Bobby Gillespie: ‘For the first 10 years of my life, I lived in a Glasgow tenement … that stuff stays with you’

On the eve of the publication of his memoir, the Primal Scream frontman talks to friend and author Irvine Welsh about his working-class upbringing, beating drugs and losing creative partners. Barbara Ellen listens in

Bobby Gillespie’s memoir, Tenement Kid, starts by documenting Gillespie’s Glaswegian working-class background and ends in 1991, as Primal Scream prepare to release their Mercury prize-winning album, Screamadelica. As Gillespie’s final line in the book has it: “Some say this is where the 1990s began.”

Last month, he and old friend, author and fellow Scot Irvine Welsh, got together to discuss some of the book’s themes. Gillespie, 60, explained that he was first asked to write his life story a decade ago, and had only just agreed to do it when lockdown struck. Tenement Kid charts Gillespie’s personal and creative journey, via the prism of punk, rock’n’roll, acid house and drug-fuelled hedonism. It also delivers a vivid portrait of Gillespie’s early working-class life, at times permeated with strong anti-Tory sentiment: “Of course,” says Gillespie, “I’m from Glasgow, there’s got to be.”

Gillespie’s family lived in one room, sharing a bathroom with other families, later moving to a “room and kitchen” in the same tenement, with the then-family of four sharing a bedroom. For Gillespie, school was a washout, and he was put into a remedial class. Transfixed and transformed by punk, he joined the Wake and then alternative rock band the Jesus and Mary Chain, before focusing solely on Primal Scream. Earlier this year, Gillespie released Utopian Ashes, an album of duets with Savages singer Jehnny Beth.

Edinburgh-born novelist, screenwriter and playwright Irvine Welsh, 63, abandoned a TV repair apprenticeship when he suffered an electric shock and was taken to hospital, but also because he heard Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols: “As soon as I heard that, I jacked it in. I thought, my days are numbered here.” Welsh published his era-defining novel, Trainspotting, in 1993: “I didn’t know how to write a novel, I just started writing.” Trainspotting followed the lives of heroin-addicted youths (Welsh was himself addicted to heroin for a while). Among his screenplays is Creation Stories, the 2021 biopic of Alan McGee, Gillespie’s lifelong friend, and cofounder of Creation Records, Primal Scream’s first label.

Gillespie and Welsh met in the mid-1990s, and have a dense circuitry of connections, and much in common, including their Scottish working-class backgrounds and their cultural immersion in punk and acid house. I listened in as they talked.

Irvine Welsh: It’s an incredible achievement to write about working-class life in this way. For anybody who’s ever – horrible term – “made it”, there’s a tendency to either amp up how nasty it was, or to sentimentalise it as the good old days. You avoid that completely: no sentimentality, but total respect as well. It’s a fine piece of writing. My question is: how the fuck do you remember all that?

Bobby Gillespie: I just did a splurge. No diaries. I did a timeline from when I was born up until Screamadelica, and I wrote themes to discuss: class, my parents, my lack of schooling. For the first 10 years of my life, I lived in a Glasgow tenement: me, my brother and my parents, sharing the same bedroom, that stuff stays with you. Kids like me were judged to be stupid because the educational structures designated us as such. We were set up to be labourers, or unemployed, on the scrapheap. I wanted to learn, but I wasn’t given anything to learn, and I didn’t know how to ask. I remember feeling like a failure at that age.

I wanted to include stuff in the book that was outside rock’n’roll, but that helped shape me. For me, the late 70s/early 80s were a cultural revolution. Sex Pistols, the Clash… my cultural education came from reading music papers of that time. Malcolm McLaren talking about the Situationists. Tony Wilson, Factory Records – there’d be a Factory band called the Durutti Column, and you’d find out that it referenced a Spanish anarchist who fought against Franco. All these cultural markers.

Primal Scream c1990 (l-r, standing): Robert Young, Henry Olsen, Philip Tomanov; (seated) Andrew Innes and Bobby Gillespie.
Primal Scream c1990 (l-r, standing): Robert Young, Henry Olsen, Philip Tomanov; (seated) Andrew Innes and Bobby Gillespie. Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty Images

IW For me, it started with Bowie, because what he did as an artist was quite rare. Normally, people are coy about their references, everybody wants to appear highly original. Bowie was incredibly generous and shared all his sources. He was working-class art school, basically. Through him, you got into Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, electronic music, Burroughs, the Beat writers… He just threw it all out there for everyone to have a rummage around.

I saw the Clash, I never saw the Sex Pistols. I bought the original black cover of Anarchy in the UK and played it incessantly, driving people nuts. Punk validated you being a little cunt basically. I was very unruly and non-academic, so, it was, wow, great, these are my people and they’re making records. All these fucking misfits everywhere.

BG Punk was more of a state of mind than a dress code. Before Primal Scream, I was around people like Siouxsie and the Banshees and New Order, seeing how they treated either bands I was in, like the Wake, or my friends’ band, Altered Images. Just watching them work, it was heaven. We worshipped these people, truly.

You read interviews with Siouxsie and you were scared of her: this cold, austere ice queen. Siouxsie, Poly Styrene, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, the Slits, these women were not pushovers. What was important was that they were songwriters, it was their band. Whereas before, chances were, a guy wrote the songs. Women weren’t given more power, they demanded more power. They didn’t dress to please men or sing sexually suggestive songs. They told their own stories. To me, that was one of the important breaks from the past of punk.

IW Race/ethnicity was another one. Those attitudes went through to other stuff, like ska, 2 Tone, and acid house. Same vibe then. It all came out of the same punk idea.

BG Punk, post-punk, it was a break from the old order. It was meant to be about a new kind of person. It wasn’t racist, it wasn’t sexist, it wasn’t Tory.

* * *

I ask Gillespie and Welsh for their thoughts on Brexit and Scottish independence. In July, Gillespie expressed concern about Brexit making life harder for musicians. Previously, he described Scottish independence as “inevitable”, while emphasising that he in no way considered himself to be a nationalist.

BG Brexit is an English and Welsh thing. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted remain. I don’t want to bring nationalist politics into this, that’s not my thing. I guess all nationalism is exclusive, not just English nationalism… When it happened, I thought, well, maybe this is English nationalism, which is, for me, frightening.

You could look at the different reasons for Brexit: socioeconomic, xenophobic, maybe 40 years of neoliberalism is to blame for the disconnect, the inequality. People at the bottom felt through their newspapers or Facebook groups that the EU was to blame for their circumstances… It also became this emotional thing. I think it’s less about class-based politics now, and more about emotionalism.

Performing at the Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom in 2019.
Performing at the Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom in 2019. Photograph: Andrew MacColl/REX/Shutterstock

IW The media fanned the spark that had been there for years. Brexit became a kind of civil war of elites that everybody else was dragged into … I’m not as much for Scottish independence as I am against imperialist nation-states. I think it’s better to be governed by non-hierarchical nation-states that aren’t based on imperialist precepts and entrenched beliefs. I’m for Scottish independence as a mechanism for breaking up the UK, and I’m for English independence and Welsh independence. The real fear of elites in England is that, if Scotland is independent, at a stroke, there’s no royal family, no House of Lords, no Eton. And people in England are going to say – we’ll have some of that.

BG I remember reading you at the time of the vote in 2014, and thinking, that’s interesting. This idea that, if Scotland gets independence and becomes a more social democratic, left, liberal country, maybe people in England will finally wake up. I totally understand that point of view, but I find it very hard. I’m only nationalist when it comes to football. My dad’s influence was to be internationalist.

* * *

Gillespie’s father is a former Sogat [print union] official who came second representing the Labour party in the 1988 Glasgow Govan byelection. Gillespie has two sons with his wife, stylist Katy England.

BG I’m glad we’ve got two beautiful sons [Wolf, 19, and Lux, 17]. It’s about giving them a loving environment to grow up in, letting them be themselves. So long as they’re all right, I’m all right.

IW I wouldn’t have been a good parent. I’m not interested. I always moved around physically. I would have been very absent, and conflicted. What I wanted to do required a lot of selfishness if you were doing it right. I’ve met your dad. I recognise him from what you say in the book. I didn’t meet your mum.

BG When Mum met Dad, she became politicised: she marched, made Young Socialists banners – she was creative and strong, I guess she had to be – my dad’s a big character… I couldn’t write too much about their marriage dynamic, it’s their private stuff. Politics and romance are very hard, I don’t know if they really mix. I couldn’t understand it as a child. I was just very upset. I was aware of that tension when there’s going to be an explosion. You want to hide, but you’re stuck. When you’re very young, you don’t have the emotional intelligence to understand. You think: Mum and Dad should love each other, and they don’t [laughs ruefully]. Under the circumstances, they did their best, they loved us.

IW You’re finding out about the world through your parents, through the dynamics and changes in their relationship. You think: it can’t always be sweetness and light. It’s just life, it grinds people down. And you’re aware, even when you’re young, that you’re only seeing the tip of the emotional iceberg. That there’s more, but it’s not your place to intervene.

With sons Lux and Wolf, and wife Katy England at Paris fashion week in September 2019.
With his sons, Lux and Wolf, and wife, Katy England, at Paris fashion week in September 2019. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

BG As you become older you start to understand more, but you still feel sad about it. You’re burying stuff and it comes out in other ways. You can turn it into good art. I haven’t done therapy for a while but, when I did, I’d describe certain reactions and they’d say, you’re disassociating. I thought, maybe that’s right, just that feeling, the powerlessness. I could argue with you about football, or with the band about something creative. When it came to women, girlfriends, being angry and emotional, it was almost like I was a football and I’d been punctured.

IW I’m like that. I can’t argue or anything like that with women. I almost remove myself. I’ve had therapy: I once did it with a guy in Islington who actually made me lie down on a couch, which was fucking great. I always have therapy after a major relationship breakdown. I think, this is over, it’s done, I want to get myself into better shape for the next relationship. Anything that lasts for more than 10 years, you’ve got to put the time in.

BG When I attempted to stop taking drugs and drinking, what helped more than anything was making a commitment to getting up in the morning, getting dressed and going somewhere, swimming, an NA [narcotics anonymous] meeting. Putting structure into a chaotic life, building defences. Because if I drank, I took drugs. If I took drugs, I drank. I didn’t like the way I was behaving. I hated myself. I didn’t like the impact it was having on my wife and kids. I couldn’t take it any more. I was becoming really deranged and paranoid. I was making myself psychotic basically. It was time to make a change, for many reasons, but mainly my family.

In the book, I write about drugs in a particular time period. About being on stage between Robert Young and Andrew Innes, blasting Les Pauls through Marshall stacks, all of us on speed, feeling like a god. I had to write about it: I experienced it, it was a rock’n’roll experience. Same as what got us into acid house was Alan McGee giving us ecstasy. At first, we were: “Fuck that!”

IW That lasts until your first pill goes down. And then you think you’ve invented acid house.

BG There’s Andrew Weatherall’s quote: “Ecstasy is a great drug but it’s also very dangerous because you find yourself on the dancefloor, punching the air to Lady in Red by Chris de Burgh.” But you know, ecstasy, acid house, it all goes together. We liked drugs. I loved taking drugs. I wasn’t wrong. We weren’t wrong. I was right to do it. I’m glad I did it. I just got to the point where I couldn’t take them any more and manage myself.

IW I’ve never quite got to that point… I’ve just been at the Mucky Weekender festival – I haven’t done so much MDMA powder in 15 years… When lockdown started, I thought, I’m not going to drink or take drugs at all until this is over. I don’t want to wake up and find everything shut down. I’m pretty good, I’ll always take four months off at the start of the year and go back on drinks and drugs on April Fools’ Day, do it for the summer, and then October, November, December off again.

BG You’re seasonal?

IW I’m a seasonal kind of guy.

* * *

Last year saw the loss of Denise Johnson, whose soulful vocals infused Screamadelica. Gillespie says: “She was a big part of the band.” Tenement Kid is dedicated to influential producer/DJ/mixer Andrew Weatherall – who also died last year, of a pulmonary embolism – and Primal Scream guitarist Robert “Throb” Young, who succumbed to drink and drug addictions and died in 2014, aged 49, several years after leaving the band.

BG Me and Andrew Innes were expecting [Throb’s death] for a few years. But of course I was shocked. I remember where I was when I got the phone call. I was sitting in my car, I felt my body drop to the floor.

Performing with Robert Young at Brixton Academy.
Performing with Robert Young at Brixton Academy. Photograph: Mick Hutson/Redferns

It’s hard to talk about. It’s deep, personal stuff, I don’t want to upset his family. It was a long process … Throb was my brother, a co-songwriter, a big personality, an incredibly creative, talented man. When we were making Vanishing Point, he kind of stopped being present. He wasn’t there. He missed the whole record. When he was there, when he came up two or three times, he was on another planet, he was gone, he couldn’t play.

IW He was in pubs in Primrose Hill a lot. He was always great, avuncular and fun. He seemed to lose interest in playing. Give Out But Don’t Give Up, that was the Throb album, wasn’t it? Total guitar, Stones-y kind of thing – he was in his element. Maybe the way the sound moved, he didn’t feel there was a place for him? If you look at any relationship, it’s the same isn’t it? People going in different directions, and not realising it. It’s an organic thing.

BG That definitely did happen – we knew the band had to change … But the door was always left open. If you look at that album [Vanishing Point], Throb’s got an equal songwriting credit to everyone else. That was us saying: you’re fucking part of the gang.

* * *

Andrew Weatherall was considered a pivotal influence on Primal Scream, a facilitator of the rock/acid house fusion of Screamadelica.

BG One hundred per cent: No Weatherall, no Screamadelica. I write about it in the book, it’s about trust. Trust in his taste. Trust that when he was mixing our stuff, if he threw something at it, it was needed. Andrew worked with Hugo Nicolson, who had the tech knowhow. Andrew had the imagination and the vision, and together they were an incredible team. Weatherall was unique. He wasn’t a musician or a guy who’d been in recording studios. He wasn’t a geek, sitting in the back room with a computer since he was 13. He was a savant, an artist, who had this natural ability to make visionary music.

Irvine Welsh and Bobby Gillespie.
Irvine Welsh and Bobby Gillespie. Photograph: David Vintiner/The Observer

IW When Andrew passed, everything in the world just seemed to turn to shit. It was like the end of an era, for want of a better term. His creative and social tentacles went everywhere. He knew all sorts of people, he had all sorts of associations and collaborations. An amazing character, very conceptual and thematic in his thinking. Probably the defining artist of that era, right through the 90s, to the present day.

Do you remember his funeral? We were in that place in Clapham, and everybody was there, from across all different places and times. He kind of united everybody. That was the last night everybody was together and then, bang, the pandemic hit. In a strange way, if he had to go, that was the time to do it.

BG I remember in the 90s, whenever I called my parents, they’d say: “We’re just back from a funeral.” Now we’ve reached this age.

IW The scheme where I grew up was the Aids capital of Edinburgh, which was the Aids capital of Europe. I came to expect people to die. I think we’ve maybe become more aware of death during Covid. During lockdown, you couldn’t mourn people or go to funerals, just online nonsense. As a result, we’ve become a lot more focused on death, more morbid as a society. Death has always been around and it’s always going to be around.

At that festival I went to, I was thinking, well, this is kind of normal life now, I got back to normal life…

BG In August, we did the NHS frontline workers’ benefit gig at the O2, with Liam Gallagher headlining. It was strange. I hadn’t done anything since 2019… It was like being a football player who hadn’t been in training and suddenly you’re playing a game. It took me a few songs to get my sea legs, to start to enjoy it.

I’d only had a one-day rehearsal with the band. I’d been doing promo in France for the record I just did, Utopian Ashes, with Jehnny Beth, and I had to self-isolate… Making Utopian Ashes felt very vulnerable, country soul. All the boys from Primal Scream play on it. I wrote lyrics on acoustic guitar, then worked through ideas with Jehnny Beth and her boyfriend, Johnny Hostile.

IW It’s very good, very different, it touches on another side to you.

Gillespie, on drums, with the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Gillespie, on drums, with the Jesus and Mary Chain. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

BG Thank you. I wanted to get to the heart of adult relationships, to make an adult record that was appropriate to my age. I’ve always wanted to be a better songwriter, a better lyricist. In the past, I could be quite codified about what I wrote to protect myself. From my background, you hid what you felt, you didn’t want to be ridiculed or mocked.

IW The good thing about being a writer is… you become a writer because you think you’re unemployable in any other environment or circumstance. It kind of cements that unemployability, you dig yourself in, five years, 10, 20, nobody’s going to touch you for anything else. Does it ruin you for normal life? It certainly facilitated my own ruination and thank fuck as well… Work is the only thing that keeps me out of trouble. The devil makes work for idle hands. If I’m not working, I’m basically just disrupting.

BG The band have always kept working, one way or another, I’ve always kept working… With this book, at first, I was, no, no, no, but a seed was planted. At the beginning of last year, I didn’t want to make another rock’n’roll record, I’ve done enough of them. I thought, I’m ready to write a book, that’s going to be my project for this year. I wanted to give a good account of myself and my family. I wanted to do something a bit different, something creative, challenging, something I’ve never done before.

Tenement Kid by Bobby Gillespie is published by White Rabbit (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

• The headline to this article was amended on 10 October 2021 to indicate that it was an abridgement of a quote from Bobby Gillespie. The caption for the photo of Primal Scream in circa 1990 was also amended as the given positions of Robert Young and Andrew Innes were transposed in an earlier version.

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