Story of Del Amitri to be told in new book

Biography writer Charles Rawlings-Way
Biography writer Charles Rawlings-Way
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I nearly dropped my phone when Justin Currie messaged me on Facebook. Walking along Rundle Street in downtown Adelaide, winter sun on my back, I was lifted from the moment and teleported through time – back to 1989 in Hobart, Tasmania, where as a callow teen, confounded by love, sex, betrayal and all that adult stuff just over the horizon, I played Del Amitri’s Waking Hours album on high rotation.

Currie – Del Amitri’s singer, bassist and chief songwriter – was a savvy, denim-clad hero. Through the power of heartfelt lyrics, he raised his band of Scots above the puerile LA hair-metal acts which clogged Australia’s airwaves at the time. Grunge would change everything soon enough – but before Eddie Vedder showed up, Del Amitri offered a lifeline to something beyond the faux histrionics of Mötley Crüe and Poison. Something more beautiful, more mature and entirely more poetic.

The Del Amitri biography

The Del Amitri biography

When I began to crave harder sounds and bleaker imagery (woah, Soundgarden!), the cycle of my Del Amitri fanhood span itself out. Their songs had welded themselves to a series of major girlfriend incidents over the years, but life moves on. I left Del Amitri behind.

Fast-forward to 2015: my wife exhumed a cassette (cassette!) of Waking Hours from a box in the attic. Amazingly, despite decades of dust and hellish Australian roof temperatures, it still worked. We played it to our kids in the car on the way to school: they loved it, and I loved it again. In particular, Currie’s lyrics shone in dazzling relief: this guy really knew how to write a love song.

Buzzing with nostalgia, I tracked Currie down on Facebook (“Look, that’s him – still got the floppy hair and the sideburns.”) and fired off a message of sincere appreciation. Then, a couple of days later in the Rundle Street sunshine, the story of this book really began.

Unless you were living under a rock in the 1990s, it was hard to avoid Del Amitri. In the UK they had scores of Top-40 hits and five Top-5 albums, plus a Top-10 hit in America (the ludicrously poppy Roll To Me in 1995). In Australia, for a few years in the early ‘90s, they were bone fide rock stars. But mainstream musical tastes evolved, shifted and reinvented themselves. When the band’s final studio album was released in 2002 – the quirky semi-electronic Can You Do Me Good? – Del Amitri was on shaky ground. There was a brief UK tour in support of the album, but soon afterwards they were dumped by their record company. And that, as they say, is all she wrote.

In fact, until now, that’s all anyone wrote about Del Amitri. The band disbanded (as bands do) and Currie went on to record a string of incandescent solo albums. But after 2002, Del Amitri fell between the barstools and no-one helped them get back up. Lost to the vagaries of rock history, the story of Del Amitri remained unwritten.

Clearly there was a gap in the market – a Del Amitri rock biography. Lucid with jetlag in an airport motel in Auckland (I’m a travel writer, more often than not), I pitched my idea to ‘JC’ in Glasgow. But Currie poured cold water on the prospect: “The story just isn’t interesting enough to justify all the work,” he lamented. But I was interested. Surely other fans would be, too. I took it as a challenge: I needed to win him over. Prove that I had the chops.

Back in Adelaide, I sat in the Belair Hotel alongside some empty pint glasses and sketched out an article on Del Amitri. My angle: given the band’s staunch Glaswegian work ethic and surplus of hooks and good-looks, why weren’t they even more successful? I posted the article on my blog, emailed the link to the Del Amitri Facebook fan page and some Scottish music websites (scotrock.co.uk, yeah!) and…BOOM! It went ballistic, the ‘views’ counter on by blog clicking skywards through 1,000, 1,500, 2,000… This thing had legs.

I contacted Currie again to wow him with the stats. This time he wasn’t so quick to twist the cold-water tap. And just as importantly, he liked what I’d written. Currie was convinced. He made a recommendation to Del Amitri’s other mainstay – erudite guitarist Iain Harvie – that they throw their support behind the project. Game on.

Currie and Harvie proceeded to ply me with raw materials: timelines, industry contacts, promo material, photographs and email addresses for everyone from tour managers, producers and photographers to sisters, super-fans and sacked band members (there were quite a few). Anything I might need to aid the crafting of my tome.

The 18 months that followed were joyous, inspiring and unpredictable. Through dozens of Skype sessions at ungodly hours, I interviewed rock stars in Glasgow (midnight their time, 8:30am for me…who’s for a whisky?), retired promotions managers in LA (another day, another dollar) and ex-girlfriends in New York (would they dish the dirt?).

Currie – nocturnal enough to have earned the nickname The Count – made himself available at these insensible ticks of the clock, his cigarettes and bottles of red a counterpoint to my steaming coffee cups. Harvie, who through the band’s career had swung between boozy on-stage dynamism and meticulous precision in the studio, opted to correspond via email, to ensure he got the facts straight.

Other characters were harder to track down: seminal drummer Paul Tyagi finally responded to my hopeful email prompts, while band manager John Reid warmed to the task once I’d chatted with Justin and Iain a few times (thus proving I wasn’t a nutter). Some key players declined to be interviewed (legendary rock photographer Kevin Westenberg); and at least one had died (guitarist Jon McLoughlin passed away from Type 1 Diabetes in 2005). Some I couldn’t locate at all: Barbara Shores, Del Amitri’s second manager, had seemingly disappeared off the surface of the Earth, as had former drummer Brian McDermott (is he now a postman in Dundee? A care worker for Westminster Council?). But most folks were more than happy to tell their tales: to paraphrase Robert Plant, there was a whole lotta love out there for Del Amitri.

Somewhere in the middle of all this talk, my wife and I welcomed baby twins into the house we were trying to sell – complexities which only deepened my rock ‘n’ roll delirium (sleep? Who needs sleep?). Oh, poor wife… But through those hazy days I peered into the lives of many creative, intelligent, funny (quotable!) people, right across the music industry. Rare company, and a rare privilege.

And I wrote the book.

Looking back, I needn’t have been so surprised when Justin Currie messaged me that sunny Adelaide afternoon. He’s very much at home on social media, and entirely happy to engage with fans (barbed political exchanges and cultural assassinations a specialty). Keeps him off the streets.

But whether you’re a 50-something rock star in Glasgow or a sleep-deprived writer in Adelaide, this middle-age thing is tricky. As agricultural rocker John Mellencamp once put it, ‘there’s less days in front of the horse than riding in the back of this cart.’ And when those days wheel into memory – those perfect days – they become intangible and foggy. Maybe we all need a biography to give us something solid to hold on to – to remind us of who we were, and who we wanted to become. Biographies can do that, for both writers and rock stars.

These Are Such Perfect Days: The Del Amitri Story by Charles Rawlings-Way is published today by Urbane Publications at £12.99, see www.amazon.co.uk/These-Are-Such-Perfect-Days/dp/1911331418

Follow Charles at www.facebook.com/chasrwmusic and @crawlingsway

Del Amitri play Edinburgh Castle on 21 July, see www.edinburgh castle.scot /whatson/concerts