Primal Scream - Biography
What is now regarded as one of the UK’s most innovative bands began as nothing more than a few guys ripping off The Byrds. Glasgow, Scotland’s Primal Scream was formed in the mid-’80s by Bobby Gillespie, who was at the time drumming for The Jesus and Mary Chain. After releasing a couple of albums that proved to be unsuccessful—at least retrospectively—Primal Scream began working with some of the figures from the blossoming house music scene in creating an album that arguably turned the tide for all of indie rock for all time. That album was Screamadelica (1991 Sire), a groundbreaking effort that identified with club culture, which also proved an elusive task for the band to duplicate. Nevertheless, the band has continued to release new albums every couple of years with varying degrees of success. The evolution of Primal Scream has been entirely overseen through the years by no one other than Gillespie, as he remains the sole original member in the band’s ever-fluctuating roster.
In 1984, Bobby Gillespie was playing drums for The Jesus and Mary Chain, a noisy goth-punk band who were on their way to releasing their heralded debut, Psychocandy, a landmark album of the ’80s. Before the album’s release, Gillespie quit The Mary Chain so that he could pursue another project full-time. He and friend Jim Beattie had begun to see progress within their band, which they called Primal Scream, as they had just added new members—bassist Robert Young, rhythm guitarist Stuart May, and drummer Tom McGurk. This early incarnation of the band offered little besides an ability to sound like The Byrds, only not nearly as good. They signed to Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1985, and recorded the single “All Fall Down.” By 1986, the rotation of bandmates began as both May and McGurk left the group, with Andrew Innes and Gavin Skinner replacing them. Skinner was then rather quickly superseded by Philip Tomanov.
Primal Scream put out the single, “Velocity Girl,” a jangly pop tune that was granted inclusion in NME’s C86 cassette compilation, which served to highlight indie bands of the ’80s. They then went into the studio with the famed producer Stephen Street—who was renowned for his work with The Smiths—to begin recording their debut album. Finding Street’s ideas to be disagreeable, Gillepsie and company cut the sessions short, scrapped all of the work, and tried again with lesser known Mayo Thompson. Thompson was credited with albums by Stiff Little Fingers and The Fall, and the synergy was better. The group stuck with the new batch of recordings released Sonic Flower Groove (1987) on Creation’s short-lived offshoot label, Elevation. Sonic Flower Groove was considered a largely forgettable effort, with the band members more or less trying to identify their sound.
Beattie was kicked out of Primal Scream in 1988, and Young shifted from bass to guitar. The bass was then picked up by new member Henry Olsen, and the new lineup set about making their follow-up to SFG. In the process they ended up creating a new image for themselves, as the band grew their hair out, began wearing leather pants and going shirtless. By the time their new single—“Ivy Ivy Ivy”—was released, the transformation made better sense; Primal Scream was a rock band all of the sudden, complete with soloing guitars and Stonesy riffing. The accompanying album Primal Scream (1989 Mercenary) surfaced, and results were even more muddled than on their debut. Reviews were not merciful, and Primal Scream’s image-shift change was regarded with much apprehension.
The eponymous album did produce one important footnote in the band’s history, however. By the end of the ’80s, indie rock in Britain was gravitating toward the popular sounds of acid house, and the craze interested Gillepsie and his mates. They asked a friend Andrew Weatherall, a DJ on the dance scene, to remix a track off of Primal Scream called “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have.” Weatherall’s version was a complete makeover that subtracted the heavy guitars and added heavy bass and dub reggae effects. He also introduced Primal Scream to sampling, incorporating snippets of dialogue from Peter Fonda’s performance in the biker movie, The Wild Angels. Renamed “Loaded,” the single was a Top 20 UK hit that was embraced by hipsters for its union of dance music and rock & roll. This would prove a pivotal time for Primal Scream finding its niche.
By the time “Come Together” was released as a follow-up single, Primal Scream’s third album was becoming heavily anticipated. With Weatherall, Hugo Nicholson, the Orb, and onetime Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller, the band had assembled the team that would create the first LP to bring house and techno music to mainstream audiences. The name of that album was Screamadelica (1991 Sire), a canonizing, sprawling, and wholly original work that was legendary to rave culture. Weatherall’s ideas proved to be seminal for the band, and the album, which received fanatical reviews and even charted in America, was an instant success. In September of 1992, the band won the first ever Mercury Prize.
Following the serendipitous kind of success they’d found with Screamadelica wasn’t easy for Primal Scream, and they buckled under the pressure. After battles with heroin and other substances among the band members, Give Out But Don’t Give Up (1994 Sire) was released to an eager public with growing expectations, but the album was considered an instant disappointment. Reviews ran from negative to indifferent, and a sense of let down was felt among fans. Poor sales followed, and the group’s image as groundbreaking pioneers in the field of acid house became tarnished. Looking again to reinvent themselves, the line-up changed again. This time it was the departures of both Tomanov and Olsen, who were replaced by drummer Paul Mulreany and former Stone Roses bassist, Gary “Mani” Manfield. The Scream got back on track, releasing a song called “Trainspotting,” a contribution to the soundtrack of the massively popular 1996 film of the same name. The song was a hit, and regarded as a return to the trends that pervaded their landmark album. They recorded the rest of their fifth album in 1996 and finally released it as Vanishing Point (1997 Sire/Reprise). An attempt to capture the mood and feel of B-movies such as the one from which it takes its title, the album garnered great reviews that summer and reestablished Primal Scream as a revitalized band. Echo Dek (1997 Creation) was also released that year, a dub version of Vanishing Point.
Rumors of another slight shakeup within the band proved true when Mulreany announced his departure in August of 1997. He was replaced by Darrel Mooney, and three years later, the group added another impressive work to their canon. XTRMNTR (2000 Astralwerks) was not a hot seller, but it was critically applauded for its severity and anger, as exampled in the track “Kill All Hippes.” Evil Heat (2002 Sony International) was more of a subdued continuation on the protest techno-thrash of its predecessor, and the group were now heavily collaborating with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, who added yet another dimension to their sound. In 2006, the group abandoned the tried-and-true so-called “Madchester” techno elements in favor of pure Rolling Stones, feel-good rock & roll. Never to be pigeonholed, reactions to Riot City Blues (2006 Columbia) ran the gamut from being hailed as purely innovative to being accused of dumbed-down Rolling Stones trad-rock. Others saw it as the simple fun the album was purportedly meant to be, and meanwhile everyone agreed that Gillepsie liked to try on many hats. Primal Scream played to enthusiastic audiences at festival shows the following year, appearing with Kevin Shields on a number of dates. Young left the band later that year, and has not been officially replaced. Two years later, a new single—“Can’t Go Back”—was released and Primal Scream issued its accompanying album, Beautiful Future, in 2008 on WEA International.