(Previously published by Skyscraper Magazine)
At the time it was released, I thought 1991’s Screamadelica was the album The Stone Roses should have made as a follow-up to their hugely influential self-titled 1989 debut. While the Roses got bogged down in label hassles for years and didn’t release the disappointing and very trad-rock sounding Second Coming until late 1994, Primal Scream took the ball and ran with it, issuing one of the definitive British rock albums of the decade. In hindsight, The Stone Roses couldn’t have pulled off Screamadelica. The Manchester lads were loved by the then-exploding UK acid house scene because they made rock music that appealed to dance kids, however their records were still quite conventional next to Bobby Gillespie and company’s Screamadelica. Quite simply, Screamadelica is a joyous celebration of music, merging elements of classic rock’n’roll, psychedelia, house, dub, and even jazz into a landmark work of art which still sounds relevant and timeless two decades later.
Primal Scream did not always sound this way, though. Their early singles and first two albums, Sonic Flower Groove (Warner UK, 1987) and Primal Scream (Creation, 1989), owe more than a little to the likes of The Byrds, Love, and 1960s-era Rolling Stones, with a touch of the MC5 on the latter release. Their press photos were equally retro, the band decked out in flowery shirts, pointed boots, and shaggy hair. At the time it seemed almost laughable that they would someday create a landmark fusion album. Perhaps because of this, there is an almost Year Zero mythology attached to the group, implying it all began with Screamadelica (for example, their 2007 best-of compilation, Dirty Hits, contains nothing from the band’s late-1980s “indie” era). Early on, Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie was actually more famous for being the first drummer in the Jesus and Mary Chain. He played a minimalist drum kit, Mo Tucker style, and like the rest of the band looked badass in black leather and shades.
It’s important that this early history gets mentioned because, if it weren’t for a soulful mid-tempo ballad on Primal Scream entitled “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have,” Screamadelica may have never happened. Around 1988, the band had become enamored of rave culture and befriended DJ Andrew Weatherall. David Cavanagh notes in his excellent 2001 book The Creation Records Story (Virgin), it was Scream guitarist Andrew Innes who asked Weatherall to remix “I’m Losing” and “make it suitable for dancing to.” Of course, this would evolve into the February 1990 single “Loaded,” as Weatherall would keep the song’s basic instrumentation but pump it up with some “Sympathy For The Devil”-like beats and famously sample Peter Fonda from the 1966 biker flick The Wild Angels: “We wanna be free, to do what we want to do, and we want to get loaded, and we want to have a good time …”
This 20th anniversary edition of Screamadelica is available in several formats (all are UK imports). This review is highlighting the two-CD “20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” set, which includes the post-album Dixie Narco EP on the bonus disc. However, the reissue is also available on vinyl, as well as in a “Limited Collector’s Edition” box set that features four CDs, a DVD, a gatefold double-LP, a 50-page book, a t-shirt, and other swag. Nevertheless, in all formats, the original 1991 album, remastered here by Kevin Shields, opens with “Movin’ On Up,” which can only be described as the best Rolling Stones song since say the mid-1970s. It was even produced by the legendary Jimmy Miller, who worked with the Stones from Beggars Banquet (1968) through Goat’s Head Soup (1973), and features all of that band’s signature weapons from the era; piano, scuzzy guitars, and amazing gospel backing vocals straight outta’ “Gimme Shelter.” The party continues on with a mesmerizing cover of The 13th Floor Elevators’ psychedelic wig out “Slip Inside This House,” which had previously been included on the 1990 Roky Erickson tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. The Scream version, which includes a James Brown sample, is quite different to the freak folk vibe of the original, as the heavy beats turn the song into a dance floor anthem, even out stepping the likes of The Happy Mondays’ “Step On.” “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” is full-on dance music with sometime Primal Scream contributor Denise Johnson taking over the lead vocals. I remember a review back in the day describing “Don’t Fight It” as a collision between the MC5 and Italian disco, the analogy still seeming apt today. “Higher Than the Sun” is a much-needed chill out break after the rousing opening tracks. When first released, Creation label boss Alan McGee described the song as the most important British single since The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In the UK.” And while McGee was always prone to hyperbole, “Higher” is one of the definitive tracks of the era, featuring a space rock atmosphere while Gillespie seems to describe an Ecstasy trip: “I drift in inner space, free of time / I find a higher state of grace in my mind / I’m beautiful, I wasn’t born to follow / I live just for today, don’t care about tomorrow.” “Inner Flight” is just that, a mellow instrumental break that sets the scene for the album’s centerpiece, “Come Together.”
“Come Together” is, simply put, a 10-minute-plus juggernaut and one of Weatherall’s greatest arrangements, featuring extensive samples from a 1972 speech by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, including this powerful snippet, which nails down the message of Screamadelica: “Today on this program you will hear gospel. And rhythm. And blues. And jazz … we know that music is music.” Johnson’s amazing vocals keep time as she repeats “Come together as one,” while the Scream stay in tune with a fantastic instrumental arrangement reminiscent of Stax Records’ best sound. The aforementioned “Loaded” follows and, by this time, listeners should be thoroughly floored.
If the first half of Screamadelica is the party, then the latter half is the come down. Once again Jimmy Miller is employed to work his magic on “Damaged,” a bluesy piano-based ballad which could easily be an outtake from Exile On Main Street, as Gillespie steals the show with one of his best performances ever. Breathtaking. Next up is the even more mellow “I’m Coming Down,” aping a minimalist jazz arrangement that all but carries Gillespie away into space. This morphs into The Orb’s total dub deconstruction of “Higher Than the Sun,” with “Shine Like Stars” closing things out. Similar to “I’m Coming Down,” the song is almost a lullaby to put the listener to sleep after a heavy night of hedonism.
The Dixie Narco EP is a clue to what would be next for Primal Scream, as the band takes on a Rolling Stones meets southern rock and soul vibe that eventually gained full strength on 1994’s Screamadelica follow-up Give Out But Don’t Give Up (Creation/Sire). Recorded at the famed Ardent Studios in Memphis, this four-song collection opens with “Movin’ On Up” and also includes a first-rate country blues number “Stone My Soul,” a heartfelt cover of Dennis Wilson’s “Carry Me Home,” and the 1970s-flavored “Screamadelica,” which again employs the talented Denise Johnson on lead vocals.