The Blue Nile's Best Album: Hats

The Blue Nile are famous for their lack of productivity. The Glasgow-based group were formed in 1981 and effectively broke up by 2006, and released a mere four albums during their quarter century tenure.

Like many bands that emerged after punk, The Blue Nile are defined by their limitations. Vocalist and guitarist Paul Buchanan later said told The Independent: “I’ve always found it strange that people missed the ‘punk’ aspect of A Walk Across the Rooftops. We were living in a flat in Glasgow with no hot water. We barely knew what we were doing and that was very liberating.” Buchanan’s guitar skills were limited, and the trio didn’t have a drummer, so the trio built around the assets they did have; Buchanan’s soulful voice, and Robert Bell and Paul Joseph Moore’s keyboards and synthesizers.

While 1980s synth-pop hasn’t always dated well, The Blue Nile’s classy, shimmering music has aged gracefully. Bell and Moore’s arrangements are almost symphonic in their carefully constructed grandeur. Buchanan’s yearning voice adds a human element, similar to contemporaries like Peter Gabriel or Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis.

Hats had a troubled gestation – after touring 1984’s debut A Walk Across the Rooftops, The Blue Nile were sent straight back into the studio to record a followup. Without material, the group spent almost three years (!) recording without result. They were forced to vacate the studio for another band, and returned to Glasgow where Buchanan was able to overcome his writer’s block. Despite the five year gap between albums, and all of the studio time, Buchanan later claimed that half of Hats was recorded in a week.

Hats reached #12 on the UK charts, a strong result after A Walk Across the Rooftops only made it to #80. Most Blue Nile fans favour the band’s first two albums. 1996’s Peace At Last went in a different direction, with more acoustic guitar and Christian lyrics, while 2004’s High returned to the group’s usual atmospheric style with slightly diminished returns. It’s also well worth checking out Paul Buchanan’s solo album, 2012’s Mid Air.

“This is the best record of the ‘80s. Well, actually, fucking hell … no, that is my favorite record of the ‘80s! The Blue Nile are my favorite band of all time. They’re fucking amazing. Musically, they’ve inspired me so much. There’s so much drama. It’s perfect nighttime music. It’s beautiful, romantic music with British sensibilities. The sounds on it are just amazing. And it’s called Hats! What a fucking cool name for a record!”

The 1975’s Matt Healy on Hats, from Vulture

Key Tracks

The Downtown Lights

The first single released from Hats is a great representation of The Blue Nile. It’s an atmospheric, romantic ballad that’s lovingly written and transcends its era. It was later covered by Annie Lennox and Rod Stewart.

Headlights On The Parade

The Blue Nile have one mode – languid and beautiful – and ‘Headlights on the Parade’ is typically gorgeous. The piano figure is lovely.

Saturday Night

Buchanan’s good at deflating his own romanticism. ‘Saturday Night’ could easily turn into a mushy love song, but his image of “an ordinary girl” grounds the song in reality. The strings don’t arrive until halfway through, and cascade all over an already beautiful song.

Do The Experts Agree?

Rolling Stone’s David Thigpen gave the record 3 stars out of 5 on release, but the warm review stated that “This Glasgow trio caused a flurry in the U.K. five years ago with a seductively well-crafted first album, A Walk Across the Rooftops. The Blue Nile’s second album, Hats, is stronger still.” He also stated “Hats has a peculiar power, unfortunately, its risky departure from pop conventions will cause many to overlook it.”

Simon Reynolds fittingly wrote about crystalline perfection while, Pierro Scaruffi claims that Hats “left the pursuing platoon in the dust”, while awarding it a miserly 6.5/10.

Modern reviews are more certain in their positivity. On Rate Your Music, Hats is ranked as the #29 album for 1989, and The Blue Nile’s best overall. On Acclaimed Music it’s ranked as the #16 album for 1989, and also as The Blue Nile’s best.

While there seems to be some consensus that Hats is The Blue Nile’s best, it’s 1984’s A Walk Across the Rooftops that’s included on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

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Read More:
– The Blue Nile Album Reviews
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  1. I’ve never heard of them before…I do like Saturday Night. His voice is fat…best way for me to describe it and sounds really good. Good song.
    80s Synth-pop has never been my favorite and you are right it doesn’t age well. I’ve heard many songs from that era that now sound like Casio keyboards. I listened to The Downtown Lights and I will admit it didn’t sound dated. I’m not sure if it’s the sound, song, or the way it’s arranged.
    I rarely like this genre but these are good songs.

    • A lot of 1970s synth stuff still sounds good – Stevie Wonder, The Cars, Kraftwerk – but a lot of the 1980s synth stuff hasn’t dated as well.
      Having said that, I think stuff from 1989 is generally less dated than stuff from 1980, and some acts were better than others with it. I generally like The Pet Shop Boys a lot, but like The Blue Nile they didn’t show up until halfway through the decade. Van Morrison generally used synths nicely too.
      Thanks for listening! I think they were very good at making classy arrangements with synths.

      • I agree the seventies stuff didn’t sound bad. I don’t know if it was the equipment or the way they used it… it would be incredibly thin.
        This though sounded full…and the melodies and voice sounded great.

  2. I actually think I prefer the debut, there’s a cigarette paper between the two though in terms of quality. The LP’s cost a bomb these days, but are being reissued soon (booo!).

  3. Hurrah! Good to see some Blue Nile. Excellent album. I couldn’t pick a favourite of this and the debut, though this maybe just shades it. Maybe.

    • It’s good to see some fans in the blogosphere. It took me a while to catch up with them, as I never found their CDs second-hand. When I read about them, they always seemed like something I’d enjoy.

  4. Only recently dove into this band’s music. I’m really impressed. I remember hearing The Downtown Lights but none of the other songs. Really enjoying this deep dive. Good write up and jives with my takeaway listening to them over the last month or so.

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