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Primus

Very much the deep-seated terrain of lead vocalist and bass-shredder Les Claypool, PRIMUS were hardly purveyors of breakneck rifferama, however, the main man’s wayward muse, instead, fashioned a notoriously bizarre, bass-heavy stew of thrash, aquatic funk-metal, avant-rock and surreal humour; Les’s staccato-snorkle vocals colouring his marine-obsessed whimsical tales of fishermen and sturgeon. Most famously working as a trio in the 90s alongside best buddies, Larry “Ler” LaLonde on guitar and Tim “Herb” Alexander on drums, Les and the buoyant Bay Area-based band unfettered several top selling albums, including platinum Top 10-ers `Pork Soda’ and `Tales From The Punchbowl’.
As funk-metal reached fever-point from the mid-80s onwards (a la RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS), a 21 year-old Claypool kick-started his campaign from the “surplus land” of El Sobrante, California. Discarding the name Primate, almost immediately after litigation threats from a group called The Primates(!), Les, guitarist Todd Huth and a succession of Spinal Tap-style, revolving-door drummers, that spanned from original Vince Parker and subsequent replacements Peter Libby, Robbie Bean, Tim “Curveball” Wright, Jay Lane and, last but not least, the aforementioned Tim Alexander (who’d joined with LaLonde early ’89), were kicking up a storm. In the meantime, both LaLonde (ex-POSSESSED) and Claypool had thrashed out a proper PRIMUS plan of action while in fellow Bay Area metal act, BLIND ILLUSION, on their 1988 debut `The Sane Asylum’.
Something of a cult phenomenon in their native city, PRIMUS’ first release in November ’89 was, uniquely, a live affair, SUCK ON THIS {*6}, recorded at the Berkeley Square club between February and March, and released on Les’s own Prawn Song imprint (the prawn superimposing LED ZEPPELIN’s “swan”). Demonstrating Les’s slippery, knottily intricate fretwork on the likes of `John The Fisherman’ (one of several scribed with the awol Huth – credited on guitar melodies), `Groundhog’s Day’, `Tommy The Cat’, `Pudding Time’ and `Frizzle Fry’, one could see why Caroline Records almost immediately fast-tracked PRIMUS into the studio for FRIZZLE FRY (1990) {*7}. Featuring many of the aforesaid tracks re-vamped, alongside other highlights `Too Many Puppies’, `Mr. Knowitall’ and opening salvo `To Defy The Laws Of Tradition’ (sampling RUSH’s `YYX’), many pundits pitched them between ZAPPA, FUNKADELIC and BUTTHOLE SURFERS. On reflection, the added impetus of their coy cover of The RESIDENTS’ `Hello Skinny / Constantinople’ (on a subsequent CD re-master job) obviously convinced them otherwise.
PRIMUS fitted in loosely with the burgeoning funk-metal scene of the day, supporting the likes of FAITH NO MORE, 24-7 SPYZ and LIVING COLOUR). They soon found themselves with a major label contract, courtesy of Interscope Records for their wonderfully-titled SAILING THE SEAS OF CHEESE (1991) {*8}. The set’s highlight was a part-narrative re-working of `Tommy The Cat’, complete with “cat” vocals courtesy of highly-respected fellow weirdster, TOM WAITS. Sample-friendly, commandeering a sound-bite from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 for the fast-and-furious `Jerry Was A Race Car Driver’, and The Young Ones’ Vyvyan on `Los Bastardos’ (the sequel to `Here Come The Bastards’), the complex, near-Top 100 record was eerily fun-packed on `American Life’, `Eleven’, `Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers’ and the 7-minute `Fish On (Fisherman Chronicles, Chapter II)’.
Allowing themselves to pull up the slack via some self-indulgent cover versions on 1992’s EP, `Miscellaneous Debris’, Claypool and his new-found 6-string fretless bass could round-up re-treads of PETER GABRIEL’s `Intruder’, XTC’s `Making Plans For Nigel’, The RESIDENTS’ `Sinister Exaggerator’, The METERS’ `Tippi Toes’ and PINK FLOYD’s `Have A Cigar’.
Supporting idols RUSH on tour obviously hadn’t damaged the trio’s street-cred too much, and the 1993 follow-up, PORK SODA {*9} cracked the Top 10, proving that weird, in PRIMUS’ case, was indeed wonderful. Like some sort of nutty nursery rhyme from the insane asylum buried in swamplands, `My Name Is Mud’, stretched the boundaries of the bass, guitar and drums. Ditto “They’re coming to take me away” tune, `The Air Is Getting Slippery’. The goof-ball vocal eccentricity of Claypool already the talk of his peers (was this geezer mad?), `Welcome To This World’, black-comedy suicide lament `Bob’ and the paranoid `DMV’, fitted the corners of the proverbial jigsaw puzzle in reverse. And peppered with character sketches that shot from the hip, `Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon (Fisherman’s Chronicles, Part 3)’, `Nature Boy’, `Mr. Krinkle’ and a re-take of `The Pressman’, were equally as zany.
Claypool subsequently teamed up with former PRIMUS colleagues Huth and Lane to form a side project, SAUSAGE, releasing the album `Riddles Are Abound Tonight’ (1994).
A further Top 10 PRIMUS album, TALES FROM THE PUNCHBOWL {*8}, appeared in 1995; alt-rock’s auctioneer Les C proving that he hadn’t lost his technicolour, often flippant sense of humour with such lyrical vignettes as `Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver’. Redneck rapping and multi-faceted brainstorming rock performed with aplomb by all on aboard (KING CRIMSON come to mind), three tracks that prolonged the prog motif were `Southbound Pachyderm’, `Over The Electric Grapevine’ and opener `Professor Nutbutter’s House Of Treats’.
Claypool duly kept himself busy by displaying his bass-tastic talent on Alex Lifeson’s (RUSH side-line) project, Victor. Onwards and upwards, prior to the release of the BROWN ALBUM (1997) {*6}, a now rare personnel change by PRIMUS occured with Bryan “Brain” Mantia (ex-GODFLESH) replacing Alexander, who formed Prawn Song combo, Laundry. The aforesaid album stalled just outside the Top 20, many fickle fans uninspired by their paint-by-numbers weirdness which was now grating thin on the ears of critics. While the jury was out awaiting for a fourth or fifth call back to Claypool’s uncompromising funk-punk/jazz-rock rhythms (so to speak), only really `Shake Hands With Beef’, `Puddin’ Taine’ and a speech-y 7-year-itch sequel, `The Return Of Sathington Willoughby’, were worth the admission price.
As if things couldn’t get worse, at least commercially, 1998 was a year when PRIMUS churned out another covers EP, or indeed a mini-set if one included bonus live tracks. RHINOPLASTY {*5} was caught just short of the Top 100, and basically catered for re-imagined prescriptions of XTC’s `Scissor Man’, PETER GABRIEL’s `The Family And The Fishing Net’, STANLEY CLARKE’s `Silly Putty’, JERRY REED’s `Amos Moses’, The POLICE’s `Behind My Camel’ and METALLICA’s `The Thing That Should Not Be’. Yes, it looked like PRIMUS were sailing on cheese, right enough.
Marking the end of a now topsy-turvy decade for the tripped-out and star-struck trio, ANTIPOP (1999) {*6} was a welcome return to the Top 50. Whether it was down to the stellar cast of helpers (among them TOM MORELLO, TOM WAITS, MARTINA TOPLEY-BIRD, James Hetfield and Jim Martin, plus Fred Durst, Matt Stone and STEWART COPELAND on production duties), the ideas and inventiveness was running on empty. Sure, there were moments of bass and vocal trickery from Claypool, but only the dizzying heights of `Electric Uncle Sam’, `Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool’, `Dirty Drowning Man’ and the prog-length `Coattails Of A Dead Man’, pulled it from the mire.
A 3-year hiatus which saw Alexander return in place of Mantia (and a couple of CLAYPOOL solo sets added to his Holy Mackerel outing of 1996, `Highball With The Devil’), PRIMUS were turning up the heat again in 2003 with a bonus CD-EP that made up the part-compilation video DVD of ANIMALS SHOULD NOT TRY TO ACT LIKE PEOPLE {*6}. All ‘n’ all, the five tracks that constituted something fresh from the band were something for their dwindling number of fans to treasure – or endure.
A surrogate member of PRIMUS since his early days and work-outs alongside Les C, drummer Jay Lane was re-installed for the trio’s Top 20 “comeback” GREEN NAUGAHYDE {*7}. As always, the British public was less impressed by their milarky. Les was slightly muffled in his attempts to recapture the prog-ish magic of the band’s halcyon days, but the irreverent funk fun was still delivered on the frizzle-pickin’ `Hennepin Crawler’, `Last Salmon Man’, the quirky `Eternal Consumption Engine’, `Jilly’s On Smack’ and the homage to `Lee Van Cleef’.
Commitments elsewhere with BOB WEIR’s RatDog, Jay Lane was once again replaced by Alexander; the addition of guests Mike Dillon – percussion (from Frog Brigade) and cellist Sam Bass were thought necessary for next project. An ambitious, psychedelic re-imagining of Roald Dahl’s childhood film fave, Willy Wonka…, PRIMUS & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY WITH THE FUNGI ENSEMBLE (2014) {*6} was certainly worth investigating. The fact that so many alt-rock acolytes did so (chalking up a Top 20 place), was all the more astonishing. To coincide with selling exclusive chocolate “Primus” bars at gigs, in frustration with all the “internet shit” that has taken the livelihood of many creative artists/authors, aficionados of the Leslie Bricusse & ANTHONY NEWLEY score from 1971, might hazily recall – look away now! – near-unrecognisable takes of `Candy Man’, `Golden Ticket’, `Pure Imagination’ and the `Oompa…’ quaternaries.
The wonderfully evergreen Les C has since went on to work with number two son of a psychedelic legend: SEAN LENNON, in the collaborative CLAYPOOL LENNON DELIRIUM set, `Monolith Of Phobos’ (2016).
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2016

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