The Blue Nile’s first two albums get their eagerly awaited double disc re-releases next week. Contain your excitement, warns Allan Brown
THE Who had volume; Bob Dylan had mystery; Pink Floyd had a wall. The Blue Nile, too, had a signature attribute: sloth. Forget the glossy cinematic melancholy of their music, or their proclivity for life in the shadows. Legendarily, The Blue Nile are the band that prefers, or preferred, to take things at a pace that approximates geologic change. The band split up eight years ago. Perhaps. It’s still a bit early to judge.
Since forming in the early 1980s, at Glasgow University, as a hive mind of three clever, cautious undergraduates, the band has written and recorded an average of one song per year. Between their third and fourth album came a gap longer than the entire recording career of The Beatles, from Please Please Me to Abbey Road. It has sometimes seemed as though The Blue Nile entered some musical equivalent of the Witness Protection Programme. Like comets and eclipses, they are, or were, a phenomenon governed by forces more epochal than mere human whim.
Nonetheless, the footprint has been huge, even if the members have proven reluctant to leave the house much. The Blue Nile and its members – songwriter and vocalist Paul Buchanan, bassist Robert Bell and pianist PJ Moore – enjoy a critical reputation second only to Nick Drake or Talk Talk, and the kind of one-to-one fan response that could embarrass a pontiff.
The secret has been in the way the music dramatises the internal. With their rolling orchestral sadness, like a kind of disco Sinatra, songs like Tinseltown In The Rain or The Downtown Lights put listeners into their own small-hour noir melodramas, forever driving at midnight over a rainy Kingston Bridge.
Such, at least, is the ambience captured on the band’s first two albums, now released finally in the double-disc, bells-and-whistles format. Fans have been awaiting these almost since the band’s heyday in the early 1990s. Over the years supplementary scraps were released but only fitfully, on 12 inch singles and compilations: the thinking went that music so scarce and sacred needed, as a matter of clerical urgency, the full curatorial gathering-together.
Which now it has. After a fashion. The Blue Nile were never an entity to do things in ways that were easy, or expected; or efficient even. As a unit the band was governed by some imp of the perverse, ensuring it did the least beneficial thing at the most inopportune moment, like firing its hot-shot American manager mid-tour or Buchanan signing to Warners without troubling to inform his bandmate. “None of the others were in town at the time,” Buchanan told me, with airy disingenuity.
Fittingly, then, these reissues are bizarre, half-hearted and grudging. Rather than scour the archives for gold the band has scraped the bins for potato peelings. On the Rooftops bonus disc, the band’s earliest single I Love This Life and its flipside receive their umpteenth reheat. There are three tracks from the Rooftops album proper, identical save for a few bits of overdubbed percussive nonsense. There is a B-side, Regret, and one new track, the impressive St Catherine’s Day, an old song but, weirdly, re-recorded in the present day.
The Hats bonus disc is worse still, another grab-bag of the pointless and the microscopically variant. Another “new” track features, the snoozy Christmas, again re-recorded. The remainder is live and remixed material that only a qualified recording engineer could differentiate from the records you own already. The discs are further evidence that Buchanan and Bell, who oversaw the reissues – PJ Moore having many moons ago slunk off in despair – remain as creatively parsimonious as ever; men who pat their pockets in the pub and ask for tap water.
Why? My theory is they don’t care particularly for music. We’re dealing not with a Prince or a Mike Scott, or a Neil Young: musicians who crackle with inspiration and the compulsion to express it. The Blue Nile always felt about music as someone might feel about the Lake District: it’s fine but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Bell was a heavy metal engineer turned soul boy; Buchanan listened to bits of The Beatles; Moore liked how the RS232 interface lead connected with a non-auxiliary socket. These were not men to discuss the bounce of the Apollo balcony or Bowie on Top of the Pops. Ed Bicknell, the band’s former manager, recalled Buchanan asking who’d performed a catchy tune on the radio. Bicknell furrowed his brow: Little Richard, he spluttered.
All this, though, only makes the triumphs of A Walk Across The Rooftops and Hats doubly remarkable. The anxiety of influence did not apply. Deficiencies became virtues. The band’s earlier style, a sort of weedy Glaswegian Steely Dan, took on air and space, aided by the rudimentary synthesizers then appearing in high street music shops.
Musical elements were stripped from arrangements unless they could, under full Stasi interrogation, account for their movements. Calum Malcolm, their engineer, brought pronounced sonic textures, icy strings played pizzicato, splashes of piano and a soundscape wreathed in a kind of haar. On top went Buchanan’s Glasgow house-party croon, with its lyrics of spiritual and romantic pursuit. On Hats it all became more humid, more velvety, though Hats is by far the better loved of the pair. Here, they’re mastered to bring up beautifully their gleam, their heartbreaking clarity–- even if the men behind them remain as cryptic as ever.
• The remastered editions of A Walk Across The Rooftops and Hats are released by EMI on 19 November. Allan Brown is the author of Nileism: The Strange Course of The Blue Nile, Polygon £8.99