When I moved to England in 1985 I lost the urge to seek out alternative bands though I loved the work of the Pogues. I remember a particularly anarchic St Patrick’s Day concert in Hammersmith with fondness and their album If I Should Fall from Grace with God was desperately close to making this list. But I also liked the softer touch of women like Suzanne Vega and KD Lang and I was quite happy to get into the stadium rock of U2 and Simple Minds. The Waterboys, at least in the mid 1980s, were in the same epic genre as those two bands.
Like The The, The Waterboys was the creative genius of one person, Edinburgh-born Mike Scott. Scott had an extensive range of influences he displayed through his contribution to fanzines at university but eventually wanted to play music not write about it.
He took the name for his band from Lou Reed’s The Kids “And I am the Water Boy, the real game’s not over here”. His first two albums The Waterboys” (1983) and A Pagan Place (1984) signified their approach to “Big Music” with even a song of that name on the second album. This Is The Sea (1985) was the third and final album of that phase and my introduction to their music, probably sometime in 1986.
From the opening trumpet fanfare on Don’t Bang The Drum that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Morricone-themed western I fell in love with it. “It could be deliverance, or history” Scott screamed out when the vocals finally arrived. I didn’t know which but it set the album off at a breathtaking pace. A recent reviewer in the Irish Times says that opening track takes him back 30 years to a train in Tipperary. For me it takes me back to my flat in Chester dancing away a cold winter’s night or to a road in Scotland, heading towards a football game with the song on full blast in the car. It was loud and joyous, and a template taken on by Arcade Fire among more recent bands.
Yet Scott somehow manages to top that with the second song The Whole of the Moon. It became the album’s signature song, its best selling single and the one played in every Waterboys concert since. There was speculation the contrasts in the lyrics were inspired by his girlfriend or CS Lewis or Prince but Scott said it was not a single person but a type. ” I wrote the song when I was 26 years old,” he told Songfacts. “I was discovering that there was so much more than I had ever known… I had a strong sense of wonderment about that, and I realized there were people who had vastly more information in their imaginations and experiences than I had.”
The next crucial song on the album was The Pan Within with Scott inviting Irishman Steve Wickham to join him in the studio. Wickham had played violin on U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday and brought his fuzz fiddle style to the song, eventually joining the band full time. The trumpet work of classically-trained Roddy Lorimer is also a joy on the first two tracks and of course, when Scott sings “your love feels like Trumpets.” Scott ends on a joyous note in the title track: “Once you were tethered / Well now you are free” reminding us again we don’t have to bang that drum.
As Mick Fitzsimmons says in his BBC review the album is Scott’s defining moment “literate, majestic and strangely moving music which wears its savage heart proudly on its sleeve.” After The Sea Scott had the rock world at his feet and could bang what ever drum he liked. But as the first line of the first song of the next album revealed all he wanted to be was a fisherman. Influenced by Wickham, he moved to Ireland and like Dylan in reverse turned towards a more rootsier recording tradition with Fisherman’s Blues. Just like Dylan, critics were divided about the move. Initially I found Blues a harder album to like but these days, I play it as often as its predecessor. Yet though I could take or leave its spiritual elements, for its effect in a time and a place This Is The Sea remains in my top 10.