Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Durutti Column: The Return of the Durutti Column

It was 1986 and YHB was going to see New Order play at what was then called the Irvine Meadows (now the Verizon Wireless) Amphitheater, an outdoor venue in southern Orange County.  New Order was at its synth-driven pop peak, but the two opening acts were virtually unknown in these parts.  These were The Fall and The Durutti Column and, curious to know what they might sound like on stage, YHB purchased recent releases from the groups, including an album from the former and an EP from the latter.  The second had an immediate impact, including the gorgeous song, "Tomorrow," which became a mainstay of The Durutti Column's discography.

When the concert started, an exceptionally thin and frail looking guitarist, Vini Reilly, ambled on stage and sat down on the floor, which was a strange sight in a place that seated thousands, and there he remained for the entirety of the set.  A viola player, a trumpeter and a drummer, the exceptional Bruce Mitchell playing on a small kit, followed.  In the large open-air environment, the band played songs characterized by exquisite guitar playing with viola and trumpet accompaniment and occasional solos and Mitchell's polyrhythmic touch, often using brushes.  The performance was excellent, though entirely out of place, and this blogger was hooked.  Then, The Fall appeared with its steady backbeat, driving guitar, and sarcastic poetic and political utterances from the irascible and irrepressible Mark E. Smith.  During these unusual opening acts, the mainly young audience generally ignored the proceedings, but roared when New Order took the stage to perform their staggeringly popular danceable anthems like "Blue Monday" and "Bizarre Love Triangle."

There are many great albums by The Durutti Column, the sole mainstay of which is Reilly, though Mitchell has been a part of most recordings.  Classically trained on piano, Reilly turned to guitar in his teens (he was briefly in a punk band with Stephen Morrissey, later known simply and famously as Morrissey from The Smiths and his long solo career) and is an phenomenal player, though hardly given to pyrotechnics, with a few exceptions.  Instead, he plays with extraordinary facility, grace and precision, using gorgeous melodies and phrases rather than power chords or extremely rapid runs to make his mark.

It all started in Manchester, England, when impresario Anthony Wilson created the legendary Factory Records label and made The Durutti Column his first signing, just ahead of famed groups like Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire.  There was actually a band involved, but, before too much studio work could be attempted, two songs appeared on the label's initial release, A Factory Sampler from 1978, the unit disintegrated.  Wilson reconfigured things so that the debut record, recorded in late 1979 and cheekily titled The Return of the Durutti Column (which, internally within Factory, it was, though publicly it was not) was Reilly accompanied on some pieces by a drummer and bass player, but on others by drum machines and synths manipulated by producer Martin Hannett.  Both were notoriously idiosyncratic and uncompromising in their vision, but the combination worked.

The Return of the Durutti Column, which came out in January 1980, is entirely instrumental, with Reilly's lyrical and understated guitar playing taking center stage, but Hannett's production and atmospherics a perfect complement.  The entire album is great and songs move pretty seamlessly from one to the next.  The opening "Sketch for Summer" and its kindred "Sketch for Winter" are excellent embodiments of the Durutti sound, the latter featuring Reilly's gorgeous work alone.  The shorter "Jazz," probably named for the drum machine cymbals utilized in it, and one of the longer pieces, "Conduct," are also very noteworthy.

Wilson and Factory were notable for unusual promotional and marketing ideas and one of them was the printing of the 2,000 copy run of the album on sandpaper, these being assembled by the members of Joy Division, soon to become legendary "post-punk" figures.  These initial vinyl copies included a flexidisk with two electronic pieces by Hannett.  In the 1990s, after Wilson resurrected Factory with a distribution deal through major label London Records, he reissued the back catalog of The Durutti Column in his "Factory once" series.  The Return of the Durutti Column like other band albums features those Hannett pieces and four other songs recorded in 1980, two produced by Hannett.  The cover shown here is from that 1996 reissue.  YHB's initial copy of the album was actually a cassette housed in a burgundy clamshell box with a piece of sandpaper as a liner, one of several such clamshell editions of TDC albums obtained from a Tower Records store in Brea.

The 2002 film 24 Hour Party People a loosely-based biopic about Wilson, Factory and the Manchester music scene has a scene of Reilly playing to an empty house at the famed Hacienda Club owned by Wilson and Factory.  While Wilson worked hard to champion the group and Reilly, The Durutti Column did have a small following in Manchester and a larger one overseas, being particularly popular in Portugal and Japan.  Despite the failure of Factory, versions one and two, Reilly has continued a regular recording schedule of uniformly excellent records, which will be covered here subsequently.  It is amazing that, nearly 35 years along, this criminally underrecognized musician is still steadily working to a small, but loyal, following.

The Durutti Column: The Return of the Durutti Column (Factory Records, 1980)

1.  Sketch for Summer
2.  Requiem for a Father
3.  Katharine
4.  Conduct
5.  Beginning
6.  Jazz
7.  Sketch for Winter
8.  Collette
9.  In D

1996 CD bonus tracks on Factory once:

10.  Lips That Would Kiss
11.  Madeleine
12.  First Aspect of the Same Thing
13.  Second Aspect of the Same Thing
14.  Sleep Will Come
15.  Experiment in Fifth

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