Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly is not a fan of
Without Mercy. He refers to as “a joke” and full of “daft tunes”. As the auteur of the work, I guess he’s allowed his opinion, but I feel he’s a little harsh. When it was originally released in 1984, he was touted as a kind of British Philip Glass, with a dash of Brian Eno on the side and that probably didn’t sit very well with him. Steered by a most insistent label boss into creating an album that he may have thought pretentious, is probably what rankles Reilly the most and casts a shadow over the entire project in his eyes. Now that’s a shame, as Without Mercy is pretty beautiful.
It took Reilly six years to shift from playing snarly punk guitar with Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds to the nouveau-classique, Keats inspired suite, Without Mercy. The musical landscape of 1984 was littered with huge production values, big hair and airbrushed pop. This record owes more to the mid-’80s, burgeoning new age movement than it does to anything even close to the mainstream and in 2018, it sounds pure, clear and refreshing.
The back-story for this record is begging for the “Behind the Music” treatment. Factory boss, Tony Wilson – a man who took being called pretentious as a compliment – was a keen supporter of Reilly, but was frustrated that he didn’t make more of his talent. Typically, a Durutti Column album would take just three days to make – Reilly had a punk rock attitude to modern chamber music it seems. This seemingly slapdash approach annoyed the Factory supremo, who convinced Reilly that Wilson himself should produce the fourth Durutti Column album and he just happened to have the concept for it up his beautifully tailored sleeve. Wilson used the narrative of English romantic poet, John Keats’ 1819 work “La Belle Dame sans Merci” as the catalyst for the recording. Reilly rolled his eyes, rolled up his sleeves and knocked out Without Mercy in five days. Wilson, who envisaging being in the studio for a Sgt Peppers length of time, was not amused.
The “lost classic” shtick is getting pretty old now, and there are many, many records on that pile, which, in reality, should have stayed lost. Without Mercy isn’t a classic, but it’s certainly ripe for reappraisal. Factory Benelux has given everyone the chance to immerse themselves in it with a typically beautifully presented four-CD/two-LP reissue. The album is bundled with live recordings and some sympathetic work recorded around the time of the “main” album. Without Mercy has been given a digital spitshine and is cut into “stanzas” so those of you who still have CD players, can navigate easily to your favorite bit. That could be the limpid piano etude of “Without Mercy Stanza VIII”, the rippling guitars of “IV-VII” or the odd drum machine dominated “Without Mercy 2”.
Although the first five pieces which constitute side one of the album are where the real interest lies, there is still much to enjoy in the remainder. Reilly chose his cohorts well, and along with his longest-serving musical associate Bruce Mitchell on percussion, the contributions of Blaine L. Reininger and John Metcalfe (violas), Caroline Lavelle (cello), Tim Kellett (trumpet) and Maunagh Fleming (cor anglais) are exceptional. “All That Love and Maths Can Do” is a haunting ensemble piece. The soundtrack for a mournful ballet.
Moving beyond the main event is also a treat. The remaining discs combine rare live recordings with pieces originally released as a companion EP. “Goodbye”, “The Room”, and “A Little Mercy” are less reflective and are a little closer to the pre Without Mercy sound of the band. Despite his ambivalence towards the work, “Mercy Theme” appears a number of times over the course of this set and sounds beautiful every time.
Reilly is the dictionary definition of low-key, popping his head over the parapet into the limelight just once, as the guitarist on Viva Hate – Morrissey’s solo debut album. Throughout his career, it’s obvious that he makes the albums he wants to make and nothing else and the fact that his label boss cajoled him into a making a “pseudo-classical” record may have colored his opinion of the project way more than the quality of the music itself. Whether Without Mercy needed such an expansive re-issue is a moot point. The live recordings and extras are probably only of much interest to the Durutti Column superfans – nice to have, but almost superfluous in this context. I’d still suggest to Reilly that he should reappraise the record, now that 34 years have passed. It’s sad to think that the creator of such elegant and moving music, considers it to be a blot on his copybook. It isn’t. It really isn’t.