AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #304: THE BLUE NILE

‘We just sculpted away together’

The Blue Nile – an imaginary compilation album

A GUEST POSTING by COMRADE COLIN

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…’.

COMRADE COLIN

 

TRUE CONFESSIONS : WILL WE ALWAYS BE HAPPY GO LUCKY?

Here’s a confession that doesn’t bother me in the slightest.  It also won’t come as a surpise who can recall the time I wrote about the song as #36 in the Scottish Singles series away back in August 2016…..

Back in 1984, a Glasgow band called The Blue Nile released a song called Tinseltown In The Rain. Everybody, and I really do mean everybody, who was an acquaintance at the time seemed to go nuts for the song, with many considering it the perfect sounding anthem for a city that was slowly but gradually re-inventing itself and regaining its self-confidence after an extended period of post-industrial decline. Further afield, loads of journalists and writers pounced on the song and the album A Walk Across The Rooftops, boldly declaring the music as unlike anything else recorded before, with some going as far to say that the songs were the sort that Frank Sinatra would be proud of.

Part of the aura around the band was linked to the fact they released their songs via a company called Linn Products, which was (and remains to this day) an engineering company which built very hi-tech audio equipment, including turntables, amps and speakers. They were also ridiculously expensive products. The engineers were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of LPs that they were having to use to test their flagship turntable and so they developed a cutting lathe to enable improvements. The company, however, needed to find a singer or band who would be happy to record for them and deliver a ‘type’ of music that would best showcase the audio equipment.

One version of what happened next is that the bosses at Linn, and in particular the highly determined and driven MD, asked The Blue Nile to produce one song to help with the testing. The MD liked the song so that he offered an immediate contract for an album on what would be a new venture called Linn Records. The band dispute this version of events and say that the link-up came after they had recorded a whole series of demos with a studio engineer who just happened to have ties with Linn and was a friend of the MD. The band version is that there was no approach from Linn to make a record for the company nor did the company seek to influence the album’s sound in any way and have said “it was a myth that we were a ‘hi-fi band signed to a hi-fi company’. We just got lucky that we’d found our way to an excellent engineer who knew the company.”

That particular version of events emerged in 2013 – my memory of events as they were reported in 1984 was that the band and label were very closely linked and much was made of the album being given a very slick and glossy production that could be best be enjoyed and appreciated via Linn equipment.

This was all something that pissed me right off. My hi-fi equipment was fairly low-spec and much of my record collection was of the hurriedly produced and ramshackle variety that sounded just perfect to my ears. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in something so artificial…and so I’m willing to admit that I did listen with some prejudice.

Regular readers will know that I have used the pages of this and other blogs to hold my hands up and admit that I got something wrong; sometimes, first impressions of a song can be misleading and repeated or a different exposure to something can provide a change of mind or opinion.

I haven’t ever changed my mind about The Blue Nile or Tinseltown In The Rain. There is no soul or warmth to the music whatsoever and the 1984 marketing campaign was a triumph for style over substance. I’m not a fan of Paul Buchanan’s voice either – he is no better or worse than a marginally above-average pub singer. It’s a killer combination of music and vocals that is deadly dull to listen to with not one note or octave providing any sort of surprise or excitement.

I know that many of the bloggers I most admire – echorich, postpunkmonk and Brian among others – are in complete disagreement with me.  My brother Stevie is also a huge fan of the record and the band.

It was, however, interesting that some, including Jonny the Friendly Lawyer, had my back on this one last time out.

Just thought it would be a nicely controversial way to close out what has been a controversial and at times unsavoury month on t’blog.

mp3 : The Blue Nile -Tinseltown In The Rain (12″ version)

JC

PS : A reminder that I need votes on a previously voided match in the ICA World Cup….details are here.

SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SONG : #36 : THE BLUE NILE

blue-nile

I know that many T(n)VV readers like The Blue Nile and so I’m being populist by featuring them in this series.

But I’ve personally never understood why they’re so revered.

I think a lot of it boils down to being so underwhelmed when I first heard them. This was a band who everyone was talking about in Glasgow back in the early 80s as being the next big thing. They had been signed to Linn Records, a label that had been established to assist with the promotion of extremely high-quality (and highly expensive) audio equipment that was manufactured just outside the city. They were supposed to be making cutting edge music the likes of hadn’t been heard before – a mix of pop, soul, experimental and dreamy electronica complete with a smooth vocal delivery.

They were also rumoured to have written a modern anthem for my home city. I was more than a little intrigued and then I heard it:-

mp3 :

The Blue Nile – Tinseltown In The Rain

Oh dearie me.

I’ve had more arguments with folk over the years about this song than any other. I’m very much in the minority as thinking it dull, dreary and devoid of any sort of soul. It’s utterly antiseptic.

I also thought that many of the fawning reviews were pretentious and bordering on parody, full of words and phrases which on their own were fine but when run together as a piece were hilarious. Indeed, it has gotten worse over the years. Here’s som of the bollocks which accompanied the 2012 re-release of the debut LP A Walk Across The Rooftops:-

“1984’s A Walk Across the Rooftops remains unique in its fusion of chilly technology and a pitch of confessional, romantic soul that ‘alternative’ types would usually shy away for fear it wasn’t ‘cool’… in the years since, its peerless power to affect has accrued multiple layers of rueful resonance.”

It proved to be perfect for someone almost seeking to relearn the art of listening to music; perhaps because it seemed to have been made by people who were in the early stages of learning how to make miraculous music from simple building blocks. This was a necessity as none of the members were trained musicians, but the resulting album of very simple, carefully constructed compositions proved far greater than the sum of its parts”

Whatever.