30th Anniversary of The Waterboys: This is the Sea

by JoHarrington

We've been listening to 'The Whole of the Moon' for three decades! It's on 'This is the Sea', the album which propelled Mike Scott and co. into the public eye.

There is something downright Shamanic about The Waterboys album 'This is the Sea'. Multi-layered music and lyrics alike, which dare you to touch the wild reserves and let the magic flow through.

It was incongruous at the time too. Released at the zenith of Thatcher's Britain - right at the mid-point of her tenancy - those who initially heard it were entrenched in grim reality.

Capitalism was the new religion, and the Miners' Strike was in full swing. Out in the Beanfield, free spirits were being brutally beaten by uniformed officers; their homes smashed too. The rest of Britain was being encouraged into fervent patriotism by the media, buoyed on the distracting triumph of the Falklands War.

And here was Mike Scott singing about 'unicorns and cannonballs, palaces and piers'.

There was a raw Earth energy in those songs; a sacred shot in the arm for embittered Britain. I like to think that the magic won out in the end, and that everyone looked at least once for the whole of the moon.

That was the River: The Nerves of Mike Scott

We nearly didn't get 'This is the Sea'. Mike had bottled it, convinced that he couldn't compose to the level that everyone - especially himself - anticipated. Magic happened.

It seems bizarre now to imagine there was ever a time when The Waterboys weren't well known, and no-one had yet joined in a hearty sing-along to 'The Whole of the Moon'.

This is the Sea brought their first chart entry, and gave us their most classic tune too.

That fame beckoned came as no surprise to those already in the know. The time was right.

Two previous albums (The Waterboys and A Pagan Place) had achieved moderate success, without ever breaking into the mass public eye, but one more should just about do it.

Plus, everybody agreed, Mike Scott's song-writing was getting better and better. He was seeking for and nearly finding The Big Music. The next album would tip his talent right over the edge into greatness. All the promise of the first two albums was pointing towards it. The next would be the climatic finale of the trilogy.

The Waterboys could be big. As internationally in demand as U2 or Simple Minds; as domestically adored as The Smiths. All it would take was for Mike Scott to follow his muse.

Which was great, as long as you could just sit back and wait to hear This is the Sea when it was released. It wasn't so fabulous if you actually were Mike Scott, and you had to write the damn thing.

Until everyone was watching, waiting and expecting pure genius, the Edinburgh based singer-songwriter could pull 'jazz manna' from the air. Now all he was getting was wisps of fog off the Leith. Panic was beginning to set in. A change of scenery was clearly required.

First Two Albums in The Waterboys' Big Music Trilogy

The Waterboys

Digitally remastered edition of The Waterboys' debut album, with seven tracks that were previously unavailable. Includes 'A Girl Called Johnny' and 'I Will Not Follow'.

View on Amazon

A Pagan Place

Digitally remastered reissue of The Waterboys' classic rock album, with six bonus tracks. Includes 'The Thrill is Gone', 'Church Not Made with Hands' and 'The Big Music'.

View on Amazon

It turned out that New York City was in the world too. As Mike wandered through a bitterly cold January day, skies darkened with 'torpedo winds', he finally faced facts.

It was the pressure stifling his creative spirit. He couldn't do it because he had to do it. He'd lost it. He used to be brilliant, now he just had 'war in (his) head, tearing (him) up inside'.

Nor was it only the fans and record company executives back home. The main pressure was coming from Mike himself. He had a vision of what he wanted this album to be. He could almost touch The Big Music. He just didn't know if he had it in him anymore to pin that into melodies. He'd lost it.

Now he just had to let it go.

The decision made, Mike wandered on saddened but feeling somewhat unburdened. He'd trust to spirit, and if that failed, then he'd reached the end of the line. Something else would happen, but it wouldn't involve world stardom with The Waterboys.

Somewhere along the way, he'd been so wrapped up in his soul-searching that he'd wandered away from the main avenues. Before he'd only been mentally lost, now he could add physically too.

He was in a New York backstreet, all grimy and unassuming, with no-one in view. Halfway down, he passed a bizarre shop window and paused his musings in order to investigate. It turned out to be a witches' shop, full of potions and all manner of things for which he couldn't easily guess a use.

On a shelf near the back, he found a Book of Shadows. It was massive, enigmatic, bound in a jet black cover. He picked it up, feeling his way through its mysteries. The pages inside were blank, but it practically buzzed in his hand. Feeling compelled to keep it, Mike Scott paid the shop-keeper and stepped back into that stormy day.

That Book of Shadows became his notebook for This is the Sea. The ideas flooded into his mind, just as soon as it was in his hands. We only ever got a fragment of them. In the days and weeks that followed, Mike Scott scribbled down the poetry, chords and arrangements for over fifty songs.

The issue then was only to return to Britain and whittle them down into those most able to carry his Big Music. That had been just the river. This was the Sea.

This is the Sea by The Waterboys

Released on September 16th 1985, it was the album which brought fame for The Waterboys, and a special place for everybody else.

The Musical Arrangements on This is the Sea

By all accounts, there's much going on with this album that's quite clever in terms of notes, orchestration and other stuff that's happening musically.

The poetry of the lyrics is only part of the esteem in which This is the Sea is held. However, stories, metaphor, meter and the words used are where my expertize lies.

I couldn't begin to comment upon the instrumentation behind it. 

In many ways, that's a great shame, as Mike Scott sought to recreate the Big Music here. My lack of lingering upon it is akin to someone telling you the story of daytime without mentioning the sun.

Hopefully one of my more musically learned colleagues here at Wizzley will fill the deficit with an article of their own. Then I can link to it here.

It seems a little incongruous to lead you through the song meanings behind This is the Sea's tracks. Though that's what I intend to do.

After thirty years of listening to it, most people have several layers of meaning already piled onto every lyric and tune. Plus it's the finale in the Big Music trilogy.  That was all about finding a perspective of your own, not just following the grooves laid out to keep you in line, but running wild and free in the loving embrace of a sacred landscape.

In that regard, the best response to my telling you the meaning is to laugh and say, 'Nope, it's not about that at all.'  That's what those who've really listened to, and understood, This is the Sea would say, though perhaps with a twinkle in their eye which adds, 'I know.'

I've scoured books, biographies and interviews over the decades to produce my best rendering of what Mike Scott actually meant to say, before we all took him at his word and heard our own kind of music.

In A Special Place by The Waterboys

This album was released in 2011. It contains a selection of the demos for 'This is the Sea'. Musicians are loving it, as it shows how Mike Scott developed the sound.

The Waterboys: Don't Bang the Drum

The organ master winds up the monkey, and it bangs away at its drum as an unthinking, unfeeling automaton. A lot like society reading the papers really.

I've been listening to this album for three decades, and it took until researching this article to grasp what those opening lines were telling me.

It's an introduction - Mike Scott welcoming us into his 'special place', i.e. his album.

The clues are there. These are the opening lines after all, which in another context might be, 'Hello! Come on in, would you like a cup of tea?'

The Waterboys are about to take us on a journey along a river, learning what it takes to behold the sea. That's what I meant by it being a Shamanic experience.

All these years, I've been picturing Glastonbury Tor, the Black Mountains, the Scottish Highlands, or wherever else I happened to be playing the album at the time, finding 'a special place' with my eyes not my ears.

Well here we are in a special place
What are you gonna do here?
Now we stand in a special place
What will you do here?
What show of soul are we gonna get from you?
It could be deliverance, or history
Under these skies so blue
Could be something true
But if I know you you'll bang the drum
Like monkeys do...

~ Don't Bang the Drum

I've loved each tune individually, singing along at the top of my lungs, filled with all the spirit I can muster, without once noticing that they were meant to be a package. A full story. The whole of the moon.

And here was me thinking that I never banged the drums like monkeys do.

'Don't Bang the Drum' is Mike Scott's welcome and introduction to the tour. It's a wry challenge for us to suspend all constraints and let our souls shine free instead. We are informed 'that this is sacred ground with a Power flowing through' and we're not to ignore it. It's personal. Our own ancestors are watching from a mystical shore willing us to grasp this moment, will we take it?

I really can't believe I missed that. I was too lost in the majesty of the Twmpa; drunk on the energies and the history flying about me, filling me, in this place where my great-grandmother left for my home city. Bigger than me, yet grasped in heart and soul.

Which meant I missed the call to hear the Big Music. Ooops.

Don't Bang the Drum by The Waterboys

The Waterboys: The Whole of the Moon

Without a doubt the best known Waterboys song ever. I'm going to tell you the original meaning of 'The Whole of the Moon', but it's gained several billion more since.

... I was grounded
While you filled the skies
I was dumbfounded by truth
You cut through lies
I saw the rain dirty valley
You saw Brigadoon
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon...

~ The Whole of the Moon

Apparently a female friend in New York - having heard Mike's tale of the wondrous witch shop and his newly acquired blank Book of Shadows - incredulously commented, "So you can just write a great song, just like that now?"

His honor impugned and desperately wanting to impress her anyway for baser reasons, Mike promptly wrote 'The Whole of the Moon'. There in the street, famously on the back of a cigarette packet (though more recent interviews change that to 'an envelope' or 'a scrap of paper') because he didn't have his book on him.

Challenge accepted and utterly owned.

I should imagine that half of the world by now has their own song meaning for 'The Whole of the Moon'. Probably two apiece, one for public consumption and another dual-sided one to flip constantly in private. That latter will alternately have us all secretly cast as the person who could fly that high, then fretting that we're instead the one watching from the sidelines.

Look away now if you never want to learn what Mike was thinking, as he wrote his frenzied words on that cigarette packet. Some songs are too precious to touch with truths.

If 'Don't Bang the Drum' dared us to seek out something bigger than going with the flow, then The Whole of the Moon sets out the standards to which we may aspire. It's the promise implicit in allowing the Big Music to take us, if you will. The picture perfect brochure for spirituality.

Over the decades, several names have been framed as the subject of 'The Whole of the Moon'. But it was never one person. Mike raced through his heroes and heroines, discerning what he finds so wonderful, so brilliantly magical about them all.

They cover such luminaries as C.S.Lewis, William Blake, his best mate at the time, and Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame (a local lad already enjoying his fame). Mike Scott is telling them that, at that moment, when they did that thing, they saw the bigger picture - the whole of the moon - not just the crescent, which is the lot of just about all of us every single day.

Now all we have to do is follow those far seeing ones, at the instant of their enlightenment, and we'll get our moments in the moonlight too.

There's an App for That!

Thirty years on, we can download a free Android app. to see The Whole of the Moon. Lots of info., plus the current moon phases. What? Did I miss something? *smirk*

The Waterboys: Spirit

How to crawl and fly, dream and be, live and die simultaneously. A poetical interlude for those who ever thought reality existed in only one place.

For those who just leaped around to 'The Whole of the Moon' without taking its points on board, 'Spirit' follows with the succinct version.

These deceptively simple lines outline the 'rules' (if such a label can be fixed onto a journey into the wild mental and spiritual terrain of the Big Music) of engagement. 

  1. We have man and we have spirit.
  2. They are the same substance.
  3. We focus too much on the tethered former, but now it's time to explore the free other.
  4. So just do it.

... Man seems
Spirit is
Man dreams
The spirit lives
Man is tethered
Spirit is free
What spirit is man can be.

~ Spirit

Seen from the clarifying perspective of 'Spirit', 'The Whole of the Moon' now becomes one person talking to themselves from the flip side of their psyche.

Every couplet could fuel a philosophy seminar, religious congregation or quiet meditation with something profound to contemplate. With the pay-off being around the point that you notice the assumed roles are flipped.

Man only 'seems' - dude's not particularly real. It's spirit that's alive. In fact, 'man' died about halfway through, at the end of the first verse. So who or what is now dreaming?  And what is this spirit that now lives? And given such circumstances, why aren't we shuddering at the notion of man becoming untethered and being what spirit now is?

In short, it's the Mysteries of Mike Scott's mystical journey that are laid out here. Enjoy the meditation.

Pan - A God Who Lives and Breathes the Big Music

In 'This is the Sea', Mike Scott deliberately draws upon a whole range of spiritual traditions and deities. Huxley's Perennial Divine influenced that.

The Waterboys: The Pan Within

Remember me saying that Mike Scott was panicking about this album? Since when has giving in to Pan-ic ever been a bad thing for those on a quest for the Big Music?

... The wind is delicious
Sweet and wild with the promise of pleasure
The stars are alive
And nights like these
Were born to be
Sanctified by you and me...

~ The Pan Within

I've been in a lot of discussions, or read reviews, over the years, which cite 'The Pan Within' as an albeit glorious low point on an otherwise perfect album.

The problem, insofar as I've understood it, is that Mike's mixing metaphors and the central message has become a little too chaotic.

In a song referencing Pan. Ok.

So far, we have been welcomed to 'a special place', and issued with an invitation to embark upon a journey through the Big Music. We were especially asked not to cocoon ourselves in safe familiarities, banging drums, just because we were raised not to do otherwise.

We've had the delights spelled out for us, in fantastical exultation and simple stanzas alike. We cast off on our adventure ages ago, but this is the first moment when it becomes apparent.

'The Pan Within' begins as a meditation. We're going 'beneath the skin' and, like most meditations, the way there is to 'close your eyes', then 'breathe slow'.  All very calm, perhaps a little too much so, when it's Pan - God of the Wild Places - who is being sought.

But then Mike starts singing about hips swinging; promise of pleasure; an implied couple ('you and I') sanctifying a night; and suddenly all that 'beneath skin stuff' starts to look like an invitation to indulge in a quickie under the stars. Call it tantric sex, if you still want to pretend this is mystical.

I suppose it could be. Pan isn't exactly known for His celibacy, and sex is one way to lose yourself in the Big Music.

Yet I do wonder where the partner suddenly came from, and if the dual being emphasized in 'Spirit' has wandered off to watch the stars, while you're busy finishing up here? And if those banging the drum for sudden sex here - thus the mixed metaphor and losing the plot scenario - have never noticed that Pan is also a dualistic being?

Half wild and bestial, half civilized and human. He's the link between humanity and the Wild in a single form; a bridge with part of His nature equally at home in both camps.

Accessing the Pan inside us all is a good way to cross into a new perspective ourselves. Peering out upon the world with untamed eyes, freeing ourselves from our self-imposed (or socially imposed) shackles. Becoming untethered, free, seeing Brigadoon, all without stumbling over a single mixed metaphor.

(And Ian, I don't know if you'll ever read this. But if you do, here's a knowing wink across time and cyberspace, in memory of an old, wild night sanctified by you and I, and the Pan (mostly) within - in which neither of us felt the need to consolidate our journey with sex - when magic happened. What Mike Scott meant by these tunes will never be a patch upon what they came to mean on a personal level to so many. A million different stories and associations, laid out across the globe, by those for whom this album was a soundtrack to lives lived, and moments when we were truly alive.)

The Pan Within by The Waterboys

I could have opted for a nice, polished studio version, but have one in the wild instead. Note the way that the violin goes freely off, like it's playing a different tune throughout.

The Waterboys: Medicine Bow

Not Medicine Bow, the town in Wyoming, USA. Mike Scott had to disappoint residents there amongst his fans, when that misunderstanding occurred.

In the song, Medicine Bow is a place - though Mike thought he'd made the name up - but it's also a metaphor.

A bow is a tool for expelling a missile at great speed across a tremendous distance. Medicine is a word/concept of the First Native people meaning 'spiritual power'.

That initially rather sedate exploration to find Pan has resulted in a rude awakening.

The ecstatic passion of 'Medicine Bow' is the natural trajectory thereon. Blazing a trail, so awash with the urgency and wonder of it all, that our questing wanderer is planning to use a tempest to propel a sail-boat. Coming?

The drum bangers amongst us would miss out on the adventure, and the speeds in hyper-drive towards the end of the river.

... I'm gonna change my colors
Cancel my things
Stop my squawkin'
Grow some wings!
Well I will not sleep
And I will not rest
I will put my soul
And my will to the test
I'm gonna tug at my tether
I'm gonna tear on my lead
I'm gonna test my knowledge
In the field of deeds...

~ Medicine Bow

They'd be too busy sheltering from the 'murderous skies' and 'pummelin' rain', not to mention the 'drivin' snow'.  Or they'd quibble about burning all the stuff that they'd hitherto created. Shackled by their past and cowed by their present, there would be no mad dash, harnessing the destructive power of nature to achieve such spiritual distance. There would be no wing growing here.

Mike's already said that they can bring a scarf to cover their throats, so they don't catch cold. That's what he's done and now it's time to embrace the wild fury of nature, and ride it like an arrow of Medicine released by a longbow.

You can sail with him, if you like.

A Native American Medicine Bow...

... doesn't exist. But if it did, it would probably look something like Antler Medicine Stick. Created by the Tigua, it's used for prayer, healing and medicine.

The Waterboys: Old England

A swan song for Thatcher's Britain. This section is very in-depth, but the themes analyzed here cast ripples in both directions. Plus it's where most of us reside.

... he sticks his flag where it ill belongs
Old England is dying!

You're asking what makes me sigh now
What it is makes me shudder so well
I just freeze in the wind and I'm
Numb from the pummelin' of the snow
That falls from high in yellow skies
Down on where the well loved flag of England flies...

~ Old England

So where has that mad, ecstatic ride through the mists and snow taken us? Somewhere fabulous? Avalon? Tír na nÓg? Oz?

Nope. Thatcher's Britain.

Bit of a comedown then. Disappointing.

But we never were on that sail boat to be fleeing from reality. What's the point of that?  Anyone can hear the Big Music when the adrenaline is pumping in the midst of a wild ride. How about here, with the yuppies, Strikes and Falklands War? Gotcha!

Mike Scott is from Edinburgh. He's Scottish. He's also quoting Irish writers quite heavily in this song.

Align that with the fact that this track is called 'Old England', not 'Old Britain', nor even 'Old United Kingdom', and we'd be forgiven for wondering if there's a Celtic slap-down of the Anglo-Saxon majority concealed somewhere in the poetry. There's not.

I actually think it's a coincidence that the quotations both come from Irish literary giants. They were simply two writers with handy quotations which suited Mike Scott's unfolding narrative at this point on this album.

Nor do the lyrics of Mike Scott express any particular animosity towards England elsewhere. In fact, 'Islandman' claims England for a divine body's landmass! Even here, England is viewed with fondness. The song is a genuine lament for its loss.

Apparently singling out one nation in 'Old England' was a choice that was determined twofold. Beginning with the song's protagonist, whom we simply know as 'man'. On one level, 'man' is the embodiment of that same 'man' from the earlier song 'Spirit', but then, aren't we all?

It was meant to be gender neutral, though denoting the entire human race via a masculine pronoun was much more common, and acceptable, than it would be today. Mike Scott couldn't have foreseen that development at the time in order to substitute another word both here and in 'Spirit'. Modern listeners tend to miss that nuance accordingly. Which is a shame, because Old England's 'man' was female at the time.

It's hinted at in the dress coloring, described as a 'dirty shade of blue', which matches no historical military uniform generally associated with England. We were more famously 'lobster-backs' or 'Red Coats'. But Mrs Thatcher usually wore a blue skirt suit and, in 1985, she WAS Britain's Prime Minister, therefore its chief representative.

'Old England' is metonymy in action.  Just as we might say 'Westminster', when we mean 'the British government', Mike Scott said 'Old England' when he meant 'Margaret Thatcher' - it gave the song more shelf-life than openly naming her. After all, his album would out-live the Iron Lady, and this track needed to remain current for as long as people deigned to listen to it. (Thirty years so far, and still going strong.)

England was well-loved, ancient, filled with tradition and spirituality. Thatcher had ushered in an age where all was decaying, dying or already dead. Which brings us neatly to the main reason the song is called 'Old England'. Mike Scott didn't name it, James Joyce did.

The title comes from the refrain, which in turn was lifted from chapter two of James Joyce's Ulysses.  This is the scene where an aging anti-Semitic Irishman blames all of the ills in England on Jewish immigrants. "Old England is dying!" Mr Deasy, the headmaster, warns our protagonist. "Dying, if not dead already."

The problem, in Mr Deasy's opinion, was that Jews had control of the media and government too. Power over a population was absolute, if both were in the same hands. A nation manipulated into consolidating a single agenda could not thrive. The rot would set in. The country would creak into collapse, destruction, then death.

Hence Deasy's assertion that 'Old England is dying' - now neatly relocated against a backdrop where Mrs Thatcher openly courted Britain's newspaper barons. Robert Maxwell would end up dead, drowned. But his rival Rupert Murdoch went on to gain an unhealthy monopoly of the British (and international) media.

Murdoch's empowerment started with him publishing sycophantic - some might say mouthpiece - newspaper stories on behalf of Mrs Thatcher and her government. In exchange she ensured the easing of legal restrictions, originally set in place to prevent any one seizing too great an influence over the press.

In Ulysses, Mr Deasy's pronouncement that the lack of separation between media and government rendered Old England dying, or dead, was followed by his quoting a couple of lines from a poem. They read,

The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding sheet.

Filtered through the context that existed in 1985, brought there by the song 'Old England', that 'harlot' was undoubtedly the person willing to strip media safeguards as trade for favorable column inches.

She was selling the right of the English people to access multiple sources of information, in exchange for her own right to manipulate them via the press. Merging government and media, just as Joyce's Mr Deasy warned would precipitate the destruction of a nation.

His antisemitism was an unsettling, not entirely sympathetic characterization in Joyce's work, there to foreshadow later scenes. It's highly unlikely that Mike Scott intended to reference that element. His point was well made without it, and he's never struck me as antisemitic. (Indeed, he mentions Nazis as his enemies in the next album track.)

However, if anyone else cared to run with the implication, it should be noted that Rupert Murdoch isn't Jewish. But then he wasn't the one close to monopolizing ownership of the media in 1985. That was Robert Maxwell, who coincidentally was Jewish. Thatcher's recklessness - in opening the floodgates to Murdoch's eventual monopoly - was prompted in part by panic, because Maxwell's already vast press empire was firmly in support of his old colleagues and her Parliamentary rivals, the Labour Party.

By the same token, Maxwell's political affiliation precluded a merging of state and media, while Mrs Thatcher was in charge of the country anyway. Though Jewish and an influential press baron, Maxwell doesn't fit Deasy's bill. This extended reference is therefore null and void, and nothing to do with Mike Scott's rationale in quoting this specific scene.

It really was all about Thatcher's carelessness in facilitating Murdoch's rise, and Mike Scott's warning now seems remarkably prescient!

Society's greatest strength is the information it receives. The Age of Rupert Murdoch slowly shifted real news from the press, in favor of celebrity gossip and social scares.

What has any of this to do with the life lessons and messages emerging thus far, on our great and spiritual journey through This Is The Sea

The lure of the Big Music asks us to surrender civilization for something much more untamed. This really should not be a problem. We have Pan within us all, a wild, unfettered instinct to run free, even if we suppress all but the daydreams.

We might feel tethered to the world, but our spirit cannot be chained down. So something inside knows what it is to be free, to throw off all artificially imposed constraints and live true to our nature. To catch more than mere flashes of the Big Music, and to strive towards the sea.

Yet, almost universally, we dismiss as unreliable all streams of information compelling us to embrace that wild existence. Only civilization, with its property and things that we own, its rules and restrictions, consensuses and peer pressure, self-imposed barriers at every turn, is deemed fit to inform our life choices. It seems contrary and perverse. So why do we do it?

Mike Scott, seizing upon what was then a topical debate, explored the propensity of human beings to stick doggedly to certain sources of information, even if they know it's not in their own best interest to do so.

But was that mindset part of the human condition? It could be an anomaly, a sign of the times. Enter James Joyce to testify that it was not. He observed these exact conditions back in 1922, as recorded in Ulysses, along with a dire prognosis, "Old England is dying."

There was something fascinating being exposed here. A rare moment of stark revelation.

Books which delve more deeply into how media is employed in the control of a population, and why people consent to receive a fake version of reality.

During the mid-80s, that media struggle spat of Mrs Thatcher and Murdoch versus Robert Maxwell was big news.  All three were powerful, public figures exchanging personal insults, in a manner which was unlikely to backlash into actual war, nor anything which greatly impacted upon the general population. Hence the British grabbed some snacks and enjoyed the spectacle.

Amidst the mud-slinging, real issues resurfaced countless times, debated loudly and openly on each occasion. As a result, the entire population of Britain was suddenly very well versed in the ethics of information control, and fully aware of how easily the public may be hoodwinked and/or manipulated by whomever controlled said information.

We knew the risks inherent in media conglomerates holding monopolies. It was taken as read that our newspapers' reports were steeped in political bias for one side or another, and that this could amount to actual lies. Phrases like 'social scares' were suddenly in common usage.

Yet people still bought the papers. 

Moreover, their instinct was to repeat as fact news items read within them. It was as if their habit of buying and reading their usual paper was controlled by a part of their brains somehow separate from the rest.

It couldn't assimilate the updated information, known well enough by each individual reader, that the contents of these pages were tainted. Major politicians would concede any old right or tradition, if it allowed them some influence over what was printed. We were being played like puppets at the whim of people with known agendas.

Yet we still went out of our way to purchase a paper, or arranged delivery, paying for the privilege of having our opinions shaped, our thoughts guided, our emotions directed into whatever best served the interests of either a politician or a businessman. Neither of which were exactly there to prioritize anything which actually benefited us.

How was any of that more reliable than the information gleaned in snatches of chords from the Big Music? We called the known fake reality, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, because it seemed better than... what?

Mike Scott's response is to quote W.B. Yeats, whose Mad as the Mist and Snow contributes two lines to 'Old England;:

You ask what makes me sigh, old friend,
What makes me shudder so?
I shudder and I sigh to think
That even Cicero
And many-minded Homer were
Mad as the mist and snow.

It's useful to recall that the Waterboys' lyricist studied Literature and Philosophy at Edinburgh University. He didn't chuck these references lightly into his lyrics. He was seeing the layers of meaning and symbolism behind them.

Right now, he's made a case for not mindlessly sitting there banging a drum, because whatever force currently exerting its will wound you up to do so. But so far, the organ-master's identity has been deliberately vague.

It might not even be external. We're all quite capable at keeping ourselves in line.  Which is the point being made by Yeats.

His short poem Mad as the Mist and Snow is set inside a library, where two old friends sit, safe and warm, while a blizzard rages outside their window. They have one of Cicero's works open on the table before them. Also name-checked as present in literary form are Plato, Homer and Horace.

The implication being that this is a well stocked library, wherein the thoughts and ideas of some of the greatest minds in the Classical world are available for the turning of a page. Writers, story-tellers and thinkers, whose collective influence may still be discerned permeating European culture.

But the weather is acting strangely upon the mood inside. Isolated, but in no physical danger, the two men nevertheless feel instinctively discomforted by the white out. Their familiar world has gone. They react with disdain. The mist and snow are insane for erasing the landscape.

Having now personified the elements enough to insult its intelligence, the friends find that they have no appetite for Cicero, nor anything else which hasn't always been in their lives. Suddenly everything new, unknown or encroaching upon known boundaries must be ridiculed. They systematically label all with a terrible epithet - it's as mad as mist and snow.

The poet protagonist is self-aware enough to observe himself doing this, but he doesn't care.
Willingly, the two friends consciously allow their whole world to shrink until it holds just them. Faced with the unfamiliar, they will impose boundaries so tight, they become a cage.

This should be the perfect moment for them to explore all that knowledge, but because it's not yet known, every book has to be dismissed. Their contents are surely as mad as mist and snow. Ignorance is preferable to accepting anything new. They become nostalgic for a time, many years prior, when they were both 'unlettered lads'.

Yet Cicero poses a problem, so too does Homer. Partially read, their works straddle the divide between sane familiarity and things that are as mad as mist and snow. The sigh signals that they too are suspect, as insane as the unknown. Then the poet follows an implication back to its natural conclusion - we can guess, but are not told what it was - and the sigh becomes a shudder.

Van Gogh's Tardis in Montmajour Painting

Just in case, after all this, you're still wondering - reality only exists by consensus. A fixed reality via the media is reassuring, even if it's known to be socially engineered.
Vincent Van Gogh Tardis Montmajour Poster

Mike Scott evokes those same sentiments in 'Old England'. For an instant, he sighs and shudders over imagery that recalls the high passion of 'Medicine Bow'. Revulsion expressed for what that pioneer spirit represented, with its comet blazing, storm sailing leap of faith, Mike moves on.

Now his tone brightens to reel off familiar norms, which he'll fondly accept in lieu of the Big Music. The 'well-loved flag of England' is one. No shudders there. 'Warm homes' is another, let's hurry past the mothers sighing. Nothing to see here. 'Comedians laugh', all good fun. Ok, the babies are crying, but that's what babies do.

The litany increasingly darkens as it goes on, all known, thus acceptable. Yet the positive adjectives begin to fall away. He passes through controversial subjects without pause, with his bright tone becoming incrementally happier by the second. Merrily, he reports that politicians are fraternizing, yet skimps on the crucial details 'who with?' and 'whom does it serve?' like it never occurred to him to wonder, let alone ask. England's journalists are dignified. Great.

As cheerful as a child on Christmas morning, Mike gushes about how EVERYONE in England is civilized, before continuing with unblinking, unstinting enthusiasm into the pay-off lines, 'And children stare with heroin eyes'.

We can no longer even pretend that he's a thinking individual in denial. He's been automated into acceptance, until he no longer feels nor even grasps the significance of what he's saying. If it's normal, then it's ok. Commonality supersedes merit and morality; ubiquity affords anything a place in society. Familiarity trumps all.

Thatcher's Britain Books - Context for This is the Sea

"His clothes are a dirty shade of blue... He steals from me and he lies to you, Old England is dying! Still he sings an empire song..."
In Thatcher's Britain, riot police were unleashed on festival goers near Stonehenge. Six years later, the battered Peace Convoy won damages against police brutality.

Reject the Big Music and All This Can Be Yours!*

This is the world of the 'man', and that's how he can die, yet still be watchful and tethered. This is how Spirit can fly free and willfully ignored.

Civilized society offers a culturally defined reality for the masses.

This is its greatest inducement, along with the fringe benefits of belonging to a mutually affirming tribe. For social creatures like human beings, membership is a powerful thing.

Acceptance can be yours! Choose between our culturally approved modes of behavior, emotion, feelings, etiquette and dreams! (Stay safe tip! Keep to the clearly defined margins for all subcultures.)

There's enough wriggle room in politics, sporting allegiance, fashion, music, hobbies etc to feel like an individual in control of your own destiny and world view.

But such things come at a cost.

A one-size-fits-all reality is fair game for manipulation. Boundaries have to be attached, in order that the illusion isn't shattered by peeping beyond its parameters. The rules for survival are heavily skewed in favor of containment and control rather than actual survival. It requires your consent to be manipulated, fooled and offered illusion as fact, and you'll take it for fear of not conforming.

Acceptance; compromise. Offering docility and the surrender of personal power in exchange for a rulebook, which gives you guidance, permissions and/or constraints on all you do, think, dream and seem; lists appropriate opium substitutes to dull mind, sense, and spirit; and what to do when you're so wound down, you no longer have the energy to even bang your drum.

But the greatest cost of all is fear of the unknown, in case it's something which shifts reality so much, you will no longer be able to bear the one-size-fits-all. That in venturing out, you may never return, nor conform, nor belong. That the Big Music will tear down your walls, snap your chains, and unleash your untamed self. And fear of the unknown will be revealed all along to be panic projected in the face of the known, in case you accidentally forget to ignore truths, or see the illusion for what it is, or finally grasp the enormity of what it truly costs to be here.

Better by far to brightly affirm that everything is alright; normality is reality; everything is fine.

Still no joy?  Distract yourself with your drug of choice - alcohol, television, music, falling in love, learning, work, Valium, religion, games, a trip to the seaside, crystal meth, the crossword, shopping, Facebook, heroin, gardening, sport, visiting friends, traveling the world, a nice cup of tea with a biscuit. Whatever it takes to glaze your eyes into unseeing the patch repaired from where you nearly ripped through lies.

If that fails, then head into hatred instead and find somebody to blame.

* While stocks last, at participating stores only.

Old England by The Waterboys

30 years on: Thatcher's dead. Media manipulation still happens, but Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web, so information happened. Reality mostly limped on.
Maxwell's dead. Thatcher's dead. But as long as there is an England to crawl on beyond them both, there will ALWAYS be a nice cup of tea.

The Waterboys: Be My Enemy

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” Orwell

For all that I've over-analyzed 'Old England' to within an inch of its metaphors, the song itself really was quite lovely.

It's what most of us have known from birth. I'm writing this and you're reading it from a reality which looks just like it.  Beyond a few digs at Thatcher - implied and requiring knowledge of Joyce and Yeats to unravel - Mike Scott told us nothing that we didn't already know.

If we feel unsettled, it's because we never usually view it within the context of the Big Music. From the inside, reality never seemed quite that fake, nor was the cost spelled out.

That's the tragedy of the civilized world and the reason that 'Old England' is a lament.

... I've been working in the fields
And I can't get to sleep,
I can't catch my breath

I can't stop talking
and I look like death!

But I will put right this disgrace.
I will rearrange you.

If you'll be my enemy,
I'll be your enemy too...

~ Be My Enemy

When 'Be My Enemy' begins, it feels like more of the same. It's fast and furious, with slightly discordant music weaving through (one bit about the arrangement that I do know!). But the baddies are still the kind of people lampooned in 'Old England' - Nazis, Sun readers and other Tories - it's safe to blame them.

Except it's not.

The further the song takes us into that backlash, the harsher, more embittered Mike Scott's lyrics. Suddenly being the subject of all that hatred and ire starts to get harder to shirk. It seeps like poison into his psyche, taking him to a place where his attitude is just as ugly as those he blames for causing it.

'If you'll be my enemy, I'll be your enemy too' is the constant refrain. The slipping into the kind of anger which divides in conquest and contributes to the destruction lamented in 'Old England'. It's rejecting The Big Music and drowning in the river. It's a warning wrought in anger and fury, but passionate all the same.

So what is the solution?  Grabbing a knife and threatening to 'rearrange you'?  Possibly. But The Waterboys have another one, and that's coming right up in the next track.

Be my Enemy by The Waterboys Live at Glastonbury 1986

Performed before a VERY receptive audience still living in Thatcher's Britain. Many of the Beanfield's victims would have been in this Glastonbury crowd.

The Waterboys: Trumpets

This song will always remind me of Glastonbury Tor. I played it in the car once, en route to that special place, and it stayed in my head right to the top.

... Your love feels like high summer.
Your love feels like
high high summer
Your life is like an ocean -
I want to dive in naked,
Lose myself in your depths.
I want to be with you,
To find myself in the best of dreams.
Your love feels like trumpets...

~ Trumpets

'Trumpets' is equivocally a love song. The furious hatred of 'Be My Enemy' has turned 180 degrees onto the flip side of that same coin.

Love. Love is the key. Dive into love.

It all seems very pat, pretty and basic now. Standard 1980s New Age stuff, redeemed throughout the cynical 1990s (and whatever the Noughties will transpire to be) simply because 'Trumpets' is an amazing song.

It's one of my favorite tunes by The Waterboys. I've been leaping around, banging drums to it for three decades, whilst totally missing the point. I even grasped the Big Music reality. Yet still thought 'Trumpets' was Mike Scott telling us that the world could be fixed, if we'd just fall in love with someone.

You want to know when I had my epiphany?  Last night. And only then because it was explained in an interview that I read during my research for this article.

I'll consider myself sitting on the naughty stair, until I'm big enough to follow the poetry and not the surface story. I fell into precisely the same trap more commonly laid somewhere about 'The Pan Within', and it's just as obvious here, once you look for it, as it was there too.

If 'Trumpets' was your - extremely good - bog standard love song, then the overly passionate protagonist is a bit of a creep. The whole thing finishes with his heartfelt yearning, not to merely be with the object of his desire, but to be the same as it. I've always skipped mentally over that bit. Dismissing it with a blithe, 'Awww! Dude's in love. They say strange things when they're in love.'

The Big Music is pure love distilled. This is the Sea - the whole album - begins with Roddy Lorimer welcoming us in with a trumpet fanfare. 'Trumpets' is the moment when Mike Scott connects with the Big Music, when he loses himself in it, when he becomes the Big Music.

'Because being with you is the same as being you' doesn't appear nearly so bizarre when you hear the triumph in it, and the love, which means that nobody could ever be anyone's enemy.

So now we've experienced it, in all its highs and lows, what are we going to do in this special place? What show of soul can be expected of us?  We've come full circle, back to the start, but hopefully seeing it for the first time. The only way now is to stay put or to take it to the next level.

The Big Music Calls Us Past our Narrow Banks & Fixed Flow

It's all well and good talking about it as a pretty and profound metaphor, but it takes great courage to leave behind all you know and call real to dive into the unknown.
Surf At Your Own Risk

The Waterboys: This is the Sea

You are about to be introduced to one of my redemption songs. A tune which an old friend once sent in to save my sanity. I may be biased in recounting its genius.

The final, and eponymous, tune on This is the Sea should be a victorious arrival, a grandiose unveiling of all that three albums of the Big Music have brought us to hear, touch and see.

It is all of that, but not quite in the way anticipated.

Mike Scott, and the other Waterboys of the age, aren't standing before us as Shamanic Masters. They aren't Yoda, nor even archbishops of Pan. They are ordinary people, just like you and I, with nothing more than the will to see beyond the moon's crescent.

A very raw, vulnerable humanity is presented to us throughout much of This is the Sea. Mike's standing there, not as someone with the tried and proven answers, but as an individual on the verge of a leap of faith.

Now if you're feelin' weary
If you've been alone too long
Maybe you've been suffering from
A few too many
Plans that have gone wrong
And you're trying to remember
How fine your life used to be
Running around banging your drum
Like it's 1973
Well that was the river
This is the sea!

~ This is the Sea

You almost get the feeling that he's taken us on a tour of the Big Music, not as an evangelical endeavor, but so we'll understand when he asks if we'll put a stone on his cairn, if he's got this wrong.

Will we wave him away? Will we come with him?

We really get no choice in the matter, as the lyrics rip away the veil, like the curtain around the Wizard of Oz, to reveal the piper leading this dance. It's not the enlightened being daring us not to bang the drum here. It's the songwriter under pressure, who didn't have a single idea until he found a strange book in a New York backstreet witches' shop.

"I used to be brilliant!" Mike beseeches us to understand. "But I lost it!"  Having just listened to the rest of his album thus far, it's hard to take such things seriously, but we can't reassure. We're not really there, because this discussion isn't happening out in the open. It's deep within his psyche.

This is Mike's diatribe to himself. His own debate between man and spirit. His own reconciliation between the self that becomes dumbfounded by truth, and the inner being that cuts through lies. The war between Mike Scott eaten up with anger, or breaking under sadness, and the Mike who knows that Pan resides within us all, and that life-force is pure love.

"You know that you once held the key..." He tells himself, as we cheer him on - or more likely peer wide-eyed and wary at similar demons within our own minds. "But that was the river...."  If you can grasp it in the dim, prosaic murk of the river (reality, if you wish, to a given value of reality), then what will happen if you allow yourself to reach the sea?  "And this is the sea!"  It's ok to feel out of your depth. You were a big shark in narrow waters, now you're a little fish in a wide, wide ocean. Yet you're still swimming. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!"

Mike Scott makes his decision and 'takes the train'. No need for a tempest powered sail-boat now; that was the passionate Shelley-esque Romantic poet talking before, finding the sea was never that difficult really. It just required a change of perspective, and the willingness to enter the chaos of wild Pan's realm. The ability to not only catch flashes of the Big Music, but to be the same as it.

And if we kept pace with him, not giving into cynicism; nor blanking everything out - good or bad - in order to stare with heroin eyes like a good child of Albion; nor getting wrapped up in our own sorrow and rage; nor yet getting scared and reverting to form, acting on the orders of our organ masters, automatically sitting here banging our drums; remembering to ask the right questions - how DID you see the whole of the moon? - in order to learn from the answers; and if we followed our instinct too - you do know how to let it come now? - then we'll be on the train with him.

This is the Sea finishes. The Big Music stops. Because if we did this right, then we no longer need The Waterboys to play it, we can hear it for ourselves. All that's left is for Mike Scott to point out the obvious at journey's end.

Behold the sea.

This is the Sea by The Waterboys

You don't get high waves like that on the river. It's all kept artificially calm by familiarity there. The sea is the great unknown, the chaotic reformer, the ultimate Big Music.

(Though I know he'll never read this, it seems only fair to afford a cyber smile and wink of acknowledgement towards Eric. Who knew enough not to lead me into the song, but to plonk me at the opening chords and let me discover the rest for myself. Clever boy.)

This is the Sea (Digitally Remastered 2004 Version)

What happens when Mike Scott is able to return to his masterpiece, with twenty years more experience, equipment and money, to recreate the Big Music.

So Was it World Domination for The Waterboys?

Maybe if we rush out and buy a black bound Book of Shadows, inspiration akin to 'The Whole of the Moon' would find us too. Then the Big Music, the sea... destiny...

Back at the beginning, there was all that pressure on Mike Scott, because This is the Sea was supposed to break The Waterboys onto the world stage.

Fame and fortune beckoned. They were going to be bigger than U2 and Simple Minds put together.

Did it happen? That depends upon your perspective.

'The Whole of the Moon' alone has certainly paid off Mike Scott's mortgage, and plenty more bills besides over the last three decades.  While This is the Sea is now regarded as one of the classic albums of whichever category we care to file it in.

The Waterboys can visit any village, town or city in the world - at least in the English speaking part of it - and be assured of filling a small to medium-sized venue. But a stadium? U2 can do that hundreds of times over on any given tour.  Not The Waterboys though.

Mike Scott stared fame in the face after the release of This is the Sea. He didn't exactly run away, but he refused to compromise anything. The Waterboys could very easily have been much bigger than they were, but Mike wouldn't lip-sync on Top of the Pops, nor anything else of that ilk. He couldn't fake the Big Music, not even to play the fame game.

Nor would he merely attempt to rewrite different versions of This is the Sea, until the record buying public got wise and bored, then drifted away. What might have been manna for the profit margins was poison for the muse.

Instead, Mike Scott (and most of The Waterboys) relocated to Dublin. They had much fun in the taverns of Temple Bar and fell in love with Irish folk music. Mike ended up moving to a quiet country village in the vicinity of Galway. It wasn't exactly conducive to wining and dining the movers and shakers, that might otherwise have ensured their mega-selling musical domination on a global stage.

While fans and critics alike expected more in the vein of This is the Sea, for The Waterboys' follow up album, instead we got Fisherman's Blues. Gone were the rock riffs, now it was all traditional Irish (and Scottish) music of the kind Mike Scott was jamming with in the bars of Galway.

Practically as one, confused music critics turned away in disappointed revulsion, bemoaning the waste of a talent that had brought us 'The Whole of the Moon'. Where was the Big Music? They asked, assuming that had something to do with intricately built up layers of violins, pianos, rhythm guitars interwoven in their streams, drums, dreams, trumpets, towers and tenements of expansive studio sound. Or whatever other hippy PR nonsense Mike Scott came out with, when he really meant that he had a multi-track recorder and knew how to use it. Was he ever going to go back to that Big Music thing?

But fans of the Waterboys, and those who had truly entered into the Shamanic journey of This is the Sea, smiled with misting eyes. We were hearing it.

The Big Music never required a whole orchestra playing it in order to be epic. By its very nature, it fills the skies, hearts and oceans, ringing the Earth, bouncing from stars, moon and sun. The God Pan carries only a tiny set of pan-pipes. Most of us play it silently, without any instruments at all.

Mike Scott had put his money where his mouth was and followed his muse.

The Waterboys switched from punk to rock, to Irish folk, to a raggle-taggle 'gypsy' sound, through many, many more incarnations along the way. Shedding fans at every turn, but gaining others, some of whom continued on the quest, loving the wild twists and turns, embracing the chaos. But most of all, delighting in the fact that whatever the genre, Mike Scott remained a consummate poet, and an adventurous, experimental, inherently talented musician.

During an interview to mark 25 years of This is the Sea, Mike was asked if he still heard the Big Music. He seemed so surprised to be asked that. It's ALL he's been doing for the last thirty years, what other options were there, once he'd beheld the sea?

An Appointment with Mr Yeats by The Waterboys

Fisherman's Blues by The Waterboys

The Waterboys' latest album is the poetry of Yeats put to music, including 'Mad as the Mist and Snow' which was quoted in 'Old England'.

Mike's been a Yeats fan for years (see above), so he was thrilled to be asked to perform in a concert celebrating an anniversary of the poet. But he misunderstood the remit.

He thought everyone was going to choose a Yeats poem and put it to music. He was excited. He ended up with four, and looked forward to hearing every other artist and band's take on it.

Therefore it was a huge disappointment to turn up only to discover that his fellow musicians were just playing their own stuff. Honoring Yeats by performing crowd pleaser classics and promoting their new material.

So Mike put more to music and this album is the result.

Yep. Still following the Big Music thirty years on, happily tearing up all that occupied him before, when a new musical adventure beckons; willingly riding the tides onto whichever new shore gleams in the light (and darkness) of a fuller moon.

The follow up to This is the Sea was a massive change of direction. Critics aside, there are plenty who will now say that it's Fisherman's Blues which is THE best Waterboys album.

Mike was having sooo much fun with his native traditions, and that of the Irish too. Followed (below) with a Romani sound instead.

Room to Roam by The Waterboys

More Albums by The Waterboys

There have been nearly sixty members of The Waterboys over the past thirty years. Mike Scott is the only constant. He IS The Waterboys.

More of my Redemption Songs

The stories told about the making of The Madcap Laughs are nearly as legendary as the album itself. Here I go through it track by track.
On August 29th 2014, we will be marking twenty years of The Holy Bible. This is probably the most important album of my lifetime. You'll either love it or hate it.
Performing under the pseudonym of Quiet Loner, Matt Hill strikes a powerful chord in protest against all that's wrong in British politics. He's very good.
A haunting rendition of The Skye Boat Song is now the theme song for Outlander. This traditional Highland air tells the tale of English atrocities in post-Culloden Scotland.
Updated: 11/12/2014, JoHarrington
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mk on 02/26/2016

Thank you!

JoHarrington on 10/08/2014

I ended up listening to Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret all afternoon. LOL

Guest on 10/08/2014

Sorry. Your earworm is entirely my fault. But at least it'll be an awesome one!

JoHarrington on 10/08/2014

Ooooh! Soft Cell! I haven't heard them for years! I think I'll go and dig out some old CDs myself.

Guest on 09/28/2014

Did that the other day with Soft Cell and Erasure, Now I can't get either of them out of my silly head. Which is a great pity, because I would like to hear something other than Bedsitter and The Innocents.

JoHarrington on 09/28/2014

Woot! Level up!

Awwww! It's horrible when you're in the mood to listen to something and its simply not there. To You Tube then!

Guest on 09/27/2014

Crowded House did provide us with Weather with You among several other eminently hummable tracks. Regrettably, unless they're in a crate I haven't yet looked in, both This is the Sea and Woodface are not in the current collection of CDs extant in the Chazer house. I'm wondering if they were lifted by a previous visitor to the flat before I moved up here. It's entirely possible.

JoHarrington on 09/26/2014

Ember - Sounds exciting! :)

WriterArtist - Yes, I've seen the complete album on YouTube, plus all of the individual tracks too. I hope you enjoy it.

WordChazer - I can only think of one Crowded House song. Did they do the weather with you one? And did you find the Waterboys in the end?

Guest on 09/25/2014

I took awhile to come round to The Waterboys, but I adore The Whole of the Moon and really need to see whether my copy of the CD survived several house moves. My feelings about The Waterboys are akin to those about Crowded House. Where the stuff is THAT CD, come to think about it...

WriterArtist on 09/25/2014

I haven't seen this album yet but the extensive reviews compels me to listen to them. In India these albums might not be so easily available but I think I can try listening to the tracks on YouTube.

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