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Holly Johnson

Born William Johnson, 9 February 1960, Wavertree, Liverpool, England (and contrary to popular belief, not in the exotic climes of Khartoum in the Sudan), HOLLY JOHNSON will forever be held in high regard as the extrovert frontman for FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. Aside from a triumvirate of consecutive, off-the-starting-block chart-toppers in 1984, Holly and Co would pick up extra brownie points for kicking up a storm over the first of these: the gay, S&M-endorsed `Relax’ – T-shirts, ad campaigns, initial banning from the Beeb, etc., etc.
Breaking free from the shackles of the industry after literally fighting his corner for the group’s pop side to show, the openly gay JOHNSON departed was later granted his rights to record as a solo artist by the law courts. FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD had therefore ceased to be in 1987.
Desperate to make up some lost time in the enforced two years hiatus leading up to 1989, Holly fell into the fickle pop-world trap of keeping up with the Joneses, never mind the Johnson’s. Unlike his two post-BIG IN JAPAN/pre-FGTH indie outings – as HOLLY – at the turn of the 80s for local label Eric’s (`Yankee Rose’ and `Hobo Joe’), M.C.A. Records were behind the push to re-establish the singer as Liverpool’s answer to Rick Astley or other artists from the Stock-Aitken-Waterman roster.
Kick-starting the show with the Top 5 platter, `Love Train’, and then the equally electro-pop-centric chart match follow-up `Americanos’, FGTH fans left out in the cold were attracted to his identifiable soaring swoon. Thus the chart-topping success of the oft derided debut set, BLAST (1989) {*6}, was baffling. There was no doubt Holly could sell snow to Eskimos or sand to the Arabs, but the rabbit he pulled out of the hat for this bombastic “blast” of bubblegum-pop was of the Siegfried & Roy variety, despite incumbent platter `Atomic City’ reaching the Top 20. Proof in the pudding was when fourth single, `Heaven’s Here’, never had a sniff of the Top 60, and worse still was when the exclusive, `Where Has Love Gone?’, only scraped out a measly Top 75 place. Worse still was when the crass crooner-cum-carnival-clubber found the market had dried up completely when a mistimed remix album, HOLLELUJAH {*3}, hit the buffers in 1990. JOHNSON was then asked by friend Richard O’Brien to play the role of Frank’n’Furter in the all-new Rocky Horror Picture Show, although other things seemed to take precedence.
To compensate for his previous out-of-line pop folly, `Across The Universe’ – sadly not the Fab Four’s classic – followed it into the bargain bins, as did sophomore set proper, DREAMS THAT MONEY CAN’T BUY (1991) {*3}, and flop single `The People Want To Dance’. Produced by Dan Hartman and Andy Richards, even the presence of the lovely KIRSTY MacCOLL on `Boyfriend `65’, couldn’t lift it from its ERASURE-meets-PET SHOP BOYS parking spot. In only a matter of several years, JOHNSON had went from hero to zero, although the news that Holly had been diagnosed with the then fatal AIDS virus, and was HIV positive, drew back some much-needed support.
Retreating from showbiz for a while, as he settled down to write his autobiography, A Bone In My Flute (pub. March 1994), HOLLY JOHNSON worked hard at coming to terms with his mortality as he took up painting full-time. That same year saw a one-off single, although the subject matter of `Legendary Children (All Of Them Queer)’ – endorsed by the Gay Pride movement – was hardly going to invoke the BBC and other radio stations to playlist it, given his past S&M misnomers with FGTH.
Back in the limelight once again as the millennium approached, `Disco Heaven’ – featuring BOY GEORGE in the video! – generated enough sales to enter the Top 100, but by the delivery of parent set, SOULSTREAM (1999) {*4} – issued on his own Pleasuredome imprint – JOHNSON seemed more at home exhibiting his artwork at Liverpool and London galleries. A re-worked rendition of `The Power Of Love’ was one of its solitary saving graces as it reached a minor chart placing, 55 places in lieu of its FGTH original chart-topper from 15 years past. The other was a segued electro-jazz re-vamp of trad classic, `In The House Of The Rising Sun’, twinned as it was with his own `Urban Jungle’.
After years in the proverbial wilderness (at least in studio terms), JOHNSON kept to his 2010 promise of delivering fourth album, when, in 2014, EUROPA {*6} was issued. Finally laying to rest all hopes of a FGTH reunion (which just about transpired in the mid 00s, but without Holly!), the singer was back propping up the lower regions of the charts, helped in no short measure by the Frankie Knuckles rpm’s on preview single, `Follow Your Heart’. Roping in the likes of VANGELIS to pen the title track, and DURUTTI COLUMN’s guitar virtuoso Vini Reilly to collaborate on the empowering `Glorious’, a relaxed Holly had added clout to his cult-dom. Sales-figures healthy if not ecstatic for further singles `In And Out Of Love’, `Heaven’s Eyes’ and `Dancing With No Fear’, it was indeed a good time to unveil the Abbey Road Studios double CD-r, UNLEASHED FROM THE PLEASUREDOME (2014) {*7}, a record that mixed in several fresh solo FGTH interpretations in addition to his greatest hits.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jul2016

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