Don’t Forget To Remember: Puressence 1990-2013
On Wednesday 27th November 2013, Puressence singer James Mudriczki posted the following message on his own and the band’s Facebook pages: “It is with great regret that I have to say Puressence have split for good. Thank you to anyone who has ever supported us, you know who you are. – James”.
Puressence were one of those bands whose every mention has habitually been followed by something along the lines of “why are/were they not massive”, LTW’s Cath Aubergine suspects a refusal to compromise might have had something to do with it….
I’d had the bloke down as a bit of a prat as soon as he opened his mouth; sometimes you can just tell. Cocaine might well have been involved (him, not me), certainly gave that impression. I was still trying to work out if he – my age or thereabouts, oddly rodent-like, spray-on jeans, affected-sounding Londonisms (later confirmed via a dismissive sneer about the music scene in the northern city he’d left behind many years ago, a city with plenty of bands and venues) – was real or some kind of method actor training for the role of a music industry cliche. Nevertheless, I had to be polite, accompanying a musician friend (whose lowly support-act status was glaringly clear) to one of those pseudo-glitzy aftershows they sometimes have in the classic London venues, full of people trying to impress each other with their meaningless (non)job titles. My credentials – real life hands-on manager, at the time, of a real life band, writer and editor for a respected music site up here in the north – may not have had the same cachet as being intern for a PR company in Shoreditch with a degree in hanging out in cafes, but when conversation turned to the miserable treatment by major labels of acts who were no longer the next big thing – “Second album? Yeah, they might bankroll it, but they won’t have their best people on it” – I had a good story relating to a band I knew well. Unfortunately the point was lost as soon as I mentioned their name.
“Puressence? You’re having a laugh…” he might have said. Believe me, it wasn’t far off. The rest of this is also paraphrased, though essentially a fair report. “Get over it. So, so over. Leave them behind, everyone else has…” The fact that he was effectively proving his own point appeared lost on him. I wouldn’t say it was a Damascene turning point, but it was certainly one of a few incidents which over a couple of years completely removed any residual desire I had to be part of The Music Industry. The story, anyway, was that after a promising first album (commercially promising, that is, its quality never in doubt as many connoisseurs still rightly cite the eponymous ‘Puressence’ as one of the greatest debut albums Manchester ever gave us) and relatively successful second, the Failsworth four were called into a meeting with the corporation who’d been perusing their new demos. And told, so the story goes, that “we need you to sound more like Savage Garden”.
Yes, as in the Australian duo whose late-nineties success, making magnolia pop best suited to advertising low fat yoghurts to the people described in Half Man Half Biscuit’s ‘Paintball’s Coming Home’, had all but piffled out by 2002 anyway. No? Their big hit, the one I can remember (so the one that other people who don’t listen to Syrup FM might know) went something something fly you to the moon and back if you’ll be my bay-beeee, but it seems they had loads more. It’s unlikely any of them were any good.
Think about this for a minute. You sat there in your bedroom in a dark, depressed early nineties city still shivering through its Madchester detox and the hopelessness of post-Black Monday recession, but you had something. Something special. You had an untutored but completely innate talent for making sounds that were so beautiful, at times, they felt almost other-worldly; a truly stunning voice that would stop people in their tracks; a guitar sound that prickled the hairs on the back of the neck. The lucid poetry of a dispossessed dreamer; that youthful spirit of escape that The Stone Roses had had in ‘So Young’; a rhythm section that echoed the low threatening clouds and imposing redbrick mills of Manchester’s north-eastern fringe. You looked like a gang, standing there, coats done up against a crumbling industrial backdrop (that half the bands in Manchester would copy it over the next 15 years until it was just another tired indie rock trope isn’t your fault, and anyway it’s not happened yet). You put your life and sweat and blood into every line.
That first album, it was like nothing else around at the time. The time in question being about 1996. The Stone Roses might have been the inspiration – the other great legend associated with Puressence being that James Mudriczki, Anthony Szuminski, Kevin Matthews and Neil McDonald met on a coach to Spike Island – but this band was no carbon copy or baggywagon chaser. This wasn’t some daisy age nonsense about getting high. This was the darkness on the edge of town, northern English style; “you understand it’s not a game, the money’s in your coat and I think it’s mine, you know to me you look the same, I do this every day and it works out fine”. (Mr Brown). And even after all these years, Near Distance’s “you keep receiving flowers that were never sent” can still turn the whole room cold. If there were echoes of any past Manchester there it was of a Manchester before the happy-pills and the flowers, away from the city centre club scene and out along the bus route to the rain-lashed black winter nights of The Chameleons.
Follow-up Only Forever was certainly a little more upbeat sound wise, but to be honest you only have to look at the sleeve – pylons and wires crossing a bleak wintry sky – and song titles such as Sharpen Up The Knives, Standing in Your Shadow and Turn the Lights Out When I Die to realise that they haven’t exactly engaged completely with the zany, technicolour Chris Evans era in which they’ve found themselves. They were on the cusp of pop stardom, though – the singles scraped the tail end of the top forty and Britpop fans loved them even if they were still a world away from the trust-fund art-school mockney brigade. But if there’s a moment, a split second in a commercially successful band’s lifespan when “it” happened – that radio hit that catapulted you into the sphere of Joe Public who doesn’t go out specifically seeking out new music, that Later With Jools appearance or film soundtrack – then for Puressence it just never quite arrived.
Still, all the while the following’s been growing. You’re headlining venues at which you were supporting not so long ago. You ‘re still much the same age as most of the new bands coming up – at least one of Franz Ferdinand, for instance, would be a month off 32 when ‘Take Me Out’ saw them cross over from the indie scene at the start of 2004. You can still do it, you have new songs, you just need a chance and a bit of support.
So you’re sat there, and you’ve done all that, and this stuffed suit with his calculator and his flipcharts and his spreadsheets and his company car parked outside with a glove compartment full of CDs thousands might quite like but nobody will ever love, he looks you in the eye and tells you he’d rather you were some bloody diet-cola caffeine-free sugar-free unleaded declawed neutered chummy soulful pop rock sludge machine?
You’ve got to be fucking kidding. (And frankly I’m amazed he wasn’t found three days later with the fire extinguisher somewhere unfortunate).
So that was that. What did happen was a third album bogged down in unhappy compromise, which few would rate as their best – though with the label dedicating all of about a tenner to its promotion, quite a few people who bought the first two probably never even knew about it. Guitarist Neil McDonald, whose incredible way with a delay pedal had effectively defined the North Manchester guitar sound for the following decade or so, accepted that they’d had their shot and went back to real life shortly afterwards (I ran into him at a Television gig recently, runs a guitar shop these days and looking well). There are some quality tracks on there – their last top 40 hit Walking Dead and the slow burn Make Time which has rarely been out of the live set since – but it runs out of steam somewhat, descends towards MOR at least once, and suffers from over length and uninspiring production. It sounds like the end of a band-label relationship. Could quite easily have been the end of a band, too, but this was never just a hobby, nor the sort of extended gap year that is some middle class bands’ careers before they continue, only slightly delayed, on the professional path their parents had hoped for. This was their lives, so they regrouped, brought Lowell Killen into the fold (with some training from Neil, in much the same way a retiring traditional worker might coach an apprentice) and went back to work.
By the time I was having the conversation with the Industry prat, Puressence had made another album, the step back in the right direction that was Don’t Forget to Remember. I won’t name the bands our aforementioned living stereotype was representing, as I’m sure they’re very nice people and a couple of them weren’t bad, even if their careers did not extend past the year in which the conversation took place. Puressence, meanwhile, released a best of (2009’s Sharpen Up The Knives and one last album, the magnificent Solid State Recital in 2011. Lowell Killen’s own style had come to the fore by now, while boundaries were still being stretched: somehow celebrated American singer-songwriter Judy Collins featured on one track. I’m guessing that never featured in those Failsworth teenage dreams.
This isn’t a die hard fan letter. I make no claim to be such, insulting as that would surely be to the devoted loyal followers for whom this band was almost life itself. Those who would fly in from across Europe – mainly Greece, where the band were famously popular and Don’t Forget To Remember made number seven in the charts compared to 176 at home, but elsewhere too – to Sheffield Boardwalk or St Helens Citadel, as well as the big Manchester shows. I don’t doubt there were people in tears at the news, people for whom “could have been worse, you could have been a Lostprophets fan” would have offered little in the way of comfort. Puressence were the sort of band that could be your life – not all bands are like that.
I half expected, the morning after, to wake up and find north Manchester adorned with sheets of A4, a single block capital on each spelling G O O D B Y E P U R E S S E N C E or something, echoing the way in which they were announced to the world – hell, I might have done it myself if I’d been at home that night with access to a photocopier and a brush and paste. There’ll be someone somewhere with a Puressence tattoo – probably in Athens or Thessaloniki, where optimism’s already quite scarce – whose life just got a little colder. As a music fan, as someone who has travelled across international borders watching bands I love, my thoughts are with them. Me, well I wasn’t there from the start – like everyone in Manchester I remember those cryptic A4 postings, and I’m ashamed to say I guessed it was a band but never pursued it further (there wasn’t an internet then, at least not for that sort of thing). I’d almost certainly have liked them, had I not been suffering from Britpop induced disillusionment with most contemporary “indie” guitar music that I never really noticed them even practically on my doorstep; I’d even seen them early on at a one day festival event but they weren’t the band I was there for and for some reason recall little of them. As it was, it took a support set for the then reunited Chameleons in 2001 for me to get it. I wasn’t alone in this in the Chameleons’ audience, and when the latter split a couple of years later a section of their regular “away support” switched to the band who could have been their heirs. Personally I’m going to miss that side of it, the Travelodge-to-pub-to-venue-to-pub-to-Travelodge Saturdays (latterday Puressence played largely at weekends because of band members’ day job commitments, though it was also quite useful for travelling fans) though it has to be said that over the last couple of years numbers had started to drop away a little as people’s lives moved on.
Rationally, it was probably the right time to go. Some bands split at the first sign of trouble, leaving us wondering about untapped potential, while others drag themselves around to diminishing returns until they just fade away. Some early days fans might be of the opinion that Puressence did just that, but listening to Solid State Recital and imagining it as the first fruits of a new young band you could never say they had nothing left. They’d been quiet for a while, but just a few weeks ago posted on Facebook that a new album was on the way, that gigs were planned for 2014. It is not for anyone outside of the band to speculate on what changed, but this week’s announcement was actually less of a surprise than that one had been. Nevertheless, it all feels a bit sudden. Would have been nice to have one last gig, you know, but that’s Puressence for you. Never compromise.
A good place to stop, dignity intact, two decades of solid career to their name in an industry that has changed beyond what anyone could have anticipated when their first single left the pressing plant in 1992. Five men – we must neither forget Neil nor underestimate Lowell – who captured hearts and made some bloody great music whilst remaining true to themselves. This they achieved on their talents alone; in direct defiance of The Industry, whether the executive counting the beans for his corporation or the sneering scenester declaring them over because they’d passed the point by then when they could ever be considered cool. Manchester was a tough place to come from as a band in the mid 90’s, but they rose defiantly from the ashes left by Madchester and created a sound that echoes today through some threads of indie guitar music.
A while ago someone posted on the band’s Facebook page that oft repeated question – why aren’t you massive? And on that occasion – fresh from standing on the Apollo stage in front of a sea of raised arms and delighted faces as their expansive sound thundered through the huge speakers – James Mudriczki was drawn to respond in person, with just three words: “We are massive”.