The Primal Scream frontman on God, good intentions and going back to Memphis
Charlotte Hayne
10:47 26th October 2018

How do you follow a masterpiece like Screamadelica? That was the seemingly intractable problem confronting Glaswegian legends Primal Scream following their defining 1991 breakout album.

One of several bright ideas floated at the time was to head over to Memphis and set to work with producer Tom Dowd (Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart) and the legitimately iconic ‘Muscle Shoals’ rhythm section of bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins. So that’s what they did.

Despite a fruitful string of sessions with Dowd and the gang, upon the band’s return to the UK their label and especially Creation’s Alan McGee were skeptical. So producer George Drakoulias was recruited to overhaul the tracks, painstakingly weeding out the Tennessee magic, re-recording all the parts and arriving at would become the rather less spiritual ‘ Give Out But Don’t Give Up’.

Now, however, thanks to guitarist Andrew Innes’ unearthing of those half-forgotten original recordings from his basement, Primal Scream are happy to present the original Memphis version of the 1994 fan favourite.

“I felt we went down there with such good intent, but somehow we lost our way afterwards,” Bobby Gillespie admits of the process. “There’s definitely a lesson to be learned about how creativity can go down the wrong track.

“For years, I felt bad about us going to Memphis and not doing what we set out to do. Hearing these songs after all this time has made everything all right again. I feel redeemed.”

Redemption is a fitting way to frame this record. Hours before I speak with Gillespie over the phone, the album's closing track in particular brings me to the edge of tears. Lump in throat, sat in my kitchen, wishing away the feelings. If ever a track should come with a trigger warning it’s ‘Cry Myself Blind’ – exposure therapy you didn’t even realise you needed.

Smooth blues production and lyrics that catch you off guard with plaintive honesty. ‘Have you ever felt so lonely you could die?’ A song about loss and being left, delivered with the fervour of the truly bereft, it repeatedly entreats: ‘Why did you go? / Why did you go?’

There is no symbolism there. It’s raw and to the point. Looking you in the eye, pain cranked up high.

I tell Bobby it’s possibly the saddest song ever written. He laughs (something he does often) and seems flattered.

“Thank you! Yes – I was very influenced by the writers. the country, blues, soul guys; they use simplicity in a powerful way,” he tells me.

“I love the directness of those genres – very working class, no meat on the bone. Straight talking. No symbolism or hiding behind imagery. It's just, bam! Tell it like it is. And I really love that stuff.”

Straight talking is never wholly straightforward, of course – the theme of romantic cheating, for instance, is explored on the track ‘Jetplane’. “Desire as a sin is a jail / I’ll make a vow and break a vow / Nothing beats a try but a fail.”

A rallying cry to any polyamorists out there, I wonder? He takes my tongue-in-cheek query seriously, turning the line over in his head with the forensic fervour of a literary critic.

“I think I would… struggle with that. There’s a tension there. I guess we all desire connection and stability. It's hard to live precariously and free. You go into relationships with the best of intentions but love is fleeting. Life, the heart and people are ever changing. Life’s not linear.”

“It’s’s an acknowledgement of possibility. Of the ever changing emotions of the heart. Of the impermanence of love. The permanence of impermanence. Of fidelity.

“You could read a lot of things into it. Dealing with the complexity of free will and desire and the way we were brought up in a Christian society.”

Ah, Christianity. Memphis is, of course, a squarely bible-belt town, but in keeping with Drakoulias’ reworking the original track ‘Jesus’, which tackles faith head-on, was remodelled into ‘I’ll Be There For You’ on the 1994 release. What’s Bobby Gillespie’s relationship with the cross nowadays then, I wonder?

“I think somewhere along the way I convinced myself that I couldn’t sing the lines ‘Jesus come by here’, because I wasn’t a practicing Christian. Which is crazy as I was really feeling those lyrics. When we rewrote it, it became a different song.

“I used to go to Church a bit when I was younger, had to study the New Testament and go to Church – so I could get into the football team. I guess some of it stuck. There’s some Christian morality there inside of me.

“Most of the music I love – country, blues, gospel – came from the Church. Whether it was Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Wright; even if they made it more secular by replacing ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ with ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘you’ in the lyrics, there was still this tension there. Fear and guilt – it still came out. Music is existential stuff. v “And it goes back to that thing of ‘desire as a sin is a jail’ - the kind of constrictions, affairs of the heart, those desires of the flesh, the tension comes out – you have to have some kind of boundaries, otherwise it's hard to live a transgressive life.”

I’m intrigued to hear Gillespie, a now-sober rock icon but ex-heroin hedonist, refer to boundaries. We talk about the recent death of 21-year old rapper Lil Peep, which played out almost minute by minute on Instagram. His frequent posts about depression and fetishisation of Xanax painkillers preceded his overdose.

“My kids are into a lot of the rap music. The drug of choice seems to be Xanax. Downers.

“But with drugs and music it was always there. The jazz guys were taking heroin; Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane were junkies. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash were speed freaks. In the sixties you had Jay Garcia, Syd Barrett, all on LSD. The seventies was The Eagles, The Stones, Fleetwood Mac on cocaine. Punk rock was amphetamine sulphate, the Sex Pistols. The Clash were on speed.

“There always seems to be a drug that goes with the youth music scene. Young people want to experiment, you know. Because real life isn’t enough for them, it's too dull, too boring – they want to escape. Part of it is, you don’t want to grow up. You hate the adult world. So I totally understand.”

The conversation brings us full circle to the album’s first track, energetic feel-good number ‘Jailbird’ – a love ode to smack.

“It’s a macho thing, we had it in the band. Hard rocking, hard-living, high energy rock and roll. It was kind of like ‘we’re harder than anybody else!’ I hold my hand up, we did that for many years; killing ourselves to look cool.”

If you believe in the permanence of impermanence, perhaps this makes a little more sense. I tell him of a trainee vicar who once told me she understood faith in God as a process of constant doubt: we question, we doubt, we renew.

Bobby agrees and adds, “Absolute certainty is totalitarian.”

So behind the music, the history and the hype, here is a man who continues to engage and reflect on life’s big questions, whether in his songwriting, his own musical taste or even on the phone with a lowly music journo.

Our time at an end, I realise this point about doubt and renewal on which we conclude parallels many kinds of journeys, and certainly that of Primal Scream: they test, they renew, they persist.
Next month a BBC 4 documentary will tell the whole ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ story.

Photo: Press