When you think of 80s Manchester you tend to imagine the dark post-punk synths of Joy Division and the proto-acid-rave music of the Happy Mondays. Not the instrumental etherealism of The Durutti Column.
Largely the project of the composer, guitarist, synthesiser programmer and arranger Vini Reilly, The Durutti Column was one of the first acts signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label in 1978. Recorded over a period of a week, their 1980 debut instrumental album The Return of The Durutti Column is probably the best place to start with their music.
After the producer Martin Hannet spent two days doing nothing but creating noise tracks on the synthesiser whilst Vini sat pissed in a chair shouting at Martin and occasionally playing some notes on the guitar, the pair stumbled across the bird noises that form the first twenty seconds of The Return‘s opening track, Sketch for Summer. Probably the band’s most famous song, Sketch for Summer is a winding soundscape that combines Vini’s ambient jazz guitar arpeggios with Martin’s darker electronic synth beats. It’s ridiculously dreamy and the kind of song you want to preserve exclusively for long hazy days in the sun. It also only took two run-throughs and 5 minutes to produce, a monumental and, arguably crazy, feat.
Later tracks on the LP liked Requiem for a Father and Conduct are chant-like and transcendental. Conduct in particular continually repeats the same cosmic refrain, slowly introducing an array of percussion instruments until gently petering out after five minutes.
Both Tony Wilson and ex-Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante called Vini the ‘greatest guitarist in the world’. I’m not qualified to corroborate that statement but I do think there’s a unique vulnerability and humility in Vini’s playing that sort of reminds of the experimentation in Bert Jansch’s work.
An overriding sense of nostalgia and uncompromising vulnerability permeates the second half of the album. Sketch for Winter is icy and lonely – the complete opposite to Sketch for Summer. In “D” features Vini playing around on the same minor chords in an echoey soundscape.
Katherine is probably my favourite track on the LP. Vini’s guitar picking is particularly thoughtful and the soft percussion and bass make the whole song strangely comforting. It gets really good about 2 and a half minutes in. Vini lets go and begins experimenting with arpeggios and the song reaches a new depth. The song’s fragile aimlessness is actually much more interesting than any choreographed three minute song with a verse, chorus and bridge.
There’s some pretentious stuff about how the album and Factory Records more generally was inspired by the European Situationist movement that peaked with the student protests in ’68. I don’t think it’s particularly relevant to Vini’s work apart from the fact that the original album was packaged in sandpaper – a deliberate reference to the Situationist Guy Debora’s 1959 book Mémories. The idea was that the LP would destroy the neighbouring albums around it in record-shop racks. Wilson described it as ‘a marketing device that really fucked on the opposition’. Ironically, though, it’s The Durutti Column, not what surrounds it, that’s been eroded and overlooked over time.
Vini has suffered three strokes in several years, meaning he’s unable to play guitar, whilst a series of financial difficulties resulted in eviction, near-homelessness and a mass of debt. Much like Nick Drake or Daniel Johnston, Vini’s story is kind of a predictable and well-trodden tragedy. Self-conscious, ascetic, eccentric and awkward, The Durutti Column doesn’t really sound like anything else, let alone anything post-punk. The band’s lack of commercial success is largely down to this, although Vini actually resents this obsession with form. “Is it avant-garde? Is it jazz?” He sighs. “It’s just tunes, innit? Daft tunes.”
Every time I listen to The Return I have the sense I’m hearing something no one else has, and I catch myself continually rediscovering the album and listening to nothing else for weeks. There’s a comfort in The Return’s instrumental soundscape. Void of human voices and saturated by dreamy arpeggios it’s the kind of album you never want to end.
Image: Dejan Krsmanovic on Flickr.