Quick. What band has released the most irresistible 60’s style pop record this year? Did you guess The Primitives? You should have.
24 years after the band’s kitten-clawed iconic hit “Crash,” and nearly two decades after their official split, The Primitives have returned with “Echoes and Rhymes,” surely one of the most solid pop records of the year. Chock a block with singer Tracy Tracy’s signature sugary-sly vocals and an unbeatable array of adept arrangements provided by guitarist Paul Court, the album is 14 tracks of blissful girl fronted pop restyled both for the modern era and The Primitives themselves.
Rocker was lucky to catch up with Court to talk about the new record, feminism, and why fame the 2nd time around is more satisfying than the first time through.
Rocker: I know the band restarted around 2009. Did that have to do with the passing former Primitives bassist Steve Dullaghan ?
Paul Court: Yeah. We hadn’t seen each other for years. We’d completely lost contact. So hearing the news about Steve kind of forced our hand, really, to get back in touch with each other. I must have spoke to Tracy that day for the first time in about seven years. I managed to get her parents’ phone number, and she was actually staying with them. She’d moved to Argentina, and then she was living in Spain,…. So that’s the reason we started to speak again, that’s the thing that caused that to happen.
We weren’t really planning on doing anything, but there was an exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry that was all to do with sort of renowned music from the Coventry area for the past 40 years or so, and they asked us to get involved. At first, it was to let them have some stuff they could put in the exhibition, and then they asked us to play on the opening night, so that was at the end of 2009. So we did that as a tribute to Steve, and we did a little secret gig that week in London. We’d spent a bit of time rehearsing, so we thought it would be a shame just to do this one gig in the museum. That’s where we met Sean Price, who suggested this booking agent, and then we got a little tour the following year.
Rocker: How did you end up teaming up with Elefant Records?
A couple of years ago, I got contacted by a group called Les Tres Bien Ensemble, and the singer asked me to write a song. I hadn’t done that for years. I’d been asked before, but I just really didn’t want to get back into it, but I figured I’d give it a go. They were on Elefant Records, and I’d not heard of Elefant, but I noticed the label had British bands like Camera Obscura and BMX Bandits, and I thought, “If we ever did anything again, this label would be a label we could work with.”
So after we recorded “Never Kill a Secret,” which we released last year, when it came to the album, I went back to the thing with Elefant Records, thinking they’d be quite sympathetic towards The Primitives, and they jumped at the chance. The whole thing has been almost led by fate, really. We’ve not schemed or contrived a great deal, we kept thinking that what we were doing was the last thing, and then something else would come along. Really, it’s taking what comes along as it goes.
It’s a lot scaled down from what it used to be, obviously. We’re playing smaller places now, but we’re fine, it’s a good buzz, it’s a blast. There’s not a lot of pressure, it’s like a glorified hobby, really. It used to be this big career thing, there was all this pressure and stuff, whereas right now, it’s just a little jaunt now and again.
Rocker: Is it more enjoyable this time around?
Paul: It’s more enjoyable. It’s quite a lot of work, as well. Even though we’re not right there in the public eye, doing something every day. I guess because we’re sort of self-managed, there’s lots of background things you have to do that you didn’t have to worry about before, but at the same time, it’s great, because you’re in control. We’re not being presented in ways we don’t want to be presented in, as we were quite a bit back in the day. It’s up to us, really.
Rocker: Was that a problem before, being presented in ways you didn’t want to be?
Paul: Yeah, because we were on a major label, they want to push you a certain way. We didn’t mind being pushed towards being a pop band, because that’s what’s at the heart of it, but single sleeves and things,… before you have any say in the matter, it’s put in the shops.
Rocker: Do you remember anything specific?
Paul: It’s probably a couple of singles we put out for RCA, we didn’t like the look of them. This album we just put out, Echoes and Rhymes, we just put Tracy’s face on it, blown up. That was on purpose. We’ve done this album of cover versions, and we wanted the album to look like a 1960s, ‘big face’ album, with a person’s face blown right up, so that was a purposeful thing we did there. That’s the sort of thing that was frowned on a bit back in the day. We wanted to drag a little bit of mystery back, but you can’t really have that when you’re on a label like RCA. It felt like we were being pushed towards appealing to the under-10s or something. Nothing is wrong with that, but it started alienating everyone else.
Rocker: The new record, Echoes and Rhymes, is it all covers?
Paul: It is, yeah. They’re not very well-known. They’re semi-obscure, but to a lot of people, they’re very obscure. We’ve taken some great songs that not many people know about and have recycled them and made them sound like The Primitives. They already had things about them that reminded us of ourselves, so that was a starting point, I suppose.
We didn’t want to do a karaoke album, which is easy these days with the technology at your fingertips and these things. “No one knows these songs, let’s completely copy it and have it sound like the original.” We tried to add our own touch to all the songs, and completely changed some of them around. “The Witch” is one, the guitar lines on that…the original has a big saxophone thing on it. We didn’t want that, so we put some guitar lines on it.
Rocker: Are these songs you were a fan of for a long time, or were you scavenging around to find them?
Paul: Both, really. I kind of collect vinyl, I have a lot of seven-inches, I’m always looking for these hidden in the shadows, little pop records that no one’s ever heard of. About 2/3 of the album is out of my record box, and the other stuff, we scavenged for. I wanted to find stuff new to me, as well. I think Tracy found the song called “Sunshine on My Rainy Day Mind,” she heard that playing in a record shop in Barcelona and found out who that was by. As we were recording the album, we were thinking that the psychedelic pop thing or psychedelic folk thing isn’t quite balanced, we needed one of those, and Tracy found that song, so that wound up on the album. A lot of it was familiar to me, but some of it, I’ve only known about for the past couple of months, really.
Rocker: As a vinyl collector, what do you think drives people to love vinyl so much? What drives you to love it?
Paul: For me, it’s finding some kind of rarity, being able to play it, the ceremony of putting on a record, if you like. It’s not the same as clicking a thing on an MP3 player, the ritual of it… I’ve just bought this record, it’s Susan Barrett’s version of “It’s No Secret,” the Jefferson Airplane song, a soul kind of version of it. I’d looked for it for ages. It wasn’t in mint condition, it cost me about 60 quid, I think it was. But I thought “This will give me a high forever, putting this thing on.” You can go and buy cocaine or something, if that’s your thing, but that will be done in a day, but you have this record forever.
Rocker: Have you heard from any of the other people you covered on the new record?
Paul: I haven’t. There’s a lady called Le Grand Mellon, who released three 45s in the Sixties, and no one’s ever heard of her. We did one of hers on the album called “Move On Over,” and there’s a guy over here who writes a magazine called Shindig, and they’ve tried to track her down for an interview, and they said she’s a new discovery for them because of The Primitives, so that’s quite nice.
Rocker: Speaking of covers, so many people have covered “Crash.”
Paul: It didn’t used to be that way! I think it’s because it was used in Dumb and Dumber, the Jim Carrey film, that gave it a new lease on life, really, and I think a lot of the covers came along after that. You could often tell, because they re-edited the song, so it’s got a bridge part or something that appears, and anyone who covers it like that, you think, “Oh, they’ve done the Dumb and Dumber version of it.” I think it was a German girl who did it, as well, that was some kind of hit in Australia or something?
Rocker: Have you heard all of the covers?
Paul: Not all of them, no. Probably about half of them. There’s a Spanish-language version, which is quite interesting.
Rocker: Are there any you fully endorse?
Paul: The best one I’ve heard wasn’t released, it was a Japanese band or person called Gummi, and they just put it onto YouTube and added a little manga kind of cartoony thing with it. It’s not there now, but it was really nice, it’s bubblegummy sounding. A lot of the people who covered it tend to go for the sort of power pop, power thing, or plastic punk, that kind of aspect, where this was a dream, bubblegum type thing, so I really liked that one.
It seems to keep rolling along, that one song. It would be nice if someone would pick one of the others, because it’s not our best song, by a long stretch, and there are others that are similar kinds of songs to ‘Crash,” that I think are better, but it gets all the attention.
Rocker: When you wrote Crash, did you think that in 20, 25 years, people would still be calling you about it?
Paul: It was probably one of the first five songs I wrote in 1985, and we dropped it from the set for about a year. We had an abundance of that type of song. It was kind of Ramones, because that’s how it used to sound at first, it was this thrashy thing, and didn’t have the ‘na na na’s on it, just the same melody and words. We kind of reinvented the song in 1987, the version everyone knows, and I think we’d just signed to RCA at this point. We had them giving it a push, and it became the big hit. Then I thought, “This is great, it’s a great stepping stone for us to be able to do other sorts of things, once another song is the new thing, it will probably be forgotten about” but it seems like an all-time classic now or something. Not many people actually know who The Primitives are, but they know that song.
Rocker: I was going to ask about this t-shirt the band made up with a picture of Tracy on the front of a pair of men’s underpants. Who came up with that idea?
Paul: It’s not gone down as well as we’d hoped. I think we sold about 30 of those. I had the idea, actually.
I had this idea a few years ago to do club nights, playing girl-fronted songs, and you’d give out flyers with a woman wearing a man’s [under]pants and a beehive haircut on the front…the male world, behind the female-fronted… something like that.
I’ve been a bit annoyed, I did an interview recently, and there was still this subtext about, “So you decided to have a girl singer?” Like I didn’t want to be taken seriously or something. It’s kind of annoying. So I was like, “Right, I’m going to do that t-shirt now, Tracy’s face on a pair of man’s pants.” I think people are a bit confused by it, really. We should have notes with it to explain… I think it’s a bit like the Beatles album with the meat on the cover, I slightly misjudged something here, but it’s our version of that.
Rocker: So do you think that people don’t take bands with female singers seriously?
Paul: I don’t feel that myself, I like so much music that has girl singers. Whether it’s some fluffy pop thing, it doesn’t matter to me, I just like it. But you always think you can’t be taken that seriously if you have a female singer. If you look at retro magazines, they’ll put an old band on the cover, and you rarely see the ones that had female singers. Not like Kate Bush, someone who’s right on top of their game, that can do it still.
It’s more a thing I’ve noticed over the years. Back then, what were we doing in the late 80s was a lot more chin-stroking. No one was going on about Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys or the Shangri-Las, which is great Sixties genius pop music. Pop music was a little bit frowned upon back then. I think Britpop probably changed a lot of things, really, it was OK to have tunes. I don’t want to name any bands’ names, but the whole shoegazing thing was very trendy, and I think there was…not a backlash against it, but a lot of British journalists were like, “We need to loosen up a bit here, this is getting a little bit like prog rock.”
I think that’s kind of the attitude, you’re never going to be any important band – that’s ‘important’ with quotation marks around it, because I’m never quite sure what that actually means.
Rocker: I saw the Go-Go’s a few months ago and it wasn’t until I saw them had it occurred to me how hard they probably have had it, and how even though they are likely the most successful girl band in history, their legacy is in some way marginalized because they’re women.
Paul: Exactly, yeah. Would you see them on the cover of Mojo magazine? It’s a great magazine we have here, they’ll put some punk band on the cover or the Beatles again or whatever, but why not the Go-Go’s? Why not Shocking Blue or one of the other great female-led bands? I don’t differentiate; it’s all the same to me.
Rocker: When you’re playing out now, do you get to reconnect with any old fans?
Paul: Oh yeah, definitely. Going back the last two years, we’ve seen people who used to come and see us all the time, who we haven’t seen for 18 years or so, yeah, that’s been good. Then we have a lot of new fans, people who were fans at the time, but just a little too young to really come and see us, and now are coming along for the gigs. We have fans that come to every single show too. I don’t know how they’re managing time off work and going around the country!
Rocker: Do you see more of your classic fans out or are there kids, as well?
Paul: It’s a mixture, really, there are people more this side of 30, then you’ll see the occasional sort of younger, new indie fan checking us out. It’s more the older kind of people, but there are younger people interested, as well.
Rocker: Is there any hint of going to the States with the new record?
Paul: We really would like to, yeah. It’s just organizing it, really. We did one gig in Brooklyn in 2010, and that was great, went to play one show on a weekend, and then back over again. It’s definitely a priority, really, it’s just getting it organized.