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Acid House: Primal Scream’s Screamadelica Turns 25

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Acid House: Primal Scream’s Screamadelica Turns 25

The autumn of 1991 saw the release of countless seminal albums of various genres from the period’s most influential acts. We’ve handpicked several notable releases—some widely celebrated, some largely underappreciated—to reevaluate on the eves of their 25th anniversaries.

One of the more infamous soundbites surrounding Primal Scream’s Screamadelica is lead singer Bobby Gillespie’s description of the transcendent “Higher Than the Sun” as “the most important record since [the Sex Pistols’] ’Anarchy in the UK’.” The quote—sometimes also attributed to Alan McGee, then the boss at Primal Scream’s record label, Creation—props the song as a statement of purpose for the band as well as its era, the type of “cut-off record” that makes “everybody else look ancient” (to again quote Gillespie, interviewed at the unsteady heights of newfound stardom). Yet the true magic of “Higher Than the Sun” isn’t that it sounds like nothing else, but that it sounds like everything at once: It’s a seductive and detached fusing of the jazz, blues, rock, and country influences that had mesmerized Gillespie his whole life, with an added dose of ambient house from collaborators Andrew Weatherall, the Orb’s Alex Paterson, and PiL’s Jah Wobble—a veritable sonic time capsule disguised as forward motion and thought. McGee, speaking reflectively this time, said of the song in 2013 that he’d “die to this tune if I have any choice…it’s a hymn.”

So it goes with Screamadelica, a 63-minute reckoning of past and future injected with the quasi-religious, real-life rock debauchery of Gillespie’s beloved Rolling Stones and the Doors, albeit transported to the Gen-X age of ecstasy and underground rave culture. It’s the ultimate album about drug use by consummate drug users, carefully sequenced to the rhythm of an unthinkable high and then a massive comedown. Screamadelica-era press depicted Primal Scream negotiating between ecstasy, acid, and amphetamines on a daily basis, falling into heroine-induced slumber during a dinner with U.S. record execs, experimenting with crystal meth and mescaline during a Japan tour, and making various statements about the virtues of drugs in the same interviews where they pass out mid-sentence. (Gillespie, for one, was described by Q magazine as “a strung-out, twisted man-child with enormous, seemingly luminous white hands and a voice which mediates between bark, yelp and screech.”) Recorded in a flash of just six weeks, Screamadelica was an all-stars-aligned stroke of calm and composure somewhere in these years of chaotic legend-making, an unbelievably innovative album made more unbelievable by virtue of being laid down by addicts.

As a result, the album’s origin story is hazy. “Circa 1988” is the timeframe generally assigned to a meeting between Primal Scream and Andrew Weatherall, the influential underground English DJ and journalist, where Scream guitarist Andrew Innes pushed Weatherall to remix the band’s torchy “I’m Losing More Than I Ever Had”—the only tolerable song, according to many critics, from 1989’s Primal Scream, and which Weatherall had adopted as a mainstay in his nightly club sets around London. “Loaded” (credited to Primal Scream) became Weatherall’s second remix as a DJ and a Top 20 hit in the U.K., but in reality was less a remix than a full remaking of Primal Scream, showing the band what it could sound like if its members were less doggedly faithful to their musical heroes. Indeed, the song barely sounds like Primal Scream at all: piano chords are lifted from “Sympathy for the Devil”; drums come from a dance mix of Edie Brickell’s “What I Am”; and drugged-out Peter Fonda quotes from the film The Wild Angels bookend the track. Some slide guitar from Primal Scream’s original remains, but “Loaded” is otherwise a feel-good mash-up that treats Primal Scream like any of the other bands Weatherall samples across its seven minutes—as a piece of the whole, no more or less important than any other.

This sense of selflessness is the key attribute of Screamadelica (and, by no coincidence, the apex of a good drug trip), but, purely on a level of authorship, it leaves the album with something of a problematic legacy. Many jumped to the conclusion upon Screamadelica’s release that it was actually Weatherall’s work, which (according to an interview in The Face in 1991) infuriated Gillespie. Speaking around the same time to NME of “Come Together,” the album’s hastily recorded second single and another Weatherall production, Gillespie vigorously defended the song’s structure, lyrics, instrumentation, and vocals as Primal Scream’s own, while merely (and vaguely) crediting Weatherall with taking the song “somewhere else, completely out of this world.” These matters of ego hardly come through in the songs, but still point out a fundamental flaw in Gillespie’s reading of his band’s landmark album: Screamadelica’s synthesis of musical styles is best interpreted as an erasure of ego, and as something that belongs to everyone; pointing out who wrote a particular bassline is akin to quibbling over the bumper sticker on a rocketship.

Primal Scream’s Screamadelica is a reckoning of past and future injected with real-life rock debauchery.

Examples abound of this musical universality on Screamadelica, which further position Primal Scream as a holy conduit through which a crucial suite of songs was brought to Earth—as opposed to a band shaping its opus from scratch. Start with “Come Together,” that casual 10-minute gospel with a DayGlo choir, optimistic horns, and savior tendencies: It begins with unashamed theft of the main guitar riff from Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds.” On opener “Movin’ on Up,” another of the album’s more straightforward rock send-ups, Gillespie’s vocals quote Can’s reworking of “Amazing Grace.” Other songs feature vocal snippets of Sly Stone, drum breaks from James Brown’s band, and sitars from unknown Indian artists, all owing to the Akai S1000 sampler obtained by Primal Scream with the money made from the success of “Loaded.” (Even the album title comes from Primal Scream riffing on Funkadelic’s band name.)

Once a group that recorded winning imitations of its favorite artists (like the Byrds and Big Star), Primal Scream tapped into the ability on Screamadelica to actually reuse fragments of these artists in the patchwork of new songs—a practice simultaneously referential, heady, and questionably legal. In fact, the album’s deft interlacing of original and sourced music—which keeps it from sounding like a retread, a novelty, or any kind of covers album—has effectively protected it from lawsuits for 25 years. (This also owes to timing: Back in 1991, publishers weren’t yet suing over uncleared samples, so—along with the Beastie Boys’s Paul’s Boutique and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and RisingScreamadelica stands as the type of sample-rich album that would be too risky or costly to cut today.)

Most deft is “Higher Than the Sun,” captured across two tracks and 11 minutes on the album. The first part turns organic rock instruments like harmonica into washes of sound, pits a blissed-out Gillespie against a whirring background synth in the foreground, and crafts a towering, idyllic chorus (which appears just once) out of sampled whooping, pitched-down echoing vocal fragments, glass-cracking snare drum, and whinnying horns. Six songs later, the second part adds layers of percussion and foreign noise to the first’s palette, including a sampled pattering positioned in the mix to seem like knocks on the very doors of perception, then pauses midway to rest and rebuild, and finally breaks entirely for a medieval harpsichord solo. As a gurgling outro continues just to the edge of paranoid agony, the same rhapsodic song that introduced Screamadelica’s climax on side A morphs into the eeriest section of side B’s burned-out crash.

Other songs on Screamadelica are purer explorations of the common ground between dance and rock music: the Italian rave of “Don’t Fight It, Feel It,” the Pet Sounds-played-on-a-music-box vibe on “Inner Flight,” and the fluttering dub-jazz of “I’m Comin’ Down” are all expert cross-pollinations between genres thought to be at odds. But “Higher than the Sun” is the closest Primal Scream got to truly creating a new genre, a shapeshifting techno warble that uses ambient texture, disorienting production, and sudden bursts of organic instrumentation to confuse its many origins and whip the listener through several states of experience. The sound is like the full-pupiled, Basquiat-like sun of Screamadelica’s album cover—finger-painted by artist Paul Cannell while tripping on acid—shrieking bliss and panic at once.

After touring behind Screamadelica, Primal Scream found themselves the genesis of a new rock-rave movement, yet ironically based on a work that was co-authored and ghostwritten many times over. Perhaps the greatest link between the group and Screamadelica isn’t via writing or production credits, but in the band’s overwhelming commitment to the album’s drug logic and ethos of revelatory indulgence; these guys lived these songs—and, to be fair, played the hell out of them—perhaps more than they ever wrote them in the first place. Fittingly, after the album won the inaugural Mercury Prize in 1992 (beating U2’s Achtung Baby, among others), Primal Scream celebrated with a night out and promptly lost the £20,000 check. The detail is a tidy conclusion to the Screamadelica arc: That the prize money for an album so fundamentally indebted to its influences, collaborators, and mad-raving rans would find its rightful and final place somewhere out in the world.