Q Magazine

Who Are the Blue Nile and Why is Taylor Swift Singing About Them?

Taylor Swift name-checks the cultishly beloved Scottish band on her new album 'The Tortured Poets Department.'

taylor swift the blue nile
Source: Republic Records; Confetti Records

"Drownin' in the Blue Nile / He sent me 'Downtown Lights' / I hadn't heard it in a while," Swift sings on "Guilty as Sin?"

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Taylor Swift's new album The Tortured Poets Department includes references to Dylan Thomas, Patti Smith, Charlie Puth, Lucy Dacus, Jack Antonoff, Clara Bow, Stevie Nicks, American Pie, Grand Theft Auto, and more. But perhaps the most surprising shout-out of the bunch is when the world's biggest pop-star name-checks the cultishly beloved Scottish band the Blue Nile and their minor 1989 hit "The Downtown Lights."

In the opening lines of the Tortured Poets Department track "Guilty as Sin?," Swift sings, "Drownin' in the Blue Nile / He sent me 'Downtown Lights' / I hadn't heard it in a while / My boredom's bone deep / This cage was once just fine / Am I allowed to cry?"

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"Guilty as Sin?" has been widely interpreted as one of several songs on the album about the short-lived romance between Swift and the 1975's controversial frontman Matty Healy, whom she dated for just one month in May 2023.

Healy has made no secret of his love for the Blue Nile and their classic 1989 album Hats. "The Blue Nile are my favorite band of all time," he told Vulture in 2016. "They're f--king 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 1975's "Love It If We Made It," a track off of their 2018 album A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, basically straight-up lifted the intro to the Blue Nile's Hats cut "The Downtown Lights" — which, if you'll recall, is the song that Swift mentions.

"'Love If We Made It' is based on a song by the Blue Nile called 'Downtown Lights,'" Healy told Entertainment Weekly. "That's another one where I wanted to reference that song; I didn't want to hide away from referencing it. I wanted it to be f--king obvious to people that know. That's one of the things that's good about the 1975. I feel like we reference nostalgic ideas a lot, but we rarely get into pastiche. I think when I do a reference, we do it so obviously so it's not like I'm pretending I don't know."

"That definitely started out as us just killing Hats every night before we went onstage, listening to that record until it broke," he added to Pitchfork. "It’s slightly different; it’s like Blue Nile on steroids."

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So who exactly were the Blue Nile, and why does Matty Healy love them so much?

The Blue Nile were the trio of Paul Buchanan, Robert Bell, and PJ Moore, who started playing music together while attending the University of Glasgow in the late '70s. They eventually caught the attention of local hi-fi audio equipment manufacturer Linn Products, which was in the process of starting a record label and offered the Blue Nile a recording contract to release their 1984 debut album A Walk Across the Rooftops.

The record's soulful and evocative synth-streaked sophisti-pop earned the band critical acclaim in the UK, but Buchanan has claimed that the atmospheric electronic sound arose due to a lack of technical musical ability.

"That was what was good. We weren’t part of any scene; we didn’t have people who could play a lot of great chords on their instruments," he recalled to The Quietus in 2012. "We could play a little, but I was the worst by a long way. The real key to it was we got more and more interested in trying to make a landscape, to have the music reflect some component of the backdrop. We didn’t want it to sound like it was made in a recording studio: we wanted the guitar to sound like the traffic. We wanted height."

Although the Blue Nile intended to record a quick follow-up to capitalize on A Walk Across the Rooftops' success, it took them several years to write and record 1984's Hats. Widely seen as their masterpiece, Hats peaked at No. 12 on the UK albums chart, broke through to No. 108 on the Billboard 200 across the pond, and earned a rare five-star rating from Q Magazine.

The wait time between albums only got longer, however. Their next album, Peace at Last, came out in 1996 to decidedly more mixed reviews. And their last album, High, was released in 2004.

While they never officially disbanded, growing tensions in the band led to Moore's departure, and the Blue Nile effectively ceased to exist. Buchanan released a solo album, Mid Air, in 2012. "I don’t know what happened with the band; it’s up to everybody — and, in a way, I ended up making the record for a number of reasons, but I suspect my uncertainty… and, kinda, mournfulness about the group was one of them," Buchanan said at the time.

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The Blue Nile weren't exactly unknowns. They earned plenty of critical attention and had some chart success, particularly in the UK. They've gotten shout-outs from Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, and Rickie Lee Jones, and in the wake of Hats' success, the band was invited to Los Angeles to work on records with Julian Lennon, Robbie Robertson, and Michael McDonald. Buchanan even moved to LA for a while and dated actress Rosanna Arquette.

But thanks to their steadfast aversion to publicity and resistance to easy categorization, coupled with the elusive out-of-time quality of their music, the Blue Nile still feel sort of like a cherished secret, especially in the US — which is what makes their sudden appearance in a Taylor Swift song so surprising.

"Paul, the Blue Nile and downtown lights just got mentioned in a Taylor Swift song, might see an uptick in streams and everything else!!" a fan commented on Instagram shortly after the release of The Tortured Poets Department.

"thank you," Buchanan simply replied.


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