Del Amitri: The Best Unknown Band Ever?

I recently finished the biography of Del Amitri, a book called These Are Such Perfect Days by Charles Rawlings-Way. It’s a detailed account of the rise and (ultimate) fall of the band from Glasgow, Scotland that had only one U.S. Top 10 hit, the short, jaunty “Roll to Me.” Here it is, if you can’t remember it:

Yeah, that one. The one that makes you hum and, at just over two minutes, is over before you know it.

The rest of their U.S. career — and most of their career across the pond — was spent fighting anonymity, despite single after wonderful single — “Kiss This Thing Goodbye,” “Nothing Ever Happens,” “Be My Downfall,” “Always the Last to Know, ” “When You Were Young,” “Driving with the Brakes On,” “Tell Her This,” “Not Where It’s At,” and “Medicine,” to name a few. In all, they released six studio albums in 17 years, hitting the UK Top 20 with their singles only four times without reaching the Top 10.

But Justin Currie, Iain Harvie and their revolving door of other band members had a knack for melody that extended past their singles onto their B-sides. They even put out a compilation of B-sides, Lousy With Love, that was bursting with so many sublime songs they put most greatest hits albums to shame. They were that good.

So who were they?

Del Amitri – From a Different Cut

Del Amitri formed in Glasgow in 1980 and released their first LP, Del Amitri, five years later. It was jumbled, eclectic, and Currie had not found his husky crooning voice yet. It wasn’t until 1989’s Waking Hours that the band settled into their genre — country-twinged pop with memorable melodies. I still remember seeing the video for “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” for the first time and marveling at the way the song centered on a few chords and Currie’s voice, with a banjo (banjo!), steel guitar and harmonica providing some accompaniment to the sing-song melody. Those have to be three of my least favorite instruments, but Del Amitri used them as accents to create a beautifully vibrant pop song.

This soulful ditty reached #35 in the United States and #43 in the UK. Thud.

Undaunted, and supported then by A&M Records, they followed up Waking Hours with Change Everything in 1992, releasing “Always the Last to Know,” a straight-ahead pop song that had the misfortune to be released about a year after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the most important single of the last 25 years. It changed music forever, and no one wanted to hear melodic songs anymore – just barbaric yawps from guys in flannel shirts. Pop groups such as Del Amitri and Jellyfish were left in its wake.

Falling Between the Stools

It’s really a miracle, a freak occurrence that “Roll to Me” actually hit #10 in America in 1995. It was on the charts the same time as Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” ruled the charts – a musical anachronism in a landscape ruled by Auto-Tune and “flow.” Del Amitri wouldn’t hit the Hot 100 again.

So why didn’t these songsters make it? Rawlings-Way has a few ideas. Besides the aforementioned revolution in pop music, he points to the “corporate cannibalism” of record labels being bought up by large businesses whose concern was the bottom line, not artist development. Shortly after their commercial disappointment Can You Do Me Good? in 2002, they were dropped from A&M, which had been swallowed up first by Polygram, then Seagrams and then Vivendi – and subsequently called it quits.

Del Amitri was uncategorizable. Their music “fell between the stools,” as Rawlings-Way quotes Currie as saying. “They couldn’t be categorised as pop lightweights like Matchbox 20; they weren’t scruffy alt-rockers like the Gin Blossoms; they weren’t art-school introspectives like R.E.M. or Radiohead . . . What the hell were they?” Rawlings-Way finally decides that they were country, but the country they were from was Scotland. And that didn’t work.

Justin Currie, he of the mutton chops, still records and releases music under his own name. Harvie studies music and writes scores while helping his old friend record his albums. And while they appreciate their long trip under the radar — 22 years of playing and releasing albums — fans wonder what went wrong and curse the record companies and record-buying public for their fickleness and overall bad taste.

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