Primal Scream are back hollering for the left

Saturday, May 11, 2013
Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie. Photo: Tomas Correa Arce

More Light
Primal Scream
First International
Released May 13, 2013

British indie rockers Primal Scream are best known for Screamadelica, the breakout dance-crossover album that embraced ravers in a sweaty bear hug in 1991 and left them in a state of blissed-out awe.

The band resurrected Screamadelica for its 20th anniversary in 2011, playing the album in its hedonistic whole on a worldwide tour that included Australia. It may have seemed like a cynical cash-in, but it gave Primal Scream the confidence and space to bring back their lesser-known side - their politics.

With nine-minute epics, jazz-tinged breakdowns and swirling psychedelia, their new album, More Light, is not only their most musically accomplished long-player, it is also their most politically potent. The album's opener and lead single, "2013", sets the tone:

21st century slaves
A peasant underclass
Television, propaganda, fear
How long will this shit last?
Punk rock came and went and nothing changed
It was just a pose
Every generation buys the last
Just like the one before
What happened to the voices of dissent?
Getting rich I guess
Become part of the establishment
Power corrupts the best

The radical politics of Glaswegian frontman Bobby Gillespie were instilled in him from a young age. In a wide-ranging interview to promote More Light, he told music journal The Quietus: "My dad was an activist, he was a trade unionist and he was a Marxist and he was always involved in that struggle and it took up his life. It’s a lifetime commitment being a revolutionary. My dad had loads of books. I guess I was lucky that I grew up in a political household because of my dad. I always had empathy for people on the outside of things and I think that if you’re a socialist then you’re basically a humanist.

"You can’t be an artist and an activist because you’ve got to devote your life to one thing or the other. Nobody’s got enough energy to do both. I don’t think music is going to change the world but I think what it can do is, as an art form, your music can heal people, it can make them feel less pain, it can give them joy, it can inspire them, it can make them dance, it can bring them together, it can make them feel less alone, it can do a lot of powerful things.

"I don’t think ‘2013’ is going to dislodge the current Conservative-Liberal administration but I know that thousands of people probably feel the same way that we do about what’s happening and just that little connection and understanding that somebody else feels like you do is a powerful thing. It makes you feel less alone, it’s a connection and I think music can work on that level."

It is not the first time Primal Scream's politics have come to the fore. "Swastika Eyes", the lead single from their hard-hitting 2000 album XTRMNTR, was also pitched against power.

"'Swastika Eyes' is about the new world order, American international terrorism, the Americanisation of the world," Gillespie told music magazine Jockey Slut. "It's about control. It's a great image, a great insult 'You've got swastika eyes' - it applies to any authoritarian figure; a politician or a policeman - you see them everywhere."

When the band played Glastonbury in 2005, they were invited to join other recording artists in signing a "Make Poverty History" poster which would be auctioned off for charity. In a show of support for Palestine, Gillespie instead altered the poster so that it read "Make Israel History". In the inevitable backlash, the band had their set cut short and were accused of a shambolic performance during which Gillespie was alleged to have made Nazi salutes during "Swastika Eyes".

When he was accused of being anti-Semitic, Gillespie told New Musical Express: "If you look at the things we've done in the past, like benefits for Satpal Ram [who was jailed for life after defending himself against a racist attack in Birmingham], the Liverpool dockers, the Palestine refugee children, you'll know what my politics are. I'm no fuckin' Nazi."

The anti-Semitic mud is still thrown at pro-Palestine artists today. When Roger Waters' New York gig was recently cancelled, Australian music journal Music Feeds reported that the former Pink Floyd member's "anti-Semitic rhetoric has somewhat backfired".

As for the accusations that Primal Scream's Glastonbury performance was a shambles, the band's then-bassist, Mani, said: "A lot of people said, 'What a piece of shit', but I've got the DVD - faultless. People must have been on worse drugs than we were to be coming out with that. There's fuck all up with it!"

More Light is being released this week, but the lead single, "2013", made its entrance as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher made her exit. Gillespie told The Quietus: "Listen, right, she died with a smile on her face because the policies and the philosophies that she brought to this country and put into motion have been carried through by successive governments: John Major, Tony Blair and New Labour and now the coalition. They have all followed the path that she set in motion.

"I was like, 'She’s dead. Great...' But I didn’t think it was a new day and that suddenly everything was going to be egalitarian and re-distributing the wealth. I just thought, 'big deal – she’s dead', but she’s been low-level and out of the picture for years; she doesn’t count. What counts are the bastards that are currently in power. They are her children.

"Someone once asked her, 'What’s your greatest achievement?' and [she] said, 'New Labour'. Whoah! So it doesn’t matter that she’s dead. Big deal. She may as well [have] been dead 10 years ago. Since she hasn’t been Prime Minister it doesn’t matter because it’s still been the fucking same. You know, Tony Blair said he was going to change her policies but [also] build on them - classic fucking doublespeak. These bastards in power are finishing off what she started."

As capitalism consolidates towards its logical conclusion, it seems likely the band's politics will be better understood this time around. Perhaps even their harshest critics will see the light.

Hear More Light below. Read Green Left's interview with Gillespie's pal Mark Stewart, who is on the album.

From GLW issue 966