“We recorded a couple of demos, but most of the time we got wasted, you know…” Primal Scream lead singer Bobby Gillespie on the initial recording sessions of “Give Out But Don’t Give Up”
To understand just how hard drinking Primal Scream were, let’s ask ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, who happened to be in Memphis during the recording of the album.
“Billy. Just how hard drinking were Primal Scream?”
Billy Gibbons: “One weekend they didn’t have much to do in the studio and I said, where are the Primals? And they said, oh, they’re off on a press promotional weekend and one of ’em came back and apparently he had had quite a lot… He got real drunk, got stabbed and didn’t know it!”
Let that sink in for a moment. Someone (keyboard player Martin Duffy) got stabbed, and hadn’t even realised…
That is how hard drinking Primal Scream were back then…
They had worked at it, of course. On the night of the inaugural Mercury Music prize, Creation Records boss Alan McGee hired a limousine to get Primal Scream to a ceremony they didn’t want to go to.
Bobby Gillespie loved being in such a car, refused to get out of it and instead decided to drive it around all night, for fun, only walking in at the last minute to hear the announcement they had won.
Such was the state of Primal Scream in the early nineties.
Although My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless has gone down in history as an album that nearly bankrupted Creation Records, Primal Scream’s follow up to Screamadelica, “Give Out But Don’t Give Up” took just as long to make and cost a whole lot more. £420,000, if Alan McGee is to be believed.
At one point it looked as though Screamadelica might be not just their finest hour, but their final hour.
Initial demos with Screamadelica (and former Rolling Stones) producer Jimmy Miller at the Roundhouse in London – dubbed “the Brownhouse sessions” proved underwhelming. Hard drugs had taken hold and the band was unproductive.
So off the band went – all the way to Memphis. McGee’s strategy was to make it harder for the band to find heroin, a strategy that worked in part, but only because there was a plentiful supply of cocaine available.
A crisis meeting was held about the band’s drug habits and as McGee puts it, they gave up heroin and became alcoholics.
In Memphis, in between being stabbed, they worked with Tom Dowd, legendary engineer and producer of The Bee Gees, Allman Brothers and Otis Redding. Dowd had misgivings, not knowing where he would fit in with a band that had produced the forward-looking Screamadelica, but Gillespie reassured him he was looking for something different. He didn’t have a rhythm section, and admired Rod Stewart’s ballads that Dowd had produced. At the time Gillespie was listening to Aretha Franklin’s classic Spirit In The Dark album recorded with the Dixie Flyers, especially the song “The Thrill Is Gone”. The classic FAME/ Muscle Shoals rhythm section of Swampers bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins, who played on records by Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Leon Russell, Sam & Dave and Cher, were enlisted. Also on the sessions were The Memphis Horns.
Surely the blend of Brit indie darlings and Southern US soul legends would produce magic? A modern day “Dusty In Memphis”?
Apparently not. The end result was rejected by Alan McGee who thought the recordings sounded “flat”, blaming Dowd’s hearing which he described – perhaps unfairly – as “shot by then” (Dowd was sixty six years old).
McGee enlisted Black Crowes producer George Drakoulis to work on new mixes for “Jailbird” and “Rocks”, and credits him with “saving” the album.
There’s no doubting the quality of the two Drakoulias tracks. They are punchy. Drakoulias removed the rhythm section and put in big break beats. It became a hit, more pop, more glam – Gillespie says “the original probably wouldn’t have been a hit”. The remixing didn’t stop at two tracks, however. Other tracks were re-recorded, starting with “Call On Me” with Kenney Jones from the Small Faces. And this, according to Gillespie, is where they went wrong…the record became more fractured and in Gillespie’s view “we lost what we were trying to achieve in Memphis.”
At the time the revamped album was criticised for sounding derivative, especially of The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and The Black Crowes. Primal Scream had been indie darlings repurposing dance music with guitars to create a blend of acid rock and acid house – something new. It seemed odd to contemporary observers they should then become such throwbacks: old-fashioned Black Crowes and Rolling Stones wannabes. Not only were they drinking and living like 1970s rock stars, they sounded like them too.
No-one in 1994, argued the critics, wanted to listen to a record that sounded like it had been made in 1974.
Thankfully, in 2018, we don’t mind at all listening to records that sound like they were made in 1974. We also have the benefit of knowing that Primal Scream went on to make a catalogue of exploratory albums like Vanishing Point and XTRMNTR. “Give Out…” must have come as a shock to fans hoping for Screamadelica II. We no longer carry those expectations.
With the passing of time we now have the chance to judge for ourselves: Was McGee right? Or was Gillespie’s instinct to make a record that was more a “downer” and which evoked the timeless soul records they so admired the correct one? Because the original recordings from Memphis have been rediscovered and released under the creative title of “Give Out But Don’t Give Up – The Original Memphis Recordings”
Two years ago Primal Scream bassist Andrew Innes found the tapes, previously believed lost (which just about sums up Primal Scream and Creation Records in 1993) in his basement.
And Bobby Gillespie says now he is convinced they are “clearly superior to what came out before”.
The “new” (ie original) version of Jailbird certainly accentuates the horn section, and is more laid back, and more funky than the Drakoulias revamp.
But “Give Out But Don’t Give Up” was never completely about the tracks that rocked. Much of the album was slower paced, road-weary jams of the sort that Exile on Main Street has in spades. And these tracks are the ones that now shine.
Gillespie is now sharing his memories of making the album – last night he was signing albums at an event at Rough Trade. While conceding the Drakoulias mixes were right for the time, he spoke fondly of working with Dowd (for whom the biggest challenge was trying to understand the Primal’s Scottish accents) and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Furthermore a documentary about the making of the album has been made and will be released later this year. It’s a fascinating story, and the recordings are a worthy addition to the Primal Scream canon, well worth a listen.
As (the now sober and reflective) Bobby Gillespie explains:
“I think it sounds timeless now, whereas the album released (back then) sounds like it was made in the nineties. Maybe it’s Primal Scream’s best playing. It’s probably my favourite Primal Scream record. It’s probably the most rock n roll record.”