Denise Johnson: the Unsung Voice of Manchester

Image: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Denise Johnson’s role in Manchester’s music scene was rather ironically an unsung one. The singer, who has untimely passed away at the age of 56, featured as a prevalent backing vocalist to both the Manchester music scene and further afield. Johnson is most remembered for her work with Primal Scream on their ground-breaking 1991 album Screamadelica.

Tributes have been paid on social media in reaction to Johnson’s passing. New Order’s twitter page reading: “Her voice graced many of our albums and live shows and that of our friends. The band’s drummer, Stephen Morris, posted saying Johnson was ‘An Absolutely wonderful lady’. Johnny Marr, tweeted saying […] ‘Playing alongside her was something else. It was a privilege to work with her.’ 

Born in Hulme in 1963 to a working-class family of Jamacian origin, her entry into music came about through listening to early Motown and reggae music that seemed a world away from the humdrum state of 1960s Manchester. Johnson’s break into music came in 1989, where she formed Fifth of Heaven, a neo-soul group, but Johnson soon became disillusioned with pursuing neo soul music. Speaking in 1994 to Vox magazine, she described the experience as “complacent and subdued” later adding “it had no fire”. 

Johnson first came into contact with Primal Scream through Hyponotone’s Tony Martin, who requested that she feature on their single ‘Dream Team’. Martin then got in touch with Bobby Gillespie for Johnson to collaborate with Scream on Screamadelica. Johnson featured on lead vocals on ‘Come Together’, the 10-minute long anthem became the stand-out anthem of rave culture, the message “Come Together ‘became the raver’s philosophical raison d’etre. The album changed music and the band overnight, earning them the inaugural Mercury Music Prize in 1992. In an interview with Louder Than War, she described working with Primal Scream as “nothing like I’d experienced before.’ When asked about Screamadelica’s success, she said in the same interview: “it was more like going for a night out and you might do a bit of singing in between”. She remained in the group until 1995.  

Later on in her career, Johnson collaborated with Electronic, featuring on their 1991 hit ‘Get the Message’ taken from the supergroup’s self-titled debut album. Johnson would team up with Bernard Sumner again 14 years later on New Order’s comeback album Music Complete, their first without founder member Peter Hook on the track ‘Plastic’. Other acts she collaborated with include A Certain Ratio, who she sang with for 25 years. Johnson was due to have an album released in September this year, and had done covers of the New Order and 10cc songs, ‘True Faith’ and ‘I’m Not in Love’. 

Johnson’s legacy is one that reflects on one of the unsung voices in Manchester’s music history. Johnson’s voice was packed with an anthemic energy that rawed and lifted the spirits of many who listened to it. In a sense, rave music and culture wouldn’t have been the same had Johnson’s voice not been involved in some way or another. A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise money for Johnson’s funeral.

Words by Lewis Oxley

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