Photograph : Holly Johnson by Kevin Davies
Text: Paul Flynn
It is tempting to think of the pop life of William ‘Holly’ Johnson as divisible by a series of pointed before and after’s… before and after Relax… B&A Pleasuredome… B&A Frankie… B&A Blast… B&A illness… B&A a court case… B&A biography. The timeline has added up to maximise the whole; a series of theatrical operations that collude to build the bigger picture at the heart of the artist. Or ‘The Bigger Bang’, as might once been posited.
Yet through it all there have remained unique consistencies. In an unlikely twist on the lascivious pop narrative, Holly’s relationship with his manager and partner Wolfgang Kuhle has continued un-swerved for almost thirty years. His flair for working class escape through lyricism and humour still scintillates. He is unchanged in the respect of being noticeably, unequivocally and even surprisingly Scouse. His sense of personal provocation is undimmed. His impeccable, shopaholic taste for presentation is gilded by the master couturiers Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo, even Leigh Bowery : same as it ever was.
Choosing his stage-wear for summer 2011’s headlining turn at a Henley on Thames Festival, he leafed through the racks at Dover Street Market and found a Comme blazer in black leather, with panels cut out, representing a vibrant sartorial ribcage. After three decades on stage, Holly Johnson is still taking wilful perversity and abject high taste to the mainstream. He is still his own, special creation. His special gift to the pop climate was always to lend it a bit of artful thunder and lightning.
His riveting pop tale – harnessed most effectively in the autobiography A Bone in My Flute, a required reading textbook for any PHD study in the golden age of mass market pop music – may have included incommensurate lows to counterbalance the giddy highs. But the intent has remained stoically the same.
Holly Johnson is evangelical about the Warholian idyll of the superstar. He named himself in honour of it, after first witnessing the louche Factory transvestite Holly Woodlawn as a fourteen year old schoolboy in a spit and sawdust Liverpool picturehouse, accompanied by his thrilled best friend (the best friend remains another consistency, fyi). Warhol’s tract was for a stardom that wasn’t measured in facts and figures but rather by cause and effect. By the calculation of whatever those intangible fabulosities that conspire to create proper fame are. Holly Johnson emerged as and remains of a breed of star that wanted to change the world with pop. In his own way – and herein lies the ultimate masterstroke of his career – he managed it.
First with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, then with his own executive solo pop career, Holly Johnson helped shift a seismic reversal in received thinking on parochial gender politics, gay rights and working class Bohemia. Smashing into the draconian national mindset of the early 80s, he did it with wit, style, musicality, poise and danger. There was no apology to his pop persona, just the distinct aroma of playful, artistic raunch. When teenage boys of a certain persuasion saw him on The Tube in 1983, cavorting in steely clone-wear to the sound of hard sex, letting out a fertile smile from the side of his mouth between the climactic second chorus and the bridge, it was as if the UK was ready for a summer of sexual upheaval. His was pop music as agent of social change.
It is no accident that Holly Johnson was the last great superstar to emerge before the ethical meltdown of Live Aid changed pop forever, giving it a new shop-front of social responsibility and queasy role-modelling. Holly’s opening salvos were so much more interesting, referencing Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Tom of Finland, the nightclub utopias found in the metropolis under a glitterball. They were testaments riffing on the amyl throb of high nrg, the trash aesthetic of Divine, the high art of Berlin-era Bowie and the gentlemanly savant of Ferry’s Roxy Music. He had grown up surrounded by a surfeit of pop ideology, blurring gender lines and social norms. His heroes drew on a complex worship of otherness. Guided by the deft hand of his pop cultural predecessors his only responsibility was to his art. He marshalled the idea of gay culture from buttoned-up repression into the new terrain of divine decadence. Watching from the sidelines, this turnaround looked insurrectionary. It was as punk as gay ever got.
It is astonishing to think that through all his endeavours in the pop stratosphere, Holly Johnson has never been undone by the mythology of pop music. He is still a believer in and exponent of its alchemical qualities of transubstantiation, of pop’s innate ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Why? Because he did it.
It is late 2011 and the boutique, revisionist record label Cherry Red has re-released fully expanded versions of Holly Johnson’s entire solo back catalogue, to complement similar packages on Universal and Union Square licensed from his first label of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s work. The artist has responded to numerous professional European requests to talk about his astonishing career, to assist with the publicity of these expanded volumes of his life’s work. . He travails through the streets of Paris , Vienna and Cologne to satisfy an interesting, post-Youtube demand. To let everyone know that for Holly Johnson there is as much of a present as there is a past.
It is a chance not just for Holly to re-contextualise the cataclysmic stardust he dropped onto pop but for the world to, too. We know that Holly Johnson as a songwriter cannot help but nail a perfectly robust chorus. It was always something that separated and in its own way elevated him from the countercultures that most delighted and excited him. The mainstream success of Holly has always seemed to come as a delightful afterthought, bolted onto his career through the simple signifier of pop craftsmanship. It is under the covers of the surface that the diamonds emerge.
What is truly exceptional about these repackaged works is their unwaveringly other aspect. We know he dropped the taboo of gay sex into the consumer culture as it was peaking under Thatcher and glossed it with a propulsive, glamorous sheen. But stranger consistencies emerged. After naming the first universe he created a ‘Pleasuredome’, in honour of Coleridge, his second was the ribald crash back down to earth of ‘Liverpool’. If the pop model is expected to move from the suburbs to fantasia, he had affected a blinding reverse strategy.
The highlights of the record, the angry, lean rock stomp of Rage Hard with Holly’s defining baritone, the late entry of a Chic-like bass 3 minutes into the synthetic wash of Maximum Joy, the urban commentary of Watching The Wildlife are more circumspect than the bold, technicolour flashes of Pleasuredome. They set-up odd portents for the break-up of one of the 80s defining acts. By the time we have reached Holly’s colourful, bright, bountiful and upbeat solo debut Blast, it is as if he had once been constrained by the tenets of the Frankie musician’s prog-loving straight boys. Like Liza Minelli had been released from fronting Pink Floyd. He declined the inevitable dollar of the revival, the comeback and the Here and Now circuit, over and over again. For Holly, pop was about futurism in the true sense of the word, not basking in the glow of the past.
Blast was a new era, a new release, a new narrative for the star. The voracious Love Train was a call-to-arms for positivity. In its iconic remixed form by Frankie Knuckles it set a new dance-floor precedent for Holly, reflecting the more nuanced house timbres of the day. The smash pop hit Americanos felt like a Bruce Weber shoot set to music. Even at his most fragrantly pop savvy, Holly could not lose the art and the artifice of a fresh vocabulary for pop, always with an underlying political sting. The later solo albums, Dreams That Money Can’t Buy and Soulstream were no less edifying. The marketing budget of a record label committed to success-or-bust may not have been there, but in some ways, after touching the trenchant duality of global pop supremacy, well, who would really want to go back there? Fame was always a glorious accident bequeathed on Holly because it was bound to touch him sooner or later.
We find Holly Johnson in 2012 as relaxed, candid and playful as he has ever been. Invigorated by revisiting his old life as one of his generation’s defining cultural voices on stage again, his love of future pop is still insatiable. He has become a trusted ear of new friends on the pop landscape, people he admires, pushing forward pop into new possibilities. You might’ve seen him hovering at the recent shows of quieter totems, John Grant, Antony and The Johnsons or The Irrepressibles
, artists who all acknowledge their debt to a man who opened a floodgate for them later to step through and lend their own uniquely modern twists to.
From his quiet lodgings in South West London, another consistency of his life, Holly Johnson is still a champion of the other. The boy simply cannot help it. So, yes, you may wish to look at the pop life of Holly Johnson as a continuum of before and afters. But for him, one suspects, there are only befores. His deeply idiosyncratic march continues, in awesome shoes.
Paul Flynn January 2012