Thirty years ago: A retrospective review of Holly Johnson’s 1989 album “Blast”.
The beginning of 1989 saw former Frankie Goes To Hollywood singer Holly Johnson make his long awaited return to music with his debut solo single “Love Train” and the album “Blast”.
As lead singer with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Holly had enjoyed enormous global success from 1983 with three consecutive number one’s in the UK with their first three singles that collectively sold over ten million copies around the world! The Frankie ‘pleasuredome’ had, however, come to and end in 1987 but Holly was not going to finish there and during 1988, met and began writing and recording with producers Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, Erasure), Andy Richards (George Michael, Grace Jones) and singer Dan Hartman of “Instant Replay” and “Relight My Fire” fame. What emerged was a debut album that both delights and inspires even to this day.
Holly launched his return in January 1989 with the lead single “Love Train” with the album, titled “Blast”, being delivered in late April. Let’s take a trip back thirty years and examine each track in detail and relive the majesty of this groundbreaking hit album:
1. Atomic City
We kick off with a six minute epic that begins with electric guitars before descending to a disco-pop fantasia with a funky beat ruling throughout. Trumpets herald Holly’s arrival who advises “there’s a party going on in atomic city” and with a harem of chorus girls joining in, it will keep you up and attentive from beginning to end. The song is co-written and produced with Hartman who is said to of come up with the funky bassline to make it work. It was released as the third single from the album in June 1989 reaching the top twenty across much of Europe and New Zealand.
2. Heaven’s Here
Taking things down a peg after a short bout of DJ scratching/mixing, “Atomic City” merges into this wistful and quite gorgeous number that smells of both Summer sunshine and clouds of angels. “Heaven’s Here” is possibly THE standout track of this album (it’s a personal favourite of Holly’s), Produced by Stephen Hague, it features such peachy lyrics like “look at heaven, it’s kissing clouds” and “blue skies, white lies and cherry pies”, rivalling and eclipsing Madonna’s “pink elephants and lemonade” without a splash of doubt! This is powder pop at its very best. The song was released as the fourth and final single in the Autumn of 1989 but only managed No.62 in the UK. Perhaps everyone had already bought the album for it to do any better. But it should of.
“Americanos” is as upbeat and whimsical as you will get from Holly on this album. Opening with “there’s a place where a kid without a cent, he can grow up to be president” – where’s that? “a magic kingdom filled with Barbie dolls, if you’ve got the time we can make it a good time” – oooh do tell…”Americanos, blue jeans and Chinos, Coke, Pepsi and Oreos” – of course! Holly pretty much sums up the U S of A in the final verse, lamenting “everything’s organized from crime to leisure time”. “Americanos” was the second single to be released and preceded the release of “Blast” by just a few weeks. The song took off just as quick as “Love Train” before it and equalled its UK chart position of No.4 in April 1989 and making the top ten all across Europe. Sadly, for some reason American’s did not warm to it. It failed to make an appearance on the Billboard chart, however, it did reach No.36 on the dance chart. Proving “in the land of the free”, you can’t always be what you wanna be!
4. Deep In Love
Camp disco-pop now with “Deep In Love” with a groovy beat running throughout (perhaps courtesy of Mr. Hartman?). “Mascara madness on Saturday night, the girls dress up, the boys all fight” declares Holly. With a lush Caribbean feel, trumpets abound, this track could very easily of been a single. Holly tempts with all things good and bad in life and ‘dares’ us to “consume, improve your live, consume”. Carry on…
With a shot of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, “Success” arrives with confidence and doesn’t outstay its welcome one bit. Highlighting all that is good and bad about celebrity, Holly instructs us over and over that “Success” is spelt “S U C C E S S” and it’s knocking at your door. If you want it to. Again, another contender for possible single release. Its message is aimed at those who attain ‘success’ and what they attempt to achieve by it: “you want to end all war, you want to feed the poor”. Is that you?
6. Love Train
Our first taste of solo Holly came in January 1989 with the first single, and what a track! “You’re a, work of art” Holly tells us, and that’s just what “Love Train” is. Euphoric and extremely catchy, “Love Train” is as much an ode to train driving as it is a love song! “Stoke it up” and “keep the coal coming”, an engineman’s instruction manual is ever there was! For me it’s the build up on the final chorus with waves of electric guitars and superb drum programming that make this one of the best songs of 1989 and Holly’s signature tune. It raced up the charts everywhere it was released, peaking at No.4 in the UK and charting high all across Europe, Australia as well as making an appearance in the US singles chart at No.65. Begin your Holly Johnson odyssey with this song and return to it again and again.
7. We Got It Made
More spectacular and uplifting rhythms, and electrifying guitar chords with “We Got It Made” and yet another contender for possible single release that wasn’t. “Success” leads to “We Got It Made”, as Holly states, “all our bills are paid”! Sorted. Dig the massive guitar rift int he middle eight that continues into the final choruses. The song is of its time, but nevertheless, is wholly welcome and necessary.
8. Love Will Come
Things calm down a bit now with “Love Will Come”, which takes a leaf out of “Heaven’s Here”s book. Holly promises over and over that “love will come your way”. It’s there and it will happen…and it’s free! Wise words.
“Perfume” is as quirky as it is breezy, not outstaying its presence but filling any cake of your choice with deliciously soft buttercream. A tinge of 70’s funk arrives three quarters of the way in as Holly discusses the link between being with a loved one and the scent and operation of perfume. “Rub me in”. “Smell your skin”. He loves your “Perfume”!
10. Feel Good
“Blast” concludes with this epic five and a half minute number, again taking the pace down, but not too much, with lush chords and echoes of electric guitars. A sombre and thought-provoking message is conveyed with lyics like “no tears left to cry, no mountains left to climb, everybody’s got to feel this way sometime?” Holly asks, as he fade gently away repeating “feel good, feel good, feel good…”.
The ten track “Blast” was released on 24th April 1989 and became an immediate smash, particularly in the UK where it went straight in at the top of the album chart and would be certified Platinum for sales of over 300,000 copies. Elsewhere the album reached the top ten across most European countries, No.11 in New Zealand and No.97 in Australia. Sadly it did not make an appearance Stateside, despite the earlier success of “Love Train”.
In a 2011 interview Holly stated the songs he is most proud of on the album are “Love Will Come” and “Heaven’s Here” and that the title of the album came from the magazine of the short-lived British modernist art movement called Vorticism. In 2014 Holly said of “Blast”: “The week it got to No.1 I was very vindicated. That was a transient moment of victory in retrospect. I’d been on the promotional trail, touring and on the endless European television shows that existed in those days, for years and years, since the beginning of ’84. Towards the end of ’89, with a couple of hit singles and a Platinum selling album, I started to get health worries that ultimately came to consume my life for quite a number of years”.
Whatever the outcome, Holly would go on to release four further studio albums and various singles, the most recent “Europa” was released in 2014. None of them would match the commercial or chart success of “Blast” and its four singles. Holly continues to tour across Europe as well as in The States and always finds audience reaction to “Love Train” and “Americanos” immensely popular and welcome.
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