Let’s get something straight here before I start. Blue Lines is a Punk album. It ain’t fucking trip hop or downtempo or lounge (this last one is a dooz…I can’t wait for a musical genre to be called “Pub”). It is a punk album. Got it? Good. Now we can move on!
Blue Lines clattered into existence mid ’91, post-Thatcher, pre-Internet and unlike its celebrated antecedents of that year (Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and St Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha) it was so far out in left field that many a hipster and scribe were made to feel stupid and left out. And who can blame them? While everyone dropped dodgy E‘s and with pie eyes looked to Rave culture for salvation; council kids brought up on Buffalo Girls, Walk This Way and Fight The Power had finally grasped the minutiae of a musical form that ‘til then had been lost to bad beats and, even worse, Ameriglish rhymes. Weirder still was that this wasn’t a London-Manchester-Liverpool thing. This all fermented 100 miles West of London in an inner Bristol burb better known for some of the worse rioting in recent memory.
St. Pauls had always been poor. Thatcher had not been kind to its Afro-Caribbean community. Bursting with baby boomers fuelled by drink, drugs, and drama; their only outlet were the many sound systems that littered the area. And no sound system was bigger in the mid ‘80s than the two tone yout who made up the Wild Bunch. Meshing the principles of punk with the mash of soul, funk, reggae, hip hop and house, they brought a sense of flash and diversity that soon got them noticed in dream-like metropolises like New York and Tokyo.
Too much, too young caused them to fragment. Some members moved to those metropolises. Others back to drinking and drugs. However, five of them went on to change the face of British music. Nellee Hooper joined Soul II Soul and crafted a hip hop/R&B sound that took on the Americans and beat them. 3D, Daddy G, and Mushroom—and, at arms length, a moody little bugger known as Tricky—formed Massive Attack and with a hop, skip and a jump we had Blue Lines, Protection and Maxinquaye.
So what makes Blue Lines a punk album? Like Velvet Underground & Nico, The Ramones, Never Mind The Bollocks…Blue Lines is brimming with youthful ignorance and vagueness. A cocksure arrogance that ignores alien orders to create something new and modern. If you look at the make-up of the group one is surprised they produced anything coherent. 3D loved PIL. Daddy G rocked to Studio One. And Mushroom wanted a sound nearer to the suffocating bass boom of Schooly D. That Blue Lines manages to touch on all these influences, and not get buried by them, is probably down to producer Johnny Dollar who was Mother Hen as well as twiddler of the knobs.
Twenty-one years on it still has its flaws (“Be Thankful For What You Got”). And rhymes like “No sunshine in my life because the way I deal is shady” or “excommunicated from the brotherhood of man, to wander lonely as a puzzled anagram” or “don’t need another lover, I just need, I’m insecure” can put one in a less than sunnier disposition. But these are personal gripes. What will echo on for another 21 years is the galloping power of Safe From Harm; the Burundi stream of consciousness that is Daydreaming; and perhaps the only track that can give “Love Will Tear Us Apart” a run for its money in the unrequited love stakes…the soaring “Unfinished Sympathy.”
And back to that punk thing. Blue Lines, “Unfinished Sympathy” were both released during the time of the Gulf War. The Bristolian collective were told in no uncertain terms to drop the ‘Attack’ part of their name. The suits in charge clearly thought a group of musicians with such a name were a threat to national security. An indication that you don’t have to have a haircut, a tattoo or a guitar to be the poison in the machine.
By Sid MarricksAB, Alberta