The Durutti Column – ‘Without Mercy’ (Factory Records, 1984/Factory Benelux, 2018)

I am never far away from this record. And this record, never far away from me. Though we met for the first time as far back as 1984, there is a finite, gossamer thread between the two of us, which over the years, over the decades, tangled but never once broke. In that respect, its title may well seem apt – in thirty six years, it has never allowed me to stray, it has never allowed me to forget who I was when we first met.

Given that, it’s always been difficult for me to comprehend why its protagonist and composer, Vini Reilly, considers it “self-indulgent rubbish.”

But all our records are shit, really. Unlistenable shit.” – Vini Reilly in Mick Middles’ FACTORY – The Story Of The Record Label (Virgin Books, 1996)

A teenager in 1984, I was already up to my waist in music – invariably that emanating from those most trusted of houses : Factory, Cherry Red, Rough Trade, 4AD, Creation, Mute. Friday mornings, myself and three or four other like-minded wastrels would invariably skip Sociology to fumble through the racks of the only record shop in Heanor town, one which only opened on a Friday. Here, if we were lucky, we’d pick up the latest Smiths’ 7″ (back then, they seemed to arrive at least monthly). There was also the odd Cocteau Twins or Wolfgang Press 12″ but it was New Order and Joy Division who were informing our style – the Factory-issue short back and sides, grey raincoats, oddly, taken up to the knee. ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ and later, ‘Lowlife,’ were the soundtracks to our misspent youths roaring through grim Derbyshire towns, crammed into a glamourless blue Mini whose tape deck was prone to bellowing smoke after hours and hours of ripped John Peel radio shows. It went without saying that anything on Factory must be investigated, were it to possess even a modicum of Order.

‘Without Mercy’ was born out of Vini Reilly and Factory Records’ founder, Tony Wilson’s mutual disappointment with The Durutti Column’s water-treading previous album, ‘Another Setting’ (1983). Wilson, refusing to release an equally lacklustre follow-up, ‘Short Stories For Pauline,’ (it was finally issued on LTM Recordings in 2011) suggested Reilly change tack.

“Tony had just come in for a conversation one day and said, ‘Look, you keep making these albums that you want to make and I’m quite happy with you doing that but just give me this one album and do it my way.’ He wanted it to have a narrative determined by a Keats poem, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (‘The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy’), which he said was the poet’s version of a pop song: boy meets girl, falls in love with girl, loses girl, blah blah blah. It was a very, very Tony way of looking at it. He had aspirations that I should be taken seriously.” – Vini Reilly

The (serious) outcome, recorded at Strawberry Studio in Stockport and mixed at Britannia Row in London, was a modern classical piece in 19 stanzas, built around a delicate, though ever-blossoming piano refrain. Viola, cello and cor anglais gracefully entwine, occasionally stepping forward, individually, for a few moments in the limelight, before retreating back into the shadows. Reilly’s trademark, melancholy, cascading electric guitar acts as both a bridge and a counterpoint between the neoclassical and rock domains. Tim Kellett’s trumpet does a wonderful job of evoking long lost (perhaps Spanish?) childhoods – in fact, the whole tone here, at least to me, is of loss, nostalgia.

It’s not until a good nine minutes in that Bruce Mitchell enters the room with his characteristic, spare percussion, merely punctuation. So many other drummers would be tempted to lay down a backbeat but at least for the initial stanzas, courtesy is the order of the day and Mitchell is an absolute master of understatement. Even the DMX drum machine that slides in on the fourth stanza, barely breaks the surface, slow, steady, minimal. But wait! A drum machine in a modern classical piece? Only on Factory Records. And it’s the way the electrics work among the reeds and the strings and the ivory that really fascinates here. I’ve never, to this day, heard anything so wrong be so right.

By the 5th stanza, things have become somewhat woozy. That delicate piano refrain of Reilly’s sounds somewhat drunken, the strings vertiginous. The drum-machine, stuttering, studiously avoiding the 4/4, suddenly pins the piece down and although decorum is held, you get the sense that someone will tip over the (glass) table at any moment. To these ears, this 5th stanza, referred to as ‘Without Mercy 2’ on the Factory Benelux 2018 re-issue, has always been the circus mirror reflection of the previous stanzas.

After a moment of solo drum-machine, Mitchell suddenly comes to life, adding more urgent percussion. Kellett ups his pulse, there’s a flourish of (god forbid) congas, the strings adopt a deeper, rawer tone, a groove sets it before once again, the DMX takes centre stage, clattering, shuffling, a fury of electronic claps and thumps. It was the first time I’d heard a drum-machine used this way, as not just a backbeat but an unpredictable soloist in its own right.

For all its “self-indulgent rubbish,” Reilly certainly did his best to promote the record. I recall this wonderful, abridged performance of it on the Jools Holland/Paula Yates-compered The Tube tv show at some point in the mid-80’s but its perhaps best encapsulated on ‘Domo Arigato,’ an absolutely beautifully filmed and recorded concert at the Gotanda Kanihoken Hall in Tokyo on April 25th 1985.

In 1985, Factory released ‘Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say,’ a splendid EP of synchronous Durutti recordings, in another fine 8vo sleeve, perfectly echoing its mothership. Here, however, Reilly has clearly taken back the reins from Wilson, most evidently on ‘Silence’ and ‘The Room,’ where space is cleared for his voice, ever-melancholy and flashless. Wilson famously wished Reilly wouldn’t sing but for me, it’s here that you get a real sense of the soul behind the music, the isle of genius.

You said you’d always be there to hold on to me

I gave my body over to you

I thought by your silence, your love would grow

But I’ve heard your broken words and the distance they show

You don’t say what you mean, you don’t mean what you say

It’s unjust for any discussion about ‘Without Mercy’ not to mention 8vo’s wonderful sleeve design. A delicate Matisse print, adhered along a single edge to a recycled grey card sleeve, on which the letters of the band’s name and album title defy all reasonable capitalisation. As with the music, the sleeve suggests a juxtaposition of two elements – the classical and the contemporary.

The Matisse image ‘Trivaux Pond’ was given to us by Tony Wilson. The date of the painting drove the design. The ‘tipped on’ image harked back to how images were produced in books of the period. The letterpress printing and choice of the Fournier typeface again from the period. The letter spacing borrowed from the published works of Apollinaire, in particular ‘il pleut’ (“it’s raining”) – Mark Holt, co-founder 8vo

Tony Wilson’s classical ambitions didn’t stop with ‘Without Mercy.’ In 1989, he started a new imprint, Factory Classical, as an attempt to “wrest the reins of classical music away from middle-class wankers in dinner suits.” Though shortlived (I suspect that for most Happy Mondays fans, the Kreisler String Orchestra were just a step too far from the dancefloor), you have to admire his chutzpah. On my birthday, in 1990, I clearly recall attending Factory’s ‘Classics In Motion’ night (FAC 318) at the New Order-bankrolled Hacienda nightclub in Manchester and although undoubtedly impressive a composer the headliner, Steve Martland was, most in attendance were there for The Durutti Column; Vini, shoeless, cross-legged on the floor, lost in his chiming requiems.

So, post-‘Without Mercy,’ did people take The Durutti Column more seriously? Undoubtedly. Wilson’s experiment led Reilly out of a mire and toward the sweet meadows of several subsequent albums, ‘Circuses & Bread,’ ‘The Guitar And Other Machines’ and the eponymous, ‘Vini Reilly’ – all of which I’d consider peak-Durutti and all of which borrow from a neoclassical palette. Beyond those, I feel that again, the way is somewhat lost (more on this elsewhere, later) but despite Reilly’s protestations, ‘Without Mercy’ is a work not only to be proud of but one of the most fascinating and endearing records of the 1980s.

Footnote :

Vini Reilly quote from sleeve notes of Factory Benelux vinyl re-issue (FBN84).

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