How do you rate The Thing of bands? A chameleonic, shape-shifting force in rock and dance music that have never released two albums the same? It’s like ranking nine entirely different bands. From entirely different planets. In entirely different dimensions. And all on different drugs.
Drugs! Ah, now there’s the key to any Primal Scream album retrospective. The Primals more than any other band have reflected the changing narcotic fashions of the last 25 years, taking drugs to make music to make much better drugs music to. So, from a position far soberer than I have ever listened to a Primal Scream album before, let’s revisit them, from those that were higher than the sun to the ones that felt like suicide bombs and made us cry our swastika eyes blind. Take to the bunkers, all hippies…
9‘Primal Scream’ (1989)
The whiskey one. The band had bought motorbikes, kicked out their fair share of jams and embraced virtuoso J&MC rowkunraaawl wholeheartedly by this second album, masterfully mis-timed to miss out on the flower power revivalism of The Stone Roses and The Charlatans. Bobby, however – ironically an actual ex-member of J&MC – still sounded like the wispy earth child of their debut. It was like Stuart Murdoch fronting The Stooges so inevitably it only gelled on the torch songs, ‘You’re Just Dead Skin To Me’, ‘You’re Just Too Dark To Care’ and the now legendary ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’, which eventually got ravaged and deflowered to form ‘Loaded’.
There’s enough slabs of raw power rock elsewhere to make it a moderate success, mind, and who could ever truly hate a record featuring a song called ‘Gimme Gimme Teenage Head’? Ann Widdecombe, that’s who.
The whatever-Keef’s-having one. It was tighter and brighter than its trad rock fore-runner ‘Give Out…’ – largely because it wasn’t bogged down with any indulgent eight-minute psych-blues struts – but it lacked the surprise factor, sounding more like a band stuck for what to do next than one defiantly carving their own course. ‘Country Girl’ and ‘Dolls’ rocked Stonesy bells and ‘Little Death’ and ‘When The Bomb Drops’ bristled with doomy Doorsian dread vibes and eastern disquiet, but too much of the record was straight-up fuzzy retro boogie tunes, albeit delivered with the exuberance of Jerry Lee Lewis going up in a great ball of fire. Or, in the case of ‘We’re Gonna Boogie’, T Rex rolling downhill in a barrel of elastic harmonicas that’ve come to life and started nibbling off his glittery kaftan.
7‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ (1994)
The heroin one. Now hell knows this record was about as innovative as shitting in a ditch (there was a funky jam on it called ‘Funky Jam’ for Christ’s sake) but as possibly the only man on earth whose favourite song on ‘Screamadelica’ is ‘Damaged’, ‘Give Out…’ gripped me with its big blubbing slide guitar ballads, its bluesy rock-outs and its sense that this was Primal Scream indulging their roots. Stones blues riffs, Allman Brothers harmonies, gospel choirs, C&W organs, bar-room pianos… I know, I know, I’m seriously considering vomiting my pancreas out of my eyeballs too. But it was okay because it was, well, The Scream doing it, and doing it with their customary hip-spank. And let’s face it, if The Scream ate babies it’d be a little bit cool.
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The Bacardi Breezer one. If only because it contained Primal Scream’s first dedicated forays into disco on ‘Uptown’ – which shimmied neatly around Chaka Khan’s glitterball handbag – and ‘The Glory Of Love’, which came on like a cross between Cut Copy, David Bowie and Showaddywaddy.
Overall though, the record sounded like The Scream consolidating all their existing styles into one easily manageable but equally thrilling style that took in the blues rock fuzz, the electro-future squalls, the pop vivacity, the elated gospel blasts, the techtronic glower drones like an invasion of alien android smackbots and the occasional comedy Gillespie lyric. Altogether now – “Hey hey zombie man, gonna put you in a can!”
The acid one. Though listening to it today reminds you of the scene in Spinal tap where they start out as a hippy folk band, ‘Sonic Flower Groove’ was another cornerstone, this time of the C86 proto-indie movement, narrowly pipping The Wedding present’s ‘George Best’ to the shelves. It invented Teenage Fanclub and The Charlatans and beckoned the indie nation’s gaze shoeward with its spacey Byrds twangle, and also provided a firm backbone to an otherwise fey and flappy-sleeved scene. That said, despite the flashes of garage rock that peer through the indie gauze, if you could’ve listened this in 1987 and put a tenner accumulator on them making records that sounded like ‘Screamdelica’, ‘Give Out…’ and ‘XTRMNTR’, you’d be a millionaire today.
The crystal meth one. A brilliant record for its statement of intent alone – it stamped in stone Primal Scream’s mandate to never repeat themselves and consistently indulge their experimental spirit.
In this case via cranky industro-kraut psychedelia… with strong hints of The Stones, obviously. Though its skittering sado-dubscapes and gutter rock now sounds a little passionless and unambitious in the wake of ‘XTRMNTR’’s brain-mulching sound and fury, Mani’s arrival added funk and beef and in ‘Kowalski’ and ‘Star’ they found a fabulous new dronetronic methodology of throb and chant that would reinvigorate the band as creative and cultural firebrands. It could’ve done with an extra banger or two amongst the excitable sonic swamp, but there’s some nifty death ray action if you’re kinky for that sort of thing.
3‘Evil Heat’ (2002)
The mephedrone one. As if the last few remaining human muscles in ‘XTRMNTR’ had finally been replaced with nanotech cyberlimbs, ‘Evil Heat’ was an all-out electro stampede that glossed, gleamed and plasticated the previous album’s fractured-glass spikes to a modernist, mechanical sheen as smooth as Daft Punk’s helmets. Bereft of any of their regulation seven-minute sound sprawls, this was their most focussed and melodically consistent record, with Gillespie still raging at the centre of ‘Rise’ and ‘The Lord Is My Shotgun’ like a man trying to bazooka his way out of The Cube. Then it turned into a rock’n’roll riot in an anthrax factory for a bit and did a Pet Shop Boys version of ‘Some Velvet Morning’ with Kate Moss on. Brilliant.
The intravenous amphetamine one. A psych(o)-garage massacre of evil wormhole warps, desperate MC5 punk thrashes, skin-made-of-ants techno, political sloganeering, loads of angry swearing and guitars that sounded like World War I having a fight with the apocalypse. With the long-absent Kevin Shields adding his sonic sodomies to a krautronic Scream era begun with ‘Vanishing Point’ in 1997, ‘XTRMNTR’ wasn’t just a bold blow for the revolutionary Greasers Against Vowels movement but a fuck for the head and a shot of adrenalin for the soul from a hypo clogged with grease, rust and burnt rubber. Like the deranged rebel brother of ‘OK Computer’, this was the filthy wreck of an addict that the blissed-out love baby of ‘Screamadelica’ would grow up to become. Unspeakable, immense, and still the only word you’d get from the unluckiest ever Countdown selection.
The Ecstasy one. The cornerstone of acid house and the ultimate indie/dance crossover record, ‘Screamadelica’ sounds fresh and inventive long after the rave buzz had turned itchy. The recent live revisit served only to scratch the beer gut of the aceeeed generation and was a rare retrospective step for a band so fixated on the future, but the record remains undamaged, by turns sizzling, sexy, sad and sublime. Funny, until I just listened to them back-to-back I always thought my favourite was ‘XTRMNTR’. The mark of the undeniably seminal, I suppose.
How would you rank Primal Scream’s albums?