The voice of Holly Johnson became the soundtrack to my final years at school in 1984/85 and as such stirs powerful memories. The songs of his band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, have lasted the fickle years between then and now, still sounding contemporary and dangerous. Holly is in his mid-fifties now, so on entering the Digbeth venue I couldn’t help wonder whether his iconic place in pop music would still bring in the crowds. It has been a long time.
Holly is promoting his new album “Europa” with this ‘Dancing With No Fear: Unleashed from the Pleasuredome’ four date tour. After more than twenty years without a hit and this album only reaching number 63, there is a smell of nostalgia in the air, not just because most of the audience are men and women nudging fifty years old, but because most of us probably only bought one of his albums… in 1985.
Support is DJ Dave Kendrick who timidly steps behind his decks and plays an uninspiring 45 minute set, where the only highlight is a mashup featuring ‘Running Up That Hill’. He communicates with the audience only with a series of embarrassing half smiles and a raised eyebrow every once in a while. If his job is to ignite the audience into a frenzy, he fails dismally – if his job is for the audience to wish his set would finish and to get Holly on, then congratulations.
When Holly and his band come on stage, you can’t help but notice how young his band are. I don’t think any of them were born when Holly’s career took off in 1984. You soon realise this is no issue at all as they effortlessly manage to provide faultless backing to Holly’s voice, which by the third song ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, is obvious that his vocals are still as strong as ever. He really does manage to sound like the original recording and at the same time, more mature. His vocal performance throughout is just stunning but after ‘..Pleasuredome’ the crowd applaud solidly for the next few minutes so the band has to wait to play the next song. Whether the applause is from relief I can’t say, but I definitely had a sense of ‘It’s okay, he’s still got it!’ buzzing around my head.
Holly plays a 90 minute set, with little in between song chat, except to say that he is keeping speaking to a minimum so he doesn’t run over his allotted time and we won’t miss the last bus home (it is a Sunday and the Institute has an 11:00 curfew). He does still speak between songs anyway and it is here his true character is revealed: a warm, funny man who has lived and died more than any of us and still remains utterly positive and generous.
For many of the audience (me included) the new songs from “Europa” are being listened to for the first time and I have to say, they do sound lyrically immature and melodically entrenched in the 80’s. ‘Follow Your Heart’ and ‘Dancing With No Fear’ seem overly dominated with clichÃ© and no original musical hook, relying on a straight four-four rhythm to lift the crowd. But no one is really dancing. Before ‘Disco Heaven’ Holly asks whether this is due to the age of the audience – are we still capable of dancing with our bad backs and aching knees? No.
The new album does have an ace up its sleeve, and it is almost the highlight of the night as well: ‘Lonesome Town’ is a soaring ballad and showcases Holly’s voice to the full. Grown men and women are choking back tears around me – it is a powerful moment and our appreciation is noticeably felt by the singer. I say ‘almost the highlight’, because the final three songs are the best fifteen minutes of live music I have seen in a year: ‘Relax’, followed by encores of ‘Two Tribes’ and the finale, ‘The Power of Love’. The first two are thumping tracks and Holly holds up a searchlight during ‘Relax’, picking out members of the crowd as they finally found bouncing to the sound, almost uncontrollably. And finally, the stunning ballad, that although released in early December 1984 will always remind me of Christmas – but as Holly introduces the song, he reminds us that it is “not just for Christmas, but for life”. It is a great finish to the show and Holly belts the song out – it sounds incredible. There really is no replacement for the real thing.
The arrangements of all the songs from FGTH to his solo work are pretty much unchanged and it just goes to show how good they are, as they stand up next to anything made since. Holly may have been missing for a long time, but he knows that the songs that brought him into the spotlight 30 years ago need not be messed with – they are perfect as they are and the performances of Holly and his band tonight show this admirably.
It is true that ‘Shooting stars never stop, even when they reach the top’. Holly soared to the top in the 80’s and he just keeps on going, improving and getting stronger. Maybe he does not trouble the charts much anymore, but the pay-off for his real fans is that they can see him play faultlessly in such an intimate venue.
Photographer: Katja Ogrin
Words: Alan Neilson