Thursday 16 July 2015

Holly JOHNSON: Blast

(#385: 6 May 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Atomic City/Heaven’s Here/Americanos/Deep In Love/S.U.C.C.E.S.S./Love Train/Got It Made/Love Will Come/Perfume/Feel Good

“Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish ourselves.”
In the spring of 1989, few pop stars commanded more sheer goodwill than Holly Johnson. Having escaped from the wreckage of Frankie, and emerged victorious from a lengthy court case against ZTT, which had sought to place an injunction on him preventing him from recording as a solo artist for any other record company – the presiding judge deemed it an unreasonable restraint of trade, commenting that “Mr Johnson could be 70 years old and still be bound to this contract” – he was ready to make himself heard, and people were ready to listen.

It is difficult to consider his first solo album as not being substantially rooted in personal experience; indeed there are subtle FGTH references throughout – the escalating drum pattern midway through “Love Train,” the way in which Johnson pronounces and elongates the word “war” in the line “You want to end all war” in “S.U.C.C.E.S.S.” (and the nuclear explosion which ends the same song). But, as he sings in “Got It Made,” he’s “escaped from the hands of the Marquis de Sade,” and you can’t help but feel his innate sense of deliverance from a deeply unpleasant recent past.

Certainly Johnson sounds much more at home with the likes of Dan Hartman, Andy Richards, Steve Lovell and Stephen Hague than he ever did with the ZTT team – far more of his self is on display here – and for repeated listening I would much rather turn to Blast than Pleasuredome. There’s an inviolable optimism about his singing which I always find reassuring, even when (as with most of this album) what he sings about is deeply pessimistic. “Atomic City” sees him emerging in triumph from a wrecked landscape of metallic clangs and electronic bleeps over a propulsive post-House beat. He co-wrote the song with Hartman (all nine other songs were written solely by Johnson) and it does play like an odd subversion of what Hartman did with James Brown on “Living In America.” Johnson’s apparent enthusiasm is enough to make anybody want to go to Atomic City, but listen carefully – “We’ve got no ozone/We’ve got radiation/See the air pollution/From the power station.”

But Johnson is not deterred from proposing a happy ending. “If time stood still on my windowsill,” he observes, “I’d squash it like a fly.” He urges an uprising, and so the song is an unexpected reaction to the opulent nihilism of “Two Tribes,” suggesting that there is a way out.

“We start from opposite statements of a chosen world. Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes.”
Johnson wasn’t the first ex-Frankie to make a statement. In the autumn of 1988 Paul Rutherford worked with ABC to produce the magnificent and savage New Pop/Acid House hybrid that was “Get Real.” It should have been a number one but the BBC, as usual, got canting cold feet and couldn’t deal with it; consequently the highly inventive parent album Oh World did not gain a British release until 2011.

But Johnson, if superficially more cleancut, was scarcely less candid; he just dressed his sex and politics up in politer clothing. Hence “Heaven’s Here” is a catchy and upbeat late eighties pop song about the goodness of love, until, once again, you listen more closely and catch such references as “Blue skies, white lies and cherry pies” and then “Why waste your time in a living hell?/You can live in cloudland just as well!”

“We discharge ourselves on both sides.”
“Americanos” I interpret as part love letter to the USA, and part deep scepticism. On “Atomic City” he has a go at crappy television gameshows, and in the video for “Americanos” he plays the hugely camp host of a crappy television gameshow, the twist being that the dirt-poor contestants clean up with the prizes rather than the rich ones. He wistfully dreams about what you can build up from nothing in America, but there is the fleeting reference to “low riding Chicanos” in one of the choruses, as well as swipes at advertising, organised crime and the underlying hypocrisy of free enterprise. The final verdict? America – he loves it really, but wouldn’t want to live there.

“We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours.”
More upbeat positivity in “Deep In Love” or so you hope. Actually, the deeper you delve into the song, the more you realise that it’s not about a love affair but about the living death of consumerism (the chorus in part goes “Your love consumes me”), and the nearest thing to organism that capitalism can imagine is when “you’ve reached the limit on your credit card.” Think of 1983’s “Key To The World” and we are not at all far from the world of Heaven 17. Fairly frightening, once you get into the song’s depths.

“Mercenaries were always the best troops.”
“S.U.C.C.E.S.S.” is a parody; well, it has to be, a Hi-NRG “Imagine” whose demands grow more and more patently absurd and clearly impossible, from wanting fame to going into outer space. Eventually, of course, you’re advised not to be satisfied with anything less…than the world’s end.

“We are primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World.”
“Love Train” was his big comeback single and a deserved top five hit, an absolutely immaculate, catchy and propulsive pop song (with a cameo guitar solo appearance by Brian May) – I remember Gene Pitney, of all hurt people, being particularly effusive about its merits on Radio 1’s Round Table record review show – but what is this? “I reached my peak,” “You’re just right to keep me up all night,” “Stoke it up,” “Keep the flames burning”; this is much more to the point than “Relax” and who noticed under its cheery topsoil?

“Our Cause is NO-MAN'S.”
If “Got It Made” is an explosion of release from Frankie hell, then “Love Will Come” is perhaps Johnson’s most heartfelt vocal on the record; he frequently sounds close to tears in the choruses, as he wends his way towards the ambiguous conclusion that life is not about consumerism; “Now we know, love is the only thing that we get for free – or do we?” In both songs, guest guitarist Vini Reilly, unmistakeable even when rocking, sounds positively exuberant, much gladder than he had been a year earlier.

“We set Humour at Humour's throat. Stir up Civil War among peaceful apes.”
Maybe “Perfume” was meant to be Johnson’s Prince moment, and it’s certainly the record’s most sensual moment; perhaps the metaphor of perfume as sex (“rub it in” etc.) was new, but it’s a timely reminder that “keeping it clean” is not the primary point of Johnson’s fight.

“We only want Humour if it has fought like Tragedy.”
If “Atomic City” is this record’s “Two Tribes” and “Love Train” its “Relax,” then “Feel Good” is its “Power Of Love” equivalent, a slowly unfolding but far more ambivalent ballad, where the singer appears to be in emotional stasis, looking back at his past, missing it and now somewhat marooned (“No tears left to cry/No mountains left to climb”). When he gets into the closing seasonal metaphors, the penny, which has been drawn more and more to the listener’s attention throughout the record, finally drops – Blast plays like a dry run for Robbie Williams, that fellow Aquarian ex-boy band wild card with a past he’s keen to bury and resurrect, frequently at the same time (and it’s hard to imagine that fifteen-year-old Robbie wouldn’t have listened to, and learned from, this record). And the art…the ZTT thing, if some must…has not been forgotten; in the sleeve credits Johnson thanks, or rather BLESSES, “Percy Wyndham Lewis” and “God,” and BLASTS “All the Believers and Deceivers…They know who they are.” The cover resembles a recent explosion; the rear cover suggests reformation and resurrection.

“We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.”
But there was another project in which Johnson was invited to participate at this time, one which put him back at number one in the singles chart, and that, though not part of Blast, deserves close attention.

The original Gerry and the Pacemakers recording of "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey" drifted into the British charts like a ghost ship in that excitable winter of 1964. It was used as the theme to a film involving the group as well as Cilla Black and various other notable Liverpudlians of the period; the film is rarely, if ever, revived, and this may not be surprising since, watching it, Merseybeat seems as arcane and distant a cult as Chartism. But the song prospered; although the Mersey Sound had by the turn of '64/5 begun to implode to the point where it really was the Beatles and everyone else, the clouded optimism of Gerry Marsden's song and George Martin's string and French horn arrangement in the manner of "Wonderful Land" still pointed to a time when Liverpool was a place of hope and riches, somewhere everyone wanted to be...Liverpool's "moment."

That dissipated, as "moments" tend to do, and when Frankie Goes To Hollywood revived the song for inclusion on the B-side of the original 12-inch of "Relax" - thus providing a clear link between the first and second acts to top the British charts with their first three singles - they preceded it with a snatch of dole office dialogue from Boys From The Blackstuff; Liverpool in 1983 was on its knees, defeated by Thatcherism on one side and council leader Derek Hatton's reckless careerism on the other. Against this backdrop Holly Johnson sings the song with a strong element of defiance and a new kind of hope; Horn's cavalcade of arpeggios at the end suggest Liverpool not to be beaten, that the North would rise again despite everything.

Then came Saturday 15 April 1989, the afternoon of the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, to be played in the neutral grounds of the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Traffic delays on the motorway meant that many Liverpool fans did not arrive in time for the kick-off, and thousands crammed the stadium's inadequate entrance turnstiles in an effort to get in. Concerned that some of these fans might be attempting entry to the game without tickets, the police and stewards were loath to let them in en masse, but eventually - and far too late - they opened another gate, with the inevitable inward stampede.

In the wake of Heysel and other misdemeanours - not to mention an underlying contempt for the working classes who, in 1989, still constituted the majority of football crowds - Hillsborough, in line with other stadia, had introduced steel fencing at the front of their crowd stands in order to prevent hooligans from invading the pitch. In those days crowds were still obliged to stand for matches; there was no seating for fear that seats might similarly be ripped up and tossed into the pitch.

But this policy proved disastrous. The sudden influx of spectators caused an immediate crush to those already in the stadium, at the front of the stands, and they were likewise crushed from the other side by the steel fencing. In desperation, some attempted to tear down the fencing and escape onto the pitch, but police, under the impression that they were en route to attacking Nottingham Forest fans at the opposite end, herded them back. The crushing continued; dead bodies began to emerge from the walls of desperate flesh. 96 people were killed, including a fourteen-year-old boy and a man who went into a coma before finally dying in 1993, and nearly 800 others sustained injuries.

The disaster, much like Zeebrugge, was the inevitable consequence of a culture of wilful incompetence and mismanagement. But then the lies started to appear; in part generated by frightened vested interests, in other part encouraged by certain Conservative MPs, under the headline "THE TRUTH" in The Sun - the same newspaper for which Pete Waterman had recorded the Ferry Aid “Let It Be” fundraiser - there were stories of "drunken" Liverpool fans urinating on, or copulating with, the bodies of the dead, pickpocketing their wallets, picking fights with police. It was a PR disaster from which the newspaper has yet to recover on Merseyside - in particular because it, or the editor of the time responsible for it, has never issued an unconditional apology for running the piece, or the headline - to this day many newsagents there continue to blackball it from their shops, and its circulation figures there have remained low.

So the 1989 "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey," recorded by a quickly convened cross-section of Liverpool artists to raise funds for the families of the dead, has to be considered as a protest record; in many ways it is the angriest record SAW ever made - where "I'd Rather Jack" simply has a jibe at out-of-touch radio programmers, the dignified but barely suppressed fury of Waterman's "Ferry" is a direct, controlled attack on the powers which would traduce Liverpool to a thug-crammed subhuman wilderness. Marsden and Johnson were both brought back to recreate their original performances, but there is a renewed intensity in their performances; Marsden in particular sounds at times on the verge of tears in his solo features, while Holly retains his original defiance but makes it somehow deeper - in the "People around every corner" middle eight he stares daggers at those who would doubt that Liverpudlians were happy to welcome and embrace anyone, and his furious focus on the line "Hearts torn in every way" needs no further underlining. Garry Christian, lead singer of the Christians, provides the rich voice of moderation throughout.

But getting Paul McCartney to participate was a genuine coup, and it is he who, at the end of the record, takes it to a further dimension and slowly unleashes the rage which has been simmering beneath the surface for the previous three minutes; as the harmonies modulate, and SAW introduce an adroitly-disguised slow motion/16 rpm House piano line, McCartney suddenly bursts loose: "This land's the place we love!" he howls in terrible anger. "Ferry! Cross the Mersey!" he virtually sobs - the subtext being: don't ever fucking try to do us down, our culture, our way of living, our beliefs.

This "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey" is therefore a profoundly anti-Thatcherite record - anyone lazily categorising Waterman as a nouveau riche Tory missed his fortnightly columns in the teenpop magazine No 1, in which he regularly railed against the poll tax and other manifestations of New Rightism, or his violent decrying of Thatcher and Ian MacGregor apropos the 1984 miners' strike, which he has done on both radio and TV more than once over the years - and in an era when, as recently as May 2007, the likes of Matthew Parris (with regard to that week's local government and Scottish Parliament elections) could still smugly state that Liverpool "doesn't matter," it seems to me still the most propitious, and certainly one of the most telling, of all charity records, since its inherent current of political protest is as inescapable as the original Pacemakers record is from the speakers on any Mersey ferry on which you might happen to step.

* * * *

The surprise is that little seemed to happen with Johnson’s subsequent career in music. There was Hallelujah, a 1990 album of remixes, and then 1991’s Dreams That Money Can’t Buy; unfortunately, disputes with MCA meant that the record received no promotion and was given only a cursory release. For much of its forty or so minutes it does sound like music written under contractual compulsion, and Johnson has said as much, though is not entirely devoid of merit; “Boyfriend ’65,” featuring a near-inaudible Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals (for contractual reasons), is a lost gem, and “Penny Arcade,” with its terrific Courtney Pine tenor solo, is another.

But then health issues became a priority and necessitated a long lay-off; Johnson re-emerged in 1994 with the funny and scabrous autobiography A Bone In My Flute and the one-off pro-LGBT single “Legendary Childen (All Of Them Queer)” (probably his best and most euphoric work). But then he proceeded to make a name for himself as a painter and that work now became predominant, with only 1999’s self-released Soulstream to break the musical silence. By Christmas 2012, however, he was back at number one with his brief but telling contribution to The Justice Collective’s “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” another Hillsborough fundraiser (also involving McCartney and Marsden) and a record produced by Guy Chambers, who appears on Blast as contributing programming to “Feel Good”; as Robbie Williams also sang on “He Ain’t Heavy,” the connection becomes clearer. And then in 2014 he unexpectedly released the excellent Europa, and the old magic was undiminished.

Next: Meanwhile, where was Trevor Horn in all of this?