Bobby Gillespie has just finished eating a nutritionally balanced lunch of chicken and rice in the canteen at Sony Music.
He’s the most Scottish looking person I have ever met, and I’ve met a lot of Scottish people. Even after years of living in Islington, his Glaswegian accent is unchanged, as is his face, the passage of time somehow having contrived to swerve it entirely. Is Olay the secret to his eternal youth, or maybe Crème de la Mer? ‘Probably the smack,’ he says, deadpan.
Gillespie, 56, has in fact been drink- and drug-free for the past 10 years, and in some ways lives a quieter life than he once did: married to the stylist Katy England, with two sons, Wolf, 17, and Lux, 14. But he is still very much a rock star, a status derived neither from music nor clothes — though he is one of the few human beings who can wear Hedi Slimane without looking like a twat — nor drugs. Bobby Gillespie is a rock star because in the sanitised, manufactured musical landscape of 2019, he is one of a handful of people left with the balls to express controversial opinions.
Take his views on today’s musicians (he’s previously described singer-songwriter Ben Howard as having a ‘complete personality bypass’), today’s music (which he has stated sounds like ‘people are tranquilised’) or today’s politicians (‘we’ve got to fight these f***ing people!’).
Speaking laconically but hyper-articulately, Gillespie exhibits the sort of passion and knowledge that makes you wish he’d follow in the footsteps of his union official-turned-Labour Party-candidate father (also Bob) and run for office. In his black Hedi Slimane coat and tailored trousers (his favourite designer alongside Edward Sexton and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen), he’d cut more of a dash than Corbyn, not to mention speak more sense.
He is most passionately against what he calls ‘the financialisation of further education’. ‘Education should be free,’ he says. ‘Between the ages of 18 and 24, people experiment with their lives. They don’t know who they are. They’re trying to find out what they might want to do. My band was on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which Mrs Thatcher brought in during the 1980s to cut down the unemployment figures. That time where we didn’t have to go to work and could still get housing benefit, we could put into our art. It’s valuable time. We need to invest in young people. Because those who don’t come from a privileged background are going to find it harder to go into further education. It’s counterproductive to the creative industries in our country.’
He’s only too aware of the importance of giving young people a chance. ‘For me the whole point of being in a band was to escape the fate that had been decided for me by my school — the industrial scrap heap,’ he says. ‘Being around musicians, and eventually being in Primal Scream, was a long process of self-discovery. I found that I could be a creative person. That’s the most powerful thing for me: that I had potential that I never realised I had.’
The son of Bob and pub landlady Wilma, Gillespie moved from Glasgow’s Southside to London in the mid-1980s, quitting The Jesus and Mary Chain (he played drums) in 1986 to focus on Primal Scream, which he formed with guitarists Andrew Innes and Robert Young. As anyone who ever ‘lost it’ on the dance floor back then will know, ‘Loaded’, their break-out single, and Screamadelica, their third album from which it came, went on to define the acid house movement. (It also won the first Mercury Music Prize and sold more than three million copies worldwide, while its cover was immortalised as a Royal Mail stamp.) But though Screamadelica is their masterpiece, there is much, much more to Primal Scream. Later this month, they will release Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll: The Singles, a stellar compilation that stretches from 1986 through ‘Loaded’, ‘Come Together’ and ‘Rocks’, all the way up to 2016’s Haim-featuring ‘100% or Nothing’.
It’s an interesting album title, I say, from someone who recently opined that rock ’n’ roll was ‘over’. ‘I think what I meant was that culturally it doesn’t have an impact any more,’ Gillespie clarifies. ‘I don’t think it’s got any gravitas, not in the way it had in the 1950s, you know, or the cultural gravitas of the 1960s or 1970s, maybe even of the 1980s. I feel that the energy for young people is somewhere else.’ His teenage sons ‘generally listen to nothing except contemporary black music’, including drill and grime. ‘They show me stuff: if they go to a gig they film it, and you see this high-energy madness and these performers singing about issues they can relate to. That’s what rock used to be — a cult language for young people.’
I say it’s a shame that drill music has been discredited by the establishment as 100 per cent negative, because for all its abhorrent promotion of gang culture and violence, there’s a lot of talent within the scene. ‘It’s the voice of the f***ing dispossessed. [The establishment] doesn’t want to encourage creativity from the underclass. They just want to put people in a box and say they’re a nuisance to society. I don’t know the music — my kids are into it. But there’s an energy there I recognise. Young people have that energy, that excitement about being alive, about sex, about everything. That music embodies that. Acid house was the same.’
Pressed further for theories as to rock ’n’ roll’s demise, Gillespie says that ‘class has a lot to do with it. The stuff my kids listen to has an anger there that the white kids making rock-influenced music don’t have.’ I’m guessing he isn’t a fan of Ed Sheeran, then. ‘I think we’re on a different planet, really. We’re still dreamers. People love the guy. That’s cool by me, honestly.’ Perhaps the last great rock ’n’ roll star is Kate Moss, a longtime friend with whom Gillespie duetted on 2002’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’, one of the singles featured on Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll. ‘That’s why we wanted to make a record with her,’ Gillespie agrees. ‘She was kind of like a female Keith Richards at that point, with a reckless lifestyle. But when she sang “Some Velvet Morning”, it was a more innocent, gentle, psychedelic personality that she had to assume. I liked the corruption of that decadence.’
As Primal Scream’s frontman, Gillespie was the living embodiment of rock ’n’ roll. Music and clothes aside, there was also the prodigious and so-well-documented-as-to-be-boring amount of drugs he imbibed. ‘The reason we took drugs was because we’d read that Johnny Rotten took speed in the Sex Pistols, and Elvis took speed, and Jim Morrison took LSD, and Iggy took heroin,’ he says. ‘And it was, “Well, we’re going to have to do the same.” It was like a romantic ideal.’
Gillespie grew up around alcohol — ‘Tennent’s lager, and the idea that you had to drink a lot of pints’ — yet drinking was never his main vice. ‘I don’t like the alcohol culture. I associated it with violence at the Celtic match. It wasn’t for me,’ he says. ‘I never really smoked grass or anything either. It was more the speed, a high-energy rock ’n’ roll drug. That was my thing. We had a lot of good times, and of course acid house would not have happened without ecstasy.’ So, no regrets? ‘No regrets. It might have been better to stop a bit earlier, but when you’re addicted it’s kind of hard. Anyway, I just kind of stopped.’
I first met Gillespie through mutual friends at Loveranch, a Saturday club night at Maximus on Leicester Square, back in the days when central London clubs had yet to be sold to property developers. I try to engage him in a moanathon about how young people moving to London are hard pushed to pursue any creative endeavours, given the economic backdrop. But he’s pragmatic. ‘The development and gentrification [of London] is really class-cleansing. It means that these interesting things will be happening outside, not in the city centre. Young people need to have an occult world which is separate from their parents. They need to have a secret language; their own thing.’
I ask who he calls nowadays to have fun. ‘That’s a good question, and a hard question to answer. I don’t know about that any more.’ I suggest he says his wife, to keep him in her good books. ‘My wife,’ he says, obligingly. ‘I always have fun with my wife, although I’m not sure she’d say the same about me.’
And with that he’s off: rock star, family man, all-round legend.
‘Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll: The Singles’ is out 24 May on Sony. Primal Scream play All Points East on 24 May
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