In March 1988 I was fifteen years old.
My days were spent at school where books and learning were taking a distant second place to lust, love and longing for a girl in my class who had taken inspiration for her image from “Into the Groove” era Madonna. There were lace gloves, necklaces and crucifixes, back combed hair and an air of superiority that came from knowing that she was, in fact, superior to everyone else. Hour after hour I spent gazing at the back of her head instead of, you know, writing essays or reading textbooks.
I was in love.
I was a victim of lust.
I was a teenage boy.
There was nowhere else for all of that energy to go.
I was no good at sport.
I wasn’t bright enough to be one of the swots.
I couldn’t sing or dance or act.
I was just there.
A ball of confusion and adolescent angst mixed up with primal procreational urges.
It would be a year before I would discover The Smiths and have my life flipped, turned upside down and my record collection was still a bizarre mix of my parent’s old Mod records and random pop music that had drifted onto my radar. I didn’t know what indie music was.
Then the girl, THE girl, found herself being paired up with me for some piece of work in our English class.
Honestly, I did try to do the task that Mr Ewing had set us.
I really did.
But I was distracted.
For several long minutes neither one of us said anything.
Her because she was very aware of the fact that I would have nothing of any worth to contribute to any conversation she initiated.
Me because I was worried I would say something that would ruin this perfect moment.
Eventually it all became a bit much and I decided to take the plunge.
I searched every nook and cranny of my subconscious for something interesting to say and found absolutely nothing.
Then I saw it.
Attached to her tie was a badge.
A band name emblazoned across it.
This was my “in”.
“I really like The Primitives too.” I said.
She looked surprised.
Actually she looked shocked first, then surprised and then she regained her cool and replied, “What’s your favourite song?”.
“All of them.” I tried.
Surprise and shock were replaced by disdain and disgust.
As I trudged slowly home through the coastal town that they, whoever they were, had forgotten to bomb and begged Armageddon to come I popped into “Sleeves” record shop and took another plunge by speaking to one of the assistants.
“Have you got anything by The Primitives?”
“Over there…in the section marked P. It’s alphabetical mate.”
I quickly found what I didn’t know I was looking for.
“Lovely.” I thought.
“Lovely” is what it was.
It would be another two days before Friday…pocket money day…and so forty-eight agonising hours to wait before I could actually listen to The Primitives, learn the names of all of the songs and so prove myself to the girl.
I did buy it.
I did listen.
I learned the names of all of the songs.
She still wasn’t interested.
I had stumbled upon a record that would be a constant in my life for thirty years.
Now here I am in a pub on the Great Western Road with lead singer Tracy Tracy and guitarist Paul Court who, between them, are responsible for some of the finest pop and indie records you can imagine. They are in town to play an anniversary show for “Lovely” and I wonder about the songs and bands that shaped their lives before The Primitives began.
“When we were kids it would have been T-Rex and the glam stuff, the Velvet Underground, The Beatles and then punk. I was about fourteen when punk was happening, so a bit too young to have actually been a punk. Then it would have been the John Peel bands; The Fall, The Birthday Party…all that racket.” says Paul and I’m struck by the fact that those punk and Peel bands were much less melodic than The Primitives have been. “The band, before Tracy arrived, sounded much more like those bands and the reason we changed that sound was because that wasn’t suited to Tracy’s voice.”
“They had to tone it down” is how Tracy describes this moment in the bands evolution. “I was into more melodic things like The Triffids and The Go-Betweens.”
The legend about the formation of The Primitives as we know them today is that the original singer left the band, convinced he was destined for greater things, and that Paul placed an advert in the local library for a male singer along with a list of the aforementioned influences.
“I was about to go to London and try and find something there. I decided to ring up and see if I could get an audition. I didn’t know if I could bring anything to the party but I liked what they had listed and I didn’t know of any other things like it going on in Coventry. ” says Tracy when I ask about what happened next.
The decision to ignore the call for a male singer changed not only the sound of The Primitives, as they searched for ways to better frame the vocal of Tracy, but also of the indie music scene in the UK. Their debut album, “Lovely”, is one of the defining suite of songs of the time. It is filled to the brim with pop hooks and a wild and dizzying array of influences. Best known now for the hit single “Crash” it is, in fact, an album that, had it been released just four years later, seen the band be part of the era shaping Britpop scene and would have elevated them to the the next level of musical success.
(In)Famously the band received a shot of publicity thanks to a certain S.P. Morrissey of Salford wearing one of their t-shirts in a photo shoot. His legions of adoring fans pounced on the band. The Morrissey who fell for The Primitives then is a very different character to the Morrissey of now, I wonder how they feel about where he has ended up? When I suggest that Mozzer was a different person then Paul says, “Was he? I think he’s got worse…but there are a lot of things he has said over the years that people have turned a blind eye to.”
Is it possible to distance ourselves from the individual when we love the art?
“I think” says Paul “That there are a lot of people like that, Lou Reed for instance has some less savoury aspects to his personality. With Morrissey I’m not actually a big fan so I don’t really have to worry about it so much. I feel sorry for his fans. You can buy a tote bag that says “Shut up Morrissey” and feel better about things for a week but he’s going to say something else in a month that’s going to bother you.”
“Maybe he’s trying to make himself relevant…but in a very misguided way?” suggests Tracy.
I think she’s right.
The major turning point for The Primitives was, of course, “Crash” a single that thrust them into the spotlight and that can still be heard on the radio, on television and on film soundtracks thirty years later. It is a fabulous pop song. It has more melody than any individual song has a right to and it is so infectious as to be the sonic equivalent of bird flu…but without the death, misery and mayhem. It reached number 5 in the UK charts which, at that time, was quite the achievement for an indie band. More amazing still was the fact that it dented the Billboard 200 in the States and hit number 3 in the Billboard modern rock chart.
The success of “Crash” ensured that “Lovely” would also be a massive hit and it was. What is truly remarkable though is not that “Crash” has proved to be a lasting presence in popular music but that “Lovely” is stuffed to bursting with other songs that sound just as brilliant. There are hints of psychedelia of the sort that The Beatles had dabbled with and that, in a few short years from its release, Kula Shaker would forge a career from, there were pop nuggets, flashes of experimentation and throughout is a mastery of pop that would leave Stock, Aitken and Waterman gasping in admiration.
As I write this I’m listening to “Lovely” and I feel an enormous sense of gratitude…of course to Paul and Tracy but, also, to “the girl” because if she hadn’t been wearing that badge and had she not captured my adolescent heart then I never would have discovered true love-ly.