Stuff I Love - The Waterboys


'With a torch in your pocket

And the wind at your heels 

You climbed on the ladder

And you know how it feels

To go too far, too high, too soon

You saw the whole of the moon'

So goes the words to Mike Scott's most famous song and those words could easily apply to him.

In the world of rock music there are many bandwagon jumpers; fashion victims and careerists. So its refreshing to listen to a guy who follows his heart and his art. Certainly Mike Scott has been responsible for duff songs and the odd dodgy live performance. However he also produces inspirational pieces of music and soaring live gigs that will stick in your mind. 

Starting out inspired by the energy of the Clash, the musicianship of Tom Verlaine and the poetry of Patti Smith Scott took a while to hit his stride. You could tell though by the Waterboys second album ('A Pagan Place') that the boy had something special. From the opening 'A Church not made with hands' with lyrics nicked from CS Lewis' Narnian tales (no lie - look it up) and epic brass led tune I was hooked.

The story goes that with massive success in his sights following the release of 'This is the Sea' Scott deliberately jumped off the music business conveyor belt (or 'caught the bus' as an obscure reference on the sleeve notes of his next album had it). Although I've no doubt that he spurned the chance to try for a bigger audience I'm not sure that he would have ever got that far. Not because I don't believe in his talent or his music. Quite the opposite. I think the music is too good to appeal to a wider audience. If you look at the mega selling acts of that time such as U2 or Bruce Springsteen they have had to simplify their music to appeal to that audience. Compare Springsteen's symphonic melodramas on 'Born to Run' - all wall of sound and kitchen sink production - with the plainer 'meat and potatoes' material on 'Born in the USA'. No prizes for guessing which album is the bigger seller! 

I for one would not have wanted to hear a dumbed down Waterboys.

Instead Scott ran away to Ireland. He didn't pretend to be Irish, as some people claim. But he did immerse himself in the music of his new adopted home. The sound was different and more pared down. To my ears though it was still the Waterboys. 'The Fisherman's Blues' album garnered mixed reviews from critics who yearned for more of the old epic 'Big Music' but in retrospect it is obviously a great record.

Subsequent Waterboys (and Mike Scott solo) material haven't hit the heights of the classic 'This is the Sea/Fisherman's Blues' periods. However there is no denying Scott's willingness to try new styles. Trad folk, a more psychedelic take on 'the Big Music', acoustic singer songwriter material, middle of the road rock, a little bit of experimentation with dance technology, back to folk-rock and most recently an album of WB Yeats poems set to music. 

He continues to write new songs and doesn't rest on his laurels (I'm sure he could make a living just doing a greatest hits tour every year like many of his peers). And although no-one is claiming that he has produced anything as strong as 'The Whole of the Moon' there are always good songs to be found even on his weakest releases.

He also curates his own history very well. Most of the early albums have been re-released with extra tracks (or even extra discs). There are also live albums and albums of outtakes/demos available. All have good sleeve notes. Of course the obvious market for such material is obsessives such as myself but there is a rich treasure trove of songs that could easily sit on his classic albums which weren't selected for whatever reason.

I've never met Mike Scott and I suspect I never will but I find him a fascinating character. He has a mystique that doesn't seem to have been penetrated even in this age of over-exposure. For example I only found out a few weeks ago that he's married.  He is sometimes portrayed as been 'away with the fairies' or some sort of na´ve fool. I think this is well wide of the mark. The impression I get from reading various interviews and features is that he's pretty shrewd but he's not really bothered what people think of him and has no desire to concoct some cool persona. I also get the impression that he might not suffer fools gladly - which is fair enough.

In the modern music world everything has to be in list form - so here are my top 5 reasons for loving the Waterboys: 

1) The gigs.

Because the Waterboys is an ever changing assemble of musicians you won't know from one gig to the next what version you are going to get. This also means that the arrangements of the songs will change depending on the personnel available. In the dozen gigs that I've seen Mike Scott perform I've seen everything from a cast of thousands Celidh band (during the Fisherman's Blues tour) right down to a solo Mike Scott with acoustic guitar. Despite the unpredictability what you are pretty much guaranteed is a good gig.

2) Enthusiasm.

Mike Scott's not a guy for doing things by half measures. A recent story I read made me smile and sums up what is so special about him. He was talking about the origins of his WB Yeats album project. Basically he was invited to an all star gig in tribute to Yeats. So he prepared well. He took a couple of poems and created musical arrangements for them. On the night of the tribute it turned out that the other artists were just doing their own songs! In a nutshell to me that is a lot of what his so great about the guy.

3) 'The Whole of the Moon'

I wouldn't paint Mike Scott as a one hit wonder. However there is no denying he is most famous for one particular song. Still if you absolutely had to be known for only one song you couldn't pick a better one. Truth is first time I heard it I didn't even like it. Now I reckon its probably my favourite song of all time. In no particular order I love the lyrics, the sentiment, the bit where the comet comes 'blazing its trail', the eerie backing vocals, the melody, the trumpet and the multilayered arrangement.

4) The other Waterboys 

Ok Mike Scott is the focal point but he seems to be at his best when he has foils to work off. For many years Antho Thistlethwaite was a key ally playing sax, mandolin and other instruments. Steve Wickham (the fellow with the fiddles) was a big influence in the Fisherman's Blues era and a stalwart of the current live line ups. More recently Richard Naiff all long hair and flailing fingers was the regular piano player. Talents as varied as Edie Reader, Karl Wallinger, Guy Chambers (him who co-wrote 'Angels' with Robbie Williams), Sharon Shannon and Ian Mcnabb have also passed through the ranks

5) The piano playing style.

Although guitar is his weapon of choice, Mike Scott also plays piano. He has a very distinctive style - very choppy and almost na´ve sounding. For me its one of the defining sounds of the Waterboys. The most obvious example (apart from 'The Whole of the Moon') is the song 'Old England' but take a listen to the title track from 'A Pagan Place' and 'The Stolen Child' for other good examples.