Vortex, Drug & Rock n Roll
Primal Scream are back! They've been thriugh their boogie -woogie phase and their long-haired drug hell phase. Now, as new album 'Vanishing Point' proves, they're at their full-on, blistering, psychedelic best. TED KESSLER mets a rejuvenated BOBBY GILLESPIE and some bloke named MANI, whose previous band weren't bad either, apparently. Scream warriors: KEVEIN WESTENBERG.
March 1997. You have in your hand a very special invitation. It's an invitation that only a privileged few will be granted, one that's gold-tinted, minted, limited and numbered.
It's a call from the Godfather, the Home Office, the cops and your dealer all rolled into one, and nobody invited would ever dream of not going otherwise you wouldn't be invited. You can't gate-crash it because everyone there already knows everyone else which is a shame, because you only have this invite through a temble postal mix-up. But f*ckit, let's give it a go anyway...
Catch a cab to central London, and slip into a doorway on the corner of Charlotte Street. Mooch past the heavies on the reception and slide into Studio One. We're in! Pick up a drink off the counter and sink, smiling, into the sofa. So far, so good. Nobody's seen us, not even the host. But then Paul Weller appears a bit tied up right now.
He's busy hugging the guest of honour, one slightly pissed Bobby Gillespie. It's a tight package of two lean, beery living legends that then breaks and laughs loudly at some unheard gag. Weller's cackle all course and crude, Gillespie's wide and knowing. They shake, and Bobby heads for the bar.
You won't recognise the others here. They're mainly Weller's mates, a couple of journalists and Weller's PR. What was all the fuss about? It's not as if anything particularly heavy is going on, it's all nibbles and slurps and chit-chat... and then someone calls for hush. We're ready now. Ready to hear Weller's new album, 'Heavy Soul'. Ah, well, OK...
It's a meaner, harder new collection of Weller songs that is played to the appreciative gathering (What are you going to do? Say you preferred 'Moon On Your Pyjamas' and leave?), Weller's mates' whoops punctuating the awkward silences between songs. When it's over, and once Weller has been heartily congratulated. Gillespie stumbles over to the video screen and feeds a video into it.
"This is the video for Primal Scream's new single," he says, "'Kowalski'."
The music that spews out of the speakers body-slams Weller's R&B out of the frame. It's a futuristic explosion of tweeter-tweaking bass, scattershot electro drum patterns, spooky synth shots and Gillespie's menacing whisper of, "Kowaiski in Vanishing Point. . . like a butterfly on a wheel, like a butterfly on a wheel. . . " It's sleek and purposeful, a 21 st century-sounding Primal Scream riding bass as low as it can go and heading at breakneck speed back on to the same road they were shooting down after 'Screamadelica'. It's Primal Scream the psychedelicelectricdub'n'groove crew that we once knew and loved, and its thwack to the solar plexus reminds immediately how much we missed them when they took that strange retro pit stop with 'Give Out But Don't Give Up'.
As for the actual images - scripted by Irvine Welsh and starnng Kate Moss - flickering across the screen, well, here's Bobby: "Kate and her mate, Devon, are two heavies who've been sent to kill the band. So they hotwire and steal this Dodge Challenger and head for Fatty's Bar And Grill where we're all playing dominoes. But first they have to kill Fatty, our bodyguard and a crazy.
"Kate kicks the door into Fatty's bedroom, he jumps up but the girls get him, cuff him and stuff his face into this bowl of Honey Nut Loops and dead flies. Kate stomps his face with a pair of stilettos. . . they've dealt with Fatty, tortured him, now they can get us. They come into the bar, Kate gives us the eye and we think, 'Hmmm'. So I walk up to talk to her and she gives me a karate chop, I go flying 10ft into the air. She then bottles Duffy, and he goes flying. Mani gets crunched, Throb gets crunched, Innes gets crunched, Mulraney gets crunched. We're all totalled, the girls smash up the bar, throw our bodies into the Challenger and drive through London.
"Then Kate does this big f*ckng spin. Me, Mani and Innes' bodies go flying into the street and then - whoosh! - we f*cking dematerialise! End of video. Like a cross between The Sweeney and Faster Pussycat. . . Kill! Kill!"
The screen goes blank. No-one says a word for a few moments, then someone coughs and mumbles, "f*cking hell." "Isn't that great," laughs Bobby, retrieving video. "We all get crunched!" He takes the video from the mouth of the machine and the screen goes fuzzy for an instant before the opening titles of The Bill pop up.
"Yeah," snorts Weller, "and that's our f*cking video!"
Everyone laughs, including Bobby, only he's laughing at something else.
"It's so funny," he giggles, "Kate kills us all. Isn't that great? We all die..."
2PM, APRIL 17, The White Horse Pub, Parsons Green, London, 5W6. There is, of course, only one member of Primal Scream in the right place at the right time today. He's keyboardist Martin Duffy and he's not dead. . . not yet, anyway.
"Ah, I had way too many drinks last night at that Tncky show," he stutters, wiping the sweat from his top lip and pushing his shades back up his nose. He scans the fruit juices and mineral water.
"I'll have a pint of that," he grimaces, motioning towards the industrial- strength imported Czech lager. He shrugs apologetically. "Well, it's gonna be a long day, isn't it?"
Indeed, today will be lengthy and weighty. For today we will spend many good daylight hours toasting an almighty achievement by Dufly and his colleagues: we will drink loud and hearty cheers to the rebirth of Primal Scream as experimental musical crusaders.
We will drink to the band's rediscovered innovation, to their titanic new Scream team confidence, and to a new back-to-basics approach to recording that has resulted in what they regard as their best record yet. But we will also peek darkly behind the curtain and find out how during the darkest hours of their last mammoth tour of duty Gillespie seriously contemplated splitting the group to save his soul and preserve the band's memory. We will learn about self-loathing, self-doubt, self- knowledge and psychic abuse. He'll tell us how disappointed he was with the last album, and how they found creative redemption in their grotty Chalk Farm studio sometime last May.
We will learn, too, of Gillespie's wider disillusionment with Britain, how much he now wants to live, and of his strong socialist beliefs. Above all, we will learn how Primal Scream rediscovered their taste for "high-energy, psychedelic, experimental, punk rock'n'roII music", how they channelled this and a river of dub into their mighty forthcoming album, 'Vanishing Point'. We will also learn something of a man named Kowalski.
And we will meet two new faces: drummer Paul Mulraney and bassist Mani.
Mulraney, a crumpled Cockney gent frequently dubbed 'Malarkey', has worked with the group on and off for years. Formerly with Creation labelmates The Jazz Butcher, he is now a full-time member. Mani, meanwhile, may be familiar to older readers of this organ as the former bassist in The Stone Roses.
He'll tell us about what happened during the final Roses years, what he thinks of John Squire's Seahorses, how he finally feels at home with Primal Scream, why Ian Brown will be back stronger than before, and why he thinks the new Primal Scream album "pisses over everything the Roses ever did". He will also repeat, at regular intervals, that Manchester United are the greatest football team the world has ever seen.
But before Bobby Gillespie settles down with his comrades and nods over his cappuccino with a satisfied Snoopy grin as they mess about with alcohol and cause minor mayhem in this defiantly yuppie pub, let's take him over into a darkened corner and nail down the truth about Primal Scream in 1997.
Gillespie had no idea what Primal Scream were going to do once they'd finished '94/'95's massive, soul- destroying world tour, an intense schedule that was their attempt to limit the critical and commercial damage of 'Give Out...'. All he knew was that he hated what had become of his once visionary group, hated how they'd let what made them vital slip from their grasp. They weren't kicking down doors any more, they'd just become another bloated rock group.
"I saw some pictures of me towards the end last time... tsk! I just didn't give a f*ck! I let myself go. Clothes, hair, personal hygiene. I just didn't give a f*ck!"
Right now, he's smartened up. He's wearing tight blue denim, a cool white Stussy jacket and a handsome grown-out mod cut. In fact, he looks the same way he did just before 'Screamadelica' came out: alive, dynamic, modernist - and about five years younger. Can it really all be connected? Does making an over- produced boogie record turn you into an old rocker? Was he really that depressed about it?
"I didn't get depressed about it until six months after it came out You know, it was sounding great live... but six months later I realised it wasn't what it should've been. I was thinking seriously of splitting the band up. Because if we couldn't be as good as I knew we could be, if we were only going to be alright instead of... Primal Scream, I couldn't see any point in carrying on. One day you wake up and look in the mirror and your hair's down to your arse and you look like a goddamn hippy! That's when you think, 'Oh f*ck! Let's review the situation!"'
What did you think was wrong with the record?
"Our next single is called 'Star', and on the B-side there's this track called 'Jesus'. When you hear that you'll know what was wrong with the last album. 'Jesus' is dark, fractured and ragged, but still kind of redemptive and that's what the last album should've been like. But it wasn't, ha!
"It was over-produced, too clean. It should've sounded late-night, mournful, but still uplifting. Dirtier and darker. '(I'm Gonna) Cry Myself Blind', 'Rocks': they're good, but some of the other stuff... when we wrote the album we were kind of f*ckd, but the album never reflected that, unfortunately. We were bruised and broken, but that album never captured it." But instead of splitting the band up they deconstructed what they had and rebuilt it from scratch. They moved a load of equipment, including two portable eight-track recording studios, into their Chalk Farm rehearsal rooms and wrote and recorded 'Vanishing Point' there. Guitarist Andrew Innes engineered and programmed the whole thing, and Weller's producer Brendan Lynch moved in for post-production and mixing.
It was written and recorded in two months mixed in another. Last time everyone knew exactly what they were doing this time there were no rules and it was exciting and electric. We captured the moment, it was all one take and then get to f*ck! It's live playing with Innes putting weird hallucinogenic stuff over it. We made the album straight, but I'd really like to hear it on acid. I bet it would sound incredible.
"It comes from recognising that we had to make a spacious record. I'd been listening to a lot of dub, and Innes and Duffy have been listening to hip-hop, and with that and dub you get a feeling of bass, of being more free.
"We stand for experimentation again. High-energy rock'n'rolI. Psychedelic experimentation and punk music. We wanted to excite ourselves as well as everyone else and we have. The last record sounded dead compared to 'Screamadelica' or 'Vanishing Point'. It shouldnae sounded dead. It should've sounded nearly dead." This is not Gillespie hyper-bole. 'Vanishing Point' is an astonishing album for Primal Scream to return with after the straight-edged, rockin' boogie of 'Give Out. . . '. Listening to it for the first time, you immediately understand why Bobby was so depressed by his group's previous effort.
The stakes are set high with the trippy, layered shades of the opening 'Burning Wheel' (the Stones' '2,000 Light Years From Home' transported into the next millennium), but each new move raises them higher.
There's 'Stuka"s rolling dubscape (Gillespie howling: "Ifyou play with fire, you're gonna get burnt/Some ofmy friends are gonna die young. " as bass explodes all around him). There's the three beautiful instrumentals the spectral 'Get Duffy'. the bar-room muzak on Mars of 'Trainspotting' and the cop-shoot-cop theme tune 'If They Move Kill 'Em'. There's the point-of-no-return space blues of 'Out Of The Void' and 'Long Life', or the sweet, floating protest of 'Star' (melodica by Augustus Pablo, horns by the Memphis Horns). This is the album against which most will be measured this year, in the same way that many fell against 'Screamadelica"s sword.
"I think this album is better than 'Screamadelica', much better," declares Gillespie seriously. "I love 'Screamadelica', but I think 'Vanishing Point' is a pure Primal Scream album. I think we've really truly found out voice."
He claps his hands and falls laughing against the headboard. "Yeah! Great innit?!"
THE ALBUMS title comes from the early-'70's renegade road movie of the same name, and 'Kowalski' is the name of film's anti-hero. This explains, perhaps, why there's a real sense of movement about both records, why the album feels like the perfect soundtrack for a long road-trek this summer.
"Vanishing Point is kind of a speed- freak road movie, we just love the film and the main character Kowalski. The music in the film is hippy music, so we thought, 'Why not record some music that really reflects the mood of the film?' It's always been a favourite of the band, we love the air of paranoia and speed- freak righteousness. It's impossible to get hold of now, which is great! It's a pure underground film, rammed with claustrophobia.
"Kowalski is this ex-racing driver and he's got to take this hot rod from Denver to San Francisco in under two days to get away from the cops. So he takes loads of speed and drives right into the heart of the desert pursued by cops and gangsters and lowlife. It's a great punk movie with a vicious edge, a real trip into himself. Like Apocalypse Now or Heart Of Darkness. There's this guy called DJ Super Soul who broadcasts messages of support to Kowalski throughout and we sample him for the single.
"I think our music suits it perfectly because it's so f*cking heavy. It's the heaviest record we've done. And I love music for driving, love listening to music when planes are taking off. I'll tell you what our album is: it's an anarcho-syndicalist speedfreak road movie record!"
But that's only half the story. The other strong lyrical theme that burns through the core of the album is that Bobby's had a brush with something heavy and horrible, specifically drugs. And more specifically, heroin.
On 'Out Of The Void' he's singing about being "chemically imbalanced" and that, "I'm paranoid, I can't see or frel or speak", on 'Stuka' he's warning that some of his friends are going to die young, and most pointedly on 'Medication' he's singing that he doesn't want "to see you turn blue", begging for "medication to cure this hole". How bad a time has he had with drugs? He stops and thinks hard. He chews his lip. He glances to one side. He shrugs. He apologises. He thinks about it for a couple of minutes, and then he thinks some more.
"Oh, right, aye, that. Mmmm. . . it's all there in the lyrics. I don't want to say anything too dumb. . . it's a dark record but I've found redemption. There's things that've happened to us. . . 'Give me medication to cure this hole'. That's pretty explicit. You don't need me to fill in the gaps, and I don't want to. We had a pretty strange time over the last four years. What happened?
"A lot of things, lots. . . lots of self- knowledge and self- hate, right?"
Has it helped you decide what you want from life? "I just want to be happier in myself. More at ease with everyone else. I've been at war with myself, hating myself and I'd really like to accept myself. Basically become more like me, become more balanced. That sense of wonder you get when you're a kid, I think if you can keep that it's a great thing. Lose that and it's really gonna hurt you.
"Music does that That Charlatans record, 'North Country Boy', that does it for me. It's beautiful. Sometimes nothing's really working and you think you'll never get that feeling back. But then you hear a record like that and it's so uplifting."
Are you aware of your mortality? "Oh aye, very much so." More now?
"Some days yes, some no. . . There are horror stories I could tell you, but I don't want to get into horror stories. And forget the Depeche Mode tour stories, that's bullshit. That was death by boredom." He yawns.
"I think with the lyrics I'm trying to tell you what I've seen, what I feel and how it is. That's as specific as I'm going to get. But I'll tell you.. . that things are a lot more psychological now than they were four years ago. Then it was physical abuse. Now, maybe, it's psychic abuse... I don't know. . . I really don't want to go into it Enough." He leans over and presses the pause button. Time for a breather.
THE ONE song on the album that bucks this introspective lyrical trend is 'Star'. It's a spacey, reggae ballad that salutes a list of freedom fighters from Malcolm X to Sister Rosa and urges people to stand up for what they believe.
"Aye, it's a socialist one. It's dedicated to everyone who stands up for their rights. Those Liverpool dockers, they're standing up for their rights but they ain't getting any help from the so~lled Labour Party. They won't be affiliated with anything working-class or trade union. Five hundred guys lost their jobs for refusing overtime and forming a picket line and they get no political support. It's disgusting.
"So 'Star' is for anybody like them that makes a stand. It's for my Dad, who was a trade unionist. Anybody who says, 'Nah, I ain't going to take this shit', the Palestinians or whoever, well, we admire them." Are you going to vote?
"I can't. I move about too much and I haven't paid poll tax. But if I could I'd vote Scargill. At least he's a socialist. Right now the most left-wing of the main parties is Liberal. I hope that if Labour got in they'd introduce some social and welfare changes but will they? Jack Straw talks about wiping the beggars from the street! At least Kinnock was a socialist and a fighter. These c--s... Blair's making deals with Murdoch, The Sun support him. His hands are tied.
"Britain's f*ckd. The gulf between rich and poor is disgusting. I'm doing pretty well with my group, but for most young people the only way out is through drugs. It's supply and demand. If you sit around with nothing to do you're either going to take a trip or sell one. Most people I know who sell drugs just about get by, they ain't evil drug barons. But there's nobody fighting for people, and certainly not in the music business. It's 1974, innit? Too much money, not enough talent, not enough imagination. Just a bunch of idiotic people getting paid and not putting anything back."
Suddenly Mani's head appears over the top of the bench and he shouts, "My turn next", but Bobby's on a roll...
"It wasn't just my hair that was too long before, my attitude was slipping. You can have long hair and still be a punk, look at Neil Young. Look at Cobain, he had long hair, but what a punk! I love Cobain, especially 'In Utero'. How much more intense and personal can you get than that? He's burning there, man, burning.
"Liam burns like that. It's different, but his spirit burns. There aren't many of them. Weller's got it too. He's the only person from his generation to still express himself honestly, to still look into himself. He really means it."
He's not always sure what he means, though.
"Nobody is! If Bob Dylan had the answers he wouldn't still be touring the world! I reckon part of the process of songwriting is trying to sort the shit out in your head. It's like catharsis."
That's what we were saying about your lyrics on the new album.
"I know, I know." Suddenly he grabs NME by the arm. "But it's all there, man. I can't get more honest than what I've written. Listen to 'Stuka', listen to 'Medication'. You don't need me to elaborate, to tell you the gory details. It's edgy, but I've found redemption."
As SOON as Bobby excuses himself (He nips over to the phone box to call Tim Burgess and tell him that 'North Country Boy' is his single of the year! No, really, Mani slides into his seat.
While Bobby may be reluctant to pick at old scabs, Mani's wounds are still fresh enough for him to want to display them. He's open, forthright and, after three hours of drinking with Throbert and Duffy, probably a little sauced. He too has discovered redemption through Primal Scream.
"I should have left the Roses when Squire went," he explains gruffly. "But I stuck with Ian out of loyalty and had to go through that blushing at Reading shit. But I'm in a better band now than I was before. This Scream album pisses over everything by the Roses. I've never been into indie bedwetter music."
Have you heard The Seahorses? "No, I've heard other people's mixed reaction to it. Tbat it's a poor man's Roses, a second-rate Oasis. I wish Squire all the best, but he should've helped Ian more, instead of thinking of number one. We were a group.
What's Ian going to do now? "Oooooh! He will have the last laugh. I've heard his new tunes and they're mega. And Reni's working with him too... maybe! The Roses and the Mondays saved a lot of magazines, and then they had the audacity to stab the c- in the back that brutally. It really their own faces and I will laugh.
"But I'm so glad to be in a working group again. During the recording of 'Second Coming' I ended up so bored I worked on a burger van for a tenner a day. While everyone else was still in bed, I'd be cooking burgers and serving breakfast to truckers, just to get in touch with reality. I'd done my job after a few months and I was cooped up for years. It was like open nick!
"I'll tell you the truth: there was a point at the end of the Roses when I wasn't interested in music any more. I only stayed out of love for Ian Brown, he needed someone when everyone was sniping. He's my best mate and it was very cruel."
Why didn't you all quit when Squire left?
'We wanted to show John. Everyone thought he worked us with his foot, people were saying he was the new Eric Clapton, but he didn't put me, Ian or Reni where we were, we put him there. He'd have been f*ckk ed all without us. He'll get his lesson this year. I am going to f*ckng steamroller him. That's my mission."
Are you in contact? "Not spoken to him since the day he left the band." Do you miss him?
"A lot I wish he'd phone. He knows where I live, I don't know where he is. It's up to him. He left us in the shit."
You must understand why people were so hard on you after Reading, though, you were messing with the spirit of a band that changed music for a generation.
"Yeah, but it's music! It took on too much weight for us, we had to carry everyone's expectations. We didn't want to let anybody down, otherwise we'd have brought out 'Second Coming' a year earlier and it'd have been shite. As it is, it's a pretty good LP... of Led Zeppelin covers! I really had to force myself to like Led Zep, but I couldn't that much!
"But," he exclaims, banging the table and extending his hand, "that's history! I've come home to my real family, the Roses were my foster family. I've always felt kinship with Bobby, he's an inspirational leader and good socialist - '96 was a shit year for me, bands breaking up, relationships breaking up... but '97 really feels right How couldn't it? I'm in the best band in the world."
Later at the photo-shoot across the road, Mani gets the chance to hear The Seahorses' single. In fact, he demands to hear it, grabbing the tape off NME and stuffing it in the tape machine. As the chorus kicks in he spins round and starts singing:
"You've found what the world is waiting for...
He stops himself. "Nah, good pop song, good pop song. " He winks. "If you like that sort of thing!"
"You can see what Mani brings," laughs Bobby. "He brings his huge spirit and a monolithic bass sound to Primal Scream. It's the sound of a water buffalo driven by a heart as big as the ocean. He's got devil's horns and angel's wings, perfect for our band. Listen to his bass on 'Kowalski', it's explosive. But..." He twists around and points at each of his colleagues.
"Throb, Mani, Duffy, Gillespie, Innes, Mulraney: that's one motherf*ckr There's one member missing, though. Where's Andrew Innes?
"He's retired from publicity. He's purely into music now. He just works in the studio all day, stays in the laboratory because he's a mad scientist... of sound!"
Mani wanders over: "Right, that's us then! Pub?"
But the pub vibes have deteriorated badly, the SW6 yuppie massive has swollen so the dishevelled Scream team are forced into the beer garden. Bobby puts his hood up. He does his zip up to the top. He closes his eyes. No good. He can still hear those f*cking yuppies.
He spots a cab zooming around the Green and quickly gathers Mani - who's now missed his train back to Manchester - and Mulraney. They're getting out of here before things turn ugly, heading towards north London to seek redemption, in whatever form that takes.
Throbert, meanwhile, turns to Dufy and raises an eyebrow.
"Perhaps, my friend, one last drink?"
Duffy concurs wearily. Right now, redemption will have to come served with a slimline tonic and a slice of lemon.
Originally appeared in NME, 3 May 1997.
Copyright © IPC Magazine Ltd.