Friday, May 25, 2018

Albums of Influence: The Guitar and Other Machines by The Durutti Column

What does it mean for an album to be "influential"? I have explored various aspects of this in previous entries in this series, but I am still not sure I have a good definition. Is it enough to really like an album? Does it have to be something you listened to many times, or just one time, but it made some kind of impression? Should it be an album that is canonical or otherwise notable? How about an album that is one of many that embody quality for you, quality of lyrics, melodies, songs, attitude, or some kind of "total artistic statement"? Maybe it merely changed the parameters of "music you like". Or maybe it changed how you create music, how you write, record, and perform.

I have been trying to write about albums that I can point to as a variety of the above, without too much repetition. Today's album may not be the most of any individual one of those points, but rather embodies many of them simultaneously.

In the Fall of 1987, I was a freshman at college. I joined the radio station (an NBC affiliate!), partially just to get access to their enormous music library, and partially to meet fellow music-lovers. I earned my FCC license to broadcast and started DJing my own show, where I could share all the new music I had discovered with the zero people listening.

Radio stations get sent a lot of free records. Not all of them get played. When I was there, our FM station was more or less a classic rock broadcaster. The AM station is where alternative and classical lived. Even "alternative" had more than they could play, and the program director for the station (Brian Davis) would let us take stuff that was not going to get into regular rotation. Maybe we would like it and play it on our own. If nobody took them, periodically they would just get thrown out. There was a lot of bad music.

Flipping through the pile one day, this new album jumped out at me. The title and design were striking. I took it back to my dorm, and dropped the needle.

The record starts somewhat misleadingly, with "Arpeggiator". A drum machine thunders, cycling through tom-toms. The handclap explodes. A viola dives in as synthesizers burble, and Vini Reilly busts out an overdriven guitar lead. It is dramatic and big, and without words.

But the subsequent tracks are different. The rest of side 1 gets much quieter, and is filled with soft, breathy vocals, some by women. The tracks have electronic pulses, some with a drum machine (which might skip or shuffle or boom), and some just with a synthesizer. Electric bass (which may be a sample) ping-pongs around.

This doesn't sound like the sort of record I would like. It's not big pop songs, it's not mopey or gothy or heavy. It is...pretty. Beautiful. I start to think I might like it as "Jongleur Grey", the 4th track, plays. Side 1 closes with an acoustic guitar piece cryptically named "U.S.P."

I am intrigued. I flip the record over and start side two. First track "Bordeaux Sequence" lives up to its name, with a delicate synthesizer part backing up a woman lamenting:

In France you are sleeping
I wish I could see you
It's always this way
Love sent from Bordeaux
I try to say something
The words, they grow fainter
And you're slipping away
Love sent from Bordeaux

I find it touching, and I think about a woman I care about, thousands of miles away.

The rest of side two is instrumental and just as beautiful and heartbreaking. Clean guitars played in a distinctive plucked style, layered with synthesizers which pulse and drift. By the end of the record, I know I like it. This is confirmed over the next few years.

Not long after this, as I think about the title and the record, I realize that I want to learn to play the guitar. Maybe to make a record like this, but also because I love the sound of the guitar on this and other records I own. Before the end of the year, I'll have my first Fender Stratocaster, with a whammy bar similar to the one on this album cover.

A year later, I'll do my own bad imitation of the drumbeat that starts the record for the first track on the first EP by my cowboy band The Coyotes.

I find myself listening to it more as the years pass, and marveling at how the guitars and electronics fit together so well, to make something so lovely. A stark contrast to how everyone else seems to want to make everything louder and heavier and darker. "The Guitar and Other Machines" teaches me that it is OK to make "pretty" music.

I will occasionally try to play my guitar like Vini Reilly. I will fail repeatedly. I remind myself to practice more. I wish I could make music this pretty, even if I cannot play guitar this well.

Vini Reilly is the driving force and the only real "member" of the Durutti Column, in much the same way that Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails. Durutti Column was the first band signed to the notable label Factory Records. Brian Eno called Durutti Column's album "LC" his favorite record of all time. Noted guitar player John Frusciante said Vini Reilly is the best guitarist in the world.

Durutti Column has made many records. I have heard most of them. There are some that approach what I consider to be the perfection of this record, but there's something perfect about this one. In 2010, Vini Reilly had a minor stroke and lost some of his ability to play.

"The Guitar and Other Machines" is not as weird as some of the albums I love, but it is unusual. It is not quite rock, new wave, jazz, ambient, or new age, but also all of those things. It's sort of 4AD-ish (for those who know what that means), but full of light rather than the usual dark gray of those albums. It's not all songs or all instrumentals. It's electronic, but living and breathing, not a cyborg.

I still listen to this record, and it is still one of my favorites. In writing this piece, I found out it was just reissued in a deluxe, expanded edition in January of this year. Ordered!

"The Guitar and Other Machines" by Durutti Column can be purchased at iTunes and is available to stream on all major music services, including Spotify.


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