Primal Scream’s career has been a series of adventures that have seen the band recording era-defining albums like 1991′s Screamadelica, digging deep into the past to excavate classic rock tropes, and playing music that sounds like it was beamed in from the future. No matter which path they follow, their love of music and daredevil spirit never wane. Formed by vocalist Bobby Gillespie, they started off playing a Byrds-like brand of indie pop that jangled with all the sweetness that Gillespie’s former group the Jesus and Mary Chain lacked. In a move the group repeated over and over, they changed sounds drastically, becoming hard rockers à la the Stooges. Swept up in the blossoming acid house scene, and with the help of producers like Andrew Weatherall (who worked on their landmark single “Loaded”), the Orb, and Jimmy Miller, they created a sound that mixed indie pop, country ballads, techno, dub, and psychedelia on Screamadelica. The album broke down musical boundaries, helped fuse the techno and indie scenes, and made the band worldwide stars. From there, the group shifted gears relentlessly, swerving from straight-ahead boogie rock on 1994′s Give Out But Don't Give Up to electro rock on 1997′s Vanishing Point to experimental noise on 2000′s XTRMNTR in what seemed like a breathless rush. The band continued this unpredictable pattern as they gained legendary status, alternating new albums like 2013′s More Light — which bends genres with the same flair as Screamadelica — with commemorative reissues like Demodelica, a rarities collection released as part of Screamadelica’s 30th anniversary.
The band started in 1982 when Gillespie and school chum Jim Beattie began making experimental sounds, with Gillespie on dustbin lids and Beattie on guitar. When they got serious about writing songs, they roped in bassist Robert Young, guitarist Stuart May, drummer Tom McGurk, and percussionist Martin St. John. Their main influence at the time was the jangling folk/rock of the Byrds, something that appealed to another of Gillespie’s schoolmates, Alan McGee. He had recently launched Creation Records and signed the band. Their first single, “All Fall Down”/“It Happens,” was released in 1985, just as things were really taking off for the group Gillespie played drums for the Jesus and Mary Chain. By the time their next single was released, Gillespie had made the choice to devote himself to Primal Scream full-time. “Crystal Crescent”/“Velocity Girl” was a step forward for the band, both sonically and commercially: the B-side wound up as one of the highlights on NME’s C-86 cassette compliation, which became one of the cornerstones for what later became the indie pop genre. The band capitalized on its success by moving with McGee to a major label, namely his Elevation imprint set up by WEA. The band entered Rockfield Studios with producer Stephen Street, but after a month of recording they weren’t happy with the results and abandonded the sessions. It was at this point that Andrew Innes joined the band on guitar. The reconfigured lineup went back into the studio with Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson at the controls and finally emerged in 1987 with the Sonic Flower Groove album. Reaction to the album was polarized, with many feeling it was a little too slick while others were captured by the timeless melodies. The band itself responded by splintering. Only Gillespie, Innes, and Young remained to carry on and their interests soon shifted to hard rock á la the New York Dolls and Stooges. They returned to Creation for a self-titled album in 1989 that further divided critics and fans, with most of them feeling that Primal Scream had strayed too far from their roots.
As the ’80s drew to a close, Britain’s underground music scene was dominated by the sounds of acid house and techno. Primal Scream became fascinated with the new dance music, and they asked Andrew Weatherall, a DJ, sometime-member of the rock press, and one of the rare supporters of their hard rock approach, to remix a track from Primal Scream, “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have.” Weatherall completely reworked the song, adding a heavy bass groove echoing dub reggae, deleting most of the original instrumentation (even the layers of guitars), and interjecting layers of samples, including lines of Peter Fonda’s dialogue from The Wild Angels. The new mix was titled “Loaded,” and it became a sensation, bringing rock & roll to the dancefloor and dance to rock & rollers. “Come Together,” the first single from their forthcoming third album, was in much the same vein and was similarly praised.
For their third album, Screamadelica, Primal Scream not only worked with Andrew Weatherall and Hugo Nicholson, the pair who essentially designed the sound of the album, but also the Orb and former Stones producer Jimmy Miller. The resulting album was a kaleidoscopic, neo-psychedelic fusion of dance, dub, techno, acid house, pop, and rock, and it was greeted with rapturous reviews in the U.K. Released in the spring of 1991, Screamadelica also marked an important moment in British pop in the ’90s, helping bring techno and house into the mainstream. The album was a massive success, winning the first Mercury Music Prize in 1992.
In the wake of the groundbreaking Screamadelica, many wondered what Primal Scream would do next, yet few would have predicted their retreat to ’70s hard rock for Give Out But Don't Give Up. Released in 1994, the album was eagerly awaited, but its Stones-y hard rock was not well-received, and it was a relative commercial failure. More importantly, it hurt the group’s reputation as innovators, a situation they reacted to with the title track to the hit 1996 film Trainspotting. The band’s contribution to the soundtrack was a return to the dance stylings of Screamadelica, only darker. They continued to work on their next album, titled Vanishing Point, over the course of 1996, finally releasing it to enthusiastic reviews in the summer of 1997. The ultra-aggressive XTRMNTR followed in the spring of 2000. Two years later, Primal Scream released Evil Heat, a guest-laden (even supermodel Kate Moss makes an appearance) album in line and on par with XTRMNTR, and in 2006, Riot City Blues came out. Festival shows and gigs with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields filled out the following year, capped off with the release of the single “Can’t Go Back.” That single reappeared on the 2008 Suicide- and Alan Vega-informed full-length Beautiful Future. In 2011, the band toured in support of the 20th anniversary of Screamadelica, which resulted in a live DVD. The following year, Mani left to focus on a reunion of the Stone Roses, whom Primal Scream went on to support with Deb Googe from My Bloody Valentine on bass. 2013 began with news that the band were working on their tenth album with producer David Holmes. The resulting More Light was released in the U.K. in May 2013, appearing in the U.S. a month later. Sporadic touring followed in support of More Light, and the group spent 2015 recording their next album, Chaosmosis, which appeared in March of 2016.
Primal Scream dug out their original Tom Dowd-supervised mixes of the 1994 album Give Out But Don't Give Up for an archival release in October 2018. In keeping with the nostalgic spirit, the group issued the double-disc career-spanning collection Maximum Rock 'n' Roll: The Singles in May 2019. Gillespie turned to non-Scream projects after that, in 2021 releasing Utopian Ashes, an album of duets with Savages’ vocalist Jehnny Beth, and a memoir of his early life titled Tenement Kid. That same year, the band celebrated the 30th anniversary of Screamadelica with a series of reissues including a set of rarities called Demodelica. Keyboard player Martin Duffy, a frequent collaborator with the group, died on December 18, 2022, from brain injuries after suffering a fall at his home. He was 55 years of age. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Tim Sendra