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MICHAEL ROBSON TRACKS THE INDIE BAND WHO ARRIVED WITH A "CRASH"
Since Two-Tone, Coventry's musical output has been decidedly low key; but the Primitives' rise from indie status to the Top 5 and U.S. tours has put the city back on the musical map. The band's melodic power pop and blonde female lead singer attracted early comparisons with Blondie, but the Primitives have commercially overshadowed contemporaries like the Darling Buds and the Shop Assistants, and their early long-deleted indie singles now command high prices.
The Primitives emerged from the much-touted independent scene of the mid-Eighties that reared, amongst others, the Jesus And Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, the Soup Dragons and the Wedding Present. Many of these, including the Primitives, brought a welcome breath of fresh air and a sense of fun to a scene dominated by the more po-faced 'goth' bands. And many wore their influences on their sleeves; a love of melody and the Sixties (the Monkees, the Velvets and the Byrds), fast Ramones-influenced guitars, and the pop innocence of the Buzzcocks and Orange Juice. This was the backdrop for the Primitives' formation, and no other band went on to encapsulate all these ingredients so perfectly.
Attracted as much by shared haircuts as anything else, Pete Tweedie (drums), Steve Dullaghan (bass), Keiron (vocals) and Paul Court (guitar/vocals/songwriter) came together in July 1985 under the roof of European Son, Coventry's premier clothes emporium, owned and run by and ardent T-shirt designer Wayne Morris, and took their name from one of Lou Reed's early incarnations. With an average of eighteen, and a deepfelt desire to "see how loud we could get", the band's early efforts were a noisy mixture of Gun Club clichés.
After the semblence of a set had been established, several London gigs followed, avoiding the "deadpan" audiences of their hometown, before Keiron's departure sent the band back to Coventry in search of a replacement. Three months later, an ad in the local library attracted the attention of one Tracy Tracy ("No one will ever know my second name") fresh from a "comfortable, happy family life" in Australia, and a musical past in "punk rock band" the Funwits. Beauty met beast and the two made their compromises; Paul Court began writing songs with "melodies a bit stronger; trash a bit more limited", and the band started to attract fanzine writers like the Legend! after several well-received London gigs. With Wayne Morris as their manager, they were able to step into the studio soon after, setting up the Lazy label in the...
[Lazy 01 was R]ecorded on borrowed equipment during February 1986 (with "Thru The Flowers" mixed from an October 1985 demo) at the 16-track Cabin Studios in Coventry (which remained the centre of Primitives' recording activities), the EP reached a modest No. 22 position on the Music Week Independent Chart, but more importantly, gained the attention of Radio One producers who booked the band for two sessions aired on the Janice Long and Andy Kershaw shows in the summer of 1986. The tracks performed were: "I'll Stick With You"/"Really Stupid"/"Run Baby Run"/"Nothing Left To Say"/"Where The Wind Blows"/"Across My Shoulder"/"Spacehead"/"Crash" respectively.
Like many other highly-prized debuts, though, the EP suffered from sub-standard production, and although the lead track had a definite attraction and strong melody, the band have disowned the other tracks as "not even charming". Rumoured white label copies (HEAD 1) featuring a different track order, apparently circulate amongst collectors for around £50 a copy.
More success with the fast and furious "Really Stupid" earned the group another radio session, this time for John Peel, where they performed "Buzz Buzz Buzz", "Shadow", and "Stop Killing Me" along with a faithful cover of Marianne Faithfull's Jagger/Richard composition "As Tears Go By". Meanwhile, the promo video for "Really Stupid" was aired on various night-time TV programmes.
7" Mayking test pressings have occasionally surfaced, fetching £30, as do 12" white label test pressings in plain sleeves with sticker and press sheets. "Really Stupid" is also available on a semi-legal Polish picture disc coupled with "Thru The Flowers" (although these items are rumoured to have emanated closer to home), and on the 'NME' twin tape mail order-only compilation, "Indie City". A triple album radio promo compilation, including "Really Stupid", sells for £12.
Following the 'NME'-sponsered "C86" rock week at the ICA, the venue collaborated with EMI to plan another such event for January 1987, featuring the Primitives alongside up and coming names like the Wonderstuff, the Blue Aeroplanes and Voice Of The Beehive. Finding their name advertised before contracts had been finalised, and to complicate matters further, sponsors EMI requesting rights to two songs to be included on a souvenir "Dotted Line" two-album set, the band renounced the whole event as little more than a "pale imitation of C86" and withdrew, followed en suite by Pop Will Eat Itself, Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie and Tallulah Gosh. Instead, the Prims toured Europe before returning to tour consistently to promote their third 45.
Rush-released to compensate for their absence from the ill-fated ICA rock week, 2,000 copies of "Stop Killing Me" were mispressed in a back-to-front sleeve with Tracy on the front cover, which are now worth £15 each. The song itself was more overtly melodic and accessible than previous outings, and the band were rewarded with (very) minor chart hit.
In contrast, the 12" track "Laughing Up My Sleeve", complete with Paul Court's nasal singing, trundled along in a Velvet Underground vein, before gradually building up to a blinding finish of superb feedback guitar, a welcome break from the band's usual pop feel. White label test pressings of both formats fetch £20 and £30 respectively, and promotional copies were rumoured to contain a free poster, while a pair of 12" test pressings featuring the A-side on one disc and the 12" B-sides on the other, sell for similar sums. "Stop Killing Me" was also included on the "State Of Independents" compilation (TT 041). Incidentally, promo videos for both "Really Stupid" and "Stop Killing Me" were screened on "Whistle Test".
"I don't rate myself as a singer like Debbie Harry; I don't even think I sound like her!" argued Tracy in answer to critical comparisons, both visually and musically, with Blondie. But the vinyl evidence that Tracy wasn't simply standing in the shadow of the platinum blonde came with "Ocean Blue", free to those who attended the band's Astoria concert on 29th May 1987 (although copies also appeared at subsequent gigs). The song's "slow, meditative, relaxed end-of-night aura perfectly contrasted the wild, eastern excursion into sitar and tabla (courtesy of Pretam Singh, recommended by band engineer Paul Sampson) that dominated "Shadow". In retrospect, it's a shame that they opted not to give the 7" a full release. A demo version of "Shadow" preceded the freebie by appearing on the fifth Foods Records compilation "Imminent 5" (BITE 5), released in March 1987, nestling alongside material from Yeah Jazz, Jack Rubies and BMX Bandits, among others.
"From the first day we got together, we've told people what we want to sound like", assured Paul Court in interviews. "Now we're getting there". With the new single -- a revitalised "Thru The Flowers" which abandoned the fast, fuzz guitars in favour of Byrds-like arrangements -- a confident £12,000 promotion was aided by the sighting of Morrissey decked out in a Primitives T-shirt, who declared his "sporran had caught fire" upon witnessing the band live earlier in the year.
Morrissey's rumoured appearance at the group's August ICA shows remained just that -- but audiences were treated to surprise covers of the Beatles' "Ticket To Ride" and the Stooges' classic "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (which has since provided a live finale for the House of Love and Sonic Youth). Official mixing desk tapes of the August 15th show, coupled with the April 16th Camden Palace and the 29th May Astoria Theatre dates, were available by mail order only from Lazy towards the end of 1987.
Several of the limited 7" EPs are actually regular copies mispressed with the EP sleeve and label, although collectors obviously prefer the three tracks intact. Test pressings are valued at around £15 while white label 12"s fetch the more reasonable price of £10.
Meanwhile, the charming "Nothing Left" (First Version) was donated to a Sounds freebie EP, alongside contributions from Voice Of The Beehive, the Soup Dragons and the Band Of Holy Joy. Another Peel session -- "She Don't Need You"/"Ocean Blue"/"Everything Shining Bright"/"Dreamwalk Baby" -- and a chance appearance on "Wogan" (preceded by heady praise from Terry) boosted the single to top of the independent chart (14th best-selling indie of '87) although it only managed to 'bubble under' in the Gallup chart. However this was tarnished by two thorns in the Primitives' side; a contractual dispute with former booking agency Prestige Talent, and the sacking of Pete Tweedie, whose departure (allegedly due to his maltreatment of Tracy's cats) must be the most original 'excuse me' not since Glen Matlock's love of the Beatles lost him his place with the Sex Pistols.
By December 1987, support slots on a major Echo and the Bunnymen tour -- introducing new drummer Tig Williams -- attracted major label attention from London and Chrysalis. Feeling the time was right to make the move to a major ("being in a successful indie band, you get the terms you want, and we're now in that position"), the Prims eventually placed their trust in RCA, a label "not pointing any fingers", which allowed Lazy to continue under the band's guidance.
"Crash" was a perfect blend of pure pop and chiming guitars firmly steeped in a Monkees tradition, and after two 'Top Of The Pops' many saw this as a major achievement, since from the crop of indie bands from which the Primitives had emerged, only the Jesus And Mary Chain had managed to combine signing to a major with singles chart success. "All these dreams soon became pieces of plastic that are relegated to the local jumble sale", admitted Paul. But "Crash" yielded several limited formats that collectors would dearly wish to find at jumble sales. Especially rare are the limited 7" EP ("the long and the short of it on seven inch in remixed sleeve"), the signed 10", and copies with a free chocolate bar. A further variation came in the 12" which offered a demo version recorded in October 1985 (from the same session as the original "Thru The Flowers"), initial copies boasting an attractive, free poster.
With the "smooth transition" to a major label behind them, "Crash" was released worldwide; imports from Australia, West Germany and Japan (also on a 3" CD [RCA R10D-10] with the regular 7" tracks) are most commonly available for about £5, while U.S. promo 7"s and 12"s (with title sticker) fetch £5 and £8 respectively.
The heavy promotion for "Crash" largely concentrated on Paul and Tracy, at the expense of the "four bodies in one head" image portrayed with previous sleeves and interviews. Not only did this unnerve many loyal supporters, but it embarrassingly led the 'Guinness Book Of Hit Singles' to mistake the Primitives for a "U.K. male/female vocal/instrumental duo"!
The Primitives' debut LP was originally scheduled for a September 1987 release under the menacing "Helter Skelter" tag (the promo tape -- allegedly sold to RCA for £1,000 -- circulates at a more 'collector friendly' price of £12 or so), but eventually surfaced as "Lovely", representing something of a 'greatest hits' retrospective of the band's brief career. this may have united the four-piece, but it left doubts among the critics as to whether the quartet's devotion to touring had taken preference to the writing of new material. The familiar sounds of "Crash", "Thru The Flowers" and "Stop Killing Me" were joined by first-time vinyl outings for "Carry Me Home" and "Don't Want To Change Anything". Alarmingly, only six (three of which had already appeared in radio sessions) of the fourteen tracks were completely new, but this didn't stop the album from selling over 100,000 in the U.K. alone.
In retrospect, "Lovely" provided plenty of variety, but repeated listenings revealed that it lacked a true depth and consistency. One of the new tracks "Out of Reach", was duly re-recorded as the Primitives' next single, issued on various different formats. Apart from the A-side, all the cuts were recorded live (the first to use the Digital Audio Tape system) during the band's first headlining tour of the U.K. to promote "Lovely" in the spring of 1988. More live tracks, from the same source, appeared on a BBC radio promo compilation LP that sells for £40+, originally broadcast in full during Radio One's "In Concert" series.
A throwaway bubblegum feel on "Way Behind Me" continued the Primitives' obsession with pop perfection, although the flip "All The Way Down" allowed Paul Court to explore a harder, more sinister edge, with a Mary Chain vocal drone over a glorious biting guitar. The single had been premiered during a final John Peel session alongside "Things Get In Your Way" and "Keep Me In Mind" in April 1988.
Meanwhile, manager Wayne Morris continued to see his ideal band "as cute and attractively packaged as a milky bar", and introduced the latest in a long line of Primitives accessories -- a sachet of bubble bath, which was initially given away with "Way Behind Me" until Gallup banned the free gift. The sachets were subsequently kept under record shop counters, available to those who were clever enough to ask.
In the States, the single was coupled with the "Lovely" version of "Thru The Flowers" (8840-7) and chosen as the follow-up of to "Crash" (a firm college favourite), promos of which sell for £5 or so. Australian and Canadian copies fetch similar sums, while U.K. white label 12"s are valued around £10, although most copies of the limited edition 7" officially came as white labels with just the catalogue number printed on top.
Returning from several weeks in America, Steve Dullaghan decided to call it a day. Bored with playing bass, and keen to pursue a separate career as a guitarist, Dullaghan officially left the band on December 9th, to form Hate. Rumoured to be working with other ex-Primitive Pete Tweedie in the initial stages. Hate now consists of Martyn Bates (previously with Eyeless In Gaza) and Dullaghan, and both are writing and recording material in Coventry for forthcoming release.
For the foreseeable future, and the release of new material, the Primitives were to remain a trio: hardly Bananarama, but utilizing similar tactics, breaking all previous records with a dazzling array of formats and cover versions ("As Tears Go By" and the Velvets' "I'll Be Your Mirror"). In addition to the host of officially released items, the most sought-after versions include Japanese and U.S. promo CDs, and U.K. and U.S. promo 12"s, selling for £8-10.
"A thrash of white noise", "Sick Of It" was taken literally by some as the band seemed to be struggling for inspiration. Originally planned as a B-side, the song at least steered the band in the harder direction Court and his songwriting talents were taking him. Filmed in an East London synagogue, the promo video saw the return of Pete Tweedie (modeling a Birdland T-shirt, Lazy labelmates whom the Prims were touring with) to the ranks as a surrogate bassist "because we only know five people, so we had to take him". The short list of interested parties continued to grow, though, including ex-Bros bassist Craig Logan (!) and Andy Rourke, from the Smiths, thanks to and 'exclusive in the Coventry Evening Telegraph'. However, the search eventually stopped in Sheffield, and ex-Junk bassist Andy Hobson joined the fold during rehearsals for the forthcoming tour.
Warm-ups for this, and low key promotion for the single saw the band play support to Birdland in London and Brighton. Having spent and introspective year behind closed doors, Tracy emerged as a redhead ("mentally for the past eight months, physically for only two"), finally shedding the Blondie tag, and leaving Wendy James and recently rejuvenated Debbie Harry to fly the 'blonde bombshell' flag.
"We're keen to get this part of our career over with," admitted Paul Court, as "Pure" modestly reached the light of day. Moments of divine inspiration kept the album together, and thanks to a splendid production, it proved to be a far more lasting and enjoyable listen than it's more commercial predecessor. Occasionally, the arrangements were disappointing, not helped when Tracy's voice faltered, but the LP's few weaknesses were restricted to side 2, leaving the listener to enjoy a steady run through side 1, especially on "Shine" and "Dizzy Heights".
These were the peaks the Primitives should have been exploring, rather than falling from grace with the derivative "Lonely Street" or the band's next single, "Secrets" (recorded with Jonathan Richman in mind, but without his subtlety). Once again, the numerous issues proved a nightmare for collectors, although Court's moody "I Almost Touched You" bodied well for the future. White label promo copies of the LP sell for £10 with press sheet, as do autographed copies, which were available exclusively through Our Price stores. And again, numerous promo items for "Secrets" have surface.
The inevitable major tour to promote the album and single took in "some of the strangest and most obscure ports of call in Britain", but was hit by rearranged dates (caused by the complexities of an ambitious 'Alice In Wonderland' stage set) and muted reactions. This only tended to confirm the group's decision to embrace solo projects ("we're well-established enough for it not to cause too much panic"), and Tracy has been writing and recording her own material while Court is intent to work on a backlog of out-take tracks stored up over two years.
Welcomed with open arms and billed as "a great English rock band with a real power pop sound", the Primitives regrouped earlier this year "refreshed and restored" in America for a second tour of the West Coast, supporting the Sugarcubes. Over here, the band contributed "You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" to another 'NME' compilation, an array of Elvis covers in aid of the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy charity, entitled "The Last Temptation of Elvis".
Having shed the Blondie comparisons in favour of a harder, more mature sound, the Primitives have reached an interesting stage in their career. As they've said, the band are now fully established firmly in the public eye, and yet seem quite distant to the current musical trends. But far from becoming marginalised, the Primitives' formula has yet to fail them, and hopefully,
Court's increasingly diverse songwriting and musicianship will win through and allow the Prims to come of age.