My review (for the Scottish Review of Books) of Allan Brown's excellent rock biography, Nileism: The Strange Course of The Blue Nile. The book is a funny and sharp evocation of the rise of Glasgow's modern sensibility, via the tortured art of three musical obsessives.
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The Source of the Nile
The music of the Blue Nile conjured a distinctive image of Glasgow in the 1980s.
Pat Kane, Scottish Review of Books, Vol 7, Issue 1, 2011
It’s a straightforward memory test: recall the music you listened to when you went to university or college. Try it; shut your eyes. And once you finally return to this page, has a recollection ever been so vivid? Have the physical details of a place, the faces and clothes and significant conversations and afternoons of passion, ever been so easily recalled?
The neuropsychologists would pedantically point out the reason why: the combination of a life beginning to be lived as a choosing, autonomous adult, with a youthful brain that’s still growing and ramifying, the switch stuck on “receive”. Which is why the texture of that malodorous couch is still on your fingertips, the first ever croissant still flaky in your mouth, the thrill of an enlivened intellect still electric inside you.
And music – that elaboration of a heartbeat, a mother’s croon, an innate sense of symmetry – just floods the memory circuits, like a red wine bottle tipped onto the crappy carpet of a rented flat. Goes everywhere; never really disappears.
For me, for Allan Brown, and for hundreds of thousands of others, one listen to any track from the Blue Nile’s 1984 debut album A Walk Across The Rooftops makes such a transportation possible. And although any reaction to any piece of music is subjective, it’s easy to tell a personal story about this record which makes a strong claim that it captured something objective, really out there.
To be a studious young Glaswegian male between 1981 and 1985 was to exist under roiling skies, shot through with occasional light: paranoid about being conscripted to fight in the Falklands, living a double life of intellectual demands in Garnethill and hometown mediocrity in Blairhill, yet beginning to explore a great city both in its streets and in your mind.
The city fathers hadn’t really discovered the joys of urban branding yet – the collective euphoria that a few well-chosen symbols, festival slogans and property developments could bring. The modernism, even futurism, that we brought to our student lives in Glasgow, was largely self-generated – and almost entirely based around music. Scottish post-punk was scattering its riches across the available media; which meant the NME, scraps of youth TV, John Peel at ten, and most crucially, Radio Clyde’s Billy Sloan on a Sunday evening.
When Sloan played the Blue Nile’s first single, 1981’s ‘I Love This Life’, I remember sitting bolt upright in my Coatbridge bed, instantly responding to Paul Buchanan’s reckless, slightly cracked swoon of a voice, to the bubbling serialism of Paul Moore and Robert Bell’s music – but perhaps most of all to its mood of bruised, weary romance, resting on a shimmering plane of electronica. A Walk Across the Rooftops confirmed it. In the Blue Nile I heard the dogged optimism, the growing dramatic arc, lurking behind my stumbling, day-time scholarly life in the big city – but set in a soundscape that (as the Edwin Morgan poetry collection from the 1970s put it) seemed to stretch from Glasgow to Saturn.
Via New York, it would also have to be said. Though far less crudely and directly than the late 1980s clutch of aspirational Glasgow bands, the Blue Nile channelled a towering, light-blinking imaginary Manhattan deep into their songs: ticker tape fluttering down from on high, tall buildings reaching up in vain, automobiles not cars, Glasgow-New York fused together as a tinseltown in the rain.
As Paul Buchanan often admits in Nileism, ‘The music I had was what I inherited from my father and his tastes, which was Sinatra and that generation of singers, that American world.’ And out of all those who inescapably drank from that well, Buchanan has surely taken the richest draught: he combines the staggering ruin of the later Frank’s voice with the vaulting gospel ambition of a soul singer. Quite a combination.
But again, the bold, symphonic confidence of the Blue Nile’s electronica deconstructs all this Americana – makes it less like a clichéd trigger for emotion and excitement, and more like an abstract landscape of urban modernity that almost anyone could live in, and imagine their triumphs and failures, their ardencies and heartbreaks.
The first time I read Don DeLillo’s Libra, with Lee Harvey Oswald sitting on the A-train, I immediately heard the soundtrack coming from the Blue Nile: ‘The wheels touched off showers of blue-white sparks, tremendous hissing bursts, on the edge of no-control. People crowded in, every shape face in the book of faces. They pushed through the doors, they hung from the porcelain straps. He was riding just to ride. The noise had a power and a human force. The dark had a power. He stood at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass.’
It’s maybe not such a presumptuous connotation: DeLillo’s latest book, Omega Point, begins and ends with a contemplation of Glasgow conceptualist Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho. I’ve also just watched a YouTube interview with Paul Buchanan, quietly defending their glacial pace of four albums over 25 years to a jocose Irish presenter: ‘Try to think of them as novels.’
Easily done. One of the many delights of Allan Brown’s biography of the band is the way he allows himself enough literary pretension, amidst and between what is otherwise a conventional rock chronology of formation, relative success, and downward slide. This seems to be mostly shaped by his attempt to comprehend the inner dynamic of the band itself, ‘an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a raincoat’, a ‘hive mind’ which he sets himself the task to dissect. Music producer after svengali manager after record company executive relate the same experience of dealing with the Blue Nile: ‘It’s like they have a telepathy going between them’, says one factotum, ‘which it’s very difficult to break into.’
This tactical opacity made it difficult for them to conform to the ‘army manoeuvres’, as Brown correctly puts it, that conventional music business success requires: regular touring, albums every 18-24 months, relentless glad-handing of retailers and media, some commensuration between commercial revenue and recording budget.
He picks up on a phrase that the band delightedly pass among themselves – some overheard diddy in a bar in the 1980s, drawling ‘I’m in a band...as you probably know’ – and cites it as the core of their carnaptiousness. How do you make the purest, most considered modern music you can in a business best summed up by Hunter S. Thompson? ‘A cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.’
Well, you defend your autonomy as best you can. Part of this is the perennial musician’s ability to hunker down and minimally survive (the financial grace and favour of various girlfriends are mentioned in passing). But another part is lucking into the right context for making music: a physical place, or a trusted soundman, or a sympathetic small record label. Some defensible compound that can resist the harpies of promotion, so you can chase the sonics down the rabbit hole, and come up with something sui generis.
The Blue Nile’s mighty first two albums, A Walk Across the Rooftops (1982) and Hats (1989) were produced under exactly these conditions. I’m very pleased that Brown puts producer Calum Malcolm, and his converted-schoolroom studio in Pencaitland, at the heart of the Nile’s story. (My band Hue And Cry recorded two albums with Calum and I can attest to his genius). A somewhat bruised and elderly schoolboy in appearance, Malcolm took this bunch of disgruntled new techno-romantics and sat them down for listening sessions with Eastern European orchestras playing Bartok.
The title track of their first album is surely as evocative an opening sequence as the first few bars of Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ on Kind of Blue: you listen today and marvel at the sound of industrial-meets-post-industrial Glasgow wrenched out of the crudity of 1980s synthesizers. The company context was important too: the Blue Nile have always had a relationship with the recording label of the hi-fi manufacturer Linn, for whom perfection of sound was an absolute.
Yet the second half of Brown’s biography, covering their last two albums (1996’s Peace At Last and 2004’s High), is a familiar tale of how relative success can progressively unravel the delicate conditions that produce something of brilliance. Huge publishing deals were signed; their songs were covered by Rod Stewart and Annie Lennox; major American and London managers were signed up; lives started to be uncomfortably lived between LA and Glasgow; celebrity girlfriends were picked up (Rosanna Arquette).
Simmering tensions over musical direction also came to a head. For Peace At Last, acoustic guitars and gospel choirs rang out in expensive studios; on a stylistic pendulum swing, High is a dense, claustrophobic wall of digitality, apparently recorded in a control room where keyboard player Paul Moore would look only at his computer screen.
‘You have to remember that we were just three panic-stricken guys’, says Buchanan, the only member who consented to be interviewed for the book. ‘If we were full of confidence, the records wouldn’t have the ambivalence that attracts people.’ Their last kick-ass manager, Dire Straits’ Ed Bicknell, who knocked down doors to provide them with six-figure sums to finish their most recent recordings, says ‘the history of the Blue Nile was the most screwed-up I had ever encountered.’
In 2011, where organised noise has to contend with every other attraction in the media sensorium (and is having the financial nexus ripped out of it by downloading), the tale of the Blue Nile – total musical visionaries facing down the cash-rich 1980s and 1990s music business, and mostly winning – seems like ancient and glorious history.
But better this Nileism than the alternative, that’s for sure. One would hope that there are still young Glaswegians staring moodily out of the top windows of their student flat, in the city’s university district; and that somewhere, coiled deep within their Garageband software and infinitely capacious hard-drives, they are planning to take another sonic walk across those rooftops.
NILEISM – THE STRANGE COURSE OF THE BLUE NILE