Billie Ray Martin’s haunting, soulful voice soothed many a chill…
As the lead singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Holly Johnson is one of the most influential cultural icons of the 1980s. ‘Relax’ will always be the most controversial record ever to grace the Number One spot- and one of the biggest sellers in UK chart history. He’s also an acclaimed author, artist and musical pioneer.
Is it true that you only agreed to help promote Frankie Say Greatest, in exchange for the reissue of the two solo records- your Blast double pack?
Yes, it’s true. Universal/Island own my solo albums; Blast, Hollelujah and Dreams That Money Can’t Buy and they hadn’t been available either physically or for download since MCA records was dismantled in the 1990s.
When was the last time you embarrassed yourself?
Very recently, but what the hell, it’s part of living your life to the full.
If you could own any piece of art in the world, what would it be?
I guess it would be something from Andy Warhol’s Reversal series, the Marilyn Monroe Multiples. Or the triple Elvis Black On Silver.
When and where did you last have a really good night out?
Oh, that’s hard to choose between Carpet Burn, Horse Meat Disco, a friends birthday Party. I can’t decide, but it’s all about the people you are with or meet on the night. And of course, the music.
What’s your favourite item of clothing and why?
Maybe it’s my Leigh Bowery Hairpin Jacket. Just because, he came round, measured me up and made it, especially for my appearance at The Party, at Wembley Arena in the mid 1980s. It was a Fund Raiser for The Terrence Higgins Trust. The jacket has many memories attached to it.
It seemed like everyone was wearing a ‘Relax’ t-shirt in the ’80s, but you could get knock-offs at the market. Did you make any money from ’em?
We made money on the official ones you could buy in HMV or at our concerts, but it was easily copied and still is…
You won a drawn out court case against ZTT? What did you learn from that experience …and is there anything you would do differently, given the chance?
A common misconception is that I sued them (ZTT/Perfect Songs Ltd v Holly Johnson). They placed an injunction on me. The contract was judged to be unfair and in restraint of trade. So they lost the right to hold me to it.
I was also given the opportunity by the court to investigate further the extremely high recording costs that Frankie Goes To Hollywood were charged by the record company, something I perhaps should have followed up on, but I really wanted to move on with my life. I’d really had my fill of meetings with expensive lawyers and accountants at the time. It seemed to me, that for them, it was all about money, but for me it was about freedom.
You famously refuse to do panel programmes or reality shows, has there been any offer that made you pause for even a minute?
Well, they all make you pause, even if it’s just to laugh, or think, ‘WTF?’ But I’m grateful that i am asked and grateful that I am able to say, ‘no thank you’.
‘Blast’ went to No. 1 in 1989, but was then deleted. Why was it important that it be available again?
Well it’s part of me and my life , the creative work that I’ve been developing since I was a very young. It was soul destroying that it languished in a corporate archive, and wasn’t available to anyone who might want to hear or see it. It would no doubt have appeared miraculously if I’d popped my clogs at some point.
For a while you seemed to withdraw from the public eye and concentrated on your art, what prompted the comeback?
Well, I have to say that the extremely well executed 25th Anniversary and TV and cinema advertising campaign for Virgin Airlines seemed to trigger a whole series of events. That spawned the Frankie Greatest Hits Compilation, then the reissues of my solo albums. And of course the 25th Anniversary editions of the FGTH CDs.
Are you still painting?
I paint and make prints when I can.
Should marijuana be legalised?
It should be legalised and regulated. Especially for medical use.
What new musicians are you currently digging?
The Irrepressibles (Mirror Mirror) and John Grant (The Queen Of Denmark)- two impressive albums that I have been playing.
Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?
Now, that’s what I call a loaded question. You could replace the word orgy with the words film, stage production, or TV show, as they are all forms of entertainment. It is in fact cinema and TV that have made the image of Nazi uniforms recognisable and even sexually charged. If I were the host, any costume would be acceptable. As long as they were worn for the purpose of pleasure and entertainment and not for genocide.
You seem to have embraced Twitter and Facebook- what’s the appeal for you?
I’m naturally nosey, and curious about the way people communicate, it’s an art. It’s a perfect tool for armchair activism. Also joining the 21st Century, enjoying the amazing diversity of people online, being exposed to music and film clips that people post. It’s fascinating, although very time consuming.
Do you still keep in contact with any of your contemporaries from the ’80s?
Well, I seem to be more in contact with some of them now than I actually ever was in the ’80s. We were all too busy competing and bitching about each other to be friends during that era.
You were successful before illegal downloading and when people still bought vinyl. Is it a bigger struggle to make money as a musician today?
It is a bigger struggle, for recording artists. The wide availability of music technology means there are so many more musicians and non musicians trying to sell music now than there ever was. A successful live act can break even or make money from music now, but in the 1980s touring lost money, and was a way of promoting the record. Now the tables have turned.
You seem quite a fan of The X Factor…
I wouldn’t say I was a fan exactly, but I enjoy the sheer spectacle of it, the online banter was sometimes very amusing to participate in.
Two 1600 word essays to accompany the releases- did you find that easy, or was it like doing homework?
Writing comes fairly naturally to me, but it’s not effortless and it’s time consuming, So, a bit like homework. I felt it was important to give proper credit to those involved in making the records and to give a flavour of how they were made. No one has the knowledge or the memories I have. I’ve also never had a champion amongst journalists, who are normally paid to write sleeve notes. I’ve always had to paddle my own canoe.
When did you last cry?
Oh, I do that quite a lot, but I sobbed like a baby when I listened to the Hard Ton Remix of Legendary Children that they sent me a few days before Christmas. For a full fifteen minutes. There were other factors to my emotional state, but their work released a flood of emotion.
Do you feel that reality talent shows are good for music?
It’s good for the type of singer who sings the songs that other people write, and for some songwriters. There has always been that strand of pop music. It’s really nothing new. I am most grateful that Two Tribes is used regularly as part of the soundtrack of the show. So it’s been good for me.
If you had to represent your life so far in a shoebox, what would you put in it?
A plectrum, a fountain pen, some sheet music, a CD, a DVD and a paint brush. It really is through the written word, a melody and the visual that I’ve been able to express myself and survive in the world
What album will you keep listening to and never get bored of?
There are quite a few. The Velvet Underground and Nico (Andy Warhol’s Banana Cover) Transformer by Lou Reed and Aladdin Sane by David Bowie.
You did a show on Radio 2 about The Beatles, is that a medium you’d like to return to?
It was about their Hamburg years, and was interesting to do, but there are lots of subjects that I would like to learn more about or write about.
Your autobiography ‘A Bone in My Flute’ was critically acclaimed and a best seller- any plans to continue the story where you left off, like Paul O’ Grady or er, Katie Price?
I would like to add another volume, but it’s a big commitment that I’m not quite ready for just yet.
First Published: TheHospitalClub.com, December 2010