Day 434 - Del Amitri: You Can't Go Back
Iconic Scottish band del Amitri release their brand new album, Fatal Mistakes tomorrow. You Can't Go Back, the most recent single from the record, is a brilliant example of the classic Dels sound and its tongue-in-cheek video sees the guys very much in Jack-and-Victor mode.
Del Amitri play Perth Concert Hall on Thu 14th October and you can book tickets here.
So, what is del Amitri? Some songs and some noises and some stories.
The noises began many years ago born of the youthful exuberance, and sexual frustration of Justin Currie, James Scobbie, Donald Bentley, and Paul Tyagi. After recording one flexi-disc and playing some concerts Donald Bentley and James Scobbie began to perceive that there might be better ways for them to exorcise their dissatisfaction with existence (through architecture and clinical audiology respectively). But similarly afflicted individuals were soon found to replace them and make similar plangent sounds with guitars and so the spirit grew.
Now with Iain Harvie and Bryan Tolland at its service del Amitri made two songs and engraved them on to 1000 seven inch vinyl discs. One of these songs, Sense Sickness, was broadcast to the people of Albion, nay, the world at large by the once venerable (lately slightly sullied) John Peel who subsequently invited del Amitri to record four more songs for the British Broadcasting Corporation to be similarly broadcast to the nation. This brought del Amitri to the attention of a commercial company (only peripherally connected to the military-industrial complex) that was designed to make money from songs on vinyl discs.
The godlike Hugh Jones was engaged to unravel the tangled creative knot that was del Amitri in 1984 and from the threads he wove an intricate tapestry of twanged strings, layered voices and banged drums that became the ten songs of the eponymous 1985 debut album. At a time when people in their millions were buying records of songs by Spandau Ballet and Wham!, del Amitri, though arrogantly convinced of its own genius, remained obscure and misunderstood except in a very few specific locations; the Marquee Club inLondon, Portugal, and scattered ‘college towns’ in the United States of America.
It was the support of radio stations in these college towns and the epistolary encouragement of their listeners that emboldened del Amitri to rent an Econoline van in New Jersey and, accompanied by friends and relatives, to drive to these towns to perform. Not all who departed in that Econoline van after a disastrous first show at Maxwells in Hoboken made it back to New Jersey and none who did can claim to have been unchanged (for better, or for worse) by the fifteen thousand mile, coast to coast and back road trip. Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term in office, Margaret Thatcher to a third, and now records by DuranDuran and Dead Or Alive were being consumed in their millions.
On returning to Alba del Amitri experienced an epiphany. The sheer pig-headedness of the early years, when del Amitri had convinced itself that four wet-behind-the-ears Glaswegians could out-do the melodic beauty of The Smiths while simultaneously promoting hardline politico-social musical ideology thus comprehensively undermining the public’s adoration of Spandau Ballet and Wham! (and now also Duran Duranand Dead Or Alive), dissipated. There was a realisation that music is beauty, and truth beauty, even (especially?) when it is just music; and the important thing was to just do it.
Del Amitri realized that to survive it must adapt. Back in Glasgow Mick Slaven’s prodigious and visionary musical talents opened del Amitri’s eyes to new possibilities and now with Andy Alston in tow the interest of a second, more efficacious commercial organization was piqued; del Amitri set about the long and tortuous process of making the album of songs that would eventually be released by A&M Records Incorporated as Waking Hours. This was not immediately profitable for the commercial syndicate that had underwritten the six figure recording costs but thanks to the sheer doggedness of certain individuals employed there Nothing Ever Happens was eventually ushered into the UK Hit Parade, Kiss This Thing Goodbye breached the fringes of the US Top Forty, and del Amitri came to the attention of the public at large.
And with that came 6am calls to sit on sofas with smiling, orange hosts on national prime-time television slots that were bracketed by footage of the current war and the latest famine; Terry Wogan, Top of the Pops, Late Night with David Letterman, Saturday morning kids’ TV; months on tour buses, where the odometers clocked up many times over the miles we travelled in the Econoline in 1984, playing to full houses in Findhorn, Sydney, Stockholm, Portree, Berlin, Madrid, Melbourne, Chicago, Kirkwall, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Copenhagen, Minneapolis, Preston, Bielefeldt, Copenhagen, to half-a-dozen in Oklahoma; to festive crowds in Glastonbury, Roskilde, T In the Park, and ten people and a dog in a field in Besancon.
But also the opportunity to make records—four more albums; Change Everything, Twisted, Some Other Sucker’s Parade, Can You Do Me Good: fifty songs distilled from hundreds written. Writing is a labour of love that has driven many better souls than ours to perdition. Blessedly, del Amitri only led us to the waves of mercy offered at the bar, and our poison fed the lurking muse, and continues to do so, and long may it continue.
In these decades of recording and performing del Amitri has enlisted the services of many, exploited some and ruined the lives of an unfortunate few. And to what end? The cold statistics of del Amitri’s ‘success’ can be summarized as follows; fifteen top forty singles and five top ten albums in the UK, one top ten and three top forty hits in the US, a number one album in Australia, and extensive radio play across mainland Europe that have combined to generate millions of sales worldwide. What any of this has meant to you we can only speculate on. But what it has meant for those close to the heart of del Amitri and (excuse us if we sound like romantic fools) lucky enough to have caught the tail of a golden age of recorded music is that we have been privileged to spend a lifetime devoted to writing, listening to, thinking about, and performing, music.
1. Formerly on Wardour Street, Soho, London. See http://www.themarqueeclub.net/index.php for a detailed history and comprehensive calendar of thirty-five years of concerts that took place in that once cherished venue, rivalled only by the 100 Club in the annals of rock music history in London. Del Amitri performed sell-out shows at the Marquee in December 1986 and February 1987. The building was demolished in 1988 and a ‘new’ Marquee Club was opened on Charing Cross Road but this was nothing short of an insult to the memoryof the original, degenerating into a tourist attraction and closing in 1995.
2. Del Amitri performed two packed concerts at Rock Rendez-Vous in Lisbon on December 5th and 6th, 1985. In Scotland del Amitri attracted only handfuls of people to concerts, having successfully alienated most music lovers with its obsessive striving for ‘originality’, an aesthetic which, combined with a lack of any conventional musical training, created sounds that many mainstream listeners and critics perceived as willfully abrasive. A show at Galashiels Textile College was described years later by one of the few attendees as “the worst fucking concert I ever saw in my life.” A Sunday afternoon performance at a club in Kilmarnock had an audience of two, one of whom had travelled from Italy for the show.
3. Del Amitri arrived in New Jersey in July 1984 to undertake a “Whistle Stop Tour” of the United States of America, a reference to early Presidential campaigns undertaken by train and the brainchild of the manager at that time Barbara Shores (currently missing). Travelling without the appropriate visas, sleeping at roadsides, busking for fuel money, relying on equipment borrowed locallyat each venue and subsisting mainly on Moutain Dew, Old Grandad, Crackerjack, Egg McMuffins, and devotees’ sympathy del Amitri performed in bars, at radio stations, in record stores, on street corners and at house parties in the following places over a period of five weeks; New York NY., Hoboken NJ., Athens GA., Orlando FL., New Orleans LA.,Dallas TX., Los Angeles CA., Las Vegas NV., Milwaukee WI., Detroit MI., Pittsburgh PA., Long Island NY.
4. Until Polygram’s purchase of the company in 1989, A&M Records was an independent record company (although generally not perceived as such due to the size of its global operations) owned solely by Herb Alpert and Gerry Moss. An ‘integrity clause’ that retained Gil Friesen as chairman and kept Gerry Moss nominally in control maintained an appearance of corporate dignity that lasted until the purchase of Polygram by Seagram in 1998; a heavily leveraged hostile buyout of Seagram by Vivendi followed almost immediately. Vivendi had been created out of the recently privatized French water utility Compagnie Générale des Eaux as its CEO, playboy Jean-Marie Messier, liquidated the core business of supplying water to Parisians and tried to create a European media rival to AOL/TimeWarner. The A&M lot at 1416 North La Brea Avenue in Hollywood was closed in January 1999 and sold, most of the staff let go and the bulk of the artists dropped; Alpert and Moss subsequently successfully sued Vivendi for $200 million for breach of the integrity clause. Early in 2002 in what is sometimes referred to as ‘Europe’s Enron’ Vivendi posted the biggest loss in French corporate history and the company’s estimated worth fell from $30 billion to zero overnight. Messier was forced to resign shortly thereafter. Del Amitri’s contract with Universal-Vivendi was terminated in June 2002. The A&M brand is now used by the Universal Music Group as front-line label in the UK for ‘edgy’ mainstream pop acts such as Black-Eyed Peas.
5. The size of this budget was not due to wanton profligacy. (It was rumoured in Glasgow at that time – falsely – that del Amitri had purchased a helicopter to provide more efficient transport to and from airport hubs). The entire album was recorded in London and mixed in Los Angeles at great expense but without due care and attention by a charlatan music-business journeyman named David Kershenbaum and subsequently scrapped. The project was rescued and completed by Hugh Jones and his engineer Mark Freegard with more than a little help from the (possibly marsupial) mixing engineer Julian Mendelssohn. The stresses imposed on all concerned during the course of this two year long saga perhaps explain why Mick Slaven, who had previously endured a failed major label album recording session with legendary Glasgow band Bourgie Bourgie, never toured with del Amitri.
6. For an in-depth discussion of the misguided romantic notions surrounding alcohol and writing see The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer by Tom Dardis (New York : Ticknor & Fields, 1989). Dardis examines in detail the effect that alcohol had on the lives and work of Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neil, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others and is forced to conclude that all of them would have been better off sober.
7. Paul Tyagi left the band during the recording of Waking Hours. Once the album was recorded Mick Slaven continued to plough his own furrow and refused to be coaxed onto the tour-bus: his coruscating genius should be clear to anyone who listens to the three albums he has made with his band The Leopards. Del Amitri performed around the world for two years as Justin Currie, Iain Harvie, Andy Alston, David Cummings and Brian McDermott, and went on to make Change Everything with these five at its heart. Brian McDermott chose to leave during the making of the subsequent album Twisted, to be replaced by Ashley Soan once the album had been completed. (The drums on Twisted were played by Chris Sharrock who, like Mick Slavenbefore him, sensibly declined to board the del Amitri bus). David Cummings retired from life as a professional musician to script-write and raise a family and was replaced by Jon McLoughlin (alias Kid Krupa; died March 11 2005). These five recorded Some Other Sucker’s Parade only for Jon McLoughlin and Ashley Soan to decide that they were unable to cope with the burden of alcohol consumption and constant touring which del Amitri imposed upon them. Kris Dollimore and Mark Price gallantly filled the vacant boots and went on to work on Can You Do Me Good? Currently del Amitri uses (in alphabetical order of surname) Andy Alston,Justin Currie, Kris Dollimore, Iain Harvie and Ashley Soan (aided by the estimable John Patrick Reid) to pursue its ends.
8. Sales figures themselves are used as a marketing tool in the music industry – press officers like nothing better than referring to an artist as “million selling” or even “octo-platinum”. This in itself makes verifiable sales figures almost impossible to ascertain. Combined with the murky accounting practices of the corporate world in general, and the music business in particular, one can only conclude that reported sales for albums are pure speculation.