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The Waterboys

+ {Mike Scott} + {Another Pretty Face}

One wonders whether mercurial leader Mike Scott knew himself what direction or where he’d take The WATERBOYS, when the band surfaced from their London hideaway in 1983 – the fact they subsequently veered away from a U2/VAN MORRISON-type alt-rock on their eponymous opening salvo was down to Scott and his ever-evolving band of merry folk types.
Edinburgh-born college punk Mike Scott had previously fronted new wave outfit ANOTHER PRETTY FACE, a turn-of-the-80s singles outfit that boasted Ayrshire school friends John Caldwell and Jim Geddes (among others); another embryonic WATERBOYS took off briefly as Funhouse.
Taking their name from a track (`The Bed’) from LOU REED’s sleaze-noir masterpiece LP `Berlin’, Scotsman Mike (vocals, guitar and piano), English multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thistlethwaite and Welsh keyboard-player Karl Wallinger were all aboard when the trio secured a deal with Irish-run outlet Ensign Records. Following the release of a self-financed debut single in spring ‘83, entitled `A Girl Called Johnny’ (a tribute to punk priestess PATTI SMITH, no less), the track received a fair amount of airplay and a song that deserved better success.
An eponymous debut album THE WATERBOYS (1983) {*7} followed later that summer, an esoteric set of avant-rock “big music” which drew comparisons with TIM BUCKLEY’s more ambitious meanderings and introduced Scott as a promising singing/songwriting seer; opener `December’, The PSYCHEDELIC FURS-like `I Will Not Follow’, the TOM VERLAINE-esque `The Girl In The Swing’ and the aforementioned `A Girl Called Johnny’ probably steal the show.
Embellished by additional instrumentation such as horns and violin (trumpeter Roddy Lorimer was now a recruit), A PAGAN PLACE (1984) {*6} was a confident follow-up, Scott venturing ever further out on his spiritual journey with the likes of `The Big Music’ and `Church Not Made With Hands’; their VAN MORRISON/Celtic-rock sound was beginning to take shape a little via `The Thrill Is Gone’ and the title track finale.
A burgeoning live reputation and gushing critical praise saw The WATERBOYS’ third set THIS IS THE SEA (1985) {*8} break into the UK Top 40, its centrepiece epic `The Whole Of The Moon’ becoming the group’s first Top 30 single. Melodious and multi-layered, the glorious set was mooted by critics and newfound fans alike who swooned over gems such as `Don’t Bang The Drum’, `Old England’, `The Pan Within’ and the closing title piece. Despite this overdue success, Wallinger subsequently departed to form his own outfit, The WORLD PARTY.
Relocating to Galway in Ireland for an extended sabbatical at the behest of new fiddler, Steve Wickham (from IN TUA NUA who’d played on the previous set), Scott and Thistlethwaite increasingly infused their music with traditional Irish folk influences. It was an earthier WATERBOYS, then, who eventually emerged in late ‘88 with the acclaimed FISHERMAN’S BLUES {*8}, Scott seemingly having at last found his true musical calling. From the strident Celtic clarion call of the title track to the soulful cover of Van Mo’s `Sweet Thing’, the record sounded as if the group had been playing this music for centuries, especially on trad cue `When Will We Be Married?’ and Wickham’s short contribution `Dunford’s Fancy’. The transitional record almost made the UK Top 10 and established The WATERBOYS as a major league act and which remains their biggest seller; also check out `And A Bang On The Ear’ and `The Stolen Child’.
Falkirk-born flute-player Colin Blakey (ex-WE FREE KINGS), plus Irish folks Sharon Shannon (on accordion) and Noel Bridgeman (drums; who replaced J.D. Doherty) stayed on for ROOM TO ROAM (1990) {*7}, which continued in the same Celtic-folk vein much to the annoyance of their original “big music” fanbase. While The POGUES would’ve loved to have tackled `The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ in their own inimitable toothless affray, here Mike Scott gets the Andy Stewart treatment, a ditty overshadowed by the soulful `Something That Is Gone’ and the lilting `A Man Is In Love’.
Bang on cue Ensign/Chrysalis re-promoted `The Whole Of The Moon’ to catch both sets of fans, the result being Top 3 status, while the track was being played to death by radio all over again. By this point, however, the original WATERBOYS line-up had splintered following a final UK tour (wherein the group drew criticism for their return to an all-out rock sound), Thistlethwaite forming the Blue Stars while Scott eventually moved to New York and gathered together a new group of musicians.
Now signed to Geffen Records, he recorded DREAM HARDER (1993) {*5}, the sixth WATERBOYS album but a Scott solo set in all but name, featuring as it did session players. Exploring many familiar themes, the cosmic Celtic album spawned two Top 30 singles in `The Return Of Pan’ and `Glastonbury Song’, the record even boasting a brief contribution (on `Spiritual City’) from Caledonian comedy legend BILLY CONNOLLY. Despite critical lambast it wasn’t as bad as many pundits made out – it was just everso out of place.
MIKE SCOTT duly returned to Scotland and went something akin to AL STEWART, delivering two solo albums BRING ‘EM ALL IN (1995) {*6} and STILL BURNING (1997) {*7}, the latter a restoration of his “big music” days and not necessary folk-rock flavour of the era.
The WATERBOYS had been out of action nigh-on seven years, but A ROCK IN THE WEARY LAND (1999) {*6}, put this to rights. Fusing psychedelia, folk-rock and pop, the album was a lacklustre attempt to break back into the mainstream, although it did have its moments. Scott harboured the current trend of rock’n’roll nihilism on opening track `Let It Happen’, while the finale `Crown’ remained quietly poignant. It’s easy to see why Scott still carries on despite critical disapproval from some of the press. He at least enjoys what he does as do his dedicated fanbase who’ll never forget what the man and his group have achieved. An odds ’n’ sods collection of out-takes and unreleased material from the band’s early days, TOO CLOSE TO HEAVEN (2001) {*6} was a fascinating document of Mike Scott’s genesis from punk beat poet to fledgling folk mystic.
Named after a theatre run by Scotland’s very own Findhorn Foundation (which remains very much a place of inspiration for Scott), UNIVERSAL HALL (2003) {*5} was markedly different from its predecessor. Heavily accented with spiritual and religious concerns, albeit not in the dogmatic fashion that such themes can be in lesser hands, the record was closest in spirit –
if not exactly in feel – to VAN MORRISON’s (an obvious comparison but one which continues to be relevant) latter day quasi-religious searching. The following few years saw the WATERBOYS tour all around Britain, a live document of this KARMA TO BURN (2005) {*6}, was Scott and Co’s first official concert set; two renditions appeared: Rodney Crowell’s `A Song For Life’ and the Bryant-Felice nugget `Come Live With Me’; other covers to check out on various compilations include `Cathy’ (NIKKI SUDDEN), `Lost Highway’ (HANK WILLIAMS), `Death Is Not The End’ (BOB DYLAN), `Wayward Wind’ (Lebawsky-Newman), `Because The Night’ (SPRINGSTEEN), `Purple Rain’ (PRINCE) and `All Things Must Pass’ (GEORGE HARRISON).
Re-enlisting old chums such as Thistlethwaite, Lorimer, Wickham and JULIAN COPE conspirator Thighpaulsandra, Scott re-ignited The WATERBOYS for one last stab at the full Celtic “big music” rock’n’folk sound by way of BOOK OF LIGHTNING (2007) {*6} – not the place to start if you’re looking for a great WATERBOYS set, but it had its moments through `Crash Of Angel’s Wings’, the BEATLES-esque `Nobody’s Baby Anymore’ and Fisherman-friendly, `Everybody Takes A Tumble’.
Subsequently drawing from a certain Irish poet for inspiration and words/lyrics, 2011’s AN APPOINTMENT WITH MR YEATS {*7}, Mike Scott, Wickham and a fresh team of conspirators (including James Hallawell on keyboards and producer Marc Arciero on bass) left no stone unturned as they ploughed through adaptations of `The Hosting Of The Shee’, `Song Of Wandering Aengus’, `Let The Earth Bear Witness’, etc.
Decamping to Nashville via Dublin, The WATERBOYS (with session players “Brother” Paul Brown on keys and David Hood on bass) fired up their search for the big music in MODERN BLUES (2015) {*8}. Characterised by some fine flourishes of musicianship and dustbowl wordage that would’ve made the ghost of Dean Moriarty blush, Scott, Wickham and Co excelled virtually throughout the Top 20 set. But for the slight embarrassment of `The Girl Who Slept For Scotland’, Scott waxed lyrical on `November Tale’ (think MORRISON-meets-KNOPFLER), `I Can See Elvis’, `Rosalind (You Married The Wrong Guy)’ and the cool `Nearest Thing To Be Hip’. A slow-burner in every respect, Scott pulled out the Jack from the pack on the SPRINGSTEEN/DYLAN-esque 10-minute closer `Long Strange Golden Road’.
© MC Strong 1994-2011/GRD-GFD2 // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Jan2015

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