Over the years you very occasionally come across a quite singular talent that whilst seemingly bearing some kinship to other bands or artists, fundamentally stands alone in a category of its own. Having made such a bold statement, I now, of course need to provide some examples, which, I have to say, is tricky.
I guess Nick Drake would be one such – seemingly a member of the distinguished order of late 60’s British ‘folkies’ and yet somehow quite apart from them. More recently, Jeff Buckley might well be another, indebted to his genetic father for his extraordinary vocal range, but with a style and substance that was all his own.
Where jazz is concerned, piano trios are everywhere these days, but no-one has ever really replicated the sound of Bill Evans’ classic late 50’s/early 60’s trio with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian.
With rock bands, I could probably make a case for The Band, The Beach Boys and Stackridge as each essentially operating in a field of one, but that would probably be stretching it a bit. However, for me, there is one band who stand alone in their own corner of the 80’s post-punk landscape and that is The Blue Nile.
Back in the day – this would be late 1983 or early 1984 – I had a mate who worked as a sales rep for Virgin Records (the label that is; not to be confused with the retail chain, or for that matter the airline, indifferent cable TV provider or train company.) Those were the days when Virgin were churning out band after band, some of them better than others – The Records, The Motors, Japan, XTC and Magazine were among the better options on offer. Having come back from the latest ra-ra Sales Meeting at which they were no doubt exhorted to get out there and mercilessly plug the latest Culture Club album, my mate collared me at a gig somewhere in Manchester and started babbling incoherently about this new Glaswegian band called The Blue Nile who had made one indie single that sank without trace and whose records Virgin were now distributing and who were – in his opinion – the greatest thing since sliced bread.
After the gig he dragged me off to his car and thrust into my hand a copy of The Blue Nile’s debut album – ‘A Walk across the Rooftops’. I was back home in Newcastle before I got a chance to listen to it, but when I did I was astonished. In some ways, the ingredients fitted right in with all the other post-punk pretenders – lots of synths, clattering electronic percussion, chugging guitars, angst-ridden male singer – but somehow The Blue Nile had taken all these ingredients and turned them into something that was utterly unique. Where other synth-laden bands would just come off sounding cold and mechanical, The Blue Nile had somehow contrived to suffuse their electronic tableaux with warmth and humanity.
In early ’84, ‘Rooftops’ felt like a great record, though not without its moments of indecision, but the remarkable thing is that it still sounds nearly as good today, nearly 30 years later. It wasn’t really the singles from the album – ‘Stay’ and ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ – that made it sound so different to everything else; they were great singles that barely shaved the Top 40, but there were so many others like that at the time, seemingly unable to deflect public attention away from Boy George and other, similar dross.
It was more the tracks that you had to revisit – the ones with lengthy silences in the middle of them and seemingly endless echoing fades, songs that sounded like they were recorded in the dimly-lit halls of an empty railway station at 3:30 am – songs like the title track and ‘Easter Parade’ or like ‘Heatwave’, that slowly built powerful castles in the night-time air out of the thinnest of preambles.
Anyway, don’t get me started…..
The Blue Nile in the early days….
The point was that no-one was doing anything like this, except maybe Japan, and their knowing orientalisms were maybe just a little too arch and self-conscious to have the same impact. Interestingly, once Japan had split, David Sylvian headed off into similar territory and his 1986 album ‘Gone to Earth’ sails through Blue Nile waters at times.
And then there’s ‘Tinseltown‘……
One of my all-time favourites; get me on to Desert Island Discs and it will be there in all its glory – if anything, whilst ‘Stay‘ has faded in my affections over the years, ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ is a song I probably love even more now than when I first heard it.
Of course, I duly proceeded to bore everyone into catatonia with Blue Nile cassettes and was almost willing their singles into the Fab Forty, but somehow it never really happened. They never called, they never wrote and more importantly, they never showed up at the City Hall or even Tiffany’s. ‘Rooftops’ remained frozen in time as one of the great ‘one-off’ albums of the era.
Skip forward some 5 years and I had moved to Birmingham. These days I was listening to more jazz and world music , but ‘Rooftops‘ still got regular run-outs . Now, amazingly, it was to have a companion because, finally, after most of us had given up on them, The Blue Nile had a new album out! ‘Hats’ was the album I thought I’d never see and it was seriously good as well – probably lacking a stand-out track like ‘Tinseltown‘, but a bit more consistent overall. Paul Buchanan’s achingly poignant voice and elliptical lyrics found nuggets of meaning in the elusive minutiae of everyday life. These were songs of loss and yearning and if you could almost make a case for ‘Rooftops‘ being an album of teenage wonderment, then it was equally possible that ‘Hats’ had us nicely settled down with a significant other and travelling the night-time highways of that pre- parenting world where we try to figure out if this one’s the right one.
However much that theory works for you – and the next album just reinforced it – it worked for me; it seemed that The Blue Nile and I were travelling parallel roads, which just gave the songs more resonance. I took them into my life and found a warm quiet place for them, just as I had their predecessors. And then something extraordinary happened – in the autumn of 1990, with ‘Hats’ well-established on the house playlist – came news that The Blue Nile were touring the UK.
It was September of 1990 and I don’t recall where I’d been, but I’d been away working somewhere, London, probably – and had managed to get away a day early. My train got in after the rush hour and I walked through the ebbing crowds up New Street to the Town Hall. It was a vain hope, but I called in at the Box Office and to my joy found that they had a few returns. I forked over what was a paltry sum considering what I was about to witness and retired to a nearby grothole pub (this town is full of them) where I sank a couple of beers and tried to shrug off the tiredness and the workaday blues. Feeling a little recovered, I returned through the empty streets on a warm Indian Summer evening and found my way into a packed auditorium.
Birmingham Town Hall was closed for ages in the years around the Millennium whilst they cleaned it and preened it and Mr Sheened it. It’s a different venue now, more open and airy and with lots of blond wood everywhere. Back in 1990, it was more intimate and almost womb-like and as the house lights dipped, there was a huge level of expectancy which exploded as soon as The Blue Nile took to the stage. The poor guys just stood there or hid behind their banks of keyboards, somehow trying to deal with this massive outpouring of emotion from the crowd. They seemed genuinely stunned as the applause just roared on and on. They started the title track from ‘Rooftops‘ but nobody could really hear the intro, so that when Paul Buchanan’s querulous vocal cut through the riotous din, there was sudden hear-a-pin-drop silence until the end, after which everybody exploded again. It seemed like the band had been on stage for about half an hour, yet had only managed to play one song.
Onstage at The Bottom Line in New York, 1990
When Paul Buchanan finally spoke to the crowd, you could hear knuckle-cracking tension in every syllable but every hesitant sentence was greeted with shouts of encouragement, applause, laughter and sheer outbursts of joy. The band was so nervous and we wanted them to feel at home and give it their best shot. And so it went on; people leapt to their feet, people around me were in tears, I was in tears for most of ‘Tinseltown‘, people smiled at one another, shouted encouragement, clapped until their hands were raw and just willed these guys to produce the show we all knew they were capable of. And, of course, they did exactly that….it could be argued that The Blue Nile’s music is perhaps more ‘electronically assisted’ than other bands, with its samples and banks of electronic gizmos, but the sound was crisp, the performance right on the money and Buchanan’s voice the central rock on which waves of sound crashed throughout the performance.
I remember leaving the auditorium with a curious blend of feelings, at one and the same time emotionally spent and yet with my spirit somehow renewed. I think the word cathartic just about covers it.
And it isn’t just me that feels that way; normally I read customer reviews on Amazon.com with a certain cynicism, but this person was there, alright….
What needs to be said at this point (and this is a major statement) is that it’s the greatest gig I’ve ever been to and here’s why: never before and never since have I witnessed or been a part of an event where there has been that degree of emotional communion between performer and audience. And yes, the word communion is used expressly here – I am in no way, shape or form a religious creature, but this event was beyond anything else I have ever experienced.
Skip forward another 6 years to 1996 and another Blue Nile album; different this time, with Buchanan’s acoustic guitar at the forefront and again the eerie feeling that the band and the lives they were living somehow paralleled my own. ‘Peace at last’ was the album, less feted by the critics than its predecessors, but for me a worthy successor to ‘Hats’. Here were songs about the sweet tedium of family life, the feeling of having settled and dedicated yourself to the task of being a good husband, a good father, a good person….not very ‘rock & roll’ really; oh well…. Still, there was ‘Body and Soul’ – another Blue Nile anthem
They toured again and this time my mate Serge and I saw them at the Warwick University Arts Centre on the outskirts of Coventry. A bigger, less intimate auditorium, a band who whilst hardly exhibiting anything remotely resembling ‘stagecraft’, were nonetheless more comfortable on stage than previously. In a way, the themes within the lyrics of the new songs – steadfastness, commitment and -yes – peace were appropriate for Serge who got married just a few days later in an open-air ceremony at Ross Priory on the shores of Loch Lomond. Not so much peace in my own life in those days as I recall, but you can’t have everything….
The Blue Nile chill out after yet another heavy day in the studio
And so to ‘High’, the Blue Nile’s 2004 release, an album which seemed to aim for the purely electronic tones of the first two records. The lyrical undercurrent is more mixed on this album, with songs about commitment and staying power, but also tales of loss and of travel and with at least one landmark song, ‘Because of Toledo’. It’s another excellent album , filled with light and shade and the slow turning of the seasons.
Four albums in 21 years; now if only Neil Young had been so abstemious…..
In 2006, Paul Buchanan toured as a solo act, with Robert Bell on bass (and other musicians), but without P.J. Moore, then the Buchanan/Bell duo + band toured again in 2007 & 2008, this time as The Blue Nile, but again without Moore.
For a band who are legendary for working at the speed of molasses on February window-panes, this represents an almost indecent haste. So perhaps we can hope for some new Blue Nile material soon? Or to paraphrase one heckler from the 2007 gig at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, ‘”How about an album?” – cue general laughter – then in the silence that followed came another shout – ” How about a single?”