Not many artists can be credited with moving between extreme ends of the music spectrum in such a short period of time as Vini Reilly did between the late 70s and Early 80s. Starting his recording career in Manchester at the age of 23 during the height of Punk, he was the guitar player for Ed Banger and The Nosebleeds, a typical fare for its time. Watch an early video of that band with Reilly, nothing in that performance hints towards the direction Vini Reilly took in the early 1980s, culminating with the ambitious and hard to classify masterpiece Without Mercy in 1984.
Reilly became disillusioned with Punk pretty quick. It took him less than a year to understand that as much as the genre was portrayed as rebellious, anti-establishment and breaking all the rules, at the end of the day it was just another commercial vehicle for record labels to sell records to disenchanted youth. The problem was compounded if you were a gifted musician aspiring to hone your skills at playing an instrument, composing and arranging music. The genre simply did not offer you a satisfying outlet in these areas. Vini Reilly quit the scene and worked hard on his guitar and started to develop a unique sound, one that is instantly recognized as his own.
In 1978 Reilly started a fruitful relationship with Factory Records, the label TV presenter Tony Wilson founded that year. Wilson assembled a number of musicians under the band name Durutti Column and they became the label’s first signing. The band took its name after Buenaventura Durruti, who led a group of armed anarchists known as the Durruti Column in the Spanish civil war. Wilson may not have noticed the spelling mistake.
After a number of band lineup changes, Rilley found himself as a solo artist under the band’s moniker and recorded the debut album, The Return of the Durutti Column, which included the great opener Sketch of Summer. You can clearly hear his distinct guitar sound and his use of the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, a delay and reverb effect box that was used by many artists such as Genesis, Radiohead and Portishead.
No less important to the sound of Durutti Column and all other artists on the Factory label including Joy Division, was producer Martin Hannett. Hannett was a studio wiz who aspired to use the equipment available in the late 70s early 80s to create what is equivalent to Phil Spector’s sound of the early 60s. His use of delay, reverb and other recording techniques is legendary and the atmosphere created in Joy Division’s recorded music has as much to do with his work as the band’s performance. In contrast, realizing the delicate nature of the Durutti Column albums and the need for minimalism, he used these effects just at the right amount.
After a few more records, including the wonderful LC from 1981 with The Missing Boy, Reilly’s homage to Ian Curtis who committed suicide the year before, came a change in direction in 1984 with Reilly writing long-form compositions inspired by modern classical music. The change was encouraged by Tony Wilson, who gave his artists complete artistic freedom. The Durutti Column were his favorite band on the label, and he wanted them to go one notch up in respectability. The resulting record, Without Mercy, is my favorite album in their catalog.
The album title was inspired by John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci (The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy). Reilly assembled an eclectic group of musicians for this record: Himself on guitar, bass guitar, piano and drum machine programming, Bruce Mitchell who usually played drums with the band added drum machines and congas, Caroline Lavelle on Cello, Maunagh Fleming on English Horn and Oboe, Blaine Reininger from Tuxedomoon on Viola, Mervyn Fletcher on Saxophone, Richard Henry who played with Carla Bley and on Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now on Trombone and Tim Kellett on Trumpet.
Without Mercy was arranged by Violist John Metcalfe, who later played a part in forming the Factory classical label which specialized in modern classical music repertoire including compositions by Shostakovich, Ligeti, Satie and Britten. The label also served as a vehicle for Metcalfe’s Duke Quartet, the ensemble he founded for playing contemporary music.
Without Mercy has two parts, each was originally a length of an LP side. Both pieces have recurring motifs. There is a fantastic mid-80s video of the ensemble playing the second part, however for me the first side is the one that stands out. The simple piano intro, the oboe, the unmistakable guitar and the orchestration that follows as the piece develops. Vini Reilly dismissed the album later: “Without Mercy is a joke. That album’s terrible. It was all Tony Wilson’s idea to make it more classical. He had aspirations that I should be taken seriously. That never interested me. Is it Avant-Garde? Is it Jazz? Its just tunes, innit? Daft tunes.” So here is one of the best daft tunes ever performed, Without Mercy part 1:
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It’s funny how Reilly doesn’t think so much of the album now, but it makes sense. He’s always looking forward and taking only the pieces of the past that he likes most. Which means, of course, that we still hear the stems of Without Mercy sprinkled throughout his discography, from Domo Arigato onward.
Good point. He may have been more dissatisfied with how the album was marketed and positioned than the actual music that was created and recorded. Logistically it is much more ambitious to stage that music than a small group or a duo, which is likely why it has not been performed much.
I imagine that Vini really enjoys many of the pieces of Without Mercy, but perhaps not the grand, ostentatious presentation on the album itself. He tends to favor more low-key releases, so maybe this one stands out as something a bit too pretentious for his tastes. Regardless, it’s one of my favorites too.
Vini has a long history of dismissing his own work, usually within a few months of it coming out and usually when he’s working on a new album which he’s excited about. Maybe it’s his way of deflecting praise and getting called a genius.
I think you’re right. His restlessness is a big part of what makes him great.
Great album. Also need to mention the “Say what you mean, mean what you say” EP