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The Blue Nile - chronicling a tempestuous history


Story: Jack Foley

FOR over 25 years and through three, soon to be four, records, the tale of The Blue Nile has wound inexorably through the highest acclaim and the gravest misfortune, past record company ineptitude and personal disasters, taking in Top 20 albums and winning a fanatical word-of-mouth fanbase along the way – a fanbase which includes Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel and Rod Stewart.

Their songs have been covered by a diverse array of talent – Tom Jones, Isaac Hayes, Melanie C, Michael McDonald, Julian Lennon, Zucchero, Joe Cocker, Chris Botti, as well as the aforementioned Lennox and Stewart.

Few people own just one Blue Nile album – generally you will either own them all and still play them on a regular basis, or have never heard of The Blue Nile.

Their music has been described as 'ambient folk', 'electronic pop' and '4am songs', none of which truly gets near what The Blue Nile are about.

Essentially, The Blue Nile create songs about the day-to-day life of pretty much everyone who has ever been in love, or who has ever looked out at the rain on a cold winter day, or who has ever struggled to work on a bus which gets stuck in traffic.

As singer, Paul Buchanan, explains: "It’s always been a documentary of the imagination."

Towards the end of the 1970s, the three members of The Blue Nile were graduating from Glasgow University; Paul, in English Literature, PJ Moore, in Electronics, and Robert Bell in Mathematics.

Paul and PJ had known each other since childhood, growing up in the same streets of north Glasgow and playing together from the age of 10.

Neither knew Bell during their studies, but soon after graduation, Paul and Robert were introduced through mutual friends and began a friendship through a shared love of music.

"We would play each other records which we liked," remembers Paul. "I got him into Mahler particularly the 5th Symphony, popularly known as the music from the film Death In Venice, and he would play me stuff like What’s Going On? or Let’s Get It On – a lot of Marvin."

The three started writing songs and formed their own label, Peppermint Records to put out a single, I Love This Life in 1981. Only a small number of copies were pressed, but one of them found its way to RSO Records, who offered to promote and release it themselves.

"We had no expectations so we were just putting a toe in the water," says Paul, "but the record started getting a bit of attention and a few plays on Radio 1 and it got a little bit exciting for a few weeks."

Just when the single was on the verge of being released, RSO were bought by the giant Polygram group and I Love This Life disappeared without trace.

The Blue Nile weren’t overly bothered, however, and spent the next couple of years recording a few songs that they had written or half-written for RSO.

"Before getting sucked into Polygram, they had asked us for another song and we’d gone off and recorded, Tinseltown In The Rain, so we had that ready.

"The engineer on the records, Calum Malcolm, was a huge help to us in terms of feeding us and sometimes giving us a place to sleep and he would also let us know when there was a bit of free studio time and we would go down to this little studio in the middle of the night and just record something."

Through Malcolm, some of the recordings reached hi-fi manufacturer, Linn.

Hearing The Blue Nile demos, Linn saw the potential and signed the band to its own label, admittedly after something of a struggle during which The Blue Nile didn’t return Linn’s calls for nine months – 'we weren’t being wilfully evasive, we just had other things to do with our time!'

The resulting album, A Walk Across The Rooftops, was recorded in five months with songs that had been written over the previous two years.

The band lived frugally, putting all Linn’s money into the recording process.

Rooftops contained seven songs, none of which sounded much like anything else on the radio at the time – they were rich, melodic works, electronic but with soul and each one was glossed with Buchanan’s romantic melancholy vocal.

Their lyrics also set them apart from the mainstream, as much of the subject matter dealt with beauty in the everyday mundane.

Yet, for a debut album on a small label, Rooftops… received extraordinary plaudits.

Producer du jour, Steve Lillywhite, pronounced it 'the best debut of the last five years', and despite the rarity of The Blue Nile getting TV and radio slots, the album sold healthily through friends recommending it to friends in the way that great underground records always build.

"We’re slightly hapless people," admits Paul, "so we were absolutely thrilled to get the acclaim but at the same time a little dumbfounded.

"So when Virgin, who had by now taken an interest and licensed the record from Linn, told us to go away and make another album, we were too shy to tell them that we had no songs left!"

With this level of success comes more work and The Blue Nile, who had never had a manager, found themselves dealing with all the bureaucracy and day-to-day corporate affairs of the record business themselves at the same time as trying to write another record, answering fan letters and calls and having to deal with all of life’s other major problems.

"We went into a studio with no songs and we felt a bit of pressure to come up with something good and something quick and it just didn’t work.

"We’d start things and then get bogged down and it just felt awful. In the end, after two years of recording, we had two half-decent ideas and the rest was terrible so we just took the tapes and burned them.

"I went back to Glasgow and sat around for most of 1987 and that’s when the songs that became ‘Hats’ arrived."

Paul admits to being 'always in a state of high anxiety', so the pressure to write new songs was probably the worst position for him to be in.

"When you’re not thinking too hard about it – that’s when the songs come. The good ones.

"Hats was written over about a year when I was more relaxed. The record company would phone us up and ask what we’d been doing and we used to just be a bit vague which they took to be us being difficult.

"It wasn’t that at all. It was simply that we didn’t want to irritate them so we felt we couldn’t tell them that the songs were not right. It was naivety on our part."

Hats became a hit, reaching No.12 in the album charts, in the autumn of 1989.

The album also sold well in America and the band crossed the Atlantic to promote the record through 1990.

While in America, Paul began a relationship with actress, Rosanna Arquette, and briefly became something of a tabloid celebrity – the couple broke up after two years but are still friends.

However, during the promotion for Hats, the curse of The Blue Nile struck again twofold.

First, A&M (to whom the band were signed in America) was bought by Polygram and Paul found himself talking to a product manager one day who was fired the next – disconcerting at the best of times.

Meanwhile in the UK, as a result of contractual problems, The Blue Nile found themselves released by Linn and Virgin and in 1992 signed a worldwide deal with Warners in the US.

Paul remembers the early 90s as a difficult time: "We were all pretty burned out after the touring and the promotion for Hats, so around ’92 we decided to just buy some equipment and travel for a bit – go to a city, rent a room and just write a few songs.

"So we did just that and we drifted around and we went to France and Italy and Holland and New York and all this time we were writing and occasionally recording a few things. It was all very bitty because the time after Hats had felt very claustrophobic and so we kept moving.

"We threw an awful lot of songs away as usual but by about ’95 we had the ten songs that would appear on Peace At Last, in addition to three of the songs which are on High."

The third Blue Nile album was seen by many fans as a departure from what was familiar – more guitars, some songs with a more poppy feel and even a gospel choir on the lead track, Happiness.

"We really wanted black singers on that song and we wanted amateur black singers," continues Paul.

"At the time, I was trying to throw off the shackles of being over-produced, I think, to try to get back to that analogue stuff of the early ‘80s.

"We tried loads of different places to try to find a choir and in the end I remember talking to one of the secretaries at the LA office of Warners and she had a friend who worked in a post office who was in a choir.

"So we went to see them in church and they were fantastic – I was really moved by them. They appeared on Happiness."

Peace At Last became another Top 20 album in the UK and again the reviews were excellent.

Although The Blue Nile were proud of Peace At Last, Warners, undergoing management changes in the US, didn’t spend much time or effort promoting the record, so by 1997 The Blue Nile were once again drifting amidst record company confusion.

Paul was still writing songs, however, even without any certainty that a label would release them.

"My job is to stay available to do this, to write about some common experience that everyone can relate to.

"Every person has their own Toledo (from High) in the same way that everyone has their own Tinsletown.

"We’re not in this for the money. We’re in this because the songs come when they come and we don’t put anything out unless it deserves to go out."

The Blue Nile finally got themselves a manager, Ed Bicknell, who has been an integral part of the music industry for over 30 years, notably working with Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler, Bryan Ferry and Scott Walker in the 80s and 90s.

The first thing Ed did was to extract them from Warner Brothers and sort out their historical contractual problems.

Gradually, a new album began to form, starting with the three songs written during the mid-90s travels – Days Of Our Lives, I Would Never and Broken Loves.

By 2003, there were nine new songs recorded and ready for a new record deal.

"People often ask why it takes so long to write these albums," muses Paul. "The thing is that you can’t predict the songs – they come when they come.

"And if I’m doing something else, like my VAT receipts or the washing or something, then I’m not in the state of mind to write songs.

"People don’t seem to realise that we do lots of stuff in between records – we’re all voracious readers for example – and then of course there are all the songs that we throw away and will never be heard because they’re not good enough."

In early 2004, The Blue Nile signed to Sanctuary Records, an independent label with a wide-ranging roster that extends from Morrissey to Iron Maiden and which is arguably the most successful label of the moment.

High, The Blue Nile’s fourth album in 21 years, will be released on August 30.

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