Primal Scream – 10 of the best

From jangly C86 indie band to generation-defining soundtrackers of the acid house era and paranoid comedown rockers, Bobby Gillespie and co just keep on keeping on

1. Velocity Girl

After 30 years of drugs, debauchery and leather trousers, it seems hilarious that Primal Scream were ever considered part of the C86 twee set. But Velocity Girl – the 1986 B-side of their second single – was the opening track of the NME’s influential compilation cassette of shambling DIY indie bands. A fleeting one-and-a-bit minutes of dreamy-eyed jangling, foreshadowing Bobby Gillespie’s interest in the darker side of life by seeming to describe a girl intravenously injecting vodka, it has stood the test of time, and was definitely admired by the Stone Roses, judging by its undeniable similarity to Made of Stone.

But the twee associations would become an albatross for the band in their early days. Gillespie denounced the C86 scene (“They can’t play their instruments and they can’t write songs” – a reputation for diplomacy would never exactly precede this son of a Mount Florida trade unionist) and Primal Scream would soon renounce their softcore beginnings and morph into whacked-out Rolling Stones-channelling rock’n’rollers. The die was cast for one of the great reinventions of the past 30 years of British music.

2. Loaded

Two Primal Scream albums preceded the epochal 1991 classic Screamadelica: their 1987 debut Sonic Flower Groove and its self-titled 1989 follow-up. Neither record marked the group out as anything particularly special, and they might easily have faded into obscurity, were it not for a remix of I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, from the second album, by Windsor bricklayer turned acid house DJ Andrew Weatherall. In his first experience in a proper recording studio, Weatherall produced a Frankenstein fusion of bluesy miscellanea and trippy good vibes, splicing together source materials as diverse as an audio sample of Peter Fonda from the film The Wild Angels, a vocal sample from The Emotions’ I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love and a bongotastic drum loop from an Italian bootleg remix of Edie Brickell’s What I Am.

I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have was reborn as Loaded, and Britain had its first great indie-dance record, a sonic totem for a generation seeking to reconcile its burgeoning fascination with house music, club culture, repetitive beats and ecstasy with its love of good old-fashioned greasy guitar music. The song’s uncomplicated raison d’être, and that of the acid house scene as a whole, is written into its sampled opening lines: “We’re gonna have a good time … we’re gonna have a party.”

Loaded was released as a single in February 1990, giving Primal Scream their first Top 20 chart success – and their first, very awkward Top of the Pops appearance. It was included in longer form on Screamadelica, 18 months later.

3. Movin’ on Up

Alan McGee, the boss of Primal Scream’s label Creation, was instrumental in the band’s baptism in acid house. Having relocated from London to Manchester for a year in 1989 to be at the epicentre of one of the biggest youth culture phenomena Britain had witnessed since punk, he began preaching the gospel of E to his old Glasgow school pal Gillespie. In a cauldron of pills, crossover experimentation and all-night raving, Screamadelica was cooked. Hailed as an instant classic on its release in 1991, it won the inaugural Mercury prize, framed the zeitgeist and enshrined rock’s enslavement to the beat.

The Stonesy guitar and piano chords of Movin’ on Up (the track was produced by Jimmy Miller, who had overseen Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed) should feel incongruously retro, when opening such a fiercely modern record. But once the funky breakbeat drops, the gospel backing vocals, organs and strings are layered on and the whole composition spreads its arms skywards, the shared sensibilities of the musical styles it unites – rock’n’roll, blues, soul, house – become joyously clear, all of them celebratory, euphoric, ecstatic, fired by a similar yearning for transcendence.

4. Higher Than the Sun

Perhaps no song, and certainly no title, sums up Screamadelica-era Primal Scream better than Higher Than the Sun. “It’s like a massive jump on to another planet,” said Gillespie of this sonic approximation of a hallucinogenic experience, upon its release as a single in June 1991.

“I’m beautiful, I wasn’t born to follow,” he drawls. “I live just for today, I don’t care ’bout tomorrow / What I got in my head you can’t buy, steal or borrow.” Primal Scream were deep in their moment. An ethereal, swirling, reverberant concoction of heavenly drones, dubby bass, synth squelches, burps and burbles, and sloping beats fit not so much for dancing as for gently swaying in a semi-jellied state, Higher Than the Sun still feels visionary, even futuristic. To borrow a dictum from another bunch of psychedelic warriors of the age: it’s the sound of young men taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.

5. (I’m Gonna) Cry Myself Blind

Despite yielding Primal Scream’s biggest radio hit of their career in the big-riffing and overplayed Rocks, 1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up was a dog’s dinner of an album by pretty much any measure. That much would be true even if it hadn’t followed an era-defining classic. As well as heroin addictions (a US tour with Depeche Mode would nearly result in the death of members of both bands), Primal Scream had developed an unwise obsession with US classic rock, funk and blues. The sense of studied cool that had served the band so well temporarily left them.

This soulful acoustic lament was a rare moment of respite in that album’s orgy of ill-judgment. A harmonic country-soul song featuring Gillespie doing his best Mick Jagger impression, it speaks to the physical and psychic lows that lie in wait on the other side of every peak; the ones that the band seemed to have been staving off for too long. If some fans felt like weeping upon hearing the transformation that had come over Primal Scream post-Screamadelica, (I’m Gonna) Cry Myself Blind gave them the perfect excuse.

6. Kowalski

New blood and a new direction were needed by the mid-90s, the British music landscape having been altered inexorably by Britpop and the Scream’s labelmates Oasis. It arrived in part in the form of Gary “Mani” Mounfield. A free agent since the messy demise of the Stone Roses in 1996, the bassist joined the Scream in time to contribute to a few songs on 1997’s return-to-form album Vanishing Point, an adventurous and focused experiment in dubby textures, ambient drones, krautrock beats and dirty rock’n’roll, picking up the pieces post-Screamadelica and dealing with the souring of acid house’s druggy idealism. Kowalski is titled after the protagonist of the 1971 speedfreak underground road movie that also gave Vanishing Point its name. It was Primal Scream’s attempt to superimpose their own paranoia, claustrophobia and drug-induced psychosis on the film, through an industrial-strength fuzz bassline, distressed audio samples, laser-beam synths, sci-fi sonic wibbles and Gillespie’s conspiratorially half-whispered vocal. All of which probably says a lot more about how Primal Scream were feeling at the time than it does about the film.

7. Darklands

Gillespie paid gorgeous homage to the Jesus and Mary Chain, for whom he was a drummer in the Psychocandy era, in this intoxicating and intoxicated-sounding rarity from 1998, the B-side to a Kevin Shields remix of If They Move Kill ’Em. A cover of the title track of the Mary Chain’s second album, it sees Primal Scream put their dubby, hazy, narcotic tropes all over a tortured hymn to nihilism and confusion, replacing chiming guitars with wheezing harmonium, droning synthesisers and backwards samples, all forced steadily forwards by the kind of threadbare but effective drumming in which Gillespie had specialised as a member of the Mary Chain. Stretched out over six exquisite minutes, it’s a collector’s item of nostalgia and tenderness, from a band about to enter their angriest, most uncompromising and most future-facing phase.

8. Accelerator

I remember thinking there was something up with the stereo, the first time I heard Accelerator, so vicious does it sound. Piling guitars on guitars on guitars, it’s the most punk rock three-and-a-half minutes Primal Scream have put their name to. It’s one of several face-melters on 2000’s XTRMNTR album, a record that saw a newly politicised Primal Scream declare war on the “military-industrial illusion of democracy” and, for reasons never quite made clear, vowels. It was the first great British album of the new millennium (as much as it may be squarely blamed for Kasabian), and the very last to be released on Creation, which folded almost immediately afterwards, torpedoing the promo campaign for what should have been a much more commercially successful record.

Accelerator, Creation’s final single, is the work of a band no longer deep in their moment, but seeking to rocket out of it towards a less messed-up tomorrow. A paranoid-sounding Gillespie is beset on all sides by “sick streets full of dead meat” and “empty heads and cancelled eyes”. Accelerator also serves as another sonic manifestation of Gillespie et al’s preferred poison: at this time, amphetamines and other assorted uppers. The fireball middle part of the track vaguely recalls the sonic ravages of the “holocaust” section of My Bloody Valentine’s You Made Me Realise – little wonder, given that Kevin Shields was a contributor to XTRMNTR, and also joined Primal Scream’s live lineup for a time.

9. Shoot Speed/Kill Light

If any song in the Primal Scream catalogue from the time of his tenure with the band belongs to Mani, then it’s surely the closer to XTRMNTR, a motorik, psychedelic near-instrumental that is part New Order, part Velvet Underground, part Neu!.

It’s guided by a classic, fuzzed-out Mani bassline, by turns beautiful and ferociously efficient, which is then matched by drummer Darrin Mooney’s relentless, all-energy-no-feeling playing. Gillespie, his voice processed into a robotic gurn, chants the four words of the title, each of them apt to the Scream’s then mantra of violent insurrection, nihilism, transcendence and destruction. Throw in all sorts of strafing, burbling, gurgling free jazz noise, filtered through Martin Duffy’s synthesisers and Kevin Shields’ effects boxes, and a clanging, angular guitar solo from New Order’s Bernard Sumner towards the end, and you’ve got one of the fiercest things in the Primal Scream canon: a track that at once shakes the ground beneath your feet and reaches for the sky.

10. 2013

It’s necessary to fast-forward a full 13 years to locate the next truly great piece of music Primal Scream turned out, helpfully titled 2013. Despite personnel changes – Shields and Mani returned to My Bloody Valentine and the Stone Roses, respectively, while long-serving guitarist Robert “Throb” Young disappeared from the lineup in 2006, before dying in 2014 – Gillespie and guitarist Andrew Innes keep on keeping on.

2013 and its attendant album, the David Holmes-produced More Light, signalled the band’s intention to grow old disgracefully (even if they’d been forced to sober up by now). Nine minutes of two-chord, psych-rock rudimentals, Stooges saxophone riffing, atmospheric guitar skronk and state-of-the-nation rambling from Gillespie, it was Primal Scream’s most bilious offering since Accelerator. Gillespie’s lyrics have become increasingly cringeworthy as years have gone by. “What happened to the voices of dissent? / Getting rich I guess … They’ve sanitised the freaks!” ponders a man who is frequently spotted in the Islington Waitrose. But whether or not they actually live it any more, Primal Scream’s angry outsiders attitude still stands them in stark contrast to so much of the polite British rock establishment.


Malcolm Jack

The GuardianTramp

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