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Denise Johnson

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    Denise Johnson

    UWS spoke to Denise Johnson, who has sung on records by Ian Brown, Primal Scream, Electronic and A Certain Ratio.

    “It was just crazy! Chaos!” laughs Johnson, recalling the infamous Primal Scream Screamadelicatour of 1992. “I had to be sober ‘cos I didn’t wanna sound shit. It’s well documented that they were proper off it. Every night.”
    “Although, supporting Depeche Mode,” reveals Johnson, “We were invited to a club to celebrate Alan Wilder’s (Depeche Mode drummer) birthday. I got absolutely mashed! (Andrew) Innes (Primal Scream guitarist) and (Martin) Duffy (keyboard player) had to help me on to the tour bus. Even though I’d had a few, I still have loads of common sense. So I prepared for the inevitable, which happened, I was so ill, don’t ask….”
    “I’m always the first off the bus,” Johnson continues. “We arrived in Texas. I’m the last one off looking like James Brown’s mugshot after his arrest! By the time I’d got to my room I became pretty upset ‘cos I thought I'd been too reckless and ruined my voice, we still had 40 gigs to do!”
    “Because the voice box is made up of muscle and lucky for me it has muscle memory, we start the gig, and my voice is stronger than before, which resulted in late night drinking on a couple of occasions with Throb (Robert Young, Primal Scream guitarist).”
    Johnson recalls how she was introduced to music:
    “I grew up in Hulme. My music came from listening to pop music on the radio which at the time was so varied and my mum’s record collection. She was Jamaican, so loads of ska, reggae, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Aretha, a bit of Simon and Garfunkle, quite a mixed bag for a kid. At school I played a few instruments but was more interested in singing with school mates in vocal groups and the school choir.”
    Johnson’s break came with Primal Scream.
    “John Breakall owned Spirit Studios in Manchester and he would get me down to add vocals for bands recording there. It was here I met a duo called Hypnotone and recorded a track called ‘’Dreambeam’’ which came out on Creation Records (label of Primal Scream, and later Oasis). One of them, Tony, had been working with Primal Scream at the time and informed me that Primal Scream were looking for someone to sing a track that their lead singer didn’t feel he could do justice. A couple of weeks later, I’m in London singing with Hypnotone at a club called Shoom and members of Primal Scream came down to check me out. The story goes, Innes got on the phone to (Bobby) Gillespie, ’Get down here, we’ve found the fucking singer!’”
    “The first day I went down to record with the band in London, no one turned up! I went down a second time and they all still turned up late. I remember thinking ‘this is a strange bunch’.”
    The song was Don’t Fight It Feel It.
    “When I sang on the track, it sounded nothing like what you hear now, it was an Italo piano house tune. When I got the Weatherall/Nicolson remix, I said ’what’s happened to the track?!’ It was so different I but obviously loved it one I’d got used to it.” The subsequent release of Screamadelica changed the lives of Johnson and Primal Scream.

    Johnson plans to release her first solo album later this year.
    “People are used to hearing me singing on other people’s records, I feel like this album will be a re-introduction to my voice,” reveals Johnson.
    “I’ve always written songs,” offers Johnson. Rays of the Rising Sun, a track she’d recorded a demo of, saw her sign to Warners/Magnet Records, andentered the top 40 chart.
    “In 2014 Terry Christian asked me to perform at a new night he was putting on,” Johnson recalls. “Because of time restrictions I thought I’d do a couple of covers. Robert ‘Throb’ Young had just died and as a tribute to him along with my guitarist Tom, we performed Damagedand New Order’s True Faith, after the gig people would say ’record those covers!’ it seemed a good idea then to record an album.”
    “I wanted it to be an album of songs by Manchester-based female singers but it was proving scarce so I went down the route of iconic songs that I absolutely love by bands from Manchester’,” continues Johnson. “I got into New Order after seeing their video for True Faithon TV. I was mesmerised. I couldn’t bear Blue Mondaythe first time I heard it. I was on holiday in Spain at the time dancing to soul tunes and itcame on, I was like ‘What’s this?! I can’t dance to this!’ And walked off the dancefloor. I totally respect the track now, it’s amazing obviously. It's a great record, groundbreaking”
    The record will also contain The Smiths track, Well I Wonder, Johnson reveals, alongside I’m not in Loveby 10cc.
    “It’s nice to know that the New Order camp gave our version their blessing. I'd like to think we’ve paid respect to all the tracks we’ve done. They almost feel like our own.”
    Why release the record in 2019?
    “Sometimes it’s not felt like the right time. I'm not a record company and don’t have that kind of pressure, luckily I can put it out when I want to.’’
    Johnson also grew up loving football.
    “I hated the colour red, that’s why I got into Manchester City as a young kid. My mum fancied George Best so she was a United fan. I was also a tomboy, hanging out in the park with the boys and, often mistaken for one. I used to cut out the City results from the Sunday papers and decided to stick them on my bedroom wall. I didn’t have drawing pins, instead I used hair oil, like a thick pomade. My mum came in and lost it ‘Get ‘em down now!’ only problem was there were grease patches everywhere! It looked ridiculous, had to put up new wallpaper.”
    "We were made up when City manager Tony Book drove past our school in his Jaguar every morning on his way to Maine Road, we’d literally sit and wait for him and wave! Course he never saw us. We’re a great team now, but the era of Tueart, Summerbee, Hartford, Bell, Peter Barnes was magical. My mum didn’t feel comfortable letting me go to matches, because you’re a girl and the possibility of being confronted with racism in that environment.”
    Even now, Johnson is wary of going to the match but for very different reasons:
    “When a factory burned down on Ashton Old Road, the smoke was still in the air at a Wolves match. I knew I had gigs coming up, and I'm screaming my head off and coughing on lingering smoke. I shredded my vocal chords that night. If I can get to a match, then I will. But I've got to be careful.”
    In 2018, a BBC Documentary titled ‘The Lost Memphis Tapes’ followed Primal Scream revisiting the making of 1994 album Give Out But Don’t Give Up, on which Johnson features heavily.
    “Hearing the original mixes, I only now realise quite a bit of my vocals had been taken off. I’m hearing parts for the first time, parts I'd forgotten I'd done, it was quite emotional listening. It’s just a shame Tom Dowd, Throb and the Memphis Horns aren’t alive to see this release. Tom was amazing. The best producer I feel I've ever worked with. Ever. He got the best out of all of us.”
    “I remember thinking on the plane to Memphis, ‘he’s gonna think I’m shit’. But that’s not his thing, he just wanted to bring out what we didn’t even think we had in us. I got on well with him. At the end of it all, he said ‘I don’t care what anyone else is doing, I'm taking Denise for a long island ice tea’. We all rock up to this local bar. He brings out a jug, and one glass. I'm like, ‘Everyone get your glasses, all get a drink’. And tom said, ‘That’s just for you!’ I drank the lot. I was so pissed, I walked out on my ankles, a great night.”
    Next for Johnson are gigs performing her acoustic album, and touring with A Certain Ratio -who are celebrating 40 years in music, of which she has recorded and toured for 28 years of.
    “It’s gonna be touch and go, but I think so,” predicts Johnson on City winning the league. What about the FA Cup, which United are still in?
    “I think wolves will beat you. I do, they’re such a good team now. And how cruel would it be if United don’t give the job Solskjaer? Bringing Phelan in was a good idea and Fergie’s hand is still on the wheel as a silent partner.”
    And if we do meet at Wembley this Spring?
    “Go to Wembley? Yeah, I’ll be the one in full kit.”
    Follow Denise on Twitter @TheDJohnsonR3AL

    Neil Meehan