Published on February 4th, 2019 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Panned Gold: Primal Scream – ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’
In this instalment of Panned Gold, Kimmer takes a look at the much-maligned ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up,’ Primal Scream’s follow up to ‘Screamadelica.’
Panned Gold is our way of reminding music fans of the wealth we miss out on when we adhere to a critic or algorithm’s notion of ‘the best.’ Albums that deserve to be heard, but for many reasons, have become known as missteps or duds.
In 1994, Primal Scream released ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up,’ the three-years-later response to their third album and genre defining, smash hit, Creation Records inspiring ‘Screamadelica.’ It sucked.
But did it? Really?
Nearly 25 years later, Primal Scream guitarist, Andrew Innes, found their original, untampered intentions on a cassette tape in his basement. After much effort and careful cataloguing (see the BBC documentary The Lost Memphis Tapes), 2018 brought us a hey-look-what-we-meant-to-give-you version of an album unfairly burdened by historical distain.
After the sudden explosion of ‘Screamadelica,’ the Scream were tasked with making another hit record, something that they really didn’t know how to do. Not exactly. So, after much procrastination — like years — the wee band from Glasgow headed to Memphis, Tennessee to find legendary producer Tom Down (Ben E. King; John Coltrane; The Drifters; Ray Charles; Dusty Springfield; Aretha Franklin; Derek & The Dominos; The Allman Brothers; Rod Stewart…do I really have to keep listing?). He was an early pioneer and master of multi-track recording, a real snag for the burgeoning Scream.
A couple of big things happened for the band immediately. First was a swift and radical change of direction in style. This is nothing new, as many contemporary artists did the very same thing, with varying degrees of success. R.E.M. made ‘Automatic For the People’ in 1992 and followed with ‘Monster’ in 1994; The Beastie Boys made ‘Licence to Ill’ in 1986 and followed with ‘Paul’s Boutique’ in 1989; Weezer made ‘The Blue Album’ in 1994 and followed with ‘Pinkerton’ in 1996 and Ween messed with your mind on every single song they ever made.
To directly address this sudden change in direction by Primal Scream, I must say that this is not their ‘Rattle and Hum.’ This is more of a deer-in-headlights effect for Primal Scream than it was for U2, the, “worlds most important band,” who decided to live out some ill-conceived fantasy of crossing musical and cultural boundaries they hadn’t yet earned the right to cross. Perhaps if a more realistic version of ‘Rattle and Hum’ came out now, a [required] humble and penitent U2 might have found it to be their updated passport to change their sound and therefore gain the real power to get another look from a world that is nearly blind to them. But you have ‘Rattle and Hum’ instead, so suck it up.
The second big thing that happened for Primal Scream, one of the comments I kept hearing from band interviews, is that they had never played with a really great drummer before the Muscle Shoals session players in Memphis. Imagine you’ve been playing on a football team with, more or less, the same players for six years and you’ve never had a great quarterback. Suddenly, you have one. A period of adjustment through experiment is a foregone conclusion, a necessity, the smartest road to take. So what ‘Give’ and ‘The Memphis Tapes’ provide is behind-the-scenes footage of a good team looking for the missing ingredient(s), finding its confidence to be innovative and, God willing, unstoppable. But first, a few growing pains and along with them, some classic and definitive Primal Scream sounds.
I had so much bloody fun revisiting all my Primal Scream albums while writing this, the fact that I find the article itself a meaningless byproduct of a fun night basically makes my entire point for me. My wife took our dog to the lake for the weekend, and I felt like a teenager whose parents have left town for the weekend (sorry, honey! Love you!). The records and CDs and drinks and smokes came out, and I blasted the stereo at a volume Lemmy Kilmister would approve of. As I reflected upon and considered these recordings and the value of them, I recalled a line from the book I was reading, Espidair Street by Iain Banks. And the line in the book – a book about a Scottish rock star looking back and telling his tale of stardom – struck me: “If you did nothing but give people what they already like, there’d be no new sounds at all (a state it’s possible to feel we are already fast approaching if you listen to some radio stations).” And it made all the more sense to me that, at this point in their careers, the Scream were trying to find new sounds.
They were trying to find new sounds for album #4. Albums #1 and #2 were a band trying to find their own, often tripping over the sound of other bands on their way. But they were on their way somewhere important. In just a few short years, the Scream would develop an envious sonic palette. During ‘Give,’ Primal Scream experiment with where to put things in the mix, and the 1994 version of this sounds like they got a little confused and didn’t know where to put anything. Some of the saxophone sound on the 1994 version sounds more Miami Vice than Clarence Clemons or Bobby Keys. Over-production was everywhere, and it didn’t help. On the other hand, Bobby Gillespie’s vocals got better and the session guys on drums and horns were holding the Scottish rockers accountable. That, and giving them some serious ideas about the value of more complicated beats. It is knowledge would soon to be used to anchor the spectacular mayhem and sonic psychosis of guitars and synth that was just around the corner.
In just a few short years, the Scream would release ‘Vanishing Point,’ where they really began to experiment with your patience and their sonic threshold. On that one, and subsequent singles surrounding it, they clearly asked, what if we put everything at the top of the mix all the time? Fair question, so those mixing boards went up to 11. That line of reasoning gave birth to the 1998 EP, ‘If They Move, Kill ‘Em’ featuring a cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s (for whom drummer-turned-singer Bobby Gillespie pounded toms and cymbals for in the mid-80s) ‘Darklands.’ If you’ve ever wondered what drugs do but couldn’t be arsed to actually take them, listen to this EP in your car or on your headphones with your eyes closed at high volume. By the time you feel like you’ve been sitting there forever (about 5 – 10 minutes, depending) and you decide to get up, you’ll just watch from above as your body drips and melts back into stoic sitting position. The amount of patience, of slow release, Primal Scream execute on their cover of ‘Darklands’ is something the brothers Reid never ventured into. Instead, the Mary Chain almost (comparatively) prance their way through the song. Like someone skipping, but sarcastically. From there, the Scream were just a step away from their jagged, furious, foot-stomping, dance club protest siren ‘XTRMNTR.’ Going completely mad hadn’t sounded that good since My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 masterclass, ‘Loveless.’
And so, building up progressively to those moments, the Scream experimented on ‘Give.’ Denise Johnson was a major part of how this worked, a real member of the band. Look at her photo on the inlay of the album: gorgeous, healthy, radiant, and rockin’ some very voluptuous hair. Now flip one page back to the “band” – pale, unwashed, and fucked-up on more drugs than you can find at a Miami shipping port. Johnson looks like the worlds luckiest fan, caught up in a moment of equanimity, rather than a hired hand. She was so much more than that. Johnson was critical and contributing member of a group trying desperately to find itself after just one (albeit huge) successful record.
I don’t want to talk about the first three tracks on ‘Give.’ They’re awesome. Guitar licks to envy, quotable lyrics to croon, the compelling urge to call all your friends over and pour sloppy drinks. Maybe all this material between the original release and the 2018 ‘Memphis Recordings’ is a (Flaming Lips) ‘Zaireeka’ or Olivia Tremor Control experiment where it’s up to you, the interactive audience, to design this quilt of sonic tapestry. Maybe between the ‘Give’ they gave you in 1994 and the extended, less polished and more natural ‘Give’ they just gave you, there is a mix of tracks that satisfies everyone. Time for a second listen. Or a third. Or a first, again, for the second time – depending on how you look at it.
On the new recordings is ‘Memphis Groove’ – this is good jam! What’s you’re favourite jam? Strawberry? Raspberry? Grape? This jam is better. And ‘Big Jet Plane’ reminds me of stock band footage from the 70s, washed out and grainy, frames flipping by slightly out of step with reality. It’s for the end of a movie, and maybe even a great movie. A criticism of Primal Scream is that they sound like a lacking Rolling Stones, which may be true to some extent, but by that line of reasoning, what should we say about Oasis, kings of the world in 1994/95? Were they not The Beatles, but lacking? People don’t seem as bothered by that.
And so, Memphis recordings in hand, the band returned home to deliver the recordings to Alan McGee who says, “Yer all well fucked oan drugs and cannae put this record oot. Ahm gonnae sort it.” In comes George Drakoulias (The Cult; The Black Crowes; Tom Petty) to re-mix, punch up and reconfigure the record for official release. And it…flops. Record #4 is lacklustre by the measurement of the day. Record #3 required no patience – it’s all panic in waves of drug ecstasy and bliss and hallucinogenic fever euphoria. ‘Give’ was the first attempt by the Scream to reach for the ages, to slow you down when you wanted to be out of control, and make you listen.
‘Give’ made me really consider the pressure of making a record when you know that if people don’t like it, they might get upset. And they get upset because they feel angry that you wronged them. And once people are angry, they don’t want you to do better – they want to hurt you back. More so now than in 1994 or 1964. Word just travelled slower then. But now? You make a bad record and within hours: Instagram posts Snapchat on Twitter via Facebook: ‘Shit band ruins Earth for All Humans.’ You almost can’t take chances, not with music and not with anything. Look at all the cars around us that all look the same. Remember when car companies could just dream shit up? (Hello? DeLorean? Think, McFly!) They’d make a car they thought looked cool, and if it didn’t sell – so what? Build another one. Try that in today’s market. One failure of an automotive deviation from the mass and you’ll destroy your brand. Or your band.
We saw Primal Scream live in Toronto a couple years back, playing to a crowd of under 1000. We were lucky enough to be right at the front (because I made my wife go super early with me). The highlight of my night was after the very last note and thank you! goodnight! as the band gave their final waves to the audience. My wife turned to me and gleefully asked, What the fuck did we just see?! That, my love, is a band with 30 years of live shows, jet planes, drink and drugs, laughter and record sales, a band of notoriety and infamy, innovators and rock stars, still to this day living their mantra: Give Out But Don’t Give Up.
Moments after this, my wife was given a crumpled set list by touring bass player and stunning rock star, Simone Butler. Framed and reverent, it hangs above our basement bar.