Unsung heroes: Vini Reilly

Music and Art

If the name ‘Vini Reilly’ rings any kind of bell in your mind, chances are you’re thinking of the iconic closing scene of cult movie 24 Hour Party People. Factory Records’ Tony Wilson, played hilariously by Steve Coogan, is confronted by a drug-induced vision of God himself (who, in turn, looks suspiciously like Tony Wilson). The spectral hallucination’s parting advice is for him to “get in touch with Vini Reilly; he’s well due a revival. Maybe even a Greatest Hits”. Indeed, even though Factory’s heyday has long since passed, and Wilson himself is no longer with us, this advice still remains true.

Before Joy Division, before New Order, and before the Happy Mondays, Factory Records’ first signing in 1979 was the Durutti Column, fronted by an enigmatic, compelling figure wielding a ghostly, ethereal voice and the guitar skills of a virtuoso. Particularly as an instrumentalist, the tacit shadow he would cast over the ensuing Madchester movement would be enormous; the sparse, intricate beauty of his guitar arrangements would contrast sharply with the meat-and-potatoes punk rock of yesteryear. In Vini Reilly’s guitar parts reside the quintessence of that amorphous genre known as post-punk.

Ask most people to name the greatest guitarist of 1980s Britain, and most would say Johnny Marr. Though it’s fair to say that the distinctive, chirping riffs of the Smiths defined the 80s, it’s equally fair to say that, without Vini Reilly and the Durutti Column, the Smiths, and indeed post-punk itself, would have been radically different entities. We need only look at their 1980 debut The Return of The Durutti Column to see the musical map by which the Smiths traced their path. As if we need further convincing of the respect Reilly commanded, and still commands, amongst his peers, we need only look to Morrissey’s 1998 solo debut Viva Hate, the solo work considered to be the closest to the Smiths in its quality; arranged, played and given its Smiths-esque timbre by Reilly, in a style he himself developed.

There are few musicians whose talent and influence are so at odds with their lack of widespread recognition; while the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante describes him as “the greatest guitarist in the world”, Reilly himself describes his own greatest work as “s**t”. Perhaps we should take God/Coogan at his word and grant him the recognition an innovator of his status deserves.