Craig Austin reviews the latest album from The Primitives, Echoes and Rhymes, their first since their 2009 reunion.
For anyone in an aspirational indie band in the mid to late 80s there was no experience quite as bittersweet as being anointed by Morrissey. For a man whose own band was experiencing its much-celebrated imperial phase, Morrissey played a strange ‘King Midas in reverse’ role when it came to his championing of the supposed Next Big Thing. In essence, almost everything he touched turned to trash. Aside from James (whom he swiftly spurned when they had the temerity to start selling records) it was only The Primitives, a band who he literally paraded on his chest for almost 12 months, who could claim to have achieved any modicum of commercial success.
In an era when a chart entry demanded sales in excess of the capacity of your average football stadium, ‘Out of Reach’, and most famously, ‘Crash’, shifted enough 7 inch plastic to force a couple of incongruous Top of the Pops appearances before the vagaries of fashion, fame, and the ultimately brutal truth of diminishing returns consigned their slender legacy to the nation’s attics and charity shops.
With hindsight, and to contemporary ears, the essence of those songs remains forever rooted in a bygone era of Chelsea boots and hair-crimpers, a self-effacing period of alt-pop escapism where guys were bland and gals were blonde; none more so than the band’s iconic Truffaut-esque singer Tracy Tracy, a captivating platinum amalgam of Marilyn and Myra. The band split in 1992 following the relative commercial failure of their final album, Galore, and just as the green shoots of Britpop began to poke through the plastic sheeting of mainstream culture, The Primitives returned to Coventry to lick their open wounds. But now, two whole decades later, and to use the timeless Smash Hits vernacular, The Primitives are back! Back! BACK!
Given this backdrop, Echoes and Rhymes is an album that defies all reasonable expectation; a lovingly assembled collection of semi-obscure 60s pop curios given a high-end 21st century makeover by a band evidently in love with its crackly source material. Its cover art tells us two things; firstly, that Tracy Tracy remains in great aesthetic shape (and please let’s not pretend that’s anything other than an utterly vital factor, this is POP music goddammit!), and secondly that this is a band that remains in thrall to the tiniest details of pop culture styling. From its use of period font to the insistence on parading its fourteen titles on the front of the sleeve, it’s only the bar code that confirms that this is anything other than a glittering relic of yesteryear.
The very notion of a band opting to undertake an exercise in cover versions to resurrect its reputation and heritage is an act of perversely peculiar defiance in a cynical age when ‘reformation’ has become a byword for milking the cash cow until its udders bleed. When guitarist Paul Court assumes his customary vocal lead on a Mary Chain-esque take on Nico’s ‘I’m Not Sayin’, when Tracy adopts the role of chanteuse des West Midlands on ‘Amoureux D’une Affiche’ – a boy’s homage to a semi-naked Gallic poster-girl – they’re doing so because of a lifelong fascination with the irresistible artifice of pop culture and the magnetic allure of joyous escapism, rather than anything as mundane and gauche as needing to pay the rent. It’s a contract driven by a lifelong love affair rather than the more onerous demands of either HSBC or the CSA.
In a world where justice reigned, its sparkling trailer single, ‘Turn Off The Moon’ (originally sung by Sue Lyon, Kubrick’s Lolita), would be bursting out of the speakers of bowling alleys and branches of ‘Claire’s Accessories’ across the nation. But it doesn’t, so it won’t, and whilst it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever hear it soundtracking the fledgling teenage romances of your local travelling funfair (its aspirational habitat) it doesn’t detract from what it is in essence; a glorious two-minute love letter to Joe Meek, and the closest thing we have to pop perfection in 2012.
So park your cynicism, your arch post-millennium irony, and the universally received wisdom that nothing gets better with age other than fine wine and Italian shoes. This is an album to clutch to your bosom, a labour of love in extremis, and a clarion call to 40-somethings the world over that there’s no requirement whatsoever to throw away either a lifelong obsession with popular culture or the trappings of your misspent youth.
You just need to learn to love them in a different way.