A walk across the rooftops with The Blue Nile
There’s a great quote on the dust-jacket of Allan Brown’s new book “Nileism” about The Blue Nile which goes a little way to summing up this most perplexing of bands in a pithy line. No, not the quote from Chris …
There’s a great quote on the dust-jacket of Allan Brown’s new book “Nileism” about The Blue Nile which goes a little way to summing up this most perplexing of bands in a pithy line. No, not the quote from Chris Martin outlining his ignorance about the band, but rather “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a raincoat”. But, of course, this being the Blue Nile, that quote will probably backtrack on itself, take a few years off to work out the phrasing and finally be released without much fanfare.
“Nileism” looks at the strange career of the Glasgow band, a band who produced a mere four albums in three decades and a band who sadly never bothered the mainstream unduly. A pity because half of those albums “A Walk Across the Rooftops” and “Hats” contain the kind of evocative, emotional, romantic, melancholic, heartbreaking pop few others have come close to emulating. Their other two albums weren’t too shabby either – certainly, “Peace At Last” and “High” are better than anything Coldplay will ever put their name to – but somehow, the public and The Blue Nile never enjoyed a lengthy waltz together. A few loving glances to be sure, when they had a record company backing them to the hilt, but nothing to remember the following day.
Reading “Nileism”, the reader will come across a band snatching defeat from the jaws of victory time and time again. The lengthy period between albums didn’t help. The band’s approach to touring also wasn’t a plus, though the sporadic gigs (I remember a spellbinding show at Dublin’s Gaeity Theatre in September 1990 when you could hear a pin drop during the songs) were quite special. Inter-band relationships? Yeah, that would be another one on the blame list.
In the music business of the 1980s and 1990s, The Blue Nile happily did all the wrong things, including eventually taking one of those IMF/ECB-like advances to switch from Virgin to Warners. The band didn’t seem to realise that they’d have to pay that money back. Cue another couple of years of pondering, musing and Glaswegian angst. As Brown says at one stage, a central paradox of bandleader Paul Buchanan is how “someone so invested in their work can produce such a small amount of it, and so infrequently”. He adds that may be a matter for psychology rather than biography.
By book’s end, it’s clear that The Blue Nile just don’t belong in this game any more. A changing record industry has run out of time and patience for a band who relied on the largesse of the old-school record label machine and who were promoted slowly and steadily in the old-school way. Of course, The Blue Nile were always a band out of time, but there are very few folks left in the business willing to take a chance on a bunch of idiosyncratic Scottish perfectionists. Brown’s interviews with managers, musicians, producers and anyone else who worked with the band at one stage or another detail how the individual’s infatuation with the band and their music led to eventual heartbreak and disappointment. Perfectionism, especially perfectionism coated with Catholic guilt as seemingly was the case here, can be a bitch to deal with.
But, as you can hear on a song like “Let’s Go Out Tonight”, that perfectionism can produce moments of true splendour. (After the video and the jump, you’ll find an interview which I did with Paul Buchanan for this newspaper from 2004 when he was promoting The Blue Nile’s last album “High”).
You cannot mistake this voice for anything else and hearing that voice on brand new songs is a sign that there is another Blue Nile album finally coming down the tracks. For those who treasure Paul Buchanan singing weather-beaten pop about weather-beaten lives, a lengthy wait is almost over. That this audience have waited some eight years to hear “High” shows that patience is more than a virtue when you’re dealing with a band who have released just four albums in their 21 year history.
If pop’s High Street is increasingly cluttered with low-rent operations fronted by brash barkers hawking shoddy goods of every description, The Blue Nile operate in that little artisan store hidden down a side-lane. For those who take the time and make the effort to seek them out, The Blue Nile offer music untainted by commerce or fashions. The reasons why 1983’s “A Walk Across the Rooftops” and 1989’s “Hats” still sell are because few artists deal with such matters in this way. Rich, soulful and exquisitely crafted, it’s extraordinary music about the most ordinary of circumstances.
Yet Paul Buchanan knows that The Blue Nile’s reluctance to release what they view as sub-standard work over the years has meant many people just do not know who they are. With only one album released in the 1990s (and the patchy “Peace At Last” at that), a whole generation has grown up without hearing the band.
“We sometimes give scientific reasons for the gaps between records, but we just lost our way a couple of times, it’s no more complicated than that” explains Buchanan ruefully. “We would record a lot of songs and then realise that they were not right, that they were too uptight or too formulised or too thought out.”
Constant writing and recording has yielded hundreds of tracks (the nine songs on “High” were written and recorded over the last decade), yet only around 40 have ever been released.
“For all I know, we could have scrapped our best tracks during that process”, he shrugs, “but it doesn’t seem that way to me. You always set out to do the best you can but sometimes songs can be informed by anxiety or some other digression. Our criteria is fairly simple: if it moves you, it’s on and if it doesn’t move you, it’s off.”
Since they released “Peace At Last” in 1986, Buchanan, PJ Moore and Robert Bell have been writing and recording like they’ve always done. Live shows have been largely non-existent: their last show was at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in 2001 at a tribute concert for Uaneen Fitzsimons, the music broadcaster who was killed in a car accident.
“There have been days and indeed weeks or months when we haven’t done anything because one of us just isn’t in synch with the others”, says Buchanan of their life during the eight year gap. “That becomes more of an element as you get older and other things come into your life and you lose that certainty of youth. It’s important to keep the unit together to ensure the same chemistry because we’re found that three heads are better than one. At the same time, all three heads have to be operating at the same time.”
Such lack of productivity means a somewhat limited income and Buchanan mentions a frugal lifestyle. The old records still sell and they received a tidy pay-off from previous label Warner Brothers, but even such revenue streams aren’t enough to prevent what Buchanan terms “those Mr Micawber moments where you’re down to your last fiver”.
The singer believes they have ended up here because they followed their nature. “This is not the life that I wished for, I would have taken a more superficial result if it had been on offer”, he says. “You don’t set out thinking and hoping you’ll grow old doing this. The bottom line is this is just what happened. Our merit, if it is a merit, is that we stuck with it.
“We may have alienated people or missed out on people or lost momentum or wasted effort but we have at least maintained our credibility and that’s important in the long-run. You have to stick to your goals and we’re lucky because we’re still going. I would like to be able to look back and know we always done the best we could.”
But there must be a part of Buchanan which looks at the success of other groups and thinks of what might or should have been. When he talks about “putting in all this agonising and effort and then other groups come along and effortlessly sell loads of records”, his frustration is obvious. After all, Coldplay and Keane are all the rage these days and they do what some people might call emotional, intelligent pop not a million miles removed….
Buchanan uses an interesting analogy to explain this away. “I went to see Analyse This in the cinema and it was good, it was funny. But I didn’t think it was as good as The Sopranos. The Sopranos is on 10.30 or 11pm on Channel 4 and it doesn’t get a huge mainstream audience but if you love it, you wouldn’t change it for anything.
“You could look at someone like Coldplay and how effortless it has been for them. The lead singer even appears to have a healthy emotional life, while I’m wandering around like a cross between Woody Allen and Dylan Thomas and not getting anywhere. But I would be lying if I said they’re doing what we do. I don’t think our music is soft music but I think it’s compassionate in the real sense of the word. I like what they do and there’s an emotional resonance in it but I don’t see the whole movie. It’s two different things, it’s like Ulysses and Tess of the Durbervilles. They’re both good books and both have words on the page, but one is dealing with a different reality.”
Buchanan is acutely aware that his views on music are hugely at odds with popular opinion. “The way music is branded these days seems to sell it short”, he says. “It’s not really about commerce or ring tones. Music is a language and I think it has been hijacked and turned into a commodity and a lifestyle. You get acts pushed towards you who are just collections of people who met on TV shows. It’s a fact of life now and it’s the way things have advanced. You don’t want to have sore grapes about it but you can’t help wondering where it is going.”
For him and The Blue Nile, their strive for perfectionism is about maintaining a relationship. “The way we’re trying to address the listener is a private experience, it’s not about a sound-bite. I wouldn’t like to disappoint people. You can’t have a relationship where you want the work to have a value and only do that some of the time, you have to do that all of the time.”
Buchanan admits he is something of an “apologist” but his dedication to the cause is obvious. It’s this compulsion which has meant The Blue Nile have scrapped more songs than they have released and that they have not reached the same heights as many lesser talents.
He knows too that he is the most unlikely of possible pop stars when he says that self-importance is the enemy. “The three of us are trying to hack away at that. We feel we’re observers rather than pop musicians or artists, we’re not one of them, The way pop musicians have been rewarded and treated over the years actually removes you from the very thing that you’re doing. You can’t just go to a restaurant, any room there has to be a VIP room or table. I’ve experienced a tiny amount of it and I can tell you there is no magic realm, you don’t get into a room where everything is better just because you get to hang out with Jennifer Lopez every day.”
Paul Buchanan pauses for a moment and smiles broadly. “That just doesn’t happen to us”. Lopez doesn’t know what she is missing.
© 2004 The Irish Times