The Blue Nile: from A Midnight Train, the magic and heartbreak of Paul Buchanan

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The Blue Nile – credit: band’s Facebook

Glaswegian three-piece The Blue Nile weigh heavily on the mind of Getintothis’ Ian Salmon who tries to corral their work into a top ten and fails – so here is a top 15.

The concept is easy, isn’t it?

‘How do you fancy doing a top ten for The Blue Nile?’

Sound. Well, it’s Hats plus Stay and Tinseltown In The Rain plus one and we’re sorted. Job done.

Take ten minutes and the only argument will be whether I put Tinseltown at number one. Which we all know I’m going to. It’s not that easy, it’s not that obvious and no, I haven’t.

Tinseltown may well be one of the greatest songs ever written by human beings (spoiler here: it is), a rhapsody, a quest, a tale of the city, “tall buildings reach up in vain”, a rumination on love lost, lives lived in small moments, how we all intersect and the greatest question ever asked in music:

“Do I love you? Yes, I love you.  Will we always be happy go lucky?”

A query that has an answer that we’ll come to later. It’s as great as music gets. It’s as beautiful as you want life to be. It’s not even The Blue Nile’s best song.

The first two albums are the classics, we all know that. The latter two are Blue Nile albums but they’re not THE albums; the shock of the new has gone, we know what the group sound like, there’s nothing left that they can do that can surprise us, nothing that can add to the glory already gone.

Yeah, that’s what you think. You’re wrong. The Blue Nile’s greatest song isn’t on either of those two stone-cold classics.

One of The Blue Nile’s greatest song isn’t even a Blue Nile song. It’s a Paul Buchanan solo track. Because this is my list and I can set the rules.

And, since I’m setting the rules, the ten is a 15.

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Because you can’t whittle genius away to pre-set limits.

There may be only just over fifty songs across five albums – and across what is now moving into a fifth decade since the release of the instantly stunning A Walk Across The Rooftops way back in 1984, an outbreak of beauty that Orwell didn’t see coming, but why would you want to only expose the world to twenty per cent of them?

So, let’s talk about The Blue Nile, out of order as the list certainly isn’t chronological. And a Blue Nile chronology is fairly easy. Fairly easy and a thing of gaps, a thing of punctuations:

1984 is A Walk Across The Rooftops (three years have already elapsed since their first single I Love This Life which doesn’t appear/wouldn’t fit on the album – the sound is nearly there, the roots are showing but it’s a little more frantic than they would ever need to be).

As debuts go, it’s as definitive as any, it’s as great as any. It sets out the band’s stall: this is what we do, we write songs of the city, songs of the cities, specifically songs of a mythologised version of Glasgow where Paul Buchanan and childhood friend Robert Bell grow up and attend university where PJ Moore completes the trio.

The album is small slices of life set to electronics, strings, guitar lines that may have the influence of Nile Rogers within them but songs that don’t. It’s heartbreak and longing.

It’s perfect. It’s the last time that I bought an album purely on the recommendation of incredibly glowing music press reviews; none of them prepared me for the stark beauty to come, none prepared me for a love affair with a group.

1989 is Hats. An album that was, if memory serves as it’s all so long ago now, initially greeted as a slight disappointment: “Well, it’s good like, but it’s not A Walk Across The Rooftops is it?” No, it’s better, it’s more complete, it’s the album you didn’t realise you’d spend the next thirty years coming back to.

Partly because you didn’t realise that you could spend thirty years coming back to albums. It was 1990, the only thing we had that was over thirty years old then was Elvis. We’ll be coming back to him in a bit.

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Peace At Last is 1996. 10th of June 1996. My mother’s birthday. My eldest son is six weeks old. We’ll be coming back to that as well.

This one’s more about acoustic guitar than their previous albums which one might conceivably describe as string-driven glacial funk-influenced soul with a bent toward the structure of the classic American songbook.

As descriptions of genres go that’s a bit niche but let’s work with it. Peace At Last’s title track Happiness (trust me, that genuinely does make sense) opens the album by calling in a gospel choir to fully address the spirituality that had always lay behind Buchanan’s Caledonian soul.

Some of you will know that one from an advert. It still didn’t make them pop stars. It starts in LA, moves to Dublin and Paris; it doesn’t conquer the world.

It contains Body And Soul, a song that holds the line “Please believe me, the past is nothing, God willing we’ll live here till we die” which they then reprise as “God is willing, I’ll love you till I die”, a very Buchanan moment that, the change in the reprise to make the subject bigger, more eternal, to express that love is forever. It also has Holy Love which constructs itself on a bass line that Prince would have built something utterly filthy on.

Neither song is in this list.

2004 gives us High which we might have thought would surely be the album that would bring much overdue success. It doesn’t. It’s a Blue Nile album, it’s out of step with the times.

All Blue Nile albums are out of step with the times. I’ve no idea, now, what 2004 looked like, what it sounded like, but it didn’t sound like this.

By the time the album was finished PJ Moore was no longer part of the band. All reports have it that he just stopped contacting the others. They toured.

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There had been tours before. Some of us have managed to see these lads live two or three times.

Some of us saw them play the Philharmonic Hall, leaving us live one last time with a cover of I Left My Heart In San Francisco which was better than most things you’ve ever heard.

That tour was billed as ‘Paul Buchanan sings the songs of The Blue Nile’ in a sign of respect to Moore’s departure. We had no idea what we were going to see. We saw a Blue Nile show. And it was impeccable.

High contains songs as beautiful as The Day Of Our Lives, I Would Never and She Saw The World. Each would be the best piece in most artists’ repertoires. They’re not making this top 15.

They’d be in the twenty but that might be pushing the concept a little too far. Listening to this album at sixteen years’ remove just shows that it’s grown while we weren’t looking.

History needs another look at this one.

After this there is only a Paul Buchanan solo album, Mid Air; piano and vocal, fragile, delicate, as hushed as Mark Hollis’ only solo album. That was 2012. We wait for more.

And while we wait; let’s share the songs, let’s possibly give you something you’ve never heard – in which case we’re improving your life in ways you never expected, ways you never realised you needed – and in doing so, possibly tell you more than you might expect about this writer.

The Blue Nile are a massive slice of my life, it’s impossible to talk about them without talking about the person I was when each of these songs entered my life.

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15. God Bless You Kid from Peace At Last (1996)

Which is why God Bless You Kid makes the list ahead of songs that might actually be better, might deserve it more; this one is for me. This is the sound of me walking the floor after work with a six week old son who couldn’t sleep due to colic. All there is, is the walking and the music. All there is, is this one track.

This one track whose title is God Bless You Kid. This is my life in this song. These are the moments that you choose the right music to soundtrack because it’s going to be there forever.

It also sums up loneliness beautifully (which is basically Paul Buchanan’s job description); he’s driving through a neon-lit city which “feels like Memphis, after Elvis; there’s nothing going on.”

It sweeps, there’s harder guitar than you’d expect and a clatter of drums behind the sway, then the outro brings a touch of wah-wah to the regret. “I never grew up, I never grew down.” It feels like an ending, I applied it to a beginning.

14. Because Of Toledo from High (2004)

“Because of Toledo, I got sober and stayed clean.”

From High. There’s a bar, or a diner, a girl leaning on a jukebox who lives here but doesn’t really live anywhere. This is, as many things in the catalogue of The Blue Nile are, a Raymond Carver short story. It’s the people you pass in small places and their individual sadness. It’s about a mistake that was made by one and the hope it offers to another.

“The lipstick and the cocaine traces, one face in a thousand faces, I stumble through so many places. Because of Toledo.”

13. St Catherine’s Day from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

“Girls make plans thinking it will work out.”

You start like that, in Buchanan’s gently world-weary croon and you know that those plans will never work out. But his advice is to “Run till you fall, you’ll fall some day, run till you fall, yeah we’re with you all the way.”

Your dreams might go wrong, life might falter but there’s always support. Honest to god, that idea of support is in all of this. “This is the city, the big adventure, hooray.”

There’s a permanent sense of moving, of leaving of knowing that things have to change and life is permanently going to be about growing up.

They didn’t even release this. This didn’t make A Walk Across… For so long, this was the holy grail. Then it showed up on a reissue and the world got slightly better.

Here are the facts: Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the martyr who was tortured on a wheel (hence the firework now bearing her name) is the patron of, among other things, unmarried girls.

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12. Happiness from Peace At Last (1996)

To continue with the religious references: “Now that I’ve found peace at last, tell me Jesus will it last?”

This is how Happiness comes to be the title track of Peace At Last. There’s always that suspicion that no matter how good this feels it’s possibly temporary but that’s okay, “it’s only love”.

And “now that I’ve found peace of mind, tell me Jesus, is it mine” just adds to that mood.

The gospel choir’s exultation of Happiness change the mood a little, there is a lifting, a celebration. It might be temporary, but it’s good; it’s now. And now is all we have.

Possibly a little complex to be used to attract tourists to the beauties of Scotland but the tourist board pulled a blinder by having that refrain of Happiness showcase the gorgeous landscapes of the North.

Right. Number 11 started like this.

Heatwave. Sandwiched between the hush of Easter Parade and the gunshot snare that introduces Automobile Noise on their debut, ushered in with birdsong, ululating flute-like sounds, the chirruping of insects, the echo of a tuned drum and then riding along on bells until resaving into an acoustic guitar signature that pulls all together, asking the question, “Are we rich or poor? Does it matter anymore?” – though that latter lyric may well be “Doesn’t matter anymore”, both versions work.

Then I played Hats again and changed my mind. I’d already decided that I wasn’t including Over The Hillside but then went and played Over The Hillside and everything had to change a bit. So, 11 then:

11. Easter Parade from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

As much as A Walk Across The Rooftops (the album, the debut album) sets out the template for the way The Blue Nile’s career will sound, it’s this track that sets out that very specific stateliness, that very specific loneliness, the sadness of solitude, the early morning, the writer permanently as observer rather than participant, the idea that life goes on and you watch it, the way you see “the city perfect in every detail”.

We’ve had the wrong footing introduction, the title track that doesn’t sound the way that the reviews made you think it would; a looped keyboard, a mournful trumpet, a broken drumbeat, buried cityscape rattlings, scattered piano, stabbing Hitchcock strings, and the vocal that tells of a life; “I am in love, I am in love with you” as a simple statement of fact, a small life in a bigger picture.

“I leave the quiet red stone and walk across the rooftops,” he sings in a whisper of romantic escape.

Then we’ve had the glory of Tinseltown In The Rain, which we’re coming to, and the echoing repetition of From Rags To Riches, which is glorious but doesn’t feature here.

Easter Parade starts, for the first time on a Blue Nile record, with a plaintively repeated piano phrase, settles into bare chords, summons up the spirit of Erik Satie with a gently keyed melody that echoes the vocal and, for the first time on a Blue Nile record, but far from the last, Paul Buchanan whispers directly to our souls.

“I know you, the birthday cards and silent music, the paperbacks and Sunday clothes.”

A life in a line?

Rickie Lee Jones would appear to agree and I think we’d all agree that Rickie has impeccable taste (This version turned up as an extra track on the Downtown Lights single, most acts would build statues to it):

10. Stay from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

It’s a single. An obvious single, the first from the first album (if I recall correctly, and I’m working this from memory, there’s no way a group like The Blue Nile is about research and fact-checking, they’re about memory, recall, perception, how it all felt).

“I write a new book every day, a love theme for the wilderness”

I have no idea what ‘a love theme for the wilderness’ is but it’s my burning ambition to write one.

“Stay, I will understand you.”

That’s a plea. It’s upbeat, has a hook, has a middle eight that turns a soaring piano piece into a deliciously funky guitar line before settling into the idea that “summer girls in disarray can be so free and easy now, oh we’ll be free and easy.”

They even made a video for it. Should have been number one for about a year. Wasn’t. Numbers aren’t everything you know.

Okay, a brief interruption while we talk about why the next bit is the next bit.

It’s 1989. Late 1989. Not long before my twenty-sixth birthday. I’m managing a HMV in Hull. My fiancee, now my wife of thirty years, will move the width of the M62 in six weeks. Eight months later we’ll marry, by August 1990 I’m working in Leeds, by Christmas we’ve both moved there.

Hats is the sound of the first year, the first couple of years of our real life together. This is the sound of us. Every second of this album is about love. It’s an album written about love and it’s a memory of exactly how we felt. It was the album that we played when we returned from work to our first home together, the sound of our second home together. It’s the album that has soundtracked our lives. It’s the one we return to most, the one that’s always welcome.

My wife is in the other room as I’m writing this. Let’s Go Out Tonight is playing. It’s the video after Stay on YouTube. I know exactly how she feels hearing this.

This is us.

Which is why this is a top fifteen rather than a top ten; six of Hats’ seven tracks are about to follow.

A second reason, there was a rep for Virgin Records, the label the band were signed to at the time following their tenure on Linn Discs, a label set up by the manufacturer of unbelievably high-end record decks in order to show what true purity of sound felt like by utilising this act as the best possible exemplar, who used to visit the store in Hull.

This is obviously prior to mobile phones. One day, with a visit due, his head office rang looking for him; there was a message that had to be relayed urgently, that his mother had taken seriously ill and he was needed. Relaying that message was the least I could do.

On his return to work several weeks later, and still in the time prior to the release of Hats, he gave me a promotional copy of the album: a CD in a hatbox, secured with a bow, a very fifties-style piece for a timeless album. It sits three feet from my desk as I write this, I treasure the object, I treasure the thirty-year-old sentiment behind the giving.

As albums go, it’s very close to absolute perfection; the one track that I haven’t included, Seven AM, is simply very very good. Everything else is unbelievable.

We’re not doing this in order though. We’re doing this in order of preference. For the full experience, play the whole thing in sequence. It’s an album, that’s what you’re supposed to do with them. Meanwhile, I’ll talk about the individual moments.

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9. From A Late Night Train from Hats (1989)

We’re five tracks in, the start of side two in old money (though let’s be honest, vinyl was gone at this point, barely anybody would consider buying an album such as this on vinyl):

“It’s over now, I know it’s over, but I can’t let go”

As so many times previously, Buchanan is the lonely observer witnessing the end of things; in this case, he seems to be witnessing the end of something that was his but examining it from afar, literally from a midnight train.

It’s the quietest moment on a record filled with quiet moments; plangent piano, a hushed trumpet and the stillness of the night.

8. Over The Hillside from Hats (1989)

“I can’t go on and I can’t go back, I don’t feel so matter of fact, I’ve tried and tried to make good sense, what’s the good to try it all again?”

That’s the line that made me realise that I had to have this one in here. It’s the song that opens the album, eases you in on a light programmed beat, a muted, palmed, rhythm guitar, puts you into a world of solitude in travel, a world of late nights and trains; constant movement in a still world, or constant stillness in a moving world.

“Working night and day don’t make no sense.”

Not in a world of loss and regret.

7.  Saturday Night from Hats (1989)

And this is how the album ends; soft, gentle, a splash of cymbal over Buchanan’s lightly funked-up guitar. It’s about a putting back together, about hope in the darkness.

“An ordinary girl who’ll make the world alright. She’ll love me all the way, it’s Saturday night.”

It’s everything that life’s about. Ordinary people, weekend moments, stores closing for the night, going out and holding onto something that means everything. Life, just life.

6. Let’s Go Out Tonight from Hats (1989)

This is where you start trying to put things back together. “I know a place where everything’s alright, let’s go out tonight.” “Why don’t you say what’s so wrong tonight, I pray for love coming our way.”

It’s a clinging on, a trying to make everything right by doing the normal things.

It might be a concert album, might be a break up album as desolate as Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, we don’t need to know the story of the songs, we have the beauty.

And to all this melancholy I attach nothing but my own absolute happiness. Weird how these things work isn’t it?

5. Headlights On The Parade from Hats (1989)

Was it a single? I think it was a single.

Hold on, I’ll check. Yeah. The Bob Clearmountain remix got to number 52.

There was another video. It’s their second-biggest hit. After Saturday Night. Which got to number 50, in 1991.

If it mattered I’d check out what was in the top 20 that week, see if any of them carry any relevance to anything in the world now.

“Close your eyes, come with me, only love is alive.”
“I’m sorry, it would be easy to say I love you.”

That’s quietly devastating, isn’t it?

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4. The Downtown Lights from Hats (1989)

And here’s the album’s big gun. The absolute stone-cold classic, the single that ushered a masterpiece into the world. It got to number 67.

In a world where everybody wanted a slice of Madchester, it seems that few were taken by the idea of a song that questioned life, that questioned the temporary nature of happiness:

“Sometimes I walk away when all I really want to do is love and hold you right, there is just one thing I can say, ‘nobody loves you this way’. It’s alright, can’t you see the downtown lights.”

“‘Nobody loves you this way”.

There’s a double-edged lyric for you. It could be that he’s telling somebody that nobody loves them the way he loves them. It could equally be that he’s telling them that nobody loves them in the state that they’re in.

It could be both, simultaneously. It’s supportive and/or a wake up call. The rest of the song tells you that it will be alright.

There’s always the city, there’s always the lights. But it won’t always end well. This is the outro, this is what he leaves us with.

This is what he leaves us with on the full album version, the single making the choice to cut on a note of positivity: “The neons and the cigarettes, the rented rooms, the rented cars, the crowded streets, the empty bars. The chimney tops and trumpets, the golden lights, the loving prayers, the coloured shoes, the empty trains, I’m tired of crying on the stairs. The Downtown Lights.

And suddenly those lights don’t seem so alluring.

The album is a wonder. A thing of beauty, a thing of eternity, a work of love that will last for the ages.

3. Mid Air from Mid Air (2012)

“The buttons on your coat, the colour of your hair, I think I see you everywhere. I want to live forever and watch you dancing in the air.”

We’re in 2012 and there’s a Paul Buchanan solo album called Mid Air.

The title track is everything. It’s the perfect distillation of every quiet moment that The Blue Nile ever produced. It’s two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of Paul’s beautiful voice, and I really don’t think I’ve stressed in this that his is one of the great voices, that’s why he gets to encore with I Left My Heart In San Francisco and it be right; this is the lineage he belongs in.

He is a singer. His heart is in everything. He’s unbelievably underrated; there are no unnecessary notes, no showmanship, there’s the song.

The song is the thing that matters. And here it’s set against a single piano. Pure minimalism. It’s tiny and fragile and perfect.

And, for a short while, he was on TV playing this astounding brief beauty. Jools Holland, the BBC Review show, Paul and a pianist, being perfect. The reviews for the album were glowing. The world barely noticed.

“For everything that life was worth; the falling snow, the virgin birth, yeah I can see you standing in mid air.”

2. Tinseltown In The Rain from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

The one everybody knows, now. The one they know by osmosis. The one that now has radio play. It didn’t have at the time; it didn’t fit. Perhaps they were always destined to not fit.

One could argue that they were far too good, far too wonderful, to simply fit into anything as mundane as a time period.

“One day this love will all blow over, time for leaving the parade.”

I’d owned this song for a long time before I ever heard it on the radio. When I bought it I hadn’t met my wife, I was playing in my first band; when I first heard it on the radio we were married, we had a son and I was in the car driving to the funeral of the singer of that first band.

For a second, in the car, all alone, singing along with this moment of magnificence, the day got a little earlier.

As ever, it’s a song about love and cities, it’s full of faded grandeur and an acceptance that the future is unwritten and we may never affect it.

“Do I love you? Yes I love you. Will we always be happy go lucky? Do I love you? Yes I love you. But it’s easy come and it’s easy go. All this talking, talking, is only bravado.”

That, there, is a lyric as fine as Wichita Lineman’s “I need you more than want you and I want you for all time.”

Endlessly uplifting.

1.  Family Life from Peace At Last (

And yet, Tinseltown isn’t number one in this list, this long meditation on a group whose body of work is slender. So, how do you top a piece as perfect as Tinseltown In The Rain?

With Family Life.

“Please don’t look at me now, I’m falling apart.”

It’s a rumination on how family life can be difficult, how Christmas can be hard to get through, how we may not always get on with one another but in the end we’re all we have.

As with Easter Parade, as with Mid Air, it’s Paul Buchanan and a piano with some background noises swelling gently in the distance.

“There will be no honeymoon, just separate chairs in separate rooms. Jesus please, make us happy sometimes. No more shout, no more fight, family life.”

It’s simple and it captures a small moment that many know.

And that’s it. There’s no more. We’re eight years on from Paul Buchanan’s last recorded work. He’s far from a public figure. But there have been eight-year gaps before and they’ve been followed by more. Perhaps there is still more. Whenever it arrives it will be timeless and beautiful.

For now, here’s the last time that the man broke cover to perform; the ‘Bowie Prom’ at the Albert Hall, making one of Bowie’s most familiar songs new:

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