‘Justin Currie from Del Amitri just messaged me on Facebook.’
‘WTF??? In other news, Dave Grohl fell off the stage in Sweden and broke his leg. Need anything from the shops?’
Just an everyday text exchange between a husband and wife, really. Apart from the Justin Currie thing… Three question marks barely seemed enough, given the lustrous glow of Del Amitri’s star in the ‘90s pop galaxy. And you’d never catch Liam Gallagher or Bono stooping to reply to some random punter’s Facebook message. Well, Bono maybe, on an off day. But Justin Currie!
A week earlier I’d exhumed an old cassette (cassette!) of Waking Hours, Del Amitri’s 1989 album, and had been tutoring my daughters in the ways of lyrical Scot-rock on the drive to school (yes, our old Volvo has a cassette player – seems the Swedes are better at assembling cars than Foo Fighters stages). The cascading banjo-laced melancholia of Kiss This Thing Goodbye; the aching Cold War ennui of Stone Cold Sober, with its transcendent shift from bridge into third verse… Wrapped in winter fog we drove along Sheoak Rd, listening, talking, rewinding and listening again (Dad effervescing about music remains a source of some interest – excruciation is still a few years off).
Bleary with nostalgia, I looked up Currie on Facebook and found him (surprising in itself) and fired off a heartfelt thanks, inviting him to play in my adopted hometown of Adelaide, South Australia (‘the Glasgow of the south’, as I couched it). A few days later, his response was just five words: ‘I’d love to be there.’
Holy shit! In whose universe do you write to a rock star and they actually reply? We live in an age of celebrity scrutiny via Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and whatever other platform you want to fall off. But Justin Currie! The sideburns and the dishevelled denim! The lanky swagger and the aquiline bone structure! And the lyrics – nay – the poetry! That kind of bruised thematic existentialism doesn’t come along every day, y’know. Five words or fewer, this was a very big deal.
Del Amitri were never particularly ‘cool’ (file between Coldplay and David Gray in ‘Adult Contemporary’). And it was never cool to like them, even when they were prolific indie kings with a string of hits from Aberdeen to Albuquerque. They were anathema to metal’s monstrosity. A cheery Christ at the grunge crucifixion. Wearing jeans and T-shirts when everyone else was playing dress-ups.
But Del Amitri’s songs somehow glued themselves to the trajectory of my twenties. Nothing Ever Happens capped the canyon of my teenage years in Hobart, Tasmania, before Move Away Jimmy Blue propelled me to London when I was 21. Just Like A Man provided minor (very minor) solace when my girlfriend took some other guy to bed when I was 22. Be My Downfall offered absolution when it was my turn to burn love at 25. When I was 27, Here And Now sounded through cigarettes and summer days in my girlfriend’s Austin-Healey Sprite, before someone else pressed ‘play’ on Be My Downfall again…
Justin fucking Currie! I came over all man-crushy and obsessive. Where were all my albums? I’d once owned the entire Del Amitri back catalogue, but they’d driven off in the back of the Austin-Healey. I explained all this to the pierced, pink-haired person down at JB Hi-Fi, but she told me the band’s Australian distributor had ‘gone under’ (…a rock? The sea?). An abject failure at iTunes, I ordered a pile of CDs on Amazon, the wonky wheel on my shopping cart jolting and irritated. I dived into Del Amitri.
When I came up for air a few weeks later, I sent Justin Currie another message. I’d had an idea.
July 8th, 5:04pm
‘Justin – you know what the world needs now? Love, sweet love? No. What the world needs now is a DEL AMITRI ROCK BIO. Scan the bookshops, bro: wall-to-wall biographies on Johnny Cash, Springsteen, Big Star, Steve Earle, Robert Plant, Neil Young, Black Sabbath, Anthony Kiedis… Riding on the back of your 2014 tour, it’s time for the Dels to join this illustrious pantheon. And I’m the man to write it.
I’ve read enough of these fuckers to know what works, and what stinks. I’m published from here to buggery courtesy of Lonely Planet, Hardie Grant, Time Out etc (Google me – I know my pronouns from my proverbs). I’m also a musician, and most importantly, I LOVE YOUR MUSIC: it’s inexplicably been the soundtrack to many pivotal moments in my life (including this one).
There are a few ways we could cook this goose:
1) Straight-laced third-person biography – a chronological thesis via long-range research: ‘Justin put a sign in the window, then John Peel called, then the harmony on ‘sour’ in Kiss This Thing Goodbye was a piece of sweet genius, then no-one could quite believe Roll To Me did so well, then the phone stopped ringing’ etc. A passable approach, but potentially a bit of a plod to read (this is freakin’ rock ‘n’ roll, not a kitchen installation manual).
2) Ghost written: Justin Currie with Charles Rawlings-Way. Forget it – you don’t need me, you’re far too literate. Leave it to the buffoons whose grace is limited to the stage.
3) You do it. Maybe an autobiography is your life-long ambition. If so, I’ll fuck off and leave you to it.
4) Do a proper job: extensive research and interviews with you, Iain, all the twangers and bangers from Scobbie to Soan, your school music teacher, the groupies, the bus driver, yer manager, yer mamma and every other sucker in the parade. The ONLY way these books have any cred is if the writer taps it straight from the source: it’s gotta be real, direct and riddled with first-person content. Otherwise, go and do speedballs with Anthony Kiedis.
Let me know what you think. I’d probably start with an article/sample chapter/interview to pass under a few people’s noses and try and get a feel for the market/potential publisher. I can start yesterday.
Cheers, Charles RW in Adelaide. (…I’m serious about that ‘sour’ harmony – I could take that to the grave and die a happy man).
Everybody sing: ’What the world needs now, is love, sweet love…’ ‘
I hit ‘send’. Got on with the business of life. Waited around for the next hit of celebrity affirmation (this social media stuff is addictive).
July 11th, 4:54am
‘Hey, Charles – I really appreciate the message and I can’t fault your logic and enthusiasm. For me, there are two reasons that a Dels book makes no sense. Firstly, I don’t believe there’s a market for it, but more importantly, secondly, the story just isn’t interesting enough to justify all the work. The only interesting thing in the tale is the 1986 US tour, but even that would be hard to justify because of the band’s lack of profile. I’ll keep this in mind, Charles, and I do appreciate the thought. JC’
Hmmm. Didn’t sound too positive. What did he mean, ‘the story just isn’t interesting enough’? I was interested! Undaunted, I parried:
July 13th, 2:57pm
‘Justin – thanks for your insights. Indeed, you’ve peaked…but what a snowy summit! How many records did you sell – six million? Sweet Jesus!! I sold 20,000 books in 2009 (more than Billy Connelly – ha!) but that’s spit in the rain. Maybe you weren’t U2 huge (U2UGE?) but your songs did, and still, mean a preposterous amount to a passionate plenty.
Clearly, a book would need an angle. 1986: “The true story of that extraordinary, chaotic and life-changing tour could ﬁll a short book.” Wisdom is the residue of driving days, the eternal beat, beat, beat of the American interstate, lost and found in motel mirage, cigarettes and sedimentary fast food, counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike…
What happened to you out there amongst the Americans? Who did you become in that nascent highway haze? I wrote a long book about backpacking across America once – it’s in the bottom drawer at home, keeping unpublished company. A short book is a better idea.
As for the ‘work’, writing never feels that way to me. And all you’d have to do is reminisce. Maybe there weren’t many overdoses, orgies or exploding drummers en route, but this is about celebrating the sheer heartstrung, window-down-and-singing joy of your music, which you cannot deny. Who cares if it doesn’t ‘shift units’: if making money was what fired my rockets I wouldn’t be a writer.
I’m probably going to (have to) write an article anyway: your music has drowned me in recent weeks, a constant distraction and inspiration, the sound of heartbreaks I think I hear in every song.
I’m starting to sound like a creepy cyber-stalker guy now (my wife has concerns), so I’ll leave you alone. Del Amitri is your baby, Justin, but she’s moved out and made her home in other people’s hearts and memories. Does the house feel empty now she’s gone? Why doesn’t she write? Maybe this is the postcard you’ve been waiting for…
I’d lifted the quote about the 1986 US tour from an interview Currie had given in Amped Up magazine in 2013. He himself had said there was a book in the making! Surely this was the clincher! If 1986 was one of Currie’s great turning points, it was begging for scrutiny. Indeed, it’s the prerogative of every middle-aged man to pick over the bones of his youth – to sift through the jetsam of hearts and journeys, searching for signposts, summations, things overlooked. It’s a kind of time travel – peering back in order to see ahead.
Moreover, doesn’t every dying man want someone to hear his testimony? To bear witness, to stand as impartial confessor? OK, so Currie wasn’t (isn’t) dying, but you take my point (professional writer comes knocking, gift horse, mouth etc). And I did sell more books than Billy Connelly in 2009 – in Australia, at any rate. Bill Bryson too, that funny bugger.
July 21st, 9:53am
‘I’ll mull it over, Charles. The next time I see Iain I’ll ask him what he thinks. I really appreciate your approaching us so I don’t want to come across as ignorant or dismissive. Email me.’
‘Email me’ was a foot in the door, but I was slow on the uptake. Too polite to deflate my ambitions, Currie simply wasn’t interested.
When You Were Young
Rewind: exactly where was music in 1989, in the wake of Del Amitri’s ’86 tour and just before they hit big? What did the band deliver over the following decade, and why didn’t they make it to the pop pinnacle? And why, as Currie asserts, do ‘the Dels’ now suffer such a severe ‘lack of profile’ that he himself – the band’s lead singer, songwriter and senior shit-stirrer – doesn’t think a Del Amitri book would sell?
1989 was a weird year in music. Lost in Hobart, too far from Manchester, not far enough from LA, I wallowed in the coked-up, puerile maw of Californian hair metal. No-one I hung out with (except my sister) was savvy enough to know anything about the Stone Roses. Instead, Slash’s saccharine intro to Guns N Roses’ Paradise City invoked fits of fist-pumping machismo at every party I went to that year. At least GNR looked the part, their badass bandanna-and-cowboy-boot dreamworld a far preferable escape to the high-heeled fantasia of the day: Janet Jackson, Madonna, Belinda Carlisle, Roxette, The Bangles, Paula Abdul, Allanah Myles, Transvision Vamp… Jesus, spare me – a calendar year crammed with diva after trussed-up diva, thrusting their cleavages into the masturbatory bedrooms of the teenage West (…OK, so it wasn’t all bad).
Gumming-up the gaps in the charts, novelty acts and manufactured farces like Milli Vanilli, New Kids On The Block, Rick Astley and Jason Donovan spooned up a toxic broth of mainstream schlock. Almost as bad, in Australia, a litany of dubious 1970s front men had been in the studio trying to recapture past glories – best-forgotten muppets like Daryl Brathwaite and James Reyne scoring hit after questionable hit. U2’s Rattle & Hum was still selling, but everyone had heard it too many times (my life-drawing teacher played nothing else for an entire semester, All I Want Is You tainting my jittery charcoal renditions of naked flesh).
Hollowed-out and numb, waiting like a lamb for grunge to show up and bulldoze it all to hell, I defaulted to my mother’s Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac records (a very different kind of California), searching of something more lyrically and melodically engaging than what I was hearing all around me.
Then one day, driving along Liverpool St in my seasick-green Mazda 323, one of the diabetic DJs on Hobart’s 7HO AM played Kiss This Thing Goodbye. I stopped the car. My world creaked on its fulcrum. Here was something I could stomach: an urban fable of love tuned bitter, but with such uplifting musicality that it somehow made everything feel OK. It made me feel OK. It was the complete package: euphoric Celtic hark-backs and Appalachian cross-overs, infectious banjo and uncommon emotional virtue (nobody has the balls to end a relationship before it’s too late, do they?). And how about that harmony on ‘sour’ – best thing since the Beatles! I was smitten.
The pages of rock history show that Scotland was no musical backwater in the 1980s. Bon Scott and the Young brothers had booted it out to Australia in the ‘70s and formed AC/DC, but home-brewed popsters like Simple Minds, Big Country, Deacon Blue and Texas all scored massive hits in the ‘80s, crossing the Atlantic and beyond (…this is neither the time nor the place to mention The Proclaimers or Wet Wet Wet). Punk-noir underwhelmers like the Jesus & Mary Chain and underground melodists like Teenage Fanclub were also bubbling up – a purple patch for Scottish rock if ever there was.
Del Amitri pulled the trigger. By the time their last studio album Can You Do Me Good? disappointed the record execs in 2002, they’d had five Top-10 albums in the UK plus a Top-10 single in the US. No flash-in-the-pan bit players. But no world-trumping wonders either. Mercury Records dropped them from the label.
Sad Songs & Shallows
Given the Hebridean heritage and the dearth of anything half as good on the radio at the time, why then wasn’t Del Amitri as big as Blur, Oasis, U2 or any of the grunge bands? They outlasted most of them (reformations and reunion tours aside). But rather than storming over Niagara in a barrel, they span themselves out in the quiet eddies just left of the mainstream.
The rock ‘n’ roll formula was certainly correct, with a couple of good-lookin’ roosters up the front: the gregarious, spotlit, look-at-me vocalist playing off the noir, brooding, impossibly handsome guitarist. Mick vs Keef, Page vs Plant, Daltrey vs Townshend, Tyler vs Perry, Axl vs Slash, Bon Jovi vs Sambora, Chris Robinson vs Rich Robinson… You liked one, or you liked the other. Either way, the combo was a honey-pot lure for wannabe teenage rocker boys and irresistibly sexy for teenage girls. Justin Currie vs Iain Harvie was no different. Admittedly, the rest of the band weren’t as facially gifted (and didn’t front any album covers after Change Everything) – but aside from the odd ill-considered shirt, there was no failure of aesthetics here.
Better still, Currie’s lyrics had intellect, insight, heart and spine. They actually meant something, conjuring visions of brutal relationship dysfunction clad in Harvie’s summer-scented (and at best, muscular and barbed) guitar structures.
Currie and Harvie really nailed it on 1995’s Twisted, a cavalcade of tales about suicide, abortion, hypocrisy, loneliness and flawed contentment. Nowhere is their trademark cunning stunt – a rousing, back-slapping middle eight – better employed than in Driving With the Brakes On, a night-flight tearjerker soaked in remorse and post-pregnancy confusion (right up there with Ben Folds’ Brick…pass the tissues). The heavyweight despair of One Thing Left To Do is devastating to the core – a crushing power ballad riven with retribution and suicidal sorrow that, save perhaps for the absence of a mile-high guitar solo, is November Rain with a brain.
Twisted also spawned Harvie’s defining moment as Del Amitri’s axeman – the barnstorming Start With Me. Off the leash, he peeled off solo after spark-spitting solo, with toothy, chainsaw Les Paul humbucker tones more at home on a Black Crowes or Led Zepp album. Harvie’s arsenal of immaculate slide techniques takes a back seat on Twisted (how can a white boy from Glasgow have so much Alabama in him?) – but the whole album is juiced with ripe, syrupy guitar tones that serve, rather than overpower, every song (dig the solo on the end of Here And Now). And the award for ‘Most Underrated Guitarist of the ‘90s’ goes to…
But forget all that: ironically, it was the disposable pick-me-up pop of Roll To Me that became Del Amitri’s biggest hit, cracking the US Top 10 and lining Currie’s coffers with eternal royalties. This tight little quickstep would be more at home in an episode of Friends, with Jennifer Anniston bouncing around in pig-tails and a tight T-shirt, than a lasting enshrinement of Del Amitri’s talent.
But there’s a clue here: could it be that Del Amitri was just too intelligent to translate? Was it a crime of sincerity that stalled their charge? Aside from Roll To Me, was the stuff Currie was singing about just too mature, too emotionally fluent, too goddam sad to go Top-10? Check out the competition: rather than transparency, grunge lyrics thrived on abstraction – shadowy, personal obfuscations that left the meanings of songs open to interpretation. As perfect an alt-country ballad as Be My Downfall will always be, was this kind of fodder just too warm and literal for an audience more attuned to Eddie Vedder’s mumblings, Cobain’s indecipherables and Chris Cornell’s bleak icepick-through-the-eye imagery? David Byrne said it: Justin, ‘stop making sense’.
Digging into things more shallowly, was Currie’s loyalty to his bass an issue? Can bass-playing lead singers ever be sexy? (especially ones who use a pick instead of touching the tones with their fingers). There’s a definite geek factor to the four-string that only a gifted few vocalists can transcend. McCartney and Phil Lynott pulled it off, but they could have been playing a bowl of porridge and still gotten laid. Mark King from Level 42 was all ugly, under-the-armpit technique: nothing to see here ladies, move along… Les Claypool didn’t know what sex was. Lemmy did, but he didn’t want to act like it. Even Suzie Quattro looked kinda dorky. And Sting? Well, let’s not talk about Sting and sex… It’s shallow as shit, but rock ‘n’ roll is just an illusion: maybe Currie should have racked the Fender and swung a hip instead (the Axl Rose cobra meets the Chris Robinson barefoot Jagger).
Or were band dynamics to blame? Currie was the constant, with Harvie his co-pilot from 1982. But there were others. Line-up promiscuities. Seven guitarists, four drummers and a keys man, to be precise. Not exactly Aerosmith. It begs the question: what does this kind of revolving-door uncertainty do a band’s image and brand? To marketability and sales? Some musos might choke on their plectrums at the very mention of such words, but you could never accuse Del Amitri of being blind to commercial realities.
Furthermore, what do all these line-up changes say about egos, creative input, production control, royalties, contracts, management hierarchies, touring protocols…all those awkward unspoken difficulties that can dash bands on the rocks of ruin? Perhaps only Justin Currie knows for sure. And he ain’t talkin’.
Ego is a Strange Bird
Prolific as ever, Currie has released three solo albums since 2007. What Is Love For, his maiden solo voyage, is caustic and mesmeric, with a consistency and emotive clarity that Del Amitri albums couldn’t always sustain. At nearly eight minutes long, the sell-out cynicism of No, Surrender puts a 21st-century spin on Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 – a charred torrent of irk with Currie’s rhyming talents at the fore (Glaswegian hip-hop?). At the other end of the scale, the 91-second In The Rain is wrought from such delicate, haunted webs it might blow away on a breath. The gorgeous Gold Dust offers further cataclysmic maturity, freelance guitarist Iain Harvie layering the cake with lush lap-steel, straight outta Nashville.
The standout track on Currie’s 2010 outing The Great War is You’ll Always Walk Alone – as instantly anthemic and timeless as the Beatles’ Let It Be. Just as appealing is As Long As You Don’t Come Back – a catchy curio that oozes ‘70s NYC soul, like the B-side of the Welcome Back Kotter theme song (sitcom soul?). 2013’s Lower Reaches delivers a real heavy-hitter: On A Roll tracks a dusky desperado on the run, with all the impending, jagged menace of Springsteen’s State Trooper.
There are endless comparisons and analyses to be made, whether you’re cherry-picking through Currie’s solo efforts or tracing Del Amitri’s genealogy back to 1986 – enough to fill a book. But success is a harder thing to gauge. Is it platinum albums? Sold-out nights in Hammersmith? Length of tour-bus convoy? Groupie count? How many T-shirts you shift outside the Royal Albert Hall?
Whatever his measure, success is a badge that Currie seems uncomfortable wearing. These days he’s a sparkle-eyed interviewee with a ready laugh, keen to oblige and quick with the self-deprecating gags. Online he plays the acerbic provocateur, hyper-political and potty-mouthed – a thorny firebrand as confident holding court on Twitter as he is heckling punters from behind an acoustic guitar. But even if Currie is resigned to Del Amitri’s place in rock history, he’s not happy with the situation. Del Amitri is unfinished business: he’d take the band to the US tomorrow if someone paid the airfares. More perplexingly, at times he seems cynical about his solo credentials, self-effacement crossing over into self-denial.
Ego is a strange bird. It feathers up next to fear in the nest. When you hit middle age and gaze back at the peaks you’ll never scale again, your ego takes a hit – even if you’re no longer seeking approval and don’t give a toss what anyone else thinks. Just as unsettling, missed opportunities come crawling into view: wrong turns, regrets, apologies still needing to be made. And all this brings the fear: fear of running out of time, fear of irrelevance, fear of death. Fear of grey chest hairs heading south.
But fear not, Justin Currie, your legacy is assured, and your relevance ongoing. Success is all relative, man. How many guys wouldn’t trade their right arm for a pinch of your talent, to have lived through what you’ve lived through? (you can’t play bass with one arm, but the dance moves would be inventive). And who wouldn’t want to have toured this lonely planet, strumming guitars and singing songs you wrote up the back of the tour bus? To have shared a stage with a cat like Iain Harvie? To have released all those cool Del Amitri albums (there, I said it – they are cool). To have created three solo albums of such crystalline beauty?
Dig into the archaeology of ’86, JC.
Or get the band back on the road.
Or call your next solo album Peace Pipes With The Past.
Whatever you do, the story can’t end here. Success has your name written all over it.
‘Babe – I sent the article to Justin. I dunno what he’ll make of it – 1986 was a long time ago. Is there any point looking back? I love you, here and now. X’
© Charles Rawlings-Way 2015; images by others