Mike Scott and the Waterboys

Have you heard the Big Music? You probably already have. Its the music seemingly heard everywhere now, but not quite. Larger than life, its music that aims for the most tired of tropes: the epic song. It does so, be it by layering gigantic amounts of instruments and production tricks, or by signaling every lyric coming out as if it came down from the heavens itself. I won’t name names but certain bands are mining volume to manipulate a certain feeling out of songs that are truly flawed in execution, and when these same songs are washed away from all sorts of bombast propping them up, have thin facades, that without any of this artifice, would lodge them firmly in the cut out of bin of musical history.

That was the river…

Today, we hear music aiming to be a spirited feeling, completely missing the point of it all. This is not the music of Mike Scott’s The Waterboys, what you’ll hear is music displaying a certain euphoria for the world as it is, and transmitting this feeling the only way he knew how, with music as astonishing as the world around him. Affirming rather than proclaiming, this would forever be different.

Mike Scott – early 80s.

Recorded in the spring of 1984, and released in 1985, This is the Sea, was the culmination of an expression Mike Scott had been exploring prior to its creation. From the onset of the bands creation, he had been running away from a certain standard going around. Influenced by musicians like Van Morrison, Dylan, Lou Reed, and poets like W.B. Yeats, Robert Burns, among countless others, circumstance, one living in Edinburgh made him join a punk band called Funhouse to dip his toes in rock music. Trying to run counter to the middle class lifestyle that prevailed around him forced his hand in doing so. The problem, as other punk artists would discover, is that replacing one conformist system with another did a fat lot of good to no one. Too learned and moved by less distorted ideals, his more open-hearted ideas needed a different outlet.

Recording some demos using only a drum machine, a piano, and an acoustic guitar he started to form the basis for the Waterboys sound and would be that one got him signed as a solo act. Self-taught, he’d realize that while one guitar sounded good, something interesting sounded when he panned it to the side, and recorded another on the other. An absorbing panoramic harmonizing sound was starting to shape itself. If he was going to tackle subjects that his favorite poets had flirted with before, he had to have sonics that matched such vivid lyricism. Recruiting members from other bands (drummers, saxophonists, organists, guitarists) to flesh out these demo tracks as presented in his self-titled debut brought in realization this unique vision.

Singing with the full-throated vocals a young Bono lusted for, he’d belt out musical sparklers like in “December” or “Where Are You Now When I Need You” with so much gusto over comparably spartan arrangements desperately trying to match his delivery. You can sense the power of his ideas, but the music itself was unrelenting in gloomy restraint, almost as if trying to make up for the lack of instrumental volume and clarity with aimless sonics.

1984’s A Pagan Place, started his ascend to the mountaintop. Far less introspective, and striving for reflection of his role in the bigger picture, Mike Scott released a placeholder for what was coming. Its debut single “The Big Music” signalled the beginning. Trying to connect with the audience, rather than drown them in an atmosphere of sorrow, he invited them into his vision of uplift. Where once a nation of youth, much like him, dove into nihilism, anger, and more, he wanted to feel what the Beatles felt when they wrote “Eleanor Rigby” or Van Morrison felt the stirring of “Madame George”. This big music, the one that was so pure in its creation, the one that called out to his memory, needed to be met with the same fervor, in the lyrics Mike quoting Yeats states: “I just stuck my hand up in the air/And everything came into color/Like Jazz Manna from sweet chariots”. He could have followed the path of like-minded musicians like U2, who used texture to match Bono’s larger than life proclamations, but he needed to provide that inspiration his own greats had to shone on him, and all of these had feet firmly placed in creating not aggrandizing.

Over a massive rhythm set by a piano, bass and drum pattern, Mike passionately delivers a heart-stirring recollection of how music makes him feel, all to the strains of a roaring horn section that’s less “Wall of Sound” and more “Engulfing Sound”. This new music letting him connect with the sacredness of the world by meeting it wholly on its terms. Searching for some kind of holistic knowledge beyond the spiritual, the final song of the album “A Pagan Place” a probing majestic Scottish folk song proclaiming the importance of maintaining a certain open Pantheism in the face of imposing structured beliefs, lets you in that on this album Mike’s still dreaming of what it must be to get to this exalted musical place. Its no longer about showing a spirited feeling but communicating how it feels.

This is the Sea album cover.
This is the Sea back cover.

1985’s This is the Sea communicates entirely with you how it feels. Setting the tone for the whole album, the first track he wrote for it was “Trumpets”. Displaying how love feels to him, specifically the love for unnamed other, the clarity of production where counterpoint pianos, guitars, and the trumpet themselves express communally the shaking feeling true love makes us feel, is simply startling. Rather than just proclaim the feeling, he found a way to shake it loose.

For a year in 1984, after buying two huge blank hardcover books, he’d fill them out with lyrics, dreams, artwork, manifestos, and poems that were filling his spirit over how the new album must be made. Outside musical influences were the works of the Velvet Underground (specifically their ethos of content over technical proficiency), Van Morrison (the vision of Astral Weeks with the totemic song of “Sweet Thing” and its iconic atmosphere and enveloping rhythm), and Steve Reich (his beautiful long sustaining brass chords, or short burst of melodic bursts). Sophisticated but organic, it ran counter to the growing arena-rock of the day, presenting power through gentleness.

Rightfully, opening the album with “Don’t Bang the Drum” an ode to not just settling for the status quo but stamping your own mark, Mike’s fervently speaks to everyone who grows to complacent in their space. Guitars bang where before they would have wallowed, drums and horns swing to Mike’s mantra of doing something for the world you live in. “The Whole of the Moon”, the magnificent and rightfully successful single from the album, is the starry eyed relation of why he believes in this. A paean to inspiration, his own personally, he relates how the people he looks up to wouldn’t see the crescent, but the whole of the moon, how he’d picture a rainbow and they would hold it in their arms. It’s not a song slagging his viewpoint but one affirming the need for more imagination, and less self-reflection.

“The Whole of the Moon” single.

These nine simply spectacular, timeless songs, culled from over thirty Mike had written, were driven by this intuition. Even at its most biting, as in “Old England” or “Be My Enemy“, true modern protest folk songs, there’s a belief in humanity being able to unshackle themselves from certain chains holding them back and finding ways to realize its potential. True freedom, from the worst of the past, and that includes its music that served that purpose, requires a realization that all the pains of growing up will illuminate some peace that comes with owning your age and wising up.

…and this is the sea

William Strutt – Peace

This is what makes the final track, a true masterpiece of music “This is the Sea”, far and away its monument to this feeling. Its something hinted at in a portrait found on the inside of the album. This portrait of William Strutt’s “Peace”, which shows a child leading all sorts of beasts into paradise (itself inspired by a Bible passage: Isaiah 11:6) was what he saw on the mantle of a friend of his. So touched, by the feeling behind this portrait, how brutality in the end will submit to gentleness, Mike chose it to be the image inside the album. The affirmation of this idea would be in the words and music of “This is the Sea”.

For once, dropping the veneer of speaking about some other or himself, Mike starts singing about you. Using Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” as its soul driver, you start hearing all these poignant exaltations of the importance of moving beyond your past. Though you may have been this person, you may be experiencing pain now, and you may have had some memory or a key that provided comfort before but doesn’t anymore, don’t cease going forward, all these things shall pass, what you have to live for is in the future…that’s the vast expanse that all this river is leading you to. The music itself all 6:30 minutes of it, filling itself with a chorus of acoustic guitars, ebbing and flowing like a winding river, rolling Mike’s increasingly zealous vocals into the shores of those swelling and lapping strings, all positively beaming with the finality of a true epic. My favorite piece of its brilliance is the last minute or so. When you’re ready to be subsumed by its winding sonics, once you get beyond that river, and as you near the delta, Mike whispers faintly to “Behold the sea”. For those final, peaceful thirty seconds, can you feel the power of the big music?


If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream/Where immobile steel rims crack/And the ditch in the back roads stop/Could you find me?/Would you kiss-a my eyes?/To lay me down/
In silence easy
To be born again

Listen to:

A Pagan Place (1984)
– **This is the Sea (1985)** at Spotify.

Bonus track, check out this Pinterest board for additional videos and images from “The Big Music” era of the Waterboys. My favorite (although not from the era) is their cover of “Purple Rain”:

Follow Jesus Olivas’s board The Waterboys building the Big Music. on Pinterest.