The Blue Nile – HatsMark Dohmann
|Label:||Linn Records – LKH2, Linn Records – 210241-630|
|Format:||Vinyl, LP, Album|
|Style:||Alternative Rock, New Wave, Ethereal|
“Got to take my hat off to those Linnies”
Linn Records established 1982 as a division of Linn Products (makers of audiophile standard Hi-Fi components). The premise was to create a label to rival the highest standards of music recording and production. Masterings can be identified by LINN in the runouts.
With the debut album A Walk Across The Rooftops in May 1984 the Scottish lads Paul Buchanan, Paul Joseph Moore, and Robert Bell broke into the audiophile consciousness by their association with Linn (makers of arguably one of the most iconic record playing systems ever produced – and that’s my perspective as a former Ariston RD11s owner!).
One of my RMIT Aeronautical Engineering lecturers Phil V was the proud owner of a fully tricked Linn Sondek LP12 with Fidelity Research FR64 and FR MC cart into Audio Research SP8 Tube Pre and D110 Power amps driving 18inch Hartley’s into an open baffle made of concrete.
“Tip-toing through the tulips” was mandated to avoid skipping the cartridge whilst walking on the wooden floor boards, but when seated in the listening position it was pretty darn good.
I can’t say whether I got better grades as a fellow audiophile but it did mean I had a chance to get “more” out of my education by being introduced to gear I couldn’t afford.
Other teachers from RMIT such as Graham W helped in guiding my attempts at building the early Continuum (by Dohmann and Gusew) turntables in 1982 (and still own the table to this day). Got to keep working on that reliability thing!
So like most audiophiles, trying to find great recordings was a crucial part of my musical journey. Tracks to play when showcasing your home system to your friends. Some like the Sheffield Drum Record were good for the testing and showcase but musically it’s been years since I sat down to listen to Keltner belt it out.
With no drum pun intended to Jim Keltner, where does Blue Nile sit in with this conundrum?
In what part of the spectrum does the work of Buchanan sit? Is it “tinkle-pinkle”? (as David Trevaskis a good friend in the Melbourne audio community refers to some of the more overplayed audiophile records we’ve sacrificed on the altar at shows).
Fortunately Blue Nile is first and foremost great music and artistry which has kept its freshness some 36 years since first cut.
Its journey to reality was a challenging one and a quick Wikipedia search will reveal after a prolonged delay an entire album’s worth of work was scrapped before the artists could overcome a “writer’s block” to produce the melancholic masterpiece of Hats.
Virgin Records, to whom Linn had licensed the Blue Nile’s records, began legal proceedings against Linn Records, demanding new material. “We were up against the wall,” singer Paul Buchanan told Uncut magazine in 2013. “Living away from home, no money, miserable, getting sued. We were absolutely zonked, the record company weren’t pleased and everyone around was starting to think, this record is never going to get made. It was exhausting.”
After almost three years in the studio which produced virtually nothing, having begun and scrapped several songs, the group was forced to vacate Castlesound to make way for another Virgin band, to record their album.
During this time, The Blue Nile had no option but to return home to Glasgow; back in familiar surroundings and freed from time constraints, Buchanan overcame his writer’s block, while Robert Bell and Paul Joseph Moore began putting musical ideas down on a porta-studio. As a result, when the band was finally able to return to Castlesound in 1988, the ideas for the album were already in place and according to Buchanan, “we knew exactly what we were doing. We actually recorded the rest of Hats super quick … Honestly, half of Hats was, like, a week.”
When finally completed, Hats was released to rave reviews, including a rare five-star rating from Q magazine. It also became the band’s most successful album, reaching number 12 on the UK album charts and spawning three singles: “The Downtown Lights”, “Headlights on the Parade”, and “Saturday Night”.
In a 2012 interview with ClashMusic.com, Buchanan reflected on the time lost trying to make the album: “We pretty much put the record [A Walk Across the Rooftops] out, promoted it and then the next thing we knew we were back in the studio. That whole gestation period had gone missing. We didn’t really have the songs. We laboured away in the studio trying to generate the material there, which just didn’t work. We recorded but we just didn’t believe in what we’d recorded … I think people perceived it as it was all to do with us sort of being in the studio for five years, but of course you couldn’t be in the studio for five years, you’d lose your mind.
There was a two year period where we would have gone back in but we couldn’t get back in! So when we got back we actually finished Hats quickly. The period when we got bumped out the studio we had nothing else to do, so we packed up and went home. Which is what we should have done in the first place, because when we went back home we reverted to our old routines—practice, play and sit about each other’s little flats and talk things through. We should have done that to begin with, really.”
On its initial release in 1989, Hats received highly positive reviews from music critics. Describing the album as “absolutely superb”, David Cavanagh of Sounds found that Hats differed significantly from A Walk Across the Rooftops in both its recording technology and aspired moods.
Johnny Black of Q stated that “if Hats has a flaw, it’s only that it’s too perfect, too considered.”
Simon Reynolds, writing in Melody Maker, stated that “only the laziest ear would confuse this crystalline perfection with the hygiene and polish of plastic pop” and described the album as “big music, that leaves you feeling very small, very still and very close to tears.”
I thank Linn Records for backing the artists and having the strength of conviction to publish the Blue Nile’s music. I’ve upgraded a fair few Linn’s over the last 30 plus years and got better sound with each upgrade. It’s a venerable rig and can make great music when tuned “just right”.
Blue Nile’s Hats (and earlier albums) have not required any upgrades as they were minted perfectly first time. If you haven’t already done so I’d recommend a Walk Across any obstacle (including a roof top if need be) to your nearest record store and throw some dollars at getting a slice of Scottish creative genius.
A rare live recording of their work can be found on YouTube of Manchester 1990 BBC broadcast of Blue Nile.
Over The Hillside 5:03
The Downtown Lights 6:26
Let’s Go Out Tonight 5:12
Headlights On The Parade 6:11
From A Late Night Train 3:59
Seven A.M. 5:09
Saturday Night 6:26