Screamadelica: Why Primal Scream’s 1991 Opus was the Most Important Album of
the Year

1991 is remembered by many as the year that “punk” broke: the year that Nirvana’s Nevermind signaled the death of glam metal and prompted a revolution in the music industry. But to be fair, Nirvana, and many of their contemporaries, were still trafficking in guitar music. Angry, inspired and powerful guitar music, but yeah, it was still guitar music that was rooted in the past.

Over in the UK, the most important and forward-thinking music was dance music, particularly house music. The kids who organized raves and ran pirate radio stations were inspired by the DIY ethics of punk. But the music was futuristic, and producers made no attempt at referencing pop music’s past. While many balked at the rise of house music, its cultural reach was undeniable. If you were serious about music or youth culture, there was no way you could ignore it.

At the end of 1989, things looked grim for Primal Scream. Despite a promising early run of singles on Creation Records, their debut album, Sonic Flower Groove, was over-polished and short on tunes. Their second release, Primal Scream, was marginally better but managed to alienate the twee cognoscenti due to the band’s open embrace of the MC5, The Stooges, long hair and leather trousers and all things “rawk.”

But it wasn’t a total disaster. One of the more powerful tracks on the self-titled album was a ballad called “I’m Losing More than I’ll Ever Have.” This tune caught the attention of DJ and journalist Andrew Weatherall. Weatherall became friendly with the group and, after writing a favorable live review, was asked to do a remix. Despite Weatherall’s lack of studio experience, the DJ returned (after six or seven attempts) with “Loaded,” a stunning remix that stripped down the song and filtered it through acid house, dub reggae, and minimal electronica.

The band and the staff at Creation were floored. When a white label pressing of the song was played at West London’s Subterranean club, the crowd went wild and started singing the “woo woo’s” from “Sympathy for the Devil.” Even more surprising was the fact that “Loaded” managed to crossover and generate mainstream success. The song peaked at #16 on the UK charts, and the band was invited to perform on Top of The Pops. Suddenly, Primal Scream was “it.”

In an attempt to keep the momentum going and prove that “Loaded” wasn’t a one off, Creation founder Alan McGee put the band on a modest weekly retainer and insisted that they get to work.  But due to continuing financial woes, a steep technological learning curve, and a continued love of all things party, progress was slow. “Come Together” was eventually released as a single in November of 1990, which was around the time that full-time work on the album actually began. (A remix of “Come Together” appeared on the final album.) Weatherall was asked to return to the boards, this time joined by fellow DJ Tony Martin and Hugo Nicholson, who served as engineer and programmer.

Sonically, the album was all over the place.

The Scream’s newfound love of clubbing, coupled with their heavy recreational drug use, heavily informed the making of Screamadelica. While members of the Scream and Creation Boss Alan McGee were visitors, not regulars, at clubs like Shoom or Spectrum, the influence of the music and the drugs in those clubs were not lost on them. Tracks like “Higher Than the Sun” (produced by the Orb and featuring Jah Wobble, formerly of PiL), “Inner Flight,” and “I’m Comin’ Down” anticipated downtempo several years before the term came into use. Heroin had yet to make entrance into the band’s orbit, so much of the band’s chemical inspiration came from ecstasy, speed, alcohol, and one unfortunate night on Heminevrin.

Despite their conversion to house, Primal Scream was still indebted to rock, but they were less self-conscious and more willing to put their own stamp on the music. Their lineup had finally settled (ex-Felt keyboard player Martin Duffy is indeed the star of the album), and their musicianship had also improved significantly. They coolly explored the bluesier (“Damaged”) and gospel (“Movin’ On Up”) areas of the Rolling Stones’ back catalog during the sessions for Screamadelica.  (Ex-Stones Producer, Jimmy Miller, mixed both of these tunes, his last work before succumbing to liver failure in 1992.)

They also incorporated the wild, acid-drenched psychedelia of The 13th Floor Elevators with a cover of “Trip Inside This House,” reimagined as “Slip Inside This House,” a fusion of house-y piano, droning tambouras, spaced-out vocals, and a searing guitar solo.

It should be noted that there are no credits as to who played what on Screamadelica. This led some critics to believe that the album was entirely the work of the production team. But according to Nicholson, Primal Scream not only used samplers to sample instruments they couldn’t play (e.g., tabla, flute) but also sampled themselves; live takes of songs were stripped down and reshaped using samplers, sequencers, and drum machines. Everyone played every instrument, but not everyone in the band was on every track, and that was okay. The end result was a record that was unlike anything else at the time. Much like their label mates My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream successfully created their own musical language.

Screamadelica was given a low-key release by Creation Records in October 1991, 18 months after the release of “Loaded” and only a month before MBV’s Loveless. The label had no idea what to expect, so only 60,000 copies were pressed. When those were sold out by the end of the week, the label rush ordered a larger pressing. The album was a critical and commercial smash and even went on to win the first Mercury Prize in 1992. Notoriously, Primal Scream and their entourage were so sauced during the ceremony that they left immediately after the ceremony and managed to lose the $20,000 check while out celebrating.

Screamadelica established a link between rock’s history and dance music’s futurism. Thanks to their sheer determination and technological ignorance, Primal Scream managed to produce an album that was without precedent. Screamadelica pointed towards dance music’s compatibility with live rock instrumentation and opened the door to a new era of cross-pollination.

Indeed, Guy-Manuel de Homen Christo of Daft Punk cited the album as an early source of inspiration, “….one of the albums first to set off an explosion in our heads.” Most importantly, the Scream succeeded at making the new and challenging music they’d always threatened to make. And with the rising influence of electronic music in American pop, we can only pray that more bands will finally forget about Nevermind and start crafting their own beautiful future.

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