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Title: From diamond mine to the factory
Author: Jim Shelley
Source: Blitz
Publish date: September 1986


Interview by Jim Shelley

Photographs by Robert Ogilvie

Are Frankie Goes To Hollywood millionaires?

Will Rage Hard repeat the success of Relax and Two Tribes?

How long before Holly Johnson seeks fresh pastures?

Will he say too much?

Will he say enough?

“It’s just one of those phrases, isn’t it? Like, OH MY GOD what’s that appalling smell? Oh, I think it’s Something In The Music Business…

“I was at this party and I said to this bloke in a High Street suit and briefcase and ridiculous dark glasses, to make conversation, I said, ‘So what do you do for a living?’ and he said, ‘Well, er, like, hey, I’m like, er, something in the music business…’

“I said, ‘What do you mean, like a crotchet?” (John Dowie)

“HIYA, COME IN, SIT DOWN, HOW DO you do, do you want coffee or tea? Sit down. You know, this is the first time I’ve done an interview at home. We’ve been here about 18 months, we’ve just had it done up. The day we exchanged contracts we went off on the world tour so I’m just getting used to it. The neighbours? Oh they’re very ok yah types but quite nice really. Shall I be mother? Have we started yet?”

Holly Johnson is at home in Parsons Green. Holly Johnson’s coffee cups are modern yellow. Holly Johnson’s voice is sing-song Liverpool camp Frankie Howerd. Holly Johnson is entertaining.

“Yeah, I do miss Liverpool, the way it was, my amazing flat in Catherine Street, the way people knock on your door and pop round all the time and you know what everyone’s doin’, yeah, it’s quite touching. Where are you from? Brighton, oooh, nice. I still go back but a few of me friends have moved down now and it’s not the same. I don’t feel as comfortable there now. People’s reactions have changed slightly. The Merseyside Echo describes us as ‘Merseyside Millionaires’ which really isn’t the case. Me mum gets attitude off people: ‘Ooooh your son’s a millionaire, worra you workin’ for?’ People can be weird.”

Holly Johnson is at home with the camera click-click-clicking and the tape slowly running. Holly Johnson is almost entertaining me.

“The album is going to be called Liverpool now, yeah, which I didn’t really like at first. I wanted it to be called ‘From The Diamond Mine To The Factory’, which was more artistic, which is my personal, you know, bent. I felt that was more relevant, though Liverpool is a very strong title. ‘E’s standing on my sink! You’ll slip and break your neck and all for a few photos. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned the album’s written and recorded, so to my mind I’m interested in the next project - that’s what I’m thinking about and workin’ on at the moment, knowworrimean?”

Holly Johnson is thinking: I wonder if he knows, I wonder if he’ll ask me, what shall I say, will he believe me, what if I say too much, I hope he doesn’t make me…

“It’s all been a bit of a blur, really, the last two years. From signing on to suddenly being Number One, then signing off the dole and ZTT kindly giving us a wage ‘cos we couldn’t really sign on when we were Number One. No, I never really liked being a Star. You mean, acting the glamorous celebrity, well I can do it, yeah. I did it for a week. No, really I did! It lasted a week. It’s terribly fickle, you know, it’s so phoney, you’re flavour of the week ‘cos you’re at Number One. I got bored with it. Of course the papers make up all sorts, you ignore it. People ring up and go, ‘Ooooh, what’s this about you in The Sun Today?’ I have a laugh with the girls at the grocery store. That’s it. To be honest with you, I’ve enjoyed the lull. We went to Ireland to write some songs and then to Ibiza to do some demos, then back to Ireland, then to Guernsey and we recorded it in Holland. We went there ‘cos the studio’s good. We couldn’t use Sarm ‘cos it’s too expensive. It was quite nice in Holland, a bit boring. The canals were all frozen and children skating on them, it was dead pretty. What else? I wrote a book of poetry and I’m working on the illustrations at the moment. Whether I’ll even try to get it published I don’t know. Nothing ever seems good enough, doyouknowwhatimean?”

Holly Johnson is pretending to sell me Frankie Goes To Hollywood. I am pretending to be considering buying the idea of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Holly Johnson is not really interested in Frankie Goes To Hollywood anymore. Neither am I.

“The new music is much less commercial, it isn’t as hi-tech, it’s more real and more honest, less synthesised sounds. It’s got Trevor Horn down as Executive Producer. It’s more rock orientated, which isn’t particularly the best direction but it is a direction. No-one has a whip-hand, no. I manipulate my own taste onto it, as best I can, but I’m not prepared to have a running battle to have my own way constantly. I will have my way - when the time comes. What do I think about it? I think that my input - the lyrics and the melodies - is brilliant. I think I’ve done really rather well.

Holly Johnson is biding his time, buying time, selling Rage Hard, which is a minute too long, a year too late and sounds like ELP, or, indeed, Queen. This seems the only thing worth saying right now.

“The business side is horrible. I employ people to deal with it for me but you can’t remain in ignorance. I do understand it all now but it’s a horrible learning process. The bands never win because that’s the way society is structured: the working classes are never in a good bargaining position.

“Considering that three years ago when we signed a contract I had NO IDEA what I was signing, I had NO IDEA what the first paragraph meant, the education I’ve had in the last three years in this business has been incredible. I know now, yes, every infinitesimal possibility, I have every permutation calculated. See, I got mixed up in this incredible whirlwind of fun, right, and then I thought, hang on, just WHAT EXACTLY IS GOING ON HERE? And as soon as I thought that, the whirlwind of fun ended. All the constant touring, TV, hotels, airports, that horrific tour, I got really depressed, which is really out of character for me ‘cos I was always a pretty chirpy sort of person. Right now I’d like to do an album that says ABSOLUTELY NOTHING - politically, artistically. People do it all the time! I wanna do that. I like calypso rhythms right now, stuff like that. It would be terribly easy for me to slag ZTT. Naivety did have a lot to do with it. Obviously Jill Sinclair and Trevor Horn are extremely astute, but not as astute as people might think. They make mistakes too. We made terrible mistakes, terrible. I do have great respect for people like Jayne (Pink Military), who’ve got their own label, who do things at their own pace and style, like What I Wouldn’t Give, which was fab, yeah, and eventually that will happen. My advice to young kids in bands would be DON’T SIGN ANYTHING, hahaha. No, you have to get the most expensive lawyers you can, not one of these run-of-the-mill Music Business lawyers whose name gets bandied about from record company to record company:”

Holly Johnson is thinking, ‘Well half the people in the music business are saying we’re living as tax exiles and half are saying we owe ZTT half a million and I’m tired of what people say’. Holly is right.

“Business and friends don’t mix very well, no. It changes your relationships. When there’s a business decision to be made, some of you are on one side of the fence, some on the other and some on the fence. You don’t become a person anymore, you become the ARGUMENT. The Eurythmics seem to have got it right. Dave and Annie, hahaha.

“I don’t know how much we’ve made. I’ve got a good idea. I’ve got a few bob but there’s no way I could stop working. Put it like this. I don’t know any millionaires.”

This is a good way of putting it. Holly Johnson thinks, ‘How can I put this, how much should I say, how will it sound, I hope I don’t tell him, I wish I could tell him.’

“I love singing and I love writing songs and I’d love to do other things too and I have to carry on in order to reach the next chapter. I think about it all the time. I’ve had offers to do certain things that I want to do. Like what? Haha. I can’t really talk about them (giggles), I’m sorry, I can’t really talk about them at all. You can’t be any vaguer than that!!! Well… I’m interested in film, you know… behind the camera, definitely behind. Paul (Rutherford) never discussed his shops with me. You’ll have to ask him about that, I read it somewhere but I don’t know anything about it… It is a horrid business, people outside always say, ‘Everyone you meet in the music business is just disgusting’ and you do constantly meet people you hate.”

Holly Johnson is doing the dishes.

“I like Alison Moyet (giggles) and I met Elvis Costello and he was rather nice too. I’m a bit snobby, actually, mmm. I tend to kind of think of everyone else as sort of POP MUSIC, ‘Oh I’m not in that’ (giggles). I met Gene Kelly, he was quite pleasant. I met him at MGM. Oh God, Body Double! OH WOW. You shouldn’t have mentioned that one, hahahahaha, well, you live and learn… America… God. I liked watching TV in America. I liked San Francisco. I didn’t like New York, I didn’t like Los Angeles, I didn’t like Detroit. It was so sad. The whole tour was pretty horrific, really.”

Holly Johnson is giggling but probably only because he knows he won’t be doing any of THAT again. Holly Johnson is crossing his fingers, holding his breath and hoping he can keep talking, holding out, holding on, not give the game away.

“Well… Has it become a rock group… I don’t know… I hope that never ever happens. No, I don’t think it has happened. Otherwise we would be doing just more of the same and we aren’t. I don’t think what I do is heavy and cumbersome. I think that’s what makes it interesting - the taste clash. It’s like Roxy Music, for example, a lot of interesting elements. Who’ve I got on my side? No-one. I don’t think what I do is routine. It’s not empty-headed pop music… I said what I wanted to say and I said it in a way that I don’t find embarrassing. The way it’s done is important to me, yes. I mean I could never write a line like “Call me good, call me bad/Call me anything you want to baby”. I could not write a line like that. That’s what matters to me. I do think about the future a lot, yes, about the next thing that’s going to happen, yes. I worry about my particular job more than anybody else’s, that’s what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in what they do so much. I’m interested in what I do. We have had a particularly difficult time, yeah, as a unit, but I’ve never made any public statements about this, so why are you so certain I’m going to leave? Am I going to? Oh God. Hahahahahaha.”

Holly Johnson thinks this is it. At least he’s asked at last, I can stop evading and he can stop hinting, but can I say I wish I could tell him? I hope I don’t tell him.

“Put it this way, I never ever want to be in a situation like Queen, who are fabulously successful and very clever and all that, but I’m not interested in this forever pop group. I always said I could only see three albums. As I said, I like the work that I’ve done on this new record and you have to compromise sometimes and yes it is really difficult.”

Holly thinks that must be enough, I hope it’s enough. I hope it’s not too much.

“Why am I putting up with it? You’re putting words into my mouth, hahaha. Can’t you see my position?! Can’t you see you’re asking me a ridiculously difficult question and to answer it I’m just going to compromise myself incredibly? It’s a very special situation, yeah, incredibly complicated. I don’t have to say anything that’s going to upset anyone, let’s face it. It would be bad for me to do that. Everything is in a very fine balance. I don’t want to complicate it any more. It would be good if I could just get on with it, yeah, but things aren’t as simple as that. I could do it like Sylvian, stay with the label… Isn’t that good enough for you, hahaha?”

Holly thinks, ‘Let’s change the subject’.

“I don’t think I’ve changed that much from the early days, why, what did I used to look like? More extreme? Oh, the leather and that… Well I’m not Brian Ferry now, not by a long chalk, haha. I was more into fashion at that time. I was into, you know, FASHION, hahaha. I’m not interested in fashion anymore, no. I never was in the first place, but I thought I was. I always thought: WOW! I’d love to go into that shop and buy THAT and then all of a sudden I could, so I did. I did it like hell and then I thought, well that was a bit stupid, wasn’t it? Being taken in like that. I do go through a lot of phases, though, yes. When it becomes, like, this season, that season, next season, that’s ridiculous.”

Holly Johnson is called Holly for dancing to Walk On The Wild Side; he is not very wild these days.

“No, not really. I went through my hedonism phase before Frankie broke, really. The others got into it, yeah. I went to this great Brazilian restaurant last night. I bought a nice sideboard, really nice sideboard. Last week I was supposed to go to Venice but I couldn’t go ‘cos I had no roof. Do you want another cup of coffee?”

Holly Johnson, slipping away from secrecy, is back being himself now that he’s remembered to be more Norman Wisdom than Noel Coward. One day he might like to be Truman Capote though it might end up like Kenneth Williams and sometimes will be a bit Frank Spencer. Never mind: he is entertaining.

“I never wanted to be be David Cassidy like you, no. I wanted to be David Bowie for a bit. The bit between Ziggy and Baal… quite a big bit… hahahaha. He is very good, though. Modern Lave was great, too. The words were great. I’ve never met him, no. I had the opportunity to meet him a couple of weeks ago, I knew where he was going to be on a certain day at a certain time and I knew for a month in advance. I had a great time thinking, ‘I’m going to meet David Bowie and what shall I wear and what shall I say’ and when it came to the crunch I thought, ‘Nahhh. Nahhhhh’.”

Holly Johnson is thinking, ‘Well at least I didn’t say very much? At least I didn’t say anything I shouldn’t have. He is thinking it wasn’t too bad at all, really. Holly Johnson is dead soft, really, not at all conceited or spoilt, not really at all obnoxious or ridiculously pleased with himself. Not at all like something in the music business.

“Hey yeah, I met Andy Warhol. Andy, hahaha. I kept wanting to say, ‘Hey, Andy, give us that painting’ (giggles). That’s a Warhol print on the wall there, yeah. Do you wanna see me painting room downstairs in the basement? That Warhol exhibition’s useless, isn’t it? Who’s Don Watson?”

Holly Johnson is a quaver in the music business.