Friday 9 December 2016

My blue, blue Valentine

Published 29/01/2011 | 05:00

Way back when... The Blue Nile, left to right, Robert Bell, PJ Moore and
Paul Buchanan in their prime
Way back when... The Blue Nile, left to right, Robert Bell, PJ Moore and Paul Buchanan in their prime

Given The Blue Nile's place in the pantheon of much-loved cult bands, it seems shockingly neglectful that there's never been a proper biography of the band in the two decades plus since they formed in Glasgow in the early 1980s.

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That oversight has now been corrected with the publication of Allan Brown's lovingly assembled Nileism: The Strange Course of the Blue Nile.

The book painstakingly sets out to answer the central questions that so many Blue Niles fans have asked themselves: how come they've only released four albums in the last 26 years? What takes them so long? What do they do all day? Why don't they, you know, get it together?

Dyed-in-the-wool fans of the band will lap up Allan Brown's book as it details the 'hive mind' mentality between members Paul Buchanan, PJ Moore and Robert Bell, likening it to a marriage between three men.

Inevitably for such an intense set of relationships, there were tensions borne out of a recording process that was as torturous as it was tortuous.

We get a picture of obsessive perfectionists who agonised over every snare drum and cymbal, who blithely discarded material that most other bands would have sold their soul at the crossroads for, and who had such a fear of the clichés of being a rock star that they could hardly bear to deal with the business end of the industry.

And so they found themselves at constant war with lawyers, accountants, record company executives and managers.

The clue is in the book's title: Brown concludes that the band's relationship with the music industry establishment was dysfunctional to the point of nihilism.

So this is not your standard rock biog: there are no TVs thrown out of hotel windows; no on-stage hissyfits; no punching journalists at airports; no snorting cocaine off groupies' breasts. . .

The picture that emerges is of a trio of extremely dignified, grounded and intelligent men who have been cursed with a musical talent that forces them, against their will, to work in an industry where such virtues are mostly alien.

There's a great quote in the introduction to the book where lead singer and chief songwriter Paul Buchanan describes the band's philosophy: "We've tried to make little bits of music that were compassionate and that were free of embroidery and self-advertisement. It's the equivalent of timing your walk across the road to coincide with some elderly person about to cross. You don't want to say 'Do you want a hand?' because that might be patronising. You just want to check they're okay. That would be a good enough parallel for what we opted to do."

There aren't, I suspect, too many rock bands in the world who would compare their artistic vision to chaperoning an OAP across the street. It's certainly not something you could imagine, say, Liam Gallagher ever coming out with.

And it chimes with my own impression of Buchanan, whom I've interviewed a few times over the years. I formed a picture of a modest, humble and soulful man, full of self-deprecating humour, who carried himself with a real sense of grace -- and who was conspicuously free of ego.

The band have played some truly unforgettable gigs here over the years -- in the Olympia after 1996's Peace At Last album came out; a series of shows in Vicar St in 2006 which may have featured the purest sound mix I've ever heard at a gig; a festival appearance at the Electric Picnic; and most recently a show in 2008 in Galway's Radisson Hotel, which started late as Buchanan got stuck in a lift for an hour.

So far, this remains their last live performance.

I also remember an emotionally charged hometown show in front of their friends and family in Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall in 2006, which had people literally sobbing in the aisles.

Brown paints a vivid portrait of the Scottish city from which they sprang and in which they all still live, detailing its geographical and cultural changes through the years and their place in it.

There's also some interesting anecdotes about their time spent in America. It turns out both Paul Buchanan and bassist Robert Bell happened to be in New York at the same time, and both happened to visit the same guitar shop and inspect the same acoustic guitar on the same day.

This illustrates just how in sync the band were with each other -- it was a chemistry that worked wonders on their first two albums, A Walk Across The Rooftops (which Bono chose as one of his favourite albums of 1984 at the time) and Hats (1989), both of which still sound as near to perfect as any album ever has: elegiac electronic mini-symphonies to love -- and its rueful passing.

The 'difficult' third album syndrome kicked in with Peace At Last but it still contained some heart-stopping moments, not least the sparse piano ballad 'Family Life'. For some of the sessions for this album, the band based themselves in Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios.

The fourth and, alas, it would seem final Blue Nile album, 2004's High, was also flawed but again there were wonderful songs on it ('Because Of Toledo', 'Stay Close') that were up there with their best work. Alas, the band split up the week it came out.

The book also details Buchanan's brief induction into Hollywood life, when he dated actress Rosanna Arquette and found himself at the same parties as Tom Cruise. He also had many celebrity fans, and supported himself financially by writing songs for the likes of Annie Lennox, Julian Lennon, Tom Jones and Robbie Robertson.

What happens now is anyone's guess. Buchanan appears to be estranged from PJ Moore. The former is said to have a 17-song suite featuring just piano and vocals recorded. But when it will see the light of day is anyone's guess.

Nileism: The Strange Course of the Blue Nile is published by Polygon.

nkelly@independent.ie

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