Sunday, May 22, 2011

Autumn music

It has been said that greatest hits albums are like political careers, since both tend to end in failure. Stephen Duffy turns this truism on its head.

Launching himself on the charts as Stephen 'Tin Tin' Duffy, in 1985, Kiss Me was a top five hit in the UK and top 20 in Australia. I remember rolling my eyes that someone would be so desperate to call himself Tin Tin, as if he had any call on this name. I carried on listening to The Smiths/Go-Betweens/Triffids/Chills/REM/etc.

In 1989 I left for a little trip overseas and my friend Jim Payne, late of Dada Records and always of impeccable taste, made a me a C90 with all sorts of things on: Julie Cruise, Devine and Stratton, Kitchens of Distinction...and this one.

Which I had pretty much forgotten about until I received Stephen Duffy's career sampler Memory & Desire: 30 Years in the Wilderness. I have been playing the two-CD set constantly, breakfast, lunch and tea, for the past couple of months.

Hearing 'Lost Girl' after 22 years instantly set my feet tapping, taking imaginary walks around autumnal Hyde Park, Streatham High Street at Christmas, through spring to Kew Gardens and Southbank. It's a song I had forgotten, buried under the leaves, I suppose.

I came back to Stephen Duffy and the Lilac Time by a curious route. In France in early 2008 I read review of the Lilac Time's Runout Groove album. Intrigued, I poked around a few record shops there and in London hoping to find it. No luck. So I forgot them, more or less, but something about that review stuck in my mind. So before we returned to France this year, I went in search of Runout Groove at iTunes. And there it was, $16.99, and no need to leave my study. While I was in France earlier this year, I listened to Runout Groove all the time. It was almost as though the intervening years hadn't happened.

Alexis Petridis at the Guardian reviewed the album here in 2007. In 2009 Caitlan Moran interviewed Duffy for The Times.
Runout Groove is apparently the band's lowest selling record in a three-decade career where under-performing sales became the Lilac Time calling card. The album is loaded with poignant, personal and exquisitely crafted songs. Influences of Nick Drake, Incredible String Band and the Beatles linger but have been turned into something new and lasting. In the 1980s the Lilac Time were darlings of the indie scene, but that doesn't shift units. Not like the 2005 eight million-plus sales of Robbie Williams' Intensive Care, for which Duffy wrote or co-wrote most of the songs. Is that not one of the strangest musical alliances ever? The money he made working for Robbie Williams paid for Runout Groove.

Strange is the word that best describes Duffy's career. He left formed Duran Duran in 1978 and left just as they were getting their flounce on. Showed up briefly in the electro-pop period with a song leaning heavily on the Song of Solomon. Became a Peel favourite, swapping record companies like football cards, formed a band with violinist Nigel Kennedy, moved to Alaska, crashed, returned to England, wrote and toured the world with Robbie Williams, all the time piling up songs and albums that the world largely ignored. He even has an album titled Keep Going (1993). And many of the best songs are gathered up on Memory and Desire.

Duffy reflects in the film Memory and Desire. "What would you call him? A maverick? An outsider? A cult? Or just a failure?"

All of these travails are documented in a film about Stephen Duffy titled Memory & Desire. At least I think so. The film has had limited festival screenings in the UK in 2009 and 2010 and is not currently available on DVD, so I haven't seen it in full. So keen am I that earlier this year I alerted the Melbourne International Film Festival, suggesting they might like to include Memory and Desire in the program, which always runs a section on music documentaries.
I figure that if a low-fi, country-influenced, semi-successful indie band of impeccable taste can't find a home in the hearts of Melbourne inner-city music fans, well, I have cabbages for ears.

I really am a bit obsessed with the Lilac Time. My wife remains politely neutral, and like most, finds them pleasant but not exceptional. But there is something, the sound of a man wrestling with success, with failure, his own worth and place in the world, that has its hooks into me. The songs are seductive, the landscapes timeless, the emotions sharply felt and described in images that linger. As a writer Duffy's songs become more detailed and more direct over time, and shake off the vagueness of early work.

Stephen Duffy turns 51 next week. Happy birthday Stephen Duffy, and may we share Lilac Time for many years to come. This career isn't done yet.

For more Duffy/Lilac goodness, don't miss the Duffypedia, an awesome labour of fan-love.