As Del Amitri return to York, we examine the life and lyrics of the band’s charismatic front man Justin Currie.
By Miles Salter
Way back in the early months of 1990, when the UK music chart was a wasteland of ghastly pop procured by Stock, Aitken and Waterman or The Pet Shop Boys, a song rang out of the radio one day that instantly grabbed me. Simon Bates, then part of the old guard of BBC Radio One, played it amid the other dross that was doing the rounds. At first I thought I was listening to some buried classic from the early 1970s. What was this? I was intrigued. Was Bates playing Crosby Stills and Nash, or some other song I’d never come across? I had no clue. I’d just got into Bob Dylan and U2, after years of listening to over-produced ‘80s rock and pop. The song Bates played, with its acoustic guitars and accordion, sounded like nothing else that was in the charts. When I saw my (similarly music obsessed) friend at school a day or two later, I told him about this brilliant new song.
The track was Del Amitri’s Nothing Ever Happens, a song that knows life is out there somewhere, but not in the town you’re in. Living in a sleepy Buckinghamshire town as a teenager in the 1980s, it struck a chord with me. The track helped to break the band in the UK. Justin Currie, the band’s brilliant vocalist and songwriter, has said that the moment the band appeared on Top Of The Pops, everything changed for the band. Even the chirpy Steve Wright interrupted the song to comment. ‘Great line,’ said the DJ, when the song arrived at the line about American businessmen snapping up Van Goghs ‘for the price of a hospital wing’. Wright was right – Currie had nailed the absurdities of western commerce in a few caustic words. The song ends with a subtle reference to the holocaust, and a bleak prediction of human apathy – ‘we’ll all go along like before’.
The band went on to produce four more albums across the next twelve years, tour the world, and produce several chart hits. Releases like Change Everything and Twisted were superb rock albums, crammed with great songs and soaring melodies. There was a lengthy break after Can You Do Me Good? in 2002. Did I say lengthy? I mean epic. 19 years after they went away, Del Amitri finally returned this year with Fatal Mistakes, their seventh studio album. Currie is aided by Iain Harvie (guitar), Andy Alston (Keyboards / accordion) Ash Soan (drums) and Kris Dollimore (guitar), who have been mainstays of the band since 1998.
The back catalogue, with cheery, feel good songs such as Roll To Me or their 2021 hit You Can’t Go Back can be deceiving: you are never far from the shadows with a Del Amitri album. Their 1992 hit Always The Last To Know is a case in point. It’s got plenty of swagger and chutzpah, and sounds, if you don’t listen to the lyrics, like a triumphant song. But pay more attention, and it’s something else entirely, a tale about two lovers who cannot be faithful to the other, and whose relationship unravels amid secrets and betrayal. It is, according to The Scotsman ‘…a desperately sad lyric…’
Much of Del Amitri’s oeuvre is like this: you tap your foot to the brisk rhythms and happy go lucky choruses, before realising the songs are shot through with melancholy. Nothing Ever Happens is a hymn to boredom and urban wastelands. Its parent album, Waking Hours (1989) offered similar comments in songs such as Move Away Jimmy Blue. That track decribes a wretched scene of addiction, despair and petty theft, but still contains a soaring chorus that is impossible to resist. Currie finds melancholy hard to resist. It’s like gravity in his songs, always pulling him down to earth and into the shadows. The First Rule Of Love (from Change Everything) uses the metaphor of addiction to talk about romance: ‘You’ll get hooked, you’ll get drugged’. Substances are a part of the landscape of Currie’s writing. Many of his lyrics contain references to drinking. Recent band T-Shirts have declared ‘Del Amitri – Drunk in Glasgow since 1982.’ There may have been periods of rehab.
After Can You Do Me Good, their 2002 album, Currie sat at home watching TV before boredom got the better of him and he embarked on a solo career. His first solo album, 2007’s What Is Love For?, contained songs that were even darker than his band songs. Currie has become adept at exploring a baffling world, and his own psyche, with panache. The brutal No, Surrender (from the same album) is like a J G Ballard novel compressed into several verses, a vicious denunciation of consumerism, bordering on conspiracy theory: ‘terrible tales of kidnapped kids keep you focused on the family and filling up the fridge’.
Currie may not be pompous about his talent, but he knows what he’s good at. ‘I Write Better Songs Than You’ declares his Twitter profile, and he has a point.
To his admirers, he is amongst the best songwriters in the world: literate, witty and always one step away from cliché. He’s in a superior league, alongside Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen. Who else could slip the word ‘remonstrate’ into a lyric, as he does on new song ‘Missing Person’? It’s not a word you’ll find in anything by Dua Lipa, or Oasis, or a hundred other acts.
Currie’s humour (and he can be very funny) is laced with acidity, and consumerism is frequently a target of his displeasure. He’s been known to have a pop at (Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos. Tweeting about the Eurovision song content recently (May 22nd 2021), he summed things up pithily: ‘The tension mounts, nations across the continent bite their nails to the quick. Patriotism swelling in breasts like a lung infection. It all makes you proud to be alive in the age of the glittering backdrop hiding a dysfunctional world going to shit in a shopping trolley.’
His vision is staggering, with an artist’s eye for encompassing everything. ‘I’ve always wanted to contain a book that contains everything,’ wrote the poet-cum-monk Thomas Merton many years ago, and Currie’s songs occasionally have the same universal vision. At Home Inside of Me, from his second solo album, is particularly powerful, as the singer meditates on the whole universe being harboured in his chest. ‘A fistfight at a wedding, a killing on the stairs, the brilliant spark at the start of love affairs…’ he sings. It’s transcendent, moving stuff. Elsewhere, there are occasional glimpses of real tenderness. Check out Tell Her This, a gorgeous love song from Twisted, where the narrator admits his failings and his love: ‘Tell her something in my heart needs her move than even clowns, need the laughter of the crowd.’ Every time I hear this vulnerable and tender love song, it gets me.
Currie appears to have settled down in the last couple of decades, although there are hints that his long-term relationship may have suffered some upheaval. The video to Sydney Harbour Bridge (from his fourth solo album, released in 2017), shows Currie sitting on a train, looking sad and desolate, while the lyrics contain the words ‘…I should have treated you better…’ It would appear, though, that things have worked out, as You Can’t Go Back from the new album states: ‘I’m back here at your side…that thing between us, that we knew was something special and it seems it still is.’
A theme that occurs across several albums is the battle to be authentic. Currie has written several songs that allude to his struggle with the two sides of himself: the funny, charismatic, good natured side (you see and hear this version whenever he does a TV or radio interview, embodying the cheerful, witty pop star who doesn’t take himself too seriously), and the darker, despairing, narcissistic side that he keeps more in the shadows.
Such a duality is common in creatives, who can struggle to reconcile their independent, dreamy spirit with a more communal, ‘feet on the ground’ approach to living. Half Of Me from Lower Reaches, explores this duality, and the temptations to exchange cosy domesticity for something wilder. ‘Half of me wants to leave the life we’ve made, and go out blazing trails in a haze of rock and roll.’ The song Two People from his last solo album, This Is My Kingdom Now, continues this theme of duality. The track sent chills up my spine when I heard it for the first time. ‘I’m two people,’ Currie sings. Later in the song, there’s a distressing, riveting lyric as he unmasks the brutal side of masculinity: ‘…is it me that waits behind the door, holding out a hammer like a rose?’ The subject was repeated yet again on the new band album, Fatal Mistakes. The song Second Staircase seems to suggest that Currie is finding his way to deal with his demons. The song acknowledges his darker side, but also an apparent awareness that to go there will not help him, as it threatens to destroy the things he most values.
Currie’s father, John Currie, was also plugged into music, albeit of a different sort. He was chorus master for the Scottish National Orchestra. John died last year, and Justin talked briefly about their relationship in a recent (2021) interview with Radio 2’s Ken Bruce. ‘It was a bit tricky,’ Currie said, ‘as I didn’t really get classical music, and he didn’t really get pop music.’ This may have been the polite version describing their uneasy relationship. Fatal Mistakes includes the song Musicians and Beer, with a cutting line about the Currie Senior’s funeral: ‘We lowered him down, without a tear, so he died like a pauper, without musicians and beer.’ (Currie’s parents split up when he was young, and this disconnection seems to have left a lasting mark. Currie vowed he would never have children after seeing his mother, an actress, struggle to balance family and career. He writes of his reluctance to have children in the song No Family Man on Some Other Sucker’s Parade.)
If you’re interested in where great song writing can take you, check out Fatal Mistakes. Or Twisted. Or Change Everything. Or any of the 11 albums Currie has been involved in. Del Amitri play York on 18 September. It’s 19 years since they were last here. Do yourself a favour, and buy a ticket. A brilliant singer, a brilliant band, and lyrics and melodies that scale the heights (and Lower Reaches) of what it means to be fully alive. It could be 19 years before they come back.
Del Amitri play York Barbican on Saturday 18 September 2021. A brand new documentary Del Amitri, You Can’t Go Back will premier on Sky Arts on Saturday 4 September 2021 at 9pm