No, I drift. Mostly I drift.
Our guiding image could be the Durruti Column, moving from town to village, liquidating the bourgeois elements and leaving the workers to see to their own self-organisation. - Raoul Vaneigem
I can still scarcely credit it, but a film that tells a version of the Factory Records story is currently in production. Its director is Michael Winterbottom, whose admirably eclectic range of films include Jude, Welcome To Sarajevo, and Wonderland, which painted the most sympathetic and engaging picture of the capital since Patrick Keiller's London. The plot, such as it may be, will revolve around inept visionary, Granada TV presenter and Factory founder Anthony H. Wilson, he, of course, being the thread that links Joy Division to the Happy Mondays. Despite Paul Morley's recent piece in the Guardian (23/2/01), in which he offers his broad support for the enterprise from the perspective of an eye witness to the early days of Factory, I still find it hard to believe that any good will come of the film. In an obvious and crass bow to its backers it's to be called 24 hour party people, while Tony Wilson will be played by Steve Coogan, whose Alan Partridge character was in some small measure influenced by time the comedian spent working for Mr Wilson. While he may be able to put across Tony as television personality, Coogan will surely struggle to portray Wilson as passionate provocateur. Tony Wilson himself claims to be embarrassed by the idea of the film, but he is certainly a subscriber to the view that all publicity is good publicity, and knows that here he has had a chance to influence the versions of events which are hardened into history. Need I mention Malcolm McLaren?
Inevitably the film is going to highlight Ian Curtis' suicide (one reason why the title is so inappropriate) and the madcap antics of Shaun Ryder and Bez. In doing so it will reinforce the myths surrounding their respective groups at the expense of lesser known characters whose music has been equally influential. On the other hand, it may draw some young novitiates into the ranks of full-time Factory obsessives, and they will hopefully soon be keen to explore beyond the immediately visible terrain of the New Order back catalogue. And surely A Certain Ratio will sneak onto the soundtrack, and who knows? following his portrayal, the name and music of Vini Reilly - my favourite Factory character - may become much better known.
It would be carping to say that Vini has never really had his dues. Under the guise of the Durutti Column, he has been an ever-present throughout Factory's history. Named after anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, whose fearlessness in the Spanish Civil War was resurrected for a situationist comic strip in 1966, the Durutti Column will always be listened to in a way that other equally talented pop originators on less significant record labels cannot take for granted. There are those - and I confess I am one - so obsessed with Factory that they'll probably give any children they have a FAC catalogue number for a middle name, and, should they be the pet-loving kind, almost certainly own a menagerie that includes Hooky the guinea pig, Tony France the tortoise, and Bez the goat. But outside of this circle of FACheads, Vini isn't so well known that the curious know where to start. Not surprising, with a dozen studio and a couple of live recordings, as well as several compilations and numerous European label releases, to choose from.
The curious could do worse than start at the very beginning. The return of the Durutti Column was an astonishing debut, and not just for the sandpaper cover chafing away at the records with which it was forced to share a rack. Bear in mind what else was going on in the world of pop around about the time it was recorded in spring 1979. The Fall were rumbling through Live at the Witch Trials, the Jam had reached 'Strange town' in their series of singles, Gary Numan was busy setting electronic music back ten years with 'Are 'friends' electric', and Art Garfunkel was doing the cause of rabbits serious harm with 'Bright eyes'.
Vini was evidently from another planet, one in the outer reaches of the solar system: Manchester. As was producer Martin Hannett, initially more interested in tinkering with synthesisers than recording Vini. Yet the album was finished in three days. 'Sketch for summer' was knocked out in five minutes, the effortlessly beautiful melody prompted by some synthesised bird noise Martin concocted. Recorded on the second play through, it still sounds as fresh as the breeze, Vini picking out the melody on his Les Paul then jarring against it, while underneath the birds twitter and Martin's programmed beats roll along like the speeded-up ticking of a grandfather clock. The rest of the album is similarly impressionistic; the 'sketches' often seem unfinished and certainly unpolished, but the distinctiveness of Vini's fingering shines through. Perhaps it was the combination of early influences that made it come out that way. His dad would play Fats Waller on the piano, and his brother had a record of Brazilian guitar music which fascinated Vini. Add to this serious ill health, a classical orientation derived from piano lessons with a professor at the Royal Northern College of Music, and the experience of punk gained from playing in Ed Banger & the Nosebleeds, not to mention watching Warsaw turn into Joy Division, and you can see how the Durutti Column sound emerged. Honey wrapped in sandpaper.
With the appearance of the second album, LC, there could be no doubt that here was someone extracting original sounds from a guitar. 'Waller's gifts were to employ complex chords in accessible melodies, and that's my aim too,' Vini once said. LC contains a succession of gloriously sad chains of echoing melody, which he four-tracked in five hours and recorded with Bruce Mitchell on drums in two hours of studio time. Like Django Reinhardt, Robert Johnson, or Grant Green, it couldn't be anyone else. Vini's playing never sounds like that of a muso. There's always a sense of pupose, a motivating idea or emotion. It's not fancy or flourishing for the sake of it. Whatever it is that generates music, the heart, the head, the space between, it's in direct contact with Vini's fingers, and between those fingers and the strings of his guitar, the flow continues unimpeded.
Besides being the greatest living guitar player, Vini has another talent up his sleeve, namely being the greatest living ineffectual singer, ably demonstrated on his third LP, Another setting. Tony Wilson has apparently spent the last twenty years imploring Vini to cease and desist from opening his mouth, and Vini in turn has spent twenty years ignoring him, feeling honour-bound to voice what's on his mind, albeit without really trying. Few and far between, these elegaic pronouncements are quite telling, and don't in any way ruin the mood, more enhance it.
Each album since then has seen some kind of innovation or forward movement. Without mercy was a brave and considered attempt at chamber music, with the title track split over two sides of vinyl. It didn't quite come off - individual passages were fine, but the joins between them were roughly constructed - but it did lead eventually to Factory setting up its classical wing, and perhaps it also sowed a seed in the minds of a member or two of Louisville's Rachel's collective, whose four albums have been a convincing fusion of classical approach and Factory-esque sensibility.
With The guitar and other machines, Vini took advantage of sequencers for the first time; on Vini Reilly it was samplers, enabling him to drop little dabs of operatic passion into the mix. Between these two albums he contributed to Morrissey's first post-Smiths outing, Viva hate, though the idiosyncracies of his playing were toned down the better to serve his master's voice. But it came through occasionally, and in fact the first we heard of the solo Moz was the electric crackling of Vini's guitar on the intro to 'Suedehead'.
Vini began the '90s with the perfectly titled Obey the time, so making his own small contribution to the house revolution. Of course, it wasn't really house at all, just Vini looping the guitar and other machines to his heart's content.
His albums for Factory to this point were all reissued in the late '90s, and these are still widely available. The packaging hides the light of the orginal sleeve art under a bushel - an out-of-focus glimpse is all that's offered, and you also have to contend with Anthony H.'s batty sleeve notes (those for Another setting are positively offensive), but otherwise the whole enterprise has been lovingly undertaken. For all his faults, there's no denying Tony has consistently championed Vini over the course of twenty years.
What of the Durutti Column live experience? Vini's advice is don't bother. In 1985, puzzled as to why anyone would want to watch the Duruttis play, he said, 'I just can't see why they don't get bored stiff. I know I would. We are completely self-indulgent, really. No compromise.' In November 1994, at the Royal Festival Hall, it was almost as though Vini wasn't there, his head bowed and hidden beneath his hair as he wove dream sounds out of his guitar. Peter Hook's, however, was a concrete presence, with his habitually low-slung bass and his motorcycle booted persona seemingly at odds with Vini's, but a mate, an admirer, and so it was somehow fitting that he should be there. Long time Columnist Bruce Mitchell also seemed at odds with the thin man up front, too clattery a drummer to fit with Vini's precise evocations of the spaces in his mind, but actually providing him with a structure. If Vini is a kite, then Bruce is the man standing on the ground letting him out and reeling him in.
Vini's material in the '90s has seen him slow down in terms of innovation, but consolidate in terms of quality. He's using a wider range of voices than ever before, Sex and Death featuring three, alongside fado samples, heavier instrumentation and a walk-on role from Hooky. There is also a song called 'Blue period', which probably means Vini has finally emerged from his.
On his most recent album, Time was GIGANTIC... when we were kids there are tablas, and a noticeably brighter outlook. Scarily Vini actually tries shaping the notes while singing, perhaps trying to compete with the equally angelic Eley Rudge, who also appeared on the 1996 album for Crepuscule, Fidelity. Her ability to hold a meldody as intricate as his guitar lines makes for one of Vini's most successful collaborations. More collaborating is promised on an album to be released later this year, but whoever's on board, they will simply be helping to explore the internal landscape of a man who, save for brief stints as a gardener and a petrol pump attendant, has never done a traditional day's work in his life, and spends much of his spare time in Manchester's bars and coffee shops. A drifter, but one with a certain routine: at the Atlas Bar, where he breakfasts, he has his own button on their itemised till.
If you're ever in Manchester, try asking for the Vini Breakfast, and see what you get.
Daniel Williams, 2001
(This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in Papercuts magazine issue 4.)
For more on the Durutti Column, go to: http://www.ultranet.com/~rps/durutti-column
Top 10 Vini moments
1. For Belgian Friends (LC reisssue) Donald Johnson on drums, and Vini on top melodic form. He must have been very fond of the Belgians in question. Pure chips with mayonnaise.