A Short, Quiet Piece About The Blue Nile

Possibly the most reclusive band on the planet (they make the currently studio-enslaved Stone Roses look like Madonna to the power of Guns N' Roses...now there's a horrific concept!), the facts that a) what is known about The Blue Nile could be written on the back of a postage stamp and still leave more than adequate space for an address and b) I seem to be the only Rocksig member to have fallen prey to their singular charms are nowhere near good enough reasons to prevent me rumbling on about how good they are for a few hundred words.

Formed in Scotland in the early 1980s, the trio's debut album "A Walk Across The Rooftops" derived much of its success from being the first release on Linn Records, the label founded by the Scottish hi-fi company of the same name. Result: instant, unheard purchase by every self-respecting audiophile on the planet. What they would've made of it, after spinning it (on their de rigueur Linn LP12 turntables, of course!) and finding it consisted of something other than 45 minutes of bland jazz rock noodling, is not clear. It's a wonderfully atmospheric and downbeat work, with synths, strings and percussion woven into an ethereal fabric that no other band on the planet would be capable of wearing.

The opening title track is a kind of updated Glaswegian take on "Up On The Roof" - "I leave the red stone building/and walk across the rooftops" croons Paul Buchanan as archaic lift doors clatter in the background. "Tinseltown In The Rain" captures, in under six minutes, all the faded grandeur that Deacon Blue spent most of "Raintown" blundering about a stadium's distance around. "Easter Parade" takes the economically compacted lyricism of Paul Buchanan and Robert Bell to new heights - "In the bureau/Typewriter's quiet/Confetti falls/From every window". Despite their "synth-pop" approach, the music has totally failed to date, just like, for example, the way the best New Order singles still sound timeless over a decade later. As would be expected, the sonics are superb, and the gorgeous cover photo wraps the package up perfectly. In one album, The Blue Nile predicted the uplifting melancholia that China Crisis, Deacon Blue, American Music Club, Red House Painters and hundreds more would one day get varying degrees of rich and successful peddling.

Time passed. Nothing was heard of the band, save the occasional bulletin - usually through the hi-fi press: "...when you ask the band whether they put the album out on CD, they said "Some of it" " (CD Review, February/March 1988, in an interview with Linn boss Ivor Tiefenbraun, reflecting the band's pro-vinyl stance); "...if they never again release anything worthy of the description music, they'll have accomplished more than most" (Hi-Fi News & Record Review, October 1987). A worryingly prescient comment, that, as the band's attempts to analyse what made "A Walk Across The Rooftops" such a critical, if not commercial, success delayed work on a sequel. Fortunately, in late 1989, the patience of the faithful was rewarded.

"Hats" did, and does, look like an attempt to make "Another Walk Across The Rooftops": seven tracks again, with, the sprightly ones and slow ones in exactly the same locations in the running order. However, the sheer quality of this second offering scuppers any wild accusations of unoriginality. According to Paul Buchanan, "Hats" was an attempt to explore the feelings of people plumbing the depths - no sexanddrugsandrockandroll type sleaze here, fortunately, but delicate sketches of people on the edges of emotional insecurity - the victim of a broken relationship in "From A Late Night Train" (yes kids, there was a time when you could actually travel by train!), who realises that "It's over/I know it's over/But I can't let go" whilst speeding past "Cigarettes and magazines/Stacked up in the rain", the pleas for companionship in "Let's Go Out Tonight" and "Saturday Night", and the sheer beauty of "Headlights On The Parade" and "Over The Hillside". Musically it's the same sparse mix of strings and synths, perhaps heavier on the electronics compared to the debut, but just as velvety and comforting - it has to be played very loudly, late at night, in a darkened room, for the full effect.

Various dastardly promotional techniques - live shows - one of which was broadcast on Radio One, singles (one of which included a version of "Easter Parade" featuring Rickie Lee Jones) and remixes caused "Hats" to reach number 12 on the album chart - a fact almost as astounding as the broad range of people to be seduced by its charms: my parents (not the hippest people on the planet, believe me!) adore it, as do my techno-, indie- and reggae-loving friends. Perhaps it's the way that The Blue Nile touch on emotions that we've all experienced at one time or other: loneliness, regret, quiet desperation, rain(?!). Or maybe it's just because the music's so damn gorgeous.

At time of typing, they're now believed to be signed to Warner Brothers and are hauling portable recording equipment around various European cities, no doubt searching for the ideal combination of trains and precipitaion (Salford suggests itself, for some reason!). At their established workrate, another (seven-track!) album should be along any year now. Whenever it arrives, and whatever it sounds like, I suspect that an awful lot of people with very different music tastes will still love it many years from now.



September 1989 The Downtown Lights (#67) Linn LKS3

September 1990 Headlights On The Parade (#72) Linn LKS4

January 1991 Saturday Night (#50) Linn LKS5


May 1984 A Walk Across The Rooftops (#80) Linn LKH14

October 1989 Hats (#12) Linn LKH2

THE BLUE NILE Peace At Last (Warner Bros.)

The first I heard of this was on the morning my finals began: "Guess what album’s out today?" said my mate Mauly, and of course I couldn’t. Since their inception in 1981, this Glaswegian trio have given us six singles, two albums (the essential "A Walk Across The Rooftops" and its not dissimilar successor "Hats"), one American tour and cameo appearances on albums by Robbie Robertson (good) and Annie Lennox (not so good). But finally, after a six-and-a-half year wait, the third Blue Nile album has been unleashed (or, given the lack of accompanying promotional brouhaha, chased out with a very big stick) unto the faithful. But is it any good?

Um. The omens are not encouraging. For a kick-off, a label change from Scottish hi-fi company Linn to Warner Bros means that you can’t get "Peace At Last" on vinyl, which, from a band whose meticulous attention to detail and staunchly pro-analogue outlook must have launched a thousand turntable sales, is a criminal oversight. Secondly, mainman Paul Buchanan’s recent mini-spate of press (as in newspapers, not music) interviews have suggested that, with minimal writing and performing input from Paul Moore and Robert Bell, "Peace At Last" is a Blue Nile album in name only, a suspicion reinforced by the font cover photograph of Buchanan on horseback. Those same interviews hinted at a more soulful, looser, ‘live in the studio’ element to the band’s sound, presumably resulting in the same lumpy effect that lemon juice has on cream when combined with their traditional line in exquisitely polished minimalist misery. As to the lyrics, most interviewers pressed Buchanan on the subject of religious imagery that crops up in at least three of the album’s ten tracks.

Enough preamble: the fact is that, whatever it sounds like, "Peace At Last" is an album bearing the name of The Blue Nile on its cover (or more appropriately The Blue Nile, since for those of us irreversibly intoxicated by their work talk of substitutes, or bands ‘influenced’ by The Blue Nile, is laughable: when on form, they’re so good at what they do that the idea of improving on it is nonsensical), and given the frequency with which such articles (fail to) arrive it has to be listened to at length, given the superficial nature of first impressions (which, to be honest, veered towards ‘terrible’).

"Peace At Last" contains three excellent tracks, at least: opener "Happiness" is the sound of Paul Buchanan (lyrically rain-drenched for much of the previous two albums) walking out into the sunshine and being characteristically suspicious of it ("Now that I’ve found peace at last/Tell me Jesus, will it last?"). Backed by such alien sounds as acoustic guitars and gospel choirs, it captures The Blue Nile in what is, for them at least, an insanely happy, upbeat, feelgood mood. "Family Life", the archetypal side-two-track-two on a Blue Nile album, can trace its instrumental lineage back through gems like "Easter Parade" and "From A Late Night Train", but here the piano line and Buchanan’s lyrics seem to wind through far more unstructured territory, a far cry from the ‘less is more’ ethos that seems to have served so well in the past. The latter isn’t entirely absent, however, as "God Bless You Kid" proves magnificently: lines like "It feels like Memphis after Elvis" and "Fire engines and TV stations still tumble through the night" evoke the same kind of middle America that R.E.M. have spent their entire career articulating. Buchanan whoops and hollers in a fashion that the earnest raincoat-clad young men outside the derelict church on the cover of "A Walk Across The Rooftops" would have difficulty recognising, let alone understanding.

The remainder are mostly passably, pleasantly good songs, much like the weaker moments of the previous two albums with added acoustic rootsiness and lyrics that seem to hanker after some self-sufficient settlement lifestyle, reinforced by the booklet pictures of railroad tracks running across open plains, like the Electric Light Orchestra’s "Wild West Hero" with a steady job, wife and family. Some, such as the single "Sentimental Man" and "War Is Love" come over as somewhat metaphorically heavy-handed, and try as I might I can’t eradicate the suspicion that the guitar in "Body And Soul" is seriously out of tune. The only moment of true awfulness is "Holy Love", three minutes of burping mid-80s synths and uncharacteristically unintelligible mewling by Buchanan that sounds dangerously close to a Spandau Ballet b-side.

Nevertheless, 1996 has brought us a third Blue Nile album, and on balance it was seen to be good - hopefully good enough to last us until 2003, at least.

THE BLUE NILE/SINÉAD LOHAN Bristol Colston Hall 19/9/96

The clearly very nervous Sinéad Lohan (and Andy, her accompanying guitarist) took to the rather dilapidated stage of the Colston Hall bang on time (when was the last time that ever happened at a gig?), her deferential manner being emphasised by her between-song mumblings. "I should learn a few jokes", she said at one point, and yes, maybe they would add a little levity to the proceedings. Nevertheless (much as I’d hate to admit it) a Blue Nile audience is probably the prime target for Q/Mojo-endorsed moody Celtic acoustic folk such as this, and the fact that she’s signed to Grapevine (as are Janis Ian, Emmylou Harris and Joan Baez) suggests that she’s no doubt destined for Very Great Things Indeed critically, if not commercially. (I’m a little reluctant to slag off support bands after my mate Danno revealed that he once saw Oasis supporting Milltown Brothers).

This was the first night of The Blue Nile’s first ever British tour (they played four American concerts in Spring 1990), and it was magnificent. Paul Buchanan, he of the Lou-Reed-without-the-decades-of-drugs looks and terrific, moody, romantic songs, turned out, surprisingly, to be one of the wittiest and humblest blokes in rock: from his opening comment "Have a good time" to his post-encore request for the house lights to be turned on "so that we can see what you look like", he was a consummate professional who, nevertheless, can’t quite understand the greatness of his own muse. He presided over immaculate renditions of the best of their too-slim back catalogue (no complaints that they sounded like the records; it was fantastic enough to hear them being so perfectly reconstructed on stage), whilst fielding questions from the audience. His response to the inevitable request for them to "Make more records!" went something along the lines of "Thank you Mr Warner Brothers! I would say to you, sell more records!".

Highlights? For me, "Tinseltown On The Parade", ‘cos it’s my favourite and it was even more spinetingling live than on vinyl, a propulsive "God Bless You Kid", with Paul Buchanan allowing himself to trade guitar parts with the second guitarist (someone given to a few to many straining-muso grimaces for an occasion like this) for just a little longer than on the album, "Over The Hillside", "Headlights On The Parade", Robert Bell (surely one the country’s most underrated bassist on tonight’s evidence) miming the opening of the lift doors on the intro to "A Walk Across The Rooftops"...heck, all of it was magnificent, even some of the dangerously-close-to-AOR tracks from the new album.

These guys can’t even do an encore like everyone else: pleading a bad throat, Buchanan asked us to wait whilst he went offstage for a cup of tea, before he and the band returned to play "The Downtown Lights" (wonderful, need you ask?) and "Easter Parade", and that, after a thoroughly deserved standing ovation, was it. Definitely the best gig I’ve ever been to (even better than recitals I’ve attended by Morrissey, Teenage Fanclub and Big Star), it’s frightening to think how fantastic they’ll be after a bit more practice, especially as lucky old me has a front row ticket to their Oxford gig in October...

THE BLUE NILE Happiness (Warner Bros.)

Well, if there’s any band I’d happily buy into The Man’s CD1/CD2 scam for it must be this lot and their workrate roughly attuned to the speed with which hills erode. Was it worth it? Need you ask?! Spread over two (short, even for singles) CDs they offer up an edited version of "Happiness" (easily one of their recent album’s three finest moments), "War Is Love (A Different Day)" (i.e. "War Is Love" with different words - not revelatory but cheers anyway) and three (count ‘em!) entirely new tracks (which, in Blue Nile hours, roughly equates to about 18 months’ work). "O Lolita" is a gorgeous, gentle (but aren’t they all?) piece, possibly about unrequited love; "New York Man" continues the ‘new frontiersman’ theme of much of the album, and "Wish Me Well" is the most sensitive song about divorce that will ever be written - Paul Buchanan’s gifts are such that he can sing the lines "The time has come for me to make it on my own/Before there’s little mouths to feed" and sound sincere down to his toenails. Probably because he is, and as this beastie we call rock ‘n’ roll staggers through its fifth decade that’s becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

THE BLUE NILE/SINÉAD LOHAN Apollo Theatre, Oxford 5/10/96

Well, what a difference seventeen days made! Sinéad Lohan’s performance has been usefully trimmed of any flabby self-indulgent flakey folky excess (or maybe it’s because the songs are now a little more familiar, I dunno), she’s got a dedicated hardcore ‘fanbase’ present (four in number - there was a headcount), new jokes ("We’re here to entertain you...for the next three hours. The Blue Nile couldn’t make it, but we know all their songs", "My album’s on sale in the foyer, for about a pound or something"), and the Oxford crowd, quite reasonably, love her.

As for the legendary, wonderful, superb, incredible Blue Nile..."About time", yells one wag before they’ve even played a note, but compared to the ever-so-slightly slipshod but hilariously communicative ensemble that played Bristol we’re in the presence of a different band: Paul Buchanan says nowt until about five songs in ("Things are a bit Spinal Tap tonight"), and his utterings are curtailed throughout the evening: "And the hits just keep on coming", he moans after a planet-straddling "Headlights On The Parade"; "They should be", counters the wag, summing up the feelings of the entire theatre. Already they seem like tour-hardened pros desperately trying to defend their mystique, that of a meticulously disciplined and elegantly dejected thinking person’s rock band, a Smiths for grown-ups. The old humility is still there though - at the end of the night Buchanan asks for the house lights to be turned on "so we can see you", and this time it works!

Best bits? About two-thirds of the way through "God Bless You Kid" and the entirety of "Tinseltown In The Rain", surely two of the greatest songs ever written, when pure euphoria takes over; the appearance of "Family Life" in the setlist (still chalked up on a blackboard onstage); Robert Bell’s superlative bass playing throughout; Calumn Malcolm’s fantastic drumming; a half-decent lightshow - heck, it was a gig by The Blue Nile, and as a consequence it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my little life. I can only hope that it won’t be another fifteen years before their next tour.

THE BLUE NILE Peace At Last (Warner Bros.)

This issue’s flimsy and insubstantial excuse for me to rave on at length about the very wonderful Blue Nile comes in the form of an American import copy of their fabulous third album, finally available on vinyl in limited quantities from the finest record (in the proper sense of the word!) shop in the land, Diverse in Newport.

To get the bad news over with, the vinyl version lacks the pictures from the inside of the CD booklet, and there’s a couple of moments of evil distortion that suggest that quality control at the pressing plant ain’t all it should be. But on the plus side...well, Paul Buchanan’s gorgeous music and Glaswegian Sinatra vocals have never swooped and swooned as silkily as this, the acoustic guitars now sound like acoustic guitars, AND you get to turn it over halfway through! Musically it just gets better and better with time: the best tracks are still, in my humble opinion, the gentle, faith-healing power of "Happiness", the bruised peach that is "Family Life" and the thundering rock-out (well, in Blue Nile terms, anyway) "God Bless You Kid". But take time out to appreciate the slow-burning deference of "Soon", and the hand-clapping ebullience of "Tomorrow Morning". I really can’t praise this album highly enough, it’s like romance distilled into plastic, and probably the only work released during 1996 that’ll still sound marvellous in forty years’ time.

THE BLUE NILE I Would Never (Epstein/Sanctuary)

THE BLUE NILE High (Epstein/Sanctuary)

Fevered anticipation surrounded the arrival of the first new Blue Nile release in eight years, and, happily, it wasn’t misplaced. The single “I Would Never” is exactly the kind of Scottish synth soul the starved fan would hope and dream it to be, where the spaces between the carefully chosen words say as much as the carefully chosen words themselves. Perhaps the lyrics teeter on the edge of self-parody at times, for example the line “I have raised my weary hand to my face”, but such ungracious thoughts are immediately ameliorated on reading that Paul Buchanan spent two years unable to work because of what he describes as “one of those post-viral-we-don’t-know-what’s-wrong-with-you things. It wasn’t M.E. but it was of that ilk”. And when he sings “I have seen my hometown in your eyes” it’s surely the most romantic sound to have been captured on record this year. If, on occasion, the suspicion arises that “I Would Never” might, just might, be The Blue Nile travelling by autopilot, a background phrase or meaning will tickle the brain, a further little reassurance that it will sound just as cavernously evocative after the many hundreds of plays it will surely rack up.

Possibly even more benevolently, the CD also includes both sides of the band’s debut single, “I Love This Life” and “The Second Act”. Released on RSO in 1981, seemingly seconds before the label collapsed, the realisation the single was fetching hundreds of pounds at record fairs and that even Buchanan himself didn’t have a copy prompted their inclusion here. “I Love This Life” bounds with puppyish enthusiasm, like “Stay” after too many E-number-saturated sweeties. Seldom heard it may be, but its influence casts a long shadow over pretty much the entirety of the first two Talk Talk albums. The cavalcade of exotically ordinary images is familiar from elsewhere in the Blue Nile catalogue, the hurtling optimism rather less so. Events bestow “The Second Act”’s line “I need to sleep a year or two” with ominous prescience, the song sounding like a dry run for the atmospherics that would flow far less self-consciously on their glorious debut album, “A Walk Across The Rooftops”. The occasional scratch and patch of distortion suggests that it was derived from sources other than the original master tape. Nevertheless, no true Blue Nile fan would want to be without it, and now, fortunately, we don’t have to.

 And then, a week later, came “High”, nine sumptuous, emotive songs that, possibly influenced by Buchanan’s illness, concern themselves with the passing of time, the passing of lives. They are peopled by uncomprehending observers attempting to anchor themselves amidst the chaos of modern life. In this first Blue Nile album to be blessed with printed lyrics in the packaging, the images are possibly even more fleeting and fragmented than before – yes, even more than “The Downtown Light”’s tumbling “Chimney pots and trumpets” outburst – but they work synergistically, symbiotically. How , even more else could he could) bundle a dressing gown, confetti and a bloody nose into the same song (the audacious opener “The Days Of Our Lives”)? (and who else “I Would Never” is nextand, under the circumstances, it’s hard to stifle a smile at the line “I have worked as fast as I can”. Opening with a garbled , monologue and a pulsing urgency they’ve rarely approached before now, “Broken Loves” lays bare the baffled incomprehension and hope of fatherhood. It’s a pretty grown up theme for a pop song, but then again The Blue Nile’s music has always been adult orientated in the most complimentary sense, intelligentand questioning. “Because Of Toledo” revisits the acoustic guitar Americana that made their last album, “Peace At Last”, , thought-provoking initially seem like such an abrupt culture shock, and once again fractured phrases balloon and blossom into something larger and more luminous than words.

The album crests with “She Saw The World”. The realisation that the world is bigger than two people shatters a relationship, leaving the narrator wandering dazed and confused through a landscape of pulsing, minor-key synth funk of the kind the band have been mining and refining for decades. The bruised optimism of the title track is almost as glorious. Slow, sensuous, subverting every plodding piano ballad in the history of soft rock, it validates all those new Sinatra comparisons Buchanan has racked up over the years, ingeniously concealing tiny slivers of acid and drum ‘n’ bass within its folds. ”Soul Boy” gives vent to Buchanan’s inner Marvin Gaye fan. Already covered, somewhat incongruously, by both Mel C and former Polish Eurovision representative Edyta Gorniak, the gender change works perfectly if you mentally place a comma in the title. Lacking the comforting quilt that’s draped around the rest of the album, here it’s just music and words, with nowhere to hide. The atypically jolly “Everybody Else” is possibly the album’s least impressive four minutes – which still leaves a deal of scope for greatness. Finally, “Stay Close” is, at a brush under eight minutes, the longest Blue Nile album track in the world…ever! It might seem a little too close to “Peace At Last”’s closing shot, “Soon”, but not a second is wasted. Buchanan’s slowly unreeling imagery (“The cowboys in the railway station/Gave up on the news/Coming home at 3a.m.”) is at its most inscrutable again here, but I’d hazard an incorrect guess that it’s another song concerning itself with fatherhood.

Yet again The Blue Nile have raised the beam higher for what can be achieved with a few well chosen words and sensitively deployed chords. No other record released so far this year feels so much like coming home. And as to why it’s taken them longer than ever to assemble a complete album of material, consider your preferred currently active band and boil down your favourite forty minutes from the music they’ve released over the last eight years. Pretty stunning, yes? Well, The Blue Nile have done exactly the same, so we don’t have to.

Astonishing as “High” undoubtedly is, I feel duty bound to report on the double-edged blade of technological progress that accompanies it. Ordering a pre-release copy from Amazon.com, I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to listen to a streaming audio version of the album as often as I wanted within the space of a week, allowing me to hear it in its entirety in adequate-fi two days before release. I was rather less pleased to discover, when my own copy arrived, that the British CD pressing is so locked down with anti-piracy measures that it can’t be played on a PC. At least, it failed on my Windows XP machine and my Pa’s Windows 98 device. Whilst we music lovers can hardly complain about artists taking reasonable measures to secure the copyright of their works (especially a band with such a small but perfectly formed discography as The Blue Nile’s!) if the sole source of CD replay in your study is your PC (as it is mine) you might feel rather disgruntled to have paid full price for a CD that can only be listened to on half the systems in your home. And if I had an iPod I would feel even unhappier about being forced to buy the album on CD to listen at home and again in a downloadable form to listen to outside it.

THE BLUE NILE A Walk Across The Rooftops (Linn)

Acquired as part of a concerted post-Paul Buchanan tour attempt to round up all the Blue Nile CDs and 12” vinyl I didn’t already own (I had “A Walk Across The Rooftops” on analogue but not the digital format), how does their wondrous debut stack up over 20 years after the fact? Well, I’ve rather given the game away already, haven’t I?

The opening title track is a subtle masterpiece of construction: that staircase mystery of a bassline, the clanking lift mechanism, the crisp thwack of (real?) percussion, and those staccato strings. It was allegedly commissioned and deliberately arranged to highlight the quality of the equipment produced by Glaswegian hi-fi manufacturer Linn, who were so impressed that they formed a record label to release the entire album. Sonic delights aside, it’s one of few songs I can think of that consider becoming, or at least assuming the mantle of, an adult (“From Rags To Riches” being another).

“Tinseltown In The Rain” remains, for me, The Blue Nile’s masterpiece, although for an ensemble who peaked on the second song of their first album the following decades have hardly seen a decline in the quality of their music. Autumnal and melancholic, again it’s the arrangement that stuns, especially for a freshman effort, with its fractured piano phrases, chorus of sleighbells and guitar solos that burble like distant traffic. What casts it in such sublime shadow is the merest suggestion of a hint that the listener has been transported to some beautiful but damned utopia for six fleeting minutes.

The aforementioned “From Rags To Riches” doesn’t wear the years quite so lightly; the creaking, primitive synthesisers begin to show and tell here. It sounds like a very elaborate demo, yet to be finessed and buffed into its final form. “Stay”, alone here in its cheerful exuberance, sounds like Talk Talk on happy pills. It’s not their finest moment, but it’s all good clean innocent pop fun at least.

“Easter Parade” was practically remade note for note on “Hats” as the icy, magisterial “From A Late Night Train”, but it’s the original that makes the concert setlists. How can Paul Buchanan make sun-dappled celebration sound so desperately sad? By hanging back in the deserted offices, hallways and railway stations whilst the citizens crowd out the streets, lost and directionless as the dust caught in the shafts of sunlight that filter through the shades. “Heatwave” pulls itself gently but deliberately out of its synthetic tropical opening, and, yes, it shimmers, even as PB subtly gives voice to dashed expectations and crushed dreams. Its close cousin, “Automobile Noise”, follows it, starting out observing the traffic and rising to the desperate admission “I am weary of this fighting/I’m weary of surrender”. It emphasises how much more opaque and metaphorical the lyrics of this debut are compared to their later works.

Although concerted relistening reveals “A Walk Across The Rooftops” to be clunky in places, it’s still an astonishing record, birthed fully-formed and owing almost nothing to what’s gone before, admitting no influences. In interviews Buchanan has spoken of his love for both Marvin Gaye and Mahler, probably as close as fix as anybody can claim on The Blue Nile’s music, in spirit if not execution a kind of orchestrated soul.

THE BLUE NILE / HAYLEY HUTCHINSON The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 14 July 2007

As one of my gig buddies remarked, the evening was turning into a scene from “Groundhog Day”. The three of us had drunk in the same pub and got foddered up in the same restaurant as the balmy evening in May 2006 when we’d come to see a solo Paul Buchanan play the Bridgewater. The comforting familiarity continued with support artist Hayley Hutchinson – well, it didn’t initially for me as, having misheard her introduce herself as Mary Hutchinson, I’d convinced myself that she was yet another example from the secret blonde-ladies-with-acoustic-guitars-performing-vaguely-folk-inflected-material cloning factory that has been generating the opening acts for Blue Nile and Paul Buchanan concerts for at least the last decade, but after the third song I was in agreement with my somewhat-sharper-on-the-uptake companions. (If only she’d brought the shiny guitar she was toting last year.)

The publicity surrounding The Blue Nile’s appearance at the Manchester International Festival (“the world’s first international festival of original, new work”, let’s not forget) suggested it was the band’s first appearance in seven years, which leaves me scratching my head in wonder and disappointment that a Blue Nile gig could’ve slipped under my radar round about the turn of the millennium. As far as I was aware, this was the first Blue Nile concert since their somewhat incongruous booking at Glastonbury in 1997; I mean, there’s always been an element of precipitation to Paul Buchanan’s lyrics, but mud just seems inappropriate. But if tonight was officially a Blue Nile gig, featuring as it did the same band that had backed Buchanan on two British tours during 2006, it’s perhaps the first public acknowledgement that there can be a Blue Nile without founder member P J Moore. Tonight there were no heckles demanding an explanation for his absence (which were sort of my fault at Paul Buchanan’s appearance here last year, even though I wasn’t the heckler). There was, however, a rapturous reception afforded the band, ovations before they’d even played a note, and a real feeling that applause was barely sufficient to express the delight and gratitude of those gathered in the barely full auditorium: like most Blue Nile concerts, it’s less a gig, more a group hug.

At no point during the evening did Paul Buchanan confess to onstage nerves, almost as if being invited to reconvene for the festival was some kind of long-sought validation of his abilities as a charismatic, if enigmatic, frontman. In fact, his behaviour seemed a bit more rock star than usual, gently encouraging audience participation in the form of singing (during “Happiness” a cloud of sibilants from hundreds of points around the hall was clearly, and heart-warmingly, audible) and clapping along, before confessing that this pose was “all the drummer’s idea”! There’s still the odd dig at the band’s slothful workrate, though: “How about an album?” yells one wag, only to be trumped immediately by another’s “How about a single?”

And what about the music? Well, let’s get the complaints out of the way first. Complaints, really? About a Blue Nile gig? Yes, I was shocked too. The new material aired during last year’s solo tours was excised from the setlist: not a disaster in the case of “Start Again” and “Runaround Girl”, but the shimmering, languid “Meanwhile” sounded as finished as anything on the band’s four studio albums from the first play, and the disappointment at its absence was palpable, especially considering how the band found room for the lame funk of “I Want You”, a Buchanan composition that thoroughly deserved its eventual fate, languishing on a Michael McDonald album. There are ruffles in the ensemble’s usual immaculate technical precision as well: their first attempt at “Stay” sounded almost avant garde in its cacophony, and didn’t improve noticeably after Paul and keyboard player Alan Cuthbertson tried getting in tune with each other, and “Headlights On The Parade” could charitably be described as a mess, their debut attempt at using sequenced rhythm tracks for this song leading Buchanan to wonder aloud “Is there anyone from Dell in the house?” There’s also a suggestion that he’s ducking the higher notes, and the suspicion that the ailments that plagued his Edinburgh stint last winter might have returned for the occasion is emphasised when, on blowing his nose, he anticipates footage of it emerging on YouTube the next day.

But that’s more than enough of my uncharitable, detail-obsessed, pernickety whingeing. There were lashings from “A Walk Across The Rooftops” and “Hats”, including an unorthodox opener in “Seven A.M.”, which reminded me just how physical a performer Paul Buchanan is, his face contorted with emotion as if the words he’s singing are being ripped from his soul. “Family Life”, introduced with the claim that it had only been played live two or three times before (which, given that I was present at two of them and have a bootleg of a third, seems a tad unlikely), scores the evening’s biggest response, its raindrop-patterned pseudo-piano complexity expertly negotiated by the band’s two keyboard players. In fact, it’s generally the quieter, sparser songs that are best served this evening – “Easter Parade” and “Because Of Toledo” are glorious, as ever - whereas usually everything is flawless with Mr Buchanan at the controls. “She Saw The World”, on the other hand, seems slower and more deliberate than the studio version, changes that don’t improve it – but then again, could anything?

Maybe I’ve just been spoilt: after all, this is the fourth time I’ve seen Paul Buchanan in fourteen months, so perhaps I’m becoming a bit blasé. Tonight my favourite band played some of my favourite songs in my favourite venue in my favourite city: who wouldn’t be smothered by the weight of all that expectation?

THE BLUE NILE / EMILY MAGUIRE Glasgow Royal Concert Hall 9 July 2008

In a bold new twist on the mandatory acoustic guitar-toting female singer-songwriter Blue Nile support act, acoustic guitar-toting female singer-songwriter Emily Maguire brings a bassist with her, all the way from her adopted Australian homeland. And she’s…alright, a little sub-Beth Orton in places for my refined tastes, but then again I find Beth Orton gets a little sub-Beth Orton at times too. When she describes waking up one morning to the sound of Terry Wogan playing one of her songs on Radio 2 –the same song I heard her performing on Radio 4’s “Loose Ends” a few days prior to this concert, oddly enough – you can’t help feeling a little cheered that she’s found a deserving niche.

So, to The Blue Nile, then, this being the first time I’ve seen my favourite band in their hometown. They’re slightly reconfigured compared with the lineup I saw almost exactly twelve months earlier in Manchester, with, if my memory’s comparing correctly, a replacement percussionist, keyboard player and guitarist, the latter being one Larry Saltzman, who had accompanied Paul Buchanan on an acoustic appearance on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” programme in 2004. Of course, all the heckling’s in Scottish tonight, so it’s a while before I realise that the audience are yelling things like “Not bad!” and “Getting better!” between songs – what, you think PB’s ego’s suddenly going to become bloated, do you? This, lest we forget, is a man whose stage patter includes such puddles of humility as “We’re going to get through a few songs before we chat; we haven’t played for eight months,  something might catch fire”  and “Last time we played I threw my towel into the crowd; I had to go and get it once everybody had left, it said Ramada on it”. Other choice heckles included ““From Rags To Riches” for your mum and dad, Paul”, to which another voice added “I’ve waited 20 years for that song!

They play some music as well; in fact they play some of the most heartfelt, emotive and perfectly-formed music I’ve ever heard. Some lovely surprises include shimmering versions of “Stay Close” and “From A Late Night Train”, both performed for the first time in my Blue Nile concertgoing career. (I’d always presumed they avoided the latter on account of its melodic similarity to the setlist staple “Easter Parade”; my theory is instantly confounded when they play it straight after.) “Sentimental Man” wears a new, low-fat arrangement in which the backbeat doesn’t arrive completely until after the first chorus, a tasteful paring back of a song that tends to encourage the band’s muso jamming tendencies. “That’s a bit of a giveaway”, admits Paul after an impromptu rehearsal of “The Downtown Lights”’ opening synth cascade; when the song garners the most rapturous reception of the evening thus far he says “I think we’ll do that again!” They don’t, sadly, but they do play “Runaround Girl”, an as-yet-unreleased song that occasionally crops up in setlists; it seems to have undergone some subtle but worthwhile development work in the two years since I last heard Paul Buchanan perform it.

In the debit column, there are moments where I feel I can hear Buchanan consciously steering his voice away from places it could reach a decade or two ago but now can’t, “Stay” still sounds a bit wonky to my ears, and the laptop-powered “Headlights On The Parade” once again seems in danger of derailment in places. And those synthesised cymbals seem to get a bit over-intricate at times, almost as if somebody’s accidentally engaged the “Selling England By The Pound” switch.

These are all petty, niggling whinges, however. They came, they played, and they conquered hearts with music that’s both wise and mature yet never seems to grow old.

THE BLUE NILE / EMILY MAGUIRE Somerset House, London 13 July 2008

Fitting as it might seem to be drenched to the skin whilst appreciating The Blue Nile’s rain-soaked, morose Scottish synth-pop, the weather smiled benevolently upon Somerset House’s courtyard on this Sunday night, this relaxed, summery open air venue perhaps guiding the band to what might’ve been the best show I’ve seen them play. Buchanan definitely seemed more jittery than he’d been in front of his hometown crowd the week before, but as the evening progressed he seemed more at ease, confessing that he might’ve been overly worried as showtime approached and admitting “I wish I’d done this ten years ago!” I can’t imagine anyone in the audience wouldn’t’ve concurred. Where in Glasgow their quarter-century of immaculate songcraft seemed to have earned them grudging respect with a side-order of “But don’t let it go to your head!” London adored them. Compare and contrast the Glasgow audience’s respectful “I love you”s with the repeated yells of “Sexy bastard!” that greeted PB tonight.

Paul’s all-new banter neatly satirised the band’s selective commercial appeal – “Have you seen the merchandise stall? We had 20 t-shirts…”; “We’ve got one more ballad and then we’ll go back to the disco songs”. The setlist was identical to the Glasgow gig but, in a sure sign of how much he was enjoying himself, informed that there were a few spare pre-curfew minutes PB offered the audience a choice between an unrehearsed “Let’s Go Out Tonight” or a second crack at “Tinseltown In The Rain”; I don’t think the result was scientifically tallied, but we got the latter, fabulously. Perhaps it was uncharacteristically showbiz-y, but tonight Paul really milked the singalong aspect of the songs, encouraging audience participation during “Happiness” (a bit tricky, given how the performance subtly deviates from the recorded version), the euphoric climax of “The Downtown Lights” and, naturally, “Tinseltown In The Rain”’s glorious “Do I love you? /Yes I love you” refrain, after which he confessed “We should be buying your records!” 

At a shade over two hours this was possibly the longest Blue Nile performance I’ve yet seen, and the sound, as is customary with them, was superb, with no earplugs required even though we were standing about half-a-dozen rows away from the PA. Another magical evening, then, and, with Paul Buchanan recently dropping hints that the next Blue Nile album (whenever it arrives) might be their last, an experience to treasure whilst we can.

ELLIOTT J HUNTLEY WITH EDITH HALL From A Late Night Train: An Introduction To The Blue Nile (Pickard Communications)


Typically, you wait years for a Blue Nile album and then…well, you get two biographies of the band published within months of each other, presuming that Allan Brown’s upcoming “Nileism: The Strange Course Of The Blue Nile” ever makes it from pre-order to press.  In the meantime, we have this glossily-covered work by Elliott J Huntley to tide us over. Huntley, whose previous works include biographies of Dennis Price, George Harrison and Tony Currie (guess which two of those I had to look up on Wikipedia), writes as an enthusiastic fan but isn’t blind to the band’s occasional failings. If anything, the cover blurb undersells the book; its assertion that “This is a tribute to their work” suggests that you’re in for a personal appreciation of the band’s music, whereas the book mixes that with rigorous biographical detail, quite an achievement with a subject as enigmatic and reclusive as The Blue Nile. Even if Huntley’s done nothing more than scour the interweb for extant fact and opinion (including, I’m pretty pleased to report, some first voiced in this very publication) it’s enough to make “From A Late Night Train” essential reading for the devoted faithful. The occasional factual or grammatical error rankles, but far less than it did when reading Graham Jones’ “Last Shop Standing” recently. If there are no new revelations here I still learned a lot, and the book is invaluable in collating the stoic wisdom and mordant humour of Paul Buchanan in one place. If some aspects of the band’s history are left tantalisingly unexplored - Huntley mentions the band being sued during their lengthy mid-80s hiatus, but frustratingly provides no further details; you may wonder what evil corporate behemoth would lower itself to suing the best band in the world - the book nevertheless sets the bar high for those trailing in its wake.


ALLAN BROWN Nileism: The Strange Course Of The Blue Nile (Polygon)


Fabulous as Elliott J Huntley’s self-published “From A Late Night Train: An Introduction To The Blue Nile” undoubtedly was, it’s the GCSE to “Nileism”’s degree course examination of the subject, the reticent, over-analytical, maddeningly perfectionist Glaswegian synth-pop trio who, some would argue, are the best band in the world.


Are, or maybe were: having an insider’s ear, at least as far as the band’s singer, songwriter and publicity figurehead Paul Buchanan is concerned, means that Brown has been able to saturate “Nileism” with quiet revelation, portraying a band that, in all but name, might have broken up the moment their last album, the sublime “High”, hit the top ten. Certainly the prospects for any future new material bearing The Blue Nile’s trademark of quality seem to be on the chilly, windswept side of bleak, although at one point Brown casually alludes to a 17-track piano and vocal suite Buchanan has completed that’s just waiting for record company interest to be piqued.


Exercising his journalist’s diligence, Brown interviews many of the key figures drawn into the band’s orbit, including (in something of a scoop for those of us whose interests include both The Blue Nile and hi-fi) Linn founder Ivor Tiefenbrun, whose company essentially bankrolled the band’s first two albums, and Ed Bicknell, who, despite his decades of hard-nosed management expertise, conclusively failed to do for The Blue Nile what he was able to for Dire Straits. What recurs as a tragic theme, though, is how a band responsible for some of the most emotionally articulate popular music ever recorded have mislaid the ability to communicate with each other.


Even discounting the absence of a happy ending, “Nileism” isn’t perfect. In its first edition form, it seems in desperate need of fact-checking and proofreading. Brown repeatedly refers to producer Calum Malcolm’s “five-door Scirocco Storm”; well, I’m no “Top Gear” watching petrolhead, but to the best of my knowledge no such car ever existed. On somewhat  steadier ground, I’m reasonably sure that, despite the author’s assertion, he never listed to The Blue Nile on “a nursery-level Gerrard turntable”. Brown also asserts that “The Blue Nile weren’t a band, Linn wasn’t a record label and Castlesound wasn’t Electric Ladyland”, which makes some twisted kind of sense because Castlesound is a small Scottish recording studio fraternised by The Blue Nile and “Electric Ladyland” is the third Jimi Hendrix Experience album.  Given the ruinous fastidiousness of its subject, such mistakes seem out of place.


Still, for those of us who hold the work of this wondrous group close, this terrific book might prove to be the definitive word on the band, sadly.

Paul Buchanan