When I first heard about Martin St John’s Psychedelic Confessions Of A Primal Screamer: The Tambourine Years 1984 – 1987 I thought it would purely be for the demographic who once owned a pair of leather trousers, consider Forever Changes by Love as one of the greatest albums ever made, and who have a treasured copy of Sonic Flower Groove in their record collection. That would have been fine by me as it’s a demographic to which I, and our kid, are both proud to belong. This was always going to be a book for me and those like me. What’s perhaps more surprising is that it’s a book for you as well.
Martin St John was on tambourine and psychedelic vibes for the newly formed Primal Scream between 1984 and ’87, and the book relates the story of the group way before Andy Weatherall and Screamadelica brought them world-wide success and infamy. In it St John tells the tale of “six Glaswegian garage heads hell-bent on acid, hard kicks and psychedelia”, and does so with such gusto that you cannot be helped but be carried along in his wake.
The hardest thing for any writer is to get their voice across, but Martin St John’s is loud and proud, clear and irrepressible. Words and phrases are CAPPED UNEXPECTEDLY, exclamation marks regularly make their point, and the end result is all the better for it. I can guarantee that most writing class tutors, or editors, would insist such flourishes were removed, and I’m happy to have an argument about the negative results of that another time, but the way this book is written not only fits the writer, it fits the story he has to tell.
Everyone in the book has their own persona. Bobby Gillespie is “Bob G”, the late Robert Young is known as “Dungo” before he swapped one nickname for another and became “Throb”, and Jim Beattie is simply “Beattie”. There are cameos from the likes of “The Brat” and “The Rich Bitch”. It’s also a “Who’s Who” of the indie music scene of the day, full of definite articles – The Pastels, The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Shop Assistants, The Soup Dragons…even bloody Bogshed get a mention.
It’s a book that will win you over with St John’s good humour and bonhomie. Even when he has a go at other bands and scenes (no fan of anoraks or Scottish white-boy soul) he does so with the good nature and assuredness of someone who is confident in his own style and tastes. The judgments are black and white. The Cramps are loved, Duran Duran are detested, and there are many such proclamations. The book is laced with references to great music. The Dukes Of Stratosphear, The 13th Floor Elevators, Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers – St John is offering the uninitiated a whole alternative musical education, and it’s one worth taking note of. His ‘Top 20 Turntable Sounds’ from each featured year are worth the price of the book alone.
The title is telling, with “Confessions of…” alluding to the, weirdly popular at the time, Robin Askwith films of the 1970s, and while the humour is nowhere near as broad as that may suggest, it is a peculiarly British story being told. One about pubs used as the unofficial band HQ (The Griffin, Glasgow drink fans), kipping on sofas and in kitchens, and decorating with silver foil. The writer always retains a healthy sense of the absurd, and the psychedelic. If Ken Russell had decided to direct a film with a Glasgow indie band instead of The Who, St John’s book would have made a fine script.
It’s funny how you get a run of books which just work well with each other, and that has been the case in the last month. They have include David Keenan’s post-punk Airdrie novel This Is Memorial Device (& he also features on a recent SWH! podcast), Cosi Fanny Tutti’s Art, Sex, Music, and Sam Knee’s A Scene In Between: Tripping Through The Fashions Of UK Indie Music 1980 – 1988 . Psychedelic Confessions Of A Primal Screamer brings all of these together. There are references to the art/rock of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, mention of scenesters making the trip from ”scary Airdrie”, and St John appears in Knee’s book on pages 115 & 117 with the band. Proof, as if more were needed, that he knows cos he was there.
Martin St John has written a book which should be read by fans of Primal Scream and those who are interested in the indie music scene of the ’80s, (which appears to be having its moment in the warm glow of the nostalgic sun). It’s as close to a prescribed text as you’ll get. But even if this is not your music – if you have ever been in or near a band you’ll recognise lots of the stories and characters in Psychedelic Confessions Of A Primal Screamer. It’s the story of the last gang in town who are ready to take on the world which will resonate the most, and how the sniff of potential success sows the first seeds of doubt and disharmony. What you get in spades was what it was like to be there, and how much fun was being had for the most part. Personally, if I read a more entertaining book this year I will be both surprised and delighted.
Here’s Martin St John talking to The Fountain about the book:
And to take you back, way back, here are the teenage screamers in their leather trewed pomp with our hero in full effect:
You can listen to the Tambourine Man in the flesh reading from Psychedelic Confessions Of A Primal Screamer at The Carlton Studios on 13th May as part of Psychedelic Festival II.