ROCK'N'ROLL / Things are what they used to be: Primal Scream made the best record of 1991. Tomorrow they release the follow-up. David Cavanagh talks to their leader
Sunday 27 March 1994
Bobby Gillespie has heard them all, and a few more. At one stage he was thinking of calling the album Cliche, to pre-empt the slaggings it would (no doubt) get from cheesed-off fans of Screamadelica, its ground- breaking, lysergic predecessor. Better still, when reports filtered back of outraged journalists on one of the music weeklies damning the album to its rock'n'roll core, he considered having T-shirts printed up with the journalists' choice of put-down: Dance Traitors.
'Music's music,' Gillespie says, with typical disregard for the specific. 'People talk about the pressure of following up Screamadelica. We didn't care about that. We wanted to play some soul music.'
The worst insult it is possible to level at Primal Scream is that they fake it. Slightly less offensive, though still provocative, is the claim that they revel in authenticity, in precise, note- for-note copies of their favourite records. If you really want to annoy them, however, you could always imply that their discovery of rock'n'roll is a recent thing . . .
'We've always been rock'n'roll,' Gillespie fumes. 'We just never had the money to make records this good.'
Gillespie formed Primal Scream in 1984. Their sound relied heavily on the style of their guitarist, Jim Beattie, who played 12-string Rickenbacker licks inspired by the Byrds.
Gillespie wrote weedy lyrics to fit. When Beattie left some years later, Primal Scream changed radically.
Robert Young moved from bass to guitar, where he was joined by Gillespie's long-time friend from Glasgow, Andrew Innes. From jangle to boogie, the Scream made the swerve as though it were the most natural thing in the world. (Actually, they tried it before: on the mostly flaccid 1989 Primal Scream album.)
But Screamadelica, in 1991, was the UK's most critically acclaimed record in years, a devoutly hallucinogenic album inspired by the band's love of acid-house music and its party lifestyle. It was a success, but the Screamadelica tour showed a band decked out in leather, posturing wildly with guitars, with at least one eye on rock'n'roll.
All the tracks bar one on Give Out But Don't Give Up were recorded in Memphis, with septuagenarian Atlantic Records veteran Tom Dowd producing. The odd one out, the Faces- like rocker 'Call on Me', was done in Los Angeles with former Black Crowes producer George Drakoulias, who also remixed several of the songs. A useful insight into Primal Scream's mentality would be given by their choice of producers here (old and new, tasteful and brash, grace and danger), were it not for the additional input of George Clinton, funk music's unsung hero and Primal Scream's newest buddy. Clinton remixed three songs, adding his own vocals to two of them with an effrontery that the band heartily endorse.
These collaborations are central to Primal Scream's way of working. Though fine musicians to a man - especially keyboard player Martin Duffy, a victim of a near-fatal stabbing last July in New York during a typically fraught Scream leisure break - they still depend heavily on guidance from producers, session men and particularly remixers.
'All we're trying to do is make great records,' Gillespie explains. 'For instance, say, 'Give Out But Don't Give Up', the song; or else 'Funky Jam'. I ain't the right singer for those two. But Deniece (Johnson, the band's on-call soul singer) is. We want to make great records, whatever it takes.'
On first listen, Give Out But Don't Give Up (it's not a great title, but it's become something of a Gillespie catchphrase of late) has much to admire, a fair bit to recognise and only a little to scramble the senses. This is probably what has antagonised those who wanted Son of Screamadelica. That album's mind-altering sounds are revisited just once - 'Struttin' ' (remixed by Paul Weller's co-producer Brendan Lynch) sounds like a funk band being swamped by the full might of the BBC Sound Effects Library (Outer Space Dept).
'Funky Jam', essentially the same song remixed by George Clinton, doesn't quite match it, but his work on the title track is extraordinary: a sensual, unsettling groove reminiscent of dark-age Sly Stone is born from little more than bare bones. Then, aside from a Deniece Johnson soul showcase, 'Free', it's rock'n'roll all the way home. These remaining songs fall into two camps: the rockers (three) and the ballads (five). Rock'n'roll ballad-writing is
a hazardous business, always prone to overkill and mawkishness, but Primal Scream emerge completely victorious.
'This band's got a feel to it when we write ballads,' says Gillespie, emphasising his all- time favourite word. 'There's a behind-the- beat feeling to it; it's almost lazy. On the album there's a song called '(I'm Gonna) Cry Myself Blind' and it's so slow, but it's got a bounce and a funk to it. It never drags.'
His judgement is spot on. 'Cry Myself Blind', 'Big Jet Plane', 'Sad and Blue', 'I'll Be There for You' and 'Everybody Needs Somebody' (an unlisted track that finishes the album) are all languid, becalming and convincingly spiritual. Much of the credit for this must go to the band's choice of rhythm section:
David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums) from the Muscle Shoals band that backed Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, among others, in the late Sixties.
'Roger's drumming is so sensitive,' notes Gillespie. 'He'd be looking at me while he was playing and I'd say: 'What's going on, man?' 'I'm looking at you. I'm trying to feel what you're singing.' '
Gillespie is adamant that these ballads are 'really uplifting', but they represent a comedown after the hedonistic sprawl of Screamadelica. Problems with drugs last year (addictions, near-busts, unwelcome publicity) have not only inspired these five 'sinful, redemptive' songs, but also led to a firm 'no comment' policy from the band on their narcotic activities. Mind you, you hear all about them on 'Jailbird' and 'Rocks'. These are two wonderful rock songs ('Rock'n'roll,' corrects Gillespie pedantically: 'Rock don't swing') which open the album and launch it straight into seamy vistas of debauchery and crime, Gillespie ticking off the various delinquent activities one by one as Innes and Young spike the listener's drinks with nefarious, fast-acting riffs.
They do sound a bit like the Stones in places, but Primal Scream have no time for revivalism or nostalgia. Encyclopaedic, sincere rock'n'roll musicians, they are simply making the music they wanted to make in 1984 but didn't know how to. Give Out But Don't Give Up is far more than a personal triumph. By going heavy on the sorrow and making every note count, the album somehow manages to sound like a party and the harrowing aftermath of that party at the same time. And it is terrific rock'n'roll.
'I think the best music works like a narcotic,' Gillespie decides. 'It soothes you, takes away all the pain. Say we finish this interview and I choose the records. The records I'd choose would be slow and they'd soothe me, and I'd probably feel kind of . . . perfect.'
'Give Out But Don't Give Up' (Creation, CD/LP/tape) is out tomorrow.
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