There is a poignant scene at the end of the new film 24 Hour Party People, about the rise and fall of Factory records, in which God appears to Factory's founder, Tony Wilson. "Vini Reilly is due a revival," booms the Almighty. "You might think about a greatest hits. It's good music to chill out to."
Vini Reilly, in case you spent the Eighties experimenting with eyeliner and trying to walk in stilettos (and that's just the chaps), is the Durutti Column, in much the same way that Matt Johnson is The The and Will Oldham is Palace. Along with other early Factory signings such as Joy Division and A Certain Ratio, the Durutti Column, who in their pastoral fragility shared little with their label-mates (or anyone else c1978), were there when Manchester was invented. Not that you'll find Reilly reminiscing about the good old days.
"That's all done now," observes the 48-year-old guitarist, his soft Mancunian burr suggesting Jimmy Savile on downers. "Factory was important culturally in terms of what it did for the city. But apart from Joy Division, who were awesome, I think the affection's a bit misplaced."
Reilly hasn't seen 24 Hour Party People, though he has one song ("Otis") on the soundtrack and a split-second cameo. "Do you think I should ask for some money?" he wonders. "You won't get any," chirps his girlfriend, Carol. "He never does," she tells me. They did attend the party, though, where Reilly met the actor who plays him. "Does he wear a wig in the film?" Reilly's hairdo is one of his most distinctive features. The greying thatch piled high on his head makes that emaciated face look as long as the neck of a guitar. He has no more meat on him than a plectrum. The tattoos on his hands and wrists – a quaver and some wee stars – have gone a muddy blue. He has always looked delicate and downhearted, just like the music sounds.
He seems nonplussed by comments pertaining to his excellence. When I mention the two albums that first captured my attention – Without Mercy (1984) and The Guitar and Other Machines (1987) – he splutters, "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. Everyone's obsessed with form. 'Is it avant-garde? Is it jazz?' " He sighs. "It's just tunes, innit? Daft tunes."
When I tell him about God suggesting a compilation album, he is similarly unimpressed, though Carol, who is always alert to a good business opportunity, says: "Not a bad idea, that." I think they will have a chat about it on the long drive back to Manchester.
It isn't that Reilly is hard to praise or impress. He's just disinclined to dwell on things. He bubbles with enthusiasm when he discusses Bollywood or reveals how he achieved some feedback effect or other. And he is thrilled when the waitress at London's Jazz Café, where we have met before a rare Durutti Column gig, brings him a mug of black coffee with piles of sugar. "There's food, too," he trills. "You should get a meal inside you." Look who's talking.
So he's a sweetheart. That should be clear. And while I would dearly love to report that nice guys don't finish last, the fact is that Vini Reilly has been dealt a bum hand in the casino of life. "Am I allowed to say you've had a really rough time?" asks Carol. Reilly gives his wordless consent. She turns to me and says, "He's had a really rough time."
His obscurity is the least of it. He has, after all, been a musician of unassailable daring and integrity from the release of his first, Martin Hannett-produced album, The Return of the Durutti Column, in 1980 – the one that came in a sandpaper sleeve that was withdrawn because it damaged the neighbouring albums in record-shop racks. His closest brush with success was in 1988, when his intricate playing graced Morrissey's first solo album, Viva Hate. Morrissey invited him to co-write a follow-up, so Reilly suggested they collaborate on something experimental, in the spirit of Patti Smith's Radio Ethiopia. "He hasn't spoken to me since," he shrugs.
Audiences tend to receive the Durutti Column with the same leisurely devotion that greets their fellow Mancunians the Fall: most of their albums are outstanding, or at least out of step, but there's the feeling that if you don't buy this one, there will be another along in a minute. This is reinforced when Reilly remarks that he has just recorded three albums in five weeks.
"He does it in the spare bedroom," says Carol. "I always say to him, 'Have you done a symphony yet, or can you come down for yer toast?' " They chuckle sweetly, and there is palpable relief in their laughter. It wasn't long ago that it seemed uncertain whether Reilly would ever record again.
He sacked Wilson, his manager, four years ago – after the release of his latest album – because he felt that it hadn't been sufficiently promoted. Then, the Inland Revenue wanted a serious word in his ear, regarding back-taxes, and he ended up losing his home. But Reilly doesn't blame Wilson. "He gave me my career," he says simply.
Wilson believed in the Durutti Column before anyone else did. But when I ask Reilly about his experience of producing the first Happy Mondays EP, which, according to Wilson, ended with Reilly in a state of near-collapse over the band's drug use and unruly behaviour, he is aghast. "I thought the Mondays were great," he protests. "Tony had been initially dismissive of them and he didn't wanna get too involved. So he asked me to produce them 'cos it was cheaper that way. Then I saw them live and I told him to take them seriously and to spend some proper money on them." He shakes his head. "But what makes the better story?"
Despite his financial woes, which led to an extended period of inactivity, Reilly seems once more his old, driven self. A few years ago, he was flogging his beloved guitars when Carol angrily told him, "Don't sell them – play them!" And that was that. Movies may be one way forward, Carol suggests. After all, the Durutti Column's "Requiem for a Father" featured on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack. I think she's right. The songs are evocative and would seem to lend themselves to the visual medium. And if Moby can do it... "Don't mention him," warns Carol.
"I called up Mute," Reilly explains, "and they said, 'We'd love to sign you, but we've just spent all our money on Moby.'"
"But if you know anyone who needs a film score..." says Carol, trailing off. "Course, he'd have to get some money. He never gets any money. He's like a charity." Reilly quietly sips his coffee. Just as God said: definitely due a revival.
'24 Hour Party People' is released 5 April. The Durutti Column's latest album, 'Rebellion', is on Artful RecordsReuse content