It’s 8pm on the Saturday night at Glastonbury and as Primal Scream walk off the Pyramid Stage after almost an hour as leaders of this musical kingdom thousands of voices ring out “Come together as one” in unison. In the wings, Ronnie Wood, Alex Turner, Jarvis Cocker, Jamie Hince and Kate Moss drink in the sound with smiles on their faces. Haim, whose harmonies backed the band at the end of the set, say they have “goosebumps”. Bobby Gillespie, a live wire in an electric pink suit, is the last man to leave the stage. When he finally makes it back to his dressing room, he calls the singing a “cosmic echo”.
And yet what he’s just pulled off on the most famous stage in world music is something far more impressive, more radical and more rock’n’roll than anything most bands even attempt. The Russian anarchist Emma Goldman once said that if she couldn’t dance, she didn’t want to be a part of the revolution, but by mixing good-time party hits like ‘Loaded’, ‘Rocks’ and ‘Movin’ On Up’ with a healthy selection from their furiously political new record ‘More Light’, Primal Scream have put anger and danger back on the dancefloor.
In 2013, we’ve grown strangely uneasy with the idea of our rock’n’roll stars as political agitators. Call it the ‘Bono effect’, but ordinarily we don’t like the idea of being preached at when we’re trying to get our rocks off. But ever since Woody Guthrie daubed “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar, standing up for the voiceless and disenfranchised has been an essential part of what makes rock’n’roll what it is, and nobody knows that quite like Bobby Gillespie.
On the eve of Glastonbury, a few days after Bobby’s 51st birthday, we meet for a drink in London. He greets me with a lupine grin, like a wolf with a juicy secret. He looks good for his age, especially given the prodigious amount of Class As he’s been consuming for the better past of the last three decades. Now sober, we order two black coffees. An hour-and-a-half later, his is still almost untouched. He’s barely paused for breath in a passionate, informed and eloquent soliloquy on the state of the nation, the lack of dissent in popular culture and why he injected ‘More Light’ with more fight than a bagful of hungry terriers.
NME: Millions of people will be watching Glastonbury on primetime TV and it’s a become a social fixture. It might have started as a hippy, alternative festival, but it’s now the mainstream, isn’t it?
Bobby: “Yeah, but you could say that about all of music. We touch on those themes in ‘2013’. There’s no underground anymore. There’s a lack of dissent in culture, all across the arts and in society as a whole. We’re living in extremely right-wing, irrational, intolerant times and we’re being governed by an extremist right-wing government. There’s no protest from the arts. People don’t really see a way that things can change. There’s a great quote of JG Ballard’s where he said that there was no need to write science fiction novels anymore, because we’re living in one. Reality is stranger than fiction, and I agree with that.”
Does that give you an opportunity to seize that platform and use it as a way to disseminate a message of protest?
“Anything we’ve got to say we say in our music. We’re going to play songs like ‘2013’ and ‘River Of Pain’, which is a seven minute song about domestic violence from the point-of-view of the child. We’ll play older Primal Scream songs as well because it’s a festival and you want people to have a good time. You want to mix the art with the rock’n’roll. That’s what we’re about. We love art and we love rock’n’roll and we mix it, and sometimes it works and sometimes maybe it doesn’t work, but when it does work it’s fucking great.”
There’s a real sense of class war on the record, in lines like: “Thatcher’s children make their millions.”
“Yeah. “Thatcher’s children, make their millions. Hey. remember Robespierre!” I think that’s kind of a funny line, but really all those guys: bankers, politicians, prime ministers, Boris – they’re all around 42 or 43. They’re Thatcher’s boys. She gave birth to that ideology of free market capitalism and they’re taking full advantage of it. So yeah, I think it is class war. It’s not fashionable to use it anymore, but that’s what it is. There are distinct classes in the country and the gulf is getting wider. The people at the top have got way more of the money than they had 30-40 years ago. That’s a fact. There’s just so much greed.”
I tend to associate the phrase ‘class war’ with popular uprising, but what we’re seeing with the austerity cuts is a class war being waged by the upper classes against the most vulnerable people in society.
“I’ve always associated ‘class war’ with Marx. He was talking about the industrial revolution and how capitalist bosses were basically waging a war against the poor to make themselves rich. They were going to fucking hammer you. The problem with talking in terms of class is that people get alienated. They think: “Oh, if you’re working class you hate the middle class”. It’s not that at all, it’s just that the exploited class is always gonna be the working class. To me, it’s about the rest of society, whether they’re middle class, working class or underclass, against the cunts at the top who run the show. It’s about corporations and the governments who run countries on the behalf of those corporations. When Cameron and fucking Blair say Britain needs to be open for business, that means deregulating the workplace. It’s about stripping away people’s rights to create a precariat. There’s a class of people who live a precarious existence, without insurance or job security or any of the things that the unions fought for. It’s become a science-fiction situation where civil liberties are being taken away.”
America’s PRISM surveillance program for monitoring the public’s phonecalls and internet use is straight out of science fiction.
“It’s pure sci-fi, but I don’t know why anyone is so surprised. We’re living in a ‘science fiction reality’ so that’s what ‘More Light’ is about.
Every news headline this year seems to repeat of the same story about the abuse of government power. Take the Stephen Lawrence story, where police were trying to smear his grieving family.
“It’s incredible. I heard a top cop on BBC radio this morning saying we can’t change the laws about undercover policeman because the reason we have them, this is classic, is to infiltrate terrorists and organised crime groups. What? Every story we hear about them, they’re at anti-nuclear or anti-racist demos, or, in this case, a family whose son was murdered in a racial attack that the police didn’t bother investigating. Just ordinary people. It’s you and me. It’s a pretext. It’s like Bradley Manning. He’s seen as a terrorist, but to me he’s a real American. He was showing the world the real face of the USA. This is what we really do. We’re not about freedom, democracy and helping people rebuild their lives in their countries, we’re torturing, raping, looting and exploiting, the whole fucking shebang. It’s a brave guy that does that. He’s a brave guy. They tell us we need a bigger budget for MI6 to fight ‘The War On Terror’, but Britain, America and France helped create this worldwide Muslim fundamental movement to break down secular, nationalists or socialist indigenous movements in the Middle East. Israel and America helped create Hamas as an alternative to cause a schism among Palestinians, and now Hamas has become really powerful and they won’t deal with them! It’s the same as America in Afghanistan. They funded the mujahedeen against the Russians, we paid and armed them.”
We’re about to do the same fucking thing in Syria.
“It’s the same thing! It’s amazing. We’re arming Al Qaeda! It’s amazing. The rebels don’t want democracy, they want a caliphate. They’re medieval psychopaths who hate women. Anyway, the point is I’m just in a rock band but I’m trying to be conscious of this authoritarian shit. Facism, if and when it does come back, will be in a softer and more insidious way. It’s not going to be the jackboot and the rifle. You’re being watched at all times. Your rights are being taken away from you. We’re heading back to the beginnings of the 19th Century and slum conditions. More kids are in poverty now. Battered women’s refuges don’t exist anymore. Everything is an attack on the poor. It’s a class war. You look at the government’s cuts, and they’re aimed at hurting people, the poorest people in society. I don’t know. I’m just in a rock’n’roll band! I just want to get my rocks off!”
You say you’re “just in a rock’n’roll band” but political engagement is part of what people look for from artists. It’s important to hear you referencing people like Marx, Engels and Guy Debord on this record. Why do you think we haven’t heard more anger from younger bands?
“Well I’m a bit older and I come from a political family. I wouldn’t necessarily expect a younger person to read the same books that I do… well, actually they probably should be reading the same books that I do! We’ve always been on the left and always taken an outsider view. We haven’t voiced it in song so much before but that’s only because we didn’t know how to. I think I’ve become a better songwriter.”
Why did you decide to invite Haim to join you for your Glastonbury set?
“We did ‘Later with Jools Holland’ and the girls were on it. We really got on with them and thought they were cool. Our songs have those big choruses and they can really sing in harmony. They say sisters and brothers sing the closest harmonies. If I sing with my sons it’s bang on. It’ll be cool. It’ll be a pop moment.”
What does it mean to play ahead of the Rolling Stones?
“I’m focusing on playing with Primal Scream, but it’s a great slot. Saturday night before the Rolling Stones on the Pyramid Stage. There should be a lot of people there and we’re going to give them a good time, and have a good time ourselves. I’ve just got to work out what I’m going to wear!”
When you recorded ‘Movin’ On Up’ you brought in the producer Jimmy Miller, who worked with the Stones on their greatest albums: ‘Beggars Banquet’, ‘Let It Bleed’, ‘Sticky Fingers’ and ‘Exile On Main St.’ What did he bring to that record?
“We’d recorded ‘Movin’ On Up’ with somebody else but it needed more production. We came up with this idea: ‘Let’s fucking get Jimmy Miller! It’s fucking obvious.’ At that point I don’t think he had a great reputation in the music business. He was seen as somebody who had had his time, but he rose to the occasion and sorted it out. We’d recorded a lot of gospel vocals but he edited it and left just the best stuff in. He mixed that and ‘Damaged’ and they sounded incredible.”
Did you pick his brains for Stones stories?
“Aye, I asked him a couple of things. I asked him about Brian Jones. He told me that Brian’s last session was ‘No Expectations’, which is just too much. He told me the night that they got the news that Brian had died they were trying to cut ‘I Don’t Know Why’ by Stevie Wonder. Someone came in and said that Brian was dead and they all stopped for half an hour, forty-five minutes and nobody said anything. Then they started up again. He said Mick and Keith used to ask him to send Brian home. Jimmy said: “Listen, it’s your band, you do it!” Instead they’d just unplug him so he’d be playing but he wouldn’t be plugged into the mixing desk because he was so out of it. He told us about all that stuff, which I found fascinating. We tried to get him to work on the sessions that became ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’ but we were all a bit of a mess at that point.”
Those sessions were famously difficult, in part because of the band’s drug use. Is it right that you’re clean and sober now?
[Bobby picks up a glass of water and puts it to his face, looking at me through it]: “It’s a bit distorted! It’s just my choice. It’s not a big deal. I just had to change my life and I did it and that’s it. It’s simple.”
So you don’t have any regrets about drugs?
“Well, that’s a different question. I don’t wanna really talk about that stuff, but I think I stole for good reasons. In the end I wasn’t making myself happy and I made my life very difficult, so everything’s a lot better now and I made a good record so that’s the fucking result of getting clean. You know that’s all I need to say right now. I don’t care what anybody else does, I don’t expect anybody else to be or live like me but this is the best thing for me. Right now, I’m happy. Pretty happy. Reasonably happy.”
The next time I talk to Bobby he’s just come offstage after an incendiary Glastonbury set that showed flashes of antagonism – he doesn’t think the crowd were dancing enough, so he accuses them of being “dosed with valium” – but ends triumphantly. Introducing ‘Loaded’, he’d roared: “Take acid! Take speed! Take ecstasy!” and after the show he tells me with a grin: “It wasn’t a very druggy crowd, I can tell you that. Two years ago when we played ‘Screamadelica’ on the Other Stage everyone was fucked!” Mick Jagger must know exactly what he means, because during the Stones set later in the evening he changes the words to 1968’s ‘Factory Girl’ to ‘Glastonbury Girl’ and sings: “Waiting for a girl she took all my ecstasy / now she’s off with Primal Scream.” The thing about Primal Scream is that the mysterious Glastonbury girl won’t just be singing, dancing and getting her rocks off. She’ll be discovering that music can be about anger, intelligence and finding a world that isn’t as heartless, venal or corrupt as the one we find ourselves in. It’s isn’t only rock’n’roll, it’s life.
Cover story for NME, 13 July 2013.