Post-punk in a vaguely similar way that U2, Simple Minds and Big Country were post-punk, in the early 80s The Waterboys were a band laden with potential, fronted by an ace songwriter with a distinctive voice. Trouble was on their self-titled debut, The Waterboys consisted of Mike Scott and a saxophone player called Anthony. They were a name without a band. The album was well received and critically lauded, but there was the distinct impression that they were capable of so much more than their debut let on.
Sophomore effort, A Pagan Place, found The Waterboys slowly becoming a proper band and as a result sounds considerably more full-blooded and richly textured. A key addition to the line up was multi-instrumentalist Karl Wallinger, whose keyboards and piano work set The Waterboys apart from their more leaden contemporaries. As a songwriter, Scott had hit upon a rich creative well of inspiration, and as a result A Pagan Place positively groans with his best work, from the opening “Church Not Made With Hands”, to the anthemic “All the Things That She Gave Me”, to “The Big Music”, a song so brilliant that it became the descriptor for an entire sub-genre of rock music (and recently co-opted by, of all acts, Simple Minds).
The production on A Pagan Place is airy and uncluttered, with every instrument being given its specific space in the sonic spectrum, with Scott’s hollering vocals clear as a bell. It’s a world away from the synthetic feeling of a lot of production work from this period, where a band would sound completely lost if a venue they were playing were unfortunate to experience a power cut. Not so for The Waterboys, whose organic sound could be stripped down to its analogue basics without losing its impact. Much of this is down to their sturdy blend of rock music and celtic / folk undertones, something which lends itself to sounding somewhat more rustic and organic than the bleeping and squelching unbiodegradable ‘future sounds’ that dominated the British music scene at the time (and ironically have caused that music to date terribly).
Scott’s song writing is the key to A Pagan Place’s success, from the passionate confessional of “The Thrill is Gone” to careening rock of “Rags” and the skiffle-flecked “Somebody Might Wave Back”, it’s a masterful collection of tunes. There’s even space for the epic “Red Army Blues”, which although it has it’s heart in the right place, slows down the previously irresistible flow of the album, the situation saved only by the fact that the album’s closing title track is one of Scott’s best songs, and one of the stand out moments of The Waterboys career.
A Pagan Place is one of those 80s albums that everyone with a love of rock music should be familiar with, but depressingly few people actually are. For those of you unfamiliar with the album that are wishing to experience it for the first time, the album does come with a health warning, as the reissue from a few years back saw a couple of songs extended and even an additional track plonked midway through the running order in accordance with Mike Scott’s original ‘vision’ for the album. The vagaries of the fine balancing act between a creative individual’s ‘artistic vision’ and their fans’ pre-existing relationship with the artistic statement in question given that it was made nearly two decades previously is another article for another time.