Monday, April 8, 1991

Massive Attack released Blue Lines

Blue Lines

Massive Attack

Released: April 8, 1991

Peak: -- US, 13 UK, -- CN, 69 AU

Sales (in millions): 0.2 US, 0.86 UK, 1.26 world (includes US and UK)

Genre: dance/electronica > trip-hop


Song Title (date of single release, chart peaks) Click for codes to charts.

  1. Safe from Harm (5/27/91, 25 UK, 28 MR)
  2. One Love
  3. Blue Lines
  4. Be Thankful for What You Got (2/10/92, --)
  5. Five Man Army
  6. Unfinished Sympathy (2/11/91, 13 UK)
  7. Daydreaming (10/15/90, 81 UK)
  8. Lately
  9. Hymn of the Big Wheel (2/10/92, --)

Total Running Time: 45:08

The Players:

  • Robert “3D” Del Naja (graffiti artist)
  • Adrian “Tricky” Thaws (singer/rapper)
  • Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles (musician/composer)
  • Grant “Daddy G” Marshall (DJ)
  • Featured vocalists: Shara Nelson, Horace Andy, Tony Bryan


4.142 out of 5.00 (average of 21 ratings)


(Click on award to learn more).

Who Are Massive Attack?

Massive Attack formed in 1988 in Bristol, England. Members Grant Marshall, Robert Del Naja, Andrew Vowles, and Tricky came out of the Wild Bunch, a group of DJs and audio engineers, who started performing in 1982. They were, as a review in the Guardian said, “a collective who did not play any instruments themselves and employed other artists to augment – and in some cases – define their electronically driven sound and vision.” IB-114


Their sound, which would come to be known as trip-hop, was significantly attached to the city of Bristol. As a university town, it sees “a constant influx of young people from throughout the UK, which consistently generates fresh ranks of both audiences and instrumentalists.” IB-15 The University of Bristol “specializes in classical and avant-garde composition and even more arcane medieval forms. The DIY zeal of the punk scene was therefore counterbalanced by virtuosic players and traditional jazz hangs. Even now, a quick walk around Bristol…reveals a high concentration of stores selling instruments and production equipment.” IP-16

In the early ‘80s, the “Bristol sound” – which later became known as trip-hop – “fused angular reggare guitars, spacey reverb, and funk bass with the complex puercussive polyrhythm and chromatic dexterity more associated with free jazz..” IB-17/sup>

The Birth of Trip-Hop

Massive Attack’s debut album, Blue Lines, is celebrated as the beginning of trip-hop, the genre’s “first masterpiece.” AMG Mixmag’s Andy Permberton allegedly coined the term while music critic Simon Reynolds said Massive Attack are “widley regarded as the genre’s inventors.” IB-67 It “defined much of the decade to follow.” IB-67

In simplistic terms, prior to trip-hop if music “had a synth, it was electronic(a) or ‘techno;’ if it had a breakbeat of featured a black producer, it was typically couched as some variant of ‘rap.’” IB-22 Trip-hop was “music that relied on sampling and breakbeats, music that was for and by producers (people who liked record stores) and less for MCs – especially MCs in the American model.” IB-71

Trip-hop however, was more than just a blend of electronica and hip-hop. It also integrated acid house, “classic soul, dub reggae,..and even psychedelic rock.” URB Blue Lines displayed a “wide-ranging palette of influences; a rottedness in diasporic textures and production techniques; a merger of the atmospheric, introspective, and cerebral; and crucially, a subtle but distinct political edge.” IB-4 As Grant Marshall said, “We were trying to…create dance music for the head rather than feet.” IB-6 The sound has been associated with fellow Bristol artist Neneh Cherry as well as British groups Soul II Soul and Portishead.

British Urban Music

Trip-hop was a genre which essentially filtered “American hip-hop through the lens of British club culture.” AMG Blue Lines can be viewed “as the beginnings of a truly British form of urban music, one that spoke to the specific contours of black life in England.” IB-128 “Records like Blue Lines did important work precisely because they incorporated styles drawn from Britain’s anti-Conservative punks and black immigrants, and because they carried all of these worlds in the same breath.” IB-130

Relationship to Hip-Hop

In many ways, Blue Lines was “a hip-hop record – it relied on genre-defining techniques such as sampling and scratching. Many of its verses are unmistakably rapped rather than whispered or sung.” IB-77 Grant Marshall said, “in the beginning, the sampler was our main musical instrument…when we first formed Massive Attack, basically we were DJs who went into the studio with our favorite records and created tracks.” IB-112

Music for After the Club

However, while “most hip-hop of the era was made explicitly for blasting from car stereos or banging away at the club, Blue Lines represented a shift toward records made for the lounge or the bedroom,” IB-78 sometimes described as “headphone hip-hop, slowed down moon music for darkened bedroom listening.” IB-65 As Marshall said, “We were making the type of music for after the club. You’ve come home and you’re off your head and you want to relax.” IB-22

The genre’s “dark moodiness…exists in that twilight realm between sleep and waking” RV creating “a stylish, nocturnal sense of scene that encompassed music from rare groove to dub to dance.” AMG It “balances dark, diva-led club jams along the lines of Soul II Soul with some of the best British rap (vocals and production) heard up to that point, occasionally on the same track.” AMG

“Safe from Harm”

“The opener Safe from Harm is the best example” AMG of “this new breed of sound and all of the throbbing ecstasy it entails.” RV It features “ghostly whooshes and a dose of reverb, but it paired rasped or whispered stanzas of rhymes with [singer Shara] Nelson’s searing diva hooks.” IB-47 She “lays the vocals over…pulsing beats and balances Tricky Kid’s monotone rap style.” RV Videos for this song and three others from the album “brought both Tricky and Nelson into the limelight, making them the faces of Massive Attack.” IB-113

“One Love”

“Even more than hip-hop or dance, however, dub is the big touchstone on Blue Lines. Most of the productions aren’t quite as earthy as you’d expect, but the influence is palpable in the atmospherics of the songs, like the faraway electric piano on One Love (with beautiful vocals from the near-legendary Horace Andy).” AMG

It’s a “model of simplicity with its drum machine-beat, barely-there bass throb, and iconic electric piano – purloined from a lengthier Mahavishnu Orchestra workout – which has been looped to sound like a hammered guitar roof.” IB-46 While not complex, “the track was an adept erger of new production techniques and a DJ’s sense of how funk textures might interlock like puzzle pieces.” IB-46 The song “cements an unmistakable psychic tone that elevates Blue Lines beyond the hodge-podge of singles and castoffs that often characterized the hip-hop or dance album format.” IB-33

“Five Man Army”

Five Man Army “makes the dub inspiration explicit, with a clattering percussion line, moderate reverb on the guitar and drums, and Andy’s exquisite falsetto flitting over the chorus.” AMG It is “a highpoint of the album and the one most evidently an inheritor of the UK reggae subgenres that prefigure it.” IB-34 The track is “all throbbing, spidery bass, reverb-soaked-up-picks on the guitar syncopated rim clicks and little riffs on something that sounds like a synthesized melodica.” IB-34

“Be Thankful for What You’ve Got”

This is a “lovely, if lesser known, paean to the virtues of gratitude.” IB-72 It “is quite close to the smooth soul tune conjured by its title.” AMG “It’s fair to say that the message of this song is precisely the opposite of what was on offer in most American hip-hop.” IB-73

The original version of “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” was by William DeVaughn in 1974. “It’s languid, funky, with an insistent beat layered in the sumptuous instrumentation so typical of the era’s productions.” IB-75 Rather than just sample a few bars of the song, though, Massive Attack “produced what amounts to a thoughtful cover, but using production techniques suited to the hip-hop era.” IB-73

“Unfinished Sympathy”

This is “the group’s first classic production…a tremendously moving fusion of up-tempo hip-hop and dancefloor jam with slow-moving, syrupy strings.” AMG It is “one of the most widely discussed ‘electronic’ singles of the decade and a landmark production.” IB-118 “Many critics, musicians, and casual listeners consider ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ to be the most beautiful ‘dance’ record ever produced.” IB-115


This song “is, in many ways, a rather pure distillation of the Massive sound. Musically, it is built around an iconic beat, and a sample of the first sections of Beninois composer Wally Badarou’s instrumental ‘Mambo’ from 1984. It’s all atmospheric washes of keys and airy piano fills over a loping, expressive puercussion.” IB-54

“Hymn of the Big Wheel”

“By the time Blue Lines comes to a close with the layered orchestrations of Hymn of the Big Wheel, it’s clear Moby, Fatboy Slim, Portishead and Radiohead owe Massive Attack a debt of gratitude.” RV “It isn’t just a visionary soul record; it’s also a better slow-sex album than any other we can name.” VB

Resources and Related Links:

  • DMDB encyclopedia entry for Massive Attack
  • AMG All Music Guide review by John Bush
  • IB Ian Bourland (2020). 33 1/3: Blue Lines. Bloomsbury Publishing: New York, NY.
  • RV The Review (October – November 2001; Vol. 128: numbers 12-23). “100 Greatest Albums of All Time” by Clarke Speicher
  • URB URB magazine (July 2003). “The 50 Greatest Albums Ever.”
  • VB Vibe (Dec. 1999). “100 Essential Albums of the 20th Century.” Pages 154-164.

First posted 3/22/2008; last updated 11/13/2023.

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