It’s 30 years since Relax was ‘banned’ by the BBC and the nation’s youth was corrupted by that dodgy video featuring some mild S&M and er...possibly ‘water sports’ and no, we’re not talking water polo here. Ahem. For a brief period Frankie Goes To Hollywood were HUGE. If Relax wasn’t ‘cumming’ out of your radio at you then you were quite possibly surrounded by people in those iconic Frankie Says... t-shirts. Perhaps predictably given the level of fame and fortune things rapidly soured with Johnson quitting the band in 1987 before getting embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute with record label ZTT that kept him out of the charts for a couple of years. Brief solo success followed with a brace of top 5 singles (Love Train and Americanos) before he gradually faded into the background releasing the odd record during the 90s (the decade in which he was also diagnosed as being HIV positive) and turning his hand (both hands no doubt) to painting instead. But now, as Smash Hits would have said, he’s back, BACK, BACK with a brand new album (the first in 15 years), single and tour.
Holly’s arrival on stage was heralded by some rather theatrical thunder and lightning and I half expected him to come on singing It’s Raining Men (now there’s an idea...). Sporting what looked like a leather suit, some sunglasses and a pair of Frankie era white gloves he seems in remarkably good shape, in fact break out a bottle or two of Just For Men (hell, I can talk), squint a bit and you could almost be looking at Holly c. 1984 again. The night kicked off with the Holly of 1989 though and a rocking run through Atomic City (at number 18 in the charts a relatively minor hit), embellished by a decent backing band and the impressive vocal talents of (apologies in advance if I’ve got her name wrong) Christina Hussain. Barely pausing for breath, which set the tone for pretty much the entire set, Holly launched into a bombastic Warriors and then, POW, the first of the biggies, Welcome To The Pleasuredome. Nearly three decades on from reaching number one (at a time when that really meant something) it still sounds EPIC and so, it must be said, does Holly.
Shutting my eyes for just a second I was 14 again and looking around a moment later it was pretty clear that a fair portion of the audience were having similar flashbacks. Ahhh, the joys of middle age reverie.
Rage Hard was faster, rockier and, well, HARDER than I remember it, with Holly just giving it a little wide eyed stare as he sang the work ‘hard’. Hmmmm, what could be referring to? This is a man who called his autobiography A Bone In My Flute so I think we can guess. The light pop of Love Train chugged by pleasantly enough before Holly announced that they were “going to risk a new one on you now”. Style wise Follow Your Heart is glossy 90s dance pop, a little low key disco (with just the merest hint of No More Tears (Enough is Enough) in there) and some self therapy which perhaps wouldn’t have been out of place on Holly’s debut solo album Blast. Holly tried a few other new ones from Europa (his new album) and each track exposed a little more of the man’s heart and soul. He’s freely admitted to being an “archetypal miseryguts” in interviews and it’s clear that some of Europa is concerned with Holly addressing his “black dog” (aka depression). If this makes the new stuff sound like an exercise in wrist slitting, it’s really not. Most of the songs are upbeat and trying to see the positive in life...okay so maybe not Lonesome Town but following some cheerful comments from the audience after performing this one he smiled softly and said “Thank you...I’ll never feel alone again”. Awww, bless him.
The album’s title track (co-written with Vangelis!) soon lifted things up again, in part due to the kind of humungous drumming last heard in the intro of Genesis’ In The Air Tonight. Epic. The best track of the newbies though, no question at all, was So Much It Hurts.
The rawest and most honest material he’s ever written there’s a touch of the Brel’s about it and, were he up for it, you can imagine a duet with Marc Almond on this track making an already pretty special track something truly beautiful...
From the sublime to the ridiculous and Frankie’s last hurrah, Watching The Wildlife. Not their finest moment and Holly advised us that this was the first time he’s played it live since 1987. All that being said it didn’t sound too bad, oddly enough given the song’s title a little tame perhaps, certainly not a criticism you could level against a track that Holly referred to as “The one I call the money shot...”. Yes. RELAX. Armed with a huge torch that he used to pick out various members of the audience Holly prowled the stage and, for several minutes, The Institute felt a little like being picked up in a sweaty S&M dive (sounds like a good night out to me). Let’s face it you could play this track in Westminster Abbey and it would feel like getting picked up in a sweaty S&M dive. It’s pure pop filth, from the pounding drums to the hi energy synths and Holly’s “Ow ow ow’s”. Arguably the first time pop well and truly ‘came’ out of the closet.
Speaking of mighty claims to fame Holly introduced the encore, Two Tribes, with the proud boast that he “stopped the Cold War singlehandedly”. Okay, so he was joking, but if you remember the video the sight of two aging political leaders slugging it out pointlessly in a ring before the world is spectacularly blown to smithereens (or as spectacularly as the ZTT budgets would stretch to in 1984) you can’t help feeling that it might just have helped a little (maybe Putin should watch it eh?).
Capping off the holy trinity of Frankie hits a mass singalong to The Power Of Love (“It’s not just for Christmas....it’s for life” Holly reminded us, perhaps with an eye on a new Frankie says...t-shirt design) ended what was, for fans of Frankie and Holly, overall an impressive and long awaited return.
There were glimpses this evening of a much more serious and grown up Holly than perhaps we’re all used to and if So Much It Hurts is anything to go by there may well be an intriguing new career as more of a torch singer in the offing. Whatever he does next let’s hope he’s back for good (whoops, wrong band), it’s ‘Holly’ good to see him again.
Setlist: Atomic City / Warriors / Welcome To The Pleasuredome / Rage Hard / Love Train / Folow Your Heart / In And Out Of Love / Heaven’s Here / Americanos / Lonesome Town / Europa / Disco Heaven / Dancing With No Fear / Penny Arcade / So Much It Hurts / Watching The Wildlife / Relax
Encore: Two Tribes / The Power Of Love