The Durutti Column's hesitant and beguiling foray into the realm of modern classical gets the thorough revisit that it deserves.
The Durutti Column
7 September 2018
"We're gonna do this pseudo-classical, um, little tune." That is how Vini Reilly, guitarist and the central pillar of Manchester band the Durutti Column, introduced his "Mercy Theme" to an audience at the London School of Economics in December of 1984. Clearly, Mancunian bravado hadn't been invented yet -- this was a few years before the advent Madchester and a whole decade before the Gallagher brothers were unleashed upon the world. That concert makes up the third disc of Factory Benelux's generous four-disc reissue of the band's Without Mercy, which was initially released a couple of months before that winter night in 1984.
The hesitant, aching strain of strings and keys that followed Reilly's introduction was only "pseudo" in the sense that it was a piece of classical-minded music that had been written recently, not 100 or 200 years prior. This "Mercy Theme" was the beginning of the Durutti Column's fourth long player. A full symphony it might not have been, but it was, and remains, a beguiling and accomplished work, even if its own author might have shied away from standing behind it as such.
The Durutti Column were one of the first signings to Tony Wilson's Factory Records back when the label was getting off the ground in the late 1970s. Wilson was a well-known presenter for Granada Television in Northern England, and his label drew in quality artists from the start and was quick to gain attention and notoriety. The pairing of Wilson and Vini Reilly in particular, though, was an interesting combination of personalities. The story goes that neither was entirely satisfied with Another Setting, the third Durutti Column album. The follow-up that should have been, Short Stories for Pauline, was ultimately set aside (it received a long overdue release in 2012), with one track from it, "Duet", extracted and used as the foundation for Without Mercy.
Wilson was as much a dreamer as he was business-minded, and his vision didn't always follow reason. Instead of pushing Reilly to move in a more commercial direction, to get away from what music writer Simon Reynolds referred to in his book Rip It Up and Start Again as "fragile music -- intricate skeins of guitar fed through an echoplex and always played with the fingertips, delicate and prismatic, like Jack Frost on a window pane", Wilson asked him to come up with a full-length work of modern classical music and name it after a Keats poem. The ambition for Reilly to be regarded as a post-punk Debussy was not originally so much Reilly's own, but Wilson's.
The idea wasn't that far-flung, however, as the shadow of classical music had hung over Reilly's music as far back as the orchestra sample that plays in the opening seconds of the first record he played guitar on, punk group Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds' "Ain't Bin to No Music School" (the title is a bit ironic given how dynamic Reilly's stand-out solo in the song is). In more recent years, when Tim Burgess of the Charlatans asked Reilly for one single LP recommendation for his vinyl scavenger hunt book Tim Book Two, he recommended Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ('Pathetique'), going all-caps in calling it nothing less than the greatest piece of music in the world. After Without Mercy, strings, operatic voices, and other classical touches would appear in subsequent albums such as Circuses and Bread and Vini Reilly.
Reilly stepped up to the challenge in his own way, beginning the album with both feet in the past but only for so long, as the stanzas of the first side gradually let modernity creep in via heavily delayed guitar and languid percussion, before wrapping the second half around an increasingly excitable drum machine until it no longer resembles classical music at all, but something out of a twilight dance club from a parallel world. In the context of itself, it does ultimately somehow make sense, at least after a few repeated listens. In almost any other context, it is a perplexing progression forged in its own logic. Reilly's inheritors may be few and far between, but in the second half of Without Mercy, and elsewhere in this reissue, one can hear traces of groups to come like Ohio's the Six Parts Seven, forever focused on moving forward.
The Durutti Column defied convention and assumption. Reilly was a kind of guitarist's guitarist who approached his instrument in a manner drastically different from other axe wielders that populate that club. Even the early "greatest hits" as Reilly calls them -- surely with tongue partly in hollow cheek, though they are certainly fan favorites -- at the start of that London show, "Sketch for Summer" and "Jacqueline", weren't designed to be held tight but let free to flutter and float. Without Mercy isn't all that different from what came before in that regard, though it is a longer continuous series of sketches than previously attempted, brought to life with the help of viola provided by John Metcalfe and Blaine L. Reininger, cello by Caroline Lavelle, trumpet by Tim Kellett, and cor anglais by Maunagh (as well as percussionist Bruce Mitchell, the other half of the Durutti Column duo). It would have been more incongruous had Wilson at the time encouraged Reilly to make a dance music album like his labelmates New Order -- though he would eventually come close to doing just that in 1990 with Obey the Time.
What has kept the Durutti Column from ever being mainstream contenders is also what has preserved their artistic relevance. A product of stubborn vision unbeholden to time and trend, the Durutti Column's substantial back catalog is perennially worthy of revisitation and discovery by the next wave. The context this reissue provides, including an armload of bonus songs that flesh out the picture of the band in that era, and two full live performances (the aforementioned London gig, and a concert in Oslo from 1986), gives Without Mercy the credit it deserves, even if its creator wasn't entirely convinced of it at the time. Its sides remain gracefully liquid and dreamlike, a precursor that's still hard to put a finger on.