Frankie Goes to Hollywood!

If there is any band that encapsulates everything about the '80s it would have to be Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Big sound, bigger ideas, and the biggest hype (on the part of ZTT) in pop music history. Amid the flash and noise that surrounded FGTH it is often easy to forget that the band is responsible for some damned good music. "Two Tribes," "Welcome To The Pleasure Dome," "Watching the Wildlife," all of these and others from the band's brief career have stood the test of time, and more importantly, lingered long after the scandal has died down. No small part of this is due to one of the band's most important members, lead singer Holly Johnson. Not only did his sterling voice transform routine covers of songs like "Ferry Across the Mersey" into magic moments of pop-craft, but he also helped to write the band's grander original songs. His later career proved that of all the members of the band, he is most likely to succeed. Despite the success that he has enjoyed, the years after the break-up of FGTH have been a roller coaster for Mr. Johnson. He sued to get out of his ZTT contract (which basically ended the first phase of ZTT), found his record company abandoning him despite huge sales in England and Europe, and, if that weren't enough, found himself diagnosed as HIV+. Many people, including fans, feared him dead. Even those who knew better had a small knot in their stomach, realizing it was just a matter of time. But, as Mark Twain said, reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated. Thanks to a strong spirit and improved drug therapies, Holly Johnson is not merely surviving, but thriving. He took some time out his busy schedule to answer some of my questions, and proved that the years have done anything but dim his luster.

You haven't been heard from in a while here in the States. Bring us up to date.
Since leaving Frankie Goes To Hollywood in 1987 I have had several careers: solo singer, author, and painter/artist. Only one of my three solo albums was released in the United States-- BLAST on the Uni label. One song from that album, "Love Train," was released as a single, but the project was sabotaged due to US record company power struggles. Another song from that album, "Americanos," was used on the opening credits for the movie "Cookie." In the UK BLAST was a number one chart album. What can I tell you? I continue to be creative, but have only been commercially successful outside of the US I worked a lot on my painting and had an exhibition in London, March 1996. My HIV/AIDS diagnosis in 1991 was somewhat of a distraction from my career.

You wrote a book, an autobiography. Any plans to follow that up?
I feel I have to live a little longer before I write a sequel to my autobiography, which covers my experiences up until October 1991. Writing is a creatively rewarding occupation but for me very time consuming. Since my book I have done a little journalism but nothing is in the current pipeline. I do think I will write other things, though.

Was "A Bone In My Flute" ever published here? I can not seem to find it.
No, it was published in the Commonwealth, UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa. It sold quite well and was universally well received. Although now out of print, 3,000 people took it out of UK libraries last year. The larger US Publishing houses did not see it as a commercially viable book. Let's face it, I am not Joan Collins or Boy George. Although we were The Spice Girls of 1984 in Europe, My work has never been widely promoted in the US One US hit single and a hit t-Shirt in 1985 does not a celebrity make.

Tell us about your paintings.
I see the paintings as another facet of my Pop art statement. I think Frankie was a very visual statement also. When I was a teenager I was very inspired by Andy Warhol and I think he was the most important artist of the 20th century. I especially liked the idea of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which was a touring happening that consisted of The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol in a performance, film, and music extravaganza. I always saw myself as a multi media artist. My paintings have a pop quality to them; colour is very important. I prefer not to explain them in a theoretical way. I was about to give music up in 1983 and start an art college degree......and then there came a Bang!, which was Frankie. I guess Frankie was my pop art degree show.

You and the rest of FGTH had brief roles in the Brian De Palma film Body Double. Any roles since then? Do you have any desire to be an actor?
I would love to. Although the film world mystifies me. I think it is even weirder than the music industry. I hope If I ever do it again that I do it well. Some pop stars make lousy actors don't you think? It's as if they can't get over themselves. They're being "special" as who they are and they hope that will carry them through.

How is your health these days?
My health seems to be improving daily. Thank you.

Are you working on any new music?
Yes. Eighteen months ago I built a loft extension on my house especially to house Sky studios, where I have been recording on and off since. I am working on producing an album.

Are you working with anyone in particular?
I started off working with co-producer Steve Lovell, an old friend from Liverpool who I have worked with in the past. We did two tracks together to christen the studio. I have worked alone and with other musicians, engineers, and programmers since then. I am financing the recording myself. So I have no big names to drop.

What sort of music do you follow these days?
I like a lot of different things although I tend to come back to electronica again and again. Kraftwerk was a big early influence. I love pop. Madonna seems to be the cleverest exponent in that arena. From Janet Jackson all the way over to techno, drum and bass, some guitar bands like The Verve, some hip hop. I buy a lot of CD'S and old vinyl (way too much really). T.Rex was a huge influence. The list is endless.

You worked with Ian Broudie recently. How was that; anything come out of that?
"Ferry Across the Mersey" by Holly Johnson and The Lightning Seeds appears on the Live Album. "You'll Never Walk Alone" (V2 Records). It is recorded excerpts from The Hillsborough Justice Concert, which happened last year at Liverpool's Anfield Football Stadium. The album is in aid of the legal battle being fought by the families of the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy, where 96 people died, in 1989. It was a very emotional experience. I was the homecoming queen. I was touched. And very happy that Ian invited me to do that with his group, who have been rather successful over here in the last few years. Ian was the lead guitarist in my very first band, which was called Big In Japan back in 1977.

If you could work with anyone these days, who would it be?
Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Kate Bush, Arthur Baker. I would love to work with Dan Hartman again, but unfortunately, he left the planet a few years ago now. Patrick Cowley likewise. I am a fan of so many musicians, producers, and artists that this list could be huge.

Would you ever work with Trevor Horn again?
I think Trevor is a really good arranger. He can create epic qualities and strange melancholy moods. Creatively, I would answer yes but practically I doubt it will ever happen.

Going back over your career, how was your experience with Big In Japan? Do you keep in touch with members other than Broudie?
Big In Japan were an interesting group of people, rather more than an interesting group. I was never that into being a bass player in a group. I did it for the experience, and was more interested in writing the lyrics for that band. Although there were different writers vying for that role. I met up with Budgie the drummer (Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Creatures) recently. I did a club P.A. on Valentine's night and he came along. He is a very sweet person. I don't count many heterosexual men as friends but I love Budgie. I haven't seen Bill Drummond for a while. We met up a few years back after the KLF had decided to call it a day for a while. I loved those records. I talk to and see the band's singer, Jayne Casey, a lot. We have been through a lot together over the years . I don't know Dave Balf very well, as he replaced me as bass player, but we did speak recently. He is a big wheel at Capitol Records now.

When FGTH got signed, what were you doing for a job?
I didn't have a job. I always saw being in a band as a full time job. I was really the band's manager for a while, getting gigs, etc. I signed on the dole; you call it welfare.

How did the band hook up with ZTT?
By that time we had a manager in London called Bob Johnson. We had made a crude promo video which was us miming to demos of "Relax" and "Two Tribes." It was during our Leather Fetish phase. We looked like extras from the movie The Road Warrior. A new TV show called “The Tube" was starting up. They liked the video and came to Liverpool and shot a cleaned up version. (The original was very sleazy, but in a good way....) Trevor saw that appearance and made a mental note about the song “Relax," which he felt he could make a hit out of. It wasn't until months later, though, when he heard the song again on the radio as part of a Kid Jenson session, that he contacted us.

For the finished product, how much was the band's writing and how much was Horn and Company arranging?
Well, the song was complete and the bass and drum groove was there on the demo before we even dreamed of a worldwide hit. The actual recording used lots of groundbreaking and expensive technology.The record would not have been so complex and innovative without Trevor and his team. But it took our raw energy and youthful exuberance to start that particular fire. My vocal was actually quite an important element, although that sounds rather like blowing my own trumpet.

You guys had a very complicated design going with the singles and related product from the first album. Was there a master plan in all of that? Is it supposed to make sense?
ZTT liked to think there was a master plan, but so much happened by accident. For example; the whole idea of having multiple dance mixes of a single started with Frankie, but it was thought up by the MD of Island Records, at that time a man called Dave Robinson, just so he could keep the record at number one for another week. It would be a bit like Malcolm MacLaren claiming that The Sex Pistols was all his idea. It's a ridiculous concept. Things evolve. Planning is a often a waste of time. Sh** happens.

FGHT, even on Liverpool, had a very lush sound. Is that what you were aiming for or more of a rock sound?
I wanted to make the kind of records that I heard in the discos that I danced in at that time. Funky, electronic sounds, while the musicians in the band were more rock oriented. This I suppose created the sound we know as FGTH. On the Liverpool album the band pushed harder towards a more conventional rock sound, and that's when I started to lose interest.

Liverpool had some great moments, like "Watching the Wildlife." Do you find anything redeeming about the album, or was it too painful?
Some of the songs are good on that album, I just wasn't happy with the direction and the fact that Trevor didn't really produce it. Making the record was emotionally painful, as I felt I was losing control of my baby. “Maximum Joy" was good to perform live, for example. “Wildlife" was quite a good song also.

Do you think that, given the hype and expectations, the band could have ever followed up Welcome.... and pleased everyone?
Probably not. This hype word bothers me, though. It always sounds like an accusation. What does it mean? Advertising? Column inches in the press? Bands themselves are never really responsible for all of that. That is something that happens to you when you sell millions of records.

It's funny, but at the time you were seen as just the singer. Nowadays people have recognized that you are a great songwriter too. Is this something you have worked hard at?
To be honest I haven't noticed any recognition of my songwriting capabilities lately, or ever for that matter. Not in the Industry anyway. (We won an Ivor Novello award once for "Two Tribes," best contemporary song 1984.) People stop me in the street from time to time and tell me that “The Power of Love" is somehow very special to them. And that's very uplifting when it happens. It's great to know that you have touched someone, someone that you don't even know.

ZTT-Not sure how much you want to or are able to talk about those days, but...Why did you want to leave? Was it, as they say, all about the Benjamins?
I don't know this "Benjamins" word. Maybe it's Benjamin Franklin on dollar bills? I felt very let down by Trevor when he didn't really produce the second album. I also did not get along with his wife, Jill Sinclair, from the get go. She ran the label on a business level. The contract we had all signed was later judged to be “unfair" or “in restraint of trade" in legal terms. I just didn't like the way they operated. Neither did the band, but the band weren't really prepared to take them on in a legal dispute. By the time they may have joined me in challenging the contract I had left the group and we were no longer on speaking terms.

Do you think it was the court battle that sunk ZTT, or was the court battle just symptomatic? It seems like everyone eventually leaves ZTT. Even Seal and 808 State have left now.
Well, ZTT are still afloat on a business level because business is what it has mostly always been about for them. It seems to now have no real direction on an artistic level, except for trying to warm up cold coffee. I suppose the fact that all the artists have left speaks for itself. But you can never rule out the fact that anyone can have a renaissance at any time. John Travolta is living proof.

What do you think of the current ZTT?
I don't have much contact with them to be honest. I'm not on their mailing list. I suppose I am not Trevor Horn's or JIll Sinclair's favourite person. At least they had the good sense to release a Best of Frankie Goes To Hollywood Album, even if I didn't get a vocalist credit. In fact none of the band did, which sums up their attitude, I suppose.

Since then you have done several successful, both critically and saleswise, albums. None seem to have clicked here. Why is that, do you think?
I believe I never got support from MCA in the United States for reasons of internal politics. David Simone (who is now head of A&R at Geffen) could tell you more about that than I. He signed me to the label and believed in me, which I was very grateful for. But as I was signed via the UK record company, there were no brownie points for anyone in the US to work on my album. David was an Englishman brought into the L.A. Office to start his own label within MCA, but he never got the financial and moral support to break any of his acts. That's my excuse anyway. Which is a boring answer. Maybe MTV didn't like “The Love Train" video. Who really knows or cares why something doesn't happen? Why aren't you the editor of Vanity Fair?

Touche. Have you ever done a tour to support any of them?
No. When in 1989 my manager set up a tour for me I was starting to have some health problems, which worried me greatly. I pulled out because I thought at the time that I could not stand up physically to another tour. The Frankie experience had taken its toll on my health and I guess I was beginning to suffer symptoms of AIDS Related Complex, although I wasn't sure of it at the time. I was in denial .

If we could turn a moment to your health-How has being HIV positive changed your life and your out lookon life?
The inevitability of having to turn to questions about my health is almost as hard to come to terms with as the virus itself. Other people need to know that HIV is real. I understand that. But It is very isolating nevertheless to be questioned about how it affects me. It's like the gay issue. I always felt that the media marginalised me because I was openly gay. Now it feels like a further narrowing of the pigeonhole people try to slot me into. The range of emotional highs and lows on the HIV rollercoaster are far too many to go into here. I feel that it should be enough for you to know my HIV+ status. And perhaps to know that sometimes I feel very grateful and glad to be alive and as well as I am.

How has the reaction from the wider mainstream musical community differed from the reaction of the gay community?
Some people in the gay community were quite supportive, Jimmy Somerville for example, and I feel that I have had very little support from people within the music industry. They wrote me off years ago anyway, as they do when a pop career wanes. I do get the odd letter from gay men and women. I do get more mail from heterosexual people, though, as there are a lot more of those on the planet. Heterosexuality is very common! I was never a big banner waving gay activist, just open about my sexuality. I have been called, brave, tragic, and other things. I don't see myself as either.

Do you find yourself more politicized these days because of being positive?
I have learned that people with HIV are not welcomed into some countries (including the USA) I have become more aware how activism can bring about change. Many people have been inspired by the way the gay community in the US reacted to the AIDS crisis. I was. Also people like Derek Jarmen who used agitprop as part of his art inspired me to continue to be creative and not give up the ghost. I think the best thing I can do is to carry on with my work and carry with me a sense of openness and dignity. That is my idea of a political act.

Do you think you being so openly gay had an effect on FGTH's reception here in the States? Did you ever run into problems?
Well, homophobia exists, there is no doubt in my mind about that. "Relax" was released in the US long before it was a hit. The first time it reached number 67 in the Billboard charts. We were told that this was because we were fashionable in New York and L.A., where there are large gay communities. It took a repackaging of the single and a new video that took away the S&M/gay visual language we had used in Europe to make "Relax" a top 10 hit in 1985. Certainly I get the feeling that the gay voice is stronger in the US and that if you are an American citizen you have a constitutional right to equality, like health benefits for partners, etc. although this is not universal. And gays are still not allowed in the military in the US (but who in their right mind would want to be, unless it was just for the uniform?) There is definite discriminatory legislation in this country. Like an unequal age of consent for sexual activity. There is a tendency to small mindedness and negativity in this country. But the US is not exempt from those things either. I find US accents very sexy though, which would be a bonus.

The song "Relax" was widely interpreted as being about oral sex. How do you feel about that song these days?
I think it was a great record and it still sounds good today. It was never about oral sex specifically. But as a songwriter and human being I do endorse oral sex. If it was a product I would not object that "Relax" be used in Oral TV Adverts:-)

What's your favorite Spandua Ballet song?
I don't really have one to be honest. If you pushed me I would say "True." They were nice guys when I met them but I was not a fan.

Do you keep in touch with people from the Liverpool days?
My sister and my friend Jayne Casey are in touch constantly. I recently donated a large light sculpture called Cyberman to The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. So I suppose I do.

What do you think of Ped's work on Fresh Records?
Well I'm only familiar with "Love Come Rescue Me" by Lovestation, which I thought was good. I think it's great that he move on to drum programming and remixing. Although he is mainly designing websites now, I hear. He has his own. It's called "Helicopter."

Do you keep in touch with other FGHT members?
They all get Christmas cards from me!

« Back Next »

Home   |   Help   |   Site Map

Copyright © 2002 The '80s Server, a division of MacroMusic, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.