'People started punching the air': how Primal Scream, Ministry, the Cult and Misty Miller reinvented their sound

Bobby Gillespie, Ian Astbury, Al Jourgensen and Misty Miller recall the key moments when their bands changed direction

Primal Scream

Old direction: Slightly fey, jangling, Byrds soundalikes beloved of the indiepop crowd.
New direction: Flying V guitars, leather jackets and raucous rock’n’roll in the style of the MC5. And from there to indie-dance pioneers.

Bobby Gillespie (vocals): “Primal Scream Mk1 were based around Jim Beattie’s 12-string guitar, and we played melodic, psychedelic pop songs, such as Gentle Tuesday. All the bands we loved – Ramones, Pistols, Love, Stooges – had made classic first albums, so our manifesto was: ‘Make a classic or kill yourself’. When Sonic Flower Groove wasn’t a classic, we were devastated. Then we moved from Glasgow to Brighton, and Jim didn’t wanna come with us, so we consciously did something different – high energy rock’n’roll like the MC5 or Stooges. Dirtier and debauched.

“We’d line up across the stage, six of us, like Dexys Midnight Runners, speeding like fucking Lemmy. The idea was to threaten the audience. We played an amazing gig at Leicester’s Princess Charlotte, full of kids, a proper rock’n’roll show. These bastards were spitting at me so I whipped two of them in the face with the mic, and whipped it back so I could carry on singing. I loved that period of the band. We didn’t have many fans, but we were shit-hot.

“It was completely unfashionable to be rock’n’roll at that point. Most reviewers pasted us. Then Boys Own magazine asked Andrew Weatherall to name his favourite records and he wrote: ‘The ballads on the second Primal Scream album.’ He particularly liked I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, which I thought was the first great song we’d written. He was the hippest DJ in the hippest scene in the country, acid house, nothing to do with rock music. Perfect for us, because it was like, ‘Fuck you.’ We had to meet this guy. We did a gig with him and he played house music before we came on, and girls in Wonderstuff T-shirts were pleading with us, ‘Please, ask this man to stop playing this terrible music.’”

Andrew Innes (guitar): “Alan McGee gave Weatherall – who’d never made a record – £1,000 to remix I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, initially for a B-side. At first, he made a nice version, because it was his first remix and he didn’t want to ruin the song. But that’s what we wanted, so we phoned him and basically said, ‘Just fuckin’ destroy it.’ That became Loaded.

Loaded: the Weatherall remix

Even while we’d been recording that second LP, there had been fights in the band over acid house: ‘I don’t want to be in a band with people who listen to that shite.’ But when the Roses and Mondays were on Top of the Pops, it was obvious something was changing. Then we had this track.

The first time I heard Loaded in a club, Weatherall played it as the last record in Subterranea [in west London] – 500 people started punching the air, and going ‘whoo whoo’, like in Sympathy For The Devil. I’d never seen any of our songs get a reaction like that, and then Martin Fry from ABC came up and said, ‘Is this your new record? It’s fucking great.’ I phoned Bobby and got him out of bed at about four in the morning. I just said, ‘Bobby. I think we’ve got a hit.’”

The Cult

Old direction: Gothic psychedelia.
New direction: Hard rock, with a big dose of AC/DC

Ian Astbury (vocals): “By the time I was 10 or 11, I’d already been to eight or nine schools, so I’ve never been afraid of change. We went through various band names and line-ups in our first three years: Southern Death Cult, Death Cult, the Cult. When success came, everything was laid on. We were in a residential studio in Oxfordshire, packed with booze, unsupervised. It was probably the same for the Stone Roses making The Second Coming. We spent a quarter of a million pounds making an album that sounded like soup.

“The idea was that we’d go to New York and remix one track with hip-hop producer Rick Rubin. Instead, we redid the song completely and it sounded really exciting. Rick asked us: ‘Do you guys wanna make English pussy music, or do you want to rock?’ When it’s thrown down like that, in New York, you’re like, ‘We wanna rip the speakers out.’” The management and record company flew out to hear what we were doing. When we told them we were re-recording the whole album, their faces went white. Absolute horror.”

Wild Flower, produced by Rick Rubin

Billy Duffy (guitar): “Before punk, I was into rock music: Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Thin Lizzy, and AC/DC. Then in the 80s, the London media was tyrannical. Everyone was so scared of being uncool. Rick just went, ‘You like AC/DC? Early Led Zeppelin’ – key word ‘early’. ‘So what’s the problem?’ For us, this was liberating. Recording Electric was an incredible, fun, mental, inspiring time. We’d come in and ask, ‘Rick, who are these annoying little brats playing on our gear?’ That was the Beastie Boys.

We were in Jimi Hendrix’s studio, Electric Ladyland, which was amazing, but really it was amazing because AC/DC did Back in Black there. Rick wanted us to sound like Highway to Hell. He said, ‘Why is all this stuff on your records? This is way too overblown.’ He didn’t produce us. He reduced us. He told me, ‘There’s a Marshall amplifier, there’s a Les Paul guitar. Have at it.’ No effects pedals allowed apart from wah-wah; everything done in 28 days.

“It was a bit cartoony, but real, because we were living it. We were too young and drunk and stupid and havin’ it to care what anyone would think. It was just, ‘Oh, we can rock!’ We’re a three steps forward, two steps back band, but it’s given us 30 years.”


Old direction: Improbably fey, blue-eyed, fashionably coiffured synthpop.
New direction: One of the most dramatic reinventions in pop history, as they became grinding industrial metal pioneers.

Al Jourgensen (vocals/guitars/electronics): “I was signed to Arista Records on the strength of three or four live shows back in Chicago in 80-81, doing pretty industrial stuff. So they sign you because you’re unique, and then as soon as they get your name on the dotted line, they want you to sound like everybody else. At the time, that meant Human League, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode. Synthpop. I was a little kid of 20 who couldn’t believe that people were paying me to do music. They said, ‘Do what we say and we will soon be sending you unbelievable amounts of money.’

“They even had the Thompson Twins call me personally at my house in Chicago, to tell me to play ball. So I acquiesced. I was Milli Vanilli before Milli Vanilli. The label took me to a stylist, cut my hair, picked out my producer. They even wrote lyrics. We opened for Culture Club and the Police. I did it to the best of my ability, but kicking and screaming. I haven’t listened to the first Ministry album since we recorded it in 1982.

“It ended up being really popular, which still boggles my mind. But in retrospect, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the anger that I had at being duped. When it didn’t work out as they told me it would, I got a lawyer to get me off the label and went back to the stuff that I’d done originally, that Arista had rejected.

Ministry: Jesus Built My Hotrod

“I considered changing the band name, but decided to vindicate it. I incorporated loud guitars, William Burroughs-type splicing, and went industrial, metal, fast and frantic. Back in the 90s, money was flying around the music business like sugarbowls of cocaine and Warners gave me shitloads [of money]. Much of it went up my nose and into my arms. I pissed away a half -million dollar budget, but had no songs.

“I was in Chicago when Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers came in, shitfaced, but took a liking to this one riff I had. He proceeded to vomit on himself and fall off the stool, but managed to mumble some unintelligible things into the microphone. When Warners asked if they could hear anything for all the money they’d given us, I pieced together these recordings of this drunk man howling over this guitar loop and called it Jesus Built My Hotrod. They actually told me I would never work in this industry again, but released it and it sold more than the latest singles by Prince and Madonna. It was Ministry’s revenge on the major labels.”


Old direction: Spiky, slightly Roxy Music-influenced, guitar punk-rock.
New direction: Synth-rock pioneers. After changing singers, they became huge, too.

John Foxx (vocals): “In 1974, I put some ads in Melody Maker, then interviewed the takers in the life-drawing room at art college. We called ourselves Tiger Lily, and because our manager needed a song for a friend’s collection of 1920s porn movies, our only single, Ain’t Misbehavin’, soundtracked naughty nuns. After that, we definitely needed a name change.

“We had at least one a week until I came up with Ultravox! to make us sound like an electrical product. The exclamation mark was a homage to Neu! The record company hated it. I think they wanted a glam-rock band. When I had arrived in London, it was all crappy pub-rock, but everything changed once the New York Dolls came over, then the Ramones and Patti Smith.

“We were soon the most extreme band on the punk scene: howling feedback, gut-shaking subsonics, vicious strobes, but we had this quiet piece called My Sex. When we played it live, even the hardcore stopped spitting and looked thoughtful. When we recorded it in 1976 with Brian Eno, using his equipment, it offered a new, electronic way of making music.

“We were actually finishing off our first album with Eno, when Bowie called to ask him to do Low. I was pleased for Brian – and delighted to have got there before Bowie. Hiroshima Mon Amour on the second album was probably the first synthesiser new-wave track. By then, we’d bought our own synths, learning to mesh them with guitars.

Ultravox: Hiroshima Mon Amour

“Punk was stumbling and we realised it was our way out. After we recorded the third album, Systems of Romance, it felt like we’d entered a new universe. I guess we were the very first to arrive at the format generations of bands later adopted: synths, drum machines and guitar. We lost the exclamation mark and Rob Simon revolutionised the role of the guitar, allowing the synths to expand their role.

“When we played the songs at the 1978 Reading festival, there were a few dimmocks fighting, but things were turning in our favour. However, I’d begun to realise that I wasn’t cut out for life in a touring band and felt best in the studio, so departed after the American tour, giving them the band name, but I’ve never regretted leaving. We all got exactly what we wanted.

“I still hear what we achieved with Systems in new bands now. Along the way, I’d changed my name. Dennis Leigh, a shy lad from Chorley, was not quite up to the job of electronic superstar. John Foxx made a far better candidate.”


Old direction: Stomping, falsetto-driven, theatrical glam-rock.
New direction: Shimmering electronic dance-pop that is still hugely influential after 37 years.

Ron Mael (keyboards): “We’d had a run of hits in the 70s, but towards the end of the decade, we felt like we’d exhausted the rock-band format. We’d tried things such as bringing in Tony Visconti as producer, experimenting with big-band arrangements, hoedown music, session musicians, you name it. But we felt it wasn’t going anywhere, critically or commercially.

“We were trying to figure out where we wanted to go, when we heard Donna Summer’s I Feel Love on the radio, produced by Giorgio Moroder. We felt that the blend of German, cold, really driving electronics with a melodic, really hot vocal could work for us. Shortly after that, we were doing an interview in Los Angeles with a German journalist and we mentioned to her that we were going to be working with Giorgio Moroder. There was no truth in this whatsoever, but she suddenly said, ‘Oh. I’m friends with Giorgio.’ At which point we had to come clean, but she actually introduced us to Giorgio. At that time, he was looking for ways to mix what he was doing with a band, so it was perfect timing.

Sparks: The Number One Song in Heaven

“None of us knew where it would go, but that surprise element was really exciting. Pop songs – but made with synthesisers and electronics – was totally different from what we’d done before, and we’d thought we’d done something pretty special, but the British press was merciless. We were called traitors to rock. The general reaction was ‘You’re a band. You can’t do this.’ The American Disco Sucks movement hated us. The reaction was demoralising, but the public were ahead of the press, and singles such as The Number One Song in Heaven and Beat the Clock put us back in the charts and on Top of the Pops for the first time in years. Accidentally, we’d created the blueprint – lead singer, immobile keyboard player – for Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys and so on.”

Misty Miller

Old direction: Flowery dresses, blonde hair, and twee, teeny love songs, played on a cute little ukelele.
New direction: Black eyeliner, bovver boots and punky, grungey pop.

Misty Miller (vocals/guitar): “I was 15 years old when I was first thrown into the record industry. I was so excited to be doing an album that I went with whatever the producers suggested. The songs were mine, but I never felt comfortable with the way it was all packaged.

“As soon as the album was finished, I was thinking, ‘Shit, this isn’t how I want to present myself.’ Even then, I was walking into the office in big Doc Martens and a checked shirt and big-collared long coats. Even then I was singing: ‘I’ve got a few more things pierced and they look well fierce.’

“When I did a video for Burberry, they didn’t want a girl with a huge ring through her nose, so I took them out. My hair wasn’t even naturally blonde. That was bleach. When I started performing live, my music started changing. I was performing songs that were quite delicate and twee and not getting anything out of it. I wanted to go onstage and sweat.

“Once I started doing punkier material, I experienced how I wanted to feel onstage. So the change came about by a combination of playing gigs, hanging out in the south London punk scene, leaving college, and just growing up. Nobody stays the way they are when they’re 15 or 16.

Misty Miller: Next to You

“There were all these online comments, such as: ‘My God. What happened to her? She used to be so angelic. She’s obviously gone through some form of torture.’ Transforming musically has been a way of me trying to find a way of presenting who I am. I think I’ve got to a place where I’ve found that.

“People have said: ‘We liked you before when you were cute and played a ukelele.’ Others say: ‘Oh, you’re much better now.’ I’ve grown up like any teenager, but done it in public. My past is out there on YouTube, but I’m happy for people to see the difference. It’s perfectly normal to change and grow.”

• The Cult and Primal Scream are touring in March. Misty Miller’s second album, The Whole Family Is Worried, is released on 4 April on Relentless/Sony, and tours in April.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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