Where To Start… The Durutti Column

Exploring Vini Reilly's mercurial talent...

Llevamos un mundo nuevo en nuestros corazones (“We carry a new world in our hearts”) read the slogan of The Durrutti Column, the most prominent anarchist unit in The Spanish Civil War from which Vini Reilly took his group’s name.

Since 1978 The Durutti Column, Reilly’s vehicle for his atmospheric reveries, have been setting out their own space in the musical landscape, releasing a dazzling number of albums, EPs and compilations. Their involvement with Factory Records (and related labels such as Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule) has been central to their trajectory – indeed, neither were very active in the 90s.

And yet they are still somewhat overlooked. Reilly has been sadly beset by health and financial problems, compromising his work rate. A whole reissue industry has sprung up, which has made things a little confusing. 1983’s ‘Another Setting’ is being released for Record Store Day this year, for example.

To help navigate their slightly labyrinthine discography, here are a few good starting points.

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‘The Return Of The Durutti Column’

No, this is not the title of a half-baked post-reunion album. It’s their debut, named after the comic La Retour de la Colonne Durutti. Martin Hannett’s studio trickery manages to transform Reilly’s mellifluous guitar flourishes into sinuous, reverb-laden meanderings, backed by primitive drum machines, more expressive fills or nothing at all, leaving space for his virtuoso performances to breathe – the guitar as paintbrush.

‘Beginning’ and ‘Sketch for Winter’ are exquisitely beautiful and haunting, and any other description would be a bit tautological. This is the one with the sandpaper sleeve, transplanting the situationist serendipity of Asger Jorn’s and Guy Debord’s collaboration ‘Mémoires’ to late 70s Manchester.

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Second album ‘LC’ builds on their nebulous first album – there’s less tape hiss, for a start. But it does feel more unified, and slightly less fragile. By this time they’ve found their feet, and Vini Reilly’s tentative vocals are scattered across songs including ‘Sketch for Dawn’ (‘Sketches’, ‘Requiems’, ‘Fors’ and ‘Portraits’ are regular features) and ‘The Missing Boy’, a song with a disorderly mythology of its own because it was apparently conceived as an Ian Curtis tribute.

A highlight is ‘(For) Belgian Friends’, a languid, woozy song that builds up to a swoon-worthy climax – there are no sudden volume increases or modulations, however. Subtlety is the name of the game.

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‘Without Mercy’

In 1984, their sound was bolstered by the addition of a cellist and violinist. Structured around the narrative of Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (On ‘LC’ Reilly borrowed the title of volume of 6 Proust’s ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’), ‘Without Mercy’ is a slice of ‘modern classical’, a term that has taken on a (fairly meaningless) life of its own.

‘All That Love and Maths Can Do’ is all that the group excel at: the plaintive, the delicate, the wistful, the eerie. Self-criticism has been a regular feature in interviews, and Reilly has disparaged – indeed disowned – many of his records, including this one, but it stands up well between the introspection of previous material and the more expansive, adventurous albums that come after.

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‘Obey The Time’

‘Obey the Time’ is not an obvious place to start, but in a discography that veers between ‘jazz’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘post-punk’ (even these terms can sometimes be a bit off the mark), it certainly stands out.

It was the last release on Factory, a label bound up in its own social history, taking cues from Acid House and electronica. This results in a few tracks that grate on the ears a little, spidery guitar lines tending to not always work well with masses of electronic elements. But ‘Kiss of Def’ is quite remarkable, starting with an ambient passage that segues into something tantamount to jungle, albeit Vini Reilly’s very musical conception of it.

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‘Time Was Gigantic… When We Were Kids’

This ranks among the better albums produced in the hinterland stretching forth after their separation from Factory Records. He enlists singer Eley Rudge and a choir, which has had some wondering why Reilly didn’t do so more often.

‘Pigeon’ matches the prosaicness of its title by harking back to their first two albums, whereas ‘Sing To Me’ is seven minutes of slightly highfalutin, intricate sonic exploration. ‘For Rachel’ is a spellbinding affair, combining spindly, almost truculent classical guitar with soft piano backing, a choir of Lilliputians and languid drums. It’s a beaut.

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Words: Wilf Skinner

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