Primal Scream are the last great band of the original Creation Records roster, still rocking on, un-interrupted by break-ups or break-downs. James Brown gets down and dirty with The Scream.
Little Barrie, the new guitarist in Primal Scream, is our window tonight on to the chaos that surrounds the band. He looks like a portrait of Johnny Marr as painted by LS Lowry: slight rather than small, with black shoes, tight jeans and a tight T-shirt – a look that Bobby Gillespie also favours. When Barrie picks at that big guitar, it wails.
We are backstage after his first gig with the Scream, surrounded by the multitude of people who pile into a dressing room of a band after a great performance: the well-wishers, the friends, the visiting rock legends, the great-looking women, the regular girlfriends, the touts, the blaggers, the record company people, the publicists, the agent, the manager, the old friends, the future friends, those that have come to loot the rider and the sober writer, chewing his pen on the settee and being flirted with by the party girls who are pouring champagne and suggestions around as if they’d like to corrupt him.
For 30 hectic minutes in this tiny room upstairs at the Astoria in London in the first week of April, Barrie has shaken hands, been introduced, been congratulated and listened to enthusiastic praise. It is a noisy, babbling crush of euphoria. And then, for a brief moment, Little Barrie is alone. He turns his head left and right and wonders who or what to do next. He catches the eye of the writer and just blows his cheeks out for a second. ‘Whew … this is exhilarating stuff,’ he’s thinking. ‘I’m in the Scream and this is what it’s like.’ And the writer smiles, too, because he is sitting there amid the pandemonium thinking, ‘It’s good to be back.’
It’s 15 years since I was last in a dressing room writing a report for a music magazine – and then it was the Manic Street Preachers, the Pet Shop Boys and the Scream, all within a fortnight of each other. Since that time, there’s been the process of giving up the drink and drugs; but Barrie and I laugh with each other, because for him this is new, and for me it’s perhaps where I am meant to be. We are the window on to the speedy buzz that is everywhere because Primal Scream have just rocked for 90 minutes in a super-distilled brew of the Stooges, the Stones, Motörhead doing Kraftwerk, and the Cramps. It was raw, stripped down, no fat. Just lean rhythms and untamed noise.
Douglas Hart, the former Jesus and Mary Chain bassist turned film-maker, squeezes onto the settee, which already hosts Mick Jones of the Clash, the writer, a cute A&R girl called Tara, Jess, who is the sexy PR from the Agent Provocateur underwear company, and Gillespie himself, the singer with the band. And Hart says, ‘You see, I said it would be like a Marx Brothers scene in here.’
Everyone is attracted to the Scream – a sort of biker gang made by Airfix – by the electricity that’s always surrounded the group. Starting out in the mid-Eighties as a fey indie group, they explored dance rhythms on the classic Screamadelica in 1991, before veering into hard-hitting techno on Xtrmntr and Evil Heat, their last album four years ago – but at the heart of it all has always been rock’n'roll. And there have been the drugs, the unfounded tabloid accusations (including the falsehood that Gillespie was at one time dating Kate Moss), the excess, the line-up changes, the alcoholism, the heroin, the bust-ups – but most importantly, there’s been the music. Like few other groups, Primal Scream have never considered stopping. This is what they’re here for.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ Gillespie says a week earlier, rushing into The Old Queen’s Head in Islington, north London, in a long, black calf-length leather coat that looks as if it might have seen action in Carlito’s Way. The 41-year-old singer is newly returned from shooting a video in Los Angeles and is buoyant. Inside the coat is a pink backstage sticker from a Strokes gig. Underneath, he is wearing a grey John Smedley crew neck over a yellow T-shirt. His lack of any discernible arse means his drainpipe Levis hang low on to his black shoes. On the front belt loop he has two safety pins. Tall and skinny, he lurches a little when he moves.
Having spent two days being sucked into the stroppy, vital sound of his band’s forthcoming album Riot City Blues, their ninth, I ask whether he’s been inspired to get back to a leaner rock’n'roll sound by all the young guitar groups that have sprung up recently, or whether the record is a reflection of a recent tour through his own collection. But rather than answer, he starts talking about yoga. ‘We were recording with [the producer] Youth in the studio and he mentioned he did yoga and explained how it worked for him. How it clears all the rubbish from your head and gives you a way to escape the negative moments … apparently.’
Does he ever feel responsible for the health of the rest of the group? Lead guitarist Robert Young (known as ‘Throbert’) is not playing live with the band right now. ‘You will understand where Robert is, James,’ says Gillespie. ‘He has some personal problems and he’s dealing with them. He did play amazingly on the album – he can get a tune out of anything.
‘Primal Scream started on 12 October, 1984,’ he continues, with startling precision. ‘Me and Throb are the only ones left from that line-up.’ But for most of the band’s history, guitarist Andrew Innes and keyboard player Martin Duffy have been members, while it’s almost 10 years since Darren Mooney on drums and bassist Gary ‘Mani’ Mountfield (formerly of the Stone Roses) came on board. Guest guitarist Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine has, however, recently left the Scream line-up.
For an outfit so steeped in the dark arts and private pursuits of rock’n'roll folklore, it’s inevitable that some will struggle to last the course. ‘Well, we’ve all had our problems and we’ve dealt with them. Most importantly, we wouldn’t still be here as a band or as people if we didn’t take the music seriously. Me and Innes have been working on Primal Scream five days a week for the last 10 years. Whatever goes on outside of that mustn’t negatively affect what goes on with the music.’
When I worked at the NME in the late Eighties, a colleague came back from New York and described a heated debate within the group that he’d witnessed in the street. ‘Let’s get Vietnamese.’ ‘No, Chinese.’ ‘What about Indian?’ When he suggested getting a burger, the band turned on him, shocked and said: ‘It’s heroin we’re discussing, not food.’ Is that true?
Gillespie laughs. ‘Probably. When we were touring Screamadelica we had to meet some record company VIPs. Just as we were sitting down to dinner with them the heroin arrived and we all went off to take it. When we got back it was so strong people were just collapsing face down into their food. This was not a good advert for Primal Scream. Certainly there was a lot of peer group pressure around Primal Scream … people with prodigious appetites, and that naturally makes for a very harrowing tale. You know, Andrew Innes is a chemist and so’s his wife – they’ve got pharmaceutical degrees. He’s an oddball boffin who’ll experiment with anything you give him. When computers came out, he got one straight away and learnt how to work them. Oasis call him “Brains”.’
He pauses, realises he’s changed the subject, and thinks for a moment about what we’ve been talking about, including the 20 minutes we’ve negotiated off the record about how to report the care and concern he feels for people who aren’t with the band right now. Finally he concludes: ‘It’s been hard keeping the band together.’
Gillespie himself first came to the world’s attention as the stick-thin stand-up snare-drummer with the Jesus and Mary Chain on The Old Grey Whistle Test. His bowl-cut flying saucer hairdo and his thrashing of their psycho-candy beat made him look about 13 years old. But by then he had already been paying his dues on the Glaswegian music scene. When the bassist of a group called the Wake, for whom he had been roadying, left on the eve of a gig supporting New Order in Bristol, Gillespie was asked to step in. He learnt the songs in a night and then needed a bass. ‘I asked Hooky if I could borrow his and he glowered at me and then said: “Of course”. So that was my first gig ever, playing the Yamaha bass that had created that sound for “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.’
Gillespie was also hanging out with Altered Images, one of Scotland’s best-loved pop groups. ‘I was at school with them and their manager Gerry McElhone, who is now our manager. He used to drive me home from band practises and play me Johnny Thunders’s solo album [So Alone], African Dub Almighty Chapter 3 by Joe Gibbs, the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On”.’
‘Bobby was probably our first fan,’ McElhone remembers. ‘He did the poster for the first Altered Images gig. He even played with us one time when the drummer disappeared in Middlesbrough. A horrible night with skinheads and punks fighting and spitting.’
I first came across Gillespie crouched on the floor of Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall on the Saturday after the Heysel disaster in May 1985, when he was playing guitar for the Pastels. It was a CND gig and I was there selling a fanzine. The band was playing alongside another new local group called Wet Wet Wet. Earlier, Chris from another fanzine called Slow Dazzle had introduced me to three guys with thick black curly hair and black army shirts. Jim, William and Douglas were the Jesus and Mary Chain, who were soon hyped as the new Sex Pistols, the band that gave Creation records a foothold in the world.
A few months later and I am at the club that Bobby’s now running, Splash 1, as near a Warhol Happening as you can imagine in a central Glasgow discotheque. Another year on and the single ‘Velocity Girl’ has established Primal Scream as an indie force to be reckoned with. Backstage at the Boardwalk in Manchester, Gillespie and co are receiving a lot of close attention from Manchester’s groupie scene. Bobby is actually signing a girl’s breast – outrageous, but also promising. Local goths the Stone Roses are taking note of the music.
We met again a while later in Leeds with a mutual friend who used to claim that he took drugs through customs for them.
‘We never took drugs through customs, we sent someone ahead to buy them for us. You know around ’94, when ‘Rocks’ was a hit, there was a lot of freebasing going on and I remember Bez from the Happy Mondays giving us advice on carrying the stuff. He just thought we were too vulnerable because there was so much about. I remember me, Douglas [Hart], Bez, Throbert … we thought we were above the law, a bit like [Pete] Doherty does now. And then there were times of trying not to use, going weeks and weeks, and then coming back to it and asking myself why.
‘Right now, I’m OK. The drug I like best is speed, but no drugs are a big part of my life right now. I have my family and my band.’
In recent years, the times I’ve seen Gillespie have been very different from the early days of hedonism. Rather than at gigs or parties, it’s been at a north London children’s soft play centre that we’ve bumped into each other – Gillespie with his two young sons, called Wolf and Lux, by fashion stylist Katy England. But Gillespie continues to negotiate a path through the competing demands of parenthood and rock’n'roll and the fallout from that lifestyle.
I tell him I particularly like a killer track on the new album called ‘Suicide Sally and Johnny Guitar’, which depicts the hollow culture of self-abuse that follows in fame’s slipstream.
‘Yes, that’s my favourite,’ he says. ‘But it’s also about plastic surgery and people who hate the way they are and I did know a bloke called George who blew his brains out, and I do know Sally. It’s a rock’n'roll song but there’s no moral to it. It’s just what it is.’
‘When the Bomb Drops’ is another song I like, I say, real evil psychedelia, malevolent music.
‘You know even when we were doing the electronic music on the last album, when we were trying to reconstruct the songs, we were totally different live, with sheets of noise – very hard and heavy rock. This album is more traditional. It’s in the spirit of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. I’d also call bits of it Scots-Irish music. Innes has played the mandolin on it and there’s fiddle from Warren Ellis, who plays with the Bad Seeds. Come down to rehearsals next week and you’ll hear it all live.’
For a moment in rehearsals, just as I’m wondering how long it’s been since I was in a room like this, two children wearing headphones come in with their mum – the wife of one of the roadies – and I kick myself because I’ve just left my four-year-old son at home. Earlier that same morning, he had stood in the kitchen with a plastic guitar wearing sunglasses and singing ‘Welcome to the show!’, and I imagine what it would have been like to show him Primal Scream, a real band, not the one from Scooby Doo. When the group finish up, Mani shakes his hands and says, ‘It’s a young man’s game, this’, before grinning.
Next day we are at Gillespie’s house an hour before the gig, ready to go, his sister, me and Douglas Hart, who will be best man when Gillespie marries Katy England. Gillespie is listening to two tracks by Tom Petty he enjoyed as a teenager, ‘I Need to Know’ and ‘American Girl”. On the way through north London in the people carrier he sits in the front, looking like some sort of polluted priest in his ted jacket and jeans. Hart and I sit at the back and chat about models and opiates, and which is more likely to do you in quicker.
Pre-gig in the dressing room and Little Barrie is pacing nervously, while Mani sits in a pillar box red shirt and trainers, vibing to the Stooges on the stereo, pursing his lips into a big sexy snarl. Gillespie clips a white string bow tie onto his shirt. Duffy is tapping the beat out on his can of Strongbow. He must be boiling, looking like a French barge captain in his black cap and a dockers coat.
‘This was Johnny Thunders’s bowtie,’ Bob tells me and scoots on by. Scully, a legendary ticket tout, storms in and wishes them well now he’s finished selling his wares outside. ‘You know,’ says Hart, ‘Scully’s dad and Bobby’s dad were both in the unions, they know each other that way. One time me and Bob took Scully to a Noam Chomsky lecture at the LSE – it was mental.’
And then they are out, onto the stage: no gimmicks, just a band of mean musicians in their early middle-age, playing the music they’ve pursued for two decades. In the balcony, the infamous mingle. Gillespie sings ‘I was blind, now I can see’ and a hand tugs at me from behind. I turn and it’s Noel Gallagher. ‘I was lost, now I’m found,’ still from ‘Movin’ on Up’, and I see all the people I like but seldom bump into any more. ‘I was lost, now I’m found.’ Jake Chapman, the artist, Joe Corre and the gang from Agent Provocateur, Noel and his girlfriend Sara, the promoters and agents – but the person in the room with whom I’ve most crossed paths in my trip into fatherland is rolling around on the stage like a dog that’s just been hit by a car. I think about how Bobby really has joined the ranks of Lux Interior of the Cramps and Nick Cave and such other unique frontmen, and how he’s pretty much the same when he’s hanging out at the soft play with the kids. And then I think what the fuck have I been doing missing gigs like this? ‘I was blind, now I can see.’ The music goes quiet and I hear someone ask ‘have you got any drugs?’, a phrase I’ve not heard for many years.
‘Rocks’ brings everyone to their feet and snaps me out of myself, although the set still leaves me feeling irresponsible, childlike, not childish. They finish with repeats of ‘Rocks’ and new single ‘Country Girl’, which sounds like the explosive opening chords of the Clash’s ‘Complete Control’, before heading backstage. I beat them to it and Gillespie looks at me expectantly. It was great. He smiles.
In the dressing room the madness begins with the Beatles’s ‘She Loves You’ playing on the stereo. Mick Jones bursts in and begins ranting about the press and the way Kate Moss has been treated. He turns to Bobby and says, ‘Hey, that was a good show – people love rock’n'roll and you’re getting better and better.’
I tell Bob the gig made me want to be in a band. ‘It makes me want to be in a band,’ he replies. ‘I loved it.’ ‘All I ever wanted to be was in a band too,’ Mick Jones laughs.
At the aftershow party, Andy Weatherall, who produced Screamadelica, is playing the New York Dolls and old rockabilly. Martin Duffy and Andrew Innes are talking about the extended Primal Scream family.
‘What you said about your son at the rehearsal,’ says Innes, who rarely gives interviews, ‘made me bring my daughter to the sound-check. She was beating the drums like it was natural for her.
‘You might wonder: “How do a band of 40-year-old Scottish fuck-ups get like that?” I think the answer is, we don’t think we’re good enough. Bob and I always want to do better. With Screamadelica, I was trying to do the tracklisting and I took it to Kevin Shields to see what he thought, because I thought nothing sounds right together and that no one would like it. In the end people liked it because nothing sounded right together.
‘So that’s Primal Scream: 24 years of trying to get better all the time. Knowing when you’ve made a good record and at other times only an OK one. This is a good one – there’s so much in it. The music is upbeat, whereas in the past we’ve fucked up many times. Some of the shit we’ve done!’
Gillespie joins us. Does he ever wonder ‘how the hell did this happen?’
‘No, not much now, but I did around Screamadelica because it happened so quickly. Not long before then we were still signing on and success was a really unexpected thing, even though we’d always wanted it.
‘I feel I’m in a great band. It took a long time to get to that point. I’m not being smug, but it feels good to be in Primal Scream.’
He is generous with admiration for his peers like Ian Brown, happy that Shane McGowan has at times clambered on stage with the Scream, that his teenage hero Mick Jones likes the band.
Is there anyone you feel is better than you? ‘We just do the best that we can. With someone higher up the bill at a festival, you think, “Let’s destroy them, by doing our best”.
‘Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were very good friends, but they had a gig where Chuck was headlining and Jerry didn’t like that – he wanted to be top. He went out and pulled out all the stops, set fire to the piano, everything. Then he walked off at the end of the set, went past his friend who was waiting to go on and said: “Beat that, nigger”.’
To be the best you have to be in some sort of shape, but Gillespie isn’t quite at the point of exercising daily yet. ‘When Youth told me why he did yoga, I thought it sounded great, but I don’t think I have the discipline to do that. I used to play football when I was younger. I play table tennis – that gets the endorphins going. I go swimming two or three times a week.
‘But listen,’ he continues, ‘don’t put that in. I hate it when you read a “rock star cleans up”-type story.’ And then with a self-mocking tone and a glint in his eye, Bobby Gillespie says, ‘And don’t mention we were discussing yoga. You see, I walk a tightrope everyday.’ He laughs and leaves.