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Primus: a guide to the best albums

Primus band shot
(Image credit: Niels Van Iperen/Getty Images)

A classic rock power trio with a difference, Primus emerged in the late 80s at a time of frenzied evolution in the rock world. Frontman and virtuoso bassist Les Claypool and guitarist Larry Lalonde both had form in the thrash metal scene, with Blind Illusion and Possessed respectively, but the sound they conjured in collaboration with drummer Tim ‘Herb’ Alexander bore little resemblance to anything else that was going on at the time.

Despite an undeserved but thankfully short-lived association with the then-flourishing funk-metal scene that also gave us the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More, Primus were making a noise that owed plenty to the spirit of Frank Zappa, The Residents and Devo.

Their first two albums – raw live document Suck On This and studio debut Frizzle Fry, both 1990 – amounted to a wilfully perverse statement of intent, dominated by Claypool’s unique bass playing but always enhanced by Lalonde’s art-rock interjections and Herb’s funk grooves. The metal scene succumbed immediately, hungry for the next big thing. The rock mainstream wasn’t far behind, and when Primus released Sailing The Seas Of Cheese in 1991, the California trio swiftly conquered MTV and became righteously huge in the US.

1993’s sprawling Pork Soda spawned more hits and consolidated their popularity overseas. They weathered the departure of Alexander and the arrival of Brian Mantia in 1996, and continued to release well-received and increasingly eccentric records, not to mention providing South Park with its theme song.

But by the time nu metal reared its head towards the end of the decade, Primus were running short of enthusiasm, if not ideas. After 1999’s distinctly patchy Antipop, the band went on a three-year hiatus. They reunited in 2003 and 2006 for brief bursts of live shows, before Alexander flew the nest again and was replaced by original Primus drummer Jay Lane for 2011’s Green Naugahyde and a suitably theatrically askew comeback tour. That they followed this in 2014 with their interpretation of the soundtrack to Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory rather says it all. 2017's The Desaturating Seven saw them back on track with their first album of original material since 2011. 

They may be sonic Marmite – Claypool’s nasal whine is often a deal-breaker – but no one can argue that Primus are anything other than unique. And very odd.

Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, 1991

A masterpiece of barking-mad genre-bending and insidious wonky hooks, Primus’ second studio album was perfect for the uncertain but curious early 90s.

Boasting several of their best-loved songs and crowd-pleasers, not least the towering genius of Tommy The Cat and the rampaging Jerry Was A Racecar Driver, it’s a beautifully cohesive record full of brilliantly crafted songs that exude so much energy that the genuinely bizarre nature of Primus’ approach to rock’n’roll barely registers. From the angular strut of Here Come The Bastards through to the progressive hues of Fish On (Fisherman’s Chronicles, Chapter II), it’s wildly entertaining.

Pork Soda, 1993

Darker, heavier and noticeably more experimental than predecessor …Cheese, Pork Soda’s sonic girth made perfect sense in a post-Metallica (opens in new tab) world.

But Primus were not conforming to any ongoing trends. Instead they were serving up obnoxious slabs of rubbery metal, pogoing like meth-ripped hillbillies, channelling the spirit of Bootsy Collins and Frank Zappa and generally sounding like the bastard children of Captain Beefheart and Rush (opens in new tab). Pork Soda also highlighted the band’s utter disinterest in chasing cool bandwagons. The thunderous, eight-minute Hamburger Train was as liberated and free-flowing as any Grateful Dead (opens in new tab) freak-out.

Frizzle Fry, 1990

Although preceded by Suck On This, a live album that included several of Frizzle Fry’s tunes in more raucous form, this, their debut proper is where Primus truly set out their stall.

With Les Claypool’s percussive bass lines front and centre, and drummer Tim Alexander’s loose-limbed loops propelling everything along, this could have been little more than an off-kilter muso-fest. But thanks to Primus’s subtle touches – guitarist Larry Lalonde’s squawks and clangs, Claypool’s lysergic poetry – Frizzle Fry oozed colour, warmth and a shitload of singalong gems such as John The Fisherman and the unhinged Too Many Puppies.

Tales From The Punchbowl, 1995

Arguably the last of Primus’ significant commercial hits, Tales From The Punchbowl has the most well-rounded and vivid production of any of the band’s albums. It also has Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver, a song designed to have men of all ages tittering hysterically, and one that also encapsulates Primus’ sound: weird, catchy, mischievous and ever so slightly demented.

Hits aside, Tales has some of the band’s best songs, ranging from the monstrous splurge of Professor Nutbutter’s House Of Treats through to the nightmare of Over The Electric Grapevine. Strange tales indeed.

Green Naugahyde, 2011

Green Naugahyde’s big selling point was that it sounded like a joyful reunion with the taut grooves and bug-eyed shaggy-dog stories that had first endeared Primus to the world.

Although named after a cheap form of fake leather, this was an authentic Claypoolian experience, drummer Jay Lane’s whipcrack precision upping the funk and enabling his comrades to go fully bonkers over the top. Sombre in parts (Jilly’s On Smack paid tribute to a friend lost to heroin) and socially astute in others (Eye Of The Squirrel pointed an accusing finger at the idiocy of television), this was a potent coming of age.

Brown Album, 1997

Les Claypool’s natural affinity with Tom Waits and his shed of weird instruments and weirder ideas found its perfect forum on Primus’s fifth album and first with Brian ‘Brain’ Mantia on drums. Sonically grubby and deliciously shambolic, songs like Shake Hands With Beef and the spiky Fisticuffs showed that the band had shrugged off the last of their funk-metal shackles and plunged into a world of shadowy oddness.

At its best, Brown Album is spellbinding: Duchess And The Proverbial Mind Spread sounds like The Police gone wrong (and therefore so, so right), and Over The Falls is genuinely pretty in a way that Primus generally aren’t.

The Desaturating Seven, 2017

On their ninth studio outing, Les Claypool reconvened the band’s classic line-up – guitarist LaLonde and drummer Alexander – for a weirdly engrossing tribute to the 1978 children’s story, The Rainbow Goblins

All of the familiar Primus elements are present: pendulous basslines, loopy melodies and cartoony vocals, not least on opening track The Valley. Yet unlike the band’s 2014 tripped-out tribute to Willy Wonka, The Desaturating Seven unfurled darker, moodier soundscapes with mesmerising forays into psychedelic experimentalism. 

There’s an undeniable sense of both subtlety and maturity here that feel almost out of place, yet it’s in these shady nuances that one taps into the bizarro brilliance of Primus. 

Sausage - Riddles Are Abound Tonight, 1994

From what is effectively a reconvening of the first Primus line-up, Riddles Are Abound Tonight cast Sausage as a fully explainable detour for Les Claypool. This one-off jam-boree eschewed most of the usual Primus trademarks in favour of rugged but lissom groove explorations that made up for a lack of melody by being almost offensively funky.

The fact that guitarist Todd Huth was a different kettle of plectrums from Larry Lalonde added to the impression that Sausage was an apple that had fallen from the Primus tree, but with enough momentum to take Claypool somewhere different.

Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble, 2014

When Primus reimagined the songs from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, the outcome was a joy. Les Claypool’s love for Gene Wilder’s performance in the film shines through, Primus’ gleeful dismantlings of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s originals retaining the spirit of wide-eyed mischief and chaos that Wilder had revelled in.

Augmented by the cello and marimba of the Fungi Ensemble, Primus jettisoned their usual sound and ventured into the realms of purest fantasy. It’s hard to imagine anyone else getting away with it.

Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel - Highball With The Devil, 1996

There are a bewildering number of Les Claypool side-projects, one-off bands and occasional collectives, but for those seeking a gentle starting point Highball With The Devil is ideal.

The songs on Claypool’s first solo record, credited to Les Claypool And The Holy Mackerel, don’t stray too far from the Primus blueprint, but Les was clearly enjoying a chance to dabble in unfamiliar waters, playing the majority of instruments himself and getting Henry Rollins (opens in new tab) to add narration to Delicate Tendrils. He also drew the cover art himself. Clever sod.

Dom Lawson has been writing for Hammer and Prog for 14 intermittently enjoyable years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He listens to more music than you. And then writes about it.