Say what you mean, mean what you say

Sometimes you can get lucky and become a fan (or fanatic) of an artist or group pretty early in their career and follow their career development from start to finish. For me I was lucky enough to discover The Smiths around the time of “This Charming Man” and followed their trajectory from debut to finale alongside my own trajectory from ‘First issue of a music paper bought at 14’ (Moz on the cover of Melody Maker, spring 84) to ‘First record bought on first day in polytechnic’ (which was “Strangeways” on its day of release). Enough people have written about The Smiths and there are many better writers out there who will be approaching them eventually.

On the other hand, sometimes it can be fun to pick up a record entirely by chance and fall in love with it, then have the pleasure of discovering the back catalogue. These days it’s easy, you find a new old band, then you feed their name into Google, watch a few songs on Youtube, check out their history on Wikipedia and hear some samples of their other work on iTunes. It wasn’t always so simple. .

At the start of August 1985 I was passing time after my O levels, that nervous two months between taking the exams and receiving the results, trying not to think about it but always there in the back of my mind. I had spent two weeks in Germany on a school exchange where my love of Kraftwerk was considered the height of uncool. I had bought a Roland monosynth for £130 after saving all my pocket money that spring and was exploring analogue synthesis, or just making noises. We had a week’s family holiday planned in Hebden Bridge for a week in August just before my results came out, and a few days before the holiday I went record shopping in Cardiff. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just something to listen to.

In those days there were more record shops. In Spillers there was nothing I fancied. The old Virgin store opposite Cardiff Castle yielded little of interest, neither did Our Price. HMV seemed dull but there was a bargain bin of twelve inch singles towards the front. Flicking through the detritus of failed careers there was a record with a beige sleeve with a strip of paper stuck to it on the left, it didn’t look like the other sleeves there, it looked stark and serene and intriguing. When I saw it had a Factory Records catalogue number I thought I’d give it a go. It was only 99p, I didn’t have much to lose. In retrospect it was one of the best 99ps I ever spent because I was now entering the world of The Durutti Column.

At that point I knew virtually nothing about them but simply took it on trust that if they were on Factory then they must be alright. As such I wasn’t racing home expecting miracles, but once I was home I was entranced. I couldn’t really have picked a better introduction to Vini Reilly’s music than the “Say what you mean, mean what you say” EP . Six pieces of music ranging in length from a minute to nearly nine minutes, held together around a metallic drum machine and the kind of musicianship I had never heard before. The piano – acoustic or electric – was played with such skill it made most of the synth bands I was accustomed to sound like one finger numbskulls. The songs that had guitar featured beautiful haunting echoing guitar playing, delicate and light as clouds. The whole record had a melancholy air – not gloomy or depressing, but the minor chords and suspensions made me feel strangely queasy inside. There had been a few songs I’d encountered before which had those ‘turn your stomach upside down’ chord changes but this record was blessed with so many of those gorgeous changes. The singer seemed shy, like he was whispering his secrets. I completely fell in love with the record. My favourite song on it was “e.e.”, an uptempo instrumental that had so many twists and turns I could barely keep up, and one of my favourite guitar solos ever. It’s not that it’s complicated or anything, it’s just lovely and the way the piano chords change underneath it as it progresses makes my heart skip a beat even now.

So now I had a new love, what was I going to do with it? There wasn’t a lot of sources of information around at the time – I read the three weekly music papers but they weren’t really complimentary to many Factory acts besides New Order. There weren’t many big discographical books around in 1985 – there was one which appeared in WH Smiths in Penarth but it was full of errors, it even listed “Techno pop” as a real Kraftwerk album (with a track listing too). Oddly enough the best source of information was a quarterly catalogue from Gema Records. I would look through their list, find records I fancied, send off a cheque and hope for the best. About a month later I’d either get what I wanted or absolutely nothing. HMV had one Durutti Column LP and that was “Without Mercy” so I stuck it on my Xmas list in Dec 85 and it appeared under the Christmas tree alongside my other requests – “World shut your mouth”, “Songs to learn and sing” and “The clock comes down the stairs”. For about three months this album – or side one at least – became my ‘washing up’ album. My brother and I would alternate washing up after tea and play our choice of music over the house hifi. He would play…thinks… “Sandinista” and “Cut the crap” cos he was going through his Clash phase. So as a comparison to that, “Without mercy” was a breath of fresh air. Effectively a modern classical piece, it takes a few musical themes and develops them and passes them amongst a small number of instruments. It’s really quite beautiful. OK, side two is a bit drum machine heavy and some of the dance beats don’t really work, but side one is end to end gorgeous.

A few days after Christmas our family popped to Cardiff to ‘do the sales’. As ever the HMV sale wasn’t very interesting – some things never change – but I spotted some tapes I hadn’t spotted before. Factory Records had issued some tapes in ridiculously big but beautiful linen covered boxes, colour coded per artist – Joy Division was purple, New Order was white. I picked up “The graveyard and the ballroom” by A Certain Ratio (blue box) and “The return of The Durutti Column” (red box). I can remember the first time I heard the latter album, sitting on my bed, headphones on in the middle of winter with the sound of birds in my ears. The whole album was short, sweet and quite lovely – only guitar and elemental drum machine, but it showcased Vini Reilly’s incredible guitar playing to the full – and Martin Hannett’s remarkable production too.

At the start of March 1986 another Gema Records catalogue arrived and as ever the entire family poured over it – usually with my illuminated magnifying glass as it was written in a very small font. There had been a Factory discography in Record Collector so I now knew that the Durutti Column had made four albums but there were other things listed in this catalogue which made no sense. There was a twelve inch single called “Tomorrow” though so I ordered that alongside a few other records and promptly forgot about it.

On Friday 21st March the postman was unusually early to our house, this was because we had a package of records being delivered. Just before my brother and I headed off for school we found out what Gema Records – that most random of mail order shops – had sent us. I can’t remember what else was in the package other than my records – “I’d like to see you again” by A Certain Ratio, a peculiar Virgin synth compilation called “Machines” (which is actually rather good and worth seeking out) and the “Tomorrow” twelve inch which had been reviewed as a new release in the Melody Maker the week before. I didn’t understand the sleeve but the title of the b-side looked interesting – “All that love and maths can do”. That day in school was boring, I couldn’t wait to get home. In the afternoon we had double maths and I sat behind S and J, two girls who I was crushing on simultaneously (as you do when you’re 16). Then we were meant to have double physics but it was cancelled. Some of the class stayed on to do work but I thought “Sod it, get home before anyone else, hear the new records” so cycled home as fast as I could (and I could cycle fast, a friend with a speedometer on his bike clocked a speed of nearly 30mph following me home one day).

So back home on a lovely clear Spring afternoon – what to listen to first? Well it has to be “Tomorrow”. The a-side starts, descending chords on the guitar, a viola plucks, Vini sings, it is great. Turn the record over.. Oh and live version of the same song, yes very good very good. Then the applause abruptly stops and Vini plays a few notes and I’m completely lost. Some descending chords with a filigree of notes at the end, a viola soars over the top, this is beautiful and could go on forever. Then at one minute and ten seconds. Vini plays a series of notes and chords that are indescribeable, especially with the Roland Space Echo smothered all over them, and a sampled choral voice ebbs and swells as well and this happens four times and then it returns to the initial chords and the viola returns and the choral samples swell up and why am I dancing about architecture here? Technically THAT happens like THAT but emotionally … No it’s okay… I’m not crying…it’s just something in my eye… And my insides are turned upside down…but it’s alright you know. You know how sometimes words fail you? Well that’s me every time I hear “All that love and maths can do”. It’s not even the circumstances of bunking off school and staring at two girls in Maths and that song title. That piece of music gets to the very heart of me.

A week later, the school had broken up for Easter and that Friday we went to Cardiff shopping. In HMV in the new albums rack right at the front was the new Durutti Column album “Circuses and bread”. Two days previously I had devoured the two column review of it written by Sorrel Downer for the Melody Maker, and now I had it. I have this theory that “Circuses and bread” is a series of duets but I could be totally wrong. It is mainly tranquil and minor key and lovely and if I’m in the right mood for it I can sometimes feel like it’s my favourite album ever. There are a few moments which are amongst Durutti’s finest – “Royal infirmary” is almost as magical as “All that love and maths can do”, the two versions of “Dance” show Vini almost rocking out on guitar, and although it could be said that “Blind elevator girl” goes on a bit, the middle section is fantastic. I played the album over and over during that depressing Easter, alongside an old rediscovered album from my parents’ collection.

The problem remained – what about the rest of their back catalogue? Well it still wasn’t appearing in the racks of any Cardiff record shops, and I didn’t realise I could order records in Spillers, so when another Gema Records list arrived in the autumn of 86 I put “Another setting” on the order and hoped for the best. And lo and behold it arrived a month later. It had one of my favourite sleeves ever and some great songs. Opener “Prayer” I knew for some reason and I have no idea why. Closer “Spent time” had a gorgeous Fender Rhodes piano clunk, reverbed drums and a wail of feedbacking guitar in the distance as Vini sang about things ending. I have said it before and I’ll say it here publicly – I want “Spent time” played at my funeral. OK? In between there’s some mumbled shy vocals, lots of drums, some lovely guitar playing and “Second family”. Now it’s a pretty unassuming piece, guitar and cor anglais playing a moderately cheerful melody for a few minutes and then towards the end Vini peals off a string of descending minor key thirds on the guitar ending with an almost flamenco flourish and an arc of harmonics as the cor anglais circles the periphery of the piece and in those 30 seconds it moves from bright and shiny to sudden darkness and is quite shocking. It’s a great album, even if Tony Wilson wasn’t fussed on it and it’s quiet sadness was the perfect soundtrack to autumn train rides back from college as the light faded into night.

The winter of 86 moving into 87 was a time of movement for me. All my UCCA and PCAS forms were in so I started going around the unis and polys for interviews – Liverpool Uni, Salford Uni, Sheffield Poly. Lots of train journeys on my own for the first time, early starts from South Wales to up North, hanging around at Birmingham New Street or Bristol Parkway for late connections, shivering in the cold and dark. In February I found a second hand copy of “LC” and though it was battered and scratched, it still sounded otherworldly and it soundtracked these journeys. Even now, hearing “Never known” takes me back to watching dusk fall across the scrublands and crumbling industrial complexes between Manchester and Crewe. At the time I wasn’t that impressed by “LC”, it sounded murky and half formed to me. Yes there were standout tracks like “Jacqueline” and “The missing boy” and “Sketch for dawn” but everything else sounded wrong to me. Of course now I know my initial opinion is crap and I love it from beginning to end, but it took some patience to get there.

In the Spring of 87 the retail arm of Virgin decided to return to mail order records. Our family thought it might be better than Gema Records and when this huge thick catalogue was delivered we are devoured it, looking for things we’d never seen before. Ironically it turned out to be just as random as Gema Records, of all the records my family ordered it was only my two which came. One record was Perfect Vision’s “Tongues out” mini album, the other was “Friends in Portugal” by Durutti Column. Twelve more songs recorded in 83 and half wonderful and half – dare I say it – awful. “Torn dress” and “Wheels turning” are perhaps my least favourite Durutti tracks, Vini’s singing is more wayward than usual and the songs don’t go anywhere. Two songs – “Estoril at night” and “Favourite descending intervals” – were adapted into “Without Mercy” but sound fine as individual pieces. Other tracks – the title track, “Saudade”, “To end with” are lovely.

April 9th 1987 was when another Gema Records order was received and two more Durutti records. The seven inch single “I get along without you very well” was weird, Tony Wilson’s ex-wife singing over a tinkling soundtrack. “Valuable passages” was a compilation CD – my first ever. I didn’t even have a player at that point. It opened a new world because it gave me new Durutti songs and a hint that there were other records of theirs out there – what were these EPs on odd labels and how the hell did I find them? Once I had a cd player for my eighteenth birthday my first purchases were the other available Durutti cds, “Circuses and bread” and the Japanese live album “Domo Arigato”. Also on my eighteenth birthday I persuaded the Saturday morning Radio Wales DJ – who also happened to be my Computer Science teacher in college – to play “Jacqueline” for me.

Summer 87, A levels results and the turmoil of which uni to go to based on my slightly disappointing results. I could have gone to Liverpool Uni but instead chose Sheffield Poly. I sometimes wonder how different my life would be had I gone to Liverpool. The frantic dash of sorting out what to take and organising accomodation was soundtracked by a new Durutti EP – “The city of our lady”. The highlight of this EP was an eight minute Spanish guitar workout called “Catos Con Guantes” which was beautiful. But it was obvious now that the main task of getting the bulk of the back catalogue was done, so from now on it was a matter of keeping up the new releases and looking out for oddities along the way. Being based in Sheffield allowed me easy access to the major northern cities and their record shops, so I managed to pick up records like “A Factory Quartet” (three Durutti songs) from Manchester HMV or “Deux triangles” EP from a second hand shop in Leeds. And there was a new album too – “The guitar and other machines” rocked in ways I could hardly imagine but still had that gorgeous guitar flowing. That album was played for a whole week while I wrote an assignment on AJ Ayers and all I remember of the assignment was that I dedicated it to the Durutti Column.

Around that time it was said in the press that Vini was working with Morrissey and that whetted my appetite. How would it sound? Would they write together? When the “Viva Hate” album came out in March 88 I played little else for a month. Looking back I still think it’s a great album but there isn’t enough Vini on it. Only twice did it sound like a true collaboration. The eight minute “Late night Maudlin Street” built up from simple drum machine and guitar to layers of Vini’s echoing guitars and pianos while Moz exhumed his own past. “Will never marry” – from the “Everyday is like Sunday” EP later that spring – has an orchestral sweep lacking on previous releases, and once Moz shuts up around the two minute mark then Vini let’s fly with some delicious guitar work. But they fell out after that and never worked together again. Shame.

The next Durutti album was issued around Easter 89, at a time when I wasn’t in the best of moods. I was about to be thrown off my course for lack of attendance and work after a huge crisis of confidence. Someone somewhere should have spotted that I couldn’t really cope with these things and – well – we’ll get to that somewhere else along the line probably. So I could really have done with a bit of Vini at that point. One night at my local pub there were a few new friends of friends and I said to one of them “You look like Vini Reilly” because she did. She said “Who?” I said “The guy from The Durutti Column” and she said “I LOVE them!” Turned out she’d seen them on BBC2 Womad show the previous year where they’d played three songs and loved it. So that was my meeting Grace, who I think is the one reader of this blog in New Zealand. If so, hello. A few days later I’d bought “Vini Reilly” and loved the vocal samples throughout, there was less reliance on synths and more reliance on those beautiful guitar melodies, and that night gave my tape of it to Grace at a houseparty.

I could go on through their career and list great moments but quite frankly… Looking back, that was the ‘golden period’ for me. I still buy Durutti records as and when and they are frequently superb. The Kooky and LTM / Factory Benelux labels have done a great job of keeping the music out there, issuing new material and doing expert compilations of older material. The “LC” expanded issue from earlier this year was superb, compiling a host of material together which I originally searched for over a period of years. And that is sort of my point. In those days the lack of information on a band and their records increased their desirability. I felt more of a connection to the music partly because I had to hunt for it so hard, the thrill of the chase, finally tracking down a copy of the twelve inch of “Lips that would kiss”, hoping it would be worth the wait, having two or three new songs to get to know. I made more of a personal investment in the music because of the effort involved in obtaining it, and because there was less money for me to spend on buying music I was more prepared to work at new music, I had the time to devote to a record, to allow it to develop in my mind. Maybe it’s a teenage thing, everything seems more heightened then, your senses more attuned. But these days.. It’s just too easy. A few years ago I downloaded the entire career of a band I was interested in, and it took half an hour, and I still don’t think I’ve heard it all yet. I don’t feel the music is ‘mine’, I haven’t invested the time in it and the ease of getting the music has devalued it in my mind. I still prefer physical music – CDs – to anything else. I like the ‘artefact’ I suppose. I can still devote myself to new (and old, or new to me) music but the life of a mid forties family man with commitments doesn’t give so much chance to do that. But listening back to the Durutti Column still stirs emotions, memories of forgotten friends or lost crushes or a simpler life. I know Vini has had health issues these last few years and I wish him good health, and a huge thank you to him for making music that has affected me so much over the years.

Next time : Songs my parents taught me – the start of an ongoing series reviewing the records in my parents’ record collection.

3 thoughts on “Say what you mean, mean what you say

  1. It’s lovely to hear how people interact with Vini’s music. Your writing gave a real sense of time and place as well. Thank you for sharing such personal moments.
    Matt Reilly (Vini’s nephew).

  2. Great stuff. Spookily similar to my own Durutti experience. Were you one of the 10 disappointed ticket holders when he cancelled his appearance at the Glee club a few years back?

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