Over the past three and a half decades, Primal Scream have embraced everything from psychedelic pop to degenerate rock’n’roll; euphoric rave to industrial gloom. They have made records with George Clinton and Kate Moss, invited Mani of the Stone Roses and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine into the fold, survived narcotic oblivion, personal trauma and the death of beloved guitarist Robert “Throb” Young, and captured the mood of the nation several times over. Throughout it all, they have always sounded like Primal Scream. And they have always made great singles.
“Right from our 1985 debut All Fall Down onward we’ve approached singles as an aesthetic choice, a statement of where we are as a band,” says Bobby Gillespie. “We grew up with Suffragette City and Metal Guru flying out of the radio. The four Sex Pistols singles were great. Public Image by PiL sounded like nothing else. Prince and Madonna made amazing hits. That has been our approach. I’ve always loved Top 40 pop radio, I love greatest hits albums like The Who’s Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy. I remember Alan McGee saying of Higher Than The Sun: it won’t be a hit, but it will be a statement. Great singles can get out into the world and show people an alternative way of thinking. They make you feel less alone.”
Primal Scream began in early 80s Glasgow after Gillespie bonded with childhood friend Jim Beattie over a love of 60s garage, 70s punk and other cool moments from the history of 20th century music. Smart, working class kids for whom school was a reality to be endured, they realised early on the possibilities of music as a portal of discovery.
“In 70s Glasgow, school was set up to turn you into fodder for industry,” says Gillespie. “I left school at 15 because my dad got me a job in a factory, and I soon found the experience horrifying and traumatising. I was hungry to learn, but I had never been encouraged by my teachers and my parents were always working. My education came from rock’n’roll, punk rock, and the music press.”
Early Primal Scream singles, the wonderfully brief Velocity Girl in particular, were nuggets of innocent psychedelic pop with a strong influence from the Byrds and Love albums Gillespie and Beattie were digging into at the time. “In the early days I wanted to sound like the bands I loved, but then reality hit. Jim Beattie and Robert Young [initially on bass] were great guitarists, but the drummer and rhythm guitarist were terrible.” There was also a tambourine player. “He didn’t play on any of the records for a simple reason. He was always out of time.”
Those early singles were informed by the sound of Jim Beattie’s 12-string acoustic, which lends itself to 60s folk-rock, but when Beattie left Robert Young moved from bass to guitar, Andrew Innes became the (much better) rhythm guitarist, and Gillespie gave up his ‘day job’ of drumming for fellow Scottish malcontents the Jesus And Mary Chain to concentrate on Primal Scream full-time. That’s when the band found their rock’n’roll spirit. You can hear it on Ivy, Ivy, Ivy, from the band’s self titled second album.
“Robert loved Johnny Thunders, Link Ray, Neil Young & Crazy Horse… all the rock’n’roll guitarists,” says Gillespie. “Andrew’s been into rock’n’roll since I first met him in the 70s. So the sound changed. But Primal Scream have always been a been a product of necessity, of using what we had and what we could do at the time. We’ve been making it up as we go along; we still are. We’re always trying to craft classic songs, but in the early days the lack of ability often outweighed the yearning to express that feeling.”
With keyboardist / pianist Martin Duffy joining the band full time in 1990, Everything came together on 1991’s Screamadelica. A perfect amalgam of dance music, rock’n’roll and psychedelic expansion, it captured the hedonism, hopefulness and sheer druggy abandon of young Britain at the time. The sight of Bobby Gillespie standing behind a microphone on Top of the Pops for Loaded, offering only a single vocal line on what was otherwise a samples-based groove, was revolutionary. Then there was Higher Than The Sun, an acid trip in musical form. Come Together and Movin’ On Up were gospel-enriched rock’n’roll soul and Don’t Fight It, Feel It was Northern soul via acid house. The album provided a soundtrack for a generation whose idea of nirvana was dancing in a field at three in the morning before losing their friends, their car keys, and their minds.
“By the time of Screamadelica we had me, three strong musicians, and the producers Andrew Weatherall and Hugo Nicholson being the rhythm section,” says Gillespie. “The first two albums were limited to guitar, bass and drums. Then acid house happened, we heard the way Paul Oakenfold turned the Happy Mondays’ Wrote For Luck into this incredible groove, and we thought: maybe we could try that. It was all an experiment and it was anti-rock’n’roll in its way. We realised that, through sampling, you could have The Meters’ or James Brown’s drummer. The first two albums were written on guitars. Screamadelica was written on keyboards. It was no longer about macho guitar riffs. It became more feminine.”
Give Out But Don’t Give Up, featuring the Stonesy Rocks, the ramalama-rocking Jailbird and the full-on tearjerker Cry Myself Blind, headed back toward guitars, while also marking one of the strangest episodes in an already strange career. The band recorded an entire version of the album with a team of crack session musicians in Ardent studios, Memphis. The result was a country soul classic, but as Gillespie says: “The band were in a mess. Screamadelica left us in a weird place. Everything we dreamed of since the age of sixteen had come true. Where do you go after that? We were still living the rock’n’roll dream, and we knew what we were doing in making Give Out a guitars-led rock, country and soul album, but we had to move on.”
In the event a very different version of the album came out, and with the forces of success, drugs, exhaustion and disappointment taking their toll, the band came close to splitting up. Instead they did another about-face.
“By Vanishing Point in 1996 we were working with atmospheres and drums loops. We had just made a rock record, and now we wanted to do the opposite. There were bossa nova beats, dub, instrumental music, cut-ups… Kowalski is not really a song, more a mood. We built a little studio behind Creation Records in Primrose Hill and wrote and recorded the album there and whenever anyone had a musical idea I came up with the lyrics on the spot, no agonising. It is an underground album because we went underground as people. We were retreating from the world. I went deep inside myself and the music reflects that.”
It was another difficult period for the band, though a creatively fertile one. With hardly any guitars on the album Robert Young contributed little to Vanishing Point, leading to a new approach: no more big choruses or standard format song structures, with Gillespie using his voice as a rhythmic instrument rather than as a vehicle for melody. An initial series of gigs were a disaster. “People were coming to hear Rocks and Screamadelica and they were getting this weird music they had never heard before. The producer Adrian Sherwood was doing the sound, and you couldn’t hear a word I was singing. But it was all very experimental and it led to XTRMNTR. We were deconstructing the band, basically.”
Now we get to Swastika Eyes and Kill All Hippies; aggressive industrial barrages with an anti-capitalist agenda, but also reflections on what the drugs culture was doing to people. “When we started, all our friends were musicians, writers and filmmakers — people with a vision. They began to neutralise themselves with hard drugs, as did we, and I realised that hard drugs not only kill your creativity; they are the ultimate form of state control. In the late 60s, black neighbourhoods and hippie communities in American cities were swamped with heroin. There is a line in Swastika Eyes: ‘I see your autosuggestion psychology, elimination policy.’ It is an anti-military song but it is also looking at how, by the end of the 90s, all these formerly creative people were strung out. It wasn’t looking like freedom at all.”
These are heavy songs.
“They were heavy times.”
The last album Young played guitar on was Riot City Blues in 2006. “Andrew and Robert had a classic twin guitar sound,” says Gillespie. “They didn’t need to speak about it: Robert had the bluesy, sexy riffs while Andrew is more angular and it just worked. And then that was gone when Robert left the band, so you change.” Robert Young died in 2014. He was 49.