Glasgow’s Primal Scream made its public debut in October ’84, the show at which vocalist/superfan Bobby Gillespie also made his first appearance as the Jesus and Mary Chain’s style-over-competence drummer. The group released a pair of singles on Creation over the next two years, but took a back seat to Gillespie’s other career until he left the Reids’ employ in early ’86.
The brightest light of the Primals’ early days is the oft-compiled B-side “Velocity Girl,” a 90-second blast of densely echoed Rickenbacker bliss that is a defining moment of Britain’s short-lived C86/anorak pop era. It took several years and wardrobe changes for Primal Scream to equal that moment.
The first two albums parade the group’s influences so obviously that it’s hard to spot an original thought. Sonic Flower Groove was recorded twice (first with Smiths producer Stephen Street, then with Red Krayola kingpin Mayo Thompson). The latter version won out, but the album is so Swinging London-’60s-Stones-obsessed there’s even a song entitled “Aftermath.” For Primal Scream, the band squeezed into leather gear and fast-forwarded to 1969; the album is so Detroit-obsessed that there’s even a song called “Gimme Gimme Teenage Head.” But the record did lead to something completely different…
As psychedelic drugs (re)conquered England, the C86 crowd began infiltrating the burgeoning rave scene, and the bowl haircuts and Rickenbackers were replaced by baggy pants and sampling equipment practically overnight. Primal Scream seized the moment brilliantly — if inadvertently. Letting DJ friend Andrew Weatherall (who’d never been in a recording studio before) have a go at remixing “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have,” a track from Primal Scream, he chopped out most of the original song, threw in a groove and loads of samples (including Peter Fonda dialogue from The Wild Angels) and emerged with the awesome “Loaded.”
“Loaded” primed the works for the dazzling Screamadelica, a dance album with a rock album’s accessibility. Primal Scream found itself reborn as an avatar of pop/ambient/house. Although the technicolor sound was basically masterminded by Weatherall and programmer Hugo Nicholson (apart from Gillespie, the actual band seems to appear on less than half of its own album), Primal Scream’s flagrant derivativeness works beautifully to its advantage in this format: MC5 quotes and guitar solos appear in the middle of tripped-out dance grooves, and the group spans three generations of British beat by collaborating with Jimmy Miller, Jah Wobble and the Orb on a single disc. A truly inspired fusion of pop, rock and dance, Screamadelica brought new respectability to the word “influences,” and even won the prestigious British Mercury Award.
Expanded from a three-song British 12-inch, the American Come Together EP contains “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have,” three mixes of “Loaded,” two of “Come Together” (a single previewing the third album) and a live version of “Ramblin’ Rose.” The Dixie Narco EP combines remixes with a bluesy ballad B-side; the album spawned four additional British singles that are of remix-spotter interest only.
Three long and unproductive years after Screamadelica, out came Give Out but Don’t Give Up, bearing a neon Confederate flag on its front and a picture of late Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel on its back — disproving the axiom that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Much to the chagrin of the band’s dance audience, Primal Scream had pawned its samplers, gone to Memphis and given their libido full sway, producing what is essentially a fair-to-middling Black Crowes album. (That band’s producer, George Drakoulias, contributed heavily.) Despite a few interesting riffs and a collaboration with George Clinton, Give Out but Don’t Give Up is about as funky as Bill Clinton’s sax playing, and left the band right back where it was five years earlier.
The anachronistic rockism of Give Out but Don’t Give Up didn’t augur well for Primal Scream’s continued relevance, but Vanishing Point proved that lightning can indeed strike twice for the same band. Ignoring the dodgy detour via Memphis, Vanishing Point is the true heir to the genre-blurring Screamadelica. Although not as epochal, it’s still a significant record, taking the earlier record’s fusion of rock and dance musics into exciting new territory. If Give Out but Don’t Give Up suggested that the Primals owned just two albums — Exile on Main Street and Shake Your Money Maker — then Vanishing Point indicated a more diverse collection, one in which King Tubby, Lemmy and Isaac Hayes can peacefully co-exist. Alongside such expansive grooves as “Star” (with Augustus Pablo on melodica) and the dubbed-out “Stuka,” Motörhead’s eponymous anthem is compressed into robotic techno metal, while “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” is a heady mix of cop-show wah-wah ‘n’ horns funk, hip-hop beats, sitar and synths. If the hypnotic, psychedelic anthem “Burning Wheel” and the blissed-out “Long Life” recapture something of the rave zeitgeist of Screamadelica, itâ€™s clear that the party’s over: Vanishing Point is a darker, often claustrophobic album. Some tracks simply brood (“Trainspotting” and “Out of the Void”); others are directly confrontational. On the searing “Kowalski,” for example, new bassist Mani (formerly of the Stone Roses) announces his arrival in grand floor-shaking style, and Gillespie engages in the sort of sloganeering that would come to dominate subsequent releases.
Later in 1997 came Echo Dek, featuring dub treatments of eight tracks from Vanishing Point concocted by On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood. His most compelling remixes deconstruct the tracks in startling ways. Some of the source material was already trippy enough, but Sherwood goes further, prizing tracks apart and injecting expansive, dizzying textures, or accentuating a specific element of the original to reproduce the experience of stoned fixation on an individual sound. The already spacey “Long Life” (here “Living Dub”) becomes even more spaced out as Sherwood emphasizes reverberating drum beats and foregrounds the track’s Eastern vibe by homing in on mesmerizing pipe and sitar-like sounds. There are two excellent remixes of “Stuka”: “JU-87” is a woozy, vocal-free makeover, while Prince Far I’s voice drifts in and out of the mix on “Wise Blood.” Beyond that, there are few sonic epiphanies and, much like the Mad Professor’s remix of Massive Attack’s Protection, Echo Dek is inconsistent. This would have worked well as a four- or five-track EP but it doesn’t hold up as an album.
Xtrmntr adds gasoline to the aggression and angst smoldering on Vanishing Point. What the title lacks in vowels, the album makes up for in incendiary sounds, linking Detroit’s garage past and its more recent techno present, with krautrock and free-jazz diversions. Barring Gillespie’s rapping on “Pills” — as unconvincing as Madonna’s efforts on “American Life” — Xtrmntr doesn’t falter. With My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields heading up the guitar army, the blistering charge of “Accelerator” has you fearing for the well-being of your stereo, while Mani’s bass is heavy enough on “Exterminator” and the funky “Kill All Hippies” to threaten the structural integrity of your surroundings. Apart from the trance-inducing “Keep Your Dreams,” there’s little to indicate this album is by the band that recorded Screamadelica. Nevertheless, it captures the grim realities of Britain under New Labour and of Europe in the wake of the Balkans conflict as vividly as Screamadelica evoked an atmosphere of optimism and vibrancy at the start of the ’90s. The visceral energy and assaultiveness of much of the music are matched by Gillespie’s barrage of disgust and rage at the state of the world. He wasn’t particularly happy on Vanishing Point, but here his spleneticism takes a militant tone, as he rails against political apathy, a diseased and corrupt society, globalization, and the Military Industrial Complex. But that doesnâ€™t equal an acute spokesman for the disenfranchised. On the vitriolic Donna Summer-meets-techno-punk stomp of “Swastika Eyes,” Gillespie’s lyrics are less than coherent (“Rain down fire on everyone / Scabs, police, government thieves / Venal psychic amputees”), and the clear-headedness and rigor of his politics are debatable. He’s no Gil Scott-Heron, but at least he chooses better targets for his anger than many of his “punk” contemporaries.
Evil Heat continues in a similar electronic garage-rock vein. While not quite as angry and explosive, Evil Heat shares Xtrmntr‘s energy. Guitarist/producer Shields is back, notably on the punk-rock thrasher “City”; “Deep Hit of Morning Sun,” with its hypnotic electronic textures; and “Rise,” a manic, thumping protest against, well, everything. Gillespie is in full-on sloganeering mode: “Multinational life is cheap / Soldiers, workers, maggots’ meat / Get on up, protest riot / Are you collateral damage or a legitimate target?” (Originally titled “Bomb the Pentagon,” the song was re-written after Al-Qaida did just that.) Attuned as ever to trends in dance music, the Scream successfully inject some of the in-vogue electroclash sound into Evil Heat. With Gillespie’s onetime J&M Chain bandmate Jim Reid on vocals, “Detroit” bumps and gyrates; the cheeky “Miss Lucifer” is a sex-and-death disco number with embarrassing lyrics about Gillespie’s politically and sartorially problematic fantasy woman (she sports a Nazi hat, leather boots, a panther tattoo and a vampire cape). In addition to the harder-edged numbers, there are some relatively tranquil interludes, including “Autobahn 66,” which evokes the mellow, pulsing side of Kraftwerk and Neu! There are also a couple of throwaways, including a bland cover of Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning” done as a duet with supermodel Kate Moss, whose entirely affectless vocals confirm that she shouldn’t quit her day job.
The Dirty Hits compilation doesn’t include material from the band’s first two albums, but does offer a solid selection of tracks from Screamadelica through Evil Heat. Recorded in 2002, Live in Japan documents the band’s prowess in concert.
The old adage about idle hands being the devil’s workshop might seem to bode well for Riot City Blues, coming as it did after a four-year break. But no. For all the rock ‘n’ roll danger of its title, this is a tame, flaccid and dull effort. After two strong records, Primal Scream returns to the Stonesy southern-fried nostalgia that made Give Out but Don’t Give Up largely forgettable more than a decade earlier. While it thankfully foregoes that album’s naïve Confederate-flag cover art, Riot City Blues nevertheless cranks out a slavish version of clichéd Americana spiked with punk attitude that hardly passes muster as a 2006 record by any half-decent band, let alone this one. Of course, originality has never been Primal Scream’s forte. Their knack is for trawling rock’s history and mythology to recycle and recontextualize their finds. In the past, their fetishization of Krautrock and garage rock has produced some inspired work, but this album’s focus on ’70s blues rock leaves the Primals sounding like a generic bar band trying its very hardest to kick out the jams. Many of these hackneyed tunes are as poor and predictable as their titles, from the Canned Heat chug of “We’re Gonna Boogie” to the fatuous “Dolls (Sweet Rock and Roll)” to the embarrassing “Suicide Sally & Johnny Guitar.” And while Gillespie would never claim his lyrics were poetry (or infused with even a modicum of intellectual rigor), they’re truly dire here; the exhaustive lexicon of an antediluvian rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle would be worth quoting only for the purpose of derision. It’s as if 100 chimps were each given a copy of Exile on Main Street and a typewriter, locked in a room for a week and told to write ten songs. Notwithstanding Gillespie’s call for the “rock ‘n’ roll nurse,” his exhortations to “shake some action, girl” and his urge to “have a good time,” rarely has the rock outlaw male sounded so unconvincing. To be fair, this is probably intended to be jolly good fun, an antidote to the darkness and violence of Xtrmntr and Evil Heat; that said, this is no fun. The band’s records have often been energized by well-chosen guests (Shields’ noise-textures, for instance), but Riot City Blues disappoints on that count as well. Will Sergeant’s distinctive guitar playing on “When the Bomb Drops” helps only slightly, and although Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds appears on the boogie-woogie hoedown “Hell’s Comin’ Down,” he could be any fiddler, so formulaic is the overall sound, produced in the main by Youth. Earlier albums have shown the Primals to be masters of pastiche, but the main problem here is their choice of an original to reproduce: Riot City Blues recycles dissolute and irrelevant rock, rock-gone-to-seed. In this case, there’s no difference between the pastiche and the real thing.