I actually used Shazam! once. It was a few years ago and I haven’t touched it since, even when marketing campaigns desperately try to get me to remove my phone from my pocket when watching TV. The one time it came in handy I was in a swanky, up-scale shop in London. Yes, I sound like a douche-bag mentioning the fact it was a) swanky and b) up-scale, but I am a douche-bag, and if I didn’t, nothing that follows would seem wondrous. Stood, bored and looking at mere wisps of what was called clothing that must have been woven from platinum judging by the price, my attention was caught by a song. Usually these shops only play the same 80’s pop standards or dull dance instrumentals that you only ever here in other shops.
This track though, was something I hadn’t heard. It was slow and melancholic. The trumpet was the fundamental instrument, it sounded 80’s though I couldn’t be sure. I stood for a few minutes trying to pin-point who the voice may belong too. Suddenly, realising that the song had been on for a few minutes, I panicked that the song may finish without ever knowing who created this atmospheric, beautifully sung treat. I jumped for my Shazam! app, so entrenched in my mission I didn’t think it odd to jump up on a fine leather couch, arm stretched toward the speaker, desperately trying to get the phones speaker within ear shot. “Are you okay sir?”. “It’s alright I’m just Shazam-ing”I said, almost frustrated by the foolish question. The shop assistant turned looking bemused for some stupid reason. The results came back. The song was called From a Late Night Train. From an album called Hats.
What I discovered that day didn’t just turn into a new favourite song, but a new favourite obsession. That obsession was a band called The Blue Nile.
Appearing from Glasgow, The Blue Nile are what could be loosely described as an industrial, electronic, blue-eyed, soul, melancholy outfit. A three piece, comprising of singer, guitarist and lyric writer Paul Buchanan, bassist Robert Bells and keys by Paul Joseph Moore. Each band member also brings the groups unique synthesizer qualities to each song. Forming out of uni, the trio were signed, not to a record label, but to a manufacturing company. Linn Records became a new division of Linn Products, which specialized in creating top of the range bespoke music systems. Eager to team with a band that reached for pristine sound quality in their recordings, The Blue Nile became the first group signed to the newly formed label/company division.
In 1984 they released the seminal A Walk Across the Rooftops. Featuring just seven tracks, each one feels deeply loved and well-crafted. Essentially they were, for The Blue Nile work at a notoriously slow pace. In their 30 year career, they have so far released only 4 albums, with a fifth, seemingly, not forthcoming. The album was recorded over 5 months with the songs being fine-tuned over five years of gigging. Due to Paul Buchanan’s minimal skill on the guitar, the group instead choose to fill the musical…let’s call it landscape…with disjointed synths, programmed drum beats, keyboard strings. It’s as though RZA produced Simply Red and slowed it down to within an inch of it’s life (*editors note: I’m sure the majority of Blue Nile fans would lynch me for comparing Paul Buchanan to Mick Hucknell).
You only have to listen to the opening/title track of their first horizon. Musically it’s incredibly sparse. There seems to be no one leading melody, but instead there are dozens of sounds that compliment themselves into a song. A throbbing base, that really must be heard on vinyl to appreciate, a prolonged horn that would put Scott Walker’s intense strings to shame, electronic wind chimes, programmed strings, drums – none of these instruments seem to ever play at once but they’re all in their. Over it all, you have Buchanan’s twisting vocals that range from emotional breakdown to soaring highs.
The first single off the album is quite a danceable number in comparison, Tinseltown in the Rain perhaps stands as one of their most beloved. Driven by an unmistakably 80s pop bass, hissing drums and idyllic piano, and brought together by sweeping panoramic strings. There’s even a rhythm guitar breakdown in the middle. Just listen to Buchanan’s voice as he proclaims for the second time that his love life is “Only Bravado”. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Elsewhere on the album the other stand out track Easter Parade is a much more slowed down affair. Only Buchanan and a piano occasionally complimented by what can only be described as “dark, ominous tones”. The band would only work on the song on Sundays during recording as they wanted to capture that quiet, life ceases moving quality. The song is filled with imagery of unmoving streets, shut down both physically and romantically. It’s a quietly devastating song.
The album sold moderately well on release. No groundbreaking sales, but they generated enough interest to be signed to a major label, and the critics adored them. They were signed to Virgin, but they would have to wait another five years for them to deliver their next masterpiece, Hats– a title chosen for it’s simplicity and a throwback to the bands original name The White Hats.
Hats continued both the themes and sounds of their first album, but refined them somewhat, making Rooftops’ sound almost ramshackle in comparison. The album kicks off suitably enough, with the charming Over the Hillside. The second track, and arguably their most recognisable song, The Downtown Lights then arrives. Beginning with a flurry of electronic bells, whether hearing live. or on your MP3 device, you know instantly what song has begun, and then you can get excited. Another song about alienated love in the big city, it feels like a more epic telling version of Tom Waits Downtown Train. The song has gone on to be covered by many artists, most notably Annie Lennox on her Medusa album, that the band produced for her. To give it some context, the song sounds like a slightly more upbeat version of the songs on the Drive soundtrack. An odd keyboard howl plays throughout, that sounds somewhere between distorted strings and untuned oboe. I don’t what it is, but I like it. Throughout the song it seems to die and come back to life. Buchanan sings to his love to join him out in the deserted city, promising that “it will be alright”. By the end of the song it becomes an almost desperate plea.
The next track Let’s Go Out Tonight, sits as the sister track to Easter Parade. The song involves a man hopefully asking his love to go out with him in the hope that they may rekindle the relationship that is clearly dying. It’s a simple set up, but the songs languid pace, and haunting guitar and horns are virtually tear inducing when listened to in the right or wrong mood. Buchanan’s final delivery “baby, be my baby, let’s go out tonight,” is genuinely heartbreaking. Headlights on the Parade stands out as one of the album’s vaguely cheerful numbers, up tempo even. Again about a doomed love affair – can you sense a pattern with these song themes? Not much has to be said about it, other than it’s soaringly elegant. Then the track that brought me into their world From A Late Night Train, a lonesome trumpet echoes over sparse piano and ambience. It’s one of their darker contemplative numbers. It well and truly feels like someone has died, “It’s over now, but I can’t let go”. It’s a song that you must never listen to immediately after breaking up.
The album ends on a relatively hopeful note with Saturday Night, where Buchanan sings about how ‘an ordinary girl can make the world seem alright’. The band would then virtually disappear for 7 years. Well they went out on tour – which being The Blue Nile – perhaps one of the most rigorously rehearsed tours ever conceived. Buchanan located to LA and became something of an industry darling, even having a relationship with actress Rosanna Arquette. They also signed a new album deal with Warner Brothers, mostly because the head of the label personally like Buchanan so much. When signing contracts Buchanan didn’t realise that only his name was written on them. By then he was becoming The Blue Nile – the one who’s voice and words were instantly identifiable. Understandably, this irked his bandmates Bells and Moore somewhat, adding tension to the bands already growing hostilities.
In 1996 the bands third album Peace at Last was released to much disappointment. Whilst by no means a bad album it just didn’t seem a worthy successor to Hats, and the sales and critical reaction showed this. Warner, annoyed that the band didn’t make something sooner whilst their second album lived fresh in their mind, coupled with a lengthy and expensive recording process, happily released them from their contract. Whilst I’m not going to give it a song-by-song run down, the album is far from terrible. Buchanan, growing as a guitarist, incorporates it into many more of the songs along with their heady mix of synth and strings. War is Love and Happiness particularly stand out with the best of the bands’ output.
It would be 2004 before we were blessed with another offering from The Blue Nile. The album, titled High,was released again to dwindling returns. Now signed to a smaller label, they were considered a heritage band, despite only having 3 previous works. PJ Moore was also notable by his absence in the sleeve notes. It seemed as though Buchanan and Bells were now acting as a duo. Sadly, this seems to have been confirmed in recent years as Moore has described how he wants to put the Nile “behind him”. Again not a bad album, with stand out tracks She Saw the World, Because of Toledo and I Would Never . By now though, their sound was beginning to sound dated, and not as cutting edge as their 80s output. A fate similar to Suicide’s later works, the album performed reasonably well in the charts and a subsequent tour was a sell-out. Perhaps this was because people clambered to hear their old favourite sung live again.
Sadly, all but dead as a thriving band, The Blue Nile must survive by two good albums and two all time masterpieces, which I would urge anyone to seek out. Paul Buchanan has now returned to Scotland, and in 2012 he released his first solo album ‘Mid-Air’. Stripped back even further than before, the album is a song cycle, with each song lasting around the 2:30, accompanied by only piano or guitar, it’s not a party album. A beautiful collection of melancholic songs it is, though. The title track featured prominently in Richard Curtis’ About Time, acting as a love theme for the main characters. It was a classy choice that heightened both film and song. Another successful tour for Buchanan hopefully means that our one remaining connection to The Blue Nile continues to make music that we can obsess over, chill out to, cry along with, and just be generally happy that it exists in this world.