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
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.
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.