Imagine if a cult band recorded the follow-up to their breakthrough album – and then rejected it, only to rediscover a lost classic decades later. This is exactly what happened to Primal Scream, the Scottish alt-rock outfit led by swaggering former punk Bobby Gillespie, when it came to succeed their GOAT neo-psychedelia rave album, Screamadelica.
Launched in Glasgow in 1982, Primal Scream have never repeated themselves – their discography expansive. The group cut two underground albums – one of jangly indie-pop, the other hard rock – before embracing the surging acid house movement. The UK DJ Andrew Weatherall would remix Primal Scream’s ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’ into the dubby, sample-riddled ‘Loaded’ – a smash. The band subsequently invited Weatherall to co-produce 1991’s Screamadelica, which they released on old friend Alan McGee’s Creation Records. It won the inaugural Mercury Music Prize. But then, in another giant beat switch, Primal Scream decided to make a rock album inspired by The Rolling Stones, with inflections of blues, country and soul, entitled Give Out But Don’t Give Up.
In 1993, Primal Scream headed to Memphis, Tennessee, to record at Ardent Studios (where they’d previously conceived an EP) with legendary producer Tom Dowd and some hallowed session musicians: The Memphis Horns and Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. After a month, Gillespie and guitarist (and fellow mainstay) Andrew Innes spent a week in New Orleans, with the remaining members returning to the UK. Reconvening in Memphis, they listened to Dowd’s finished mix – and were underwhelmed. Back in England, Primal Scream arranged for Give Out… to be reworked – bringing in Rick Rubin associate George Drakoulias plus P-funk ‘godfather’ George Clinton. Some tracks were remixed; others re-recorded. “It became a completely different album,” says Gillespie today. Alas, while Primal Scream relished a hit with ‘Rocks’, music critics were muted on 1994’s ‘retro’ Give Out…
In the meantime, Primal Scream “forgot” those Memphis sessions. However, Innes uncovered a cassette in a box two years ago when, at the behest of his wife, he cleared out a cellar. He sent Gillespie an MP3. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing – we have to release this.'” Primal Scream approached Sony, whose staff located the masters. Now fans can finally hear Give Out But Don’t Give Up – The Original Memphis Recordings, a two-CD package comprising that earlier album and outtakes. It’s also a tribute to Primal Scream’s second guitarist, Robert “Throb” Young, who passed in 2014. In retrospect, Gillespie considers Give Out… a “comedown record”. “Screamadelica was like the transcendent beginning of the ’90s – and everything was possible,” he posits. “Then Give Out…, it’s darker; it’s getting more down, a bit more reflective, a bit more openly raw and emotional.” Yet the Memphis edition is “very pure”.
Still, Primal Scream is no heritage act. In 2016 they presented the LP Chaosmosis. Last February, Primal Scream toured Australia. Gillespie confirms that he’s currently working on a mystery project with Savages’ Jehnny Beth.
— Jehnny Beth (@jehnbeth) January 13, 2017
The Primal Scream frontman enjoys “chatting” to journos, rather than adhering to interview conventions. In fact, he responds to questions with fascinating digressions, interrupted by belly laughs.
Music Feeds: This album, Give Out But Don’t Give Up: The Original Memphis Sessions, sounds incredible. It’s got a real patina of cool in 2018. But I was so curious to know what went through your mind when you heard the uncovered tapes – because you couldn’t have heard these for decades?
Bobby Gillespie: I hadn’t heard them since Tom Dowd played us the mixes in Ardent Studios in August 1993 or July or whenever it was. He played us them once and I think we immediately began a remix and, in some cases, re-recorded… So two years ago in October is when I first heard this tape.
MF: Were you surprised by how good they sounded? Because you really weren’t happy with them at the time. I wondered if time has given you perspective?
BG: Yeah, it sounded a lot better to me and Andrew Innes. It just sounded really beautiful, really clear, well-produced; incredibly performed by all the players and musicians and singers… I was blown away when I heard it, especially the ballads like ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’ and ‘Sad And Blue’ and ‘Free’ and ‘Big Jet Plane’ – especially ‘Big Jet Plane’, because we re-recorded that song in Memphis with Tom Dowd. It was crazy (laughs). I don’t know why we didn’t like this version. Andrew thinks we may have felt it sounded too slick or too polished or it didn’t sound raw enough at the time for us – and we were younger. It sounds great now. We can’t really remember why. Maybe we were shocked at how good it was, you know? Does that make sense? I think we, in our heads, wanted it to be a little bit more rougher and raw and garagey and more fucked-up, but Tom Dowd doesn’t do fucked-up. Tom Dowd does sophisticated, adult, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, soul – beautifully arranged or beautifully played music. And that’s why we hired Tom and that’s why we wanted to work with him. So we were just younger – and I don’t know what we were thinking. I’ve got no explanation.
MF: Why did you head to Memphis in the first place, because it seemed like quite a transgressive move after Screamadelica – but I guess you are a transgressive band!
BG: Yeah, totally. Well, because the songs that we wrote after Screamadelica were mainly ballads. It became very clear to us that it wasn’t gonna work out with Andrew Weatherall, because Andrew at that point had moved into darker, more obscure, more underground hard techno with no real feeling (laughs). We were writing songs that were ballads with a lot of feeling and very honest lyrics. So that’s why we went to Memphis to work with Tom Dowd and [Muscle Shoals’] Roger Hawkins and David Hood, because we thought that those musicians would have the right sensitivity for these ballads; for these songs. Tom was the right producer because he had worked with Dusty Springfield, he worked with Aretha Franklin, he’d worked with Rod Stewart – so he knew a thing or two about arranging ballad music.
MF: It’s the sort of about-turn David Bowie did when he went off to make Young Americans…
BG: I love that (laughs).
MF: And that was misunderstood.
BG: That was totally misunderstood, yeah. Totally. People just didn’t get it.
MF: It was the same with you guys because, when Give Out… finally came out, it was ‘read’ as reactionary. But now it just seems to be the manifestation of a creatively restless band. What did you make of the response – the record being seen as a failure?
BG: Well, when Give Out… came out in 1994, it had a hit single on it called ‘Rocks’ and I think the album sold, like, 900, 000 right off. It was a big album – and we toured that album. So the weird thing is critically it was kind of slagged off, especially in the UK, but I meet loads and loads of people – it’s their favourite Primal Scream album. It’s crazy. So who really knows? All I know is that this Original Memphis Recordings is really what I had in mind. When we were going to Memphis, I knew that we had six ballads, we had three rockers… We also had two funk jams, which I always thought were gonna be B-sides. So, in my head, I knew it was gonna be the opposite of Screamadelica. Somehow we kind of lost our way with it (laughs). Do I sound a bit confused about this still? Yeah, I knew people were gonna be a bit freaked out by it, but I kinda liked that as well.
MF: If you were to make the decision now, would you have released the Memphis version of Give Out… or the second version or both – you could almost release both now?
BG: Well, it’s weird because songs like ‘Rocks’ and ‘Jailbird’ – the remixes that George Drakoulias did, they’re fantastic. Maybe if we’d released the Memphis session version of ‘Rocks’, it wouldn’t have been as big a hit, you know? Maybe the 1994 version is more of a hit. It’s more glam-rock, more in-your-face and more trashy. I think the original Memphis sessions version of ‘Rocks’ is more rootsy. What do you think?
MF: I think they’re both really interesting records and quite autonomous. In today’s era, you could release both and let people choose.
BG: Oh, yeah… like Kanye West or something.
MF: Yeah, that’s the one thing about streaming – you’ve got those different models. But the records are so autonomous that you almost can’t compare them. They’re different records.
BG: It’s a different record… This Original Memphis Sessions sounds like six guys playing in a room together, playing live, and the album sounds more cohesive – it’s all-of-a-piece. It sounds like a classic album, in that sense, where the mood is kinda like the same throughout every song. It sounds like it was recorded in the same place, during the same sessions, and, yeah, it’s more cohesive and all-of-a-piece. Whereas the 1994 version sounds more schizophrenic with the remixes, like ‘Struttin”, and songs like ‘Funky Jam’.
‘Funky Jam’ was supposed to just be a B-side. If you listen to Disc 2 [of The Original Memphis Recordings], and you listen to ‘Funky Jam’, that is the original version of ‘Funky Jam’. It was supposed to be like a Meters kinda B-side – a bit of fun, funk, that the guys were just jamming on. But then, when George Clinton remixed that, and George sang on it and stuff, everybody loved it. So that ended up on the 1994 album, which then changed the mood of the record – ’cause, as I say, when we went down to Memphis, we had three high-energy rockers, which were ‘Rocks’, ‘Jailbird’ [and] ‘Call On Me’, and the other six songs were ballads. They were like five-minute down ballads; kinda sad songs.
So I had this feeling it was gonna be like the third [self-titled] Velvet Underground album, which was more subdued after the insanity of White Light/White Heat – just to make a comparison. I thought we were gonna make a downer ballad album. Then, when we came back to England and we began remixing the songs and getting people like George Clinton involved, the record took a different course. I think it became more schizophrenic. It became more like half a down album, half a party album. It became more of a party album.
MF: What do you remember of being in Memphis – if you remember it? Because it must have been a very different environment for you lads.
BG: Well, it was very quiet. It was the height of summer, so it was very humid. It was too hot to go out during the day, because the heat and the humidity were completely oppressive. I just remember all the guys in the band, we shared an apartment at this hotel apartment complex. We shared this big apartment and every day we’d just get up and go in the studio for, I think 12, for lunchtime; go in the mini-bus, go to Ardent Studios across town, and just start working with Tom and the Muscle Shoals guys until late and then come back home, have a couple of drinks at the bar next to it and then come back… We just worked very hard – because, if you listen to this album, they’re great arrangements, and quite sophisticated in parts, like ‘Big Jet Plane’… So we worked very, very hard with Tom on this record. Everybody gave their best. So it was hard work.
MF: It’s funny you thought the Memphis Give Out… was too slick or polished because it doesn’t sound like that now. It breathes, it’s authentic – it’s neither over-produced nor underproduced.
BG: Nah, it’s perfect. Andrew says maybe we felt it was a bit too grown up for us at the time (laughs). Whatever that means! I don’t know what that means… I don’t know – I can’t really remember it. To be honest with you, I can’t remember.
MF: You actually remember a lot! I think your memory’s good.
BG: My memory’s good, yeah, but I can’t remember… I remember Andrew, Robert [Young] and myself listened to Dowd’s stuff, then we went into a different room at the studio. I think we spoke for about 20 minutes. We were like, “What do you think?” And nobody said, “It’s great.” I just think we needed some distance from it. There wasn’t really an adult in the room. Alan McGee wasn’t really present. There was nobody from the record company there. I just blamed ourselves. I think we just said to Tom, “OK, we’re gonna go back to England now and we’re gonna think about this.” I think it was because we were in Memphis, we kind of felt possibly the pressure that we had to go back to England with a finished record, you know? I don’t think we were in a good state of mind. We were too close to it.
MF: I did wonder if it was the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle…
BG: Nah, it wasn’t the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle because in Memphis we were working hard. There was no partying. We were just working hard. It wasn’t that. I think we were just too close to the record – ’cause we’d written the songs early in 1993, then we rehearsed the songs with the musicians and Tom Dowd in London for two weeks, and then I think a week later we went to America to start making the record. So I think we were working on it for two or three months – and we were just maybe too close to it. Also there was a lot of pressure for us to follow up Screamadelica. And, also, we’d had those hits from Screamadelica like ‘Loaded’ and ‘Come Together’ and I think we wanted more hits – [it was like] “This is our chance: we’ve been trying for years to make it as a band.” We just wanted to make a beautiful album that we would be really proud of… There was a lot of pressure, let’s put it that way.
MF: Your fans are gonna go crazy over this.
BG: I hope so, I hope so. I mean, I played it to Jamie Hince from The Kills last night and he was blown away. He was like, “My God – I love this, it’s amazing.” Just the look on his face. He was just like, “Fuck!” He just kept going to me, “Fuck! Fuck! Amazing.” Yeah (laughs).
MF: And it feels like the right time to release it now.
BG: I think so, yeah… I think if we’d released this album in 1994, people would really not have understood it. I really don’t think so. ‘Cause you gotta remember, it was at the time of grunge, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Brit-pop, Suede, Blur, the beginnings of Oasis… So it was out of time – this was completely out of time then. Nobody understood why we were going to Memphis in the Deep South to work with a 60-, 70-year-old producer and middle-aged musicians that people in England hadn’t heard of, unless they were complete soul enthusiasts like ourselves.
MF: I can imagine the generation who’ve grown up with Amy Winehouse will love this record. If those ears hear it, then they’ll really appreciate it through that prism.
BG: Yeah, that’s good. Amy was good. You know, ‘Back To Black’ – what a great song! She meant it. ‘Back To Black’, I mean, Whoa, what a song.
MF: Are Primal Scream getting a younger audience who’ve discovered you through their parents?
BG: Yeah! We’re getting that. We’re definitely getting that at shows – loads of young kids. We get a wide range of people watching us. It’s cool. The last few festivals, the front rows have been, like, 16- to 20-year-olds, which is cool.
MF: Will you tour behind this incarnation of Give Out… or do you just see it as a one-off?
BG: Do you know what? I’m not sure. I would like to. But it’s a weird record to tour because most of the songs are ballads. A lot of people that come and see Primal Scream, I’m not sure, but I think they want that kinda “rama lama” high-energy rock ‘n’ roll… I don’t really know. I would like to do some gigs. But I think, to play this album, you’d have to play at certain venues, because a lot of it’s very, very slow. Also, to do it properly, you would need a big production – like horn players, backing singers and stuff, I think. But, no, I’m not ruling it out. I would like to do it – ’cause I love the songs, you know? I love the songs.
MF: Maybe if you did it in an intimate venue?
BG: Yeah, I think it could work. I think you would have to really spend some time putting it together with backing singers, horns… You need to do the record justice.
MF: You were here just a few months ago. But you’ve had such a huge influence on Australian bands like Tame Impala…
BG: Really? Really?
MF: Yeah, it’s often mentioned!
BG: Is that true?
MF: Pond too…
BG: That’s good. I never knew that. I honestly never knew that. That’s amazing.
MF: Are you a fan of any of those guys? Did you check them out?
BG: I’ve bought a couple of Tame Impala albums, yeah. I’ve got a couple of their records. I don’t know Pond, I’ve gotta say. I really liked Eddy Current Suppression Ring for a while. I tried to get them to play with us in Australia, but I don’t know what happened – it never happened… I should check all that stuff out. There was another Australian band – is it King Gizzard [& The Lizard Wizard]? Do they have their own kinda festival? [Indeed, they have Gizzfest.] I think they asked us to come and play with them. Then, for some reason, we couldn’t do it. But, yeah, I need to check all that out. I honestly never realised that.
MF: Any final thoughts about Give Out But Don’t Give Up – The Original Memphis Recordings?
BG: All I can say is I’m really proud and very happy that this album is coming out after all this time. For a long time, I felt a kinda creative wound that we’d gone to Memphis and we’d failed. We had this great opportunity working with Tom and Roger and David and The Memphis Horns and we’d fucked it up. When I heard these tapes that Andrew found, I was like, “Oh my God – I’m so happy.” The one thing – I really wish I’d sung the song ‘Free’. I don’t know why I never sang it. I asked [Manchester cohort] Denise [Johnson] to sing it instead. I didn’t know – I really wish I’d sang that song ’cause I fucking love it. I wrote the fucking song and I should have fucking sang it!
Primal Scream’s long awaited Original Memphis Recordings of ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ are out now! Get them here