May was a cruel month for those middle-aged liberals who treasure their old alternative rock heroes. There was Morrissey, appearing on American TV wearing a For Britain badge. There was XTC’s Andy Partridge tweeting that ‘the holocaust is not holy writ, it isn’t a religion, it can be historically revised’. And there was Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream — the idiot inter pares of rock stars who foment revolution from the gates of their kids’ private school — appearing on Newsnight to say Madonna was ‘a total prostitute’ for performing at the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel (has he said the same to his friend Nick Cave, who has played Israel and called the cultural boycott ‘cowardly and shameful’?). Gillespie then refused to admit Israel’s right to exist, and said he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic because he liked Bob Dylan and Karl Marx (a fiver says he’s much more familiar with Blonde on Blonde than Das Kapital).
All this was in the service of promoting a new Primal Scream compilation called Maximum Rock’n’Roll, whose tracks formed the heart of the group’s show at the Scala in London. It wasn’t, sadly, maximum rock’n’roll; more 60 per cent rock’n’roll, getting up to 80 per cent in the best bits. The best bits, as always with Primal Scream, were when they sounded least like the Rolling Stones, when thundering electronics met insistent, unrelenting guitars: ‘Swastika Eyes’, ‘Kowalski’, ‘Can’t Go Back’. But even when they were good, there’s the perpetual problem of Gillespie.
Gillespie isn’t just the singer of Primal Scream; he’s the group’s embodiment. He’s also the weakest link: a reliably awful lyricist who throws together words in a jumble from the Boy’s Book of Rock’n’Roll Clichés — Junkie! Needle! Jesus! Mama! Sinner! — and a singer so feeble one fears he will run out of puff before the end of a syllable, let alone a song. To believe in Primal Scream, you have to believe in Gillespie. But he’s no more a revolutionary force now than is Morrissey. The scent of danger around Primal Scream has long since dissipated.
Those who doubt a mere rock band can summon danger should instead go to see the Swedish sextet Viagra Boys. A couple of days after Primal Scream’s antiseptic show, they filled Studio 9294 — a concrete box in east London — with the rank stench of something deeply unpleasant. Their debut album, Street Worms, has been winning awards, but they are a band to be seen live
Their singer, Sebastian Murphy, shimmied across the stage in black Adidas tracksuit bottoms, skinny bare torso and protruding belly covered in tattoos and doused in beer, intoning his bleak, sardonic lyrics about being a lab rat for drugs tests (‘It ain’t like any other shit, it’s 20 times as strong/ You know it’s working when everything feels wrong’), about being a slow learner, and about — implausibly — introducing frogs into unlikely situations. He was charismatic and funny, and able to be both menacing and absurd at the same time. Behind him, bassist Henrik Hockert displayed that characteristic sign of the wholesome: the tattooed scalp.
One wouldn’t call Viagra Boys sophisticated — they are not a band for indelible melodies — but the filthy chaos when saxophone, guitar and electronics combined over a churning bassline was thrilling. The bouncers tried to eject the unruliest moshers. Pints of beer arced through the air. Old punks confronted kids who were trying to barge through the crowd. This was rock not as museum piece, but as something vitally, confrontationally alive. Come their ‘hit’, ‘Sports’, their road crew threw tennis balls into the crowd.
They were returned with force. ‘Baseball, basketball,’ Murphy sang as balls hit him in the face, on the chest, on the ear, ‘wiener dog, short shorts’. Addled, horrible, uproarious brilliance.