Liverpool Icons: Holly Johnson – Musician, artist and activist
12 months ago
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, fronted by Holly Johnson, produced some of the most iconic songs in the history of pop.
Their debut single Relax is the No.6 best-selling single of all time on the Official UK Chart. Two Tribes comes in at No. 22. Quite the feat.
Despite this remarkable achievement, Holly and the band remain overlooked when it comes to lists of Liverpool’s most notable musicians. (Although not by us!)
Maybe it’s because their star shone so briefly. Perhaps it’s due to Frankie’s sound being hard to categorise.
Whatever the reason, Frankie Goes to Hollywood is still a legend of the city’s music scene. And lead singer Holly is undoubtedly a Liverpool icon.
As he gets set to announce the winner of the Turner Prize 2022 at St. George’s Hall on December 7th, we take a look at the life and times of Holly Johnson.
The Early Years
Born William Johnson, near Penny Lane on February 9th 1960, the Frankie frontman was a precocious child.
Whilst attending St. Mary’s C of E Primary School, from 1960-65, the youngster was already writing poetry and starring in school plays. He even found time to pen his first song. On the glockenspiel. (We all remember playing one of those, right?)
It was at Liverpool Collegiate Grammar school that William would adopt the name ‘Holly’. The moniker took inspiration from Holly Woodlawn, an actress friend of Andy Warhol. The teenage Johnson idolised Warhol. It was his love for the artist, along with the discovery of Marc Bolan and David Bowie, that led him to embrace his own individuality.
Holly dyed his hair and began writing songs on acoustic guitar. He started to attend school less and less. His infamous rebellious streak was beginning to show.
In 1977, Johnson performed as a soloist and as a member of New Wave collaboration Big in Japan.
The band line-up was an early sign of the strength of Liverpool’s new generation of artists. It featured the likes of The Lightening Seeds’ Ian Broudie, Baltic Creative supremo Jayne Casey and drummer of Siouxsie & The Banshees, Budgie.
Liverpool’s music scene was burgeoning against the backdrop of Eric’s, where The Teardrop Explodes, Echo & The Bunnymen and many others made their name. But it wasn’t time for Holly to arrive just yet.
He was kicked out of the band within a year and began his first foray into the world of art, making prints and arty t-shirts.
After a brief stint working as a builder, Holly appeared as a Wraith in The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward in the Everyman Theatre. A supporter of the venue to this day, often recommending plays and performances on Instagram.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood
By 1982, Holly looked set to make art his career. It was when working on an art portfolio and about to enrol in art college that Holly formed the second version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. (The original incarnation existed only briefly in 1979).
Success came relatively quickly from here on in. Their first single, the controversial ‘Relax’ reached No.1 in the UK and sold millions of copies across Europe in 1984.
Banned by the BBC for being ‘obscene’, interest in Relax only grew – selling out in record shops across the country.
An unshakeably calm Holly can be seen in the below Oxford Road Sho challenging a Radio 1 producer on the decision to blacklist the track.
Hindsight – and maybe common consensus at the time – would suggest that had the Frankie line-up not consisted of two openly gay men then the BBC wouldn’t have found the relatively tame lyrics so objectionable.
Regardless, the ban would have no impact on the band’s upwards trajectory, with Two Tribes and The Power of Love both topping the charts that same year.
Not since Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1960 had a band seen their first three single consecutive singles top the charts. Holly and FGTH were history-makers and would spend almost four months at No.1.
1984 would prove to be a standout year for Holly on a personal level too. This was when he met Wolfgang Kuhle, the art collector who would go on to be Holly’s lifelong partner and manager.
Holly’s moment in the sun as a member of Frankie Goes to Hollywood was fleeting.
For all the early success and the release of their second album ‘Liverpool’ in 1986, the band would never hit the same heights.
Relationships within the band were tense, in small part linked to the rest of the group’s refusal to play Live Aid in 1985, much to Holly’s annoyance. Frankie would disband in 1987.
Solo career, art and HIV
Between 1989 and 1991 Holly would have more highs and lows than many of us will experience in a lifetime.
His first solo album, Blast, reached No.1, with the album spawning hit singles Americanos and Love Train. He’d also perform on Ferry Cross the Mersey with Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden and The Christians. All proceeds from the track were donated to the families of the victims of the Hillsborough Tragedy.
From the joy of solo success quickly came despair. Holly would break from his record label after the disappointing release of his second album. In November 1991, he discovered that he was HIV Positive.
The following three years saw Holly withdraw from making music. He rediscovered his love of painting and would pen a bestselling autobiography, A Bone in My Flute.
However, Holly’s life in the limelight was far from over.
As well as penning the single, Legendary Children (All of Them Queer) as a gift to the gay community, Holly would go on to perform in front of 150,000 people at the annual Gay Pride festival in 1994.
His appearance at the Hillsborough Justice Appeal Concert at Anfield in 96 was a triumph. The same year he exhibited The Beatles Icon at The Royal College of Art.
In more than twenty years since his HIV diagnosis, Holly Johnson’s star has continued to shine.
His art has been exhibited around the world – and also close to home, in Peter Blake’s exhibition ‘About Collage’ at Tate Liverpool.
He continues to write and perform music amongst countless others, as well as being a tireless campaigner and fundraiser for good causes.
Talented, determined and brave in equal parts, Holly Johnson’s influence on the history of music and art is bigger than many of his more venerated peers.
Long may it continue.