Under Cover: The Clash School Primal Scream About Their Rights
Even though they’re about an era or so apart, the Clash and Primal Scream share a bond based on rebellion, attitude and an adventurous musical spirit. Both bands frequently wandered far outside of their comfort zones, creating challenging and inspiring music.
And it’s no secret that Primal Scream main man Bobby Gillespie was a die-hard Clash fan. Talking about Joe Strummer in the documentary ‘The Future Is Unwritten,’ Gillespie referred to the late Clash member as “one of the most soulful singers ever. He’s like a bluesman, he’s one of the greats.”
It’s also no surprise that the Primal Scream often looked to the Clash’s songbook for inspiration — directly and indirectly. In 1997, for the B-side of their ‘Kowalski’ single, they sidestepped the obvious and went straight for a cover of ‘Know Your Rights,’ the opening track on the Clash’s 1982 ‘Combat Rock’ album.
Primal Scream take the song, melt it down and then press it into their own image. The Clash’s original version features a staccato riff and is an urgent call to arms, but Primal Scream transport the song into more funky, and slightly brooding, territory, recalling vintage Rolling Stones in the process.
They may trade some of the original’s urgency, but the anger remains as Gillespie spits out the lyrics with spirited venom. The only vital piece missing from Primal Scream’s take is Strummer’s classic spoken-word intro: “This is a public service announcement … with guitars!” Then again, Gillespie was probably smart enough to know that there was no way to top that.
As the lead-off track on ‘Combat Rock,’ the last Clash album made featuring Strummer and Mick Jones, it set the path for the band’s U.S. breakthrough. ‘Rock the Casbah’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ became hits. While the rest of the album — taking its cue from predecessors ‘London Calling’ and ‘Sandinista’ — restlessly strayed from one genre to the next.
A few years later, Gillespie would take that same shifting approach to his own records with Primal Scream, moving from one style to the next. ‘Know Your Rights’ is the eternal tie that binds.