Saturday, 17 October 2020


”Close your eyes,
”Breathe slow and we’ll begin”

’This is the Sea’, released in October 1985 is the final, fully realised expression of the early Waterboys sound.” So said Mike Scott, and he should know, being not just the main songwriter but the only constant band member.

Some albums are classic because they’re so mysterious, leaving you feeling compelled to constantly re-engage with them even as you know you’ll never ‘solve’ them. We’ve already had 'Paris 1919’ and ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ in this series, and expect more. But other albums are classic just because they’re so… well, classic.

Everything just combines so naturally, symbols clicking together like Duplo blocks until they form a perfect picture. The imagery in this album is so recurrent from song to song it virtually becomes one long multiform number. It’s a fusion of Romanticism with Jungian psychology, which isn’t particularly smart or novel. But it is heady and potent. I already know every word and note of the album. I don’t go back to try and extract more meaning from it, like re-reading a book that always fascinated you. I go back just to be back there, like revisiting a place you love.

So we can just come out and say what this album is about – it’s about adulthood as apotheosis. Growing up isn’t about getting a driving license or no longer having to lie about your age in pubs, it’s a lesser person being replaced by a greater. (“There’s a man in my head/ And he isn’t me any more.”) No less than three songs were structured around a less/more dichotomy, ’Spirit’, the hit single ’The Whole of the Moon’ and the shimmering title track – with it’s refrain “that was the river, this is the sea.”

While most rock music tries to capture the angst of puberty, this promises you the end of all that. ’Medicine Bow’ is the classic example, in which the world is a tempestuous troublespot for our adventuring hero to stride boldly through. (“I’m gonna stop my squawking, grow some wings.”)

Though I’d heard the album earlier, the time I really got into was after I’d somehow got my way through my degree and had moved into the crumbling grandeur of a mansion-like squat on the edge of town. I’d play this album loud looking out onto the grounds (yes our squat had grounds!) and convince myself the world lay at my feet, I was destined for greatness and not at all the sort of person who would in later life turn to writing obsessive and long-winded blog posts.

Characteristically, I may have been overlooking something. If puberty was about focusing in on your private pain, accentuating the self, this was about embracing the universal. Beating your chest and making your sound, that might sound the very definition of rock ‘n’ roll. But Scott admonishes us: “Not here, man, this is sacred ground.”

Rather than being portrayed as knowing stuff, adulthood is no longer needing to know, being so in tune with the world you can simply act. The younger self is rent by indecision. (“You’ve got a war in your head/ And it’s tearing you up inside.”) Whereas maturity is beyond the need for decision, the antithesis of ego. (“Not to try/ Just let it come/ Don’t bang the drum”). An early lyrics from the title track was “forget all your schooling/ It won’t give you the key.”

And so the sturm und drang of ’Medicine Bow’ with its “pummelling rain, murderous skies”, segues from ’The Pan Within’. Which made it clear travel was as much inner as outer, “a journey under the skin” where “all we gotta do is surrender”. The sea, towards which the whole album draws, is depicted the way it so often was in Romanticism - as the infinite, the horizon-less sublime. Immersing yourself in it rids yourself of separation, draws you back to where you belong.

From the first single, ‘A Girl Called Johnny’, Scott had written character songs. But such things now seemed just the river. ‘Red Army Blues’, from the previous album had told the tale of a young Russian lad in the war. It had proved popular, but he was soon saying he’d be writing nothing more like it. Conversely the track which did most presage ‘This is the Sea’ was ‘The Thrill is Gone’.

With a violin part that doesn’t so much accompany the track as haunt it, it’s an awesome number. But then so was ’Red Army Blues’. Why then, as laid out by, was ‘Thrill is Gone’ played seventeen times live in ‘85 alone, and ’Red Army Blues’ a mere twice? I’ve seen the band play a fair few times. And I think they may have always played ‘Thrill is Gone’ and never ’Red Army Blues’. Why was one orphaned, left behind by the band’s development, and the other so taken up?

’Thrill is Gone’ didn’t stay because of it’s theme (another break-up song) but because it offered no pedestrian reasons for the separation. (There’s no “now you’ve had that office affair” or “if you’re really taking up that transfer to Oldham”.) Instead it just reasserted the essence of the thing in four short words - “the thrill is gone/ And we’ll never get it back.” Emotional states direct our lives, shifting like tectonic plates, the details which seem to count merely surface markers moving with them. A line Scott would often sing live was “it ain’t why, it just is.”

Anything which suggested specifity was now out, snagging us on the real and immediate when we were headed for the bigger picture. It’s not just that the more immediate “you” and “I”s predominated, songs were often directly addressed to the listener. Including both opening and closing track. (The only exception is ‘Old England’, a personified state of the nation. But then that’s probably the least ‘This is the Sea’ track on ‘This is the Sea’.)

Songs took place inside a richly symbolic realm. As I said another time, the album’s set in a “heightened, idealised world – painted broadly so as to be beyond detail. You’re not supposed to be in a place, but the place, which wouldn’t appear on anything so petty as a map.” For Scott was at heart an idealist, not in the sense of naive or deluded, but in imaging there was an ideal state of things which we lay outside of, but which we could at times tap into. (“What spirit is, man can be.”) And music might work as a handy bridge between the realms.

Like every fool before me who tried to capture music with words, I’m focusing on the lyrics here. But like all great music the first thing that makes it work is the music, which would perfectly convey the feel of all this even if you couldn’t follow a word being sung.

Scott had grown up through punk and always retained a sense of punk ethics, but soon went beyond the aesthetics. He’s said he wanted a sound “like sunlight bursting through clouds.” An expansive, exuberant sound which came to be called the Big Music, after the title of an earlier single. Which made for a great contrast to earlier post-punk years, where music had been deliberately grey and austere, keen to deconstruct concepts and dispel romanticised notions. Perhaps most pointedly in the Magazine lyric “I couldn’t act naturally if I wanted to”. Now, to quote that earlier single, “everything came into colour”.

Scott brought back nature imagery in abundance – not just sunlight bursting through clouds but fullmoons, mighty seas, black winds blowing across those murderous skies. He became in his own words full of “the conviction that music can evoke landscape and the elements.” After seeing the band at Glastonbury, in the midst of the verdant sweep of the land, I can attest that was the perfect setting for them.

Interviewed the previous year Scott had said he didn’t see his music as “a product of the times in which we live”. Yet expansiveness and universalism, going beyond time, suddenly that seemed timely again. Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ was released the same year. And the story that ’Whole of the Moon’ was a hit at early raves, however bizarre, does seem to be true.

And yet I’d been a huge fan of post-punk, from first to last. Whereas in the main I found this newly enbiggined music risible, ostentatious dreck, full of stadium gestures, the soundtrack to the oversized hair and jackets seven sizes too large which filled Eighties fashion, all of it ludicrous even at the time. ‘Bigness’ was presented as if it had a value in itself, as if printing money on larger notes made you richer. So what made the Waterboys such a different order of things to Simple Minds and Big Country, and all those self-proclaiming no-hopers?

One answer is better influences. Scott always said the Velvet Underground were a prime influence, with the band even named after a Lou Reed lyric. But with this album he added to the mix Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’, channelling it to the point where he covered ‘Sweet Thing’ - later included on the later expanded CD. (And in the spirit of full disclosure I’ve already listed ‘Astral Week’s as one of my favourite albums here, and should this series ever get that far it will doubtless also include the VU.)

And what he was able to take from Morrison was his sense of spontaneity, that all this was happening in the moment, with him in the midst of some epiphany that had struck him just now and was compelling him to sing. ‘Astral Weeks’ may best be defined by the trapeze instructor in the film ’Wings of Desire’ who insists “not with force, with a swing.” It doesn’t just sound organic, it makes almost all other music sound factory farmed. Scott called it “luminous and gossamar-light”, not anything anyone’s said about Simple Minds.

And there were more functional, more autobiographical reasons. In a Quietus interview Scott confessed he’d been suffering from the dreaded ‘third album syndrome’. For the first time writing for release, “I suddenly grew self-conscious”, something he fought by “doing what the music told me to do.” It’s reminiscent of the famous Captain Beefheart line: “You couldn’t have done this if you knew what you were doing.” Being in the moment was something he was then keen to build up in himself, his songs a kind of self-cure. He was summoning the slow train for himself to jump on, as much as you and me.

And if this album was “the final, fully realised expression” then from this point that big music wasn’t going to get any bigger. In fact Scott knew not to try. He compared recording it to climbing a mountain, then being immediately transfixed by sights the peak view it revealed. The chief sight being… well, a story for another time...

For those who like to know such things, otherwise unattributed quotes from the 2004 expanded edition of the album. And for the two or three of you who don’t already know ‘Whole of the Moon’. Because for once the hit single really is a good introduction...

...and should there be anyone who hasn’t enough of this sort of thing yet, I’ve written about three Waterboys gigs, the tour for ‘Appointment With Mr Yeats’, the anniversary of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and the more recent ‘Modern Blues’.


  1. Thank've taken an album that I already loved and helped me to better understand why. That's pretty cool.