Saturday, February 28, 2009

From The Womb To Waking Hours - Early Mythology Of Del Amitri

Several times over the years I’ve undertaken the marathon road trip across country to visit my sister and her family in Adelaide. I have to admit to liking a good road trip, but I don’t recover from the 18-20 hour drives quite as resiliently as once I did, and with the price of fuel these days, they can be quite an expensive undertaking. If you take time to stop along the way though, it’s a great way to experience some parts of the country that you might not otherwise have occasion to visit. What, is this guy writing a music blog or a travel blog? Well, the connection to music, if by association only, is that for any road trip to be an enjoyable road trip, you need good driving music - particularly if you’re set to be staring at tarmac for two or three days straight. One such return journey to Adelaide in 2003 led me to rediscover my love for the music of Scottish country-folk edged rock band Del Amitri. I’d purchased their first ‘best of’ CD a couple of years previous, titled ‘Hatful Of Rain’, and from the outskirts of Adelaide to my front drive, Del Amitri provided the ideal travel companion - beats talking to the mileage markers. From ‘Cry To Be Found’ to ‘Don’t Come Home Too Soon’, it was the perfect soundtrack, and made an already enjoyable trip, all the more memorable. The sign of a great album, and I mean a genuinely great album (even if it’s a compilation), is not having to reach for the skip track forward button once, but rather having to control yourself from hitting the skip track backward button too frequently. And on that criterion alone, it’s a stone cold sober certainty that Del Amitri’s ‘Hatful Of Rain’ is a genuinely great album, from a genuinely classy band.

From their very origins, Justin Currie was the driving force behind Del Amitri’s journey. Singer/songwriter Currie had formed his first band whilst a student at Jordanhill College in the earliest stanzas of the 1980s. Over the next couple of years, Currie fronted the earliest incarnations of Del Amitri, originally known as Del Amitri Rialzo, handling both vocals and bass duties. Via their official website, Del Amitri have indicated that the original name meant nothing, and was designed to be completely nonsensical. Over the years speculation grew as to the meaning behind the name Del Amitri, with theories ranging from the Greek meaning for “from the womb” to the brand name for a handbag. Whatever the meaning, if there is one, it’s also evident that the band long ago grew weary of questions relating to the subject, so rather than risk raising the ire of Messrs Currie and Co., I’ll leave that facet of their story by adding that, if nothing else, the name Del Amitri simply sounds cool.

The line-up of Currie’s band was anything but stable over the first couple of years, with the likes of Donald Bentley (guitar) and James M Scobbie (guitar), backing the only constant element, Currie himself. During 1982, a then 17 year old Justin Currie placed an advertisement in the window of a Glasgow music store, asking for other musicians to give him a call. And so arrived the acknowledged original line-up for Del Amitri, featuring Currie (vocals/bass), art school graduates Iain Harvey (lead guitar) and Bryan Tolland (guitar), with Paul Tyagi (drums), who’d actually been with Currie since ’81. By 1983 the quartet were ready to make the jump onto vinyl, and released their debut single ‘Sense Sickness’ on the indie No Strings label, during August 1983. Actually they’d been heard on record two years earlier, albeit on a giveaway flexi-disc with the track ‘What She Calls It’, free with the fanzine ‘Stand And Deliver’. Del Amitri played a relentless schedule of gigs during this period, building up a solid fan base on the same touring circuits that fellow Scots’ indie acts Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera (see earlier post) had cut their teeth on during the early 80s. Due to their sharp edged acoustic-oriented rock, Del Amitri drew strong comparisons to fellow Glaswegians Orange Juice in particular.

Back in 1982, Justin Currie had sent a letter to famed BBC 1 DJ John Peel, along with a cassette recording of several early Del Amitri tracks. In the note (reproduced in the liner notes for the ‘Hatful Of Rain’ CD), Currie explained that Del Amitri hailed from Glasgow and had been playing together for a couple of months. The tape included a demo recording of the song ‘Footfall’, along with several live numbers (captured on a portable stereo recorder). Peel had assisted in launching numerous struggling bands over the preceding years, and in 1984 he played Del Amitri’s demo material on his radio show, and subsequently invited the lads in for a live radio appearance (Peel later returned the note to Currie - obviously how it ended up on the album liner notes). Having endured the hard yards of endless rehearsing, gigging, sleeping on friends living room floors, or in the back of vans, or worse, the light had appeared at the end of what had been a very long tunnel for Del Amitri - character building if not always fun. Throughout it all Justin Currie had emerged as a fine songwriter, with a gift for writing catchy hooks, and clever, subtly sardonic lyrics. In 1984 Chrysalis Records signed Del Amitri to their ancillary Big Star label (where all the faux-indie rock acts hung out).

In May 1985 Del Amitri released their eponymous debut album, backed by the singles ‘Sticks And Stones Girl’ and ‘Hammering Heart’. Their profile was boosted, well kinda, by an appearance on the cover of Melody Maker magazine (the cover feature was mistimed by being about six months prior to the belated released date of the album), and a support slot on The Smiths’ U.K. tour. Press reaction was uniformly positive, with much praise heaped upon Del Amitri’s melodic and intelligent folk tinged pop-rock melange, with admittedly post-punk overtones. Justin Currie drew comparison to Elvis Costello for his acerbic witticisms, and jaded life observations. Despite much hype though, the Hugh Jones produced set failed to find a significant audience amongst a typically fickle record buying public. Chrysalis then duly did what major labels duly do, and dumped Del Amitri from their roster, but only after the band had begged them to. To once more be label-less, may have been a blow to Currie and crew, but it was by no means a knock out blow. Del Amitri had established too strong a fan base, and it was this grass roots support that would prove invaluable in aiding them to traverse a difficult couple of years ahead.

But perhaps surprisingly, a large part of that grass roots support emanated from the U.S., where a loyal network of fans took it upon themselves to fervently promote Del Amitri at makeshift gigs across the country during their 1986 tour, and provided a much welcomed alternative sleeping quarters to dossing in the tour van. Once more Justin and the lads were doing the hard yards, financed by themselves and a small, but unwavering fan base - it was the Del Amitri equivalent to The Beatles’ Hamburg experience. All the while through their challenging pop pilgrimage, Currie continued to hone his song writing skills, and by 1987 had accumulated a substantial cache of material. With word of mouth once more approaching fevered pitch shouting, Del Amitri’s credentials, not to mention potential, could no longer be ignore by the major labels. In 1987 A&M Records offered the band a new recording deal, and Del Amitri’s character building odyssey in rock’s wilderness had finally come to an welcome conclusion. During the same period Del Amitri’s ranks swelled by one, with the addition of keyboardist Andy Alston. Guitarist Mick Slaven took over from Bryan Tolland, but part way through the recording of Del Amitri’s sophomore album, Slaven was in turn replaced by David Cummings. The shake up in personnel also saw original drummer Paul Tyagis depart during the album sessions, with ex-Commotions’ sticks man Steven Irvine stepping into the fray for the balance of studio duties (Del Amitri had supported The Commotions on a 1986 tour). Brian McDermott was then recruited for Del Amitri’s follow up tour across 89/90.

It must have been a tumultuous year or so inside the Park Lane studio, but the end product, ‘Waking Hours’, was worth the ordeal. Through all their trials and tribulations, Del Amitri had emerged a mature and cohesive unit (well cohesive in stylistic terms). The album was released in the U.K. during July of ‘89, concurrent with the initial release of the single ‘Kiss This Thing Goodbye’, an appealing, bittersweet portion of folk-rock fare, with Scottish folk roots. Initially, neither album, nor single ‘Kiss This Thing Goodbye’ (UK#59) made much of an impact on the charts, whilst the initial follow up single in Britain, ‘Stone Cold Sober‘, in late ‘89, remained stone cold sober outside of the charts. But the groundswell of interest in Del Amitri eventually surged to the surface in early 1990, with the release of the world-weary folk lament ‘Nothing Ever Happens’. Currie, the accomplished wordsmith, shone through on the song’s lyrics, which commented on the banality and alienation of modern existence brought on by social inertia. ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ (UK#11/OZ#43) didn’t extend to Del Amitri’s commercial fortunes, which were suddenly very much on the ascent. ‘Kiss This Thing Goodbye’ was reissued shortly after, and second time around experience a much warmer reception (UK#43/OZ#28), and also proved the breakthrough single in the U.S. (#35 - #13 Modern Rock Tracks). For some reason ‘Stone Cold Sober’ wasn’t reissued in Britain, but did get a release in Australia (#70), where it was the third Del Amitri single in a row that I’d purchased on vinyl 45 (I mentioned in the previous Venetians post that I had a bit of an imbalance in my single/album buying ratio in those days). ‘Stone Cold Sober’ remains to this day, my favourite Del Amitri song, and its lyrics remain timeless in their potency. ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’ (UK#36) was the next single lifted, and kept Del Amitri’s profile high into the second half of 1990. The Hugh Jones/Mark Freegard produced album ‘Waking Hours’ worked its way into both British (#6) and Australian (#9/US#95) top tens during the first half of 1990, with its subtle blending of 60s British guitar pop, traditional folk, and American brand country-flavoured rock, proving an appealing mix. In late 1990 Del Amitri released the stand-alone single ‘Spit In The Rain’ (UK#21), which rounded out a remarkable year in the band’s epic journey to date.

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