Just What Is It That You Want To Do?

Loaded by Primal Scream (Creation, 1990).

This is a – lengthy – extract from Higher Than The Sun, my book telling the story of four albums by Saint Etienne, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub that were released within days of each other late in 1991. Higher Than The Sun was a deliberate attempt to do something a bit different; I was a bit bored of being limited to primarily archive television-related material, and was also feeling increasingly unhappy with some of the less ideologically pleasant ‘better in the old days’ following that I’d picked up as a result of concentrating on those areas, and so I decided to literally indulge one of my other great loves – ‘indie’ music from the days before Britpop came along and changed everything. You can find more on the book and the reasons that I wrote it in this interview that I did with Creation Records.

That said, for the benefit of those that aren’t familiar with any of this – which I’m guessing will be more than a few of you – these four albums (all of which, not even remotely coincidentally, were released by Creation Records – well, you’ll have to read the book to find out how that applies to Saint Etienne) were remarkable and musically groundbreaking achievements, especially for bands working with a low budget and continually embarking on gruelling tours of dingy venues in the hope of breaking even. What’s more, they represented what was arguably the last occasion on which ‘indie’ music attempted to crash the mainstream entirely on its own terms, rather than playing by everyone else’s rules. More to the point, they had a surprisingly intertwined history stretching all the way back to the NME’s legendary ‘C86’ cassette, and in some cases even further than that. It’s all a lot more interesting than it sounds, honest.

As I say on the back cover, it’s a story that starts with a compilation tape, ends with a jawdropping act of career suicide, and in the middle someone gets chased by a cow. I knew this was going to be a much less strong seller than the other books from the outset, but that wasn’t really the point. I enjoyed every second of researching and writing it, and it gave me a renewed enthusiasm and overall I would say it’s the book that I’m most proud of. Also, it gave me a foot in the door with an entirely different kind of audience, and I cannot tell you how pleased I was to get the thumbs-up from music fans well used to rolling their eyes at badly researched and contextually baffling ‘histories’ of the bands and scenes they are devoted to. Hopefully, though, you might want to give it a try now too. In all honesty it’s really not that far removed from my more familiar work, both in terms of subject matter and approach. If you need any further convincing, this is the story of how Primal Scream came to record their landmark single Loaded, which had started off as an entirely different song that had almost single-handedly put a stop to their career, until help came from an unlikely source. If you are convinced, you can get Higher Than The Sun in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

As the eighties drew to a close, many below-par bands would laughably attempt jump on the ‘Madchester’ bandwagon by effectively doing little more than buying a drum machine and playing their existing songs over the top, but for the earliest and best outfits to explore this new possibility, the influence was more pervasive and fundamental, allowing their exposure to dance music to deconstruct and rebuild everything about their attitude to making music from songwriting to arrangement. The most hotly tipped by some distance, The Stone Roses saw parallels in modern electronic sounds with their love of The Byrds, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, producing mesmerising, transcendental guitar pop with a danceable swagger that sat somewhere between House Music and Motown; even on their more laid-back and psychedelic moments, notably the hypnotic Waterfall, there was a sense that they were emulating the insistent sequencer-driven nature of dance music rather than traditional guitar pop structures. Inspiral Carpets welded thumping, shuffling beats to a Sixties-influenced organ sound consciously modelled on Acid House sequencer patterns, while Happy Mondays – who, to an extent, looked towards early seventies funk rather than sixties influences – were characterised by the arresting beat poetry lyrics of Shaun Ryder, and the crucial hands-on support of a rising breed of ‘superstar’ DJ.

Coming from entirely the opposite direction, 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald were straightforward dance music artists who had started to incorporate more traditional rock instrumentation into their music, effectively meeting their contemporaries in the middle; indeed, some of Inspiral Carpets’ early material was produced by 808 State. In the wake of this first wave of acts came the no less intriguing likes of The Charlatans, Candy Flip, Northside and New FADS. More to the point, influenced whether directly or through association by the communal nature of raves and the chilled-out euphoria induced by its chosen intoxicant, the music and the lyrical themes were becoming more upbeat and positive, and were more likely to be about environmental issues, panoramic landscapes or cult films than any of the more traditional obsessions of ‘indie’. By the summer, a huge amount of media attention was being focused on ‘Madchester’, and many of the acts were starting to nudge ever closer to the top forty. Creation Records, at that point, had no comparable artists on their roster.

When Primal Scream’s comeback single Ivy Ivy Ivy appeared in August 1989, however, it became obvious that they were still looking towards Manchester, California rather than Manchester, England, and its bluesy riffing, pounding piano and flighty harmonies found few takers. Although reviewers seemed to initially be well disposed towards the selftitled parent album Primal Scream, which would follow in September, even by the time that it was released it had already been overshadowed by developments elsewhere and found itself struggling for exposure; ultimately the album would not only fail to chart, but even fall some considerable distance short of debut album Sonic Flower Groove’s less than staggering sales figures. As the end of the eighties loomed, it was The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets who found themselves grabbing all of the attention and broaching the top twenty – famously causing the first two of the above to appear on the same edition of Top Of The Pops as each other – and they would be followed there in early in 1990 by the likes of Candy Flip and The Charlatans.

Primal Scream by Primal Scream (Creation, 1989).

Any initial thoughts at Creation and indeed elsewhere that Primal Scream had made a great album soon gave way to concerns that they had made one that was desperately out of step with the times. Music press interest was minimal, to the extent that Creation press officer Jeff Barrett recalls the band suggesting in desperation that they should do some interviews with technical guitar magazines as an attempt to at least get some exposure. Creation rapidly lost interest in the album when it became depressingly obvious that it was unlikely to take off, and – more worryingly – the band’s previously considerable fanbase appeared to be following suit. What should have been a triumphant Christmas show at London’s Subterranean turned into a disaster when only a handful of people turned up, with even some of the band’s closest friends making excuses and staying away. One of the few who did make the effort was Lawrence from their labelmates Felt, who was moved to conclude that the eighties idea of ‘indie’ was over; he would see in the New Year by heading for America and planning a serious rethink of his career. Though by all accounts the band played a remarkable set that night, the members of Primal Scream were doubtless experiencing similar thoughts, left with several months of promotional work left to do on an album that they now really wanted to just put behind them. The last track on the first side of Primal Scream, I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, seemed to have suddenly taken on a new and ironic meaning. Yet as the nineties dawned, it would be that song, and a key figure in the scene that they had found themselves excluded from, that would change everything for Primal Scream.

Although there is always a tendency to greet a new decade with what can sometimes be misplaced optimism, in January 1990 it seemed that Creation had finally found the band that would make the label, and indie music in general, into a commercial force to be reckoned with. Presciently described in the first issue of NME of the nineties as ‘the band who’ll shake up the independents’, Oxford-based Ride combined a keen desire for stardom with a love of feedback, close harmony and chiming melodies. Fronted by the photogenic Mark Gardener, Ride were both musically adventurous and a formidable live act. Having been obsessive fans of Felt, The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine during their schooldays, they were also very much in favour of being seen as a ‘Creation Band’, and eagerly signed to the label on a far longer term basis than any other act had previously. This fairly audacious move was to pay off handsomely; in January their debut release the Ride EP, hinged around infectious lead track Chelsea Girl and the sweeping drawn-out Drive Blind, garnered a good deal of critical praise and became the first Creation single ever to enter the top seventy five of the singles chart. April’s Play EP and its radio-friendly lead track Like A Daydream then took them into the top forty, but it was with the release of the Fall EP in September – and in particular lead track Taste, which combined powerful dance beats, cavernous vocals and a ‘wall of noise’ arrangement with a catchy singalong melody – that they really demonstrated their full potential. In October, their rapturously reviewed debut album Nowherewould only narrowly miss the top ten.

Along with the likes of Chapterhouse, Moose, Lush and fellow Creation signings Slowdive, Ride were part of a wave of My Bloody Valentine-influenced bands primarily from the South of England, whom the music press had rather dismissively tagged together as ‘Shoegazers’, in reference to their alleged habit of spending more time looking at their numerous guitar effects pedals than at the audience. Though few would have conceded it at the time, the ‘Shoegazing’ sound actually had a good deal in common with that associated with Madchester, and correspondingly there was a significant amount of crossover between their respective fanbases. This was certainly good news for the supposed Shoegazers, as 1990 saw many of their Northern counterparts on the verge of becoming phenomenally successful. The Stone Roses would only narrowly miss out on topping the charts with One Love[1], and staged a series of landmark live events – most famously the Spike Island concert held on an actual island in the River Mersey – that were virtually minifestivals in their own right. Happy Mondays meanwhile enjoyed ever stronger chart showings, particularly following the release of their third album Pills’n’Thrills’n’Bellyaches in November, and despite their occasionally somewhat haphazard approach to promotion they were even starting to make inroads into the American market. The Charlatans – whose early releases had served notice that there was much more musical substance to them than the initial accusations of bandwagon-jumping had suggested – scored a series of sizeable radio-friendly hits, while the more personable Inspiral Carpets were not only rarely out of the charts but rarely off children’s television; indeed, one of the strangest offshoots of the whole Madchester phenomenon was that the BBC launched an unusually fashion-conscious Saturday Morning children’s show named The 8:15 From Manchester, produced at their Manchester studios and intended to capitalise on the popularity of the scene. Its catchy theme music was a rewrite of the band’s recent single Find Out Why.

Ivy Ivy Ivy by Primal Scream (Creation, 1989).

As the year progressed, all manner of geographically and musically associated acts from Candy Flip to Northside would find themselves the subject of unanticipated chart success and media attention, something that was often evidenced by certain bands’ uncomfortable and recalcitrant nature in interviews, while countless others desperately tried to readjust their sound accordingly in the hope of sharing in indie music’s sudden commercial viability. Even Primal Scream’s old rivals The Soupdragons managed to get in on the act with a wah-wah drenched gospel-influenced cover of the obscure Rolling Stones album track I’m Free, which brought them a top ten placing and earned them the disdain of the music press for some years to come. Meanwhile, in London, a young four-piece band who seemed to combine the best qualities of both Madchester and Shoegazing and boasted a highly photogenic frontman and an immensely talented guitarist alongside impressive songwriting skills were being hurried into the studio by EMI’s alternative subsidiary Food; at the insistence of the label, they had recently changed their name to Blur.

Primal Scream’s most recent album had hardly exactly found favour with followers of either vogueish indie-dance genre, but almost by chance it caught the ear of one of the DJs who had helped to shape the indie-dance sound in the first place. Andrew Weatherall had initially sought a career as a writer rather than a musician; with his associate Terry Farley, he had started a fanzine called Boy’s Own, an ebullient and ramshackle affair that sought to draw a connecting line between their shared passions for football, fashion and music. At that point, their favoured listening matter was ‘Rare Groove’, the obscure rediscovered seventies deep funk tracks that had become a short-lived phenomenon in London clubs[2], but this would change in a dramatic and career-defining fashion when their work on the fanzine brought them into the orbit of the pioneers of a new and radical dance music scene. Having – more by accident than design – chimed with the widespread obsessions of the emergent movement, Boy’s Own had become favoured reading matter amongst the early ‘Balearic Beat’ crowd that converged on Danny Rampling’s club Shoom, intended to cater for dancers who had discovered the laid-back House Music-spinoff sound whilst on hedonistic holidays to Ibiza. As an avid reader of Boys Own, Rampling had sensed that Weatherall and Farley would enjoy the sounds he was playing and invited them along to Shoom; the effect that exposure to this new and fairly radical strain of dance music and clubbing culture would have on them was both immediate and revolutionary.

Virtually overnight, Weatherall and Farley had become devoted converts to the emergent scene, putting their previous experience as DJs to good use and securing a residency at Shoom, as well as Paul Oakenfold’s Phuture and Spectrum club nights, and Nicky Holloway’s Trip. The latter is widely considered to have been the first to use a musical label that was quickly becoming associated with the scene – ‘Acid House’, in reference to a particularly harsh and repetitive yet anthemic variant of the sound – and many credit the eclectic and adventurous Weatherall and Farley, who would think nothing of mixing musically suitable tracks by artists as diverse as abrasive prog rockers Van Der Graaf Generator, indie janglers The Woodentops and MOR rocker Chris Rea into their sets if they suited the beat and tempo, as the true pioneers of not just Acid House itself but also both the modern dance music mix style and the ‘superstar DJ’ culture in general. The pair also soon established their own record label, named Boy’s Own in tribute to the fanzine which had by now undergone a radical change in approach, and their eclectic tastes had stood them in good stead when they were commissioned late in 1989 to work with Oakenfold on a series of remixes of Happy Mondays’ breakthrough top twenty hit Hallelujah. This latter experiment would subsequently prove to be the catalyst for another collaboration that would dramatically change the fortunes of everybody involved.

I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have by Primal Scream (Creation, 1989).

The popularity of Boy’s Own had also led to Weatherall developing a sideline as a music journalist, and it was in this capacity that the NME sent him to a Primal Scream concert late in 1989; this was largely at the instigation of live editor and longtime fan of Primal Scream Helen Mead, who had astutely realised that what the floundering band really needed at that point was support from someone outside of their core audience. Though largely unimpressed with their set as a whole, feeling that the songs were not really strong enough and that the more upbeat numbers simply didn’t work in live performance[3], he had nonetheless been somewhat taken with the mid-paced ballad I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, going on to mention it favourably in his review and subsequently working it into his DJ sets. The band had been introduced to Weatherall after the show and had got on well with him, despite his mixed feelings about their musical approach, to the extent that he was booked as the warm-up DJ for the ill-fated Christmas show at The Vortex. Already the two unlikely allies were finding something approaching a common ground, and with a planned single release of I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have in the offing, guitarist Andrew Innes began to formulate an idea for a way out of their apparent creative and commercial dead-end.

As Creation had already recorded a recent Primal Scream concert in New York to plunder for forthcoming b-sides, there was room within the single’s allocated budget to allow for a dance remix; this was not really an option that Creation had ever pursued before with any other acts, but recent developments in the music scene had left them with little choice but to at least experiment with the concept. Innes, however, felt there was little point in simply adding new drums to an existing track when they could theoretically make a dance record of their own, and duly approached Weatherall with the idea of rebuilding I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have from the ground up as a new track in its own right; or as Innes put it to him, ‘just destroy it’. Excited by the suggestion, Weatherall had enthusiastically agreed, and over the course of a handful of sessions, the new track began to take shape. Far from being simply being engaged as a producer, Weatherall was treated in the sessions as essentially an auxiliary member of the band with ideas and contributions of his own; lead vocalist Bobby Gillespie would later remark that using a dance music artist in this manner was something that he saw as being very much in the spirit of punk rock.

Weatherall was given access to the original multitrack master tape of I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, and elected to break the song down into its individual instrumental components; a short brass flourish from near the end of the track became a huge fanfare that drove its new incarnation[4], and the band were called on to re-record some instrumental segments to go with it. Adding samples of a drum break borrowed from the typically unlikely source of a 12” mix of What I Am by American folk-rocker Edie Brickell[5], the chorus from seventies funk act (and Rare Groove scene favourites) The Emotions’ I Don’t Want To Lose Your Love, and Gillespie singing a couple of lines from thirties guitarist Robert Johnson’s Terraplane Blues to compensate for his unease about the removal of his vocals, the new track was virtually complete when Weatherall decided that what it really needed was an arresting spoken word intro. Inspiration came in the form of a rebellious speech by Peter Fonda in the controversial 1966 biker movie The Wild Angels[6], which chimed neatly with the growing feelings of anger at the government’s plans to crack down on rave culture. It was this defiant, confrontational burst of speech that gave the new track – the word ‘remix’ was no longer really applicable – its name; Loaded.

Loaded by Primal Scream (Creation, 1990).

Sensing that they had produced something truly exceptional, Weatherall arranged for Terry Farley to produce another alternative version of Loaded, this time introducing more elements from I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have itself including several of the actual verses; this was an astute move that would widen the track’s appeal considerably, based on their observation of trends within the dance music scene that suggested that DJs enjoyed having a ‘different’ version to experiment with, and indeed that fans enjoyed collecting multiple remixes. In addition to this, and at his own instigation, Weatherall himself came up with a 7” edit of Loaded that cut the running time from seven minutes to just short of four without losing any of the impact, and was intentionally crafted to suit the demands of daytime radio; accompanied by a video that cunningly combined trippy tinted slow-motion visuals of the band with The Wild Angels-inspired footage of them on motorbikes, this was perhaps the most carefully mainstream-targeted single that the label had released to date. Although many at Creation were initially unsure about the project – and indeed, only a couple of months earlier, Gillespie had made a point of stating in interviews that he felt that he could never produce anything resembling a ‘dance’ record – virtually everyone who heard the advance tapes of Loaded was immediately bowled over by it, with the result that a last minute decision was made to promote the edit to the a-side of the forthcoming single[7]. Test pressings had drawn encouraging feedback from club DJs, with one crowd reacting with sufficient enthusiasm to provoke an excited Weatherall to telephone Gillespie at 4am to tell him about it. Back at Creation, recently appointed press officer Laurence Verfaillie had set aside an afternoon for phoning music magazines to draw their attention to Loaded, only to find that virtually every office that she called already had the track playing in the background.

However, even despite these positive signs, few were prepared for just how decisively the single would break through to a wider audience. On its release in February 1990, Loaded was unexpectedly playlisted by Radio 1, and as a consequence it slowly started to climb up the top forty, eventually peaking at number sixteen in March and earning the band a well-remembered appearance on Top Of The Pops. That Loaded was so well received is in retrospect hardly surprising; it stands apart from pretty much anything else that was happening in dance music around that point, audibly positioned somewhere DJ culture and ‘real’ music, and it was clear that whether by accident or design, Primal Scream had stumbled across an exciting and truly original direction. How far they would be able to pursue this direction, though, was a different matter; as if to underline the difficulty that they would find in distancing themselves from their musical past and long-established image, the cover art featured Robert Young in a pose very much recalling the previous album’s imagery, while the primary b-side of the single was a live cover of MC5’s Ramblin’ Rose.

Screamadelica by Primal Scream (Creation, 1991).

[1] Many of their earlier singles were also reissued during 1990, becoming substantial hits in the process.
[2] ‘Rare Groove’, largely based around forgotten funk/soul records by the likes of The Jackson Sisters and James Brown associates Sweet Charles, Lyn Collins and Maceo Parker, went hand in hand with the early UK house and hip-hop scene, which would look very much towards the early seventies for cultural reference points; the influence of Rare Groove can be clearly detected in early singles by the likes of Bomb The Bass, S’Express and The Funky Worm.
[3] Their live set still included a number of songs from Sonic Flower Groove at this point, purely in the hope of at least retaining their existing fanbase, and it’s possible that Weatherall may actually have been reacting to these rather than to anything from the second album.
[4] This was a gambit that Weatherall would use in several other remixes around this time, notably his reworking of James’ 1990 single Come Home.
[5] What I Am had been a minor hit in the UK early in 1989.
[6] Widely described as ‘banned’, The Wild Angels had in fact had a UK cinema certificate – albeit in slightly cut form – since the late sixties. However there had been some debate over its proposed home video release in the late eighties.
[7] This decision was in fact made so late in the day that there wasn’t time to recall the first batch of pressings of the single, with the result that early copies on some formats featured Loaded as the third track despite being listed first on the sleeve.

Buy A Book!

This is an extract from Higher Than The Sun, the story of Screamadelica by Primal Scream, Foxbase Alpha by Saint Etienne, Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub and Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, and how, long before Britpop, Creation Records took on the world and nearly won. Higher Than The Sun is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. There may attempts to remix it into a more creatively adventurous coffee.

Further Reading

This Is Television Freedom is a further extract from Higher Than The Sun looking at The KLF’s antics at the Brit Awards in 1992; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can find some more chat about Screamadelica – and Channel 4’s Christmas television schedules in 1991 – in Looks Unfamiliar with Garreth Hirons here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.