This has been a difficult article for me to write. Not because the book that I am about to review isn’t good. It’s very good. It’s the new biography of The Blue Nile and it’s important to me to get it right. This is because The Blue Nile, or at least their music, play an almost indescribably important role in my life.
Theirs are the records I turn to when all else fails and make me feel the way I want to feel. With that in mind, unless Allan Brown’s Nileism: The Strange Course of The Blue Nile had revealed Paul Buchanan, PJ Moore and Robert Bell as diabolists with a penchant for public-exposure I was going to like this book. Actually, I would forgive them anything.
But there is a problem with biographies of your heroes. Sometimes it is better not to look behind the curtain and discover how the magic is made. The Blue Nile have rarely given interviews or made public appearances so a book such as this is long awaited, but risks breaking the spell. In the 27 years that I have been listening to their music I know almost nothing about them except for those rare appearances in the music press and what I could decipher from the songs. There were also what Allan Brown rightly describes as, Chinese whispers. People who went to school/uni with the band, or had chatted in the pub, or whose sister had once…etc,etc. In Glasgow there are lots of unsubstantiated Nile ‘facts’.
So Nileism was approached with a contradictory mixture of excitement and trepidation. I wanted to know more, but not all. It seems wrong to overly pry into the lives of this band in particular. Luckily Allan Brown’s approach is perfectly balanced, concentrating on the music and how it was made, and often how and why it wasn’t made. There are references to the nature of the personal relationships within the band, but no more than that. The book is respectful, and I don’t think fans would want it any other way. This is a refreshing musical biography as it doesn’t look for the controversial or explosive. Like the band it is out of time yet absolutely correct in its execution.
The Blue Nile have carved out a career that sets them aside from others. I was going to say from their peers, but just who would those be? When their debut A Walk Across the Rooftops came out in 1983 it immediately set them aside from the crowd. Postcard Records came before, and that label’s aesthetic stance was defined by a particular time and a particular place. There were plenty of other bands who used synthesisers in the mid-eighties, such as The Human League, OMD, and the boy Numan, but they had no ‘soul’; a deliberate stance taken, making music not only with machines, but often about them.
The Scottish bands that followed such as Deacon Blue, Hue and Cry, Hipsway, The Big Dish etc had too much ‘Soul’, and not enough substance. Simple Minds had been attracted by the stadium lights, and The Waterboys (perhaps the closest band in terms of being able to create a unique atmosphere) were attracted by Ireland. When the albums Hats, Peace at Last and High went on sale in 1989, 1996 and 2004 respectively The Blue Nile had long since seemed to exist in a different world to the rest of the music business. Where Nileism really succeeds is to explain what the circumstances were that brought this about, the mixture of carefully constructed career plan (or lack of as it turns out) and all sorts of luck, mostly bad. Brown pieces together the events that led to the legends of The Blue Nile. As PJ Moore reportedly said to Paul Buchanan during the recording of High; “It’s not about era, it’s about aura”.
You should be aware that this otherness makes them difficult to pin down in biography, and it is to Brown’s credit that he does so with what appears to be only the slightest of contributions from some of the band. There is something ephemeral about The Blue Nile, and this applies to the people as much as the music. They are aware of the opaqueness of things, of people and places. They do not deal with such trivia as names and specifics. This is music that is universal, dealing with feelings that are bigger than both of us and than all of us. The album version of The Downtown Lights finishes with singer Paul Buchanan listing aspects of the city:
“the neons and the cigarettes,
rented rooms and rented cars,
the crowded streets the empty bars,
Chimney tops and trumpets,
the golden lights the loving prayers,
the coloured shoes the empty trains,
I’m tired of crying on the stairs,
the downtown lights.”
It’s a classic Blue Nile lyric. A stroll across the cityscape with an emotional payoff that never loses its impact. Here’s the single version of The Downtown Lights, which explains far more eloquently than I ever could what they are about:
Allan Brown’s starting point is similar to mine in that he is a self proclaimed fan of the music, albeit one who lives across from Paul Buchanan’s dentist. But he doesn’t let his feelings overly colour Nileism as he concentrates on setting out the life of the band rather than making too much critical comment upon it. He leaves that to others, punctuating the chapters with quotations from fans and friends. He also quotes reviews from the music press which show the depth of critical acclaim they have enjoyed. Readers may think that the one lengthy negative quote used, a review of Peace at Last, highlights a lack of objectivity in the book, but such an apparent imbalance is a fair reflection of their critical reception.
The Blue Nile seem to fit the description of what your more discerning music journalist thinks a great band should be. One whose members are literate, enigmatic, and aloof; exactly as those writers like to see themselves. The reviews of their live shows are astonishingly exultant, describing these all too rare events as if quasi-religious experiences, with both audiences and musicians fighting back the tears.
This elegiac quality to their music is perhaps the most difficult to explain. One of the many interesting points that Brown makes is the importance of the band’s Catholic background. There is a questioning in the music that seems to me a direct result of that particular upbringing. The music, and lyrics, betray a delicate faith, one that almost expects to be tested at any moment. “Do I love you, yes I love you, will we always be happy go lucky?”, “Who do you love? Who do you really, love?”, “How do I know you feel it, how do I know it’s true”. The music is about love, but this love is painful, debilitating and confusing. And if it isn’t, it will be soon. It is one thing having faith, it’s quite something else to have faith in that faith.
But this search for answers will not necessarily bring contentment, because that will bring knew doubts and questions of its own. This is never more clear than on Happiness, the opening track of their third album Peace at Last. It opens: “Now that I’ve found peace at last, tell me Jesus, will it last?”. It’s a musical statement of the belief that ‘happiness’ is for other people. To quote journalist David Belcher; “The Blue Nile have given us succour by saying since 1983: that life is a losing battle that has to be fought anyway”.
If there is a criticism to be held against Nileism it is that it concentrates on Buchanan over and above Bell and Moore, but that actually suits the story and reflects their music. Whereas many band’s attitude to production is to throw the kitchen sink at it, the music of The Blue Nile is pared down to make it as simple as possible and to provide an uncluttered canvas for the heartbreaking vocals. I am not suggesting that the music is in any way of secondary importance; everything works together to produce their sound, but the structure of the book does seem to reflect the structure of the band.
The story becomes Buchanan’s tale as the book reaches it’s conclusion and I would like to know more about how all three viewed their last (and last?) album High, which has some of their best ever tracks on it. What cannot be doubted is that Paul Buchanan’s voice had never been better than on that album. It has become an instrument that expresses real pain of a life lived, and not always well. Perhaps these aching vocals tell us all we need to know about the band by this time. There is certainly a sense of loss that cannot be ignored.
From High, this is Stay Close playing over some lovely photography of Glasgow. It is the last track on the album, and if it is to be The Blue Nile’s send off, then it’s an apt one:
The music of The Blue Nile is urban music in a very specific sense, but it is also folk music. It’s music for the folk in the city. You often forget that much of what you are listening to was created using synthesisers and drum machines. Kraftwerk, The Human League, even early Simple Minds, all made music that was about, and for, the industrial city. Like a JG Ballard novel much of the electronic music of the late ’70s-early ’80s was about man’s uneasy, and often erotic or at least fetishistic relationship with the machine. With The Blue Nile the relationship between the city and its inhabitants is more soulful, more romantic, their lives are interwoven, and the city becomes as much of a character as those who walk the streets. This romance may be doomed, but that just makes it even more attractive.
It seems to me that there are two polar extremes when it comes to criticism, at one end stands the cheerleader and at the other the misanthrope, and most of us fall somewhere in between. My natural disposition is to lead the cheering, to say ‘I love this, and here’s why you should too’, but I’m constantly trying to move to the mean. To be ‘objective’. When it comes to The Blue Nile, my objectivity goes out the window so I am impressed that Allan Brown has managed to bring some to this tale. It was only as I finished reading Nileism that I realised that I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad word said against The Blue Nile. This could be selective hearing, but it does appear that just as the band don’t talk about themselves, so fans don’t talk about them too. Perhaps expressing how much they mean to us makes us feel a little uncomfortable, or we believe that too much declared adoration will scare them off. There is also the sense that we need to protect them. Fanciful stuff perhaps, but what Nileism makes clear is that we are right to worry. There is something fragile about The Blue Nile.
If you’ve never heard The Blue Nile don’t start with this book. Go out and buy some of their music, live with it, fall in love with it, and only then return. It will be waiting to fill in the gaps about your new favourite band. If you’re already a fan of the music then you must read this book as it will remind you of the times in your life that The Blue Nile made better. Put on A Walk Across the Rooftops or Hats, crack the spine, and renew auld acquaintance.
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Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae.
Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.
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