The Durutti Column – 1980

Now we’re rounding out to the present. We’re heading into the realm where English folk music goes beyond its traditional boundaries and attains a spectral essence inflecting what it would have sung before. Now comes the realization, that as far removed new folk artists are from their greener rural past, a yearning for its mystique still stirs something in them, for some reason. Its this romance that thoroughly envelopes one of neo-folk’s unheralded pioneers.

The Durutti Column, led by Vini Reilly, never quite fit in with any punk or rock movement. His life to this very day has always been a constant struggle. In the old days, in the time of 1981’s masterpiece LC, his fragile-sounding music held together by the tender fingerpicked sound of his electric guitar displayed a strength through opposition. In real life, constant struggles with anorexia nervosa and depression had always taken a toll on his body and mind. Running against the current of the powerful and powerfully abrasive music of his time, somehow Vini’s introspective electric folk music found common experience in dedications to characters some real (or imagined), environments, and questions left unanswered. Something, bracing and serene in his music belied a feeling he needed to hold in order to appreciate living his day to day life. Its as if he knew his whole life was going to be a struggle and rather than fight back with venom and anger, or succumb to it, he did the most punk thing ever, he presented he stepped back and saw the bigger picture.

Vincent Reilly – 1978
There was always a struggle in presenting this vision. Originally signed by Tony Wilson label head of Factory Records alongside other now luminary post-punk bands like Joy Division, A Certain Ration, and Cabaret Voltaire, Vini was originally meant to be another bleak prophet or poster boy for the label. Factory Records saw in Joy Division’s Ian Curtis its cold, dark icon and in Vini its brasher more palatable hearthrob. In the end this was never going to be the case for Vini. Naturally, though not by choice, thin and tall, Vini was originally paired with other musicians, hoping that with his guitar skills they could have another band at the forefront of the punk movement. No one in the label realized that after a few months of screaming and banging around, Vini had tired of the whole punk movement.

Original sandpaper version of The Return of the Durutti Column
Left to carry on as The Durutti Column by himself, Vini went back to a sound that had always interested him the most. Before he started mashing around distorted punk chords, he had loved the cleaner sounds of classical and folk music. Now thrust into the lead role, he refused to dumb down his talent. With this impetus Vini asked producer Martin Hannett (fresh off recording Unknown Pleasures) to help craft a sound that allowed room for this kind of sophistication. The first album The Return of the Durutti Column presents a move to a more inviting, ambient post-rock guitar sound. Recorded in two days, Vini’s guitar playing, frequently enhanced by a delay effect, trickled down in sound rather than pour over you. A spiritual successor to John Martyn’s work in One World, it used the Roland Space Echo delay effect as this evolving reflection which could bounce and decay pastoral sounds for a new era.
Combining highly affected drum machines and found sounds, with this new guitar sound, Vini was able to conjure up a decidedly regal and ethereal feeling completely alien to most of his label mates. The opening track “Sketch for Summer” which kicks of with manipulated bird sound provides a small template of what would become his trademark sound. Jazzy, ambient, and slightly gauzy, this track had a warm abrasiveness to it. Its a summer song for urbanites trying to peer at the sun beyond the graying, decaying cement structures and smoky skies. Where folkies in ’70s tried to react musically by harkening back to rolling green eras in the past, Vini tried to conjure up all the small parks and open spaces (which were fewer to come by) that existed in smaller plots of lands around Manchester’s decidedly more industrial landscape.

Vini Reilly on stage, 1981.
So delighted by even having the chance to record, Vini okayed little things in hindsight he could have thought out better. The original cover sleeve of this album was shipped out with a sandpaper cover which would scratch the records situated next to it in a vinyl rack. A joke that hinted at some anarchist Situationist humor of yore, one being a book cover that had done the same, but one that ran counter to the emotions evoked by Vini’s music. This new Durutti Column had its gentleness more tied to its sleeve, than one looking to rub you the wrong way of which the first album’s promotion started to give appearances of. This incomplete image Vini sought to rectify markedly so in 1981’s LC. If, he wanted to stand out from his label mates even further, he’d had to focus his aim.

LC album cover.
For all the sparseness hinted at in the debut, its creation hinted that Vini would have better been served by having more time to work on his material. Serving almost as a counteraction to the misguided bits left by the debut, LC demonstrated how certain strains of music can go emphasize the brighter sides of melancholia. Taking the reigns of production allowed him to draw out far warmer tones from his playing, that differed from Martin’s previous colder and more propulsive work. Singing for the first time on a record, his voice added more than a hint of fragile beauty to his already far more complex melodies. 

There’s a reason songs like “Sketch for Dawn”, “Jacqueline”, “Messidor”, “One Christmas for Your Thought” (found in the reissued, expanded version), or the “The Missing Boy” (a fittingly abstract tribute to his departed friend Ian Curtis) still sound timeless to this day. What we’re hearing in a song like “Never Known”, Vini’s most realized vision, is a way you can use textures to mean this whole other thing. Mimicking the fluttering sound of leaves meeting the drops of rain, Vini sets his guitar to draw long broad strokes of delay that fluctuate over a rapidly decaying drum machine. Almost as if to match the movement it conjures, Vini’s voice gets treated to the same oscillating bittersweet affectation. In the Romantic era, a troubadour would have used a mandolin and trilled their voice to express this feeling, but far removed from those sonics but not its lineage, a modern troubadour had to find ways to use instruments that could speak to his time. When you hear the way dub, funk, and punk get transformed into this pastoral Impressionism (something hinted at by the album cover), that’s when you hear how revolutionary this new folk sound was. The canvas itself can be something important, inflection can be a powerful thing…

Listen to:
The Return of the Durutti Column (1980)
LC at Grooveshark. (1981)