‘Ah, TJs!’ says Bobby Gillespie, remembering his band Primal Scream playing at the legendary Newport music venue. 

‘That was a great little place. We played there in 1989, and there were these kids outside who gave us their record. It turned out to be the Manics, and the record was [their first single] Suicide Alley.’

Gillespie, now 59, is bursting with such reminiscences ahead of his appearance at Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend. The singer is promoting Tenement Kid, a fascinating memoir that charts the singer’s story from the ‘spectral places’ and ‘slum clearances’ of a childhood in the deprived Springburn area of Glasgow through his gradual emergence as a key figure in the history of alternative music.

And despite his proud Scottish origins and Primal Scream’s global success, some of Gillespie’s best anecdotes have a Welsh setting.

The National Wales: Bobby Gillespie onstage with Primal Scream. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsBobby Gillespie onstage with Primal Scream. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A key turning point in the musician’s life and career came on 29 January 1983 when gigging in Cardiff with The Wake, a post-punk band he played bass for at the time. 

Led by Gerard ‘Caesar’ McInulty and Steven Allen, the Glasgow band did not have a massive following, but having signed to Factory Records managed to secure regular support slots with labelmates New Order.

READ MORE: Is Cardiff really a music city?

Gillespie devotes several pages in the book to ‘something strange that happened’ at the Great Hall, Cardiff University. 

He describes the thrill of opening for his heroes, ‘Barney’ Sumner and Peter Hook, the ‘rammed’ crowd and the fact ‘the set was going well’, but also the ‘gloomy, fugue-like, flat, depressive’ songs his own band were playing. 

The National Wales: Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream's 'Tenement Kid', White Rabbit BooksBobby Gillespie from Primal Scream's 'Tenement Kid', White Rabbit Books

That night Gillespie walked off stage mid-show, much to the rage of his bandmates. Later that year, he was sacked by The Wake – and as recalled in Tenement Kid, immediately called his friend Jim Beattie. ‘The following night we formed Primal Scream for real.’ 

Asked about the importance of this moment in his life, Gillespie is more circumspect in person than in the book. ‘I was happy being in The Wake, proud of the work we were doing at the time.’ He enjoyed opening up for New Order at places like the Hacienda in Manchester, but says ‘The Wake weren’t going anywhere’ and that ‘it was inevitable I would have left.’ 

He also reveals that ‘there might’ve been some sexual tension there’ and that ‘the girl’ – keyboard player Carolyn Allen – ‘was a bit strange.’ It was nothing unusual, Gillespie says. ‘That’s bands. Jealousies and petty rivalries.’

READ MORE: Gentle/Radical at the Turner Prize 

Tenement Kid, however, is not the sort of rock’n’roll memoir to dwell on internecine feuds, and Gillespie says he initially resisted editor Lee Brackstone’s encouragement to write a book ten years ago. ‘Most books about rock bands are pretty f***ing boring.’ 

Then, just before the lockdown – which afforded him the time to write – Gillespie felt the time was right, but determined the book would not only be about the story of his bands (as well as bassist in The Wake and singer in Primal Scream, he also played drums in The Jesus and Mary Chain for a couple of years in the mid 1980s). It would instead cover ‘sectarianism, violence, my parents’ relationship and its effect on me, melancholia, lacking education and creativity… all of that before we reach the music.’

The singer also wanted ‘to celebrate those people who contributed to forming my consciousness and my cultural frame of reference’ and laments: ‘in those days you could get a cultural education from reading the music papers… you don’t get that any more, or you probably can, but I don’t know where.’ 

One of the most striking aspects of the book is the centrality of leftist politics to Gillespie’s intellectual development, particularly the strong influence of his father, Bob senior, who was heavily involved in trade unionism. Lyrics from songs like Primal Scream’s 1997 hit ‘Star’, which includes namechecks for ‘Sister Rosa, Malcolm X and Dr King’ are brought into sharp focus when you learn about Gillespie's childhood.

The National Wales: Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream will appear at Hay Winter Weekend 2021Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream will appear at Hay Winter Weekend 2021

Growing up in a city where the dominant cultural icons were the players of Celtic and Rangers, the Queen and the Pope, Gillespie’s family had posters of Che Guevara and the Black Panthers on the wall.

Absent however is any mention of the independence question. Gillespie tells The National: ‘My politics lie with [Jeremy] Corbyn and [John] McDonnell. I’m not a nationalist in any way. For a lot of people it’s very emotional. They call you a unionist, and I’m not taking that sh*t.’ 

‘It’s very complicated,’ he goes on. ‘We live in a neoliberal, globalised world. I’m an internationalist. And the SNP are not a socialist party. Identitarianism is just one more thing that splits the left. The SNP did a job on Corbyn. Nicola Sturgeon was always speaking out against him, playing politics.’

‘It’s complicated,’ he repeats, concerned that he has not expressed his views clearly enough, but his point has already been made: ‘I’m upset by the inequality on these islands and throughout the world.’

We finish on a lighter note: the reason Gillespie is here in Wales. He is looking forward to returning to Hay-on-Wye, a few miles down the road from where his childhood friend and longtime collaborator, Creation Records boss Alan McGee, has a home at Glasbury.

‘I used to go and stay there in the late nineties,’ says Gillespie. ‘I stayed there for about four weeks once when I had to get out of London. I’d go down to [Hay] and go to the bookshops and record shops. I got Brian Jones’ The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka there.’ 

For fans of alternative music Gillespie has more fascinating Wales-based stories up his sleeve. The demise of The Stone Roses as well as the birth of Primal Scream can be traced to a south Wales city, but he is saving the juicy details for the next book. 

On the absorbing evidence of Tenement Kid, readers and music fans alike will be hoping he writes it quickly.  

Bobby Gillespie will talk to Dylan Jones at Hay Winter Weekend on Thursday 25 November at 8.30pm.

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