THE BLUE NILE Hats
1 Over The Hillside 5:03
2 The Downtown Lights 6:26 (1989 UK single, #67)
3 Let’s Go Out Tonight 5:12
4 Headlights On The Parade 6:11 (1990 UK single – remixed, #72)
5 From A Late Night Train 3:59
6 Seven A.M. 5:09
7 Saturday Night 6:26 (1991 UK single, #50)
And so we…..finally….reach our journey’s end, with the album that I rank above all others. Never has a record made such a strong impression on me, on all levels from musical to lyrical to emotional and everything in between, as Hats did the first time I got to play it on 10th October 1989, a day after its UK release (contrary to Wikipedia’s inaccuracy) because my local HMV hadn’t got it in stock on the Monday.
I was perched, as the young ‘uns say, right from the moment I heard The Downtown Lights on Radio 1’s Singled Out show a month or so before. To say the track blew me away is probably understating the fact; one of those moments when a piece of music so absolutely perfect and evocative enters your life unexpectedly, and you just know it’s a game-changer.
The weeks until Hats’ appearance felt like an eternity; the glowing 5-star review in Q only adding to the exquisite agony of not being able to listen to this masterpiece yet. In the meantime, I satisfied myself with hunting down a copy of their debut LP from 1984, A Walk Across The Rooftops. Which wasn’t as easy as I’d thought, even by late 80s record store standards when extensive back catalogue stocks still existed. Luckily, a nearby Public Library came up trumps and I made do with playing that.
What’s bizarre about the whole Blue Nile thing, and how they have been by far and away my favourite artist in the 27 years since, is that A Walk Across The Rooftops made very little impression on me in 1984; I’d seen the video for Stay on Saturday Morning TV, and heard Tinseltown In The Rain enough times on the radio (Mike “Relax” Read was an unapologetic champion) to chart it at around #29 or something that summer, but nothing in my reaction to those singles had suggested what they were going to mean to me in the future. Even when Q released their first Compact Disc in league with Virgin Records, “A Q CD” in 1986, and the title track from …Rooftops was featured, I was more interested in hearing Scritti Politti, XTC, The Big Dish and China Crisis in such audio clarity.
No doubt the 5-year gap between albums created an extra mystique around the band; a (sadly mythical) image of three reclusive, intellectual perfectionists operating on a higher emotional plane than the rest of us mere mortals, living solely in the pursuit of minimalist musical perfection. A “big music”, as one of the reviews at the time contemplated, that had a grandeur and impact almost inversely proportional to the (lack of) bombast in the sounds and style itself….the opposite of Simple Minds, U2, Deacon Blue and company.
Also, I was now 18 and not 13. And I no longer had my health, once my immune system collapsed and developed serious neurological issues. The soothing, plaintive, reflective sounds of Hats were juxtaposed with lyrics full of weariness, longing, heartache, regret and hope….and brought to life by the unique voice of Paul Buchanan. It was easy to imagine this “Glasgow Sinatra” as a deep-thinking, wildly romantic, rather tortured man of the world, beaten but defiant….soundtracking a twilight city; windswept, rain-sodden, with darkening skies and lit by neon. A place where imperfect but decent people aspired to live perfectly normal and loving lives. A perfect place for someone like me, in my living nightmare, to surrender their imagination to time and again.
Hats‘ magic was further heightened by arriving as Autumn approached, proving the ideal soundtrack for encroaching winter evenings (although, technically, my days were spent in enforced darkness whether it was summer, winter, day or night). I lost count of how many times I listened to the CD in its first few months, but it was at least three times more than anything else (even the long-awaited new Tears For Fears album which had narrowly preceded it a fortnight earlier).
Yet all this is just a personal perspective, one person’s reaction to an album. Clearly though, many people out in the world – especially within the music industry – were taking note of Hats, and it became popular amongst the rock aristocracy as well as mere journalists and DJs. The immediate years after its release saw the band, and/or just Paul Buchanan, invited to appear and collaborate on a number of other artist’s work; everyone from Robbie Robertson to Rickie Lee Jones and Julian Lennon wanted a sprinkling of Blue Nile fairydust to infuse their own records.
As the Nineties progressed, so their reputation continued to rise despite no follow-up album on the horizon; they would write and record with Annie Lennox, Michael McDonald and Maire (Moya) Brennan, they would even be courted by the mighty Warner Brothers who had plans for them to conquer America (until internal label politics intervened to leave them high and dry). Rod Stewart would cover The Downtown Lights in 1995. Eric Clapton said Hats was his favourite album in an interview from the early 90s, his first after the tragic death of his small son.
For a record with no actual hit, and a UK chart peak of #12 during a 4-week stay on the Top 75, the legacy of Hats has gone far beyond the era from which it hails. The Blue Nile always seemed to exist in their own bubble, an unhurried and undemonstrative self-contained world that refused to bow to fashion or traditional release-schedules.
The three singles eventually lifted from the album were each issued in a different year, testament both to its enduring profile and also the determination of Virgin Records to try and wring something commercially-rewarding out of its reputation.
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