Brkn Arrw Blog – Classic Albums of the Electronic era - Massive Attack Blue Lines

Welcome to the first of hopefully many instalments of Brkn Arrw Blog’s classic albums series, for some time I have been musing and puzzling over what would be my first classic album to review for the new website! I have chosen Massive Attack’s Blues lines as my first as I feel it was certainly one of the first complete albums from a new group of artists to appear since ‘87 and the beginning of the second summer of love and what I see as the birth of the new electric revolution. For starters Massive Attack came out into the public, promoting the album in the way a traditional band would have developed their release schedule, i.e. releasing your first single & then 6-8 weeks later releasing your killer full album with a couple of singles to follow. this along with a totally fresh image and promo campaign that was familiar in a punk style with the Stiff Little Fingers referencing album cover showing that the collective had originated in punk but were by now something altogether fresher and more futuristic.

There had been similar artists who had released full sounding dance-oriented albums. Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was also released that summer, but I feel that that was a collaborative effort with the use of outside producers like Andrew Weatherall & the Alex Paterson from the Orb making it a different breed of album, still amazing but not quite as complete as Blue Lines. The Orb had released Adventures Beyond the Ultra World, but it was too ambient to carry on as a daily listen after a while. The KLF had also released their full-length album the White Room, which has been long since deleted and sadly forgotten to the recesses of time plus it didn’t really capture the energy of their famous first few singles like What Time is Love and 3am Eternal. There would be many other artists who would go onto release seminal dance albums in the new few short years to follow, Orbital with their Brown album, Leftfield with Leftism, The Aphex Twin’s - Selected Ambient Works, the Chemical Brother’s Exit Planet Dust among the many others that would be released within a short time, but Massive Attack got there first.

While thinking of all of these great albums, my mind kept coming back to Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and it was during the researching of possible albums for inclusion for this piece that really cemented my choice, out of curiosity I checked out the latest 40 dance albums in the UK and much to my surprise and delight, the first full length album by an original artist (not a compilation) was in fact Blue Lines, still hanging in there at number 9 (also ranking high in the charts were Massive Attack again with Mezzanine, & Classic albums by Leftfield, Portishead, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim) also to my astonishment there were only 2 albums by what I would consider to be current music, Duke Dumont (who to be fair is Awesome) and David Gueretta (who is very famous).

So, what is the enduring appeal of Blue Line’s and what makes it a classic album that people are still regularly listening today? over the next few pages, I will try to go behind the story’s and samples, lyrical influences that inform this record and take a look at the people who were involved in the creation of this classic and try to place the album in the culture of when it was released in 1991 and discover why it endures today.

Massive Attack formed gradually from the legendary Bristol Sound System collective The Wild Bunch. the Wild Bunch who begun as a group of friends who played records together taking in the influences that were around them, Jamaican Reggae Soundsystems, Hip-Hop and Graffiti coming from New York and the D.I.Y. ethics & arrogance of the classic Punk Rock attitude, if they can do then so can we. The collective also featured future Soul II Soul members Jazzy J and Nelle Hooper along with the trio who would become the core of Massive alongside soul singer Sara Nelson, DJ Milo Johnstone, and sometime member Tricky, who would stick with Massive Attack around until album two before becoming a successful solo artist in his own right with the release of Maxinquaye in 94, among others. 

The Wild Bunch only released one single in 1985, Tearin Down the Avenue with the B-Side a cover of Dusty Springfield & Burt Bacharach’s the Look of Love that would go on to influence the origins of the Soul II Soul and the Massive Attack sound, before the collective imploded after a Japanese tour, with Nelle & Jazzy J moving onto London to begin work as Soul II Soul, leaving the trio and additional collaborators free to become Massive Attack. 

Recording for the album would begin in 1990 & carry onto into 1991 at the Coach House studios' in Bristol along with the famous Abbey road studios and Eastcote studios in London. The album proceeded by the single Daydreaming & was swiftly followed by the release of Unfinished Sympathy which would prove to be a massive (npi) hit on MTV on both sides of the Atlantic, the video featuring Sara Nelson walking through an LA neighbourhood while singing the lyrics all the while ignoring all of the crazy thing’s going on behind her was ground-breaking in the early 90’s. 

The Album was released to critical fanfare but mediocre sales described by the NME as the Sleekest, Deadliest, Most Urbane, Most Confounding album of 1991. Other notable albums released in 1991 include Nirvana’s Nevermind, Guns N’ Rose’s Illusions part of albums, Metallica’s Black album, REM –Out of Time, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, MC Hammer’s Too Legit To Quit, also similar indie leaning albums like A Tribe Called Quest’s Low-End Theory, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha, the later pair being the most similar to the Bristol crews debut in terms of audience and press coverage. 

What is the enduring appeal of the album, even in crisis ridden 2020? For me it has to begin with the sequencing of the album that set it apart and makes me continue to return almost 30 years later. The Album begins with the sound of wind (possibly the winds of change) on opener Safe from Harm before the propulsive bassline kicks and we get to hear Sara Nelson’s beautiful vocals for the first time, the lyrics are punctuated with scratch sounds and then the rhymes of Robel DelNaja. the track employs very clever use of samples from Billy Cobham’s Stratus from the album Spectrum alongside additional samples from my personal favourites George Clinton and Funkadelic, there is also a haunting background vocal refrain taken from a Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson track called Looking Back, this style of vocal sampling was quite new at the time of release & would certainly be an enduring characteristic of the album, bringing the listener in with familiar lyrics, a technique that would be employed throughout the album with vocal refrains coming from a wide range of influences, such as the Beatles - Here comes the sun, The Specials - Blank Expression which appears later on Five Man Army and would even go so far as to vocally sample a well-known Broadway musical - Fiddler on the Roof, it seems nothing is off limits to these guys. 

This track is swiftly followed by mellower number, One Love, the producers using a technique popular with DJ’s to hit you with a full charged song first to get your attention then follow up with a mellower track to use as a cleanser before setting you on the rest of your journey together. One Love features the vocals of Reggae legend Horace Andy, heard here for the first time along with the Massive trio of 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G altogether in their own unique style. The track features an incredible brass sample from Soul titan, Isaac Hayes samples for the track Ike’s Mood 1 and another sample from Mahavishnu orchestra’s You Don’t know. The lyrics deal with the subject of fidelity & were in contrast to the more popular rap idea of the time, which were beginning to become most pimps, players & gangsters (OG by Ice-T was also popular at this time, while NWA were beginning to change American Rap forever).

One Love easily slips into the slightly more upbeat Blue Line’s (again we are on a DJ style journey), this is the first track on the album to feature the Tricky Kid who is joined by the Massive trio among others including the guitarist Paul Johnson on bass guitar & again some very clever sampling this time from Sneaking in the Back by L.A. Express. the song has some very fine word play from the boys. I feel that the track is worthy of being the title track, though is not necessarily the best track on the album it does form for me, one of the highlights of the album, the moment where the lyrics from blue lines finish and the drums and Hammond organ on the follow up tracks Be Thankful for What you’ve Got kick in, In my mind this has to be one of the greatest achievements of sequencing on any album ever!! Simply amazing.

Be Thankful for What You’ve Got, is especially notable as it is the only full cover version on an album that is not afraid to wear it’s cultural refences on its sleeve. The original song by Philly soul star Billy Paul was written by William Devaughn and released almost 20 years before in 1974. The Massive Attack cover isn’t a huge departure from the original version with a fine vocal from British singer Tony Bryan and featuring a more modern sounding bassline with scratches from Daddy G throughout the song. A fine addition to what is already shaping up to be a very satisfying album, the positive Be Thankful attitude of the track was like a balm compared with the current trends in popular music at the time, one which made me personally reflect on all the things I had to be thankful for, in spite of not being in a position in life to own a beautiful Cadillac car. 

The follow up track is the aforementioned Five Man Army begins with the Massive trio back to doing what they did best at the time, rhyming over a nice paced reggae influenced, dare I say Trip-Hop style backing track. I Remember back in the early 90’s when I first heard this that is was one of the very first Hip-Hop tracks that I could really relate to the lyrics, I clearly remember thinking are you allowed to rap about house parties & smoking drugs? though these were normal activities for me, my friends & much of the population at the time, it just seemed so forbidden to be openly talking about the thing we all got up to at the weekends, “Trendy Wendy you know what I mean” and I did! The track again featuring vocals from Horace Andy. Who even sampled himself vocally toward the end of the track taking lyrics from two of his songs Skylarking & Root of All Evil, making them sound perfectly at home in their new surroundings? The song features samples from Soul great Al Green's I’m Glad Your Mine and Cuss, Cuss by Lloyd Robinson alongside the bassline lifted from Dillinger, Trinity, Al Campbell & Wayne Wade’s track with the same title.

The song that appears next on the album is viewed as the breakthrough single for the album (therefore the group). Unfinished Sympathy released as a single after the album was released in February of 1991 would go onto become their first gold records and give the collective their first MTV hit video on both side of the Atlantic with the already discussed Sara Nelson staring video. The track reached number 13 in the UK charts and be among the tracks in most music publications end of year charts. it would eventually be voted the number 1 track of all time by MTV channel MTV2. Mixmag ranked it number 10 in the 100 best dance songs of all time and NME ranked it at the same position in the Greatest singles of all-time chart. Alongside the well-known vocal from Sara the track again using some very clever sampling techniques featuring JJ Johnston's Parade Strut instrumental for the snare and hihat sounds as well as pieces John McLaughlin’s fusion powerhouse, The Mahavishnu Orchestra sampled throughout the track.

One of the things I have always like about this album, and it probably relates back to the DJ trip thing I mentioned earlier, is that no matter how many stylistic twists & turns that album makes with tracks like Be Thankful and Unfinished they keep returning to a similar style of tracks like Safe from Harm, Five Man Army and again with this track Daydream which begins much like these tracks with the Massive trio rapping in their likeable conversational style before being join again by Sara Nelson toward the finale of the track, this track has many of the lyrical reference that the boys would become known for, this track alone taking vocal references from the Beatles - Here comes the sun, The Specials – Blank Expression & Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roofer for the if I was a rich man lyrical refrain alongside some cleverly placed references to old school NY Hip-Hop. The beats and the synth melody are cleverly sampled from Mambo by Wally Badura and remain a personal favourite from the album.

The Penultimate song on the album Lately, starts in a similar fashion to many of the tracks on the album with an awesome electronic bassline lifted from Lowrell’s Mellow Right Now, featuring another stunning vocal from Sara Nelson, the lyrics mostly focus on the subject of love gone wrong (lately) something I am sure most of us have experienced in our lives, I feel it’s the combination of universal messages and lyrics that sounded a bit like talking to your friends about the weekend nocturnal activities that made the album stand out upon release & also help to make it stand the test of time today.

These universal messages would never be so openly explored or as grandly produced by massive attack as on the final track from the album – The Hymn of the Big Wheel, co-written by Del Naja & Neneh Cherry (who had recently had a few chart hits with the likes of Buffalo Stance & Manchild which were obvious forerunners to the Massive and Soul II Soul sound as much as the Wild Bunch tracks were), she also provided vocal on the track. The Lyrics deal with mankind's struggles with life on the big wheel & the desire for a simple life. Again, this is another excellent example of how well the album is sequenced with every track slipping seamlessly in the follow up as they grow to the finale of the album and the ultimate celebrations of mankind's struggles on the final track.

As I have previously mentioned, the album contained four singles released between October 1990 & February of 1992 with the release of the Massive EP featuring Hymn, Be Thankful & a Clutch of remixes (which were being to be more essential for every new single release) the debut single Daydreaming wouldn’t really trouble the UK charts only reaching 82 upon initial release. The follow up Sympathy faired considerably better as previously discussed while follow up’s safe from harm only reached number 25 and the Massive EP would only get as far as 27, 3 top 30 hits for a new band wasn’t bad in those day. 

During the summer of 1991 with the Unfinished Sympathy video blasting all over MTV, there was talk of an American tour, however the idea fizzled out due to the sampled nature of the music and the availability of useful technology of the times. There was also the fact that the album featured so many guest vocalists which in its self was something of a rarity at the time and made the dreams of an American tour seem impossible to arrange as a touring live band, something that Massive Attack would eventually do with later albums earning themselves a reputation as an outstanding live act, In ‘91 this seemed to expensive and difficult to achieve and with their dreams of touring in tatters, the trio assisted by friends old and new would retreat to the studio to begin work on the follow up album Protection, though the trio would continue to work together and produce excellent albums, eventually becoming a duo in time for the darker Mezzanine album, there is something indistinguishable about the Blue Lines album that would never be repeated with the increasingly sophisticated albums that would follow, Maybe it was the naivety of youth and the fact that they were making up much of the music as they went along as most groups do on their first couple of albums or maybe it was because it was a group of likeminded individuals working to achieve a common goal (by the time they had begun work on Protection both Tricky and Sara Nelson had signed solo deals)? But there is certainly something very special about the album that shines as clearly today as it did all those years ago in 1991 and will continue to shine for many years to come, when the album will be held alongside the music of the British greats like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Clash, Van Morrison, David Bowie and the many other great musical gifts to have manifested in the United Kingdom. 

An enduring musical classic that deserves to be discovered by new generations for generations to come.

Massive Attack would go onto become a hugely successful trio then duo with their increasingly darker albums, they would also become known as a formidable live act. Their second album Protection would be released in 1994 at the height of the Trip-Hop era, a term that was invented by journalists to describe Massive Attack, Tricky’s solo output and the music of fellow Bristol groups like Portishead and Smith & Mighty as well artists as wide ranging as DJ Shadow and DJ Krush form the MoWax label to the second wave of Trip-Hop acts like Zero 7, Groove Armada and Morcheeba, who would follow before the end of the decade. At the time of writing Massive Attack have had to cancel their current tour due to the corona and will be rescheduling the dates as soon as possible.

Tricky would leave the Massive fold before the release of Protection, Trickys debut album would be heralded as a classic trip-hop album upon release & put Tricky on the covers of many wide-ranging magazines & publications, a position the he was never entirely comfortable with. Tricky would continue to collaborate with other artists throughout his career including Bjork & Terry Hall of The Specials on his second album Nearly God, a full collaboration album with DJ Mugg’s for LA stoner hip-hop group Cypress Hill and many others, Sadly Tricky’s distrust of the media & distain for stardom would push the Tricky Kid to make increasingly darker & more difficult to listen to albums, sadly never achieving the same cohesiveness he so easily had found on his debut album which also featured on again off again collaborator (& mother of Tricky’s daughter) Martine Topley-Bird.

Sara Nelson, who continued to work with the group on their second album would also become a successful solo artist in her own right notching up five top 40 hits & receiving a mercury prize nomination for her debut album What Silence Knows. Nelson continued through the intervening decades to work as a solo artist & collaborator, she is currently work on a new solo album for release some time in 2020.

Horace Andy would continue to work with Massive Attack adding vocal to protection as well as lead vocal on Angel & Spying Glass on the Mezzanine album and more recently singling on splitting the atom & Girl I Love You for the album Heligoland, Horace would continue to work as a solo artist & continues to release albums, his most recent a live album called Live It Up. 

Jazzy-J & Nellee Hooper who left The Wild Bunch became Massive Attack would become well known in the charts for their work as Soul II Soul with a string of very successful single and albums from the 80’s until the mid 90’s. Jazzy j still regularly appears in my many documentaries about the birth of Trip-Hop & the origins of Rave Culture. Nelle Hooper would go onto to become an in-demand producer & arranger working with the likes of Bjork, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, U2, & the Smashing Pumpkins as well as curating the incredible soundtrack to the Baz Lurhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. 

Andy ‘Mushroom’ Vowles would remain with the group until the initial release of the Mezzanine album before splitting due to the usual differences of opinion on the creative direction of the group.

Tristan Brkn Arrw, for New Acid Planet, Ardrishaig, Argyll, Scotland, May 2020.

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