The Durutti Column
|Track||Album / EP / Single|
|Sketch For Summer||The Return Of The Durutti Column|
|Lips That Would Kiss||Factory Benelux FAC BN 2-005 single|
|A Room In Southport||Short Stories For Pauline|
|E.E.||Say What You Mean ... 12 inch EP|
|All That Love And Maths Can Do||Tomorrow 12 inch EP|
|Royal Infirmary||Circuses And Bread|
|What Is It To Me (Woman)||The Guitar And Other Machines|
|When The World||The Guitar And Other Machines|
|Guitar For Mother||Fidelity|
Contributor: Rob Morgan
At the end of the day, it all comes down to punk. Without punk there would be no Durutti Column. It would be the two performances by the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in ’76 which kickstarted the late seventies music scene there; it seems like the majority of the audience became the movers and shakers in the punk and post-punk scene. People like Steven Morrissey (The Smiths), Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks), Paul Morley (NME journalist, theorist, writer and presenter), Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner (Joy Division, New Order) … All these people were there and they were inspired by the Sex Pistols. Some went into music, some went into journalism, and at least two of the audience went on to form record labels; Richard Boon formed New Hormones to issue Buzzcocks’ debut EP Spiral Scratch, showing that a label could be local and independent and have a national reach. This paved the way for Tony Wilson who also attended the gigs. At the time he was a reporter for Granada TV based in Manchester, appearing on Granada Reports at tea time and also presenting his own arts show, So It Goes. Wilson was inspired by the Pistols and quickly got them on So It Goes alongside other new music from the UK and America. Wilson knew there was a scene brewing in the North too, around Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, so he started putting on gigs in 1978 under the banner of A Factory Night. It was a logical move to start a record label for the bands he was putting on. The very first Factory Record, the double 7 inch A Factory Sample, had Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, comedian John Dowie and The Durutti Column.
At that point The Durutti Column were a five piece band much like any other band – drums and bass and singer and guitars. But they had a secret weapon – one of the guitarists was Vini Reilly, one of the most unique guitar players of his generation. He had started playing music at a relatively early age, firstly the piano but later he wanted to grow his fingernails to play the guitar so let the piano lapse. Reilly had played guitar on Ain’t Been To No Music School, the debut single by Manc punks Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds – Reilly looks uncomfortable on the cover photo because if anyone in Manchester would have been to a music school, it would have been him. It is unclear at this distance how much The Durutti Column was Wilson’s project (he certainly named the band – something to do with Situationism and the Spanish Civil War) or Reilly’s, but after four of the five members dropped out after A Factory Sample (most of them ended up in early lineups of Simply Red), it became a vehicle for Reilly’s remarkable musicianship.
What kind of music do The Durutti Column create? Or rather, what category of music do they fall into? It’s difficult to describe, they have made album length semi-classical works, delicate filigrees of shivering guitar notes, house ravers, electronica workouts, heartbreaking tributes to friends and family, and some of the most beautiful melancholy music ever produced. But where do they fit in? Indeed when Vini Reilly was asked at Canadian customs (as heard at the conclusion of The Sporadic Recordings album from 1989) he describes it as “avant garde jazz classical”. And you can’t get vaguer than that! Or as Reilly said later in an interview, “Everyone’s obsessed with form – ‘Is it avant-garde? Is it jazz?’ – It’s just tunes, innit? Daft tunes”.
The first album The Return Of The Durutti Column was issued in 1980 and is remembered more for its remarkable sleeve (sheets of sandpaper glued with wallpaper paste to a blank LP sleeve by members of Joy Division – another Situationist prank designed to destroy the records around it) than the music between the sandpaper. A collaboration between two geniuses – Martin Hannett producing and generating backdrops and beats using primitive synthesisers, Reilly playing stunning guitar through echo and delay boxes (Reilly is a master of playing through Roland Space Echo delays, what Wilson called “the harmonic sex between his guitar and the delay machines”) – it contains around 30 minutes of music but is the aural equivalent of Evian; cool, refreshing and reviving. Opening track, Sketch For Summer, is the perfect introduction to Durutti Column – the guitars soar, the electronic birds sing and it sounds like a summer’s day. It is a breath of fresh air. The whole LP is like that – tuneful, simple, accomplished and gorgeous. Comparisons are difficult. Mike Oldfield perhaps, or a more delicate version of Frippertronics, but it is a totally unique style – not punk at all, but with the free spirited nature of punk at its heart.
The Factory Records family of artists were rocked by the suicide of Joy Division leader Ian Curtis in May 1980. Reilly had been close to Curtis and later revealed how the doomed singer had rung Reilly days before taking his life, trying to reason his way through his troubles. Reilly had his own problems; dogged by illness for many years he was notoriously fragile healthwise. Reilly would create at least two tributes to his colleague, the first being the single Lips That Would Kiss, a melancholy wash of weeping guitars released as a single in late ’80. His other tribute, The Missing Boy, would appear on the next Durutti LP, LC. This album signalled a slight change – the search for a human rhythm to complement the guitar led to Bruce Mitchell taking on the drum stool. Mitchell was an éminence grise behind the scenes in Manchester – from Grateful Dead wannabes Greasy Bear to Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias to running Manchester Light And Stage providing PAs and lighting for gigs for many decades. But as Wilson said, “God wanted him to drum”. It was a perfect match for Reilly; Mitchell also managed Durutti Column alongside Wilson. Reilly and Mitchell still work together today. LC contains a host of Durutti classics: Sketch For Dawn, Jacqueline, Never Known and the aforementioned The Missing Boy. It is their first classic album, a dreamy collection made all the more remarkable by the fact it was mainly recorded on a four track tape recorder bought from Bill Nelson. OK, so Reilly is now singing – and some people hate his singing voice – but his gentle murmur suits the music well.
From there The Durutti Column hit a purple patch of productivity, producing albums and singles and songs for compilations on Factory as well as other labels – offshoot Factory Benelux, Fundacia Atlantica (a one off album for the Portuguese label), Les Disques De Crepescule … 1983 saw the release of the LPs Another Setting (a personal favourite LP of mine) and Amigos Em Portugal alongside a single cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s I Get Along Without You Very Well (sung by Wilson’s ex-wife!) and an unreleased LP, Short Stories For Pauline. Each LP had its own character but there were recurring themes and melodies across the records, themes which would coalesce into 1984’s Without Mercy LP on Factory. This was a forty minute semi-classical piece with Reilly’s distinctive guitar and piano at its heart, but surrounded by cellos and violas and french horns and other classical instruments. Sometimes it works beautifully and side one is a sustained mood piece of very high quality, but when it tries to go dance with bumping drum machines it falls flat. An interesting experiment then, and one which gave Durutti Column a new lease of life with the addition of two new members to expand their sound – Tim Kellett on trumpet and John Metcalfe on viola.
This four piece line up recorded the six-song Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say 12 inch on Factory in 1985 alongside an album Circuses And Bread on Factory Benelux and an EP on Material Sonori in Italy. A productive year and every song was a gem. Say What You Mean … was my first Durutti record and is a perfect introduction to their music – some vocals, some instrumentals, a short reprise of one of the themes from Without Mercy. E.E. is from the EP and is wonderful, uptempo and relatively chirpy – parping horns, rhythms dancing, keyboards light as air, and then a guitar solo bursts in from nowhere while the chords take unexpected directions.
Circuses And Bread has some full band songs like Tomorrow and Blind Elevator Girl but also has some duets – guitar and viola, piano and trumpet, guitar and piano – and the album hangs with a heavy sadness across its forty eight minutes. Royal Infirmary is beautiful, slipping from major to minor keys with ease. All That Love And Maths Can Do was a track from the single, Tomorrow, and is utterly heart-stopping, one of my favourite songs of all time.
1987 turned out to be an important year for Durutti Column. They recorded a new album with Stephen Street producing, who was most famous at this point for his work with The Smiths. The resulting album, The Guitar And Other Machines, was more upbeat and rhythmic, with some new sequencers and drum machines assisting the sound, but still with Reilly’s guitar and Mitchell’s drums at its heart. There’s also some new voices; at this point Reilly starts to hand vocals over to female singers, as demonstrated on When The World, a surprisingly loud and forceful song, ending with a frantic distorted squealing guitar solo. It was a varied album and probably a good place to start to hear the different textures and moods that a Durutti Column LP could contain. There’s some rolling electronica on English Landscape Tradition, a peaceful Spanish guitar workout on USP, a highly sequenced re-recording of an old song from Another Setting called Bordeaux Sequence, the skipping delight of What Is It To Me (Woman) … Yes I may have neglected that LP a little bit. There was also an accompanying EP, The City Of Our Lady with more Spanish guitar, more rhythmic thump and a peculiar cover version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit!
By the end of 1987, the Stephen Street connection would prove very useful. As the Smiths fell apart amid rumours, recriminations and threats of spankings with wet plimsolls, Morrissey and Street started writing songs together, and Street suggested Reilly might be an ideal guitarist for whatever the project may become. What it became was the debut Moz album Viva Hate, recorded in late ’87 and issued spring ’88 with Reilly’s characteristic guitar and piano all over the album. (It should be pointed out that Reilly had played on other people’s records for a while, contributing guitar and piano to songs by Quando Quango, The Wake, the Invisible Girls, John Cooper Clarke and more). It was a match made in heaven for this Smiths adoring Durutti fan. The most Durutti-like songs were my favourites – the eight minute build of Late Night Maudlin Street, I Know Very Well How I Got My Name (B-side to Suedehead) and Will Never Marry (B-side to Everyday Is Like Sunday). Sadly, Morrissey and Reilly fell out and they didn’t work together again, but it certainly raised Reilly’s profile in the media and even got a mention for Durutti Column in Smash Hits!
After that detour The Durutti Column regrouped, performed at the WOMAD festival in ’88 with a Chinese opera singer (three songs of which would be broadcast by the BBC (see above), and of course I taped them – Durutti Column performances on TV are very rare – they appeared on The Tube to promote Without Mercy and … er … that’s about it, I think), then recorded one of their finest albums, self-consciously called Vini Reilly issued in 1989. Again, Street was producing and as well as sequencers there were now samplers too, sampling vocal tones and lyrics from Otis Redding, Annie Lennox, Tracy Chapman and many more. A wide mix of styles from acoustic to electric, from elatory to melancholy, with the samples adding mystery and emotion to the music. After 45 minutes of this, Reilly decides to sing for the first time – a song called My Country where he rails against the stupidity of the government, the lack of choice for young people, the lack of health care for the elderly… “My country, will you ever recover?” he murmurs, then allowing his guitar to speak as eloquently as his voice, as Mitchell’s drums rumble like oncoming thunder. A wonderful end to a wonderful record.
After working with so many people on Vini Reilly, the 1990 album, Obey The Time, felt like a truly solo album by Reilly. 1990 Manchester must have felt like the centre of the universe – Madchester, Mondays, Roses, Hacienda (opened and run by Factory Records, of course) and Reilly tried to incorporate that into his music. Utilising more sequencers and drum machines, this was Durutti Column almost going acid house, but still with those characteristic guitar flourishes – the best track Contra-indictions was given a house remix, The Together mix, which real people in a real club could really dance to, if they wished. In the meantime various labels issued compilations of new and old unreleased material around this time – albums like The Sporadic Recordings, Dry and Red Shoes were hard to find but worth the effort. Even some of the unreleased Short Stories For Pauline LP was issued as part of the Lips That Would Kiss compilation.
Factory Records was bankrupt by the end of 1992 but Wilson started a new label Factory Too, whose first release in 1994 was a new Durutti Column LP, Sex And Death. Stephen Street was producing again, Peter Hook from New Order guested on bass, even Tim Kellett returned (he joined Simply Red in ’85, that’s his trumpet solo on Holding Back The Years) and it was another varied set, twelve pieces of music from the gentle blues of Blue Period, to the drifting For Colette, to the full on rock of The Next Time and Fado. I was lucky enough to see Durutti Column perform in Manchester promoting this LP – even Hooky turned up on bass – and it was a magical night of music, new songs mixed with old favourites like Sketch For Summer and The Missing Boy, to which Reilly forgot the words! Wilson was always at the forefront of new technology and Sex And Death was issued as a CD-Rom at the time – I ordered one but it never came, and as an apology Factory Two sent me a poster which is a treasured item.
As an aside here, because I do like asides, it was on the tour promoting Sex And Death that Tim Kellett heard the voice of Ruth-Ann Boyle when playing samples of her voice on a keyboard; she had sung on the album. He liked her voice and thought it was perfect for a project he was working on, the project would become the band Olive who would score a number one hit in the late 90s with You’re Not Alone. Of course, Reilly guested on guitar on both Olive LPs.
The Durutti Column continued to issue LPs throughout the 90s. 1996’s Fidelity again sounded like an exercise in electronica, but still had enough character to show Reilly’s skill – the song Guitar For Mother is a personal favourite, a simple electronic backing with Reilly’s guitar kissing the sky, bending notes, little descending sequences of half-chords … tremendous stuff. Time Was Gigantic … When We Were Kids from two years later hinted at dark thoughts in songs like Abuse and Drinking Time, alongside a homage to Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross called Pigeon, plus two songs based on a sample of a school choir singing. Sadly, this would be the last release on Factory Too.
After that, albums became regular events every year or so with a regular and varied cast – still essentially Reilly and Mitchell with assistance from producers Keir Stewart and Laurie Laptop. Some albums are better than others – I have a soft spot for Rebellion and Idiot Savants, but Tempus Fugit sounds like it was thrown together in a spare couple of hours. The best Durutti music of the new millennium was inspired by loss. Someone Else’s Party from 2003 was a requiem for Reilly’s beloved mother who passed away the previous year. A Paean To Wilson is a tribute to Tony Wilson who died at 57 in 2007. Reilly was one of the pallbearers at the funeral, and Wilson had requested Sketch For Summer to be played as the coffin entered the church. Reilly himself had some health problems, a series of strokes affecting him badly and it seemed he may never play again. But over the last few years he relearnt how to play the guitar and recently made an emotional return to the live stage.
There have been a few Durutti compilations along the way. Factory issued Valuable Passages, a CD-only compilation in 1986. This was the first CD I ever owned, joined a week or so later by Circuses And Bread and the live in Japan album Domo Arigato, so, for a short time, my CD collection was entirely Durutti Column! Warners issued a double CD, The Best Of The Durutti Column, in 2004 which combined Valuable Passages with a fine overview of the Durutti canon. It used to be a regular bargain in Fopp. It also has a lovely sleeve note from Wilson and self-deprecating notes from Reilly on every track. There have been compilations of oddities and offcuts too, usually under the Sporadic title, alongside subscription compilations of rarities. Their current label, Kooky, have done an admirable job at keeping their music in the public realm – reissues of the first four Factory Records, alongside a definitive issue of the Vini Reilly LP. A recently reactivated Factory Benelux have also issued LC as a double CD with a host of extra tracks from the early 80s, a live set from 1981, and finally the 1983 album Short Stories For Pauline was issued in full, having dribbled out track by track on compilations over the years. Factory Benelux even reissued The Return Of The Durutti Column on vinyl with a special sandpaper sleeve in a plastic case – a beautiful piece of art, inside and outside.
Obviously, trying to pick ten songs from this huge back catalogue of music was very, very difficult. Should I pick my own personal favourites, or what would be the best introduction to Durutti music? Of course, the fact that some key LPs (Another Setting, Vini Reilly, Obey The Time, Sex And Death) are missing from Spotify doesn’t help. In the end, I chose mostly personal favourites and a few acknowledged classics. I make no apologies for choosing mainly 80s material, think it was the highpoint of their career. I chose songs that have relevance and memories for me, and also songs which showcase the musicianship. For instance, A Room In Southport is unique – a martial drum in the background, a harp creates chords in the foreground while Reilly delicately adds melody on guitar, at one point reeling off a trill of guitar notes that is almost like a mandolin, a trick he doesn’t do often, but when he does it melts my heart. I have always found Durutti Column music to be highly emotional – it can inspire joy and elation, but can also move me to tears. I hope it has the same effect on you, dear reader. Not bad for some “daft tunes”.
Read more of The Durutti Column and other musical adventures at Rob’s website, A Goldfish Called Regret.