Cherry Pop #3 - 'We Are Performance' by Performance
We began our new, monthly Cherry Pop feature with the hope that friends from 'outside' would drop in and accept our invitation to open us up to, as is the feature's remit, notable debut albums worthy of re-analysis; new angles on old favourites, records that might have been missed amidst the flotsam or just deserved another few minutes in the limelight. If it could become a showcase for the writing, too, then so much the better. So far, with contributions from Helen King and Lara Williams, we're thrilled with what we've been able to share with you.
This month, Juliet Jacques (featured columnist at The Guardian and The New Statesman) reflects on her own personal relationship with the debut album by Manchester's electro-innovators Performance. It's a gripping and moving picture of how the industry chows down on artistry and endeavour with nary a thought for its young creators. Read on.
Joe Stretch and I were at university in Manchester together, but our paths didn’t cross until the third year of our degree. We couldn’t discuss politics or philosophy on our French Social Thought course as another student always dominated the seminars. Outside the classroom, we discussed the grim inevitability of the Iraq invasion, the beauty of Jacques Prévert’s poetry and Bertolt Brecht’s plays, and the stark brilliance of the early Human League records, and struck up a close friendship.
It was one I’d needed. Growing up in small town Surrey, obsessed with Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths and The Fall, I’d built up Manchester as a counter-cultural haven, moving there as soon as I could. Aged 18, I hit the north, finding a city centre being rebuilt, four years after the IRA bomb of 1996, and eleven after the second ‘Summer of Love’ in 1989. I spent my time in the Northern Quarter, drinking in Dry 201 with its Factory Records catalogue number, rooting through Vinyl Exchange for post-punk LPs and going to gigs at the Night & Day Café, but I did so alone, finding few people on my wavelength.
The music scene was the greatest disappointment. Entering an indie club would mean hearing endless Oasis or the entire Stone Roses album twice, with the bands I loved being less fashionable: Joy Division were too depressing to represent Manchester; New Order too electronic and erratic; The Fall too spiky and weird; The Smiths too fey and Morrissey too miserable. It wasn’t that I wanted the old music, rather groups that did something interesting with its heritage, and broke Manchester out of its obsession with Luddite guitar bands.
I didn’t get my band, Zinoviev Letter (yeah) off the ground, but in 2001, my friends Dave and Sarah invited me to co-found Valentine Records. I minuted meetings and DJ’d at To Amy With Love, our night at The Retro Bar on Sackville Street, near the old Factory office. This became popular enough to sell out each month, with our releases getting favourable coverage in City Life, Manchester’s TimeOut. With this growing buzz and a strong roster, I felt that the right band could take us to the next level.
Returning for my final semester in January 2003, I met Joe in Big Hands, a coffee house and gig venue. Looking at the posters, he asked: “Do you know Valentine Records?” “That’s us!” I replied. “My band have recorded a demo,” he said, “and I wondered if they’d like to hear it.” I said I’d love to. “You’ll hate it”, said Joe, knowing I played bass and wrote pretentious manifestos for a band in Brighton with two members of militant DIY hardcore group Cat On Form. “Far too poppy.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” I said, so the next day, Joe gave me a C90 tape labelled ‘Performance’ with five titles across its front. From the opening synth whirring on ‘Female Gaze’, I was hooked: this took the best bits of new wave pop, adding just the right amount of guitar, dark and detached yet full of desire, kicking in with Laura Marsden’s cool asides about haunting sex in dimly lit rooms, before Joe’s lyrics surveyed male heterosexual lust, the calls and responses coming to an exhilarating climax. ‘TV/On’ juxtaposed upbeat verses about parties and passion with an introverted chorus about television, whilst ‘Dotted Line’ was a frenetic, funny satire of po-faced indie bands who mythologised their own adolescence. My favourite was ‘Lights Camera Action’, its pounding drum machine anchoring a wealth of synth lines that delved in and out of each other, Laura’s wistful vocals supporting Joe’s bleak story of a man losing himself in the porn industry. ‘Wallpaper and Atmosphere’, a pessimistic counterpoint to ‘Dotted Line’, provided a strong, moving end.
Here is the band this city needs, I thought. They had everything: that quintessential Mancunian mixture of guitar and synthesizer, wit and wisdom, euphoria and melancholy, and I felt sure that they would represent Manchester’s new sound just as the renovated Piccadilly Gardens, with its ordered greenery and obelisks, symbolised its new image. I rang Joe, saying I’d had Performance on repeat all evening. Tomorrow, I said, we’ll hand-deliver a cassette to Dave and Sarah’s central Manchester flat. We met in a café and I wrote a note explaining that it was the best demo I’d ever heard, and that we must release an EP immediately. (I had no idea what this cost, nor any money for it.) Then we traipsed around the metropolis for an hour, trying to find somewhere that could sell us a Jiffy bag. Finally, we got the tape into their mailbox, and awaited their response.
By the time I managed to cajole anyone else at Valentine into listening, it seemed that all Manchester had experienced the thrill of Performance. Their gigs at Big Hands, Night & Day and elsewhere were exhilarating: the four members complemented each other so well, sisters Laura and Billie Marsden perfecting the Eighties-Noughties look, Joe Stretch and Joe Cross in immaculate suits, conforming to and yet somehow undermining gender stereotypes, worlds away from the colourless anti-fashion of the Nineties. Joe Cross and Billie stood back as Laura and Joe burst from the tiny stages, Joe reciting poetry, drenching himself with water, screaming over the insidious riffs and hooks. Their sets at To Amy With Love were riotous, and the retro-Futurist electroclash (or ‘Manctronica’ as it was laughably dubbed) kids filled The Retro Bar to see them, but all we ever released was ‘Straight Lines’, on a compilation – our limited budget had gone elsewhere.
So their first single, ’Dotted Line’ b/w ‘I Know’ (formerly Wallpaper and Atmosphere) came out in autumn 2003 on Guilty Feet, launched by local journalists specifically for Performance. By then, I’d moved to Brighton, concentrating on writing rather than music, so I’d travel to London for their shows, a raucous set with Pink Grease which ended with Joe hanging off the wall, yelling over a wall of electronic noise leaving me sure that they would move from regional to national acclaim. It took nearly a year for Guilty Feet to issue a second single, ’Love Life’, but Performance sustained their momentum: a range of brilliant new tracks appeared on their website, the music becoming more complex, the lyrics reflecting Joe’s familiar obsessions with love and sex, whilst widening their scope, covering nostalgia for youth as it is lived, dead-end jobs and the failure of Blairism.
Most outstanding of these was 'Convenience Erupts'. Its insistent synth parts climbed and scaled, whilst the words explored the truths that come with a bitter break-up: “Elastic paths to cotton bras / And drastic laughs, forgotten scars / You said you felt like honesty / I felt you out of sympathy”, ran its pre-chorus, then exhorting the “easily left and easily led” girlfriend to forget the happy times before coming to wish death on her callous ex.
Despite having so little released, Performance’s promise was obvious to all who saw or heard them. The Observer Music Monthly picked them as one of five bands to watch in 2005 for their ‘sinister, spare electronic odes to sexual subordination’ – and they signed to Polydor.
“In the Nineties,” said Joe, “you could swagger and drink champagne and fall over in a Soho gutter, but that’s not an option open to us. These are serious times. It’s our duty to engage with them and not dance around declaring our own brilliance. We take things very fucking seriously indeed.”
The band thought hard about whether to sign for a major or an independent, choosing Polydor for the backing and distribution that such a label could offer. They quit their jobs and postgrad courses and began recording at Peter Gabriel’s studios at Real World, building an audience in London with a series of slots at The Old Blue Last, Hoxton Bar and Grill and elsewhere, supporting The Maccabees and other new acts, as well as Bryan Ferry and Gary Numan. Everything was in place, with four smart new songs premiered on a BBC6 session with Marc Riley – but Performance found it impossible to sustain their relentless rise.
Before one of many east London gigs, Joe and I walked around Hyde Park, discussing the pressures of being on a major label. Someone from Polydor had burst into a rehearsal, said Joe, and ordered them to “decide whether you to be a pop band or an indie band”. “Don’t the public decide that?” asked Joe.
The band were moving beyond instant hooks and youthful poetics, and struggling to keep a balance between natural evolution and the spontaneity needed for their first major releases: as another early demo put it, culture moves fast, Performance moves faster. Musically, they were working towards something that might provide a breakthrough, but the songs on Riley’s show weren’t it: no FM station, it seemed, would push ‘It’s Bad’ and ‘It’s Just Begun’, which declared: “Oh, I’m a modern man / I live by forgotten plans / Smile, it all seems fine / We’re doomed in the meantime.”
Joe strived to make his lyrics more accessible, working against his inclinations: Scritti Politti’s Derrida references or Depeche Mode’s investigations of sexual dissonance worked in the Eighties, but didn’t fit Noughties playlists. Commercial pressures forced other changes, further diluting what had made the band feel so refreshing. They added a drummer for live shows, changing the dynamic between the four founder members and making them feel less like an electronic act with more substance and more like another 21st century indie band, and became (We Are) Performance in a reluctant attempt to rebrand themselves, diminishing the post-modern ambiguity of their name. With personal problems including a difficult inter-band romance exacerbated by the mounting pressure to produce, they issued just one single throughout 2005, in late November.
But what a single: ’Surrender’ opened with an organ sound, rising and falling, before clashing drums and synth exploded into the mix, stopping for Joe to sing of a broken heart still beating, then bursting back in as he recalled time wasted in awful bars and the weight of past relationships. Its chorus was irresistible, finally striking the ground between intellect and immediacy, the song declaring itself “over far too soon”. It was perfect electropop, keeping the depth and sensitivity that made Performance so much more. Perhaps, it might work out.
“Everything fails one day”, Joe Stretch told an interviewer as 'Surrender' was released. “All I hope is that our failure will be spectacular.”
I still don’t understand how 'Surrender' didn’t become a hit, and I don’t think I ever will. Their next release, in July 2006, couldn’t, as EPs weren’t allowed to chart under new rules and anyway, Polydor had relegated Performance to Fiction Records, where the 'Short Sharp Shock' EP came out. Despite its bold, brutal opening track it was under-promoted and under-reviewed, anticipating the band’s departure from the label, and as I worked in my unbearable job at an assurance firm in Hove, listening endlessly to ‘I Want Out’ as Joe sang about being “as good as dead” in such surroundings, I thought about how my attempts at creative writing and journalism were stalling in tandem with Performance’s career. Again, I feared, the moment had passed: this time, definitively.
(We Are) Performance was eventually self-released in summer 2007, after their management struck a exit deal with Polydor and they re-wrote and re-recorded. I went to Manchester for its launch, witnessing Daggers deliver a supporting set like those that had captivated me with Performance, and then bought a plastic bag containing the CD, a poster that read ‘Things move past’ and the fanzine that Laura had always produced to accompany their music, Too Much Information. This opened with a Situationist slogan – ‘On the passage of a few people through a brief period of time’ – and then featured a surreal piece of fiction called 'Two Legs' and Joe’s lyrics. Originally, the band had planned to release the album with a set of short stories: sadly this didn’t happen, and the track I’d written for, ‘Keep Still’, didn’t make the cut. (The story is here if you’re interested.)
The album was bookended with songs about the band. 'Vandals' was a powerful opener, starting swiftly and constantly changing pace, an oblique summation of their time on Polydor: ‘We drift like pain from your memory / We fade like hate for an enemy / And I see absence in your eyes / You freeze like hope through a camera / You drop like dates from a calendar’.
‘Short Sharp Shock’ and ‘Surrender’ came next, before three new songs. ‘In Your Own Words’ was slow and beautiful, Laura and Billie’s harmonies feeding into a chorus as touching as ‘Surrender’’s was arresting, complementing Joe’s verses about love lost through one’s own mistakes. 'Freeze' was faster and more lyrically ambiguous, its sense of relationship as conflict recalling the Gang of Four as much as ABC. ‘Market Street’ was quicker still, the music matching Joe’s exploration of the dizzying pace of youth and regret that ‘things move past’ making it a mature, moving opposite to ‘Dotted Line’.
Three older songs were reworked: ’Lost Youth’ and ’Live a Little’ included in the January 2004 demos that went to major labels, appeared, meaning that ‘Lights Camera Action’, ‘Convenience Erupts’ and the magnificent ‘I.D’., a searing critique of the sexual and spiritual hollowness of the clubs we’d visited in Manchester, had to remain unheard. ‘Lost Youth’ took the best parts of New Order, in particular ‘True Faith’, its intertwined vivacity and wistfulness making it one of the highlights. Spruced up from the ‘Love Life’ B-side, ‘Live a Little’ was jagged and exhilarating like much of their earlier work, Joe cramming his excoriating lyrics into the space available like Holy Bible-era James Dean Bradfield: ‘Liberty burns a hole in your pocket / Life’s a brand new habit and you’re going to have to stop it / Fun is fun and must be done / Just dance and die with anyone’.
Back to back, ’Rome’ and ’Sex etc’ continued the fast/slow push and pull, leading to a revamped ’Dotted Line’, even higher-octane than the ‘Guilty Feet’ single, almost exhausting with its bleeping, whirring middle eight and resounding final chorus. ’The Ending’, all drum fills and Depeche Mode-inspired synths, acknowledged that the promise of those first recordings hadn’t been fulfilled, for various reasons: ‘We were pretending, chasing silhouettes / We spoke of happy days / But it’s a ghastly age / I’m looking older’. Laura’s backing vocals sounded more haunting than ever, as Joe brought the album to close by declaring that ‘We are falling out to the end’.
As I crashed at Joe’s flat in central Manchester, I recalled the path that led from my bedroom to The Roadhouse, via Polydor and Real World, support slots with big names and headline slots in small venues, the band always seeming to keep one foot out of the industry and its demands, constantly caught between instinct and expediency, their retro-futurism struggling to keep up with the times. In particular, Joe and I would laugh about how we’d been at the last point in history when bands would hand-deliver C90s to record label offices, and how poorly their name and song titles worked with search engines, but now the prevailing emotion was relief, and no little pride: the album, we agreed, was worth everything that preceded it.
In 2010, renamed Performance, the band made a small-scale comeback, releasing a second album, Red Brick Heart, all surging riffs and huge choruses, with ‘Unconsoled’ and ‘The Living’ just as irresistible as 'Surrender'. By now, Joe Stretch had published two novels, Friction and Wild Life and was working on his third, The Adult; Billie had left; Laura was training to become a lawyer. Joe Cross was writing songs and producing: two members of Daggers had formed Hurts and, with Cross shaping their sound, were becoming a viral sensation. And I was publishing in The Guardian, writing a blog about gender reassignment after Joe had told me, with all his commercial nous, that they would “bite my hand off”.
Performance toured Red Brick Heart to tiny rooms: a wet November night at The Hope in Brighton brought a handful of devotees, but far more saw them at the Royal Festival Hall supporting The Human League. I went with a friend from work, who was stunned that he’d never heard of them: I told him the whole story and made an anthology from the demos, singles and albums, and soon he shared my love for them. In January 2011, Adam and Theo from Hurts wrote about ‘Manchester’s lost electronic heroes’ for the NME, which put (We Are) Performance second in a list of ‘The Greatest Albums You’ve Never Heard’.
The Royal Festival Hall show was the last time I saw Performance. They never formally announced it but split soon after, unable to go back to places like The Hope after the thrill of touring with their heroes. At least they knew, or I think they knew, that they made music for the right reasons, sincere even when at their most ironic, mindful of the importance of retaining their integrity and individuality in a culture that wanted to stifle and simplify them for easier marketing, and this comes through most strongly on (We Are) Performance. It didn’t fail as spectacularly as they might have liked, but despite everything, it exists, and perhaps one day you’ll download it, marvel like I did at the band’s intensity and intelligence, and feel euphoric that you love them now - and melancholic because you didn’t before.