I’m not sure if it was 1997 or 1998. I know it was one of the two because I was walking to class at York University from my apartment in the student slums just south of campus on Sentinel road. I remember being accosted while just strolling past the old Schulich school of business building on the way to my shortcut through Vari Hall. He was a long-haired grad student wearing retro framed glasses, the kind that were considered nerdy before becoming hipster cool again. He wanted me to know that he liked my t-shirt and that the band name printed on the back was probably influenced by some radical psychology therapy from the 60s (I think he said) but I wasn’t really listening as he droned on about it. Not only was I already late for class but I also got the impression that the t-shirt lead in was just an excuse to show off his esoteric knowledge. So I nodded politely several times and as soon as was humanly possible, interrupted him with thanks and a brief explanation about my destination. I promised him that I’d check out whatever was he was speaking of but as of yet, still haven’t gotten around to it.
I had bought that very t-shirt a few years before when I saw Primal Scream open for Depeche Mode at the Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada’s Wonderland. I went to the merch stand hoping to find the t-shirt I had seen a cute girl wearing earlier that summer at an alternative music bar in Waterloo called Phil’s Grandson’s Place. And wouldn’t you know, there it was, tucked in the corner reserved for the support acts, greatly outnumbered by the Mode concert tees (of which, I bought one too). It was bright red with the telltale sun, the one that appeared to be drawn by a child*, the same one from the “Screamadelica” album cover shown above, and the band’s name, Primal Scream, in yellow script on the back. I wore that t-shirt everywhere and had it for years, finally getting rid of it sometime in the 2000s when my wife convinced me to rid my wardrobe of all the “holey and ratty” concert shirts. Sigh.
“Screamadelica” was a revelation to me, a masterpiece album right up there with some of my all-time faves. And it was a game-changer for Primal Scream too. Bobby Gillespie had put together the band almost a decade prior to the album’s release, but they were really only a live outfit until the Reid brothers put to him the ultimatum of dropping this “second” band or leaving his post as drummer for The Jesus and Mary Chain. He chose the latter in 1986. Some early Primal Scream singles drew buzz but their first two records were mostly panned by critics. Then, after a few years of being plied and peer pressured by Gillespie’s schoolboy chum, Creation founder Alan McGee, the Primals succumbed to the wiles of the acid house scene.
“Screamadelica” is a direct result of the band’s adventures and misadventures while deeply immersed in club and drug culture. In fact, the album could almost be said to be the story of a trip, riding the arc from dance explosion to psychedelic wonder to ecstatic freakout and finally, to its calm and low deflating denouement. It mixes samples and beats with gospel and soul inflections and oft features the inimitable vocals of Manchester singer Denise Johnson. As I said earlier, the album changed everything for Primal Scream, selling tons of copies, winning them the first ever Mercury Prize in 1992, as well as legions of new fans, and started them off on a long and storied career that continues to this day.
Chances are you’ve heard of Primal Scream or at least would recognize this iconic album cover on sight, but if you’ve never listened to “Screamadelica”’s contents, you should not delay and at the very least, have a taste of my three picks for you below.
”Movin’ on up”: Very recently, Swedish indie folk duo First Aid Kit covered this very track (you can find that version here), which I think highlights what a classic track this is, being covered yet again, 30 years after its original release. It is just shy of four minutes and way too short at that. It’s gospel blended with drugged out psychedelics and Mick Jagger swagger. Yeah, that’s a thing. The guitars wail, the hands clap, the keys shuffle, the bongos get you dancin’, and the choirs get you singin’: hallelujah! It is miraculous and ecstatic and a hell of a good time. How else do you open a brilliant album but with an instant adrenaline punch like this? Sing it, Bobby! “I was blind, now I can see. You made a believer out of me.” We’re all believers now.
”Come together”: This was the second single to be released from the album, and much like the tune to follow, was an advance single. The version of the track that I know and love is eight minutes of funky piano, gospel choirs, bongos mixed with drum machines, roaring guitars, and Bobby Gillespie’s slippery and smooth vocals flitting and flirting with horn flourishes. “It’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful.” This is the Terry Farley mix of the track that appeared on the version of the album that was released in North America and that I bought on CD and listened to ad nauseam. However, the original version of the track (check it out here) was mixed by Andrew Weatherall, was two minutes longer, appeared on the British release of the album, and lacked any of Gillespie’s vocals. I prefer the Farley version. In fact, I almost feel like if my copy of the album had Weatherall’s mix, I might have had an entirely different experience with it. But let’s not go there.
”Loaded”: Track number seven on the album was literally the template from which this album was borne. “Loaded” is in fact a remix by DJ Andrew Weatherall (RIP) of a single from the band’s previous, self-titled record called, “I’m losing more than I’ll ever have”. Weatherall took a wicked riff that finishes off an otherwise mellow track, threw in a bunch of samples, drum loops, vocal rips, and some dialogue from a Peter Fonda flick called “The wild bunch”. And yeah, “we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time”. The original single was released in 1990, a full 18 months before “Screamadelica” was released, became a massive club hit, and turned everyone’s previous perceptions of band (including their own) on their heads. This funky, seven minute groove was my introduction to the band and having nothing else from which to judge them, fell for them immediately, and it is still my favourite tune by the band today**. I can still see Gillespie dancing, eyes closed, and hands clapping to this track on the Kingswood Music Theatre stage, in a memory, amongst many that are tied to this tune. And that always brings smiles.
*Legend has it that Paul Cannell’s inspiration for the cover art was a water spot on the walls of Creation Records’ offices that he zoned out on while tripping on acid.
**”Loaded” appeared at number three on my Best tunes of 1991 list.
Check back two Thursdays from today for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “Godfodder”
9. Spirit Of The West “Go figure”
8. Chapterhouse “Whirlpool”
7. Blur “Leisure”
6. Levellers “Levelling the land”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Never loved Elvis”
4. R.E.M. “Out of time”
You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.