I will survive
The former singer of Frankie Goes To Hollywood has made his first album in 10 years —
The photograph on the right was personally approved by Holly Johnson. We don’t normally give interviewees picture approval, but Johnson won the sympathy vote. Six years ago it was announced that the former leader of eighties pop group Frankie Goes To Hollywood had Aids, that he wouldn’t be with us for much longer. Johnson set to work —
No wonder he wants picture approval, he must look a right sight, says one colleague. He’s dead isn’t he, adds another. The rumours about his appearance spread round the office —
Wolfgang and Funky answer the door. Funky yelps and climbs my lower leg, while Wolfgang makes the coffee. Wolfgang, the lover, and Funky, the white poodle, have been living with Johnson for more than a decade. Upstairs, I hear scrapings and squeakings. Sorry, Holly’s not quite ready yet.
I wonder if he’s going to make a grand Norma Desmond sweep into the room —
Eventually he walks in, and I’m shocked. Johnson looks wonderful. More jowly than in the old days, when he could have been a poster boy for the school of homo-erotic kitsch, but handsome, healthy, mature.
He wants to play me the new single, so we head off for his recording studio in the attic. He turns on the video, tells me it’s his directorial debut, and starts smiling. The song Disco Heaven seems to be a celebratory throwback to his clubbing days.
Johnson, now 39, still talks in the same high camp of yesteryear with a pouting stress between syllables. “It’s a song about remembering in a positive way your friends that aren’t here any more.” Johnson has plenty of friends to remember. He can count 15 friends with Aids, all of them now dead. “You know they’re all there dancing together in disco heaven.”
Frankie Goes To Hollywood were a phenomenon. At a time when pop stars such as Freddie Mercury, George Michael and Elton John were closeted, Johnson’s band were all leather, bulges and gay pride. Relax, the first single, was released in 1984. It caused an uproar when Radio 1 finally realised it was about delayed ejaculation.
Their first three songs got to number one, Two Tribes was number one for an incredible nine weeks, and at one point they had the first and second best selling singles in the charts. Johnson preened and strutted and sucked up the celebrity with fabulous arrogance. He knew he was made to be admired.
Was he really as confident as he seemed? “Oh yes . I’d gone through my teenage years as if global stardom was my divine right. I was already there as far as I was concerned, it just took the world some time to realise it. You are that confident when you’re young. The arrogance of youth is brilliant.”
But the arrogance of youth was soon to be washed away by doubt and misfortune By 1987 he had fallen out with the other Frankies. He rowed with the “horrendous calculating” people at the record company, and for the first time in his life found things weren’t going his way. Johnson took them to court, and won a case for restraint of trade, He went solo, managed a number one album in 1989 and then fell out with his new bosses MCA. He has never released another album. Until now.
The fallout must have been tough? “Yes, but not as tough as getting ill.” A week after finding he was HIV positive he was told he had full-blown Aids. He had already lost most of his “extended gay family” to the disease by then, and he prepared himself for the worst.
Not only did he have to come to terms with Aids, he had to come to terms with the attendant prejudices. Just after getting the result he visited a counsellor who said that if he thought this was bad he should wait till the media gets hold of it and tells the world that Holly Johnson has got his just deserts for spouting on about gay sex.
“It was a bit of a headwrecker. I had a bit of a nervous breakdown,” he says quietly. He wouldn’t leave the house, wouldn’t tell his friends he had Aids, wouldn’t face up to reality. Depressed and ill with chronic pancreatitis, he locked his door on the outside world for a year.
He was so frightened, he says. “I wasn’t scared of death, but scared of life and scared of pain, and scared of suffering. Scared of physical disfigurement —
At least, he says, he didn’t miss celebrity. When fame did come, Johnson found it a letdown —
Johnson is having his photo taken, enjoying every moment of it. “Do I look respectable. Not too shiny? Yes, of course it was pretentious, but what’s wrong with pretentious? It was my art degree really, it was commercial art, pop art.” Continue »
When he talks about the happiness of the early eighties, he mentions meeting Wolfgang, who became his personal manager and is now a successful art dealer, rather than the adulation and the gold discs. Ironic, really, that the star who was touting pop promiscuity had already turned into a slippers and cocoa boy.
After a year’s illness, the despair was replaced by a sense of urgency.
Johnson wrote his autobiography A Bone In My Flute and says even now he’s still a little shocked by how confessional it is. “Well I didn’t expect to be around for the publication.” The exhibition of his paintings was also part of that process of rushing to realise dreams. “You know, quick you’ve got to do this, quick you’ve got to do that, before you pop your clogs. If my HIV diagnosis gave me anything it did give me the desire to live in the moment and appreciate it. Being here now, and knowing how lucky I am to be seeing that eclipse with Wolfgang.” He says so much of his youth was spent living in the future.
Johnson thinks we should finish the interview by six. “Otherwise Wolfgang will go mad.” Why? “Because it’s Friday night and we always finish work by six.”
Actually, he says, if we stop now we’ll be bogged down in the past, and there is so much happening today. About three years ago he underwent another shift. He had changed his lifestyle —
“I’m winning,” he says. “For years now I’ve felt I can go on living, I’m bigger than it ,” he says with a wonderful melodramatic gesture and giggle.
When he started to feel better he built the studio and began to sing again. “When you’re ill you don’t feel like singing. It was really quite tough getting my voice back into shape.” Psychologically tough as well? “Yeh. You ask yourself is it still there? Can I still do it? Will anyone want to hear it?” On the new album, he has re-recorded his famous ballad, The Power Of Love.
“Whenever people come up to him in the street and him if he’s Holly Johnson, he says, they always mention that song, and tell him how they fell in love to it.” He says this version is more mellow.
Johnson seems so balanced and calm. “Is that the right word?” he says. “I don’t know if it’s calmness. I don’t know what it is. It’s called growing up isn’t it, not caring so much about what people think about you as an individual, accepting yourself for who you are.” Did he really care so much? “I pretended I didn’t, but I think I did. I was the pop star who wouldn’t wear the same outfit twice.”
A few weeks ago Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s classic album Welcome To The Pleasuredome re-entered the charts, and in October the new album will be released. Is the renaissance complete? He quickly reminds me the album was only in the charts because it was on special offer. But what if things did take off like last time? “Lightning doesn’t strike twice,” he says.
“I’m not expecting or hoping for that to happen. But you know it’s almost like the success has already happened in my head by virtue of recording an album that I’m really happy with and that I can put on in front of you without cringing. That’s pretty good going isn’t it?”