Primal Scream: The band who made a rave new world

As Primal Scream prepare to play the full Screamadelica album live after 20 years, Caspar Llewellyn Smith explores the alchemy that drove the group who defined an era

It is a beautiful day, the last sunshine of the year putting a spring in the step of Bobby Gillespie, waifish ringmaster of Primal Scream, who is dressed, none the less, all in black: black skinny jeans, black T-shirt, long black hair, only streaks of grey making him look any older than he did 20 years ago. He's in expansive form, too, talking up the task that he and his co-conspirators – childhood friend Andrew Innes and the rest of the band; long-time friend Alan McGee, their old manager, of sorts, and record label boss; Andrew Weatherall and others – set themselves amid the last gasp of freedom for independents in the record industry, in the final days of Thatcherism and in the chemical haze of acid house.

"I honestly felt we were redeeming rock'n'roll," says the 48-year-old. "I know it sounds ridiculous, right? But my attitude was that rock'n'roll should be a celebratory, euphoric, ecstatic experience. High energy. Ram-a-lama! I felt that rock had become too inward and it was maybe a bit too serious. I felt that what we were doing at that point was what rock'n'roll should be, except it was modern, it was futuristic."

The mainstream charts at the tail end of the 80s were moribund, dominated by post-Live Aid rock monsters and the flimsy charms of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Opposition came from two fronts: from the awkward squad creativity of the indie scene and from the similarly underground but more optimistic and leisure- and pleasure-obsessed rave movement. (The paradox was that both owed a debt to the DIY ethos of Thatcherism.) Those two threads were united on Screamadelica, a marriage of Gillespie and co's impeccable understanding of pop history with what they were imbibing from a nascent form of club culture – an act of alchemy.

It was the record that won the inaugural Mercury prize in 1992 and ever since it has been hailed as perhaps the defining album of the era. Certainly, to an impressionable teenage fan, it sounded like nothing before and, as the band prepare to play it live in its entirety for the first time next month, the question presents itself: has anything since sounded quite so visionary? It was, if nothing else, the most improbable of triumphs.

Gillespie was schoolboy friends with guitarist Robert – later "Throb" – Young and, later, with Alan McGee, who was in the year above at King's Park secondary in Glasgow and who took him to his first gig: Thin Lizzy. "The relationship between Alan and Bobby was fundamental," the writer Irvine Welsh remembers in Upside Down, a new film about Creation Records, which had its premiere last week at the London Film festival. "They were kind of two old-school Glasgow punk rockers who were best mates and they had this whole joint vision: Bobby as the artist, Alan as the enabler."

Gillespie became the drummer with another group of Glaswegian pals for a spell, the Jesus and Mary Chain, but also formed Primal Scream, involving Young and another teenage acquaintance, Andrew Innes. At first, they cast themselves as fey imitators of the Byrds and Love and one of their songs, "Velocity Girl", was the first track on a cassette called C86, given away with the NME, that summed up indie music at the time as something defiantly homespun and rather bloodless.

McGee, meanwhile, had moved to London and cast himself as an impresario, setting up Creation, releasing the Mary Chain but also other C86 acts like the Bodines, as well as Primal Scream's 1987 debut album, Sonic Flower Groove. It was hard to imagine that, within a decade, the same label would launch Oasis on the world, with landmark albums by My Bloody Valentine and Screamadelica to its credit.

But the Scream's next album was not their breakthrough: rather, 1989's Primal Scream saw the band's "testicles drop catastrophically", as one writer put it. This was a greasier record altogether, in thrall to the Stooges and the MC5. And, truth be told, it couldn't have been less fashionable. The big hope at Creation at the time was the House of Love, whose Guy Chadwick, a more middle-class chap than his label peers, remembers Gillespie's gang at the time: "Everyone was so obsessed with being cool. I know bands [and] this is what it's like. But that lot... they really did take the biscuit." But coolness didn't equate to groundbreaking music, not yet anyway.

Bubbling up all the while, however, was the acid house scene, the first great underground youth movement since Gillespie and McGee's beloved punk, and while the squelch of a Roland 303 Bass Line and the repetitive beats of an 808 drum machine at first sounded alien, the latter of the two teenage pals became a convert when he tried the drug then driving the culture: so much so that McGee moved to Manchester, home of the Hacienda and Happy Mondays. The record label boss was quite candid about this, answering Anthony H Wilson's question on Granada TV's The Other Side of Midnight of why Manchester with the laconic: "Better class of drug, Tony."

In Upside Down, Douglas Hart, bassist with the Jesus and Mary Chain as well as the film-maker soon to be responsible for the Scream's "Higher Than the Sun" video, recalls his own epiphany upon stumbling into a rave at the Astoria: "It was like something I'd not felt for years, this incredible dirty, sexy energy. I went into rehearsals with the Mary Chain the next day and said, 'I went to this club last night, and described it, and they were saying, 'What? Youse went to a disco?!' [But] all of us, one by one, had that moment."

Gillespie had gone to a warehouse party in Brighton, in 1988, to score some speed. "There weren't that many people there," he remembers, "but they weren't dressed up in swish-looking designer clothes; these were council estate kids. We'd never heard music like that before. I wasn't sure what to make of it."

McGee and his friend Jeff Barrett were, in the words of the singer, "proselytisers for acid house and ecstasy – they were like religious converts", and would return to Brighton for parties. "Everyone would be getting fucked up and we'd be playing Link Wray and Johnny Thunders on the stereo," Gillespie recalls. "It would get turned off and they'd put on this weird house music. I didn't know what it was: 'Fucking turn that shit off!' The music would be on for five, 10 minutes and someone would turn it off. And they'd be left panting: 'Where's my tape?' And they'd turn off the Johnny Thunders and put it back on.

"We were destroying their buzz, but we didn't know they were on ecstasy."

It was in April 1989 that McGee took Gillespie clubbing and gave him his first ecstasy pill. "The first one he gave me didn't work. Second one: worked."

"Gillespie got it," McGee later said. "By about June, [he thought] he'd invented acid house!" Back at Creation HQ, in a rabbit warren of a building in Hackney, the parties would carry on, with the boss of the label spinning records like

"Good Life" by Inner City and force-feeding his charges pills. "McGee was literally… a big bag... 'Open your mouth, open your mouth...'" Gillespie remembers. "And we started getting into it."

Innes recalls the much-heralded effects of this new love drug: "You went from being out at some indie club where some drunken idiot would start trying to pick a fight with you to this incredible new-sounding music and beautiful girls and everyone's being friendly. You'd bump into some football hooligan and think, 'Oh God, here we go...' and he'd give you a cuddle and that would be your new best friend for the night."

It was Jeff Barrett, now working as a press officer at Creation, who introduced Primal Scream to a figure pivotal to this story: Andrew Weatherall. He was a bricklayer from Windsor turned DJ and occasional journalist who spun records upstairs at Shoom in London. "Growing up, I'd flirted with glam rock, punk, new romanticism," he remembers. "But this was the first time I was actually an integral part of a scene, with barely more than 200 people part of it."

None the less, Weatherall, wearing leather trousers and motorbike boots, "looking a bit Charles II, a bit dandy-ish, bordering on the fop", still loved rock in anything other than its indie incarnation. So it was that at a time when no one else seemed to appreciate the ragged charms of the Primal Scream album, Barrett passed Weatherall a copy, and the DJ latched on to its ballads, dropping the band's name in football-cum-club culture fanzine Boy's Own.

Barrett very briefly introduced Weatherall to the band at a rave somewhere outside Brighton in the summer of 1989 and then fixed it for him to review a Scream gig in Exeter that September for the NME (a review that subsequently appeared under the pseudonym Audrey Witherspoon).

"He came backstage," Innes recalls. "We thought this acid house guy was coming, he'd have that bob haircut." The suggestion is that the Scream felt almost intimidated. "But this guy with long hair and tattoos who liked Thin Lizzy came in and we thought, OK..."

In Weatherall's memory: "Bobby said, 'Cool hair. You look like Marc Bolan. Is it a perm?' I was being sounded out but I took the piss-taking in good heart."

Shortly thereafter, one Monday night, Innes met Weatherall upstairs in the chill-out room of another London club, Spectrum, and while Alex Paterson of the Orb DJ'd, he suggested he might chance his arm at remixing one of the album's ballads, "I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have".

"I was making it up as I went along," says Weatherall, who started taking the song apart, adding a Soul II Soul drum loop from an Italian bootleg mix of Edie Brickell's "What I Am". "My first attempt was a bit subdued, a bit respectful. But then Innes came in and said, 'Just fucking destroy it.' So what's a man to do when given those instructions in a low Glaswegian growl?"

The only thing missing was a way of introducing the track. Innes suggested sampling some dialogue from a late 60s bikersploitation movie, The Wild Angels, in which Peter Fonda answered a preacher's question – "Just what is it that you want to do?" – with the line: "We want to be free to do what we want to do... we want to get loaded and we want to have a good time."

The single "Loaded" was released in March 1990 and rose to No 16 in the charts, which in the context of the indie scene, and Creation in particular at the time, constituted a huge triumph.

"There's probably no greater human being on God's earth that would be surprised that Primal Scream had a hit," McGee later said (he declined to speak for this piece). He had been bemused that Gillespie's vocals had been taken off the track, but the band had been going nowhere. "We had them for six and a half years before they had a hit single."

For Gillespie, the moment of vindication had come at last. "Punk's what made us want to be in a band. But when things started to happen for us with 'Loaded', it was like, 'This is our time now.' Everything we'd learned we were going to put to use."

Three months earlier, the band had crowded around the TV in their dressing room before a gig for 300 students at Keele University to watch Happy Mondays and the Stones Roses together on Top of the Pops; the two Manchester bands, as Gillespie has always recognised, helped break down the doors for Primal Scream. Now it was their turn to travel to Elstree to appear on the show, Gillespie still with long hair and in leathers. In typically chaotic fashion, keyboard player Marin Duffy hadn't paid his union dues, so the singer from another Creation act, Ride, was a last minute call-up, miming in his place. The only problem for the band now was that some commentators thought it didn't really count as their record. "Suffice to say," said Norman Cook (soon to transmogrify into Fatboy Slim), "that if I'd done all the work Weatherall obviously has on this record, I'd assume it was my song, not theirs."

Weatherall, however, never saw it that way: "Later on in my career, I'd get calls from A&R men asking me to remix indie bands – but they weren't bands you'd see hanging out in the clubs. The calls were politely declined.

"The Scream never were and never will be careerists. Who ended up on the records didn't matter, because Bob still wrote the tunes and it was still the Scream."

Today, Gillespie concurs: "That's my band playing that song, just with a breakbeat and Weatherall's visionary arrangement. But we didn't give a fuck what people thought – we were having too good a time."

With the success of the record, McGee put the band on a wage for the first time: £50 a week. "We were fucking poor," the singer remembers. "We had no money. Creation had no money. It was a small, proper, old-school indie label and we just had an unspoken agreement with McGee: we'll put your records out."

Now, however, with cash in hand, plus a small publishing advance, the band built and soundproofed a tiny studio in an industrial estate opposite the Creation offices. That summer, Innes, Gillespie and Robert Young retreated there to start cooking up the songs that became Screamadelica.

Whereas before, the band had mostly written with their guitars, the new material was based mainly on keyboard chords, while key to the creative process was an Akai S1000 sampler. "That changed everything," Innes recalls. "Suddenly we could experiment. You're a rock'n'roll band, but you can take a James Brown drum loop and play along with that; you can add horns, you can add strings. The engineer would give you a floppy disk with some tablas on it and you'd stick that in the sampler and try that. It was like we'd been painting in black and white and suddenly we had a full palette of colours to play with.

"The sheer imagination that went into these records on everyone's part... it was people let loose with their ideas: we're out here in space now."

Not that the band weren't still partying. McGee told Upside Down director Danny O'Connor that during this period: "The group were so off their head. We had the hottest band in the UK at the time that couldn't get to the studio and make a record because it was too complicated."

But for Innes, the work ethic won out. "I can remember going to the clubs on Thursday night and getting home on Monday, but because we were young, we'd be in the studio Tuesday," he recalls. "We'd get up and try to find that energy from the night before and the mad sounds you'd hear on these acid records – because they were pretty crazy sounding."The first fruit of their labour was "Come Together", a house-gospel anthem released in August. Its opening invocation on the version mixed by Weatherall sampled a Jesse Jackson speech and sounded like the perfect explanation of Primal Scream's new direction: "This is a beautiful day, it is a new day. We are together... today on this programme, you will hear, gospel and rhythm and blues... and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music."

The other mix, by Terry Farley, had Gillespie's vocals, but the Weatherall version removed them and, according to McGee in David Cavanagh's history of Creation, the singer was dismayed: "[Bobby] was going, 'Well, there's no point in me being in the band.' He had real, total self-doubt." But this is not how the singer chooses to remember events: Gillespie says he wanted to release the house anthem "Don't Fight It, Feel It" as their next single, but it was the label boss who had serious misgivings because there was no recognisable lead vocal, just the guesting Denise Johnson singing the chorus. "It was like Parliament/Funkadelic," Gillespie says. "The band could be anything we wanted it to be. There were no rules. You could do anything. We just felt free."

Whatever the rights and wrongs, instead the band released a third bona fide classic single in June 1991, "Higher Than the Sun", featuring Jah Wobble, with mixes by the Orb and by Weatherall. Here was Gillespie's mission statement, combining rock'n'roll attitude with something more beatific: "I'm beautiful, I wasn't born to follow," he sang. "I live just for today, I don't care about tomorrow, what I got in my head you can't buy, steal or borrow."

Speaking that month, the singer said it was "the best record we've ever made. It's as good as anything I've ever heard; as good as T-Rex, the Temptations or the Rolling Stones. It's a record that people will be able to listen to in 40 years' time and it's still gonna be as relevant then as it is now. It's got more in common with free jazz, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman than anything that's gone down in contemporary rock music in 1991. It's like a massive jump on to another planet."

Perhaps most surprising was that the band were finally walking the walk. Now sporting a bob haircut, Gillespie listed his favourite records of that summer to the same interviewer, including cuts by the New York Dolls and the Cramps. But he was also listening to the likes of Sun Ra and King Tubby. From some point in that period, I still have a battered tape of Weatherall hosting a show with Gillespie on radio station Kiss FM, where they played that music, as well as songs including "Sister Friction" by Haysi Fantayzee (Weatherall's choice) and soul classic "Am I Grooving You" by Freddie Scott (one of Gillespie's).

By now, an indie-dance bandwagon was fully in train, with acts like the Farm and C86 alumni the Soup Dragons charting with records that students could enjoy in campus discos. But nothing seemed faked about Primal Scream's direction.

Another personal memory: listening to "Loaded" on repeat at a friend's cousin's place in Edinburgh before tripping refreshed into the night and into the first-ever night of Pure, a dance club that became the most influential in that city for a decade. And the transition from the music in the flat to the music in the club seemed wholly natural.

Come the new year, following the fall of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990, also seeming to herald a rosy future, the band started recording the rest of the album. The group moved between London studios in Crouch End (where, to Gillespie's delight, Thin Lizzy had recorded "Whiskey in the Jar") and Chiswick. Production duties were shared between Weatherall, the Orb and another DJ, Tony Martin, as well as programmer Hugo Nicholson, but for "Movin' on up", a gospelly slice of rock'n'roll that opened the album, Gillespie sought someone else: Jimmy Miller, the veteran New Yorker who had worked with the Rolling Stones on their classic albums from Beggars Banquet to Goats Head Soup.

"Weatherall had made some disparaging remark about it," Gillespie recalls, "but we didn't want a dance mix. No one could find Jimmy: he was thought within the record industry to be burned out. But we tracked him down." That track paid tribute to classic rock'n'roll while "Slip Inside This House", a cover of a 13th Floor Elevators song, made explicit the link between acid rock and acid house. With lyrics and titles for the record borrowed from Sam Cooke, Can, the MC5 and more, the record that was emerging would be like a secret scrapbook of their influences.

The gentler charms of "Damaged", "Shine Like Stars" and "Inner Flight" completed proceedings. Duffy was tripping on acid for the latter recording.

In July, the band hit the road for a short UK tour to whet the appetite for the album. Weatherall and the Orb supported the band as DJs in a novel attempt to make a gig feel more like a rave. Merchandise vendor Grant Fleming later wrote about the show in Glasgow: "One of the promoter's pals has laid on an aftershow at a flat over near the Gorbals. Deary, deary me, there's some naughty tablets in town and whatever's left over from the gig have ended up here. Gobble, gobble, gobble. 'Anyone seen Smiler?' The whole house stood up."

Screamadelica was released on 23 September 1991, the cover a trippy image of the Sun created by Paul Cannell, another of the band's associates who was allegedly inspired by a damp patch he'd seen on the Creation offices ceiling after taking acid.

In the course of its 18-month gestation, McGee had enjoyed critical acclaim with the House of Love and My Bloody Valentine, two bands who had both also embraced ecstasy: in Upside Down, McGee recalls Guy Chadwick trying to strip naked at a gay club after popping one pill too many, whereas the Valentines absorbed new textures suggested by the drug into their sound. But the Primal Scream record was also a commercial triumph. In that same film, McGee remembers that an initial pressing of 60,000 copies proved far too few. "We had no idea that the world was going to get it... we were clueless. What I was really proud of, obviously, is... my friend made this incredible record."

Gillespie likewise acknowledged his old friend's input at that time: "McGee was always travelling to America, Europe. It was quite distant, the relationship. But when things started happening for Primal Scream in a big way with Screamadelica, McGee was incredible, he was invaluable as a friend and as an adviser and as a supporter."

The record charted at No 8 and the band rode the tail of their success, embarking on an even more debauched winter tour. In December, Miranda Sawyer reported for Q magazine on the band's rider at Barrowland in Glasgow: "Tonight's menu includes: 'glug' (methadone, a soporific heroin substitute); ecstasy (inhibition-dismissing, dancefloor friendly 'love' drug); amphetamine sulphate; magic mushrooms; cocaine and – backstage staple – hash. The varied and various mood alterants are liberally distributed among the tour regulars. 'You know,' muses Bobby, 'it was a love of music that brought us all together and that's what we really get excited about. But we also get excited when the drugs turn up... really excited.'"

Perhaps inevitably, after the high, a comedown followed. The band made it to Memphis to record the Dixie-Narco EP that contained a 10.46 min track called "Screamadelica", another wide-eyed, largely vocal-free tour de force. But the further touring took its toll and heroin replaced ecstasy as the drug of choice within the band. A great set at Glastonbury that summer was followed in September by the inaugural Mercury music prize, which saw the Scream beat the Mary Chain as well as U2 and Simply Red to the £20,000 prize.

In the ensuing celebrations, whoever was in charge of the cheque managed to lose it. That was a metaphor for the Scream's next album, Give Out But Don't Give Up, a rockier, more lethargic beast that only emerged in 1994. "It was a mess," Gillespie recalls.

By now, Gillespie's relationship with McGee had also started to deteriorate, never to recover fully. Inspired, arguably, by the mainstream success of Screamadelica, the label boss became increasingly preoccupied with his new discovery, Oasis, whose domination of the mid-90s helped kill off the old indie aesthetic. Boom and bust also followed: Creation was subsumed by corporate giant Sony and folded for good in 1999.

This came just as Primal Scream were releasing their sixth album, Xtrmntr, and Gillespie resented the lack of label support. Some think that his band's best album. But no record could feel as in touch with the spirit of its time as Screamadelica.

"I don't think we could have done Screamadelica 2," says Innes. "Everyone wanted that, but it wasn't where we were heading." To his mind, it wasn't simply the band to blame: the culture itself had changed, with clubland becoming more commercial. "It went mass market and it stopped getting interesting, like most things. And we just went somewhere else…"

Today, Gillespie is looking forward to the London shows next month, when the band will play the album in full for the first time; some tracks, like "Shine Like Stars", have never been played live before. "It's going to sound fresh and modern," he insists, sipping water and munching from a box of salad. "It's not going to sound nostalgic... it's going to be now."

If Innes has any concerns about the forthcoming gigs, they're to do with his ability to last the pace come the aftershow. "If I went out for a weekend now," he says, "it would take me a month to get over it. You come out of the starting blocks like you're 18, but you get about 20 yards into the race and realise you can't do this any more! But it's a good thing, thinking you are 18…"

Before the Olympia shows, warming up the crowd, will be DJ Andrew Weatherall, who never succumbed to the superstar DJ mentality. He is aware of the potential pitfalls. "I've spurned the chance to see a lot of reunion gigs; you're always taking a risk when you go to see someone trying to recreate the past," he says. "But with the Scream, there'll be emotional resonance in the building even before the first chord is struck."

Two decades ago, in December 1990, Gillespie said: "I've got a lot of theories about music but ultimately as long as it moves me – either makes me dance or want to cry or feel happy – I love it.

"Edgar Allen Poe wrote this thing about music where he said, 'People think that when they cry to music it's because they're being sentimental about the memories of a time gone past, but it's not true. The reason they cry is because they get a glimpse of the banquet that gods are feasting upon.' I completely agree with that."

Primal Scream sentimental? Not yet.

Primal Scream play Screamadelica live at London's Olympia on 26 and 27 November, with a UK tour and the reissue of Screamadelica (complete with different mixes) next March


Caspar Llewellyn Smith

The GuardianTramp

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