Saturday, 29 January 2011
44 A Walk Across The Rooftops - The Blue Nile
Purchased : July 1985
Tracks : A Walk Across The Rooftops / Tinseltown In The Rain / From Rags To Riches / Stay / Easter Parade / Heatwave / Automobile Noise
This was purchased in Oldham at HMV, my last visit there for record-buying purposes for some years. I was only looking for the single "Tinseltown In The Rain" but on being told it was deleted decided to splash out on the LP, at full price too !
They had that effect on me you see. The Blue Nile, the 80s' most enigmatic band , were my first entirely post-school enthusiasm. I'd neither heard nor heard of them until the early summer of 1984 when this album and its first single came out. I'd read the enthusiastic reviews in Smash Hits and Record Mirror and for once I thought the praise was justified.
The album came out on Linn records a record label created by a company better known for making electronic drums but whose representatives had been bowled over by the music the little-known band from Glasgow University had demo'ed for them as an advertisement for a piece of kit. The band were a three piece with Paul Buchanan on vocals and guitar, Robert Bell on bass and Paul Joseph Moore on keyboards. They were in their late 20s and that's important because this isn't kids' music ; it reflects adult emotions and preoccupations. It's also utterly timeless; no one coming to it cold could confidently place it in the brash world of Frankie's 1984.
The title track is first. It rises from a bed of barely audible ambient keyboards before a single horn cues in Buchanan. Buchanan's voice was never going to win them mass appeal, cracked and world-weary as it is and you can hear him really straining for the high notes, but its naked vulnerability is necessary to prevent some of these songs descending into Sade-like bland tastefulness. The title conjures up images of Mary Poppins and there's a filmic quality to all of these songs, Buchanan's lyrics containing vivid images such as "white rags falling slowly down, flags caught on the fences". The song is a sentimental farewell to the band's alma mater with its sandstone buildings and the nearby church of St Steven mentioned. It was the song originally supplied to Linn originally with just one instrument at a time playing to demonstarte their console's clarity. Thankfully that isn't the case here but a stop-start structure remains with the strings frequently coming to a sudden stop. I'm not too keen on the sludgy, over-loud bass and the sparse drums don't seem to conform to any recognisable time signature but its an effective opener.
Next up is "Tinseltown In The Rain" which doesn't stand out as much in the context of the LP as it did as a brave single in the brash summer of 1984. Again the setting is Glasgow although the Hollywood reference is surely deliberate and it's a wistful muse about the impermanence of love and joy- "will we always be so happy go lucky ? " which made my 19-year old self feel very mature in appreciating such an adult song. For them it's brisk with a sawing guitar line that strangely echoes How Soon Is Now and sweeping strings on the chorus. There's even a touch of funk guitar in the middle which should seem wildly out of place but doesn't. This version seems a tad too long when it repeats the killer "Do I love you" verse but that's the only possible criticism.
"From Rags To Riches" drops the strings and their debt to the more serious end of synth-pop , Kraftwerk, early OMD , late Japan, becomes more obvious. Amid a burble of synth noise and the echoey drum sound from OMD's Sealand , Buchanan sings of leaving home to make good, a theme stridently taken up by The Proclaimers three years later. He sees himself as a latter-day Joseph making good in a foreign land "I wear a coat of many colours". It's a provocative theme for polarised times, somewhat mitigated by Buchanan's parched delivery and the harsh synthesised horns that punctuate the verses make it one of the harder tracks to love.
"Stay" the second single, opens up Side Two and is the most conventional pop song on the LP with its conventional beat , clipped guitar and simple keyboard lines putting it firmly in China Crisis territory. The song is a plea from a dour, older man to a young and vivacious girl to stick with him - "Stay and I will understand you" , a sort of Elvis Costello song without the sneering. Buchanan's desperate cries at the end suggest it's not working.
The desolate "Easter Parade" follows , its images of celebration completely at odds with the sparse, mournful music, just a piano and doom-laden, heart-stopping synth washes. Whatever event Buchanan is witnessing he's not able to participate in the festivities which reminds me of having to cope with my mother's death at the start of the Queen's Golden Jubilee weekend in 2002.
"Heatwave" is quite strongly influenced by Japan's Tin Drum with its Oriental percussion and Mick Karn-aping fretless bass although these drop out for one of the album's most melodic choruses. It's one of the bitterest lyrics on the LP with Buchanan in accusatory mood before unleashing the sourest of hooklines "Why is it rolling down on the young and foolish " worthy of early Joe Jackson.
"Automobile Noise" the final track sounds like a corrective to the earlier pro-emigration sentiments with its unenthusiastic description of urban America and "climbing the ladder to all the money in the world". When he sings "saddle the horses and we'll go" it sounds like he's going to his doom .
The music is only really notable for the variety of percussion sounds used and it's a slightly disappointing end to the LP.
I must admit that 25 years on it has lost that special lustre for me though it still rests in its protective plastic cover. A follow-up which didn't significantly advance the sound after a five year wait and pale imitations like Deacon Blue's Raintown which is almost a tribute LP have seen to that. Like Joy Division they don't suit every mood and this goes for long periods without being played but it remains unique and rewarding.