Mike Scott was born in Edinburgh, the son of an English teacher. Scott’s interest in literature is clearly visible in his catalogue, but his life was changed when he bought the single ‘Last Night in Soho’ by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich at the age of ten. At high school he played music inspired by Bowie, The Beatles, and Dylan but at university he discovered the burgeoning punk scene, enjoying The Clash and starting a fanzine about Patti Smith.
Scott made his first recordings as The Waterboys in late 1981, while still a member of the band Another Pretty Face. Scott was the only member on these first recordings, and effectively the band is a vehicle for Scott – he’s the only official member on 1993’s Dream Harder. Despite Scott’s dominance of the band, other talented musicians have passed through The Waterboys; keyboardist Karl Wallinger went onto success with World Party, while fiddler Steve Wickham is prominent on the band’s Irish folk records. Saxophonist Anthony Thistlethwaite and drummer Kevin Wilkinson were also members during the band’s pivotal early years. Scott believes that The Waterboys hold the record for the rock band with the most members ever, with more than 85 musicians passing through the band.
The early Waterboys played what Scott termed “The Big Music” – lush anthems with religious and spiritual overtones. 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues switched into Irish music – it’s easy to assume that Scott is Irish given his musical similarities to Van Morrison and early U2. Scott broke up the band after 1993’s rock-oriented Dream Harder, and released two solo albums, but reunited the band for 2000’s A Rock in the Weary Land. The band are still active, releasing more albums in the 21st century than in their 1980s and 1990s heyday, but for now I’m just reviewing their initial run of records.
The Waterboys Album Reviews
The Waterboys | A Pagan Place | This Is the Sea | Fisherman’s Blues | Room to Roam | Dream Harder | Bring ‘Em All In (Mike Scott) | Still Burning (as Mike Scott) | A Rock in the Weary Land | Universal Hall | Book of Lightning | An Appointment with Mr Yeats | Modern Blues | Out of All This Blue | Where the Action Is | Good Luck, Seeker
Surprisingly, The Waterboys’ first record of “big music” was mostly recorded solo by Mike Scott. Six of its eight tracks were recorded alone by Scott in the Redshop Studio in London, with the help of a drum machine, before he’d recruited other members for the band. It’s a formative effort – some of these songs would sound better with a drummer, and some of these songs meander without enough hooks – but Scott’s clearly a charismatic frontman and strong singer. His one-man band is often impressive, with his work on piano and lead guitar. Scott was joined by saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thistlethwaite for ‘A Girl Called Johnny’, and a rhythm section joined in time for the U2 answer song ‘I Will Not Follow’.
‘A Girl Called Johnny’, about Patti Smith, was the lead single, but the opening ‘December’ is the most evocative song. It’s a showcase for Scott’s Danelectro 12-string guitar, with two lead parts and a rhythm part. There are punchy pop/rock tracks like ‘I Will Not Follow’ and ‘It Should Have Been You’, but the mood of The Waterboys is dominated by the moody epics at the end of each LP side – ‘Gala’ and ‘Savage Earth Heart’.
The Waterboys is a promising debut; the band would build on it over their next two releases.
A Pagan Place
The first sessions for A Pagan Place took place in November 1982, before the first album’s ‘A Girl Called Johnny’ was recorded. Keyboardist and backing vocalist Karl Wallinger joined The Waterboys in time for the second set of sessions in September 1983, while Roddy Lorimer plays trumpet on the title track. With a full band in place, A Pagan Place does a better job of capturing “The Big Music” than their debut; there’s even a song of the same title as a declaration of purpose. Spiritual and literary themes are again prevalent – the very first line of album is drawn from C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle (“Bye-bye shadowlands/The term is over/And all the holidays have begun”).
While it shows growth, it’s still not completely engrossing. ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ clearly owes a debt to Van Morrison’s ‘Madame George’ from Astral Weeks. The second side is stronger – ‘The Big Music’ is followed by the excellent ‘Red Army Blues’, a lengthy tale of a Russian soldier in World War II. Best of all is the title track, which adds a Celtic folk ambience to the album’s anthemic sound and it’s all the better for it. I have the 2002 remaster on CD, which adds a couple of interesting bonus tracks – there’s a cover of Nikki Sudden’s ‘Cathy’, while ‘Some Of My Best Friends Are Trains’ is dropped into the middle of the original track-listing. With its funky guitar and handclaps, it’s an odd fit musically for the album, but it’s also excellent – “They all want to look like Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine” is a great chorus hook line.
A Pagan Place is another step forward from The Waterboys; their two most acclaimed albums were just around the corner.
This Is The Sea
During The Waterboys’ first tour of North America, Scott purchased two huge hard-bound books. He spent two months writing in his apartment, culling 40 songs down to the nine songs that appear on This Is The Sea. It’s the last Waterboys’ album recorded in “The Big Music” style and represents more progress. It’s not perfect; one terrific song overshadows the rest of the record, and the production often sounds a little hollow with little bass presence. In particular, rockers like ‘Be My Enemy’ suffer from the production – sweeping ballads like ‘Trumpets’ and the title track work well. Fiddler Steve Wickham joined the band in time to record ‘The Pan Within’.
That terrific song that overshadows the rest of the record is ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ – it infuses Scott’s searching lyrics with romanticism, and backs them with a great pop melody. There are also some terrific arrangement touches – the galloping piano riff, the trumpet parts from Roddy Lorimer, and the eerie backing vocals from Max Edie. Rockers like ‘Medicine Bow’ are necessary for balance, but aren’t as good as the epics – ‘The Pan Within’ and the title track both range over six minutes, and both evoke Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks epics, although the latter also references Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’.
This Is The Sea is a good record, but ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ is easily its most transcendent moment.
The Waterboys’ fourth album had a much longer gestation than any of their previous work – ‘World Party’ was written in 1985, while Karl Wallinger was still in the band, as a reaction to Live Aid. An exhaustive 6-CD box captures 121 songs from sessions between January 1986 and June 1988. The final 55-minute album almost feels like a compilation as a result, taking on everything from country on ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?’ to echoing the band’s prior big music of ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’. But the predominant flavour is Irish folk, inspired by Steve Wickham bringing Scott to Dublin. Along with Scott and Wickham, the only other official member of the band at this point is Anthony Thistlethwaite.
The rock-oriented material is clustered near the beginning of the record – ‘World Party’ could have fitted onto This Is The Sea, and supplied the name of Wallinger’s post-Waterboys project. ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ barrels along on the back of a ferocious violin riff from Wickham, while the opening title track is like a mission statement from Scott, turning his back on fame (“I wish I was a fisherman/Tumblin’ on the seas/Far away from dry land/And its bitter memories”). The folk material is also excellent – the seven minutes of ‘And a Bang on the Ear’ charmingly retell Scott’s romantic history, while ‘When Ye Go Away’ is a low-key classic. The cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’ is outstanding while ‘The Stolen Child’ is a suitably grand finale, quoting Yeats, before the coda of ‘This Land Is Your Land’.
Fisherman’s Blues is an exceptional record, Scott drastically changing direction and succeeding as an Irish troubadour.
10 Best Waterboys Songs
The Whole Of The Moon
And a Bang on the Ear
We Will Not Be Lovers
When Ye Go Away
A Pagan Place
This Is The Sea
Some Of My Best Friends Are Trains