For our inaugural discography digging expedition we wanted to cover a band whose output hasn’t been critically obsessed to absolute death, whose discography runs deep and wide, and preferably is still producing great albums to this very day. Glasgow’s long-running mini-rock gods Primal Scream not only tick all these boxes easily but in examining their output from the distant, hazy ’80s until the panicked present we’ve determined that The Scream just may be the greatest rock band still standing. They’ve never put out a bad record. Each record is nearly completely different than the last one while still stringing together the underlying threads (trad rock swagger, psych-tinged sunshine, lumpen hippie gloom, real-deal pop hooks) that define their artistry. This first part of our Primal Scream discography dig covers the first ten years of their run, the first five records they put out into the cultural slipstream, and each one is fully essential with at least two of them (we will argue three) being full-on classics. From paisley Byrds jangle to Johnny Thunders junkie rock to mind-expanding, E’d up psychedelia to Stax/Stones hybrids to supremely dusted imaginary film soundtracks, join us on our journey through the dusty back catalog of the last gang in town, the mighty, mighty Scream.
Sonic Flower Groove (1987)
- Bobby Gillespie – lead and backing vocals
- Jim Navajo – 12-string electric guitar
- Robert Young – bass guitar
- Andrew Innes – rhythm guitar
It’s amazing to consider that this gang of blooze and electro shapeshifters started out as a jingle jangle morning paisley band of Byrds worshipers, and all the evidence you need of these humble beginnings is to be found right here on this underrated and underheard debut. We’ll call it underrated since it conforms in no way, shape, or form to any of the sound aspects that have made this band well known, and since it’s actually quite good. There’s an innocent teen crush vibe on display here that would never be heard again from The Scream, mixed with a hazy, grey Scottish skies melancholy that gives 12-string pop nuggets like “Gentle Tuesday”, “Silent Spring”, and especially “Imperial” a fresh-faced but vaguely goth-tinged bounce. Lurking here are also several darker-edged deep cuts that The Scream should seriously consider dusting off for live shows, chief among them the controlled churn of “Treasure Trip” and “May The Sun Shine Bright For You”, which wouldn’t be a hair out of place on the latter half of Younger Than Yesterday.
They may not have settled into any of their signature sounds quite yet, but The Primals already had songs for days. There’s not a single misstep here.
Primal Scream (1989)
- Robert “Throb” Young – guitar
- Bobby Gillespie – vocals
- Andrew Innes – guitar
- Philip Tomanov – drums
Here starts Primal Scream’s career-long insistence on completely switching up styles from album-to-album. It’s apparent from the very first seconds of the fantastic “Ivy Ivy Ivy” that this is not the same band that made SFG two years prior. There’s not a 12-string guitar anywhere in sight, the Byrdsian ethereal harmonies whitewashed completely, the paisley shirts tossed to the back of the wardrobe (for now). Instead, say hello to Stones-by-way-of-NY Dolls blues trash romps, several generations removed from Robert Johnson but hitting all the reference points…woman troubles/looking cool but being poor/drugs drugs drugs drugs drugs…like the true scholars this band has always been. Bobby Gillespie finds here what has become one of his standard fallback poses, that of the poor-man’s-Keef wasted and heartbroken rock n’ rowllll wild child, a stance that manages to be both vaguely unconvincing and entirely effective. Not that anyone was really listening; this is easily the least popular of Primal’s albums. This type of elegantly wasted rock music was just not the vibe at the time. But there happened to be one person paying attention, and that was Andrew Weatherall, who rightly found the record’s hidden ballads entirely lovelorn and potent, 4AM heartbreakers like “You’re Just Dead Skin To Me” and, especially, “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have”. And it was Weatherall’s revelation that saved The Scream from small club obscurity forevermore.
- Bobby Gillespie – lead vocals except on “Slip Inside This House”
- Andrew Innes – guitar
- Robert Young – guitar, lead vocals on “Slip Inside This House”
- Martin Duffy – keyboards, piano
- Phillip “Toby” Tomanov – drums, percussion
The manifestation of Weatherall’s vision, this is the record that broke everything wide open not just for Primal Scream but for culture as a whole. First off it was time for another wardrobe change, dropping the junkie rawker leathers of the previous album and donning the baggy DayGlo threads of the then-ascendant rave scene. Yet where their guitar-based contemporaries flirted with the darker aspects of the raver movement (think The Happy Mondays’ heroin rave of “Hallelujah” or The Stone Roses messiah complex of a first album), The Scream connected with the more widescreen flower child aspects of the culture, adding a giddy, lysergic gloss to “we’re all in this together, mannnnnn” bangers like “Come Together” and and “Movin’ On Up”. It was the latter track that ended up being The Scream’s biggest coup, storming the mainstream charts with a song that was, on the surface, a Stonesy balls-out rocker but acted as a Trojan horse, sneaking explicit spirituality and gospel onto the rock radio airwaves for the first time since the ’50s.
Here began The Scream tradition of actually hiring the producers of their idols, bringing in Jimmy Miller of Exile On Main Street and cocaine swastika infamy to helm the boards on “Movin'” and “Damaged”, a gem of a ballad that took the previous album’s more dissolute and heartworn side and finally perfected a distilled, druggy sadness that would become a constant on future Primal releases. Weatherall steps in on “Loaded”, a nearly-lyric less destruction job remix of “I’m Losing More…” that still hits as one of the ultimate big dumb party songs of all time.
But we haven’t even gotten to the highlights. If you want to get to the real soul of this record, skip right to Track 2 where The Scream pulls off the impossible; they cover a 13th Floor Elevators song that knocks the original right on outta’ the park. “Slip Inside This House” is pure psychedelic majesty, and Robert “Throb” Young’s whispered, sexy vocals are so good you can see why Bobby never let him sing on another Scream track; his job may have been threatened. Then there’s The Orb-produced “Higher Than The Sun”, easily a contender for top Scream track, which finds Bobby in full-on guru mode (“I believe in live and let live, I believe you get what you give”), building from a slow-creep come-up to a pregnant pause to a sudden climax. When the drums drop out and the synths pick up over the unhinged background chants it”s enough to make your heart drop out, open all your circuits, embrace you in warmth and terrify you to the core all in the same 20-second span.
Andrew Innes is insane on this record, stacking warped guitar lines on top of one another until they lose all sense of their rock roots, morphing into synth sounds, bells, joyous screeches, and on “Inner Flight” the type of circuit fluttering noises that are often heard at the point where the acid really kicks in. Weatherall helms the boards for most of the record, a carnival ride operator with a demented grin, with his “Higher Than The Sun (A Dub Symphony In Two Parts)” remix standing out as potentially his finest ever work.
For what was previously a song-oriented band, The Primals re-think just what the term “song” means all over this record; “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” builds its hook from an out-of-tune whistle blast while “I’m Comin’ Down” and “Shine Like Stars” may as well come dressed up in kaftans and bells with their twinkling Moroccan and Indian influences and jam band leaning flights of fancy. It’s tough to talk about Primal Scream without talking about drugs, of course, but unlike in their later work, on Screamadelica the substances were of the positive mind-expanding variety, and their wide-eyed, loved-up hippie-ims feel very much like a revelation no matter how second hand they may be in reality. This is the sound of band hitting upon a wide-open tangent that they truly believe in to the point where they don’t have to sell you anything. Don’t fight it, feel it indeed. It’s hard to believe this is even the same band that made the first two records, and it’s obvious at some point in 1990 Primal Scream truly had their skulls blown wide open to a swirling realm if infinite possibilities.
Give Out But Don’t Give Up (1994)
- Bobby Gillespie – lead vocals
- Denise Johnson – vocals
- George Clinton – vocals
- Robert Young – guitar
- Andrew Innes – guitar
- Martin Duffy – keyboards
- Jim Dickinson – keyboards
- Phillip “Toby” Tomanov – drums
In a career chalk full of extreme left turns, it’s infuriating how this record, their softest left turn by far, is seen as their sharpest swerve off the path. If you can ignore the ingrained harsh critical opinion on GOBDGU for just one merciful moment, listening to it right after the grooves on Screamadelica fade out, you will indeed hear a shift away from the more exploratory modern-psych tones and a lean-in on the classic rock swagger of “Movin On Up” and “Damaged”. But overall the vibe is just as bold, bright, and giddy as it was on the classic that preceded it. This is a band absolutely head-rushed on the discovery of past sounds, it’s just that here they’re having a blast digging on that elusive American South Stax-by-way-of-“Brown Sugar” sound that may be easy to reference but has always proven supremely difficult to pin down. Hell, they even relocated their skinny, pale, lad-rock carcasses to Memphis to record the thing, stole a William Eggleston photograph for the cover, and somehow drafted in George Clinton in his cracked-out prime. You can’t say The Scream wasn’t all in on this new tangent, and they mostly sell it, fighting through some production missteps and a slightly bloated running time to deliver a perfectly enjoyable straight-up rock record of the kind that was frowned upon in the age of Nirvana when it came out, and is indeed still frowned upon today.
Here you have absolute classic Primal Scream bangers like the pleasingly nonsensical setlist staple “Jailbird” (“I’m yours, you’re mine, give me some of that jailbird pie” (((???))), The Scream’s biggest ever hit in the hooky Faces/Stones rush of “Rocks”, and some truly effective ballads in “(I’m Gonna) Cry Myself Blind” and “Sad and Blue”. And if the funk workouts like, um, “Funky Jam” don’t quite land home, you just have to hand it to The Scream for having the balls to attempt them.
If Screamadelica was all about candy flipping Es and LSD, Give Out is the straight up booze and cocaine of rock tradition glory. It’s simultaneously Primal Scream’s most hated and most viscerally enjoyable album.
Vanishing Point (1997)
- Bobby Gillespie – vocals
- Andrew Innes – guitar, bass
- Robert Young – guitar, programming, keyboards
- Martin Duffy – keyboards, programming, melodica
- Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield – bass
- Paul Mulreany – drums
If we’re continuing the drug metaphors (this is Primal Scream we’re talking about, after all), the stunning Vanishing Point is eight lung fulls of the dankest, headiest nugs on the market, the kind with names like “Goat’s Breath” where the weed man informs you, “Take it easy on this one, man.” I have no idea just what in God’s good name happened to Primal Scream between the rollicking rock-isms of Give Out and this muddled jewel of a record, but I’m really glad it happened since this is easily a contender for top dawg in their discography.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was an entirely different band from the one that rode in on the backs of the two big, bold, far-reaching statements that came before it. Where the previous Scream had gone for the obvious hooks even on their most obtuse material, always firmly aware of the radio airwaves and MTV screens stage left, this one happily buries them under layers of understated fuzz, menacing samples, and dusted-out jams, all curling inward where their previous inclination was to reach out to as many souls as possible. If you’re like me and love the hippie-leaning Primal Scream that comes out on special occasions, then you already know there are two complexions to this face, the fresh and cosmic utopianism of “Come Together” and the grimier, lumpen leanings to be found for the first time on Vanishing Point.
Lead off dirge “Burning Wheel” sets the precedent, rising like a temple from a bedrock of dub-impressionist noises and stretching itself out over seven minutes of perfectly executed dark-psych majesty, riding an impossibly on-point groove through a number of shapeshifting passages, and the “I seeee, I feeellll” bridge is one of The Primal’s top classic moments. New addition Mani, of Stone Roses bass fame, stands up and lets it be known he’s in the building, adding an off-kilter sense of lockstep propulsion that keeps the song from wandering too far. It’s a contender for best Scream song for sure, and VP continues to deliver packages full of cryptic gifts to your door throughout it’s run time. Ambient tracks like “Get Duffy” and “Trainspotting” could very well be obscure hippie exploitation film soundtracks lifted right from their sources, and as a matter of fact “Kowalski” is meant to be a soundtrack to the film Vanishing Point from 1971. It is these types of stoner moves that turn this dark-leaning album into something close to adorable: Imagine a rock band sitting in front of a TV. The bong is passed around. Vanishing Point on the screen. Someone, probably Gillespie, mutters, “Dude, our next record should totally be an after-the-fact soundtrack to this totally trippy movie, man.” Then they actually go and do it.
If you’re looking for more solid, Screamadelica influences then you have “Star” with it’s gentle horns and the most up-front chorus on the record, but there’s a hazy remove on display here that ties it back into the record it comes from, a pop song trapped behind smudged glass forevermore. “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” is simply immortal, featuring a wild synth line and spidery groove that could go on for 20 more minutes past it’s 3 minute run time without wearing out its welcome, and check out that Brian Jones sitar flourish at the midway point. The hookless “Out Of The Void” is straight up creepy, with Bobby slurring “I have the feel I just can’t get…out of the void…into the light.” We’re a very long way from “Movin’ On Up” indeed. “Medication” is a lost Scream classic, a sneering look at England’s drug underworld that spares no punches and provides zero glamour, with Gillespie actively looking down on a scene he’s nonetheless very much embroiled in himself. On an album full of left field turns, there is none more left field than the “Motorhead” cover where The Primals manage to nail the tricky point where hippie utopianism gave way to the speed-freak rock of Hawkwind and Lemmy. This marks the second time The Scream has taken a classic rock song considered to be definitive and not only easily bested it but enmeshed it perfectly into the fabric of an album.
If Primal Scream had OD’d or broken up after Vanishing Point they would have bowed out at their absolute peak. They will hit many peaks after this (as we will find out in Part 2) and had hit peaks previously, but never before or since have they sounded quite so locked in on a singular, albeit sinister, vision of sound. Menacing, searching, all-encompassing, Vanishing Point is a dusty little planet holding infinite treasures for those willing to explore it.