Posts Tagged ‘Paul Buchanan’

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Back in the day – this would be late 1983 or early 1984  – I had worked as a rep for Virgin Records the label.  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 Meeting at which there was no doubt but to get out there and mercilessly plug the latest Culture Club album, But at that time there was a new Glaswegian band called The Blue Nile who had made one indie single that sank without trace and whose records Virgin Records were now distributing.

The Blue Nile’s debut album was – ‘A Walk across the Rooftops’.  With 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.

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. And then there’s ‘Tinseltown‘……

One of my all-time favourites songs, if anything, whilst ‘Stay‘ has faded in my affections over the years, ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ is still a song I probably love even more now than when I first heard it.

Like many bands that emerged after punk, The Blue Nile are defined by their limitations. Vocalist and guitarist Paul Buchanan later said told The Independent: “I’ve always found it strange that people missed the ‘punk’ aspect of A Walk Across the Rooftops. We were living in a flat in Glasgow with no hot water. We barely knew what we were doing and that was very liberating.” Buchanan’s guitar skills were limited, and the trio didn’t have a drummer, so the trio built around the assets they did have; Buchanan’s soulful voice, and Robert Bell and Paul Joseph Moore’s keyboards and synthesizers.

While 1980s synth-pop hasn’t always dated well, The Blue Nile’s classy, shimmering music has aged gracefully. Bell and Moore’s arrangements are almost symphonic in their carefully constructed grandeur. Buchanan’s yearning voice adds a human element, similar to contemporaries like Peter Gabriel or Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis.

The Blue Nile in the early days….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.

Of course, I duly proceeded to bore everyone about the Blue Nile and was almost willing their singles into the top Forty, but somehow it never really happened. ‘Rooftops’ remained frozen in time as one of the great ‘one-off’ albums of the era.

Hats had a troubled gestation, after touring 1984’s debut A Walk Across the Rooftops, The Blue Nile were sent straight back into the studio to record a followup. Without material, the group spent almost three years (!) recording without result. They were forced to vacate the studio for another band, and returned to Glasgow where Buchanan was able to overcome his writer’s block. Despite the five year gap between albums, and all of the studio time, Buchanan later claimed that half of Hats was recorded in a week.

Now, amazingly, 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.

The next album just reinforced it worked for me, it seemed that The Blue Nile in the autumn of 1990, with ‘Hats’ well-established on the playlist – came news that The Blue Nile were touring the UK. 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. 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.

Buchanan’s good at deflating his own romanticism. ‘Saturday Night’ could easily turn into a mushy love song, but his image of “an ordinary girl” grounds the song in reality. The strings don’t arrive until halfway through, and cascade all over an already beautiful song.

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 still a worthy successor to ‘Hats’.  Here were songs about the sweet tedium of family life, the feeling of having settled. Still, there was Body and Soul’ another Blue Nile anthem.

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.

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.

So perhaps we can hope for some new Blue Nile material soon. The Blue Nile are famous for their lack of productivity. The Glasgow-based group were formed in 1981 and effectively broke up by 2006, and released a mere four albums during their quarter century tenure.