'80s - Holly Johnson (2015)
'(Still) Dancing With No Fear: The Holly Johnson Story'
As I am more than sure you are all aware by now, Holly Johnson is an English artist, musician and writer, best known as the lead vocalist of British powerhaus band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who achieved HUGE commercial success in the mid-1980s.
But did you also know that prior to that, in the late 1970's, Johnson was a bassist for the band Big in Japan. After the break up of FGTH, after just two albums, in 1989, Johnson's debut solo album, Blast reached number one in the UK albums chart. Two singles from the album Ė 'Love Train' and 'Americanos' Ė reached the top 5 of the UK Singles Chart. In the 1990's, Johnson then embarked on a painting career.
After the 1990 remix album Hollelujah, Johnson released his second solo album in 1991, Dreams That Money Can't Buy. Sadly, in November 1991, Johnson learned that he was HIV positive. This triggered a temporary withdrawal from the music business and public life, in general.
Since the mid-1990s, Johnson has worked primarily as a painter. His works have been exhibited at the Tate Liverpool and the Royal Academy. He has contributed to Modern Painters and the Paul Smith-sponsored Carlos magazine. He made a musical comeback in 1999, with an album called Soulstream, preceded by the 1998 single 'Hallelujah!'
In May 2014, Johnson announced his first UK solo tour, named after what-is-now-to-be his new single, 'Dancing With No Fear.' Indeed, the seven date tour was preceded by a brand new solo album, entitled Europa. The first single that came off of that album was 'Follow Your Heart.'
Luckily for me, and with Holly having been very busy recently getting mixes done of 'Dancing With No Fear' by Dimitri From Paris, Seamus Haji, JRMX, Funky Derrick and more, I recently chatted one-on-one with the man himself, Holly Johnson.
With the release of your brand new solo album, Europa having been a long 15 year wait (since 1999's Soulstream) for us fans, the first question has to be, Why the long time spent away from releasing albums? "Soulstream took years to write and record after building a home studio then setting up the PLEASUREDOME label to release it. It was quite a big undertaking, even directing the video for 'Disco Heaven.' So when the 20th Century became the 21st, I took another direction in my creative life and decided to concentrate on my visual art practice, painting and printmaking."
"I decided to go back to Art College [The Royal College Of Art] which had been interrupted by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the global success of the Welcome To The Pleasuredome double album. I exhibited at the invitation of Sir Peter Blake at Tate Liverpool and The Royal Academy of Art, other mixed shows and a solo exhibition."
"I never stopped thinking about music although it took a few years of performing at Summer festivals here in the UK from around 2011 for me to even consider actually making another record."
Having released it on your very own label, Pleasuredome Records, did you discover it was an easy task putting it all together. Or was putting out a new album, on your own label, with our own money something of an unexpected undertaking? "The PLEASUREDOME label was a concept born out of necessity. I had an iTunes account set up with the help of Mirijam Lockshine who used to work there. Itís never an easy task for an artist to set these things up themselves. She had seen FGTH at the Ritz in NY back in the day."
"So, I had learned a lot from releasing Soulstream on my own label and knew that Europa was going to be a lot of work and quite an expensive undertaking. Some Musicians did me great favours, like Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music. Although PR, promotion, and marketing cost more than the actual record - and that was just concentrating on the UK and Germany!"
Europa has been heralded as being a "euphoric celebration of love and dance," but I was amazed to learn that the title track had actually been written way back in 1990, in Paris; and was co-written by none other than Vangelis! Please do tell us more about where the acorn of inspiration for the song originated and the time you spent with him in an underground studio "We began by imagining a future where Europe is one solid Urban mass. A vision perhaps drawn from the film Blade Runner that Vangelis, my co-writer famously scored; creating a perfect and seamless Soundscape with Ridley Scottís Dystopian depiction of how the future could be."
"From the debris of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, a new Europe could rise out of the chaos, leading to some unknown future. Mindful of the past, the hollow or Double Men and their machinations: The Stasi, the CIA, MI5, Industrial Espionage and Arms Manufacturer's. The idea was we were on the brink of something new, a sense of hope that could in fact be dashed on the rocks of economic meltdown or a third world war. Itís after all, just Progaganda."
So, what can you say about the song 'Europa' without the context explained above? "At the start of 1990, I was under pressure to write a follow up to BLAST and I wasnít feeling very well and decided not to tour. I had been stuck in my small basement for months with a computer, sampler and some synths for company: an old central heating boiler occasionally emitted Carbon Monoxide fumes."
"I got a call from an assistant of Vangelis, the electronic music composer that I had admired for years; since the moment I heard 'Iíll Find My Way Home' (Jon and Vangelis) on the portable radio in Toxteth, Liverpool 8. Blade Runner, as they say, ďblew my mindĒ. The manís name was Andrew and he said he was lucky enough to have been David Bowieís A&R man at RCA UK in the 1970ís."
"The offer was to write a song with Vangelis: which was pretty amazing. I was sent a DAT of a backing track to write a lyric and melody over I set to work straight away. It was not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had been traveling to Germany and other European countries regularly sine 1984 with Frankie business and then later many solo appearances Mainly TV shows to perform on."
"Vangelis was living, surrounded by synthesisers at The Plaza Athenťe in Avenue Martaigne across the street from Marlene Deitrichís apartment. It was another world. He took me and Wolfgang to Studio Mega in the Bois De Boulogne; an underground bunker that we were told was earmarked for Adolf Hitlerís use during the German occupation of France. It all certainly added to the atmosphere of the recording of what is now referred to as the demo of Europa."
"During the recording I met some of the Vangelis social set consisting partly of his young girlfriend Laura Metaxa. Roman Polanski, the film director and his actress girlfriend Emmanuel Seigneur, turned up at the studio with two Choreographers. Emmanuel said, ďIím going to be in the video that Roman will direct and I want to dance.Ē It was a dream like experience and on Monday Morning after this weekend was over it was as if it never happened. I didnít hear anything again about the fate of the song."
"Before we left Paris Andrew did give me a cassette of the Blade Runner soundtrack, which was still in 1990 unreleased. Something which I treasured. Another tape I left with was a DAT from Studio Mega of a monitor mix of 'Europa'."
"While looking for songs amongst my archive to record with Mark Ralph in 2012 I came across the DAT marked Studio Mega. I had used the spare tape to add other demos of other song, but luckily kept the original demo on it. Mark agreed it would be great to rerecord it, hopefully with the aid of Vangelis."
"I set about trying to contact ďVĒ and came across a reference to Cherry Vanilla, a rather special person who I had seen perform in Ericís in the late 70ís and met later in New York at Danceteria. Cherry was an one time press attachť for Ziggy era Bowie in the US and part of the Warhol meets Main Man set like friends Lee Black Childers and Jayne County. She had named her company ďEuropaĒ after the demo she had heard sometime in the intervening years, which just seemed like a good omen to me."
"Eventually after a failed attempt, I managed to visit Vangelis In Paris and had a lovely evening with him listening to music and watching DVDís of his huge outdoor spectacle shows. The next evening we were working in Studio Omega on the other side of the Bois de Boulogne with his engineer Philippe Collona, who had also worked on the original session in 1990."
"Some work had already been done by Vangelis on his Yamaha CS 80 that had been used extensively on Blade Runner. He played additional keyboards that night in Studio Omega including some bass synth and signature chords; the recording was then mixed by Vangelis and Philippe Collona into the early hours of the next day - and then, Europa was finally completed."
Wow! Indeed, with all that in mind, were all the tracks on Europa written back 25 years ago or have new ones crept onto the tracklisting through the years? "No, they were all written at different times over the last 30 years, in fact. There are really recent songs on the album, like 'So Much It Hurts' and 'In And Out Of Love'."
Europa sounds like a very Holly-retrospective album, chock full of crisp pop tunes, wrapped up in sublime songwriting. A joy to listen to, an album for the summertime, it still manages to come across as a loved-and-lost, history of crushes and relationships undone; a soul-bearing batch of 11 songs. Could this be the most autobiographical that you've ever musically been on record, perhaps? "Europa is a kind of retrospective exhibition of songs from different eras in my songwriting timeline."
I love Europa's cover art, and I know that you painted it and entitled it, "United Kingdom After the Rain." Part of a series of paintings made in 2001-02, did you always have the notion that it would one day be the cover art to one of your records? "No, actually I didnít. I sent a lot of images of my paintings and prints to the sleeve designer Philip Marshall and he liked that one in particular. It seemed so right at this particular moment in time."
With regard Europa, where does that name originate? "Obviously it comes from the title and lyrics I wrote for the song. Also THE MUSIC is very much in the tradition of European Electronic and rock and pop music with a bit of dance influence - especially in the song, 'Follow Your Heart.' I like the positive sound of the word a bit like Eureka and feel it is my best solo work in so many ways."
Is it also true that it had the working title Do Me a Lemon?! "Yes, it's cockney rhyming slang for Do me a favour. Like, Do me a lemon flavour. So many people did me favours by performing on the record. It's not so easy when you're not on a major record label who are financing a record and have obvious pulling power. I did pay most musicians the Musicians Union standard session fees though."
Finally, being that Europa was 25 years in the making, surely we cannot be expected to wait another 15 or more years before a follow up studio album is brought forth? "Letís hope not!"
In 2014 you embarked upon a solo tour, entitled 'Dancing with No Fear,' but as you hadn't toured since FGTH's final show in 1987 (save for, perhaps some festival slots), how did you approach these solo new dates? "I just built on the Festival set list and made sure there was a song from every album I had recorded, all of the FGTH singles, and a good slice of new songs from Europa. 'Dancing With No Fear' was always destined to be a single and it seemed fitting that it would be included. It has an attitude which I try to bring to the stage, even if I sing more than I dance these days."
Being that you have a huge back catalog of material, plus the new album, and can do cover songs also, when you first sat down to write out the set list, how easy or how hard was it to leave off certain personal favorites of yours; or perhaps favorites of the fans? "What the fans want to hear is important, but I canít include everything obviously in a 100 minute set which is quite long anyway. The full length album version 'Welcome to The Pleasuredome' (I do the 7Ē single version), for example, or tracks like 'Maximum Joy' are a bit too long to include in a set that has to be an overview of things."
And even with the release of Europa just behind us, you have released ANOTHER new album, this time a live one recorded on the last night of your UK tour in late 2014. Entitled Unleashed From The Pleasuredome: Holly Johnson Live, it is 19 tracks from your career, but was it always the plan to record the final night of the tour? "It was midway, actually, as the tour continued to Germany. It was a good show to record actually as by the time I got to Cologne in December I developed Laryngitis which was unfortunate."
Will you ever come and tour over here in the US? I live in Detroit, Michigan and I know that the "Home of Motown" would welcome you with open arms! "I would love to, if there was enough interest. Obviously it costs a lot to get a band of 7 people over there, work permits and practical things like hotels and flights are costly. A lot of bands donít come because of those practical problems. All I can say is I hope it will happen soon."
Frankie Goes To Hollywood:
Back in 1984 is when your first came to the UK's attention, because FGTH were, out of nowhere, topping the Singles Chart, being banned from Radio 1, and subsequently having their video for 'Relax' pulled from all TV shows also! At that exact moment, surrounded by all the media attention, can you tell us here today if you guys were orchestrated by the "higher ups" to be as rowdy, as bawdy as possible, or was that all you guys doing what came naturally? "The record label tended to claim all the kudos for the controversy surrounding FGTH, but they could not have known that the BBC would eventually ban 'Relax'! The BBC [Radio 1] had been playing demos of the song on John Peel and the Kid Jensen show, which is one of the places they first heard about us."
'Relax' also won the 1985 Brit Award for Best British Single, and has gone on to ultimately become the seventh best-selling UK single of all time, but what are YOUR thoughts on the song - some 30 years on? "Itís a great record that has been remixed too many times by remixers of varying ability. Jam and Spoon and Peter Rauhoffer did great mixes along with the original Sex Mix and US Mix. The Zoolander cover version is not my favourite, but I love what Blondie did with the song recently."
As there have always been variations on a media theme for where the band got their name from, am I right in saying that you yourself saw those very same four words on a newspaper on a table in front of you, in reference to Frank Sinatra @ 1980? "No! It was a painting of a Newspaper in a book called Rock Dreams by Guy Peelaert."
With your first three singles all being #1's, and a record to be broken should the fourth release do the same, sadly 'Welcome To The Pleasuredome' peaked only at #2. Did FGTH take it badly, or was it water off a ducks back at that time, so to speak? "Well, as the album Welcome To The Pleasuredome had already been number 1 in the album charts and over a million people had it already, it didnít seem to be important that the single didn't quite get there - to me anyway!"
I think what amazes us fans is that - casting our minds back - we assume FGTH had multiple albums, released en masse of singles, and were together for years. But much like the Sex Pistols have the very same myth about them, FGTH only released two (2) albums and were commercially together for just three years! I know you left the band after the 1987 tour, citing musical estrangement, and then were thrown knee deep into a lawsuit battle with ZTT for a couple of years, but in reflection was it all such a fame+fortune whirlwind to you at the time also? "It was my real life version of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars and had a finite lifespan. It was a whirlwind of sorts, but one that was liberating and entertaining for a lot of people. It didnít make us wealthy as the record company kept most of the revenue and still do, but it was fun while it lasted."
To this day, which is your favorite FGTH single? "That would be 'The Power Of Love'."
You have been quoted, at one stage or another throughout your career, as saying these three (3) statements. Can you please elaborate on them for us today:
1) "I really am the archetypal misery guts!Ē - "This one was almost what I said, but was rephrased slightly. I was just trying to explain that although the songs seem really positive and uplifting, they are designed to get me out of my natural downbeat state."
2) "The songs I sing are full of encouragement because really I'm singing to myself, to get rid of that black dog and get me out of my shell!" - "My previous answer answers this one also."
3) "I'm just one of those slightly, slightly mental people that has a lot of jabbering voices in his head!" - "I havenít been diagnosed as being bi polar or anything like that. I just have a lot going on in my head!"
The Truth Behind the Myth:
In 1993 you bravely revealed you were infected with HIV, then in 1994 you released your autobiography, and come 1999 your last solo album, Soulstream was delivered to the fans. Never one from shying away from talking points, was telling the world about your HIV a cathartic experience for you at that time, perhaps? "It was, in a sense, as me and my partner, Wolfgang had been quite alone in dealing with it for just over a year. So it was a relief to talk about it in a way. Itís just a shame that I still have to."
I completely understand, my friend. So, here today, all these years on, when a fair few of your friends have passed from HIV and such, how are you doing? "I am incredibly well and in really good health, considering the what has happened. There really was a light at the end of the tunnel for me, but it is sad that friends like Dan Hartman didnít survive to benefit from the progress of medical science."
You once said that singing your own songs was a "teenage dream come true" and then added that you wondered why you had ever stopped? Being that a decade or more ago you were not in the music scene, and even at one point were being heralded as dead, what did actually stop you from continuing on with your teenage dream? "Well, I had severe health issues due to HIV infection from 1991-1996 which was a huge curve ball. The anti viral medication to help me and others took time to develop and even then some of it had debilitating side effects - like depression, etc. "
"Being openly HIV positive closes a lot of doors and only recently has it become slightly less of an issue and is now seen as a chronic manageable illness. My solo records ceased to be available for many years when MCA got absorbed into Universal / Island. It wasnít until 2009 when they asked me to promote Frankie Say Greatest that I had some leverage and got them to reissue my back catalogue. Itís been a struggle, but Iím a fighter and here I am again fighting my corner to stay in the game; even though itís a much smaller game than it was in the 1980ís!"
In 1989, your solo career took off in wicked style with Blast, a number one-ranking album that placed a mighty few high-placed singles on the UK Singles Chart. After all that you had gone through for those last few years, this must have been a massive vindication for you - to know you were still loved and adored by those that mattered to you, your fans "Well, it was a great time for me. Working with Dan Hartman especially was a lot of fun. Yes, worldly success is a vindication of sorts. I always believed in myself and when you are young there is a kind of blind confidence. Getting older teaches you a lot of things. The failures teach you much more than the successes, in fact."
The remix album Hollelujah (which I've always thought would have made a great name for your not-released-yet Christmas album!) followed, trailed by a second solo album, Dreams That Money Can't Buy. It was then you stepped back from music and delved into becoming a successful painter. I'm sure you have some of your work up in your house, but do you ever do private work for collectors, perhaps? "No, I donít do commissions. Itís purely for my pleasure."
Do you continue to paint and if so, will there be any art gallery showings in 2015, perhaps? "When I have time, which I donít at the moment."
In today's music scene, who do you yourself go out of your way to listen to? "Iím listening to a lot of Arthur Russell and Larry Levan at the moment, but I also listen to music by John Grant and Cherry Ghost, in quieter moments."
Finally, we here at ExclusiveMagazine love penguins and so we wondered if you did also - or if you had any personal stories about them, perhaps? "I think I saw some at Chester Zoo on Merseyside as part of a school trip as a child. I didnít have an altercation with a penguin or put my finger through the fence as there was a warning notice! That's my only memory of Penguins."
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
Check Out This BRAND NEW Holy & Tom Moulton Mix of 'Follow Your Heart' NOW!
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