Holly Johnson: I Remember

BY Danny Scott

1st Jan 2015 Celebrities

Holly Johnson: I Remember

Holly Johnson rose to fame as frontman of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The controversial release of Relax sky rocketed the band to success in the 80s. Holly looks back at those years and his childhood, sharing his most treasured memories.

I remember...

…Reader's Digest

One of my earliest memories is seeing Reader’s Digest on the dining-room table. It always seemed like such a mysterious, enigmatic magazine. Then I discovered this cache of albums that Dad must have got from Reader’s Digest—lots of exotic, easy-listening music. Somehow, these strange, beautiful sounds didn’t fit with the image I had of my dad, this ordinary bloke from Liverpool. Reader’s Digest was his gateway to culture. And here I am being interviewed for that same magazine!

…Watching all the women walking to work

We used to live at 206 Rathbone Road, Wavertree, in Liverpool, a house that doesn’t even exist any more. We were surrounded by factories such as Meccano, Huntley & Palmers, Plessey and this big place that made metal tins, and I’ll never forget these enormous groups of women walking to work in the mornings, chatting, smoking and laughing in their check overalls. Whenever I think about my childhood, I have this vision—very black-and-white and rather dishevelled, almost like Coronation Street or a Terence Davies movie.

A young Holly Johnson
At home at 206 Rathbone Road, Liverpool

…catching the school bus from the Penny Lane bus terminus

The Beatles seemed to reverberate through everything we did in the 1960s. Their records were constantly on the record player, my sister had Beatles wallpaper and my mum even grew up on the same street as George Harrison. She used to tell me stories about seeing John Lennon’s mum Julia swanning down the road, looking like Lucille Ball. The fact that The Beatles came from just round the corner from where I lived fired my imagination. “If they can do it, so can I. Yes, I’m going to be on the telly!”

…realising I didn't fit in

I was a bit of a weird-looking kid, with broken NHS specs, a patch over one eye, freckles and curly red hair. I always got a lot of jip from the other boys, so I tended to hang around with girls. Even before I knew I was gay, I realised there was a camp other worldliness about me, which didn’t go down well in working-class Liverpool. I teamed up with another boy who was much camper than I was, and that provoked a lot of name-calling. There was a time when life at school became rather traumatic. It’s amazing to think that, for the first seven years of my life, same-sex activity was actually illegal. 

…seeing David Bowie in 1973 

Me and a couple of mates were in love with David and Marc Bolan. Absolutely obsessed! So, when I got to see Bowie at the Liverpool Empire, it felt like a special moment. I realised there were loads of others just like me—kids who wanted to dress up and be different. By hook or by crook, I managed to get myself a guitar, started to learn a few chords and joined a band in Liverpool called Big In Japan. It wasn’t a question of, “One day, I’ll be famous”; in my head, I was already up there with Bowie and Bolan! It sounds so silly now, but life’s like that when you’re young, isn’t it? You believe your own fairy tales.

Holly Johnson on TV in 1980
Holly performing “Yankee Rose” on Granada TV’s Celebration in 1980

…being told that art wasn't academic enough 

Even though Liverpool has a fantastic art scene—John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe both went to the Liverpool College of Art—I was never really encouraged to paint at school. Art was seen as being less worthy than maths or physics or English. Isn’t that awful? Look at the work of artists like Peter Blake or David Hockney. Life for most kids in 1960s and 1970s was rigidly defined and ordered, but Blake’s pictures brought a splash of Hollywood and celebrity to my Liverpool suburb. Maybe the parents and the teachers didn’t get it, but I did, and that’s why art became so important to me. I still paint today and I’ve even had some of my work exhibited at Tate Liverpool and the Royal Academy.

…getting to number one and being banned by the BBC 

I’m sure thousands of people have said this, but fame is nothing like you think it’s going to be. On telly, it seems very glamorous, but after my band Frankie Goes to Hollywood got to number one with “Relax”, it became a bit of a nuisance. The song had all these overt sexual references and the band was fronted by two openly gay men gyrating away in leather! Of course, once the tabloids got hold of it, we became a target. Yes, there were gay pop stars before us, but I think we were the first band that didn’t apologise for who we were.

Frankie Says Relax

…sort of moving to London in 1983 

I love Liverpool, but I had always wanted to see the world—the great cities such as London, Berlin, Amsterdam and New York. Being gay in Liverpool wasn’t easy back then, but London had Earls Court, which was the centre of the gay universe. Of course, my mum and dad were worried about me moving to the “big city”; I’m pretty sure my dad thought I was going to end up dead. In 1985, after the band made a few quid, I bought a house in west London and I’m still there now. Despite all the hustle and bustle, I feel at peace in London.

…the crazy years 

The band was selling millions and millions of records—it was the kind of success I could never have dreamed about. When you get that big, life changes and people change. Suddenly, everything’s available and everybody wants to be your friend. One minute I was living in a housing-association flat in Toxteth, and the next I was being whisked around in my own limousine. But if you’re not careful, you start believing your own hype. You think, Being successful is my divine right and this is going to last for ever. Sadly, it doesn’t.

…first meeting my partner Wolfgang 

Holly Johnson and Wolfgang

Where? Same as where everybody used to meet their partners back then, through parties and pubs and mutual friends. It’s very different today with all this internet stuff. I find that a bit bizarre. Don’t you want to have a proper chat with somebody before you go on a date? I knew Wolfgang was special, but I never thought it would last—I didn’t know any gay couples who’d been together for more than a few months. It was our 30th anniversary this year!

…being photographed by Andy Warhol

New York had loomed large ever since I discovered the work of Andy Warhol when I was a teenager. In 1984, I was offered a seat on Virgin’s maiden flight, alongside Gary Numan, Anita Harris and Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy. We played in New York and Madonna came to one of our shows. I kept asking about Andy Warhol and suddenly the word came through that he wanted to meet me. I was a bit nervous, but he was dead funny and very normal. Well, normal for Warhol! He asked if he could take a photo of me. I managed to buy the original a couple of years ago, and it remains one of my greatest treasures.

Andy Warhol and Holly Johnson
Andy Warhol and Holly Johnson in 1984

…living with HIV 

I was diagnosed in 1991, but I’d been ill a long time before that. A lot of the people who were diagnosed in that era eventually died, and for a long time I was frightened the same thing was going to happen to me. That’s what the doctors said. It was Wolfgang who looked after me; I don’t know what I’d have done without him. I still take medication every day, but the fear has gone. Being frightened doesn’t help anyway—you just have to get on with life.

…deciding it was time to be a pop star again 

My years with Frankie ended up in court and it all got messy. I’d been through the mill, I was dealing with illness and I sort of stepped back. I went to art college and travelled, but my love of music never went away. I started performing live again in 2011 and I thought, Why not make an album too? A lot has changed since “Relax” was released in 1983, but the most important thing is that I’m happy. What more can you ask for? 

Images: ITV/Rex; Holly Johnson


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