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PLAYGROUND TWIST
Melody Maker
January 30, 1988
Steve Sutherland

 

On a collision course with perfection, 'Crash' looks about to catapult Coventry's Primitives into the nations affections. Steve Sutherland met Tracey, Steve and Paul to assess the strategy behind their destiny.

“WHAT are we like? Uh… a cross between a car crash and a nursery rhyme.”

Perfect. The perfect quote from the perfect band who have just about made the perfect single.

The Primitives are the perfect band because they have no permanent drummer, they have a pretty, petite girl singer and hardly anyone is ever going to remember the names of the other two.

Their new single, “Crash”, is the perfect single because it does everything you expect it to and it still surprises. It’s traditional yet new, of its time, yet timeless; representative yet beyond characteristics. It belongs with The Pretenders’ “Kid” and Blondie’s “Hanging On The Telephone” as an example of what The Primitives unashamedly call classic pop. It is commercial as in non-elitist, it is open as in closed, it says nothing in that it says everything. It is short, it is sweet, it looks backwards to look forwards and it is very, very Eighties indeed.

“CRASH” is a single made by fans, not disciples. It embraces without shame, it echoes its influences, it has no axe to grind. It samples in spirit without resorting to the mundane actuality of a practice which has promoted what is essentially a lack of imagination as an outlaw act. It is very modern in that it isn’t modern at all and, despite what al the mags might tell you, there is a strong but fairly silent majority out there who will support the standards set by “Crash”, who will rally around the personality over the producer any day.

Some say pop, based around the singer-songwriter, was like art before Warhol – precious, elitist and useless – and then hip hop came along and liberated it, mechanised it, made it more honest. The Primitives disagree. They reckon “Crash”, as they used to say, is the real sound of the suburbs and Annie Nightingale will play it, week in and week out, for eons and eons to come.

Why is “Crash” so heavenly? Well it lasts barely two minutes and it features guitars.

And yet there are those, philosophers and tacticians, theorists and dreamers, who will expend ink within these very pages telling you that perfection in pop is nowhere near where it’s at. They’ll tell you perfection involves formula and compromise and planning and predestination and all things pop shouldn’t be. They’ll tell you perfection is the antithesis, even the enemy of spontaneity, of inspiration, of the essential otherness that hoists pop out of the realms of show business and into the realms of art.

And, of course, they’re not wrong. Which is not the same as saying they’re right.

Paul, who writes the lyrics and looks a bit rockabilly, reckons: “What we do is a lot more real, a lot more personal than just having a load of electronic equipment which somebody switches on and presses ‘Go’ and, three and a half minutes later, you’ve got a song. Things aren’t so rigid…”

Rigidity, in fact, is not part of The Primitives’ make up. They tell me their debut album, due out in April, is as varied as anything they’ve ever heard. I tel them that, although they’ve been featured on some four front covers now, your average Joe still doesn’t know who they are. They don’t come ready-made with an image or even an anti-image. They don’t fit.

“I don’t think we don’t fit in,” says Tracey who is tiny and looks tired from their recent stint supporting The Bunnymen. “If you look at the charts we don’t fit in but, then again, we would because we’re something which his totally different and exciting and fresh.”

“We’ll still be weirdos is we get in the charts,” says Paul. “The average wag about town will still say we’re weird and go down to the pub and say ‘Look at those poofs’, y’know?”

Outsiders on the inside. The best of both worlds. Sounds ideal. Sounds, uh, perfect…

“The Monkees’ stuff was perfect wasn’t it? ‘Hello I Love You’ by The Doors. There’s no way you could improve them. They’re there and they’re gonna last because they’re faultless. They do everything a good pop record’s supposed to do. For two and a half minutes or however long they last they’re totally captivating.”

So what makes some music better than others?

“Imagination and spirit,” says Steve, who carried gig tickets in his wallet like scalps. His most prized one is Laurie Anderson at Hammersmith Odeon. Others include All About Eve, 10,000 Maniacs and the Stones.

“You can listen to a record and think ‘Yeah, those people went in with the sole intention of pleasing themselves and worried about what other people would think afterwards’ whereas it’s really obvious to spot the people who’ve gone into a studio and gone ‘Hey, let’s get a hit single out today!’”

Isn’t imperfection a part of perfection? Doesn’t there have to be disharmony to complement the harmony, threat behind the innocence? Doesn’t everything have to be superrealist?

“That’s very important,” says Steve. “When we first started we were just noise. We were a real thrash and I don’t think we ever want to lose that totally because an awful lot of what we listen to for our own pleasure is thrash. I woke up this morning to Sonic Youth’s ‘Sister’ at full volume.”

Noise, of course, is symbolic of rebellion…from a format if nothing else. How does “Crash” kick against its influences?

“Well…I don’t think we’ve ever done anything that was truly original,” says Paul. “Everything we do is a hybrid of what’s been done before. I think it’s important to be different, but I doubt if anybody can do anything totally original anymore. I mean, what could you possibly conceive?”

“Originality stopped about 1968,” says Steve, who recently interviewed R.E.M. for a fanzine. “The only original thing left to do is to mix influences and create a hybrid which is slightly different to things that other people do.”

Should the perfect pop song seek to be more than just a pop song? Should it look outside itself?

“Political?”

Maybe…

“Well, we’ve always been of the opinion that pop music should really be pop music and shouldn’t be mixed with anything else. That doesn’t mean we re a bunch of non-thinking morons - we’ve all got opinions of life and how to live it and stuff but we don’t really want to ram our opinions down other people’s throats.”

“Pop music should be an escape,” says Paul. “It should be like a holiday from life.”

I take it that you think pop music isn’t very good at the moment.

“It’s crap,” says Paul, “‘74 was better than now!”

So part of your motivation is to do something about that?

“Yeah. Without wishing to sound pretentious,” says Steve, “I don’t think there is anybody who is actually doing what we’re doing. I can’t think of anybody who sounds truly like us, who’ve got the variety and depth we’ve got.”

So what is it you think you do?

“Hopefully take the best bits from the things we like and rearrange them,” says Paul.

“We didn’t actually go in to try and write the perfect pop song with ‘Crash’,” says Tracey. “It’s just a mixture of everything we like. It just evolved that way.”

What is the perfect pop song?

“Something that’s short…sweet...and exciting.”

Examples?

“I haven’t bought a record for ages I’m afraid,” says Tracey. “I can’t really think of anything at the moment. Sorry.”

Well, tell me about the difference between inspiration and plagiarism. Tell me what doesn’t make you The Cult.

“There’s been times when we’ve been arranging songs and we’ve thought ‘Shit! That sounds exactly like the chorus out of whatever’ so we’ve changed a few notes around, tried to keep the feel without ripping totally. Our inspiration is the feel,” says Steve, “rather than the actual notes. We try to recapture the spirit without stealing the sound”

THIS is Eighties popspeak something that’s crept upon those of us with memories and we’re unsure how to take it. From burning rejection to avid assimilation in 10 years. It smacks of respect which, history shows, rather than encouraging experimentation, serves to inhibit the nurturing of novelty so vital to keeping pop alive.

“Personally, I totally disagree with that” says Steve. ‘We’re all music fans and there’s no way we can lust abandon that. Just because we’re in a group doesn’t mean we can just disregard what’s gone before us.”

But don’t you yearn for the destructive thrill?

“Um. . .it’s difficult to sit here and discuss it, says Steve. “I’m gonna sound like one of Nephilim now, but we didn’t actually sit down and say ‘Right, we’re gonna be in a band. This is what we’re gonna do’. It’s all very natural.”

Just because you don’t have a manifesto, doesn’t mean you don’t stand for something. The very fact that The Primitives’ records will attract far more attention than their performance in the press is a revolution of sorts in itself.

“That’s what we’re in it for, primarily, the music. The rest is stuff you have to do to make people aware we exist. We buy new shirts and get our hair combed and stuff but that’s just part and parcel of the business. It’s the same as talking to people like yourself – we’ve had to learn to sit down and talk to total strangers about personal things. The first five or six interviews we did, we must have been really awkward because we’d get asked a question and there’d be about three minutes of total silence with everyone looking at their feet and shuffling around and stuff and there’d be just yes and no answers.”

You can always tell lies as long as they’re entertaining and you don’t feel they’re likely to have some detrimental effect on what you do hereafter. Don’t look so crestfallen – let’s have some fun. Let’s do a Sugarcubes rather than a Nephilim. Let’s take the wacky route to enlightenment.

Okay? If the Primitives were a book what would it be?

Steve: “God…what a question!”

Tracey: “For me it would probably be a fairytale book of night-time stories.”

Paul: “I saw a book once called ‘Know Your Fish’ —that’s quite appropriate because about 80 per cent of the audience reminds me of fish, just flapping around and stuff. And I start to think ’Are we fish as well’, y’know ‘in an aquarium?’”

Film?

Steve: “It would have to be something quite popular without being over the top commercial. A good strong cult film with an atmosphere. It would probably be one of those bizarre Sixties road movies where nothing seems to happen until you’ve got to the end and then you look back and realise what it was all about’

Paul:” ‘Vanishing Point’.”

Tracey?

“ ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ because it all turns out alright in the end.”

Steve: “That’s the same thing really. That’s a road movie without the cars””

What if The Primitives were a haircut?

Tracey: “Probably Steve’s – unmanageable!”

Steve: “Davy Jones’ mop on a windy day.”

Paul: “I’m of no fixed haircut at the moment so I’m undecided.”

A drink?

Steve: “Vodka and orange – that’s our drink…”

Tracey: “Gets you where you want to go!”

Paul: “I’d like to be just a clear glass of water.”

Very level headed.

Steve: “Totally out of character that one!”

What if The Primitives were a drug?

Steve: “The really obvious response is glue…or acid. Something that alters your perception. Cosy and warm. Gives you a nice feeling of shaky security.”

So there’s a psychedelic dimension to the band?

Steve: “Yeah – that any my haircut.”

Paul: “We’ve taken tea many times.”

Steve: “We’ll leave it at that.”

Okay, if you were a car, what would it be?

Steve: “It would be something old and battered. Something that’s had a good life and been well abused but still has a solid engine and chassis.”

Tracey: “Something classic.”

Like “Christine”?

Steve: “Hm, maybe. With that nice evil edge.”

What about a work of art?

Paul: “I’d say the Venus De Milo, but, y’know, no arms so it couldn’t play the guitar.”

Steve: “That’s what makes it a work of art, having no arms. It’s like us, perfectly flawed.”

An animal?

Steve: “A cat. Soft and cuddly with a mind of its own.”

Paul: “A moth, because, up close, they’re really interesting.”

Tracey: “A porcupine – I think that sums us up. Prickly and able to curl up into a ball to shut people out.”

A murder?

Steve: “Heh, heh, pet subject this one.”

Paul: “Something Victorian maybe, one of those prostitutes lying in a bed.”

Tracey: “Jack!”

Paul: No, not him. He left too much messy business.”

Steve: “Something with style and taste and a little imagination…like acid baths or something…We’d probably ring up and laugh,

y’know? ‘You haven’t got us yet!’”

Okay, what if The Primitives were a meal?

Paul: “Something sweet and filling.”

Steve: ‘An odd mixture - something like roast chicken and custard.”

Tracey: “Coconut meringue. Hard on the outside, soft in the middle with a nice cherry on the top.”

TV programme?

“ ‘The Magic Roundabout’.” This is Paul and Steve in unison.

“The people who made that were wigged... seriously out of their faces.” This is Steve. “They’re almost child molesters in a way. This is one of our pet subjects - those little five minute programmes that used to be on before the news. We know them all intimately.”

What about ”Trumpton”?

“No, I was never into that. It was too normal.”

It was ultranormal! It was surreal - the perfect community, like The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”. It was almost middle class though.”

Hm!

So The Primitives are palatable but weird, attractive but deep, wacky but comfortable - how antagonistic!

Paul: ‘We like sweet voices, catchy melodies and a f***ing racket underneath.”

Tracey: “There’s a constant battle going on.”

Paul: “Between our on-stage selves and our off-stage selves as well.”

Steve: “Onstage you can jump about and be a bit of an idiot and pull stupid faces and stuff like that which, in the normal course of events, you wouldn’t even contemplate doing. What we do onstage is a lot of people do on the dancefloor. Y’know, the idea of getting on a dancefloor is ‘Hey, look at me. I’m not in a band, I can’t play anything but I like this record and I wanna express myself to it’. That’s what we’re doing onstage.

Paul: “None of us are very good dancers so we have to be in a band.”

Tracey: “You speak for yourself!”

Steve: “It’s the only release. When we first got together we were real shrinking violets, real wallflowers.”

And now you’re rock ‘n’ roll rebels?

Steve: “Well, I don’t think any of us could ever go back to the traditional lifestyle where you get up in the morning. Monday to Friday, and have Saturdays and Sundays to go out and get drunk and rest and see your friends and that. Weekends simply have no meaning to us anymore. In fact, more often than not, first thing in the morning when we’re away from home in a hotel or something, the first thing everybody says after ‘Good morning’ is ‘What day is it?’ It’s really disorientating, the whole process.”

What kept them sane on the last tour was toy squeaky toy gopher called Godfrey with whom they’d have conversations at three in the morning and whose appearance round the dressing room door silenced The Bunnymen for fully 10 minutes.

Paul: “I had a stone once and that kept me sane. Just a stone in my pocket.”

Steve: “When we were at The Manor studio for 10 days or something, they had this piece of rock which was used to prop open a door and we adopted it. We gave him a Sony Walkman and let him listen to Sonic Youth, wrapped him in a scarf, gave him a cushion, painted a face on him and, y’know, Rock was one of us for those 10 days.”

After that, I don’t mind so much asking something dumb like this: What’s the worst thing that could happen to The Primitives?

Steve: “If I lost the ability to play a musical instrument or if I went deaf, I think I’d probably end my life on the spot.”

Paul: “For us personally, physically, to get in a car crash. A car smash for the band would be the best thing, almost, because we’d all go together.”

Tracey looks doubtful.

Steve: “We had a really good conversation about four o’clock in the morning the other night and we reached the conclusion that, if you really wanna last in rock ‘n’ roll, somebody’s gotta die.”

Paul: “For us personally, physically, to get in a car crash. A car smash for the band would be the best thing, almost because we’d all go together.”

Tracey looks doubtful.

Steve: “We had a really good conversation about four o’clock in the morning the other night and we reached the conclusion that, if you really wanna last in rock’n’roll somebody’s gotta die.”

Paul: “And then we thought, ‘Are they really dead?’ because, being involved in this business, you realise everything’s bullshit. Is there this little community of supposedly dead rock stars raking in much more money than they would if they had stayed alive?”

That’s a tad cynical isn’t it?

Steve: “Well, the only disappointment so far has been a sort of loss of naivety with regards to music. We haven’t quite got to the stage where we listen to a record and can’t really listen to the whole without ending up thinking ‘That’s a nice reverb on the bass drum’, stuff like that.”

That’s the problem when your hobby becomes your job. What you once did to relax is now your work.

Steve: “I find more and more that the stuff I listen to to relax is so far removed from what we’re doing it bears no relation whatsoever. It’s like an escape. I’m still escaping…”

Aren’t we all kids? Aren’t we all?