I’ve been a huge fan of the brilliant Scot band The Blue Nile since their singular debut album of 1983 blew my mind in a big way on its release. Here was a band who managed to outstrip all other musicians competing for my ears with their impassioned and simultaneously restrained music that has all of the sonic and emotional gimcrack of popular music stripped away for a perversely minimal sound that packs a maximum emotional wallop. As I put it to others; imagine Frank Sinatra, having been born in Glasgow in the 50s, and growing up listening to Roxy Music – this is the music he’d have made.
The band’s errant path over the last 28 years has resulted in just four albums. They are notoriously recalcitrant to prying journalists and though they have managed to place their albums fairly high in the UK charts, they are perhaps best loved by other musicians who duly genuflect at the altar of their sound. Naturally, I am more than interested in the first book to be published about them and my lovely wife obtained it for me as soon as she discovered it. Well, how does it stack up?
First of all, writer Brown is an admitted Blue Nile geek who has had contact with singer Paul Buchanan over the years here and there. Apparently, Buchanan was amenable to a book on the group. At least at first. His [possibly] erstwhile compatriots in the group [Paul Moore – keyboards and Robert Bell – bass] each demurred until Buchanan withdrew his support for the endeavor. Brown continued apace and managed to discuss the band’s history with a wide variety of their support crew of the last 30 years.
Their first album was released by a Scottish Hi-Fi manufacturer, Linn Electronics, as a demo disc for their famous Linn Sondek turntable. Ears that the small edition of the album reached at this time included Virgin Records, who signed the group for wider distribution. “A Walk Across The Rooftops” was released to much acclaim, if not sales, and then The Blue Nile went into hibernation for six years. Rumors of an entire album scrapped began to surface. After their second [and second classic in a row] album, “Hats” was released after a six year gestation period and came within striking distance of the UK top ten, they became the sort of band that looked like they were poised to make the leap from beloved cult artists to genuine musical forces.
They actually managed to finally tour to support that release and Ron Fierstein [brother to playwright Harvey and also manager of Suzanne Vega] and his partner, Steve Addobo, invested heavily in the band, tentatively becoming the group’s first management team to get them road worthy without compromising the artistic ideals which were their bottom line. After all was said and done, the band bid Fierstein adieu at the conclusion of the successful tour, leaving him high and dry and in the red with no chance to recoup. Another seven years would pass before they would release another album and tour again, this time with Ed Bicknell managing.
Thanks to the success of “Hats,” heavy hitters were then bidding for the group, whom were seen as the sort of feather in a label’s cap that multi-million dollar bidding wars engender. Eventually, Bicknell got the band signed to Warner Brothers. Label head Mo Ostin loved the band and didn’t want to meddle with them. The band were impressed that Frank Sinatra’s former accountant had an interest in them. Everything seemed primed to take the band up to the level of stardom. Then Ostin found himself the victim of corporate upsets and bid sayonara to Warner Brothers. The band found the new label head was less than supportive of their new efforts, which deliberately avoided sounding like anything else they had recorded before, even as relations between singer Buchanan and synthesist Moore [largely responsible for the band’s unique sonics] broke down completely.
Most illuminating is what übermanager Ed Bicknell has to say about his time managing the group. Bicknell made his fortune steering Dire Straits from pubs to arenas from the late 70s to the point where they called it a day. Bicknell related how the dysfunctional dynamic of the band that kept them from touring or recording more than a song or two a year ultimately conspired to tear the group asunder. When the group delivered what would eventually become “Peace At Last” to their manager for his thoughts, he complained that seven songs and a thirty minute running time wouldn’t do. What else did they have? Buchanan proffered some songs and Bicknell picked some and received a call from Buchanan after a day or two saying the new songs were ready to hear. Bicknell was incredulous as he asked Buchanan if they group had actually recorded and mixed two songs in as many days when the other seven songs has taken, in effect, a year apiece? When Buchanan answered in the affirmative, Bicknell asked him how he felt about that. “I’m wasting my life” was Buchanan’s bitter, taciturn answer.
For such quiet, self-effacing chaps as The Blue Nile, the deep-seated neuroses they exhibited served to ultimately, over the years, mute any artistic enthusiasm that record labels had in investing in the band. By the time their fourth album, “High” was ready in 2004, only Chrysalis and Sanctuary Records were biting. Labels had gotten wise to the fact that The Blue Nile would never ever play the industry game and release music and promote it in such a way that any investment in the group could be recouped, much less built upon. It’s been seven years since then, so I was rightfully expecting a new Blue Nile album just about now. Having read this book, I now know that it is extremely unlikely that it could ever occur. In fact, Buchanan has a solo album in the can that is awaiting the ironing out of the fractious political and legal issues that ultimately destroyed The Blue Nile for it to see the light of day. And I’m not holding my breath.
Writer Brown relates this without offering much insight into the group’s personal lives or indeed, much rundown of what occupies their time apart from those rare blossoms of the Blue Nile bulb every six to seven years. There is some tedium in his frequent dismissal of 1980s promotional aesthetics, which are insipidly derided throughout the book, presumably to fill space where cogent reportage was not at the ready. Such snarky, small-minded passages, which are frequent, undermine the not inconsiderable accomplishment of the book, which we must be reminded, exists without the imprimatur of the band. Had there still been house editors in these, the end times, it might have made for a more disciplined and resonant book about this most elusive of subjects.
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