Martin Duffy, keyboard player who became a key member of Primal Scream – obituary

Martin Duffy, left, with Primal Scream at the Q Awards in 2006 - Brian Rasic/Getty Images
Martin Duffy, left, with Primal Scream at the Q Awards in 2006 - Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Martin Duffy, who has died after a fall aged 55, was the keyboards player with Primal Scream, notably on the group’s era-defining acid rock album Screamadelica, which in 1991 won the inaugural Mercury Music Prize.

Duffy had been in bands since his mid-teens, having answered in 1985 an advertisement that asked: “Do you want to be a rock’n’roll star?” This had been placed by Lawrence, founder of the cult indie group Felt.

Although his musical accomplishments also included playing the drums and guitar, Duffy had a particular affinity with keyboard instruments. Paying tribute to him after his death, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream described Duffy as “the most musically talented of all of us. His style combined elements of country, blues and soul, all of which he had a God given natural feel for… He had a love and understanding of music on a deep spiritual level.”

Duffy’s playing became central to Felt’s sound, often dubbed “jangly” although in reality endlessly evolving, probably to the detriment of their commercial appeal. Their most praised album was Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (1987), which featured Duffy on the organ. Yet it failed to break through, and although it influenced the likes of Lloyd Cole and Belle and Sebastian, by the end of the decade Felt had broken up.

By then, Duffy had already contributed piano parts to Sonic Flower Groove (1987). This was the first LP by Primal Scream, labelmates of Felt’s at Creation Records, founded by Gillespie’s childhood friend, Alan McGee.

The album flopped, leading to changes of personnel. Duffy played on their second LP, Primal Scream (1989), and joined the line-up full time as Screamadelica began to make their name.

This owed much to the producer Andrew Weatherall, who in 1990 remixed an earlier single of theirs, I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have, as Loaded. Retaining only a few seconds of the original, Weatherall gave the track an acid wash of samples and grooves from the rave scene which was coming to dominate youth culture.

The resulting euphoric fusion of dance and rock seemed to strike a chord and Loaded became a hit. Its woozy but upbeat rhythms became a template for many other records of the time. Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays defined Primal Scream’s music as “mad tracks with weird sounds and no lyrics”.

Screamadelica went on to sell three million copies, with Duffy’s playing prominent on songs such as Movin’ On Up. His adaptability was especially evident on Primal Scream’s next album, Give Out But Don’t Give Up (1994).

Primal Scream with George Clinton at Brixton Academy in 1994 - Mick Hutson/Redferns
Primal Scream with George Clinton at Brixton Academy in 1994 - Mick Hutson/Redferns

Essentially a homage to Rolling Stones and Faces songs of the early 1970s, it allowed Duffy to range from the New Orleans bump ’n’ grind piano of Rocks, which made the Top Ten singles chart, to the gospel-tinged organ of (I’m Gonna) Cry Myself Blind.

Martin Bernard Duffy was born in Birmingham on May 18 1967. He grew up listening to music as diverse as punk, 2-Tone and Led Zeppelin, and was educated at St Thomas Aquinas, a Roman Catholic school in King’s Norton.

While Primal Scream’s status began to decline in the mid-1990s, shortly after they had contributed the title song to the soundtrack of Trainspotting (1996), Duffy remained with them for the next 25 years.

Their sound went through numerous changes, from the dub influences of Vanishing Point (1997), which yielded the hit single Kowalski, to the eclecticism of their most recent release, Chaosmosis (2016).

He also collaborated with a wide variety of other acts, among them Paul Weller, Beth Orton, Edwyn Collins and the Chemical Brothers. In 1996, following the death in a car accident of the Charlatans’ original keyboardist Rob Collins, Duffy learnt all the group’s songs in a matter of weeks so as to play with them when they supported Oasis at Knebworth.

He also helped them to finish the LP, Tellin’ Stories (1997). With Tim Burgess of the band, Duffy later formed the Chavs together with Carl Barat of the Libertines. He also released an instrumental solo album, Assorted Promenades (2014), featuring pieces composed over many years and which highlighted his versatility.

Duffy was not immune from the hedonistic excesses associated with Primal Scream. When he was stabbed in the backside in New York in 1993, he was reputedly insufficiently compos mentis to realise at first that he had been attacked.

Yet he was also, said Gillespie, “well-read and erudite”, a lover of literature with a swift eye for the surreal and absurd, “an autodidact … curious about the world and other cultures.” When on tour, he would seek out museums or sites such as Neolithic stone formations.

Duffy was based in Brighton, as had been the Primal Scream guitarist, Rob Young, who died in 2014. Both Weatherall and Denise Johnson, who sang on Screamadelica and toured with the band for five years, died in 2020.

Martin Duffy is survived by a son.

Martin Duffy, born May 18 1967, died December 18 2022