Refurbishing Factory Seconds: The Durutti Column
Joy Division may have taken the cult prize, and New Order the mantle of electronica’s antecedent, but I’ve always thought the Durutti Column, Vini Reilly’s three-decade long compositional vehicle, were the most affecting outfit in the Factory Records stable. His frail shape channeling mercurial, classically informed guitar melodies that twist through inversions like a child racing through aflipbook , Reilly stands as one of the Manchester music scene’s most quietly defiant figures. Throughout the 1980s, as independent music tested out its love affairs with deconstruction, populism, and its inverse, willful obscurantism, Reilly calmly, yet determinedly, drew a line and simply followed it.
The few times he fell in with consensus thought, like the rapprochements with dance music on “When the World,” or his playing onMorrissey’s Viva Hate, Reilly still somehow carried himself as an outsider, bemusedly observing the rush and roar of the world from behind the glass thread game spun by his guitar strings. More often, he’s come across as a consumptive poet of song, popular music’s DesEsseintes, the synaesthesic obsessive protagonist at the heart of J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours. Or perhaps he’s close to Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, who seem at once observational, yet fundamentally disconnected from the world they inhabit.
Despite these textual/artistic contextualizations, all the art tactics that the Factory and Les Disques Du Crepuscule labels arranged around Reilly, from the sandpaper sleeve to his debut album, Return of the Durutti Column, to the die-cut inserts of 1981’s Another Setting, ultimately served as obfuscatory tactics. MartinHannett’s production on Return of the Durutti Column changed Reilly’s romantic space-echo complexes into starchy, spare settings: It was amusing recently to watch a BBC documentary on Factory, with Reilly complaining of how much he hatedHannett’s productions at the time. If Hannett served Joy Division’s hard modernism well, Reilly ended up left out in the cold. Thankfully, by the time of Another Setting, he was framed in warmer climes, studies like “Spent Time” perfectly capturing the wistful reminisce at the heart of his songs.
Some of Reilly’s greatest early songs actually appeared on compilations, or rare singles, mostly released on the European market, by the Belgian labels Factory Benelux andCrepuscule , or French imprint Sordide Sentimentale. Lips That Would Kiss mops up these singles on one disc, also including a good portion of 1983’s unreleased Short Stories for Pauline. This disc works as a perfect companion to the LC and Another Setting albums, while gesturing toward the operatic structure of 1984’s Without Mercy. The opening “LeDouleur” offers an early hint at that album’s leitmotifs and themes, with the lyrical violin of Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L Reininger weaving between Reilly’s tender piano playing.
On “Lips That Would Kiss,” Reilly’s first single after Return of the Durutti Column, you can already hear him reaching for the kind of form he would perfect in the following years. Where some of Return…’s compositions are stringy, here his melodies peer from a thicket of gorgeous, glinting chord constructs, while RichardJobson’s quietly ticking drum machine programs, slight but not feeble, perfectly complement this combination of liquid movement and harmonic sculpture. The b-side, “Madeleine,” covers similar territory.
The Sordide Sentimentale single, “Danny”/“Enigma,” has always been one of my favorite Durutti Column moments. Introducing Reilly’s longest sparring partner, jazz drummer Bruce Mitchell, both songs have a forward motion that’s sometimes lacking in earlier recordings, with Mitchell’s simpatico playing taking night flight underneath the guitar’s needlepoint threading. This sound would end up defining theDurutti Column for most listeners, and while the songs included from Short Stories for Pauline are beautiful, they lack a little for not having Mitchell on board. AlainLefebvre’s drums are good, but his playing doesn’t quite match the improvisatory antics Mitchell uses to pry open the humble heart of Reilly’s compositions. Still, that’s a minor quibble. This is not only a fine place to start if you’re new to the pleasures of theDurutti Column, it’s also a major collection for any longstanding fan, compiling some of their greatest sides with a batch of essential unreleased songs.
The Durutti Column are one of the few groups whose live discs I find myself listening to for more than research purposes. It’s not that they move things in wildly different directions: On Live inBruxelles 13.8.1981, Reilly and Mitchell are mostly faithful to the original recordings of classics like “Jacqueline,” “Danny” or the Ian Curtis tribute “The Missing Boy.” But the limber playing on these live recordings, their ducking, diving and interweaving, combines with Reilly’smelodicism and the starkness of the guitar/drums setting to make for endlessly fascinating listening.
Live in Bruxelles catches the duo on a particularly strong evening, and the track listing works almost as an early ‘best of,’ with a few surprises thrown in, including an absolutely gorgeous solo guitar rendition of “For Belgian Friends,” and a rare outing for the intensely personal “Stains (Useless Body).” The latter disproves some critics’ theory that Reilly should never have sung. I find his monotone drawl oddly compelling, a voice of unease, humility and restraint that’s entirely appropriate, combined with a colloquial tang that’s surprisingly reminiscent, in some ways, of Robert Wyatt’s ‘sing it like you talk it,’ plain-speaking sigh.
1986’s Circuses and Bread has always felt like one of Reilly’s less immediate albums. It’s also the record that sits between two phases of his career, a shift also signposted by 1987’s Valuable Passages compilation, which cherry-picked from the first eight years of Reilly’s career. Circuses and Bread has him putting down the guitar on occasion, stretching his fingers across keys through the closing “Blind Elevator Girl (Osaka),” a perambulation for drums, trumpet and plucked violin strings. Here, straightforward melodic development is downsized for a more architectural approach to composition, as though the players are filling insomeone’s attic plan.
Elsewhere, “Tomorrow” is perhaps Reilly’s most achingly sad song, with his droll vocals singing across plangent guitar runs; other songs maintain the melancholy tenor, though at not quite the same level of intensity. The extra tracks mop up some b-sides, the “Verbier (For Patti)” single that appeared with initial copies of 1982’s Deux Triangles 12,” and the remainder of Short Stories for Pauline, featuring the particularly gorgeous “Mirror B,” for theatrical piano and weeping brass. There’s also “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” sung by Factory Recordsidée Tony Wilson’s ex-wife Lindsay Reade: funny, perhaps, but it’s a bit slight, with Reade’s voice a little flimsy.
It would be another 10 years before the Durutti Column again recorded for the Factory Benelux/Crepuscule axis. 1996’s Fidelity is an odd beast from one of the strangest phases of Reilly’s career. His 1990s records sometimes come across as the work of a man adrift, a series of non-sequiturs or tentative vehicles that never quite sit together – at least at first. Deep inside albums like 1994’s masterful Sex and Death or 1998’s Time Was Gigantic, though, is the same classical-melodic nous that Reilly effectively perfected on LC and Another Setting.
Fidelity begins with hesitant probing into the character of a drum sample – in this case, Bonham’s backbeat from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” The song eventually settles into some coy, playful keyboard and synth runs, with Elli R. Rudge’s child-like vocals winding between the notes like a spectral visitation. “For Suzanne” follows suit with voice samples weaving between some rather unattractivepre-set tones; the vocals here remind of 1989’s Vini Reilly, where snippets from opera framed some of Reilly’s most attractive, emotionally wrought playing. By contrast, for much of Fidelity he leaves the guitar on its stand in the studio. Sometimes that feels a little too wilfully contrary, particularly as the guitar pieces, like “Guitar for Mother” and “Remember Me,” are the best. On the latter, Reilly’s singing is lost in some hall of delays andreverbs, continually folding in on itself.
Fidelity may not be a complete success, but for Durutti Column fans, it’s an intriguing listen. It almost feels more like the capturing of process than an album per se, and it’s probably one of Reilly’s most exploratory records. But it’s not fair to imply it’s one ‘for the completists only’: It just requires a re-ordering of the listener’s expectations. And if you already have an original pressing, you’ll need to get this reissue to hear “My Only Love,” the sole bonus track, which appeared on acovermount CD with Total Guitar. It’s the best thing here, actually, just Reilly on guitar, joined by Rudge, with more disembodied voices swimming through the mix.
Disembodiment – that’s more or less the key to this music’s decorous charm. Spinning his guitar into happy-sad webs of filigree and shadow, with a singing voice that’s no more than a murmur from the womb, Reilly treads softly through the world. The frailty of his frame, and his protracted bouts of illness, give him access to a suspended state of reality that’s close to the kind of time-space decompression experienced in childhood. Surely it’s no surprise that one of his album’s full titles was Time Was Gigantic (When We Were Kids).
Renouncing the dominant paradigms of the day – in the interview that’s appended to Live in Bruxelles, he unequivocally states, “I hate rock and roll, and everything rock and roll stands for” – Reilly’s a modern-day flâneur, with a typically Northern streak of unpretentiousness and humor. And indeed it’s that rare combination – humility and everyday sincerity – that makes Durutti Column records such rare gifts.
The deluxe reissues of Circuses and Bread, Fidelity, Lips That Would Kiss and Live In Bruxelles 13.8.1981 are now available on LTM Recordings.
By Jon Dale