Little Steven Van Zandt may look like a buffoon, but he knows what he’s talking about. Witness what he had to say last year about Primal Scream, one of music’s great lost causes of the past few decades:
Primal Scream could be the biggest band in the world. They are fantastic when they make rock records—once every 10 years. But they can’t tour because of drug problems, or whatever. I don’t have patience for it. I’m like, all right, you want to be a drug addict, go be a drug addict. Don’t waste my time. (“Steven Van Zandt v Bobby Gillespie”, Guardian.co.uk, 25 March 2009)
Okay, so I really only agree with the first bit. The rest, like Little Steven’s standard gypsy wardrobe, is a bit shaky. Their rock records—assuming we’re talking about Give Out But Don’t Give Up (1994) and Riot City Blues (2006)—are certainly not without their charms, though the quasi-Stones riffage and faux boogie is only ever convincing enough to make maybe half of each collection worth an addition to one’s iPod.
But even when they shift aesthetic gears from release to release, their success ratio isn’t terribly encouraging. Whether on the dub-noise excursions of Vanishing Point (1997) or the technopocalypse of Evil Heat (2002), there’s enough brilliance to make one crumple to the floor in wanton lust, and there’s just as much absolute balderdash to leave the same listener questioning if all they ever loved in the world was nothing more than a glorious but fleeting mirage.
What makes Primal Scream so infuriating is the simple fact that in their back catalogue are two of the greatest albums of the latter 20th century: The ecstasy-fueled highs and lows of Screamadelica (1991) and the crushing electro-fury of XTRMNTR (2000). On these two efforts, Primal Scream is firing on all cylinders, something they’ve certainly managed elsewhere during their career, but primarily on individual tracks (“Kowalski” and “Miss Lucifer”).
Some bands change simply for the sake of change, and perhaps this is part of the Primal Scream’s DNA. In following their whims, they often sacrifice passion for fashion, even when the latter is likely based on how frontman and head Scream Bobby Gillespie is feeling in the weeks leading up to the recording process.
Gillespie is regarded in many indie nerd circles as something of a living legend, and it’s hard to deny his pedigree backs that up. The lanky Scotsman was the Moe Tucker-inspired drummer of the Jesus and Mary Chain, back when that band was melding Beach Boys songcrafting, Phil Spector beats, and tinnitus-causing feedback on their seminal debut, Psychocandy. If you believe the legend is true, the Brothers Reid gave Gillespie an ultimatum: Stop working on the fledgling Primal Scream and focus on the Mary Chain, or hit the bricks. It can’t have seemed like a sure thing at the time, but Gillespie laid down his sticks and set a course for somewhat modest stardom.
It didn’t exactly happen overnight. Before tapping into the rave-and-Madchester culture with Screamadelica, Primal Scream released a pair of largely ignored albums—the Byrds-drenched Sonic Flower Groove (1987) and the band’s first forays into balls-out retro rock, Primal Scream (1989). It was on the latter that Gillespie developed a taste for his role as a frontman, even if legitimate aptitude didn’t follow for another year or two. Like many great pasty frontmen before him (Mick Jagger, Ian Brown), Gillespie couldn’t really sing, but looked fantastic enough to make it work. Also like his predecessors, Gillespie knew how to give the kids what they wanted.
Gillespie’s co-conspirators have largely been unsung heroes in the Primal Scream saga, though the addition of former Stone Roses bass guitarist Mani in the mid-‘90s was an inspired choice, as was the year or two spent working with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, who yielded his greatest influence on the band around the time of XTRMNTR.
Yet as a journey through the years with Primal Scream proves, the band’s hits (meaning artistic successes rather than commercial) have been far outweighed (at least in volume) by their misses. Still a dangerous live band, Gillespie and Co. are regrouping after releasing and touring what is quite possibly their worst album yet, the flaccid pop of 2008’s Beautiful Future. As on prior missteps, the record isn’t a total wash—“Necro Hex Blues” (recorded with Josh Homme) and the undeniably catchy title track are among the standouts, but it’s those moments when the band really shines that one begins to long for something a bit more consistent. If Primal Scream were to ever release a complete turd from start to finish, it would be so much easier to forgive.
Perhaps the real tragedy with Primal Scream is their collective ability to still be great. Despite the quality of the Homme-guested track, the band is rarely successful when inviting a celebrity guest on board, whether that interloper be Kate Moss or Lovefoxxx or Linda Thompson. Unlike the Beatles, who found inspiration prior to imploding with Billy Preston and Eric Clapton, Primal Scream’s collaborations feel cheap and gimmicky. Other times, Primal Scream’s presumed best efforts are outshined by throwaway compilation tracks, such as the glorious glam-rock cover of Suicide’s “Diamonds, Furcoat, Champagne” recorded in tribute around the same time as the antiseptic sheen of Beautiful Future.
Primal Scream will have to find its soul within the group itself. History hasn’t proven that to be a reliable prospect, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable. I still love Primal Scream, I just can’t depend upon them anymore.