A MANCHESTER SITUATIONAL Durutti Column (Pt. 1)

Remembering Tony Wilson with Vini Reilly
& Co.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

At the end of the film 24
Hour Party People,
Factory Records boss Tony Wilson receives a visitation from God (who is also Tony Wilson, of course). Their
conversation concludes thus:

 

God: Vini Reilly, by the way, is way overdue a revival. You might think about a Greatest Hits.

Tony Wilson: It’s a good idea.

God: It’s good music to chill out to.

Tony Wilson: Yeah, you’re right.

God: I usually am.

 

Notwithstanding questions about
the film’s relationship to reality (about which more below), it was a nice
moment, symbolically underscoring the importance of one of the Factory family’s
less heralded, oldest members: not only were Reilly’s Durutti Column the first
band Wilson booked to play the Factory club night in 1978, but Reilly was also
the first artist to put pen to paper with Factory Records.

 

In its original context of post-punk Manchester, Reilly’s
work with the Durutti Column was strikingly anomalous. The first two albums, The Return of the Durutti Column (1980)
and LC (1981), established Reilly as
an idiosyncratic guitar stylist fashioning his own genre from such diverse
idioms as folk, jazz, flamenco, classical, rock and the avant-garde. With a
filigree touch, he crafted echoing, prismatic textures that were deeply
evocative and affecting. Tony Wilson adored this music.

 

Wilson was an unflagging champion of Reilly’s work and made
no secret of the fact that the Durutti Column were one of his favorite Factory
acts. As Reilly himself puts it, “The Durutti Column was Tony Wilson’s
baby.” He also served as Reilly’s manager, but their relationship went
well beyond business: Reilly considered him a mentor, a father figure and,
above all, a friend.

 

When Wilson died in 2007 at the age of 57, Reilly felt
unable to participate in the numerous tributes and commemorative events
honoring the public accomplishments and cultural legacy of the man known as
“Mr. Manchester.” Instead, he sought a way to celebrate Wilson that
focused not on that larger-than-life media personality but on the person he
knew as a friend. A perfect opportunity arose when Manchester City Council
approached Reilly and commissioned what would become A Paean to Wilson for the Manchester International Festival.

 

The piece was first performed over three nights in July
2009, with the studio album version released on January
24th of this year (fittingly, that date marked the 32nd anniversary
of the founding of Factory Records). Reilly’s objective with A Paean to Wilson was simply to record a
suite of music that he knew the man himself would have appreciated. This
required an entirely instrumental work: Wilson always gave Reilly complete
artistic control, but he had often urged Reilly — who’s not exactly a gifted
vocalist — to refrain from singing on his records. To that end, in the late
’80s Wilson gave him an Akai sampler so he could incorporate others’ voices
instead.

 

Vini Reilly’s collaborator in the Durutti Column since 1981
has been drummer Bruce Mitchell (a long-established figure on the Manchester
music scene, who is also now Reilly’s manager). BLURT talked to the pair about
their new project dedicated to Wilson’s memory. The conversation highlighted
the close and warm relationship among the three — a
connectedness that stands in surprising contrast to Reilly’s ambivalent
relationship with his own music.

 

Tune in tomorrow for part two of this feature. The A Paean to Wilson album, released by the Kooky U.K. label, is available in the U.S. via Darla Distribution. In addition,
Reilly and Durutti Column pianist Poppy Morgan recently performed a haunting excerpt from
the work on the BBC’s “The Review Show”; it’s viewable at this YouTube link.

 

 

***

 

BLURT: Most of us knew Tony
Wilson only via h
is media persona; how did the Tony Wilson you
knew differ from that?

 

REILLY: He differed
enormously. He was the same only in the sense that he was very confident, but
people mistook that confidence for arrogance. He was always being described as
an arrogant person, but, in truth, he was one of the most humble people I’ve
ever met. He would never consider any task too trivial. For example, I remember
that on rainy, muddy nights he’d be there helping carry equipment for our
rehearsals, and on another occasion he was sweeping the floor after everyone
had gone home. He was different [from that public image] in many ways. He was
also very, very sensitive — extremely sensitive — even though he had a smoke
screen of a persona, which was the only possible way he could function in the
face of some of the hard-core, hard-nosed businessmen that he had to deal with.
And also, some of the musicians were very awkward to deal with, so he developed
this persona, which enabled things to just bounce off him. You know, people
would say the most disparaging things about him, and it would be like water off
a duck’s back. He developed that persona over the years to a point where people
thought that really was him, but he was actually a very generous-natured, warm,
lovely human being. People didn’t really perceive him in that way — and I
don’t think he wanted people to perceive him in that way.

 

MITCHELL:
Yes, that persona was a separate thing, as Vini says. It was a stitch-on piece
of work that he enjoyed — the laddishness of it. Nice and abrasive, we
thought. But it’s the way he had to be, don’t you think? With some of the
musicians he had! But he was always stimulating and interesting. He was ever so
curious and shockingly clever. All the time. You know the Kurosawa film, Rashomon? It’s like the Rashomon effect. I’m one of the
“viewers” that liked him a lot: uncompromisingly. Even though he
could be really badly behaved, I would always support anything that Tony did. I
learnt an enormous amount off him. I’m ten years older than Tony, but I would
very often defer to his judgment rather than mine. So I was a solid fan, without
reservations.

 

Do you both remember meeting Tony Wilson for the first
time?

 

REILLY: The first time I met him
was in 1977 when I was in the Nosebleeds, my imitation punk band. We weren’t
really punks, but not many people were. We played in a place called Wythenshawe, which is the biggest council
estate in Europe — quite a tough area. We played in this big building and Tony
was there among all the rough-and-ready young lads of the neighborhood. He was
very cool and we said hello. He said something about my guitar playing — I
don’t remember what he said, but he’d noticed it. And that was the first time I
met him.

 

MITCHELL: We did things with Tony
before he formed Factory. He was a Granada TV broadcaster, as you know, and I
was with a band [Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias] that he helped promote on his
show, and I knew him before that, going back to around 1972, because we ligged
at the same gigs.

 

How accurate was the portrayal of
him in
24 Hour Party People?

 

REILLY:
The film was complete fiction. You know, many of the things that happened in
that film didn’t really happen. And if they did happen, then they were more
extreme than is described in the film. Also, there are many things that
happened that are not in the film, things which are too outrageous to be put in
the film. It would have made the film X-certificate. Everyone was really right out there, you know. So I think it was
sanitized to a certain extent and made into a semi-humorous thing — which I
suppose it was — but looking back, it was also quite extreme as well. I don’t
think the film was meant to be an accurate representation of what actually
happened. And the Tony Wilson is the smoke-screen Wilson, and that’s all you
get in the film.

 

A Paean to Wilson celebrates Tony Wilson the friend, not the public figure. What were you aiming to convey in the
music?

 

REILLY:
Well, when you start to make a piece of music, you don’t really have specific
aims. It’s not that cerebral. It’s not an intellectual process or anything.
It’s all totally intuitive or instinctive. All I knew was that I wanted to do
an album of music where I didn’t sing, because all the time Tony managed me, he
tried to stop me from singing and wanted me to concentrate on playing music and
writing music. So, if the album had any aim at all, the only aim was to do
instrumental music. That was because when he was very poorly, very ill, I sent
him a demo of an instrumental piece — just something to chill out to, to relax
to — and he was very pleased with that. He liked it; he appreciated it. We had
a running joke of text messages where he would say, “Come and play the
Spanish guitar for me,” and I’d say, “Yeah, OK, when?” and I was
supposed to do it. And then at the end of it all, he’d just put, “But
promise: no singing!” And that carried on right up to the end. It was a
kind of jokey thing, but he did really prefer it when I didn’t sing and just
played. So that was really the only aim of the album: to do instrumental music
and use samples, rather than my own voice. I can’t even hear the album any
more, I can’t bear to listen to it, so I don’t know whether it’s achieved
anything at all. For all of us — me, Bruce and Keir [Stewart, Durutti Column
bassist], who produced the album — it was our
way of paying tribute and celebrating the fact that we knew Tony and that he
was such a fantastic guy to have in your life. He was almost like a father
figure to me. I was also very frightened of him, in the way that you’re a bit
scared of your dad. It was a bit like that with him. [laughs]

 

MITCHELL:
Vini says he was in fear of Wilson — it’s bollocks! They used to have big
knock-down fights! [laughs]

 

You say you can’t bear to listen
to the new album, Vini. Why is that?

 

REILLY:
Well, I can’t bear to listen to any of the albums that I’ve ever done. They all
sound so inept and stupid. And this one’s supposed to mean something, but I
don’t think it captures anything at all. But it’s not as bad as some of the
albums I’ve made.

 

You’ve often said that you don’t
like your own records. You enjoy the process of creating them but once they’re
gone, you’re already moving forward. I think you’ve said elsewhere that 2006’s
Keep Breathing was the only one you’d actually
give a passing grade: what about
Paean to Wilson? What grade does it get?

 

REILLY:
Well, if the pass mark is 45%, I think Keep
Breathing
got that. I think this one maybe gets 50%.

 

This is probably a stupid
question, but was making this particular music at all a therapeutic process?

 

REILLY:
Yeah. That’s part of the way any musician lives their life. Everything that
happens in your life is reflected in the music you write and the music you
play, in one way or another. So, yeah, it was.

 

Your work draws directly from
your experience and often seems intimately connected to friends: many of your
song titles include friends’ names. But even given the fact that your music has
generally been very personal in its inspiration, was this album more difficult
to make than most?

 

REILLY:
No, not really. It was actually very easy to make. We made it in about a week.
What was different about this album was that rather than be my usual
megalomaniacal, egocentric self — doing everything myself and being in charge
— I took a step back, and Bruce and Keir were a lot more involved in this
album. They were very directly involved. I think that has given the music a
wider scope, and it’s a bit more interesting than it would have been had I not
done that.

 

A Paean to Wilson premiered in July 2009 at the Manchester
International Festival. Was it originally conceived simply as a live
performance, with the album coming later?

 

REILLY:
Yeah, it was commissioned by the Manchester City Council. The thing is, when
Tony died everyone was doing something, and Manchester was full of things that
were happening, celebrating his life and so forth. There were many events in
honor of Tony, but I didn’t feel that it was right for me, that it was
appropriate for me to attend them. I’d just lost a friend — one of the best
friends I’ve ever had — and I was very affected by it, and I didn’t feel like
doing anything public about it. It’s a very personal experience when you lose
someone you love; you have to go through a grieving process, obviously, and I
wasn’t ready. But when I was asked to do this commission, the timing was right
and I did feel ready to do something. I wanted to do something that Tony would
like. It’s as simple as that, you know.

 

Were those initial performances
especially emotional experiences?

 

REILLY:
Yeah, we did three nights consecutively in Manchester, and they all meant
something.

 

The album before A Paean to Wilson, 2009’s Love in the Time of Recession, opens with a
track called “In Memory of Anthony,” on which you sing about him. So,
despite his feelings about your voice, did you feel the need for one tribute
song with lyrics?

 

REILLY:
Sort of. But that was a kind of botched attempt, really. It was a failure. It
didn’t achieve anything. So I dismissed that immediately.

 

In what sense do you think it was
a failure?

 

REILLY:
Well, musically and lyrically. You just can’t capture those sorts of emotions
with schoolboy poetry, which is what my lyrics are like.

 

I’ve heard you say that about
your lyrics before. Don’t you think you’re being too harsh on yourself?

 

REILLY:
No, not at all. There’s poetry and there’s nonsense, garbage. I’m not a
lyricist, and I never will be. I’m not good with words. The written word is
difficult for me, and I’m not a natural poet or anything.

 

The album begins with a looped
sample of Tony Wilson asking, “Is this an art form, or are you just a technician?”
That’s a quintessential Wilsonism. What can you tell me about the source of
that sample?

 

REILLY:
That was from one of Tony’s early broadcasts. Bruce had an archive of Tony’s
public appearances and so forth, and that’s from one of Tony’s very early
Granada TV programs. It’s actually an extract from an interview with Martin
Hannett that Tony did. It was an example of Tony’s technique of interviewing
people, because he knew that it was a kind of dumb question when he asked it,
but he didn’t mind asking the dumb questions because he knew they would provoke
a real reaction from the interviewee. And in this case it was Martin, and he
knew that Martin would find that a very funny, crazy question. He knew that
Martin would react in some way and that it would be good television. He knew
what made a good interviewer. That was one of his skills. So that’s why we used
that sample. There’s another Tony sample at the end of the album, on the track “How
Unbelievable,” again sourced by Bruce. It’s from his last public
appearance when he was very poorly, but he still managed to do it. He was
ranting about the divide between the rich and the poor. It really is very Tony.

 

You use several vocal samples on
the record — most memorably, some bits from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going
On” on the tracks “Brother” and “The Truth.” Did you
choose the samples with Tony Wilson in mind? Were they from songs you knew he
liked?

 

REILLY:
No, we just thought they were very musical samples. I always have a collection
of samples that I gather from various strange sources. The Marvin Gaye one was
a very direct lift from the song itself, which is unusual — usually, I find
samples which are a little bit more obscure. Keir, the producer, and myself
found that Marvin’s voice was just so simpatico with the feel of the music. And
also it was in the right key — if you don’t have to mess about with shifting
keys and stuff, it just makes it easier. But it’s very random, really. There’s
no great plan or anything to making these albums. [laughs]

 

On this album you rework some
previously released tracks. “Catos Revisited” returns to “Catos
con Guantes,” and “Duet with Piano” incorporates an element of
“Royal Infirmary.” Was there any specific motivation for doing that?

 

REILLY:
Well, when I recorded the “Royal Infirmary” track the first time
around, it was on Circuses and Bread,
a particularly bad album. And it seemed to me that, from that album, that was
the only riff, the only little piece of sunshine on the album that was worth
remembering. So having dismissed the entire album, it was nice to rescue the
one tiny little chord sequence that I did like. I just thought I didn’t use it
well the first time, so I tried to use it a bit better this time.

 

To be continued.

 

[Pictured above: Tony Wilson (L) and Vini
Reilly
]

 

 

 

 

 

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