The Guardian’s Dave Simpson meets and celebrates an unsung hero of Manchester music – light and sound engineer and Vini’s loyal drummer, Bruce Mitchell.
Not so long ago the Factory fan behind The construction in hand moved to Amsterdam. He has cunningly used this relocation to perform the conceptual act of writing about the entire Factory Benelux catalogue from within the ‘Ne’ of Benelux. While eating space cake and drinking Westmalle. The three-part result is unusual for a sustained piece of music criticism in that even as it imparts notes on the cultural education that can be achieved by paying close attention to sleeves, inspirations and lyrics, it is also very funny. Though the comedy is probably enhanced if you happen to be a Factory nut too.
The excellent Memory lapses are also well worth reading.
I’ve been trying to convince myself that this Durutti Column classic qualifies as a B side, having written it for Backed with thinking that it was, but on checking the discographies, I’ve been forced to admit that it cannot be, for the A Factory quartet from which it comes is not in fact FAC 24 but FACT 24; the extra ‘T’ was given to LPs. Fackin’ hell. But hey, this means I can publish it here and still have the pick of other bona fide Durutti B sides – ‘All that love and maths can do’ perhaps, or ‘Gatos con guantes’, or maybe even ‘Danny’…
Durutti Column – For Belgian friends
From A Factory quartet, Factory, 1980
If I had a radio show, and if that radio show were allowed the luxury of a signature tune à la Peel and ‘Pickin’ the blues’ by Grinderswitch, then ‘For Belgian friends’ would be one of three contenders (the others being ‘Christopher’, an instrumental by the Claim from their Boomy Tella LP, and ‘Jamaican rum rhumba’ by the Clientele). But I would probably disqualify it from the race early. Not so long ago I read that Aidan Moffat formerly of Arab Strap played a favourite piece of instrumental music – ‘Sleep walk’ by Santo & Johnny – only rarely, for fear of getting bored with it. That’s how I feel about ‘Belgian friends’. I can scroll it through my head anytime, picking out the melody on the, er, piano of my mind. To play it regularly at the head of a radio show would turn it into an ordinary every day thing; what is special about it would leach away. So I take it out of its box only occasionally.
Music poured out of Vini – still does – so how it came to be decided that a completed piece was A, B, LP or compilation track, offcut or farmed out to the Benelux imprint or Les Disques du Crépuscule always seemed random to me. Most likely it was simply what was recorded together was released together. It’s all essentially Vini and a guitar or a keyboard, irregularly his voice or the voices of others, and it all flows from the same source regardless. You could sit and listen to Vini improvise and recollect all day and not get bored, for all that he has modestly admitted that he thinks that you would. An atypical Mancunian in that respect.
Recorded between The return of the Durutti Column and LC (on which it now appears as a related work), ‘For Belgian friends’ is atypical Durutti Column because it features Donald Johnson on drums rather than a machine or Bruce Mitchell. It’s not Donald Johnson as we came to know and love him in A Certain Ratio, although there is a suggestion of funky choppiness as the music heads into what with a proper and willing singer on board might well have been a chorus. He contains himself, provides the necessary rhythm for Vini’s trills and frills, but the very act of containment proved that a long-term relationship between the two was not possible. The studio wasn’t big enough for both of them.
The piece is also unusual for being more formally arranged than most early Durutti Column, when Vini had a tendency to start and stop for no apparent reason. This flows, builds, and drains away. I cannot overstate its loveliness. It has a Christmas feel – all the festive season’s extra electric light contrasting with the crispness of December nights – but because it’s also languid, fluid, essentially at one with the world, it survives an outing in August. Whether the rain falls or the sun shines, it works, sounding like both, adapting to its surroundings like a chameleon, and as oddly unique and magical as that lizard.
- Listen to ‘For Belgian friends’ over at Backed with
- No, I drift. Mostly I drift. (On Vini Reilly and the Durutti Column, Tangents, 2001)
As ever with Momus, the plot is a woman, but you also get his take on Tony Wilson:
‘It infuriates me when people say (as some have, even on the day he died) that Tony was a bad businessman. He was an amazing – and influential – businessman. Or should we say “anti-businessman”? His contract was a verbal one based on trust. He split profits with the band 50/50. I didn’t sign to Factory in 1982, but in 1986 I signed to Creation and Alan McGee was operating the same deal with his artists, directly inspired by Tony Wilson. No paper contract, a handshake deal, 50/50 profit split. I recorded cheaply, and made profits almost immediately. True to our deal, Creation split them. All my Creation releases made profits. It was enough for me to live on. I signed off the dole in 1989. Thanks, Tony!’
‘Hey everyone have you worked it out?
Who do you think we’re talking about?
If you know him, you love him no doubt
He goes on and on, and yet he says nowt
And he’s so proud of the club
But it’s just a glorified pub ha ha ha
Because he’s condescending and he’s running a joke shop…’
– ‘Joke shop’ by the Wake
One of Caesar’s finest moments, ‘Joke shop’ comes from the Wake’s Make it loud mini-LP, released by Sarah Records in 1991. The irony of it appearing on the record label that took elements of the Factory approach and aesthetic further than anyone else should be noted. The song encapsulates an alternative view of the experience of being Factory Records recording artistes, one that might also be shared by the Stockholm Monsters and Section 25. ‘Joke shop’ goes on to gripe that ‘when he released our four track EP it could not be found in the Megastore’. History will be kinder to these groups precisely because of their Factory attachment, and we can’t have it both ways – Tony Wilson’s belief in music above business gave us so much in the way of inspiration; there were always going to be casualties. I like to think that Tony would have enjoyed the bilious humour of ‘Joke shop’ if he ever heard it.
The latest Durutti Column album Idiot savants might have been named with Tony in mind, or several of the musicians he worked with. Its song titles – ‘Interleukin’, ‘For Anthony’, ‘Please let me sleep’, and ‘Gathering dust’ – suggest that Tony’s illness has cast a pall over Vini’s year. Themes of elegy and lament also suffused Someone else’s party; much of Vini’s music, really, though he rallied for last year’s Keep breathing.
An earlier ‘Anthony’ can be found on the Sex and death album, released on the short-lived second incarnation of Factory (Factory Too) in 1994. It’s unusual in having a trumpet (or trumpet sound) played against a typically shimmering Vini guitar solo, giving it more of the air of lift music than most Durutti portraits in sound. But it catches both the beauty and brevity of a life, and suggests that beyond the bluster and the myth-making, Vini had a true friend in Anthony H. Wilson.