Safe From Harm: Blue Lines Turns 30

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Massive Attack – Blue Lines

Released April 8th, 1991 on Wild Bunch Records and Virgin Records

Produced by Massive Attack and Jonny Dollar

Peaked at #13 UK

Singles:

“Daydreaming” (#81 UK)

“Unfinished Sympathy” (#13 UK)

“Safe From Harm” (#25 UK)

“Hymn Of The Big Wheel / Be Thankful For What You’ve Got”

1991 was a watershed year for British electronic music. The Orb’s The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld turned house music on its head, proving that there was viable artistic merit in a form of music that had been imported from America but had been seen largely as dancefloor filler for the hot UK club circuit. Blue Lines did similar things, only the quartet that made up Massive Attack took a more panoramic view of their influences. It was underground club music, to be sure, but it was also heavily influenced by American hip hop, particularly in view of the sample-heavy view of musical construction. It also slowed it down considerably. Simon Reynolds called these ‘spliff tempos’ and he’s dead on. Hip hop, then and now, runs around 90 bpm; house music runs between 115 and 130. Blue Lines runs a lot slower, bottoming out around 65-70 bpm. If it’s true that every party has its drug, a party with Massive Attack is not going to be, say, an amphetamine party. The heady combination of breakbeats, reggae sampling, dub bass, and soul vocals lends itself to another vibe entirely, and it proved a place for downtempo and chillout music in the electronic pantheon.

It’s impressive especially from the standpoint of how well it brings in its influences and amalgamates them into its own singular vision. It’s not as though hip hop was, by 1991, some unknown and obscure genre. This was the era of NWA, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, De La Soul and (closer to home) Slick Rick. Wu Tang was only two years away from releasing their world-shaking debut. The club crowds that Massive Attack were calling to had at least some basic familiarity with this stuff, so a rote retread of sample-and-vocal wouldn’t have wowed the audience much. The trick is how seamlessly they blended things like breaks, samples, and record scratches into the relentless (if slowed) movement of the club scene. It’s something that Blue Lines does exceedingly well. It’s the beginning of trip hop, although the media wouldn’t coin and obsess over the term for a few more years; it would take releases from Tricky and Portishead before the press would start calling the sounds coming out of Bristol “trip hop”, but Blue Lines is a clear beginning of where that sound comes from.

It would also be remiss to mention the 30th anniversary of Blue Lines without mentioning the key role that singer Neneh Cherry played in its creation. It would likely not have been made without her support; she collaborated with the group, bankrolled them (and other Bristol players), and let them record in several rooms of her house. She’s also performing backing vocals on the closing track, “Hymn Of The Big Wheel.” The next time you fire one up and put the headphones on to listen to something slow and cerebral, spin an extra one up for her.

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