People of a certain age and musical proclivity will remember the brilliant trio The Blue Nile. I am of a certain age and an unabashed fan of the band since their debut release. They were a critic favorite during the mid eighties and created some of the most sophisticated and sublime music in a rather lackluster musical era. They were like no other band and in a class all by themselves both in output and how they interacted with the music business of the day. I have long desired to review their luminous debut A Walk Across the Rooftops and convert other listeners to the cause.
Boyhood friends Paul Buchanan and Robert Bell grew up in Glasgow, Scotland and started The Blue Nile in 1981. The two had both attended the University of Glasgow where Buchanan earned a degree in Literature and Medieval History and Bell a degree in Mathematics. Buchanan’s father was a semi professional musician and Paul grew up surrounded by music but only thought of creating a band after finishing college. It was in college that Buchanan and Bell met and befriended the third member of their band, Paul Joseph Moore. Moore had a degree in electronics from The University of Glasgow and had been playing around with synthesizers throughout his college career. The trio formed McIntyre the first incarnation of their band shortly after graduation and had planned to recruit more members.
The recruiting effort proved a struggle so the three decided to remain a trio. None of them were musical virtuoso’s but it was that lack of musical expertise that opened them up for experimentation. They would utilize effect pedals and old drum machines to create desired effects in their music. The band changed their name to The Blue Nile in 1981; the name was adopted from the title of a 1962 book by Alan Moorehead. In that time period they would gig around Glasgow and produced their first self financed single, I Love This Life. Shortly after the release they were taken under wing of the record label RSO. Things looked promising until RSO went bankrupt and was absorbed by Polygram where the single succumb to the chaos of the situation. This event left a lasting bad taste in the mouth of the band members about record label machinations. The failure of the label and the undermining of the single informed the band’s attitude towards record executives ever after.
In 1983 the band began to work on what would become A Walk Across the Rooftops. Their limited musical ability and lack of a drummer in the line up forced the band to write and play their own songs live instead of popular cover tunes; an excellent case of liabilities turned into an asset. They would quickly adopt an atmospheric electronic approach out of pragmatic necessity. In their songwriting they would make the most of their imaginations, thrift and mechanical ingenuity. One example of this was P.J. Moore utilizing a zinc tray with a pad trigger which he bought for 3 quid to create percussion effects for the trio. It was primitive but effective and created a distinct sound the band loved. The Blue Nile would have an additional stroke of luck when they enlisted Calum Malcolm as their recording engineer. In Malcolm they would find a like minded, gifted individual who would end up providing the band with a leg up in getting signed to Linn Records. An enduring urban myth had been spun about the creation of Linn Records and the signing of The Blue Nile.
The myth goes like this, The Blue Nile was approached by Linn Products, a local hi fi manufacturer, to produce a song to showcase the company’s sound systems. The song the band created pleased Linn founder Ivor Tiefenbrun so much he decided to specifically create a record label for their release A Walk Across the Rooftops. The real truth was Tiefenbrun was a friend of Calum Malcolm and when he played a demo of Tinseltown is in the Rain to Ivor he was extremely impressed; so much so that he offered the band a contract with the prospective record label. Linn Records was already in the process of being set up when the encounter in the studio took place and signing was not a slam dunk for the band. It would take the band 9 months to accept the offer, but it proved to be the best fit for the band. Linn upon signing the band left them alone allowing them tremendous artistic freedom in the studio. Tiefenbrun when asked about why the label did not inject themselves into the process with an untried band replied, “(The band) was so fervent about what they were doing that nothing would dissuade them from it and nothing would persuade them to do anything other than what they were doing.” In the run up to entering the recording studio Buchanan and Bell would write songs on an acoustic guitar or piano and later P.J. Moore and Calum Malcolm would have at the songs in the studio. The band would recruit drummer Nigel Thomas to assist with percussion. The album would take 5 months to record at Castlesound Studios in Pencaitland, Scotland.
As a side note, to keep things in context for younger listeners or for those of us who have forgotten, it must be remembered that in 1983 samplers as we know them did not exist. All of the sounds on the recording had to be physically played and recorded on snippets of tape and then edited and cut and finally taped together to create the masters. This endeavor was pain staking and slow. The exacting standards and obsession over every detail by the band also added to the time it took to record the album, but that commitment is what made it so good. Recording Engineer Malcolm recalls of the period of recording, “They were always particularly sensitive to not doing the wrong thing and making sure it had the absolutely right emotional impact.” Thankfully they had a record label that possessed the necessary patience to wait for the end result. The album would finally debut in May of 1984.
Critics took to “A Walk Across the Rooftops” almost immediately. The album gained moderate commercial success in the UK and US. Critics heralded the sparse detailed electronic sounds and Buchanan’s soulful vocals. Popular artists such as U2’s Edge, Peter Gabriel and Rickie Lee Jones championed the release. Blue Nile would eventually collaborate with these artists and many others further on in the band’s career. The album was like nothing anyone else had on offer at the time and was miles away from the pablum that was being served up on the top 40. The music was a fusion of chilly technology and romantic emotion. “A Walk Across the Rooftops” would produce two singles Stay and Tinseltown is in the Rain and get to 80 on the UK album charts. The band favored a low profile. Leery of the excesses that been introduced in the first decade of MTV, counter intuitively the band did little high profile promotion for the release. Unfortunately there were drawbacks to the band being vehement in their avoidance of publicity. Their musical genius was evident, but their unwillingness to overtly market themselves led to cult band status at best rather than mega stardom. They became known for their perfectionism and idiosyncratic dealings with the record industry and their slow work pace. However for listeners lucky enough to encounter them, they were like a drug you could not shake.
What The Blue Nile did not attain in popular standing it did accomplish in generating admiration from sophisticated musicphiles of that time and since. One of the main keys to The Blue Nile’s allure was their use of minimalism. They excelled in the art of using silence as much as the musical notes in their compositions to convey feeling. The beauty of their entire discography is the unassuming and uncontrived intelligence of their work. It is complex technology moored to palpable emotional content. Like an Edward Hopper painting but in musical form, where isolation, dreams and sadness are a universal language. The band captured those truths and conveyed them in their music with sonics and imagery that harkened to wet streets, forlorn parades, disappointed lovers and rooftop musings.
“A Walk Across the Rooftops” is a relatively short recording with only seven songs. The album starts off with the title song. It begins with a shimmering intro that is haunting and enhances the power of the lyric. Special attention needs to be paid to the gaps of silence that are arranged as carefully as the instruments notes. The beauty of the synths and strings builds the emotion. The lyrics spoke to love gone astray, it also displayed a kaleidoscope of images. Presented are the small tokens and guideposts that make each life redolent with bittersweet evocative feeling. The different facets of life absorbed for better or worse with an introspective walk across the rooftops attempting to gain perspective and equilibrium. Buchanan’s vocal performance added the special ingredient of yearning and earnest that injected the drama into the track.
Tinseltown in the Rain is probably one of the better known songs the band released. It was the track most in keeping with a pop approach. There is a lovely amalgam of the schizo guitar with the lovingly layered synths and piano. Front and center is Buchanan’s amazingly evocative delivery. The lyrics spoke to the fleeting aspect of wonder at the new and falling head over heels in love with a person or a place. It also notes that the novelty that at first arrests us wears off far too soon. “Why did we ever come so far? I knew I’d seen it all before…Do I love you? Yes I love you. Will we always be happy go lucky?…but it is easy come, and it’s easy go.” The song in the outré breaks into a hint of R &B inspiration.
Rags to Riches is runs counter to “Tinseltown”. The song is a very minimalistic in aura. Mostly composed of percussion elements and vocals, it still has a full rich sound that makes it oh so special. The composition makes much of a little and does it so professionally that it does not sound or feel amateurish. Lyrically the song projects the idea of transformation and rebirth experienced in the rags to riches imagery. The transformation is not monetary but is a renewal of spirit and taking joy from the simple beauty of surroundings no matter how humble. The track also spoke to the leaving of childhood isolation for the wideness of the world, “I am in love, I am in love with a feeling, a wild wild sky… People are leaving the squalor, they’re leaving the house and fires and starting out we find the waiting country.” The imagery of the child leaving home going into an unknown world and testing the correctness of lessons learned at home is moving, “I leave the home of a lifetime like any son…I learn as I go… sticks and stones are your broken promises.” Buchanan delivers the song with just the right amount of emotion combining the triumphant with the bittersweet that is life.
Stay is the most overt love song on the release. This song has a lovely sophisticated sound channeling Joe Jackson at his best. The pace is insistent and urgent as a pleading lover begs for the object of his affection to remain. The track holds a lot of energy and evinces a wide ranging sound. The lyric itemizes all the things we distract ourselves with instead of prioritizing our love interest. Distractions come from a party, a guitar that is broken, and the book we intend to write. The song pleads for patience and promises understanding of the love interest’s frustration, “Stay and I will understand you.” The track is engaging and the piano lines are winning.
I have a confession to make Easter Parade is a song I can barely get through without weeping. This elegiac song is so haunting it brings up a well of emotions. It is a song I classify as one you must hear before you leave this Earth. The juxtaposing of poetic imagery is evocative. There is both isolation and comfort found in the song. It completely captures the ability to be alone in a crowd represented by the quiet of a busy place abandoned, “In the bureau typewriters quiet.” The track expresses universal emotions of grandeur in the emptiness of so much of life and our striving for so much better than what we get, “A city perfect in every detail”. It acknowledges the instinctual understanding that the everyday things of life we take for granted make us who we are, “I know you birthday cards and silent music, paperbacks and Sunday clothes.” Out of all the tracks this is the one that captures the essence of the painter Edward Hopper’s works perfectly in a musical manifestation. Buchanan’s vocal is totally heart rending as he makes his prescient observations. To back up and summons emotion the instrumental mood is set by a forlorn piano and the perfect placement of sound and stillness. The outré is like a delicate Vox Humana ushering in a vast feeling of infinity. Simply put avail yourself of this song, you won’t regret it.
Heatwave breaks the revelry of Easter Parade with a more earthbound song. The shimmering intro ushers in a morning with sprinklers and birdsong. The plodding percussion emanates the heat that oppresses all no matter their social standings. “Heatwave” takes up as its task with the eternal Ecclesiastes pondering of why the rain or in this case the heatwave falls on both the bad and the good. The track conveys all the uncomfortableness of a heatwave and its unrelenting presence. You can feel the beads of sweat developing and the desire for relief. The song is a pleasure to listen to and is gorgeously atmospheric. Buchanan conveys through his vocal all the lassitude and oppressiveness of the situation. Also to be relished is the idea how difficult this song must have been to capture considering the limitations of the studio at the time. There is an awful lot going on in the accompaniment and the mastering of the song must have been a mind numbing process. All of that effort was worth it for the result which is a stunning track that ends with the relief of the sun setting in the last minutes of the song.
The final selection Automobile Noise is truly another Hopper painting captured in a song. The images that are used are concrete but in isolation. The underlying theme again is loneliness in a crowd. The images presented never stop as they roam from cities to vast highways constantly in motion and solitary. The weariness of that constant action produces a kind of ennui that erodes the initiative to interact. The underlying question of the lyric is when can we stop the action and sit down to think, and what is it all for? The industrial sounds underline the isolation and cog in a wheel theme, while bringing about additional pondering over the possibility that we are all just factory punched out parts. What is not to be missed on the track is the perfection of each sound’s placement to convey the overall feeling of the song. Buchanan reflects the ennui of the futile situation and the endless desire of all human beings to escape the monotony and never quite getting there in the end. This would all be too depressing if not for the comfort of know that each individual’s malaise is recognized and shared. The song is a beautiful benediction to an extraordinary release.
The Blue Nile would follow A Walk Across the Rooftops with the stellar Hats. “Hats” would be just as brilliant as “A Walk Across the Rooftops” and mark the peak of the band’s popularity in the industry. The band would release two more albums after “Hats”; 1991’s Peace at Last and 1997’s High. Each would retain their edgy evocative sound and poetic lyrics throughout. In 2012 Paul Buchanan would go on to release a solo work, Mid Air. The band website has stated the band has not officially broken up but there has been no studio activity. It is sad to think that there will be no additional Blue Nile albums but what a brilliant discography they have to their credit. In so many ways they were before their time both in skills, composition and studio convictions. Each album but especially A Walk Across the Rooftops is a gorgeous sublime journey filled with bittersweet emotions.
There is never a lack of feeling and a rich reward for those who familiarize themselves with the band’s works. But be warned these are armchair albums that hone your listening skills as each song becomes more infused with meaning upon repeated listening. Their works once encountered are difficult to forget and hopefully never will be.