Paul Buchanan, Robert Bell and PJ Moore first combined at Glasgow University in the very early 80s. Paul and PJ had known each other since the age of ten.
They recorded their debut album, 1983’s A Walk Across The Rooftops, in bits of random studio time freed up by engineer Calum Malcolm. To their amazement Virgin snapped it up from indie Linn, and Steve Lillywhite declared it “the best debut of the last five years”.
It got terrific word of mouth, crept into the charts, and suddenly the trio, without a manager, had to deal with a lot of business stuff.
A precedent was set: when they could be enjoying praise and success, they worried about whether they deserved it, over-analysed the album’s strengths, and, required to produce a follow-up, hit writer’s block.
Six years and many junked demos passed before Hats emerged in 1989. Possibly, no album has ever had such glowing reviews. “Music’s answer to Venice” and “sounds more like being in love than being in love does” were just two of them.
Like its predecessor, it was composed of seven mid-tempo mini-suites, the lyrics impressionistic but romantic, the music gauged to perfection, the voice unguarded and intense. Downtown Lights – as had Tinseltown In The Rain – became a rippling, ravaged anthem for outsiders who loathe the anthemic. (A new version of Let’s Go Out Tonight scored a key scene in the movie Six Feet Under.)
The band made shy but winning forays into live performance in the UK and in The States, but again contractual complexities were to confuse matters.
They spent time in America, where Hats did well, working with Robbie Robertson and Julian Lennon; everyone from Annie Lennox to Rod Stewart to Isaac Hayes was covering their songs. They appeared with Rickie Lee Jones, who recorded their Easter Parade. They were a bona fide cult.
Buchanan dated actress Rosanna Arquette for two years, becoming briefly a tabloid “celeb”, much to his discomfort. The pair met through Peter Gabriel and remained friends when their relationship ended.
The record company situation kept swerving unpredictably, but the band signed to Warners US worldwide in 1992. All seemed well, but frequent personnel changes at the label there meant that the original seduction of record-what-you-want mutated to we-need-Hats-2-or-else.
Tired, travelling relentlessly, it was 1996 before they had a third album ready. Peace At Last, more expansive, with tinges of soul, gospel and light funk, emerged only after several of the now customary false starts and rethinks.
Reviews were again ecstatic; it made the top twenty. It wasn’t what the people at the label (not the same people who’d wooed them to sign) wanted, however.
The band went back to Glasgow, wrote songs, binned them, wrote some more. They then acquired Ed Bicknell (Dire Straits, Bryan Ferry, Scott Walker) as manager. He untied some Warners knots, and in 2004 The Blue Nile signed to Sanctuary and released High – their fourth album in twenty-one years.
Vocals, guitar, synthesizer
Paul Joseph (PJ) Moore