Europa – Holly Johnson. Great return to form from Holly Johnson. Extra bonus of having a signed copy. The concert in 2014 was amazing too. Some brilliant songs and lyrics.
Having already done a post about “432-1: Open The Vein” by Nasher, another member of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and as I am working on a book, Frankie Fans Say, related to the band and their fans, it seems appropriate to do a fuller review of Holly Johnson’s “Europa”.
It doesn’t matter that the album came out 7 years ago – as I keep saying in these reviews, when the album was originally released is largely irrelevant – after all many of us still listen to music from many years, if not decades, ago. In this day and age it’s hard for independent artists (as I know from the books I’ve done as an independent author), those not backed by a major record label, or those not included in the contemporary pop charts, to get their work known. So the least us fans can do is help raise awareness of these albums.
I was a huge Frankie Goes To Hollywood fan – as you may already be aware and as I will discus more in the book Frankie Fans Say. I will talk about more about how and why Frankie influenced me in the book (though there is some discussion of it in some of my other posts – such as ‘Natural Symbols’ and ‘Learned Symbols’) – though anyone who has ever had me sign something may spot another influence in the picture above. Anyway, due to my love of Frankie, I continued to listen to the music of the band after they split up. It wasn’t until many years later that I came across Nasher’s music – initially I was only aware of that done by Paul Rutherford (subject for another post) and, of course, Holly Johnson – who probably gained the most attention due to having been Frankie’s lead singer and backed, initially, by a big record label.
I have all of Holly Johnson’s albums and singles. I think “Blast” and its singles were fabulous – and I have written more about this in relation to the Tim’s Twitter Listening Party before. I also have Holly’s autobiography, “A Bone in my Flute”, as I have reviewed too. There is much to like about all of the albums, singles, and book. But, I have to admit, as a Frankie fan, there was something – an X factor I guess we could call it – that was missing from all of them. “Europa” has that X factor.
As I suggest in the title of this post, “Europa” feels as though it could be Frankie’s third album. I can imagine that this is not a view that everyone would share. Not least because it’s missing the other 4 band members and the same dynamics (for better or worse) of those from ZTT. But, in terms of music and the lyrics, “Europa” fits. It’s not an easy fit necessarily – but that, in part, is due to it being so hard to know exactly what Frankie were. What was their genre? New wave? Yes, probably. But “Liverpool” was going towards a form of rock. “Europa” doesn’t follow on that trajectory. But “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” was a mixture of styles on one album and so, perhaps, “Europa” is more of a natural follow on from that album than “Liverpool”.
However, at another level “Europa” isn’t a missing link between “Pleasuredome” and “Liverpool” or Frankie’s third album. While there is no doubt that the lyrics of the tracks on “Liverpool” are amazing (and so relevant to the current world, let alone the 1980s), many of Holly’s subsequent albums had a more Peter-Pan-pop feel to them (see also some of my comments in relation to Tom Bailey and “Science Fiction” on this theme). All great albums in their own way – especially for those of us who wanted to ignore the passing of time. “Europa”, on the other hand, reveals the mature and masterful way that Holly can put lyrics – and music – together. Could that have been done back in the 1980s or as part of Frankie? Perhaps not.
Of course, it’s not just music and writing that Holly does. He is also an artist and the album cover – as with the singles – is his own work. As detailed on the Wikipedia page about “Europa”,
The title of the painting references “Europe After The Rain” by Max Ernst, which is a post war apocalyptic landscape. Johnson explained: “Great Britain, with its constant rain and history of war seemed to be dissolving in a miasma of celebrity culture and reality TV: fading, dripping, national identity washed away with globalisation and European directives. As we had all watched, live by satellite, the Twin Towers crumble, the new century was threatening. Dystopian dreams come true, with no off world escape route as depicted in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.” When talking Typography with designer Philip Marshal, Marshal chose to use details of the painting for the cover of Europa.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europa_(Holly_Johnson_album)
It was with those thoughts in my mind that I wore my “Europa” T-shirt and listened to the album when I went to vote in the Brexit referendum. Although from the quote above, it could be thought that the cover and title track are anti-Europe, my interpretation is the exact opposite. Perhaps the symbolism and meaning wasn’t as clear as it could have been or perhaps, like many symbols (as I discuss in my research), there are often issues with interpreting things depending on your background.
Anyway, let’s turn to the album itself. As you may expect from Holly (and Frankie) there is more than one version of the album. The standard version has 11 tracks. I have the Deluxe version with two additional tracks noted in the review below – as well as a limited edition CD with additional remixes of certain tracks.
“Follow Your Heart” – while I may argue that this album could be Frankie’s 3rd album, compared to “Pleasuredome”, “Liverpool”, or even “Blast”, the first track doesn’t have a Frankie-esque start. Yes, it’s the longest track on the album and has a relatively long instrumental intro, but it’s not the same dramatic start at the other three albums. Having said that it’s a great, upbeat track with some wonderful lyrics. It’s no surprise that this was the first single to be released from the album – and has the obligatory large number of remixes and different releases. Holly’s voice is ageless on this track – it could easily have been on “Blast”.
“In and Out of Love” – the second track and also the second single from the album. Again, this one could have fitted on “Blast”, but it also, at least to me, feels as though it’s a natural track to have been on side “H” of “Pleasuredome”. The track, I feel, shows Holly’s love of electronic/disco/dance tunes, but also reveals his ability to include much more interesting and mature lyrics than are found in many such songs by others. Had this been released in the 80s, it would have been a hit – sadly in 2010s (or 20s) and by someone who was big in the 80s, it is largely ignored.
“Heaven’s Eyes” – the third track and third single (you may have noticed a trend here). I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks – perhaps due to it’s title – that this song could have been called “Heaven’s Here Part 2”. So, again, this track could have been on “Blast”, but, although the synthesizer is strong on this track rather than having more guitars and drums, it could have been at home on a Frankie album.
“So Much it Hurts” – the fourth track on the album… but not the fourth single. Why not? I don’t get it. This is, in my view, one of the strongest tracks on the album. Just like “The Power of Love” and “Is Anybody Out There?” on “Pleasuredome” and “Liverpool” respectively, this track shows just how great Holly can be with lyrics and sing ballads. There’s so much in this song I’m sure people can relate to.
“Dancing with no Fear” – rather than the previous track, this was the one that became the fourth single. Perhaps it was thought this one would be more marketable. Perhaps it was due to Holly’s love of doing dance/disco. I don’t want to be critical of the track itself – I just think there were better candidates to have been a single.
“Europa” – given that “Two Tribes” was my favourite Frankie song, I guess it’s no surprise that, with its political overtones, “Europa” is my favourite track, at least in terms of lyrics, on this album. I could imagine a remix with more of an “Atomic City”-like intro. That could have worked as the opening of the album itself. As I wrote above, my interpretation of this song is that it’s very much pro-Europe and I think the lyrics are clearer in that respect than how the album cover could be interpreted. Why this track wasn’t released as a single, again, like “So Much it Hurts”, I’m not sure. Around the time of the referendum it could have been very marketable. At any time, the lyrics have got relevance. This is the sort of track that I expect to hear on an album by Frankie or one of their former members.
“Glorious” – this is probably my least favourite track on the album, though I would still give it a 3 out of 5. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the track, it just feels a bit more of a filler than many of the other tracks… but at least, as a filler, it’s not a cover version like a certain track (though I have less against that track than some) on “Pleasuredome” (and before you say that there is more than one cover version track on that album, I argue strongly against this in my book Frankie Fans Say… so you will have to read about my views on that subject there).
“Hold on Tight” – this is another of my favourites on the album. This really should have been a single. This is like a new, more upbeat version of “Watching the Wildlife” – a track (much like the album from which it came) that never gets the credit it’s due (probably as it’s merely seen as the last single of Frankie). I really love the lyrics and it’s with a great tune too. I want remixes… maybe with a full orchestra 😉
“Lonesome Town” – After the previous track, a quick drop in pace to another ballad. Yet again, a track that shows off the emotions in Holly’s voice with some powerful lyrics. It’s so easy to picture the scenes that are being sung about. Love this track. Would love to hear some remixes too… perhaps even one where it leads into “Ferry Cross the Mersey” (there’s a bit of the song where it really feels ready to do that).
“You’re in my Dreams Tonight” – in many ways this track continues the theme of “So Much it Hurts”, but is less of a ballad. Again, the lyrics are fabulous and relatable.
“The Sun will Shine Again” – the final track on the main album. As with “Pleasuredome” and “Liverpool”, we have a ballad. As with both of those albums, it’s a beautiful track. Perhaps a more positive ending than “Is Anybody Out There?”, but no less questioning about the challenges of life.
Bonus track: “Europa (Original Mix)” – being a Frankie fan, I am used to having multiple remixes of tracks. So having another version of “Europa” is great. But, I have to be honest – it’s like one of those remixes (of which I have many) where I’m left wondering “what bit was different?” Nothing against this remix – but perhaps one of the versions on the album could have been even more different than they are.
Bonus track: “So Much it Hurts (Piano Mix)” – as I have the deluxe version of the CD, this is the final track on the album. Such a beautiful way to end the album. I love the original version, but the Piano Mix is just so fitting. I have a feeling that a version like this (I think it was this track rather than another from the album) was done with Jools Holland on TV – but I can’t find anything on YouTube, sadly. Why, oh, why, wasn’t this a single?
I still contend that this album could have been a Frankie album, although, as I can now see by going back through my comments again, that it’s a very natural album to go with “Blast” (which didn’t feel like a Frankie album). In many respects, though, I’m glad this album came out when I was older. I don’t think I could have appreciated all of its content if it had come out when I was a teenager – as I was when Frankie were about. Then again, I can appreciate “Liverpool” on different levels now in a way I didn’t back in 1986.
After “Europa” was released, Holly went on tour and I got to one of those concerts. As well as my own recording of that night, there’s also an official recording of one of the concerts.
I really wish Holly would do more albums and go out live again. He has contributed some other songs to movies – for example “Ascension”, which appeared on the album “Fly” to go with the “Eddie the Eagle” movie (inexplicably, since the song is so good, it doesn’t feature in the movie itself) and “This Was Me” for the movie “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” (which I still need to watch). Holly is taking part in festivals, but so many of us want more. Please!
If you don’t have “Europa” you can buy/download copies so cheaply now – do yourself a favour and pick it up and tell others to do the same!