Described by frontman Bobby Gillespie as “an anarcho-syndicalist speedfreak road-movie record”, Vanishing Point – which was born heavily out of in-studio improvisation – is a groundbreaking experiment in sonic nihilism.
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point, an album that displays a thrilling disregard for the boundaries of genre whilst capturing a snapshot of its contemporary surroundings. While it is undoubtedly the acid-drenched hymns of 1991 classic Screamadelica which will define the Scream’s unique legacy, it is in the destructive comedown of Vanishing Point that they became a measuring stick for artists who seek to utilise popular music as a profound creative force.
Following the lukewarmly received Give Out But Don’t Give Up (1994) which, while containing great moments of collaboration with funk legend George Clinton, saw the band revert back to traditional rock instrumentation and song structures – the group embarked on a project of artistic reinvention. Vanishing Point would completely rewrite, tear up and incinerate the music making rulebook in blinding flames.
Arguably the most compelling feature of the release is the fact that it is essentially a concept album based upon the 1971 movie of the same name. It would be very much at home in the cinematic setting. Indeed, Trainspotting was literally made for the cinema, in soundtrack to the film adaption of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel. Get Duffy, which follows the epic, swampy opener Burning Wheel with its menacing bass-driven pulse and trumpet wails – and zero singing – would fit seamlessly onto a film score too.
It was with Vanishing Point that the group would steadily become arguably the greatest live act in the world for a period that stretched into the early 2000s. The television performance of If They Move, Kill ‘Em below, in all of its paranoid, sometimes eastern, sometimes extraterrestrial-like aural zest, captures the beginnings of this phase. The importance of the final piece of the puzzle, Mani, is clear to see as he joins forces with his new bandmates, transforming the Scream into an efficient sonic militia:
Stuka further displays the caution to the wind mentality of the record, encapsulating the band’s radical evolution from guitar rockers to mad musical scientists; venturing in ambient dub for pure artistic stimulation.
Moreover, the track highlights Gillespie’s underrated lyrical talents. He takes up the role of a social commentator and candidly sketches the post-acid house city life of coke and heroin, with the robotic vocal effects adding a sense of anxious surrealism:
I got Jesus in my head like a stinger, he moves from tree to tree in the back of my mind / a ragged shadowy figure, I got Him… I got original sin
If you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned / some of my friends are gonna die young
The theme also permeates through its following number, Medication, in which Gillespie continues to portray his fear that the self destructive tendencies of those around him will ultimately lead to death. This is especially poignant in hindsight following the untimely death of the band’s guitarist, Robert Young.
I don’t wanna hang around with you, don’t wanna see you burn / I don’t wanna see you turn blue, I wanna see the sun
The genius of the record is deployed heavily in lead single, Kowalski which (named after the film’s anti-hero protagonist) is the sonic manifestation of Frankenstein’s Demon. It would be outright heretic if traditional rock was considered to be of God. A loop of Can’s Halleluwah is transmitted via wah-wah pedals, pushing even experimentation to its extremities all the while maintaining a hypnotic groove owed to Mani’s fierce, sprawling basswork.
Curiously, the relationship between the record and the film industry would be enhanced to a highly compelling degree a decade later, with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation slasher Death Proof. The Kowalski music video sees Kate Moss and Devon Aoki steal a 1970 Dodge Challenger and proceed to attack various men around London, including Primal Scream themselves.
It is therefore difficult to ignore how in Death Proof, a gang of thrill-seeking women steal a white-painted version of the very same car before engaging in a vehicular war with Kurt Russell’s murderous Stuntman Mike. The crazed antagonist’s fate is sealed in the movie’s final scene following a blood rushing car chase, when the women take equal strikes at him on the side of a derelict Austin freeway. The fatal blow comes in the form of Zoë Bell’s spinning back kick. Did arguably the most popular director of his time take inspiration from the Scream’s Vanishing Point project? It’s entirely possible.
Away from cultural links and on a more political note, the left-field classic is further legitimised with second single, Star. Backed by low-fi electronica, this is a melodic homage to civil rights leaders Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The essence of the track is very much in the vein of King’s brand of peace preaching (every brothers is a star, every sister is a star) while the album’s sequal, XTRMNTR, though no doubt fighting the same fight – instead assaults the listener with pure militance.
Fittingly epitomising the LP’s speed freak ethos is the cover of Motörhead, a hard edged number recorded by the legendary namesake rockers. Gillespie is said to have wore a Darth Vader mask during the recording process in this high energy, riff heavy joyride. The very fact that the band cover a group like Motörhead, on an album influenced by dub reggae, with a concept inspired by a 1970s action road movie speaks to their extreme eclecticism as music makers.
In retrospect, Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point has aged like a fine wine. The group took a wholly urgent approach to the work in a rebellious spirit that should be espoused by many a contemporary artist. It single handedly gave the Scream a license to pursue whatever musical avenue they pleased going forward, and may well be the most interesting and fruitful sonic reinvention since The Beatles’ late 60s psychedelic evolution.