Chain Reaction: Bobby Gillespie
The Jesus and Mary Chain released their debut album, Psychocandy, just a month after The List’s first issue. The band’s then drummer, Bobby Gillespie, has spent the last 25 years at the very centre of British music with his own band, Primal Scream. He takes David Pollock back to the early days.
Twenty-five years ago Bobby Gillespie still lived in Glasgow, although he had already earned his first taste of success. Not with Primal Scream, the group he formed in 1982 with Jim Beattie as a form of angry post-punk experimentalism, but with one of the most seminal groups ever to have emerged from the West Coast of Scotland. Between 1984 and 1986, Gillespie was the drummer in The Jesus and Mary Chain, a period which bridged the gap between the days when the band’s shows were a crucible of white noise and drunken rioting, and their eventual semi-rehabilitation into international darlings of alternative music.
Fast forward to 2010 and Primal Scream are Gillespie’s only musical concern, having afforded him nine albums, most of them commercial and critical hits, and a rock’n’roll lifestyle which reports suggest he’s been happy to take full advantage of. Having lived in London for two decades, he’s now married with two young children, although he still happily describes himself as ‘Glasgow, totally Glasgow’ when talking about his upbringing on the city’s Southside and remembering how both his favourite bands started out.
What first got you into music, and into playing it yourself?
I guess when I was about ten or eleven, that’s when I really got into it. Gary Glitter, T-Rex, David Bowie, Suzi Quatro, all that kind of stuff. I liked pop music, I watched Top of the Pops, then when punk happened I was 15 or 16 and it hit me hard. I liked Bowie and Thin Lizzy, but they never made me want to be in a band like the Pistols did, or The Clash, or Siouxsie and the Banshees. I always loved glamorous rock’n’roll stars, and a lot of the punk bands were really glamorous to me. Public Image Limited and Joy Division were big influences, and I loved early Fall singles, Buzzcocks. The first song I learned to play on guitar was [The Buzzcocks’] ‘Boredom’, it was two notes. Dead basic. ‘Fiery Jack’ by The Fall as well, you could play that on one string. When I was that age I went to see so many gigs, I saw so many bands, I bought so many records. My whole life was music and buying music papers and taping stuff off the radio.
What did you want Primal Scream to be when you formed it?
At the very beginning it was an experimental thing, just Jim Beattie and myself trying to learn to make music. We played in this Scout hall we got the keys to. I’d hit dustbins and bits of metal. There was this big chimney, a metal central heating shaft or something, Jim would smash it with his hands and I’d play one chord on the guitar and we’d both just scream and shout. That’s all we did when we started the band, just fucking total chaos. Noise, frustration, joy.
It was a really shit time for music, the mid-80s. Everyone wanted to be really bland pop stars. Nobody was critiquing society, nobody was challenging anything, nobody was angry. Bands from Glasgow all had quiffs and played really insipid white funk music. Then we saw the Mary Chain play live at Night Moves, a guy called Tam Coyle put them on. They destroyed it, it was just incredible. It was nothing to do with the music, I don’t even know if they played a single song. They were on stage for about ten, fifteen minutes, and it was just total noise. They were so drunk they were crashing into each other, with William Reid playing this insane feedback guitar, smashing it into his amp. It was an incredible spectacle. Just what we were looking for, me and Jim.
We formed the first proper incarnation of Primal Scream just so we could support the Mary Chain at the Venue on 12 October 1984. I played guitar and sang with Primal Scream and then 20 minutes later I went back on and played drums with the Mary Chain. That was basically it, the Mary Chain loved the Scream and we loved them, and I became their drummer. And I couldn’t have done any of this without Jim and William Reid, I learned so much from them. They were a great band and I don’t think they get enough credit just for being them, for being so good at what they do, and for inspiring the amount of people they inspired.
When did you realise Primal Scream were becoming a band that meant a lot to people?
About 1989, round about our second album. That’s when it became fun. Up until them it wasn’t really fun being in Primal Scream for a lot of different reasons, a lot of personality problems and shit, the kind of crap that happens in bands. Insecurity and ego and all that. So we formed a new version of Primal Scream with Robert (Young) and Andrew (Innes) on twin guitar and it was incredible. We did OK but not great, and then in 1990 ‘Loaded’ was released. It was a hit, a massive hit. Then we started writing the songs that became Screamadelica, we got our own studio and, well, that’s another story, you know?
Screamadelica’s still an album which holds up incredibly well 20 years later. You’re going out to play the whole thing later this year, aren’t you?
Yeah, we’re doing two nights at the Olympia in London, then next March I think it is, we’ve got a tour. Playing the SECC in Glasgow and a few more, I think we’ve got about 11, 12 dates. But yeah, sold out two nights at the Olympia – 20,000 people. It’s great that 20,000 people want to hear a record we made 20 years ago. But it’s a great record so, you know, I’m cool with that.
Which of your records do you think have measured up to it?
XTRMNTR, easily. If you want to know about me, listen to XTRMNTR, that’s the one. It’s got a lot that I wanted to say personally. There are others as well, Vanishing Point, Evil Heat – it’s hard to speak about your own records without sounding like a prick, but XTRMNTR’s the best.
Are you writing anything just now?
Yeah, I’ve got stuff on the go. We’re always working, we work pretty hard I think. But I don’t know when we’ll release something. Whenever we have enough good songs to make an album, I suppose.
Do you see Primal Scream as being something you want to do for the rest of your life?
We did this thing last night … we’re friends with Annie Nightingale, and she asked us to do this thing celebrating her being on Radio 1 for 40 years. So we did it and Paul Weller and Kevin Shields joined us, and it was fucking brilliant. We’ve got an energy that not many other people have and I just know that if you’ve got a great band, you try and keep it together. I love this group, I love the guys in it, I think we’re a great band and as long as we can keep getting excited about it, let’s just see what happens.
Born in Glasgow. His father, Bob, was a union official with SOGAT and would later stand for Labour in the 1988 Govan by-election.
Formed Primal Scream in Glasgow with his friend Jim Beattie as an experimental post-punk outfit.
Primal Scream played their first full-band show at Glasgow’s Venue, supporting The Jesus and Mary Chain, for whom Gillespie would later play drums.
Toured internationally with J&MC, playing on their Psychocandy album. Left to concentrate on Primal Scream in 1986.
A much different Primal Scream’s third album Screamadelica and single ‘Loaded’ bring the band their first mainstream success.
Despite the presence of George Clinton, Amp Fiddler and The Memphis Horns, the trad follow-up Give Out But Don’t Give Up receives a lukewarm reception. Its lead single, ‘Rocks’, remains one of their most popular songs.
Vanishing Point, named after the cult movie of the same name, moves in a darker, dubbier direction. Ex-Stone Rose Mani joins the Scream on bass.
XTRMNTR is released, and is immediately hailed as one of their best works for its sonic invention and politicised stance.
Evil Heat is a worthy but less impressive follow-up. The track ‘Rise’ was named as ‘Bomb the Pentagon’ in live sets prior to 9/11.
Gillespie spectacularly winds up Glastonbury by calling the crowd ‘lazy bastards’ and ‘a bunch of fucking hippies’. He and the band are escorted offstage when their set overruns.
Much like Give Out …, Riot City Blues is star-studded (The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, Bad Seed Warren Ellis) but received with critical uncertainty. Its lead single, ‘Country Girl’, is a huge hit.
The most recent album Beautiful Future features guests Josh Homme, Lovefoxxx, Linda Thompson, Lykke Li and Victoria Bergsman of The Concretes.