.
I knew Jayne was a good mate because I helped them move their stuff into a Sefton flat. (They shared a flat with Paul Rutherford in Gambier Terrace.) She played me a song that Billy wrote for Pink Military Stand Alone (Jayne’s band — now Pink Industry) and I said: ‘oh yeah! Very good!’ She said: ‘why are ya laughing? Your Billy’s very talented!’ She had more faith in him than I did!
Then Pete Fulwell put out two solo singles for him on Eric’s label — ‘Hobo Joe’ and ‘Yankee Rose’ — just a few hundred copies.
I thought they were laughable, they had no acoustics and at the end the girl backing singers Sue Lawrie and her sister were all laughing. It was supposed to be tongue in cheek.
I got used to his attitude eventually although I’ve never liked him being called Holly, no man would.
I wasn’t heavy about it but there was a bit of friction.
Mates of mine would see Billy and say ‘Well, Eric, I wouldn’t have the nerve to dress like that’.
He was living in the toughest parts of Liverpool, Toxteth, places that I wouldn’t walk down in broad daylight, with blond hair and make up. Asking for trouble.
He idolised Marc Bolan and Bowie, had all these scrapbooks and records, could answer any question about them.
I thought they were rubbish but what do I know? I like Country and Western. I thought there must be something in it if all the kids buy it.
I never saw him play in his punk days. He was a punk if it was necessary. He’d tell me: ‘Dad, they spit on you in these clubs’ I thought that was disgusting. I said ‘Why don’t you punch ‘em?’
These people are sick, standing there with all kinds of gob running off ‘em. I’d have given them a good kicking. An excuse for music, fellas in way out gear. I told him, ‘No one’s gonna buy a record ‘cos you’re dressed up in sexy gear!
My wife went to see him at Kirklands wine bar when he was in Sons of Egypt. By then they had their own style, leather and that, just a bit outrageous. Ped used to drop by for a cup of tea. I think they met the Leatherpet girls there, they were waitresses.
One day I went to his flat to collect some gear and there was a tape of a radio interview he’d done which I played. He was saying: ‘We’re gonna be rich and famous, the greatest. We’ve only got to do the Hammersmith Palais.’ Next thing I knew he was bloody right!
He’d been on TV before The Tube, on Rocking Horse, Granada, doing his single. When they did ‘Relax’ on The Tube that was the first time I heard of ZTT and the Trevor Horn fella.
I thought typical! I’ve never heard of ZTT — Zing Zang Tomb or whatever — I’d heard of RCA Victor and Parlophone. I thought it was some backstreet operation trying to exploit him. Whether ZTT made Frankie Goes To Hollywood or vice versa I don’t know.
No one could have been more surprised than me at their success. They’ve made their mark and good luck to them. There are so few opportunities for youngsters these days.
The family were made up when they were on Top of the Pops. We all went to see them at the Royal Court. They were world famous then so I wasn’t going to miss out.
I enjoyed that. We took our friends and had a great night. We’re very proud of him.
Billy’s fame has affected us. You get stick. My wife, an auxiliary nurse, gets stick at work. The inference is you must be rich and living the life of Riley, so why are you doing them out of a job?
I’ve heard things said on the taxi rank. Why aren’t we living in a mansion etc. In fact, we’re still working and we’ve still got to work and thanking God that we can work.
Eric on the fans
It was a novelty at first having them phone and visit but it gets too much. You’ll be in the toilet or having a bath and there’s some kid at the door.
We used to invite them in for tea because they’d come from all over but now I can’t be bothered with it. You have to put an icy front on to maintain some privacy. They’ll phone up and say is he in and of course he isn’t.
The press are even worse. The Sun wrote an article which completely distorted what I said and made up the headline. They paid me a few quid for the story which I didn’t want and I’ve never even cashed the cheque.
Holly Johnson in his own write
The diehards already know that I acquired the appendage Holly after the Holly Wood lawn character, immortalised by Lou Reed on the song ‘Take A Walk On The Wild Side’ (‘Transformer’).
My family have always lived in the Wavertree area which is famous for two landmarks. It’s here that Stephenson’s Rocket made its maiden voyage and Penny Lane is just around the corner.
All the road signs for Penny Lane get robbed. As a kid I thought it was odd, living so close to a famous song!
I used to walk past the barber’s that the lyric mentions. It was called Biolettis. My mum and her sister could remember some of The Beatles when they were at Quarry Bank school.
I stopped attending school myself at 15. I was too interested in what was happening in town. I’d met Jayne Casey and Paul Rutherford and Pete Burns.
Jayne was my idol, I aped her until I knew her. Then I just respected her. I love the way she lives. She never sold out her ideals.
I left school after the mock ‘0’ levels with no qualifications. I passed nine mocks and I think my parents wanted me to be a lawyer. Instead I went on the dole. I was on that for ages but I did occasional work.
I did some labouring in Wapping, converting warehouses to studios on Metropolitan Wharf. I’d do bits and pieces to subsidise my musical and artistic activities.
The dole hated the fact I registered for work as a musician. They tried to stop me money and send me to a rehabilitation centre in Birmingham making cuddly toys and landscape gardening!
I felt like a big fish in a small pool in Liverpool. I’d been on telly and I made the singles and I had an attitude that teenagers do have very black and white and arrogant.
I thought that Big In Japan were the best band in the world. We were the elite. People who ended up in the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes were considered the divvies.
BIJ weren’t in the punk mode, we were much artier though we didn’t have art school backgrounds like The Yachts and Deaf School.
Our songs were very William Burroughs influenced, about Andy Warhol getting shot (‘Scum’), imaginative stuff — pure John Peel sessions material.
We nearly did sign to Stiff and to Jet Records but it fell through and we disbanded. I was very despondent. I’d been the bassist, not bad but not up to Mark O’Toole standards.
I think I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer ever since I was the local four eyes. I actually used to make the things they showed you on Blue Peter.
I wrote odd poetry, I was totally into Tyrannosaurus Rex and Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie set me alight. Me and a mate went to see him at Liverpool Empire, June 10 1973 and we got beaten up for wearing platform shoes and make-up.
Later if you looked that way they’d call you a punk instead of a queer.
One thing I remember about school — apart from playing rugby to get out of playing football — was how little good careers advice we got. They never told you about art colleges. I had to drop Spanish and French to do art.
I was a far more selfish person in those days. I never intended to scrimp and I was independent.
I was asked to leave school and now they’re dredging up old photies of me to use as a good example! I was the worst possible student!