Holly Johnson believes his band Frankie Goes To Hollywood fulfilled a vital function in the 1980s, both for providing teenagers something to rebel with, and also bringing forward an alternative sexuality that didn’t ask for acceptance – it was a case of “lock up your daughters – and your sons”.
Frontman Holly tells HuffPostUK:
“It is important for each successive generation to have something to relate to that their parents find shocking. Frankie provided that, and also an essential function, for not only for that reason, but also in bringing forward alternative sexuality, in a way that was particularly uncompromising, no asking for acceptance, up yours if you don’t like it.
“And it was just in time before the huge AIDS backlash, after the onset of HIV infection, and the whole shock-horror circus of that,” he remembers.
Uncompromising they certainly were, with their video for ‘Relax’ banned from the BBC playlist (even though Radio One DJ Mike Read told HuffPostUK recently that, contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t his doing), and the record immediately flying to the top of the charts. The band followed this up with the equally controversial ‘Two Tribes’ and the surprising ballad ‘The Power of Love’, brought back to life most recently in the John Lewis ad by Gabrielle Aplin.
Their sound remains instantly recognisable, 30 years later, steered by the talents of producer Trevor Horn. Amidst all the Top of the Pops posturing of the 1980s, Frankie stood out physically too, with two pretty boys on drums and bass, the gratuitous peacocking of Mark Rutherford and, holding the whole thing together, charismatic frontman Holly, always impeccably suited, and grinning and singing somewhere between Al Capone and Jack Nicholson.
Of course, none of this would have been as successful if the music hadn’t been any good – it wasn’t the ideology that propelled teenagers onto the dance floor in their droves, and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran said at the time that ‘Relax’ was the best disco track he’d ever heard. Holly today remains rightly proud of his creative AND political achievement…
“My whole art college aspirations came into it as well, and I’d been writing songs for a long time, influenced by Bow Wow Wow, Vicky Stardust and David Bowie proclaiming his bisexuality. Everything just came together.”
It’s hard to believe that Frankie’s reign started 30 years ago. In the intervening years, Holly has retraced his steps, fulfilling the dream that got sidetracked by Frankie by studying at the Royal College of Art, specialising in silk screen work and lithographs, and generally “living another life”.
But he’s back. Inspired by festival invitations to perform both Frankie hits and his own, Holly has rediscovered his love of performing and returned to the recording studio for the first time in 15 years. The result is ‘Europa’, an album well-received on its release in October with recent singles ‘Follow Your Heart’ and ‘In and Out of Love’.
The title track is actually a souvenir of Holly’s heady previous life, He was summoned by prodigious composer Vangelis (‘Chariots of Fire’, ‘Bladerunner’, etc) to a flat originally earmarked for Hitler’s occupation, now occupied by the likes of Roman Polanski and Emmanuelle Seigneir. Among this heady company, the pair bunkered down and wrote the song that somehow did not see the light of day until now.
Other influences on the album include Holly’s new co-producer Mark Ralph – fresh from working with Franz Ferdinand, Clean Bandit – and it’s clear the charismatic frontman has found a new burst of creativity.
After millions of records sold but a surprisingly small amount of money earned – Holly reminds me that Frankie’s record deal was historically weighted in favour of the record company, although he earns a little more as the chief songwriter – it’s no surprise that he is somewhat jaded with the industry, if not the creative side.
“What I find really difficult is interfacing with the industry itself, always have. The one good thing about the modern world is being able to communicate directly with fans and get the music to them.
“I’ve ended up again releasing the record under my own label again,” he explains. “I don’t feel particularly comfortable in the corporate world. I’m more of a cottage industry.”
So what WILL success look like this time around? He laughs.
“For ‘Heaven’s Eyes’ to get on the Radio 2 playlist for January, for me and my little cottage industry to survive, for fans to buy and listen to it.
“At the end of the day, that people hear it and enjoy it and buy a ticket.
“While it’s all about art, it’s about communication.”
Spoken like a true frontman.
Holly's single 'Heaven's Eyes' is released on 18 January, from the album 'Europa' available now.