Essential Music: The Return of The Durutti Column

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For those who weren’t around or listening to music in 1979, it’s hard to imagine how different the world of “popular” music was. Critics and retailers hadn’t fragmented music into the many genres you see today in stores, and many of today’s genres didn’t even exist. Rap was taking its first steps, ambient and electronic music were considered avant-garde, new age was just budding, and punk and disco were battling it out in the record bins. New wave was just following in the footsteps of punk, as progressive rock was in its final death throes.

Amidst the punk and new-wave music that came out of England, as part of the late-’70s independent music scene, was a now-legendary record label based in Manchester: Factory Records. Its first two groups were Joy Division (which, after the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, morphed into New Order) and The Durutti Column, but Factory released many other records by little-known groups, and the Factory concept, together with other independent labels in the UK, such as Rough Trade, revitalized a moribund music scene.In January 1980, when The Return of the Durutti Column, the first album by The Durutti Column, was released, it was not only a breakthrough record but a surprising sound amidst the angst and anger of the punk years. This 33-minute record, a collection of instrumental songs by Vini Reilly (credited on the album as The Guitarist; Martin Hannet is credited as The Producer, though there are also some bass and drum parts on the record), had such a unique sound that I was instantly smitten, as were thousands of other listeners.

Vini Reilly has one of the most original styles of playing the guitar, with a pulsing, crystalline sound that weaves layers of guitar chords, riffs, and arpeggios throughout his music. On this record, full of overdubbed guitar parts showing off Reilly’s understated virtuosity, Reilly set down the foundation for the music that he would play over the coming decades, but also put a nail in the coffin of punk rock. With a record as brash as this – such mellow, melodic music, confronting the ambience of punk and angst – Vini Reilly forever marked popular music.

Vini Reilly later talked about recording this album. “The idea of doing very personal guitar pieces, pre-1977, would be a joke really; you’d be a big old fart and generally be stale and boring, consigned to the folk/rock thing or whatever. But post-punk, it was something else, it became something other, and so it fits in to a degree with all the other mishmash of strange things that were going on.”?

While The Durutti Column is not very well known, the band quickly developed a cult following. As critic Mark Prendergrast wrote, “The Durutti Column remain very much a mystery. Discs become immediate collectors’ items on release, rare concert appearances are always packed to capacity.” Performing sporadically, The Durutti Column (the group is basically Reilly and whoever he works with on a given album or gig, with the exception of drummer Bruce Mitchell, who has long been a part of The Durutti Column both in the studio and on stage) has regularly released albums over the past 25 years, and is still producing fine, distinctive music for a limited coterie of dedicated fans.

Vini Reilly is a craftsman, often recording his work on small, portable multitrack recording devices, building his songs layer by layer into one-of-a-kind creations. A photo used on the cover of a special album for fans who are members of the Durutti Column Subscription Group shows Vini in a large living room, sitting on the floor, a guitar in his lap, listening to something he’s just recorded on a small recording device. This photo sums up The Durutti Column: one man who writes the music he wants to, plays it his way, and releases it without the music industry getting in the way.

Find out more about The Durutti Column at the Durutti Column web site.

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