What we’re listening to (#1): Primal Scream

Primal Scream is one of the most unpredictable artists in music at the moment. Starting as a psychedelic, folk rock, Byrds-y pastiche group (with a little known debut, Sonic Flower Groove, as the side project for drummer of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Bobbie Gillespie) – few could have seen the band’s long-term success. Indeed, the band faltered once more with their second album, Primal Scream. An experiment in the punk and hard rock that Gillespie had admired in the Stooges and the MC5, it was a dramatic failure for the band, faring worse critically and commercially than its predecessor. The problem was that Bobbie Gillespie’s voice simply wasn’t harsh or exciting enough to match up with the newfound rock and roll backing. In the choruses, it is clear to hear that he simply wants to sing Byrds style choruses – this is especially evident in, “Ivy, Ivy, Ivy”.

After this, the band hit on what would prove to be their greatest success. They discovered the burgeoning acid house and dance scene, and quickly became infatuated with it. The band recruited DJ Andrew Weatherall to produce, and the resultant album was Screamadelica. Weatherall remixed “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have” to form the band’s new hit single “Loaded”, the centrepiece of the album and a true classic. All in all, Screamadelica was the third turning point for the band in as many albums, and for the first time it was a hugely successful one. Whilst still reflecting their love of classic rock, it fused this with a brilliant mix of house songs and influences, including a psychedelic rock cover mixed with modern dance in “Slip Inside This House” and the European house style found in “Don’t Fight It, Feel It”. Closing the album was the mellow yet indefinable “Shine Like Stars”. Its only clear antecedents were some of the more bizarre experiments in electronica; but it also included sitar samples, samples of waves (yes, sea waves) and a chord progression most reminiscent of The Beatles or Pink Floyd. However, ultimately it proved a unique and beautiful conclusion to the album. The highly distinctive cover art was chosen as one of 10 album covers to be put on a set of classic album postage stamps: reflecting this album’s irrefutable excellence both at the time and now and for years to come. Oh, and it won the first Mercury Prize for Best Album, and was voted best album of the 90s by Select magazine. Not bad.

After this, the band turned again – this time to blues and country inflected rock on the album Give Out But Don’t Give Up. It was here that the band’s obsession with the Rolling Stones became unhealthy, with lyrics throughout the album stolen or at the very least reminiscent of the Rolling Stones in their Exile On Main Street period – for instance, compare Primal Scream’s “Rocks” with the Stones’ “Rocks Off”. All in all, it was an enjoyable album, but it followed the Stones far too closely – a disaster for a group who had made their name forging a new path in music.

Vanishing Point followed – an adventurous record, and the flip side of Screamadelica. Whereas Screamadelica was a bright and hugely optimistic mix of psychedelic rock with dance music, Vanishing Point was a dark, paranoid and altogether different fusion of the two. In particular, echoes of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd hang over the album (if you listen to album opener, “Burning Wheel”, you can hear guitar lines which are similar to those heard in Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”), as well as trends in ambient music and dub. However, unlike on Give Out But Don’t Give Up, these influences are turned into something new, and completely and startlingly different from them. However, the darkness of the record inevitably made it less of a classic than Screamadelica – but you can still hear the legacy of this album to this day.

XTRMNTR pushed the paranoia and darkness of Vanishing Point to an extreme which had not really been heard in music up to that point. Gillespie vents his political outrage here, featuring highlights of the band’s entire career such as “Swastika Eyes” and “Kill All Hippies”. The political rage showed a new facet to Primal Scream, removing them from their previous optimism and placing them on an entirely different viewpoint. The music too reflects this, influenced almost entirely by industrial rock and the dub that had appeared at times on Vanishing Point. This was yet another complete divergence, and showed their continuing ability to blaze new paths in music – it was hard to imagine that the band who made XTRMNTR was the same band who made Screamadelica.

XTRMNTR was envelope-pushing, ballsy and convincing as a record – exactly what the next three albums weren’t. Evil Heat revisited the same sonic territory as Vanishing Point; Riot City Blues revisited Give Out But Don’t Give Up and Beautiful Future revisited a mixture of Vanishing Point and Primal Scream. Of the three, Riot City Blues is the most enjoyable and the one most deserving of repeated listens, but ultimately this is no great achievement. Evil Heat’s fault is simply that it doesn’t feel very original – it feels as if Gillespie has re-listened to Vanishing Point and XTRMNTR, decided he really liked them, and then redone them. Riot City Blues is just yet another product of their Stones infatuation. It was commercially successful though, revealing that however Stones-y it may be, it is still quite good fun. Meanwhile, Beautiful Future feels clichéd and its revolutionary rhetoric is completely at odds with the reality of Bobbie Gillespie’s day-to-day life. The music, meanwhile, is dull and insufferable – a real low point in their history.

And after Beautiful Future came Primal Scream’s most well-rounded effort – More Light. Released just last year, it neatly and coherently shows all facets of Primal Scream’s different styles whilst remaining new and energetic. “2013” opens the album brilliantly with a huge saxophone groove driven by psychedelic textures yet maintained within a dance framework, whilst “It’s Alright, It’s OK” closes out the album with a beautifully optimistic classic rock feel. The lyrics throughout are intense yet not as didactic as on Beautiful Future, whilst also retaining their earlier optimism. Bookended by two excellent songs and with thematic and musical coherency, it would seem that More Light is the best Primal Scream album since Screamadelica.

Watching them live made me appreciate why they are the best band currently operating – the breadth of their catalogue is unmatched and in more styles than most other bands combined. The dramatic switches between “Loaded”, “Swastika Eyes”, “Rocks” and “2013” were well-timed to keep the atmosphere constantly and completely invigorating yet varied, and fan favourites were well-balanced with hidden album tracks to create an unforgettable live show. In conclusion, when you look back over this band’s chequered yet brilliant past, you begin to realise their genius.

This article was written by Richard Birch


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