‘We just sculpted away together’

The Blue Nile – an imaginary compilation album


The thing about The Blue Nile, it is true, they are either in your blood or they aren’t. Everyone finds their own way to this band, somehow, whether it is to adore them or ignore them. Our resident host, JC, is very much in the latter camp, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, but fully respect. And this is, of course, the sheer joy of music… the varied responses we have to the sounds we hear, the stories we are told by the musicians we hold dear to us. For myself, the music and the words of Paul Buchanan, P.J. Moore and Robert Bell are almost part of my DNA now. I couldn’t walk away from their music even if I wanted to. It is a life soundtrack, to be sure.

This is a much-delayed ICA. I’ve had the ten tracks in my mind, in my ears, for quite a while now, ever since I first mentioned to JC that I might scribble some notes about The Blue Nile and what a ‘top ten’ might look like for an imaginary compilation album. The final selections were put together as a Spotify playlist, going around my head when out walking in Glasgow, usually from east to west and back again. For this is also true, the geography, the people, the places of this city feature prominently in the patterns and themes The Blue Nile make (I will not say ‘soundscapes’). Paul Buchanan, as the lyricist and singer of the band, is an observer of fine details, of small moments, of feelings that we all notice. He trusts in the little things, because they matter. The delay in sending this memo to JC, in part, is due to my own reluctance to share and let it go, wondering how he will react. He can be pithy, to be diplomatic, about the bands he just doesn’t see value in.

This is true, everyone finds their own way to this band. It is worth repeating. The tiny, stolen moments you remember, in a fuzzy and distant haze now. One moment for me was when I first heard ‘Tinseltown in the rain’ in a student union bar in Paisley in 1988 and being unable to stop myself heading to the dance floor. Even as a committed goth, I just couldn’t resist the lure of that bassline. It just sounded so big and full of itself, all of it. Another moment was playing ‘From a late night train’ on a Sony Walkman loop after yet another doomed romance, heading back on the West Coast line from Glasgow from London in 1991. The despair and sadness was all too real, you sometimes need to dive deep into a song like that, just to survive. Then there was a fateful New Year early morning, back in 2007, drinking champagne from the bottle, spinning around the room, reflecting on the reality of the line “just separate chairs in separate rooms” from ‘Family Life’. You know it is time to flee, to accept a divorced defeat.

It is a part of you. The Blue Nile, you see, are a life as a soundtrack, the details and the moments you will come to remember.

The methodological design for this ICA, a bit like the one I authored for Talk Talk a few years ago, is to keep it simple: stick to the albums, keep it to ten tracks. With only four studio albums to choose from, I’ve decided to pick 3 tracks each from ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’ (1984) and ‘Hats’ (1989), with a further 2 tracks each from ‘Peace at Last’ (1996) and ‘High’ (2004). This seems fair, although I was seriously tempted to include two of my favourite non-album tracks, ‘Regret’ and ‘Wish me Well’. Why make it even harder though?

This is also true, you will all have your own ideas on what tracks to include or sideline, how the running order should be. Below, I will include a short justification for each track. To those of you who know these moments, this music, well, you will appreciate the impossibility of this task. I beg your forgiveness. To those of you who know little of The Blue Nile, I would just ask you to take an hour or so and listen closely, perhaps late at night with headphones attached. Just try to welcome the space and the details, the moments and the feelings that are created here. You will either adore them or ignore them, but make of it what you will, it is your choice.

Side A:

A walk across the rooftops

A rather obvious beginning, track 1 of side A on the first album ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’. The early promise of what would follow. The bassline, the electronics, a vocal that stretches out. A show of faith from Linn. It still feels like the start of a new day, or the end of a long night… ‘I leave the redstone building’.

The downtown lights

Although it might be argued that ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ is The Blue Nile defined, I’d make the case for this track playing that role. A headline single from the second album, ‘Hats’, it captures those nervous and fleeting moments from an initial night out. Plaintive, but hopeful. The dichotomies clearly mean something, looking over… ‘chimney tops and rooftops’.

The day of our lives

A leap forward to the final album, ‘High’, and how it begins. Track 1 of side A. Some incredible electronics from P. J. Moore and a matured, observed outlook on a life lived in reverse. A metropolitan statement of where you are, what’s around us. The search for… ‘an ordinary miracle, you and me’.

From a late night train

Back to ‘Hats’ for the perfect example of what Paul Buchanan’s lyrics and a piano can conjure up. A quiet layer of sympathetic synths and a solitary trumpet offer some accompaniment. The heartbreak spacing and the four-minute sparseness make this a uniquely haunting and sad song, trying not to let go… ‘I know it’s over, but I love you so’.

She saw the world

A complete change in tempo, if not mood, a track taken from the ‘American album’ as it was known, ‘Peace at Last’. For this stage in the journey, it seemed to be about settlement, adulthood, accepting the facts of middle age. And yet, there is that underlying sense of discomfort and unease… ‘it feels like a movie’.

Side B:

Tinseltown in the rain

A track like this… I mean, how could it not be included? A big opening for side B, running to 6 minutes in length. Back to the debut album, it feels like a timeless journey across the city. A love letter to Glasgow? Perhaps it is. Those soaring synths give it a skyline drama, the bassline rooting it to the landed Clyde geography. We all have a version of tinseltown… ‘a place to always feel this way’.

God bless you kid

The American album, ‘Peace at Last’, and the final record, ‘High’, deserve far more attention than they usually tend to receive from fans of The Blue Nile. This song is a case in point, featuring some of Paul Buchanan’s finest lyrics, I’d suggest. The influences shine through, via the Midwest and the South, but we retain our ordinary lives… ‘it feels like Memphis, after Elvis, there’s nothing going on’.

Easter parade

As with ‘From a late night train’, this is a song that is born of vocal, piano and so much texture and space. There is a fine wash over of hidden synths. The piano keystrokes meet the author’s hesitant breaths, matching the gradual intonation that is dared. There is a fragility here that is like a fine china waiting to be broken. Just a beautiful serenade from the debut album, ‘a city perfect in every detail’.

Family life

A song from ‘Peace at Last’ that is almost impossible to listen to if you have the memories and scars of a broken family, a painful divorce, the end of something unique. Every word is there for a reason. I saw the band perform this live one time, at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, and even Paul Buchanan had to wipe tears from his eyes at the end. It’s about the fine details that appear in the images, again… ‘silver on the window, like the bike I once had at home in the yard’.

Let’s go out tonight

The perfect ending, I think, for this ICA. Back to a delicate track from ‘Hats’ that showcases the vocal range of Paul Buchanan. Some of those notes you wonder if he will make. But he does. An arrangement that, yet again, let’s the vocals take centre stage. A beautiful guitar part, a reflection on issues of communication, misunderstanding, trying to find hope… ‘I know a place, where everything’s alright…’.



  1. This is such a special band – I’m one of the fervent disciples . Hearing Tinseltown on the Annie Nightingale show and thinking woh how are they making those sounds and who is that ? Buying the lp one a school trip down to London and scouting the perfect cover for clues and finding none except the 3 members name . Seeing them live at the Royal Albert Hall was close to a religious experience.
    Started my my own ICA many a time but had to give up so hats off to Colin for persevering . Would somehow had to have found room for Stay , early b side Regret and maybe Happiness , but then what to leave out . They have such a small cannon of songs but there’s only one I can think off that I don’t have to stop what I’m doing when it comes on

  2. Wonderful to see you gracing these pages again. It has been far too long. I have listened to the first two albums hundreds of times. Yet, I have never heard a note of the last two. I welcome these “new” songs with open arms. Can’t wait. Thank you, Colin.

  3. Would also go for Stay, one of the first Blue Nile songs I heard. Also, I Love This Life, a very early single I found in a bargain bin in Edinburgh some time in the 80s and played to death. The version of Easter Parade they do with Rickie Lee Jones is pretty fine too.

  4. I’m with Brian, loved the first 2 albums, looking forward to hearing the ‘newer’ songs

  5. Just an outstanding band, which always leave me kind of sad. Music to listen to on the last train home, like the feller says.

  6. I agree they are an acquired taste. I first got into them in Aberdeen, because, at the risk of stating the obvious, the subject of ‘Tinseltown in the rain’ from the opening line ‘Why did we ever come this far…’ is Glasgow and I love Glasgae. Paul Buchanan is one of those rare Scots in the 1980s who sang in his native tounge, not the mid-Atlantic of Mij Ure et al. That and the electronics were what first attracted them to me, and then realising that the best bits were the amazing string parts on the 1st album. (I play the cello badly). I would have had ‘Headlights on the parade’ from Hats but its a quibble. ‘Let’s go out tonight’ is a great closer. It’s a break-up song. You both know it’s over but go out anyway. I think of Paul Buchanan and his girl skulking up the Byers Road in the gloaming. Curtis Stiggers does a great live version of the song. There are some stinkers, though, check out Andrea Corr’s abomination, but also two good covers of Downtown Lights by Annie Lennox and Rod Stewart from 1995, the Lennox version probably because Paul Buchanan worked with her on ‘Diva’. I saw the Blue Nile live at the Dominion in London in 1990 and it was as spellbinding of the records. The last two albums are not as good as the first two and their work rate is very frustrating. 4 albums in 40 years, give Guns and Roses a challenge in the career on hiatus stakes.

  7. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard The Blue Nile despite reading their name in the press since 1987 and them being a band bloggers are all over. So it seems the time is right. I will download all of these and see.

  8. Thanks for an excellent post, Comrade Colin. I’m with Swiss Adam in that I somehow managed to avoid The Blue Nile, even though music journos seemed to rave about them and name check other bands that I really liked. I currently have the grand total of 5 songs by The Blue Nile, only 2 of which are included in this ICA, so I’m looking forward to an education/proper introduction to their music. On the writing alone, you’ve sold it.

  9. I never did get the sometimes god-like status heaped on the band in the early days. As much as I liked some of the songs, I found the music media coverage off-putting.
    A few years later, when listening to Hats, I was surprised by how familiar I was with every song.

    Thanks for re-jolting some of those warm memories.

  10. Greatly appricated this ICA. Blue Nile has a large fanbase here in the netherlands. We all want to walk downtown Glasgow, heyheeeeyy..

  11. Thank you thank you thank you. Got totally hooked on Tinseltown In The Rain, think that was all that was released/played here in Oz.

  12. What an excellently written ICA Comrade!
    Your choices and reasoning fall right into the spaces I would make, were I to attempt such a laborious task!
    Easter Parade is such an important song to me. When I had the chance to hear them perform it life, it just enveloped the room trapping us all in it’s moment in time. In fact the only song missing is the song I hold most dear from their musical canon, and one I don’t think I could do without in my ICA – Stay.

  13. Have been listening to them very recently. Last week, managed to get the vinyl pressing of ‘High’ brand new, for 20 quid. Waiting for the 2cd pressings of ‘A Walk…’ and ‘Hats’. Both at very good prices

    Fell for The Blue Nile when ‘Tinseltown…’ was released, and was on heavy rotation on Music Box. Still can’t suss out why they weren’t absolutely massive

    ‘Family Life’ makes me cry like no other song can. Pauls’ vocal delivery is heart-breaking. A unique voice, in a unique band

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