Counterbalance No. 85: Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’

Primal Scream

Klinger: All right, Mendelsohn, I know you have a tendency to be somewhat, uh, skeptical about a lot of these albums that have made it into the top 100 list of the most acclaimed albums of all time. And I respect that — you believe that music is an inherently personal experience, and if something doesn’t hit you on a gut level, you have a hard time fully appreciating it. But as I’ve been listening to this Screamadelica, I can’t help thinking that it’s got your name all over it. It’s got those dance beats you’re always going on about (and I’m assuming many of them are in whatever BPM it is you say you prefer), a few fairly credible Sticky Fingers homages (the group even somehow managed to conjure up Rolling Stones mainstay Jimmy Miller), and a whole mess of signifiers that point to stuff you’ve liked in the past (psychedelic sounds, soul music, twinkly noises).

Even putting aside Primal Scream’s cultural impact, which was obviously quite significant in the UK (I can’t open a copy of Mojo without seeing lead singer Bobby Gillespie’s mug in there somewhere), I should think that this an album that you can really sink your teeth into. So I’m just going to step aside and let you have at it. Take it away, Mendelsohn!

Mendelsohn: Well, one of us has to be skeptical. And you are right about those twinkly noises — I do love them. But despite Primal Scream’s and my own shared affinity for such noises, I was never able to really love Screamadelica. My first exposure to Primal Scream was through the Trainspotting soundtrack. Do you remember that movie? It was that goofy rom-com based on Irvine Welsh’s novel about the hilarious hijinks that can ensue when you have a serious addiction to heroin. Good times. Anyway, I loved that soundtrack. It opened a lot of doors for my impressionable teenage mind and is one of the starting points for my love of electronic music and the associated twinkly noises. I had my eyes opened to Underworld, Leftfield, Goldie, and Brian Eno, not to mention Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Joy Division. Primal Scream had been commissioned to write the title track for the soundtrack and it turned into one of my favorite songs on the record. “Trainspotting” was a ten-minute downtempo, chilled-out groove that always made me smile. So, being the inquisitive young man that I was, I sought out the rest of Primal Scream’s catalog hoping for more of the same. First stop: Screamadelica and a one-way ticket to disappointment (at the time, Vanishing Point had yet to be released and when they did release it, I had already moved on and didn’t bother listening to it).

Let’s just say it wasn’t what I was expecting. Where I had been hoping for more ambient infused grooves, what I found was much more pop oriented, leaning heavily on rock touchstones that I didn’t get and wouldn’t come to appreciate until several years later. Returning to it now, I still find it disappointing, although now I can fully appreciate the Rolling Stones references. I’m not going to put on the skeptical act; this record deserves its place, but having a go at it again I can’t help but feel like it’s just kind of gimmicky.

Klinger: Well shoot, I was hoping you could help me out with this one, because as I’ve listened to this album over the last few weeks, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s not an original thought to be found anywhere on Screamadelica. The feeling begins the moment that “Movin’ on Up” starts and I worry for a minute that I accidentally put in a Stephen Stills disc, and it continues through both “Come Together” (which, you know, in and of itself . . .) and “Loaded”, which don’t do much more than repurpose the “Sympathy for the Devil” chord changes to evoke the classic vibe that they clearly want so very much.

I mean, I recognize that there’s very little new under the sun and everything builds on what’s come before it, but Screamadelica gives me a feeling that’s less like being around great musicians than it like being around people with great taste in music. I do understand why this album is so very beloved in the UK—I think it’s similar to the unconditional love they feel for the Stone Roses, in which the music of many critics’ youth is inexorably tied to the natural (and chemical) excitement they felt at the time. Factor in the idea that rave culture was a movement all its own throughout the Sceptered Isle, and it’s easy to see where a formerly straight-ahead rock band like Primal Scream could get themselves sucked right in. At any rate, can you have a go at walking me through this album—just to see if there’s something larger I’m missing here, especially where the dancy bits are concerned?

Mendelsohn: Your assessment of this record is dead on—in all of the bits that comprise the whole, there isn’t a single, solitary original thought. Every little piece you hear has been lifted—at the very least paraphrased, at the worst plagiarized—but it’s all about the way they took those lifted bits and used them to create something new. What this record represents, and I hope this is the reason the critics love it, is the convergence of the old guard of rock and roll with the new, digital future. As silly as this may sound, the early ’90s were a watershed for music. You have so many divergent styles going on at the same time, as a music fan, the choices available at the time really were astounding. All of that pales in comparison to what is available now, but before that time you really only had two choices—Pop or Rock and their select subgenres. By the late 1980s and early ’90s hip-hop and electronic music — along with their ethos of sampling and repurposing — had started to make headway into popular music and their influence started to push its way into the more staid genres. Screamadelica is that convergence point where the Rolling Stones met up with Deee-Lite. Think of this record as the world’s first mash-up (I’m sorry for dredging that term back up).

There is nothing I like about this record on its surface. It’s schmaltzy and seems almost quaint with the clumsy way they try to incorporate their samples. I don’t even like the dancey bits (but I prefer more of a true house groove with four on the floor). What I do love about this record was its ability to get dance music’s head in the door the same way Deee-Lite did just a year before. And no, I don’t feel the least bit sorry for comparing Primal Scream to Deee-Lite. The only difference was the fact that Deee-Lite went straight for the main pop vein while Primal Scream tapped in with more rockist sensibilities.

Klinger: Well, that’s kind of helpful. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was through this crossover approach that dance music made the inroads that it did into the larger culture back in the ’90s. Makes sense, though, especially from a critical mass perspective. After all, despite their officially stated desire to push boundaries and shift paradigms and so forth, they actually cling pretty bitterly to their beloved rock traditions.

As for your assessment, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s nothing I like about the record, and what I do like about it is all on the surface. Original or not, there’s always something soothing about those gospelly piano chords that they employ throughout the album. And sure, I like how “Damaged” manages to so effectively evoke the dissolute haziness that makes the seamier side of rock sound like it might actually be a hoot. In fact, just about all the references throughout the album are pretty consistently comforting.

It’s when I start focusing my attention and dig deeper that it starts to fall apart for me. When you come across songs that easily take two or three minutes to really get going, or stick around for two or three minutes after they’ve seemingly run out of ideas, that’s when I start wondering what all the fuss is about. But then, as always, I wasn’t there. When someone closer to the action describes it, including all the political ramifications and such, I get a better sense for it.

Mendelsohn: The inability to get directly to the point or letting songs linger for too long is merely a symptom of the house culture that influenced Primal Scream as they were making Screamadelica. I don’t mind that so much. In fact, that is the type of thing I look for in electronic music — how well the artist manages flow over the course of the song; the intensity of the build-up before the drop; the ease of ins or outs when considering the song for a mix. This record has a fair bit of house music beneath all of the samples and flourish, but I think it’s the rock touchstones that really helped bridge the gap between the underground electronic music scene with the mainstream all the while still managing to pay enough homage to the old guard of rock. I think that’s the winning formula for winning over the critics.

Klinger: That and, I’m guessing, copious amounts of MDMA.