There’s something about Bobby Gillespie that seems utterly timeless, completely devoid of aging.
Leaping up from his seat in the side room of a West London office, he’s as thin as a rail, long hair dangling around his chin, that instantly recognisable grin – half-welcoming, half-preparing for mischief – firmly attached to his face.
He’s a mine of information. Deeply passionate about music, his recall is incredible – we’re here ostensibly to discuss Primal Scream’s new singles compilation ‘Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll’, the band he formed in the late-’70s and guided through indie pop, rave, Stones-esque country soul and beyond, but in reality spend half the interview tossing around garage rock influences, and songs by the deeply under-rated national treasure that is Vic Goddard.
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We start at the beginning. The son of a trade union activist in Glasgow, Bobby Gillespie spent his childhood fixated upon the radio, and the rougher, yobbish end of glam. His first single was ‘Hellraiser’ by The Sweet, and the mere mention sends him tumbling down into a silver-clad memory lane.
“Glam rock,” he beams. “Silver jackboots. They were like a pop version of heavy rock… just fantastic pop songs. They were on radio all the time, the same time as Bowie, Slade, and Alice Cooper”.
“Singles are democratic,” he adds. “When I was a kid – a long time ago – it was like 55p for a single, in the mid- to late-’70s. And I think even during the Britpop era it was 99p. Anybody could afford it. It’s democratic.”
It’s this period that cemented his fondness for the single as an artform. “We grew up on singles, we grew up on hearing Top Of The Pops and Top 40 radio,” he recalls. “Singles were important. They signified where a band was at that point in their career aesthetically, what they stood for, what they were thinking, how they were developing.”
Releasing his own single was always an ambition when growing up in Glasgow, something he would realise after relocating to London. Signing to Creation Records – run by close friend Alan McGee – they released ‘All Fall Down’ in 1985.
“When we started out we had no money,” he says. “So when Alan McGee offered to release a single for us it was like, oh my God! We can prove to the world that we exist, we’re going to make a single. It was like a cry, saying: hey, we exist, we’re Primal Scream, and this is what we do.”
Part of an emerging generation of groups who pushed post-punk into indie, Primal Scream wanted to make each gesture count. After all, many of their peers – Subway Sect for example – never got the change to make a full album.
He nods: “We always felt that one song could change the world – or change your world. It’s why we love garage punk because some of these bands existed for a single that’s home-pressed, 400 copies. But then 30, 40 years later people are still forming bands because of it.”
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The mere mention of garage punk seems to increase his blood pressure – band names, forgotten singles are rattled off, before he plunges into a passionate defence of Subway Sect’s Vic Goddard. The single, it seems, carries within it deep, deep resonance for Bobby Gillespie.
“It’s like… when the Bolsheviks assassinated the Russian Royal Family. That gesture sent shockwaves through the world because if they were prepared to do that, they’re prepared to go all the way,” he says, pounding his hand on the table in front of me. “Look, a single obviously isn’t as equal a revolutionary gesture as murdering the Russian Royal Family – who thought they were directly lineaged to God – but I really believe that one 45RPM single can shake somebody’s world. Shake the foundations of a person’s world, and inspired them to be creative, because I know that certain records by certain artists did that to me, and I know that it did that to other artists. That same effect.”
Leaving aside Regal bloodbaths he does have a semblance of a point. After all, a group of American indie kids loved Primal Scream’s ‘Velocity Girl’– a B-side, no less - so much that they named their own band after it. Primal Scream recently returned to the track, giving it a full re-issue and shooting a new Edie Sedgwick starring music video.
“I think it was a very good song to write for somebody in their early-20s,” he insists. “I think the performance by the band on it is exceptional. I don’t think that early band ever made a record that good. I don’t even think we rehearsed it. I think we just showed the band the song. It was written and recorded fairly quickly and I guess it captured some energy and excitement of the times. I’m very proud of it. It’s a good song. People love the song.”
There’s a venomous nihilism to ‘Velocity Girl’ that encapsulates the band’s work as a whole, matching flowery psych pop to evil lyrics. “The ethos has been to make beautiful pop music and beautiful rock ‘n’ roll music,” he says. “Beautiful experimental pop. The ethos has always been to try and challenge ourselves, become better artists and better songwriters.”
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It’s an ethos that has taken them from indie pop to rave abandon, from the Stones-esque stomp of ‘Rocks’ to the dubbed out paranoia of ‘Kowalski’. Primal Scream may have pushed their way into the Top 10 but they always felt like outsiders, each chameleonic shift alienating as many people as it excited.
“It was like Robert Young said: when we go onstage man, it’s a war between us and the audience. He said that at the height of Primal Scream’s fame… maybe 1994. And that’s what the Scream’s attitude has always been. It’s aggressive, y’know? It’s very working class… not to say that all working class people are aggressive but there’s an edge there that maybe middle class people don’t have.”
“And there was always a left wing thing going on, and pride in being working class. As we know, to quote my friend Douglas Hart, there’s many different stands of being working class. It’s not mono.”
With Creation constantly one mistake away from bankruptcy, Primal Scream could never rest, never sit still. The option of sitting back and counting their bank notes didn’t really exist, despite their fame. “It’s all about survival… I think no matter how well the band has done you never know how it’s going to end so you’re kind of playing and singing for your life because your life depends on it.”
“If we don’t work, we don’t eat,” he shrugs. “We don’t have rich parents to fall back on, and we never did. It was always a very serious thing for us that we should earn a living as recording artists – not to be rich, but to basically have self-respect and dignity and pride in what we do. To be your own boss. We wanted to be artists, and to earn a living from being artists… that’s really what it was.”
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‘Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll’ takes Primal Scream through various shifts in their line up – the departure of Robert Young, the move towards modal electronics on ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘XTRMNTR’ and on into the 21st century. There’s a camaraderie that has bonded them, from the ‘Screamdelica’ tales of excess to the present day.
“Even when we were playing psychedelic folk rock in the early days,” he gasps, “we lined up so it would be five across the front of the stage – like straight up – and we took that idea from Dexys Midnight Runners because we seen them do it on Top Of The Pops with ‘Geno’ and it just looked like an army… and we were like: fucking hell, that’s what we’re gonna be like!”
“There’s a core that’s always more or less been there,” he beams. “Me and Andrew Innes have got a relationship that goes back to 1978. It seems like there’s a lot of changes in line ups, you have guests on certain tracks, but the core of the band is quite solid. And there is an ethos there.”
One former member with a lot of time on his hands right now is Mani, Clash mentions – could he ever return to the fold?
“Oh man!” he exclaims, throwing his hands to his face. “It’s difficult that one. We love Mani. I was talking to my son about Mani yesterday, we love him. Who knows, y’know?”
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One of the remarkable things about ‘Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is just how strong the collection is, despite its enormous stylistic shifts. It shines a light on some neglected periods of the band, such as 2013’s superb and unjustly neglected double LP ‘More Light’.
“I think that’s a great record,” he says. “I think maybe in 30 years time people will go, actually, that’s one of their best records. It’s kinda like progressive punk rock.”
But he’s not in the mood to look back forever. Relishing his press run – “I love irritating people!” – Bobby Gillespie is also working on a new album, something that might not even come out under the Primal Scream name.
“We have a whole album recorded, brand new material that was finished last year,” he confirms. “The record I’m talking about is not going to be Primal Scream, I don’t think. It’s a different thing. We’re at a point now where there are no rules as to what you do.”
It’s strange, though – Bobby Gillespie feels at once timeless and also out of time, this maverick figure moving in a landscape that is increasingly alien. Primal Scream moved from Creation to Sony when the independent titan closed its door, and the major label is now more invested in UK rap, grime, and drill, than the rebellious indie pop that first made the band’s name.
Surprisingly, that’s absolutely fine with the wiry Scottish frontman. “It just feels that rock is an old language,” he shrugs. “It’s like Latin or something – it’s like an old language. Whenever I see a band or hear a band I think: oh, it’s just a band. There’s nothing new. But that’s not to say it’s not good – it’s just that I’m older and I’ve seen it all before.”
“Now, I’m not an expert on grime and drill – my kids listen to it – but there’s a use of language, and an oral tradition has been kept alive by rap. There’s stories being told that are real stories in a way that I don’t think white rock artists are doing any more,” he continues. “I just don’t think it’s that relevant. And it’s a class difference as well. Black music is working class kids – black kids are at the bottom and they’ve got a rage. Obviously as we know an artist can be born in any family but I think the sense of struggle comes through in black music.”
Living his life in huge cities like London and Glasgow, he’s fixated on the way this is communicated in music, whether that’s punk or acid house or grime. “It’s the music of the inner city,” he comments. “It’s modern music and they’re using modern technology. Rock bands don’t use modern technology. They use it to record and put their music in time but they don’t actually use it, they still use traditional instruments.”
“It’s like if this was the late-’60s and you’re into The Doors or Jefferson Airplane, and somebody plays you music from the 19th century… you’d be like: what’s the fucking point?”
And with that Bobby Gillespie shrugs his shoulders, leaped up from his chair, and walks out the room, grinning to the last.
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'Maximum Rock 'N' Roll' is out now. Primal Scream will play All Points East, London on May 24th.
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