HIV pop music icons: (5) Holly Johnson: relax, he did it

Published 07, May, 2014

Dave R: Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, is alive and well and still performing, writing and painting but it could easily have been a different story after he struggled to succeed after he contracted HIV.

HIV pop music icons:  (5) Holly Johnson: relax, he did it

“'If only I'd been one of those nice clean-cut Mormons who knock on your door on a Friday night when you're having dinner, none of this would have happened to me.”

A lot of people think that Holly Johnson died long ago – he didn’t. However, after it was announced that he was HIV-positive, his publicist had to issue a press release in 1995 stating that he was still alive but the rumour of his demise just seemed to assume a life of its own.

He was that cheeky little bugger from Liverpool, with a twinkle in his eye challenging you to drop your pants. At a stroke (forgive the pun) and the turning on of the sound-effect tap, he and the other Frankie Goes to Hollywood boys thrust gay, male orgasm into the public’s collective conservative and largely unsuspecting faces and a gay hero was born.

It was one of those remarkable combinations of circumstances that rarely happens but ends up being an iconic representation of a decade. Right time, right place, right manager, right record company, right song, right video, right T-shirt designs and right image – ker-ching! Yet on the face of it, ‘Relax’ couldn’t have been more wrong! More of that later.

These days, the years have caught up a bit and life has thrown him a few nasty surprises but he’s still alive and well, performing and touring.  

“I feel I have to live a little longer before I write a sequel to my autobiography which covers my experiences up until October 1991.” (‘A Bone in My Flute’: to be found on Amazon)

Luckily for him, after his diagnosis and subsequent semi-withdrawal from all the hype and viciousness, he was able to find solace in something he was actually quite good at – painting. From the mid-90s onwards he devoted some considerable time to his own form of therapy and his work has been exhibited at the Tate, Liverpool and the Royal Academy, amongst others, which despite the attraction of his name, doesn’t happen unless you’re actually good at what you do. 

“I’ve just done a series of religious paintings actually. I painted myself a guardian angel to put above my bed and I’ve painted Marilyn Monroe as Mary Magdalene. I’m very mean with my paintings. I’ve only given two away - one to my sister and one to charity. I like my own work, I definitely paint for me, although I do paint with communication in mind - I will show it to the world one day.”

However, it all began with the music.

Born William Johnson, in a Liverpool suburb in February, 1960 he had a traumatic childhood at times and only began to discover his true likes and dislikes in his teens when he developed a semi obsession with David Bowie, Marc Bolan and make-up and joined the burgeoning punk/new wave scene in Liverpool.

He eventually changed his name to Holly after hearing Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and joined the new wave group ‘Big in Japan’ in 1977, playing bass. In 1979, he even released a couple of solo flops on a minor label but more importantly, he rehearsed with the first version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It only lasted three months but the foundations were there because in 1982, he re-formed Frankie and set out on a course that would lead them to being signed by genius producer, Trevor Horn (former Buggles front man) and his co-founder Paul Morley, to ZTT records. It was a match made in heaven because Horn saw Frankie Goes to Hollywood as the ideal vehicle for his breakthrough ideas and ambitions to produce a new sound to take new wave into a new direction.

It was the age of Svengali producers and there’s little doubt that Frankie wouldn’t have made the impact they did without the ideas of Trevor Horn. In 1984, the first single Relax reached Number 1 in the UK (two million copies sold). The next two singles Two Tribes and The Power of Love both topped the UK charts.

To emphasise their chart dominance, after Two Tribes hit Number 1, Relax re-entered the charts at number 2. Frankie Goes To Hollywood then released their debut album Welcome to the Pleasuredome and it sold three million copies. By any standards, it was a phenomenon.

In 1985, Relax was released in the States and after a slow start, largely thanks to negative publicity, it reached Number 10 and Frankie became almost as big a sensation as in the rest of the world. 

However, it was a package, involving image, style, music and promotion that the boys in the band had little to do with. Holly Johnson provided the voice but the music was largely created by Horn and the studio technicians.

The days of bands making it big on talent alone were numbered and both Holly Johnson and Boy George became icons, in part thanks to their own talent but mainly thanks to brilliant producers and image makers. The difference here was that both Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Culture Club became huge based on a homosexual agenda; an astonishing development if you think about it. Frankie represented the raw sex aspect of gay life, both threatening and challenging parents to lock up their sons and Culture Club developed the acceptable face of high camp, by presenting themselves as gay men you could take home to meet your mother.

It wasn’t accidental that Boy George was famously quoted on national TV as preferring a good cup of tea to sex. He was the acceptable face of drag long before RuPaul became cuddly. Holly Johnson and the boys however, deliberately thrust their sexuality in your face and the video for Relax left little to the imagination for those in the know.

It wasn’t long though before the general public cottoned on to the message and sexual sub context of Relax but to the amazement of many establishment figures, it didn’t seem to matter; Frankie was to break all records anyway. The more they were banned, the more their fame was guaranteed. It helped that Horn and Morley knew they had great songs and a great sound to back the images up. It was the first all-in, mega pop package based on one song.

A second album, Liverpool, was recorded in 1986 and the first single, Rage Hard got to number 4 in the UK charts but it was becoming clear that the hype was waning. Ever critical, Holly Johnson became dissatisfied with the band’s direction and left them. ZTT was not happy and the ensuing law suits were energy draining although in the end, he won his freedom fairly and squarely:

"They [Horn and Sinclair] have never really forgiven me for winning my freedom in the law courts”

HIV makes an entrance.

The result was that effectively the Frankie phenomenon was over. It’s possible that Holly Johnson assumed the band’s success was largely down to him and his voice and he went on to record his first solo album Blast in 1989, which granted reached number one and spawned three hit singles (Love Train, Americanos and Atomic City) but he’d made the very human mistake of assuming that Frankie fans would follow him the way they’d followed the group. He underestimated the power of the studio and the producers and the solo progression he’d hoped for and expected, never really materialised. He missed out on the fact that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was a package that needed all of its component parts to succeed.

As a solo artist, he somehow came over as slightly vanilla and bland. In 1991, he left the record company after discovering there was little enthusiasm for a second album and in a double whammy, discovered he was HIV positive in the same year.

At least he saw the reality of the situation and didn’t continue trying to flog a dead horse. He abandoned music to begin working on his autobiography and gain some therapeutic solace from his art. In 1992, he tried to withdraw even further from the entertainment circuit and decided to announce his status to his family. Unfortunately, he also decided to tell the world about his HIV status via The Times and ended up being crucified by the tabloid press, who’d got hold of the story prematurely.

It was a depressing and stressful period in his life and HIV played a huge part.

“Towards the end of the court case in 1989, I had already started to suffer health issues so I had an inkling that there was something wrong… But there was little point in being tested at that time. Partly because I was afraid of what the result would be and also there was no medication”.

In his book he went on to say:

“By 1991, my health had got so bad and I had to be tested. I found out that I was HIV positive a few days before the death of Freddie Mercury.  I’m very lucky to even be here. Kenny Everett, who was diagnosed with HIV four years before me, died in 1995. Most people of my generation who contracted HIV died in the late 80s or early 90s…One doctor said I could have two months to live or two years, they didn’t know, and my reaction was that I’d better write my memoirs quickly!”

However, the illnesses and the pressures of court cases, career and leaving the group did focus his mind on finishing his book:

“I was very unwell but I managed to write my autobiography A Bone In My Flute, which was published in 1994. I also set up my own record label Pleasuredome, and released my third solo album, Soulstream, which I recorded at home.”

In March 1994, A Bone in my Flute was published and he even recorded a new single, "Legendary Children (All of Them Queer)", whose lyrics referred to famous historical LGBT people. He also found the energy to perform at selected LGBT events and record a new album but national critical acclaim was, perhaps not surprisingly, forthcoming. You can survive so much bad publicity but in the end people want you to be what you were originally famous for and Holly Johnson was long past that. Nevertheless, he still managed to do what he wanted to do:

“I'm still here and I've got this life-threatening disease, I might as well do exactly what I want to do with the time that I have on the planet…If it's a nail in my coffin, it's a nail in my coffin.” 

He was plagued by secondary infections, especially before the advent of the combination therapies and nobody could ever say that he had it easy with HIV:

“It's unpredictable. I can be really ill for a week and then be perfectly fine.”

When he was first diagnosed, his reaction was one many people will identify with:

“I had a nervous breakdown, to use a cliché…My brain collapsed. I lay on the couch and waited to die for quite a few months…'The first year was very black. Some people adjust to it quite quickly but I didn't. I'd say I'm still not completely adjusted to it.

Fortunately, he had a long-term partner (Wolfgang Kuhle) who supported him through these difficult times.

“It's not easy to maintain a gay relationship anyway. I suppose I was lucky that he didn't immediately run away. I'm not gonna pretend that it's been easy and we haven't had our ups and downs and nearly killed each other several times, or left each other. It's hard for people who don't know us to comprehend how normal the relationship is.”

It’s at times like these you learn so much about a partner. If he or she is capable of coping with your illness, your moods and whether they are the real deal or not. Many people found out that their partners just weren’t up to it and had to deal with HIV alone but Johnson was lucky:

“For some reason, I survived with a compromised immunity but I was very well looked after by my partner Wolfgang who went beyond the call of duty in caring for me…He really kept me alive until the advent of combination therapy in 1996. But until that point I was in and out of hospital every five minutes.”

In A Bone in my Flute, he summed up how important Wolfgang had been for him as follows:

“I don’t think I’d have been alive and speaking to you today if I hadn’t have met Wolfgang, been attracted by his strong personality and changed my lifestyle in the way that I did. I think I would have continued to do the drug-taking and my health would have subsequently suffered because I believe that I contracted the HIV virus in 1983 and obviously, if I’d have continued on the course of going out every night and taking drugs, then it would have worn down my health a lot sooner. In a sense, I think that my relationship with Wolfgang saved my life. I know it sounds melodramatic, but I believe it to be true.”

It may seem slightly odd to some but like many others in his position he has avoided becoming a ‘professional HIV celebrity’ and tends to avoid the HIV charity circuit:

“But I might do a few things. It's unavoidable. If I can possibly help to destigmatise the whole issue then that's a good thing.”

That sort of approach can attract criticism, in that you feel that people in their position should do more but you have to remember what they’ve been through. They’ve done the Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame thing and more often than not it has burned them out. Add HIV to the mix and these guys are just tired; tired of doing the circuit, constantly having to smile at the right moments and say the right things when the camera’s on them. Being expected to be ambassadors for HIV may be a commitment too far – they have to look after themselves but out of the spotlight. He still pops up on the odd TV programme, or performs at a club or a Gay Pride event but you get the feeling that he’s just glad to be alive and has managed to shake off the fame magnet that was Relax and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. If anything, Holly Johnson is a perfect example of being a victim of the fame monster, (although he might rile at being called a ‘victim’) yet he’s also much more than that. For many people of both sexes at the time, he represented a middle-finger reaction to sexual repression and became the figurehead of a huge publicity project. It worked and for many people, Frankie Goes to Hollywood gave them the courage to express themselves and their sexuality in a whole new way. The fact that there was a personal cost to Holly Johnson himself just shows how the ‘stars’ can often become collateral damage as a result of their immense fame. It’s happened throughout entertainment history from Garbo through James Dean to Justin Bieber – fame exerts its toll. It’s nice to know there are survivors though; battered and bruised but still loved for what they did to change society’s attitudes. Holly Johnson is just such a figure.

This classic YouTube video of Relax, (see below) is really all you need to appreciate Holly Johnson’s impact on the ephemeral world of pop. In 2014, you may wonder why this video was censored at all but when it first came out in 1984, it was the most exciting, rebellious, statement of gay cultural intent you could imagine. Literally, in your face!

He also keeps in touch with his fans via his Facebook page.


TagsHolly Johnson, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, HIV pop stars,