Primal Scream have just been introduced onstage as the best rock and roll band in the world. When the five-piece led by a check-shirted Bobby Gillespie troop on and launch into a forty-five minute, nine-song set drawn largely from their just released More Light album, any suspicions that they are studio-bound alchemists only are instantly dispelled by one of the most glorious live performances of the year.
Under dim red lights, the band open, not with new material, but with the slow-burning noir of Out of the Void from 1997's dark come-down album, Vanishing Point. After that, things crank up for the insistent urgency of More Light's first single, 2013. It may be without the post-punk saxophone of the record, but, in its raw state, with a sax sample low in the mix, it still sounds like a manifesto, a soundtrack to an Occupy riot and a devotional hymn to rock and roll all at the same time.
It's back to Vanishing Point for Burning Wheel, before some wag in the crowd urges them to hurry up as they have to catch the last train.
“Get a helicopter,” Gillespie deadpans without missing a beat before introducing the equally downbeat River of Pain from More Light with a nod to American Beat poet John Giorno's Just Say No To Family Values. The bleakness of Gillespie's whispered narrative is offset by the most quietly threatening funk imaginable played by drummer Darrin Mooney and bassist Simone Butler.
As keyboardist Martin Duffy ushers in samples of Sun Ra's Arkestra, who play on the record, a melancholy cacophony underscores the groove, while Gillespie grips the mic, head bowed, and guitarist Andrew Innes sculpts scary guitar patterns into the ether. If Tenement Kid is similarly downbeat, Turn Each Other Inside Out is a calculatedly skewed art-punk collage that puts together elements of the last forty years, including more poetry by way of cut-up and rearranged lyrics by key San Francisco Beat poet David Meltzer.
On record, recent single It's Alright, It's Okay sounds like the sort of gospel-infused rock bubblegum you suspect Gillespie and co could knock out in their sleep. Live, and enabled by a crystal clear sound mix that captures every texture, it becomes an anthem for self-determination and self-liberation without ever sounding overblown. Gillespie holds his microphone out to the audience, who duly join in on the 'ooh-la-la' refrain. As the poundingly basic Hit Void gives way to the closing Rocks, Primal Scream transcend themselves to become the ultimate rock and roll bar band.
Because this isn't a description of the band's opening slot for the Stone Roses in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 gathered at Glasgow Green on Saturday. Rather, the above took place the night before, with the band playing to less than a hundred people gathered in a converted Glasgow railway arch run by Turner Prize nominated artist Jim Lambie as The Poetry Club. This isn't just any club, however. As overseen by Lambie, what was once a dirt-ingrained empty shell is now a two-room arts lab, with Lambie designed fried egg painted table-tops and a miniature locomotive train attached to the wall puffing out dry ice through its chimney.
The event is Neu Reekie!, the radical performance event which for the last two years has been the best night in Edinburgh, and which for several months now has hosted a parallel monthly slot in Glasgow care of The Poetry Club. Friday opened all too appropriately with a recording of William S Burroughs reading his work while a Charlie Chaplin film was shown. This was followed by former Zoey Van Goey multi-instrumentalist Kim Moore and fellow musician Gareth Griffiths who performed a new strings and electronics based live soundtrack to unsung artist Helen Biggar and the better known Norman McLaren's 1936 anti-war film, Hell Unlimited. Neu Reekie! co-founder Kevin Williamson came on on like a Caledonian Mark E Smith with his performance of Robert Burns' Tam O'Shanter with a live fiddle and acoustic guitar backing before advertised headliners Sparrow and the Workshop's female-fronted Pixies-styled indie-rock.
It was the surprise guests, however, who that made the night even more special. The first of these was the man who Bobby Gillespie would later name-check, poet John Giorno. Now aged 76, Giorno was a key figure in the New York underground scene, ever since he met Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and key Beat figures including William S Burroughs. Giorno founded Giorno Poetry Systems, which pit out recordings by the likes of Burroughs, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Philip Glass and others.
At The Poetry Club, Giorno performed three works, beginning with observations of Burroughs' death, and ended with notes on his own mortality in Thanks For Nothing. These rolled off his tongue with a wide-eyed humanity and a wit that captivated with its visions of wisdom and experience that charted a full half century. Once Primal Scream took the stage, it was clear this was a once in a lifetime experience.
Standing outside Lambie's tellingly named Voidoid Archive that's doubling up as a dressing room a few arches along from The Poetry Club after sound-checking, Bobby Gillespie explained why a band that could pack out stadiums is playing such an intimate speak-easy environment with what he describes as “a psychedelic set, more psyched out and trippy than what we'll be doing when we play with The Stone Roses.
“I came up in January to talk to Jim about ideas for the cover of More Light,” says Gillespie, “and we came up to The Poetry Club at night. I thought it was a really cool place, and I thought it was great there were poetry readings in Glasgow. I really love what Jim's doing here, taken it out of nowhere and made it happen, customising it using his own frame of reference, with cool images and stuff. I thought it would be a great place to play a gig, and here we are.”
Gillespie and Lambie have known each other since their days on the nascent Glasgow music scene centred around a Sunday night club called Splash 1, which, as well as hosting the first ever Scottish gig by Sonic Youth, put on early shows by the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Felt and Primal Scream. Lambie would film, not just the bands, but stripey-topped dancers getting down to 1960s psychedelia and Sex Pistols records. After playing in The Boy Hairdressers with Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley, who would morph into Teenage Fanclub, and Joe McAlinden, who would front Superstar, Lambie would go on to provide live visuals for Screamadelica era Primal Scream, as well as album cover designs, including one for More Light.
The day before the gig, Lambie, John Giorno and Neu Reekie! founders Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson are gathered on sofas in the Voidoid in a meeting of like minds that goes down the generations as Lambie explains the roots of The Poetry Club. All of which, it seems, go back to Richard Hell, the iconoclast of New York's original punk scene who Lambie has frequently referenced in his work. Voidoid itself is named after Hell's early band, The Voidoids.
“He got in contact with my gallery in London a few years ago,” says Lambie, "and said, who is this guy using all my titles and referencing me and so on. He said he wasn't looking for money, but that he liked the work and he'd maybe like to speak to me. So we ended up corresponding by email for quite a while, and I met him a couple of times in New York. Then I was asked to present a film at Monorail Film Club, and I thought it would be good to try and get Richard over, because he'd said he'd always wanted to come back to Glasgow, ever since he'd supported The Clash. So he agreed to come over and present the film, and I thought it would be good to try and get him to do a reading.”
Shopping around assorted bars and clubs for a venue, people running art-space SWG3 told Lambie about the railway arch that sat adjacent to their much larger building. That was six weeks before Hell was due in Glasgow.
“I thought about it for about twenty minutes,” Lambie says, “and we put the place together in four and a half weeks. Then Richard and I put together a collaborative show to go with it, which we put together in two or three days. The night itself was electric, and I wasn't sure how long I could run it for, but the whole thing gathered momentum, certainly in my head. Then I met up with the Neu Reekie! guys, and the stuff they were doing seemed to correspond with what I was thinking about anyway. We're very fortunate as well, because we're based in an arts centre, we don't have the usual economic worries that you'd have if you were in a bar or a club. We can put things on as and when we wish, because we're not strangled by rent and rates and all these things, so it's a pretty good position to be in.”
The Neu Reekie! Connection came about after Pedersen contacted Lambie's right hand man Jason Macphail to see if they could use one of Lambie's images for the cover of a record by Jesus Baby, the super-group of Pedersen, ex Fire Engine Davy Henderson, Teen Canteen chanteuse Carla Easton, Roy Moller and Marco Rea. The connections between the two entities were, according to Pederson, “alchemaic.”
Other events outwith Neu Reekie! include an all day event with Lawrence, the eccentric singer whose anti-career began with Felt, through to Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. As well as a performance, The Poetry Club hosted a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia, Paul Kelly's documentary film study of one of music's great characters. There have been other club nights and parties too, but, The Poetry Club's doors will only open if there is a good idea behind it.
“I've got a thing about bands, especially bigger bands,” says Lambie, “and how wouldn't it be great if they could play small places. One of the things I always remember about the 80s was when The Clash played The Rock Garden,” Lambie says, referring to the bar on Queen Street in Glasgow. “They were massive at the time, and they just went down and did a set, and there's something amazing about hearing a big band like that. They're doing it for the music, in a real way, where it doesn't take a massive amount of organisation behind it. The Primals would be here anyway, so they've come up a day early to play this really small gig. It's more like an art event than anything.
“The way I do the club, it's an artwork, and the way the idea came together in my head was that it would be a bit of social sculpture. Everything's being documented, recorded and filmed, transcripted, all the artwork and posters, everything that goes into what this club has been for the last year and hopefully will be in the future is going into a larger archive, which is basically another piece of sculpture for me. The archive will be a piece of work in itself, and the great thing about that was that we could start archiving from day one, when we first got into the space and started planning things. We've documented photographs from that point on to where we are now.”
Lambie's notion of social sculpture dates back to Joseph Beuys' ideas of human activities changing society, an ethos that was arguably one of the sources of a DIY aesthetic that grew out of punk, and which has been embraced by Glasgow's fertile art and music scenes in particular. Giorno too is a key figure in this way of thinking.
“I have this theory that the last fifty or sixty years has been a golden age of poetry that never existed before in the history of the world,” Giorno says. “clubs like The Poetry Club are really important, because they're nor supported by the City or any academic organisation, which aren't bad things, but which means that they're free to do what they want on their own terms. In the 50s and 60s, if you didn't do it yourself, it didn't get done. The academy weren't going to let you in. then in the 70s and 80s, Warner Brothers signed Laurie Anderson, but they weren't going to sign anyone else.”
That free-spirited approach of Giorno's generation has clearly fed into Williamson's approach to making things happen, as well as more recent creative catalysts.
“All of what was going on in the 50s and 60s are such an inspiration, and we've drawn on various elements of that for what we do, “ he says. “But on my kitchen wall I've got the cover of Spiral Scratch by the Buzzcocks on New Hormones records. That's always followed me around, because it was the birth of DIY punk on independent labels. There was also Mark Perry's fanzine, Sniffing Glue. Those two things changed my life. I couldn't sing or play an instrument, but when I saw Sniffing Glue, I knew that's what I wanted to do. You didn't wait for someone to tell you what to do, you just did it.”
“If you've not got the resources, you just do it anyway,” he says. “If you've only got a tin of blue paint, then do some blue paintings.”
In this respect, the Splash 1 club was an influence on Lambie.
“At that time there were a lot of bands who were trying to get signed for big money deals,” he says, “and there was this whole X Factor approach, but the people who produced Splash 1, Bobby being one of them, blew all that away. With them it was about the art and about making music, and not trying to tick boxes for certain people's ears and eyes. They were just going to do it. Alan McGee is a classic example of that. Creation Records and the Mary Chain just blew away all that crap, and there's an element of that with everything that's going on today. There's that whole X Factor approach again, but it doesn't have to be like that, you know. When did music stop being art? Let's fucking get back to making art, and let all those other fucking money men worry about how they get on with their business.
Around the time of Splash 1, Lambie made his own first foray into promoting along with fellow Boy Hairdresser Norman Blake.
“We only did three events or something,” Lambie recalls, “but one of them was The Vaseline first gig. There wasn't anywhere to go to listen to the type of music you wanted to listen to, so you had to do it yourself, and it's a bit like that now. Maybe it's always been like that.”
In a way Giorno is the perfect guest for The Poetry Club. He was one of the first artists to make explicit the links between music, poetry and art, and his work with Giorno Poetry Systems was a clear inspiration, not just for Lambie, but for Williamson's work with his Rebel Inc lit-zine in the 1990s, which mixed up spoken-word with punk-inspired club culture. This in turn has inspired Pedersen, the youngest person in the room, to join forces on Neu Reekie!
“I just started to write, he says, “and started coming into contact with people who'd done things before, and wanted to harness that. All that went before was so admirable and formidable, so to be part of that current channel is an energy.”
Next up for Neu Reekie! and The Poetry Club is a visit by Momus, aka Nick Currie, and Lambie has plans for more special shows by musical artists he admires. He expresses a particular fondness for The Durutti Column, aka guitarist Vini Reilly, whose singular musical oeuvre was a crucial part of the Factory Records story.
“I guess, really, I just want to get people who gave me my dreams,” Lambie says. “People I admire. I mean, with Richard Hell, he gave most of us our dreams, and is probably the reason why most of us are sitting here. John gave Richard his dreams, and I think that's the way it goes.”
Momus appears at the Poetry Club, Glasgow, June 22, and at Neu! Reekie, Summerhall, Edinburgh, June 28.
Jim Lambie – Art Life
Jim Lambie was born in Glasgow in 1964, and graduated from Glasgow School of Art's Environmental Art course in 1994.
In the 1980s, Lambie played in The Boy Hairdressers, who, without Lambie, would morph into Teenage Fanclub.
Lambie met Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie when both were regulars at Splash 1, a seminal Glasgow club night modelled on Andy Warhol's Factory, and which hosted early shows by Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream and others. With an early video camera, Lambie would film, not just the bands, but people dancing to psychedelic and punk classics.
One of Lambie's first solo shows, Voidoid, was shown at Transmission, Glasgow, in 1999.
Other music referencing solo shows by Lambie include Boy Hairdresser, Blank Generation, Paradise Garage, My Boyfriend's Back, Unknown Pleasures, Eight Miles High, Rowche Rumble and Forever Changes.
Lambie was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2005 for his installation, Mental Oyster.
The Herald, June 17th 2013