Death, Drugs and Acid House: An in-depth chat with Primal Scream
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Death, Drugs and Acid House: An in-depth chat with Primal Scream

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Andrew Innes, guitarist with English garage-acid-house-rock-and-everything-else band Primal Scream is remembering just how bad pop music had become when he reached his teenage years in 1976, the year that punk broke into mainstream English consciousness.

“If you see the best records of 1976, it’s the Brotherhood of Man and Racey, all this really awful bland music,” Innes says. “All the good stuff of glam had gone by 1976, it was this really horrible record company music. I find nowadays that I feel the same. It’s record company music, with the songs written by a committee of A&R men and the songs are written to not offend anyone.”

Born and raised in Glasgow, Innes took inspiration from the punk bands of the time and started his own band, The Drains. “I don’t think we ever got out of the bedroom,” Innes laughs. “It was the classic ‘all in the mind stadium outfit’.” Around the time he was thrashing out three-chord garage punk covers in his bedroom, Innes met fellow Glaswegians Bobbie Gillespie, Robert Young and Alan McGee, who he re-connected with in London a few years later.

In 1986, Innes headed down to the London studio where Gillespie’s band Primal Scream, which had been included on New Musical Express’ 1986 cassette compilation of contemporary jangly guitar bands, dubbed the ‘C86’ scene, was recording its debut album. Innes expected to just help out with some guitar; by the end of the session, he’d joined Primal Scream. The album, Sonic Flower Groove, was released on Alan McGee’s Creation Records in 1987.

Essentially a garage-rock band at the time, Innes said Primal Scream didn’t expect to survive beyond Christmas 1986, let alone the next 30 years.  It was only after McGee and publicist Jeff Barrett encouraged Gillespie, Innes and Young to check out the emerging acid house club scene that Primal Scream made its first steps toward commercial success and popularity. 

“We didn’t take to it straight away,” Innes says. “McGee and Barrett were converts, and they were like the Spanish Inquisition when acid house came out. They were full-on converts and everything before it was derided. Eventually, they dragged us down to one of the nights and we were just blown. Before we experienced it, McGee would play us these songs, and because they were six minutes and repetitive, there was nothing happening if you were sitting in someone’s room and they were playing it. But as soon as you hit a club you realised why it was repetitive and why it was what it was.”

Innes reckons the attraction of acid house lay in its positive community feel – especially in light of the economic gloom and individualist philosophy of Thatcherism.  “It was such a good atmosphere in the clubs. If you go to an indie gig everybody would get drunk, people would bang into you, try to start a fight because you were in a band,” Innes says. “But then you’d been down at these clubs and people would want to cuddle you, ‘You’re my new best friend’. It was just an incredible atmosphere. We’d all already had six or seven years of neo-liberalism and everyone was miserable and jobless, so it was a reaction to that.”

Musically, the result of Primal Scream’s immersion in the acid house scene was the break-through Screamadelica album. Primal Scream found itself a psychedelic flag bearer for an emerging underground scene that also included Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets. When Primal Scream went on tour, it tried to bring the acid house club with it, with DJ sets before and after the band’s own set.

Primal Scream achieved the acclaim that every band dreams of; but with it came the expectation of further hit songs. “By the time we got to following Screamadelica we didn’t have any ideas for a new record,” Innes says. “Then someone says ‘You’ve got a month to get another 10 songs together’.  The fact that Primal Scream’s drug intake was matching their record sales didn’t help either. “We probably wouldn’t have had any ideas anyway because we were pretty much exhausted from the touring.”

While it took a while for the drugs to be completely flushed from the band’s lifestyle, Innes says the band realised it did need to adopt a more disciplined approach to songwriting. “Maybe it’s a Protestant work ethic, but we realised we had to treat it like a job, starting on Monday and finishing on the Friday,” Innes says. A rotating cast of guest musicians and semi-permanent members, including Mani from The Stones Roses, Kevin Shields and Debbie Googe from My Bloody Valentine, Little Barrie’s Barry Cadogan and even The Chemical Brothers and New Order’s Bernard Sumner helped inject a freshness into Primal Scream’s creative process.

Despite the omnipresent potential for the band to break up (“We almost broke up every week,” Innes laughs), and Gillespie’s prodigious drug intake and even the death of Robert Young in 2014 (Young had been largely out of the band since 2006), Primal Scream has remained together, sliding seamlessly across pop, rock, electronic, jazz and garage.

“If you’re listening to Miles Davis, it might not come out as a Miles Davis thing but you fancy hearing a bit of trumpet on the record. I suppose that’s how most musicians work, ripping off other musicians,” Innes laughs.

Primal Scream’s 2013 10th studio album, More Light, was heralded as a return to form; 2016’s Chaosmosis, confirmed Primal Scream’s enduring relevance. Given how diffident Innes is toward contemporary music, what is he listening to at the moment? Innes pauses to think. “[Primal Scream keyboard player] Martin Duffy put me onto this Ethiopian nun playing music from the 70s. It’s kind of half Ethiopian, half blues, but it’s beautiful. I’ve also been getting into Freddie King, who I’ve avoided for 30 years, but he’s my kind of guitar player – fast, aggressive and funky,” Innes says. “As for modern music, I leave that to my children. My son’s 14 and he’s into grime. I don’t like all of it, but some of it’s got something to say and it’s angry. It sounds very British, the beats are American but the accents are from London, and I kind of like that.”