The Durutti Column: A Beginner’s Guide
The following entry was written by Daniel Brown, one of our LLM Commercial Law students - the only thing I have done is embed the YouTube videos. Any student/staff member is welcome to write for the Strathclyde Non-Law Review, regardless of programme/year. Please do email me to submit a piece - Senior Tutor Updates will be going out fortnightly now teaching has resumed.
Formed in 1978, the Durutti Column were one of the most idiosyncratic groups to emerge from the first wave of punk. Their name is inspired by a Situationist International poster and their music typically consisted of delicate instrumental guitar pieces only subtly accompanied by additional instrumentation and only occasionally by vocals. Arguably, their recorded output has more in common with the work of Harold Budd and Keith Jarrett than anything else released on Factory Records.
The Durutti Column initially began as a group, before becoming the solo project of the guitarist Vini Reilly, who has been joined by a revolving cast of musicians over the years, bar a few regular collaborators such jazz drummer Bruce Mitchell. With 26 studio albums, the band has a large discography, so this brief guide is intended to provide an accessible entry point to their work.
1: The Return of the Durutti Column (1980)
Durutti’s 1980 debut album remains their most enduringly popular release and it is one of the most quietly influential albums of the post-punk era. It is equally well known for its artwork as well as its musical content, as the album was packaged in a sandpaper sleeve with the intention of destroying all the other records in the owner’s collection. It is an entirely instrumental album of Reilly’s guitar playing with additional keyboard textures and production by Factory Records’ in-house producer Martin Hannett. Like on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Hannett’s production has the spaciousness of dub, which is complementary to the fragility of Reilly’s compositions. Tracks such as “Requiem for a Father”, “Sketch for Summer” and “Lips That Would Kiss” are some of the best examples of how this era of the band were able to create a powerfully dreamlike atmosphere with their music.
2: LC (1981)
Durutti’s second full-length was once selected by Brian Eno as one of his favourite albums and in my opinion is the best record they ever released. This release is more sonically diverse than their debut, but is still characteristically deeply understated. For the first time, Reilly’s vocals make a handful of appearances on this album. However, they intentionally fade into the background of the recordings as the instrumentation remains the central focus of the music. Tracks such as “Sketch For Dawn I”, “Never Known” and “The Missing Boy” demonstrate the effectiveness of this balance.
3: Without Mercy (1984)
Without Mercy is a unique album in the Durutti Column’s catalogue. The album consists of 2 lengthy tracks, both using Keats’ 1819 poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” as the main inspiration for the recording. Cello player Caroline Lavelle appears on the album and her wonderful playing aids Reilly in writing compositions that were more akin to modern classical than the group’s earlier work. Despite being richly orchestrated, the album was completed in just 5 days and Reilly was famously unhappy with the end result, calling it “a joke”. He’s wrong however - this album is definitely worth hearing.
4: Vini Reilly (1989)
The Durutti Column’s 8th album was the first to fully embrace sampling. By borrowing snippets from songs by Joan Sutherland, Otis Redding and Tracy Chapman and combining them with some of Reilly’s finest guitar work the group made their most emotionally affecting album. In my opinion, the album’s central track “Otis” is a strong contender for the band’s best song. Depending on your point of view, Reilly’s vocals are either thoughtfully restrained in nature or they are limited by his abilities. However, his singing is entirely absent from this album apart from on the final track “My County” which addresses class divisions in 1980s Britain. It remains undoubtedly the Durutti Column’s most political work.
5: A Paean to Wilson (2010)
After the closure of Factory Records in the 1990s Reilly found himself in a perilous financial situation resulting in a period of homelessness. In spite of his troubled personal life he continued to be prolific, releasing one album a year throughout the 00s. The group’s final album of new material released to date is a tribute to Reilly’s mentor, friend and boss Tony Wilson, who passed away in 2007. Reflection is the key theme of the album, which focuses upon Reilly and Wilson’s relationship and the development of Durutti’s sound over three decades. The album is bookended by Vocal samples of Wilson and contains what is arguably the most diverse range of styles on a single Durutti album, both touching on and reworking elements from older tracks from their post-punk, classical, electronic and folkier periods. All of these different elements are stitched together cohesively, which makes A Paean to Wilson a fitting epilogue to the career of this uncompromising artist.