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Massive Attack’s classic album Blue Lines is 30 years old today

Words by Rob Chilton

Celebrating an iconic trip-hop record

The making of Blue Lines was delayed because the members of Massive Attack were distracted by the 1990 World Cup. It’s a small detail about one of the most significant – and best – albums of the last 30 years, but it’s one I love because it shows that the band’s three core members Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, Grant ‘Big Daddy’ Marshall and Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles are not as serious and grump as they often appear. Just like the rest of the football world, this trio of DJs and rappers also got swept along by the drama, romance and tension of that wonderful tournament in Italy.

When Blue Lines was eventually released on April 8, 1991, long after Gazza dried his tears, its nine tracks ripped up the musical rule book. Its hypnotic blend of obscure samples, dreamy basslines, heavenly female vocals, vinyl scratching and trippy melodies had not been heard before. Soul, funk, reggae, dub, hip-hop and dance beats joined forces – even whale sounds can be heard on the final song. The record was the epitome of late night/early morning chill out music and was firmly rooted in the urban environment. Blue Lines was so revolutionary a new genre was invented to describe it: trip hop.

The cover was designed by band member Robert Del Naja

Suddenly, Bristol in the south-west of England where Massive Attack came from, became the hottest city in British music. Guest rapper on Blue Lines and part-time member Tricky would make his own landmark album Maxinquaye four years later. One of the engineers on Blue Lines, Geoff Barrow, would go on to form Portishead, another giant of the Bristol trip-hop scene. On producing duties for Blue Lines were Del Naja, Vowles and Marshall, Neneh Cherry’s partner Cameron McVey and Jonny Dollar who got his nickname because he was the only person Massive Attack could afford to pay. Dollar would go on to work with Cherry, Portishead and Kylie Minogue; he also co-wrote Youssou N’Dour’s song 7 Seconds that featured the aforementioned Cherry.

I’ve thrown away many band t-shirts over the years, but one I have kept has the Blue Lines album cover on the front – it’s a treasured memento of a British teenage summer listening to this magical album that is hardwired into my brain.

Right on track

The first single to be released from Blue Lines, Daydreaming, is a sleepy tune shoved gently along by a sort of jungle drum beat and features the rapping of Tricky who makes no attempt to soften his Bristol accent, which sounds especially strong (and brilliant) on the word ‘cocoa’.

Del Naja and Marshall

But the second single, Unfinished Sympathy is the track that, three decades later, continues to send chills down the spine. Its title inspired by a piece of classical music by Schubert, Unfinished Sympathy is driven by haunting strings that dip and surge, Shara Nelson’s beautiful voice, and a distinctive jingling bell percussion underneath it all to create a hugely emotional song that’s part ballad, part dance track. To pay the 50-piece orchestra for the gorgeous strings, Massive Attack had to sell their car.

Unfinished Sympathy is the song I chose to be the backing track for my dance exam at university when I dabbled in performing arts. Listening to it now takes me back to that terrifying dance studio as my classmate Nehad Shakir and I tried our best to interpret the song in modern dance. Thank goodness there were no camera phones back then. Amazingly, we scored a B+, which I credit entirely to the dance teacher getting carried away by hearing Unfinished Sympathy.

The song was helped in its reach and power by a stunning video directed by Baillie Walsh. In a daring one-shot take inspired by the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, the video shows Nelson walking down West Pico Boulevard, a rundown street in Los Angeles, filled with colourful characters. What’s fun is trying to spot the band members making cameo appearances in the background.

The song launched Massive Attack’s talent into the mainstream and is the peak of this classic album. Track one, however, Safe From Harm, runs it close – an electrifying, anxious start of rumbling drums and Nelson’s voice. Her opening lines: ‘Midnight rockers, city slickers, gunmen and maniacs’ is one of the great album openings, followed by the similarly fantastic line: ‘But if you hurt what’s mine, I’ll sure as hell retaliate.’

Shara Nelson’s vocals are a highlight of Blue Lines

One Love is mesmerisingly slow and stars the unique voice of reggae giant Horace Andy. Title track Blue Lines is smooth and mellow; Be Thankful for What You’ve Got is a cover version of a 1972 William DeVaugan soul hit and has a lovely organ running throughout. Five Man Army’s lyrics are complex and clever, such as this segment from Robert Del Naja: ‘When I was a child I played Subbuteo won/My table then I graduate to Studio One/’Cos D’s my nom de plume, you know, but 3’s my pseudonym/And around my neck you know I wear the Sony Boodo Khan’ – the last reference to a Sony Walkman shows the song’s age. Unfinished Sympathy and Daydreaming are numbers six and seven of this 45-minute album. Nelson returns on Lately, a neat and tidy song with scratching and a shuffling drum track, before the album concludes with Hymn of the Big Wheel, an uplifting anthem of almost seven minutes featuring Andy again.

Vowles (left) quit the group, one of many departures over the years

Dark and stormy

Overall, the mood of Blue Lines – as is so often the case with Massive Attack – is dark and brooding. The album is deeply textured and has so many samples from all sorts of music it feels like a complex patchwork influenced by dozens of people and their varying tastes.

A famously turbulent group, Massive Attack have been plagued by a series of splits, reunions and disputes over creative input down the years. Marshall and Del Naja, however, remain at the core of Massive Attack and later made the albums Protection, Mezzanine, 100th Window and Heligoland, all of which have huge merit but probably do not reach the heights of Blue Lines, which remains their most cohesive record.

Looking back, Marshall says of Blue Lines, “What we were trying to do was create dance music for the head, rather than the feet. I think it’s our freshest album, we were at our strongest then.”

Del Naja adds, “Blue Lines was based on our collective history. Culturally and musically it was a big jam together.”

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