The Waterboys are an act that for too long have laboured with being associated with just one song and one album, at least by the majority of people outside their fan base. What makes it even more baffling is the fact that that song is not even on that album.
It’s probably fair to say that musically, The Waterboys have gone through a number of phases, and back in the 1980s they transitioned from the widescreen celtic rock that is now considered their ‘Big Music’ phase, to a much more folk influenced approach of the ‘Raggle Taggle Band’ period which saw them reach a new audience, and saw them achieve greater commercial success.
With Mike Scott as the primary songwriter and tunesmith, with other members of the band effectively orbiting the creative hub of Scott, The Waterboys had a line up in the 80s and early 90s that could be best described as ‘fluid’, with saxophone player Antony Thistlethwaite appearing on all their albums through this period, while others were a little more transient in their membership of the band, with Karl Wallinger being a key member of the band for a period before leaving to launch his own World Party, fiddle player Steve Wickham also playing a crucial role in prompting Scott to immerse himself in traditional folk music, and future folk legend Sharon Shannon also being a member of the band for a while.
Of the five albums released during this period, the first three cover their ‘Big Music’ period, and the final two their ‘Raggle Taggle Band’ phase. Each has their own fans, and discussion of which is best has divided their fanbase for years, but then again, The Waterboys have always been a band worth getting passionate about.
The Big Music
The Waterboys self titled debut album is effectively a Mike Scott solo album in all but name, with much of the material recorded before Scott had even chosen a new name for his project, and some of the tracks are simply demos polished up for a full release. The only other member of the band at this point was Antony Thistlethwiate, who didn’t appear on some of the tracks. The song on the album that sounds a little more fleshed out sound-wise is “A Girl Called Johnny”, a tribute to Patti Smith that was also the album’s most commercial moment.
By the standards of later work, The Waterboys is a curiously thin sounding album, particularly on early CD releases, with only “A Girl Called Johnny” sounding as if it had much weight behind it. It resulted in The Waterboys debut sounding almost ghostly, which given some of the lyrics utilised, is oddly fitting. The re-release of the album on CD in 2002 ensured the album sounded much fuller, but the pay off was that Mike Scott chose to replace some tracks with lengthier versions, and even placed a track he had intended to include on the original album mid-way through the running order, resulting in a quite different beast to the original version of the album. While some opined that the ethereal sound had been lost, the fact that it was replaced by a much more full-blooded sounding mix appeased others. Songs like “Gala”, “December” and “Savage Earth Heart” sounded much more dramatic in their revised forms, and “It Should have Been You” in particular achieved a whole new level of brilliance, though it’s a shame that an expanded re-release could not have been offered, with the new version of the album with additional tracks and expanded versions of the original songs included as a bonus disc to a remastered version of the original album.
While The Waterboys debut had been recorded piecemeal over a number of months, it’s follow up, A Pagan Place, was much more focused affair, albeit one that was largely in the can before the self titled debut was released. Mike Scott had acquired the services of keyboard player Karl Wallinger, whose arrangement skills really fleshed out the sound of The Waterboys from what was on their debut. The album as a whole is a much more assured affair which far greater depth, and Scott’s song writing was rapidly evolving, with tracks like “The Big Music” and “All the Things She Gave Me” indicating that their widescreen celtic rock might just translate into some serious chart action if it received enough airplay.
The eight tracks that made up A Pagan Place resulted in a watertight album of high drama and a ridiculously high concentration of great tunes. “Church Not Made With Hands”, “Rags” and “Somebody Might Wave Back” found Scott taking his song writing to new heights, while “Red Army Blues” showed that he wasn’t over-awed by an extended song structure, and “The Thrill is Gone” perfectly distils the feeling of heart-breaking futility when the passion disappears from a relationship. Best of all though was the title track, a propulsive closing number which sounds like it’s sung from a mountain top with the wind in Scott’s hair. There is not an ounce of fat on A Pagan Place, and it remains one of the key albums of the early 80s.
Then came the remaster in 2002. Once again, a number of tracks were replaced by extended versions, slightly distorting the perfect balance of the album. The inclusion of an additional track midway through the running order can lead those familiar with the album was even more frustrated though. While It is understandable that Mike Scott wanted to make good on a compromise he hadn’t wanted to make on the original album, there is the thorny issue of the fact that it was the compromised version that Waterboys fans had actually fallen in love with, and that the re-release denied them the ability to hear that version in remastered form. Who should have final say, the fans or the artist?
Once again, it’s a shame that an expanded re-release could not have been offered, with Mike Scott’s revised version of the album included as a bonus disc to a remastered version of the original album, but there were doubtless budgetary reasons for this.
With A Pagan Place having established The Waterboys as one of the most vital acts of the decade, it’s follow up This is the Sea saw Scott, Wallinger and Thistlethwaite build on that, achieving pretty much what Scott had set out to do at the start of his career. Songs like “The Pan Within”, “Don’t Bang the Drum”, “Old England” and the title track maintained the high quality established on A Pagan Place, with Scott even sharing some of the song writing credits with his bandmates. While “Trumpets” was the first song written for the album, it was also a little overshadowed by the top class songs throughout the rest of the album, where a song like “Be My Enemy” showed that they could do straight ahead rock number, and “Spirit” is a thing of beauty.
This is the Sea’s key track is also the song which The Waterboys are most often associated with. “The Whole of the Moon” was a medium sized hit on first release, but it became a monster smash hit single when it was re-released in the early 90s. It remains utterly anthemic and saw Scott at the peak of his poetic powers. It is the moment that The Waterboys proved that they could not just match the likes of U2 and The Simple Minds, but comprehensively outclass them.
There remains some debate as to whether A Pagan Place or This is the Sea is the superior album, but what is generally agreed upon is that they represent the very best of The Waterboys during their Big Music phase. If anything This is the Sea just edges it, simply because all the additional material on the remastered version is on a separate disc to the original album, and the album in its original sequence and length i maintained. Again, this could have been down to budgetary issues, and the record label felt that they could throw a bit more cash at This is the Sea, simply because it contained the band’s signature tune.
This is the Sea was followed up by successful tours of Europe and the US, with Wallinger departing towards the end of his touring commitments, having realised that he would never be able to fully realise his own musical ambitions unless he formed a band that was as much in his image as The Waterboys were in Mike Scott’s. Before Wallinger had left the band, Scott’s new primary collaborator had joined The Waterboys. Steve Wickham had guested on This is the Sea, adding violin to “The Pan Within”.
With A Pagan Place and This is the Sea, The Waterboys had revealed themselves to be a force for good in the music world, creating epic celtic rock albums that had chart topping stadium giants looking cautiously over their collective shoulders. Mike Scott and his bandmates had created an honest and authentic blend of soulful rock music that could potentially sweep aside all before it. The Waterboys were on a roll and world domination could have been a realistic possibility. Yes, they had lost Karl Wallinger along the way, which was a significant loss to the band, but as long as Mike Scott was the main creative force within the band, it was safe to say that they would survive.
Raggle Taggle Band
The promotion of This is the Sea over, Mike Scott deserved a bit of time to recharge his batteries, so Steve Wickham suggested that they head to Dublin to soak up some of the culture. That trip to Ireland inspired Scott to start writing the immense amount of material that would result in Fisherman’s Blues. Scott had decided that This is the Sea had achieved all he had wanted to do with The Big Music, and that rock music was no longer what they were about, because Mike Scott had decided that one of the great rock bands of the 80s would be better off embracing all things folk.
Fisherman’s Blues sees the first four tracks mix folk and rock with ease, particularly on the driving “We Will Not Be Lovers”, then comes material like “And a Bang on the Ear”, and the cover of “Sweet Thing”, and you realise that the widescreen rock had been utterly abandoned in favour of something a little more whimsical.
For some Fisherman’s Blues is the best Waterboys album by far, but for others it’s the moment they tune out. It was undoubtedly a brave, perhaps career saving move, that ensured that Mike Scott didn’t get stuck in a rut trying to tope This is the Sea, and the change of direction was undoubtedly a creative one for Mike Scott, as he apparently penned well over a hundred songs in consideration for Fishermans Blues. Much of the material that didn’t find its way on to the original version of Fisherman’s Blues has subsequently seen the light of day by way of the Too Close To Heaven: The Unreleased Fisherman’s Blues Sessions in 2001, and Fisherman’s Box in 2013, but really such focus on a single album only underlines how much better the re-releases of The Big Music trilogy could have been.
Fishermans’s Blues, despite it splitting the opinion of The Waterboys’ fanbase, saw them reach a whole new audience and took them to a previously unachieved level of success. Some may wonder if they might have achieved that level of success anyway if they had just stuck to The Big Music, but the chance to totally eclipse the ubiquitous The Joshua Tree was passed up in favour of a new direction, which at least meant that they weren’t just resting on their laurels.
1990 saw Steve Wickham depart The Waterboys just before the release of Room to Roam, an even more whimsical and folky album than Fisherman’s Blues. As a folk-rock album of the period it’s fine, but you do wonder if a similar level of success might have been achieved by raiding the material that Scott had penned for Fisherman’s Blues. Where it’s predecessor could be playful, Room to Roam to often crossed over to being full on twee. Perhaps realising that a certain type of energy was missing, the tour to promote Room to Roam saw Mike Scott and his bandmates adopt an ever more Big Music sound as they progressed.
It was perhaps this return to The Big Music that was the decision behind releasing the compilation The Best of the Waterboys 81-90, a well selected selection of tunes which minimised the thin sound of the debut album by just including “A Girl Called Johnny”, and featuring a much more propulsive Big Music version of “Killing my Heart” rather than the rather underpowered version called “When Ye Go Away” that was on Fisherman’s Blues. Fisherman’s Blues itself was represented by three of its best tracks, which given it had been the band’s most commercially successful release is understandable, though more time is dedicated to material from This is the Sea, and it was “The Whole of the Moon” that was re-released to promote the compilation. Of all of The Waterboys albums, it is A Pagan Place which is under-served by The Best of the Waterboys 81-90, as it features the two most accessible numbers and nothing else. Still, at least it means that that album comes as a surprise when you do eventually choose to investigate it.
Another compilation covering the Big Music period is The Secret Life of the Waterboys 81–85, a selection of out takes, oddments, live tracks and obscurities. It’s fine, but really one for completists only. Same goes for The Live Adventures of the Waterboys, which documents the transition from The Big Music to the Raggle Taggle band in 1986. The covers of “Purple Rain” and “Because the Night” are interesting, but it’s not an album that you’ll play more than any of The Waterboys’ studio albums.
The Best of the Waterboys 81-90 and the chart success of “The Whole of the Moon” saw a surge in interest in The Waterboys in 1991, but the next couple of years saw Mike Scott relocate to the USA, him record 1993’s Dream Harder pretty much solo before retiring The Waterboys name. He would go on to release a couple of solo albums under his own name, before resurrecting The Waterboys name at the end of the decade. The Waterboys continue to tour and record to this day, switching between rock and folk as Mike Scott sees fit, with Steve Wickham as his loyal lieutenant.
The legacy of The Waterboys is not easy to pin down. They were nowhere near as commercially successful as contemporaries like U2 and Simple Minds during their Big Music period, it is perhaps the Raggle Taggle Band which has had the greater influence, particularly modern folk acts. Mind you, The Big Music was writ large in Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, so perhaps its influence is just not as obvious.
Whatever the case, Mike Scott and his bandmates cut a unique dash through the 80s, and the decade would have been far poorer without them.