Happy 25th Anniversary to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, originally released September 23, 1991 in the UK and October 8, 1991 in the US.
“If the first Primal Scream album was acid," Bobby Gillespie surmised to Uncut magazine in 1999, "and the second one was speed, then the third phase was E.” Indeed, just as Screamadelica embodied the band’s remarkable musical evolution after years of what most critics and fans alike consider little more than mediocrity, their imaginative watershed was also the unapologetic manifestation of their drug-fueled discoveries.
Formed in Glasgow, Scotland in 1982 by Gillespie and Jim Beattie, with influences comprised of Love, MC5, The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges among others, Primal Scream proved to be a work in progress for nearly a decade, for various reasons.
In parallel to the band’s efforts to begin shaping their sound and vision in the mid 1980s, Gillespie was doing double duty as the drummer for East Kilbride’s The Jesus and Mary Chain from 1984 to 1986, a period that yielded their influential 1985 debut album Psychocandy. Despite the Mary Chain’s rapidly growing stature at the time, when Jim and William Reid requested that Gillespie fully commit to the band, he opted to leave in order to focus squarely on developing his other less established project. A ballsy move, for sure, and an early indication of Gillespie’s unbridled ambition and conviction.
Not too long thereafter, Primal Scream signed with Creation Records, the now famous label formed in 1983 by Gillespie’s childhood friend and former Mary Chain manager Alan McGee, who would subsequently shepherd the careers of My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, Oasis, and a handful of other revered UK bands. The group released their debut album Sonic Flower Groove in October 1987 not via Creation Records proper, but rather by way of Elevation Records, McGee’s short-lived joint venture between Creation and Warner Bros..
The critical and commercial response to the album was tepid at best, and in the wake of the LP’s disappointing reception, Beattie and drummer Gavin Skinner left the band. Revolving lineups were nothing new for Primal Scream, with various musicians coming in and going out relatively frequently during their early years, which made it challenging for Gillespie to form any lasting chemistry with his bandmates.
So with new members added to the fray, the group soldiered on, updating their sound from the enjoyable but not terribly memorable jangle-pop of Sonic Flower Groove to the noticeably more straight-ahead rock sound heard on their eponymous second album released via Creation in 1989. Unfortunately, as with its precursor, reviews were generally less than favorable and sales suffered as a result.
Back to the drawing board it was, then. A drawing board that was soon adorned in no insignificant part by the band’s introduction and subsequent immersion in the Chicago-bred acid house scene which had spread across the UK by the late 1980s. Coupled with this musical awakening of sorts was the band’s first foray into club drug culture, and a more than casual dalliance with ecstasy, per the ever-helping hand of McGee. "The first [pill McGee] gave me didn't work,” Gillespie recalled to The Guardian in 2010. “Second one: worked. McGee was literally…a big bag...'Open your mouth, open your mouth...' And we started getting into it."
An impromptu encounter at a rave with the then up-and-coming DJ Andrew Weatherall, an associate of dancefloor legends Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold, represented a tipping point for Primal Scream’s sonic direction. Weatherall agreed to remix the band’s track “I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have” from their self-titled album. “Remix” may be a gross understatement, as he ended up completely overhauling it, relinquishing many of the lyrics and adding a multi-layered mélange of seemingly incongruous elements to produce a far more intriguing and vibrant composition, which rendered the original unrecognizable by comparison.
Featuring dialogue and vocal samples lifted from Peter Fonda in his 1966 film The Wild Angels, The Emotions' "I Don't Want to Lose Your Love" (1976) and a drum loop from an obscure Italian bootleg remix of Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ "What I Am" (1988), the reimagined mash-up was rechristened as “Loaded” and released in February 1990. The single garnered the most positive critical and commercial reception the band had experienced up to that point. The wheels were beginning to spin.
Nineteen months would pass between the release of “Loaded” and the unveiling of their third long player, during which time the band released three more singles, all of which would ultimately appear on the album: “Come Together,” “Higher Than the Sun,” and “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.” Though a handful of the songs that would comprise Screamadelica were already a year-and-a-half in the making, the recording of the album’s remaining tracks occurred at London’s Jam Studios during an abbreviated six-week span in the summer of 1991.
The end result would become their breakthrough effort, not to mention one of the most gratifying listening experiences to surface during the past 25 years. An entrancing, drug-propelled patchwork awash in kaleidoscopic sounds, samples and inspirations that effectively juxtaposed euphoric highs with melancholic come-downs, Screamadelica was the musical equivalent of a great ecstasy trip followed by the inevitable morning after.
“The sheer imagination that went into these records on everyone's part,” rhythm guitarist Andrew Innes reflected to The Guardian. “It was people let loose with their ideas: we're out here in space now.” Nearly ten years after their formation, Primal Scream had reinvented themselves. And now they had finally arrived.
From both a lyrical and vocal perspective, Screamadelica is a rather simple, yet still affecting affair, which allows the inventive sonic tapestries to shine even brighter. Beyond Weatherall, production duties fell to multiple producers including Hypnotone, Jimmy Miller, Hugo Nicolson, and The Orb, which makes for a simultaneously varied but remarkably cohesive song suite overall. With a few exceptions, the 11-track album can be divided into two parts based on the respective tempos and energy levels: the “upper” first half noticeably more rousing than the generally subdued and more plaintive “downer” latter half.
The album opens with uplifting gusto in the form of the Miller-produced, guitar and piano-driven “Movin’ On Up,” with spiritual allusions reinforced by soaring, gospel-tinged vocals that loosely call to mind the Rolling Stones’ 1969 single “Gimme Shelter.” While the lyrics are general enough to invite multiple different interpretations, within the broader context of the album’s genesis, Gillespie’s words may reference movin’ on up to the deluxe MDMA-fueled apartment in the sky, so to speak.
Featuring the late guitarist Robert Young on lead vocals for a change, “Slip Inside This House” is a cover of The 13th Floor Elevators’ 1967 track that features select verses from the original with some liberties taken, such as modifying “slip inside this house” to the more Scream-friendly “trip inside this house.” House rhythms dominate, but the ‘60s era psychedelia of its inspiration is not completely lost.
A hypnotic ode to dancefloor escapism, “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” is powered by the Manchester-bred Denise Johnson’s impassioned, Holland–Dozier–Holland indebted vocals. The listener can’t help but be inspired by her repeated refrain of “Going to dance to the music all night long / Getting high, getting happy, getting gone / Going to dance to the music all night long / Getting up, getting down, going to get it on / Going to live the life I love / I'm going to love the life I live.” Sounds good to me.
The clanging, trippy “Higher Than the Sun” leaves little to the imagination regarding its core message, with Gillespie warbling about how ““Hallucinogens can open me / Or untie me / I drift in inner space free of time / I find a higher state of grace in my mind.” Later in the album, a remixed version labeled as “A Dub Symphony in Two Parts” appears, but The Orb produced original is by far the more essential of the two versions.
Arguably Screamadelica’s finest of many fine moments is “Come Together.” Though various versions of the single exist, the original UK LP version is an epic 10-minute jam of pure, soulful bliss. With its gospel-flavored chorus, it’s a kindred companion piece to the aforementioned “Movin’ On Up,” and even the most cursory of listens to this feel-good anthem is guaranteed to lift your spirits.
The lone come-down inspired track found on the album’s first half, the ambient instrumental “Inner Flight,” with sampled fare from the likes of Brian Eno, Dr. John and Alan Lomax, augurs the more hushed tones of Screamadelica’s latter half. “Damaged” is a contemplative, weepy piano and acoustic guitar driven torch song about heartbreak, which finds Gillespie lamenting a love lost with lines like “You were my addiction / I got strung out and crazy / Hit me like a fever / When you left me baby.” In “I’m Comin’ Down,” Gillespie acknowledges the ephemeral, cathartic thrills of drugs, admitting that “Highs and pills won't heal my ills / But they make me feel better for a little while.” A sweet ode to a loved one, the sentimental “Shine Like Stars” concludes the album on a tender note.
With Screamadelica, Primal Scream finally and deservedly earned the critical accolades and commercial validation that had eluded them thus far. The album peaked at number 8 in the UK Albums Chart, appeared in multiple publications’ year-end best-of lists (including the top spot in Melody Maker’s rankings), and triumphed at the first-ever Mercury Prize ceremony in 1992, eclipsing stiff competition from the likes of Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha, U2’s Achtung Baby, and in a coincidental twist of fate, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Honey’s Dead.
“We were really doing something new and special and exciting," Gillespie reflected to Uncut in 1999. "We felt proud of what we were doing. There's a lot of love on that record, and I think that's why a lot of people like it. It's only recently that I've realized this. Over the last couple of years, I've had people come up to me saying how much they love Screamadelica, how much it means to them, and that means a lot to me in turn.”
Though Screamadelica is still regarded by most as Primal Scream’s high-water mark, the band has since cultivated quite a prolific career that is still going strong, as most recently evidenced by the release of their eleventh studio album Chaosmosis this past March. They have continued to evolve their songcraft in adventurous ways across their varied discography, embracing more aggressive and in some cases abrasive, yet no less enthralling sonic structures along the way, while never abandoning their rock and dance music pedigrees. So while Screamadelica solidified the Primal Scream plot, it’s certainly never been the whole story.