Creativity learnings with Primal Scream


Creativity in action - pic by Sharon McCutcheon

Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ album came along at just the right time for me. It exploded across the 90s horizon in a kaleidoscopic blast of dub, techno, rock and roll, and general saucer-eyed creativity just as I stepped out of my rather bland schooldays and into far more colourful worlds.

Then, a couple of years later, its follow up, ‘Give Out, But Don’t Give Up’ appeared. It was generally felt to be a bit of a limp, directionless let down. I did my best to love it, but even I had to admit that it was nowhere near as trailblazingly brilliant as its predecessor.

And now the Primals have released the original GOBDGU sessions. They’re what the album should have been, before the record company suits (man) stuck their collective oar in. They’re utterly and unreservedly fantastic, and they’ve got some very important things to teach us about creativity.

It’s not what you expect

The whole point of creativity is that something new happens – and that new thing is not always going to be what you expect. So, if you ask someone to go off and be creative, and they come back with something that’s just plain baffling, sit down and think about what it’s really achieving.

That’s what Creation Records boss Alan McGee didn’t do. He asked the Primals to come up with a follow-up to a ravetastic dance music classic, expecting more of the same. But they shot off at a tangent (and to Memphis) to record a soulful rock album that’s more like early 70s Rolling Stones than anything else.

It’s a great achievement, coming together as a timelessly cohesive, powerfully emotional and slinkily groovy suite of songs. But because it’s not what McGee was expecting, he couldn’t see its good qualities. So he insisted on having everything remixed and re-recorded into muddy, bland oblivion.

So that’s lesson one. If you’re managing or part of a creative process, don’t measure its results against your original expectations. They might blind you to your real achievements.

It’s not always a lightning strike

There are times when creativity transforms the whole landscape. It’s a lightning strike – a sudden, overwhelming blast of change, appearing out of nowhere and dominating everything. That’s what ‘Screamadelica’ was – a surprising, brilliant achievement and a transformative step forwards.

But there’s only so much transformation that the world can handle – and, to be honest, only so much radical change that people can constructively create. So, when it came to a follow up, the Primals’ first instinct was to look backwards.

They understood that radical transformation needs to be balanced with consolidation and reflection. So, they made a very traditional album that drew on their deep musical roots, looking to understand and reassert their core selves and values in the aftermath of so much innovation.

So there’s lesson two. There’s such a thing as too much change. Pushing for it can exhaust both you and your audience. True creativity knows when to balance transformation with consolidation.

You won’t always get it straight away

The Primals went along with McGee’s rebuilding of the album because they weren’t very confident in what they’d created. They didn’t understand their own achievement – in fact, it’s only now that they’ve been able to properly assess and come to terms with it.

That’s actually quite  common. There’s a big difference between creating something new, and understanding exactly what it is you’ve created. Being the person who’s planted and nurtured all the trees can make it pretty much impossible to see the shape of the forest.

And that’s lesson three. Don’t judge what you’ve done too quickly. Watch other people engage with it and see what they get out of it. Understand it by distancing yourself from it.

And now let’s rock

Of course, all this is very important. But the real point of any creative achievement is the achievement itself. So now let’s just sit back and groove to a little timeless Memphis magic from the 90s. Enjoy!

And as a final footnote, here’s the BBC documentary about it all:

August – quiet on the blog, busy elsewhere


A quiet six weeks or so on the blog; partially, I’ve been very busy with some really interesting work, partially my digital time has been going elsewhere, and partially because I thought I’d take a bit of a summer break. Of course, as soon as I decided to spend less time at the laptop and more time outside it immediately chucked it down for a month non-stop, but that’s the English summer for you.

So, apart from getting soggy, what have I been up to? Well, first of all some fascinating work for drugs policy foundation Transform, which is already bearing fruit here at Reuters, and (in a less direct way) here at the New Scientist. More’s upcoming in November, when I’ll go into more detail about it all.

I’ve also been helping London Livery Guild The Tallow Chandlers define themselves. I’m a member myself; I wrote our current website a few years back. It’s now looking pretty tired and so – as part of a general website update and brand polishing plan – I’ve been polling other members as to how they see the Tallow Chandlers, and how the company should present itself to the world. We’re meeting to talk the results through tomorrow, and should have a new, much improved site up and running by the end of the year.

More personally, I’ve been teaching myself the basics of HTML, XHTML and CSS. That too has been fascinating; I’m particularly impressed by how flexible and responsive a language each is. Very logical and easy to read, too; in fact, working with it has taken me right back to my 1980s obsession with BBC Basic. Anyway, that should hopefully bear fruit in a new improved website / blog hosting set up, again going live over the next couple of months.

And finally, there’s the creative stuff – so far, more work on the upcoming book (I’m currently working out exactly how a trans-Solar System economy would work in about 2300AD), a couple of Graan gigs (a highly enjoyable jaunt to Southampton, and an opportunity to get stuck into the fantastic sound system at the Corsica Studios, while supporting the wonderful Nadja), and a mysterious film project that will hopefully lead to much interestingness.

So, all in all, a busy summer; September and October will I hope be equally busy (if all goes according to plan I’ll be spending some work time in Japan, and watching lots of documentaries – more on this as it happens), and I’ll be blogging about it all here – so, see you at the next post!