Paul Buchanan from The Blue Nile

I’m a firm believer in art seen through movements. Although movements might have disparate artists within them, they tend to share a certain philosophy. There was something genuinely different that was brewing underneath Britain in the late ’80s. In music especially so, maybe as a reaction to all the distortion slowly creeping around them from the States, some truly memorable carvings into a new structure were being etched.

These artists although not exactly dealing with folkloric music per se, provided an imprint from which a certain band would use to complete their totem to neo-folk music. Maybe by providing some distance between sound, and space between new lingering thoughts, they for a brief moment, could provide a much needed respite before the coming decade, all full of sturm und drang that would try wash some of this away.

In 1989, The Blue Nile a Scottish band led by one Paul Buchanan, would shift their sparse electronic sound (born out of having little musical playing ability) from one marrying chilly electronics with yearning midnight soul, into a truly riveting mix of Neo-Classical and modal pop trying to find the humanity and romance one could draw from all these digital machines setting the tempo. Listening to “Over the Hillside” from their majestic pop masterpiece A Walk Across the Rooftops clues you in to some of the power inherent in a certain kind of austerity.


Released on the heels of that in-between period for David Sylvian and Talk Talk, The Bible‘s Walking the Ghost Back Home a different kind of modal exploration, this time of the early jangle-pop (Orange Juice, The Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock and more) did something far different. The jangle gets reduced to maybe one or two strummed essences, the chorus sound gets filtered to the ambient environment (all phased in strings coming sparely to and fro) with reverb lightly intoning the remnants of that wonderful acoustic sound. In tracks like “Kid Galahad and the Chrome Kinema”, this Cambridge group led by Marcus Hewerdine, treats you with that muted oscillating voice which so fascinated Mike Scott from the Waterboys and urged him to get them signed. Decipherable but lingering intriguingly, it fit perfectly with the unhurried sound barely touching the sonic ground.

Before they unjustly became fodder for your least favorite spa and/or frou frou bourgeoisie [consumer product] SOHO boutique, there was a time when a Hull band, Everything But the Girl, was a genuinely brilliant group. There was a time that Ben Watt was sufferable, and Tracey Thorn, well Tracey was always cool by my book, and together they crafted a musical stew blending all sorts of interesting genres. Jazz, pop, electronic dance, country, bossanova, chanson, and folk music were transformed into minor avant-garde slices of adult contemporary music. It all started with 1984’s Eden, leading into the culmination of this sound 1988’s folk-driven Idlewild. Taking cues from all sorts of their own roots music, they found ways to turn even certain Americana gems, like Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” into Sandy Denny-like folk-rock ballads. That single signaling their dialed down, organic take on English folk music with the EBTG-twist (jazz mostly) that you’ll find there.

A memorable single, from a forgotten band (unless you really love Ferris Bueller! which had there more remembered single), the The Dream Academy‘s “Life in A Northern Town” was destined to be the magnificent intro luring listeners to discover more by buying their debut album. Immensely popular at its time, almost single-handedly reviving Nick Drake’s (the subject of the song) forgotten life in doing so, its curious mix of pseudo-African chants with truly sparse jazz, electronic, and folk accompaniment sounded like nothing else out there. Superficially, the material both sonically and lyrically could have been bleak, but the whole of it all was uplifting belying its true foundation. Tim Pope, who directed the first video traveled to some bridge in Yorkshire with band in hand and found all this hints of bright English beauty (amongst the bleak architecture) to accompany that theme. Working the same kind of magic, and showing the same kind of respect to the artist he’d provided to other groups like The Cure, China Crisis, and Neil Young, he’d do his best to get at the root of a song’s feeling and use a camera to draw it out visually.

Although this group, and David Gilmour’s vision of it, didn’t pan out, some glimmer laying in it would stir something in another artist. Behind all the muck people were accepting as “English”, there was something desperately unique about being there, something that still had people feeling those pangs from its history. You can sense it’s not folk music in the “classical” sense, but folk music in its evolving sentiment. If you’re going to play two notes, or even one note, shouldn’t that note matter, and shouldn’t it come from your current condition? We’ll hear how someone took that idea to heart soon…

Listen further:

– The Blue Nile: A Walk Across the Rooftops (1989)
– Everything But the Girl: Idlewild (1988)
– The Bible: Walking the Ghost Back Home (1986)
– The Dream Academy: The Dream Academy (1985)

at Spotify.