Weeping Angels: The Music of The Durutti Column

Image of Donald Richie at a young age in Japan

Once a Fan Always a Fan

I wouldn't have considered writing this profile if it wasn't for the fact I've never tired of listening to The Durutti Column, the Manchester band that formed in 1978 and soon after became the moniker of Vini Reilly. I am a fan without wanting or trying to. The critic Donald Anderson can relate as he recently explained his Durutti fanship in the magazine Space Age Bachelor: "Once you're in, there's no getting out. Once a fan, always a fan. It's not everyday you discover music you know you will play for your entire life."

The Durutti Column has created one sublime record after another. Their most recent, Sunlight to Blue ... Blue to Blackness, was released in 2008 and marks the Durutti's 32nd album to date, and I'm sure it's not the last we will here from Vini Reilly. The first LP, the ironically titled The Return of the Durutti Column was released in 1980 and was the first album produced by the notorious Brit label, Factory Records, which introduced some of the best experimental music during its inception (Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, New Order, A Certain Ratio). Factory, as well as the Durutti Column, demonstrated that vacuous melancholy and introspective lyricism could coexist alongside the angst ridden anarchy of late 70s Britpunk. One of the most distinguished bands making music for over two decades, it is time the Durutti Column came to be fully recognized and appreciated.

The truth is, I like the Durutti Column's music, in all its different incarnations, simply because I do. It's just one of those things. For instance, I have about 500 CDs in my collection, and have owned and sold about four-times that many during my life, yet there's only about twenty CDs I listen to over and over again consistently. Without consciously picking those CDs out, those 20 tend to play on my stereo regularly after I've taken intermittent breaks exploring other old and new music. I call this my "refined top 20," the best of my music listening experience. To mention a few: Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece, Eno's Another Green World, Janacek's Into the Mist, The Beatle's Magical Mystery Tour, Bowie's Hunky Dory and yes, the Durutti Column's self titled Vini Reilly (1989) and Sex and Death (1994). You can name your favorites too, but let me clarify that these albums don't provoke nostalgia; their significance is not the time period they were made, but rather the emotional content they exude. Vini Reilly agrees:

Don't listen to the form, never listen to the form, listen to the content. Don't listen to the style, the tradition, the technique, just the content of the music, then judge. People say the Durutti Column is this or that. I don't care, so long as we make good music. There's so much good music around. Don't bother with form: just enjoy.

Ill Angel

Reilly once described Manchester's very own "Acme Recording Company" as "terribly disorganized, a squabbling mess, but out of it all, Factory manages to be so interesting. There is no other record company that would have let me make a record in 1979. No one. Because I was suicidal, and I was seriously and dangerously ill."

Reilly has been ill most of his life, and this may have impacted the Durutti Column's lack of commercial success, as Reilly for the most part has been unable to tour on a large scale. A good example of this was the Brazilian tour that was rejected because of the ominous possibility Reilly might not return alive so it never took place. When Reilly did tour it was only a few shows here and there, a few cities in America, a few in Japan, a few in London, that's it.

Tony Wilson, Granada TV producer and Factory major-domo, once described Reilly's illness:

The thing you have to remember about Vini Reilly is that the boy [is] very ill. He's had this problem with his stomach … he suffers from bouts of anorexia nervosa where he can't eat anything for months. Sometimes you have to talk to him before five o'clock because that's when he eats. Afterwards he's usually really sick. Actually we had to make him step out of his illness to work on this Durutti Column album [LC, 1981]. It was a risk. If you'd seen the boy, you'd know. I thought ‘That boy is either going to die or he's got to get better …'"

"The doctors can't find anything wrong with me," Reilly once said. "All they do is give me tranquilizers, which make me go to sleep."

Factory's take on Reilly's illness in the late 1980s after dealing with him for almost a decade was: "Yes, Vini still gets ill in his Proustian way, and it's still something to do with the relationship between his stomach and his brain. Something to do with sex and something to do with death."

Speaking of sex and death, on the 1994 CD-Rom version of the album Sex and Death, there is a section dealing extensively with the history of Reilly's medication and illness. He was reported to be on Prozac and Stellazin (a heavy tranquilizer), and also did sessions of Primal Scream psychotherapy. In a two-month period from 1993, when Reilly was taking Prozac, he collapsed in public on six occasions and wanted to commit suicide. He got off Prozac fast. Reilly ‘s reaction to Stellazin was, "Your stomach's alright, but you aren't." During Primal Scream sessions Reilly experienced flashes of the past and spent a lot of time crying and screaming. The Primal Scream sessions were said to have made a fifty percent improvement on his condition.

Bruce Mitchell, Reilly's longtime Durutti collaborator and manager describes the difficulty of Reilly's illness and touring:

As the concert draws closer, and we are contracted to appear (and we are sue-able if we don't) Vini's health, ever precarious, is the overriding concern. I make arrangements to move him about, I suppose, in much the same fashion as the Mormon guard used to move Howard Hughes about. In the back of my mind I'm conscious that I shouldn't be forcing him along in his sometimes semi-comatose state but I cheerfully hard face the job along. I'm into all this discharging of responsibility crap, you know.

But the effort paid off as Mitchell realized the reason for his efforts to perform live:

That 70 minutes on stage consist of Vini changing the set list from the rehearsed arrangements, coping with the tuning, struggling with machines, laughing at the cock-ups he's causing, but always playing those pieces with guitar and keyboard beyond anything I hear elsewhere.

Who?

The Durutti Column's lack of recognition is mind boggling to me. Even in Reilly's own backyard, London, one of the most informed musical centers of the world, is relatively clueless as to who this Manchester band is. Recently a friend of mine took a trip to London and asked me if there was anything she could get me while she was there. "Oh, shop for some Durutti albums," I requested as they were rarely found in San Francisco, and if you did find them the average price was twenty-dollars on up. One London record shop after the other responded "Who?" She finally found The Return of when she flew over to Dublin to visit friends.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to play the Durutti Column's Vini Reilly in a café I frequent in San Francisco. I was friends with Adel, a starry eyed young man from Tunisia, who works the café counter. He often asked me to select music to play in the café, and I would flip through the café's collection of old Jazz and Blues, putting on Miles Davis or Coltrane or something like that. One day, by chance, I had Vini Reilly in my Discman (this was before mp3 players), so I took it out and put it on without telling him. The café was crowded and I made observations of people's reactions to the music: One man reading the paper began to unconsciously sway in his seat; a young girl writing on her laptop began to tap her feet. Seven songs later my Tunisian friend came to my table and said in his best English, "What is this music? It is beautiful," and his eyes beamed, as they sometimes did, like stars. When I told him, it was the same response as always: Who?"

In the Beginning is the Middle

The Durutti Column's early period, 1978—1983, has a raw yet deliberated simplicity to the sound, especially on The Return of which is essentially the work of producer Martin Hannet and his primitive electronic drumbeats. Reilly and Hannet, who had never met before, were introduced after Reilly's fellow band mates broke up over an argument about who should produce the first album. Reilly wasn't even present, and was probably off tending to his hermetic existence, or at home suffering his illness. For two days Reilly strummed and Hannet toyed with synthesizers and was said to practically ignore Reilly's playing. Reilly finally got bored and left. Hannet took the recordings and went off by himself and mixed them. The result is a simple, yet edgy album. Essentially it is The Return of Martin Hannet.

Reilly said in a 1980 profile in NME, "I gave [Martin Hannet] twenty tracks and he selected the ones he could work with best. I didn't really hear the album from playing the pieces until the finished product." It is surprising that Reilly allowed Hannet to do the mix. Any other musician would have been very interested in the recording and mixing process. However, what is amazing is how Hannet got the Durutti sound right, as the next handful of albums to follow would not sound much different, and would never again include Martin Hannet. Reilly, however, from that moment on, would produce or co-produce all the Durutti Column albums to come.

Rebellious by Nature

The name Durutti Column comes from an early 20th Century Spanish revolutionary, Buenoventuri Durutti, who once proclaimed, "Socialism is active or it does not exist." Whatever that means. Mr. Durutti was a Robin Hood type and did much for the cause of the worker, committing great robberies, and then giving away the money before returning home to be fed and clothed by his mother. "The Return of the Durutti Column" was a slogan later adopted by the situationist-led student revolts in the nearly successful May 1968 revolution in Paris. This sense of rebellion can be found on the first Durutti Column single, Test Card (1978), which was packaged in a sandpaper sleeve, a mischievous design that rubbed up against other records in music shops and scuffed up their covers. (This was again executed with the Sex and Death CD-ROM, which was released in a black sandpaper box.) It was the only punk-rock element to be found from the Durutti Column, who in 1978 were an indie-pop flower among a field of punk rock weeds.

And Then What Happened

The second Durutti Column album, LC (1981), featured Reilly minus Hannet, but the drum machines were still intact. How can any band using a drum machine sound remarkably fresh over time? Are there any bands (outside the electronic genre) that use drum machines today? It's a phenomenal aspect of some of the Durutti Column's music, which is not electronic by nature. What I like about the Durutti Column is that even until now, Reilly has stuck to the original sound and still continues to use electronic percussion. It gives the early Durutti recordings a cumbersome, yet minimalist sound, and provides the later recordings a refined semblance to the earlier work.

LC introduces Reilly's singing on a couple tracks, whereas The Return Of was completely instrumental, and is an effort even his best friends disapprove of. It is true Reilly is not the best singer on the planet, but his voice does add to the idiosyncratic nature of the Durutti sound and can be compared to the monotone ramblings of say, Ian Curtis of Joy Division fame, whose death is the theme of "The Missing Boy" on LC:

There was a boy …
I almost knew him …
In the end,
The end is always the same …
Same old order …
Same old order …
Making some signs …
Now a legend

The ellipses are used because most of the singing is muted and incoherent. The lyrics quoted are the only ones I can make out.

There is no problem, however, making out the lyrics to "The Room," (reissued as bonus tracks on Without Mercy, 1984), a song I can't imagine anyone else singing except Reilly:

There's a room in this place
And the room is called heaven
Lights go out on me
Then I get to see
The room called heaven
The room called heaven

The face against the glass
Stand quietly in the dark
Dreaming of those shadows
In a room called heaven
The room called heaven

I feel the cold out there
Through the door and the wall
Now they're calling out my name
To take me to the room
A room called heaven
The room called heaven

"The Missing Boy" and "The Room" are also examples of Reilly's main themes as he would later confess all his songs are essentially about sex and death, the same title of the 1994 album featuring Peter Hook on bass, Tim Kellet (ex-Simply Red) on trumpet and keyboards, and Ruth-Ann Boyle singing the heart wrenching "Just Believe in Me." Reilly took the title of "Just Believe in Me" from a John Lennon song to spark the chorus, which is the only lyric in the song; "Just Believe in Me" is repeated over and over again. Sex and Death is one of the Durutti's best albums and "Just Believe in Me" is the albums best song. It is beautiful and melancholy, a pleading of one's self worth, a song you might play for someone you are courting.

The Guitar as Angel

What makes the Durutti Column a musical treat is not the Durutti's electronic percussion (far from it) or Reilly's singing (even farther from it), but rather Reilly's guitar dexterity and genius. The Guitar and Other Machines (1987) is aptly titled, as most Durutti Column albums feature Reilly picking and strumming out richly chromatic, angular riffs with an array of machine sounds floating around him. Reilly's guitar is often sensual, elastic, searching and lonely, the real reason I keep going back to listen to the albums.

Growing up, Reilly was trained as a concert pianist and was surrounded with classical music and the jazz piano of Fats Waller and Earl Hines by his pop-music hating father:

Fats was one my biggest influences, a phenomenally technically gifted player. I never saw the point of doing things ultra-fast or flashy like Hendrix or Jimmy Page, because they were much better at it than me; the same goes for [Andres] Segovia or Julian Breem. But Waller's gifts were to employ complex chords in accessible melodies, and that's my aim too, no matter how technical it sounds."

Reilly's method and style of musicianship is a prolific process similar to the action painting methods of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and George Baselitz; no fuss, no struggle, just the act of doing.

What you hear on the recordings is very often the first or second time its ever been played. I'll hear the entire piece of music in my head, and then I'll physically play it. The music kind of writes itself. The harmonic progression and melody, the bass, rhythm and phrasing—the whole thing is there. I never really work on it.

One critic stated: "Reilly seems to play guitar as if he's never heard it played before." Through constant symbiosis with an echoplex, he achieves a sound best described by a friend as angels weeping, and may be what Reilly is actually doing internally as he plays. Besides his own physical illness serving as inspiration for his music, his best songs capture the emotional truth he experiences.

Once during a short tour in Japan, Reilly experienced something very unusual in a hotel elevator:

We're in Osaka, in Japan, getting in this elevator. It's very crowded with all these Japanese businessman talking about distribution deals, and going on and on. On this lift was a beautiful Japanese girl, in an immaculate uniform. Each floor we arrived at, she started talking Japanese, obviously saying what was on each floor. And we went higher and higher, and finally we get to the top. And then, sort of walking out the elevator, I suddenly realized she was blind. She could not see a thing. It really upset me, not because she was blind. What got to me was, if I was blind, to say this is my world, to be stuck in a box all day, I mean, she was pretty intelligent. If it was me I'd do myself in. I couldn't handle it at all. Whereas she was doing it as well as she could do it. It was remarkable. It was the ultimate demonstration of the human spirit. She got to me, this girl. It was incredible. I was actually crying in the massive hotel in Osaka. So maybe a day later, I was thinking about that, and the whole tune came out. And every single piece of music is like that. The only one that's different is a tune called "Requiem for Father," which was, my father died when I was seventeen, and it took me a long long time to write this music.

The result of the blind girl was "Osaka Elevator Girl," the last track on Bread and Circuses (1986), a fine album that successfully balances textures and styles. Every piece of music Reilly writes is a response to emotional stimuli, whether it's sex, death, or love, and as a listener you can experience it through his guitar playing.

Failure Means Growth

Not every Durutti Column album ever produced achieves what the critic Cath Carrol described as the "Post-Raphaelite Soul." Obey the Time (1990) was an effort to do just as its title suggest: obey the time and implement the electronic dance music that arrived in Manchester the previous year. It was an era that Factory's Tony Wilson stated as "the Aceeed explosion," and explained, "If you lived in Manchester, you were absolutely in the middle of it. Vini, like the rest of us, had lost the ability to age or atrophy, and enjoyed the party." Yet Obey the Time, as well as Without Mercy, are the Durutti Column's few disappointments. There are still a handful of tracks worth listening to on Obey the Time, and the album is very listenable, say, when you're cleaning the house or cooking, but it is not an album you would strap a pair of headphones on to enjoy deep listening. Even the best songs don't carry the emotional weight of the worst songs on most other Durutti albums. I believe this is due to the album's production, which for the most part was out of Reilly's hands (the same was true for Without Mercy), and was instead offered as a project to some of Manchester's best electronic producers at the time. The songs lack depth and only come to life when Reilly's guitar surfaces. But on Reilly's next effort would come Sex and Death, which successfully emplemented subtle electronic elements while achieving essential Reilly emotions. Perhaps like all true artists who have something to prove, it can be argued that Sex and Death could not have been made without the failure of Obey the Time.

Without Mercy, the 1984 album, was essentially the project of Tony Wilson incorporating an orchestral sound the same way George Martin did with the Beatles. Reilly explains:

That album was Tony Wilson saying to me, ‘You've done so many albums the way you wanted to do them, and when you wanted to do them, so just this once make this my record and do it my way.' He's one of my best friends, so of course I said yeah. And that's Without Mercy. There were all these studio classical musicians involved. For me it doesn't actually work. It was more of a learning process really.

Without Mercy is more successful than Obey the Time, but still falls short of most other Durutti albums. The only two tracks on the album, "Without Mercy 1" and "Without Mercy 2," are problematic, as they sound redundant to each other and earlier Durutti recordings. But like the failure of Obey the Time, it paved the way for three beautiful albums to follow: Circuses and Bread (1986), The Guitar and Other Machines (1987), and Vini Reilly (1989), the latter two being some of the best albums out of England to experiment with advanced sampling techniques.

Vini Reilly: The Art of Sampling Equals the Art of Beauty

The 1989 album, Vini Reilly, was a step in another direction for the Durutti Column and was a coming of age for the Durutti sound with its sophisticated variety of sampled textures, operatic voices, vocal cuts of Tracy Chapman and Joan Sutherland, and classical instruments. The critic Penny Anderson described Vini Reilly as containing "the most inspired and strangely enough, intrinsically non-derivative use of sampler, surely a contradiction in terms." Reilly, at first, was unwilling to use the new technology of sampling but then used portions of opera (Joan Sutherland mostly) and made her voice his own instrument. The album as a whole achieves a unique ambient otherworldliness, blissfully pure and quite beautiful.

One of the many remarkable songs on Vini Reilly is "Otis," which draws inspiration and sampled murmurs from the great 1960s R&B musician Otis Redding. The critic Phil Saxe noted: "On this standout track, in a career of standout tracks, Vini's guitar never sounded better … strange alchemy." "Otis," as well as the rest of the album, has a timeless feel and a strong sense of ethereal movement, making the listener feel as if they are capable of flying. No wonder the telecommunications company Pac Bell used "Otis" for a long distance commercial, which unfortunately has left an awful association in my memory whenever I listen to that song.

Another standout track on Vini Reilly is "My Country," an excursion into melancholy perfection and sadness. Reilly sings softly on this track, and like "The Room" I wouldn't want anyone else performing the vocals:

My country
My class
Poor people
All the people
No one else cared
No more people
Could educate you
Black people
To swim in the ocean
Gay people
Where's your solution?
My country
Could never recover

"My Country" suggests all the trials and conflicts of England and how the psyche of the country is the psyche of the people. It has tones of the apologetic and overall wishes for a better day.

Latest Offerings

Since Sex and Death, the Durutti Column have put out a string of proper albums: Fidelity (1996), Time Was Gigantic … When We Were Kids (1998), Rebellion (2001), Someone Else's Party (2003), Tempus Fugit (2004), Heaven Sent (2005), Keep Breathing (2006), Idiot Savants (2007), and Sunshine to Blue … Blue to Blackness (2008). Reilly's been busy to say the least. Each album contains a handful of beautiful tracks, a handful of interesting tracks, and one or two average efforts, but overall these nine proper albums rank up there with the best music Reilly has released. The sound is consistent throughout — pure Durutti Column — hardly distinguishable from the earliest recordings in the 1980s, which in its own way is quite remarkable.

An added addition to these later albums is Eley Rudge, the pouty-faced vocalist, who fits nicely into the Durutti scheme and adds depth to the sound. Her voice contradicts her appearance and is sensual, often feeling more instrumental in the way the Durutti Column sampled voices on Vini Reilly. Overall, it seems like Rudge has been here all along and could certainly be mistaken for the vocal tracks on Sex and Death sung by the aforementioned Ruth-Anne Boyle. The Durutti Column's music has always contained a slightly feminine tone so I can't help but question why Reilly didn't consider a female singer earlier on. In any case, no matter, Eley Rudge appears on these latter albums and it seems like she will be along for more.

Some exceptional tracks are "The Storm" from Fidelity, which is classic Reilly using echo effects on his guitar to achieve that big bodied sound, but here it is produced even more than usual and is sparkly clean. "Requiem for My Mother" from Someone Else's Party is pure bliss, tugging along in its relentless emotion, another standout track allowing the listener to effortlessly fall into daydream. Again, these are solid albums with more attention paid to post-production. The fine-tuning of each song reveals a crisper Durutti sound, mainly the touches of Reilly and Bruce Mitchell, his longtime collaborator. It is evident that Reilly has maintained his emotional stance within his music, effortlessly gliding through each song and singing more often than not in that raw, monotone voice of his.

Vini's Lack of Self Interest

Vini Reilly makes music the way Picasso once made paintings: once it's done, it's done, and then he's onto the next song. He has never read a single Durutti Column review, has no idea what ambient music is (which the Durutti Column can be so easily classified), and has never heard anything from the fellow Manchester band, Oasis. When asked what album he recorded before Sex and Death, he says he can't remember, or perhaps he doesn't want to remember the failure of Obey the Time. Actually he considers every Durutti Column album ever made a complete failure. Once Reilly had an interview at his home and pointed to a shelf containing a collection of Durutti music:

See that; there isn't one single record there I'm proud of. Every single piece is total crap. They're just appalling. Pathetic. They don't do what they set out to do. I have a problem understanding why anyone would buy a Durutti album. I know why I would buy a Smith's album, or a New Order album. But I haven't got the foggiest idea why anyone would buy a Durutti Column album, not a clue.

During the same interview Reilly said:

If I was a writer, if I was in your shoes, I wouldn't be interviewing me. I wouldn't interview musicians, except for Morrissey or someone who is actually interesting.

This was stated back in the 1980s of course, at the height of The Smiths' success, and like most musicians and groups (Morrissey included) who have run their course, it is ironic that Vini Reilly and the Durutti Column are still around making records, yet haven't enjoyed half the success of the Smiths and Morrissey, or other bands from the 80s who didn't survive the decade. Perhaps it is success that eventually kills a band, while never making it allows one to be true to one's art.

Reilly's downplay of his music is understandable to any artist of any medium. An artist that immerses himself in a work completely has attachments to it no one else can even come close to relating to or understanding. In the artist's mind they know the process undertaken, the mistakes, the pathways, the erasures, the decisions made to get to the final result.

The thing is I don't know what Durutti Column music sounds like. I don't know if you play an instrument yourself. If you're creating your own stuff, but after you've done it, you can't hear it anymore. You certainly can't hear it in the way someone who hasn't created it hears it. Once I've been through that process of transferring it from my brain to a record, and there's some distance between myself and the recording process, I can't hear what it is anymore.

It's too bad Reilly can't hear his own music and believes it is a failure. Many Durutti fans would agree Vini Reilly and Sex and Death are complete albums, and if you took the best tracks from the Durutti oeuvre, you could fill up a nine or ten disc anthology, especially with the collections of The Sporadic Recordings I, II, and III, which in themselves are three beautiful collections of outtakes and rare recordings as good as any of the Durutti's best albums, but alas very difficult to find in their limited edition releases.

Reilly's lack of self-interest was not always the case. In the beginning he had a different attitude toward his music:

The music is incredibly simple but I'd like anyone to listen to it and enjoy it, to get something out of it. It doesn't hit you, it's the kind of thing that takes time to sink in. What I really like is when aunties and uncles hear it and you see them tap a foot, or when a friend says they went to the pub and came home and got stoned and put it on. That's what it's for.

Essentially what Reilly sets out to do is make music that is true to the music he experiences in his head. He believes he hasn't achieved this. I would love to hear the album that finally succeeds because it would have to be quite a beautiful creation if it surpasses what he has already accomplished. But Reilly doesn't care if the results are "beautiful, good, bad, indifferent, whether people like it is irrelevant. If I can just do one album in the course of my life that is true, then I'll die a happy man. I've not done it yet."

We no longer need to anticipate what the Durutti Column's sound will be in the future. With over two dozen records released to date, the latest records sound almost like the first and vice versa. Reilly's prolific oeuvre is any musician's dream, yet he is unfinished and still seeks perfection. He will continue his experimentation and exploration of new and old sounds and let his guitar weep like an angel, because like the blind girl he saw in the Osaka elevator, he expresses emotional dimensions of the human spirit.