Saturday, 5 May 2012
77 This Is The Sea - The Waterboys
Purchased : February 1988
Tracks : Don't Bang The Drum / The Whole Of The Moon / Spirit / The Pan Within / Medicine Bow / Old England / Be My Enemy / Trumpets / This Is The Sea
This was , I think, the last album bought in Leeds. It marks the beginning of a pattern only broken this year. That was the tendency to hoard annual leave until the end of the financial year ( April - March ) and then have 10 days or so to use up in the snowy wastes of February and March. At first this was football-related to cover re-arranged away fixtures, replays etc but later became a more general Micawber-ish hope that something would turn up i.e. someone might want to spend some of their precious leisure time with me.
That hope was almost always disappointed but in February 1988 I did manage to arrange a rendez-vous with my old housemate Pete who was still living in Leeds. Pete had only got to Leeds University through clearing and always struggled on his course and I can't remember whether he was still trying to get his degree or whether he was now working. In any case he was now house-sharing with a couple of other guys I didn't know and suggested we meet up one afternoon. All I can really remember is that we watched The Roxy ( remember that ? ) , played a bit of snooker and that I ended up buying a cue from him which I've still got though I don't think it's been used this millennium. We haven't been in touch since.
Anyhow back to Mike Scott and his cohorts. I'd been moderately interested in them since their 1983 debut single "A Girl Called Johnny" which I first heard on Radio Luxembourg's rather arbitrarily compiled "Futurist Chart " ( Phil Everley was in there but not Talk Talk ) but really came on board with "The Whole Of The Moon" in November 1985, the only single released from this LP and their commercial breakthrough. Annie Nightingale had whetted ny appetite since then by playing odd tracks on her Sunday night request show - this was before she became the Betty Turpin of the rave scene - so this was pretty much the top of my "wants" list.
This was the third Waterboys album and the first to chart and yield a hit single. At the time the band was essentially a trio of Scott, Anthony Thistlethwaite and Karl Wallinger with a slew of guests. Drummer Kevin Wilkinson had left to join China Crisis but can be heard on some tracks as can Roddy Lorimer on trumpet, another link with the previous post.
Many predicted that the band would join U2, Simple Minds and Big Country as the next Celtic stadium act but that was stymied by Scott's infamous refusal to do Top Of The Pops when "The Whole Of The Moon" was climbing the charts, a career-defining decision.
It begins with the lengthy "Don't Bang The Drum", Wallinger's only co-writing credit on the LP. It's a song typical of both writers with its call to activism underlaid by spiritual concerns - "What show of soul are we gonna get from you ?" - and the expectation of disappointment - "If I know you you'll bang the drum like monkeys do". Wallinger's big piano chords and Lorimer's trumpet herald the song proper for a minute and a half before the big drums and chainsaw guitar announce that this is a rock record. Scott's earnest vocals ( too much for some ) and Thistlethwaite's full throttle sax playing hammer the message home with a minimum of delicacy.
Then we have "The Whole Of The Moon" itself. Despite Scott's self-sabotage it reached number 26 on its original run then got to number 3 on reissue in 1991 after its reputation steadily built in the intervening years. Turning the execrable Wind Beneath My Wings on its head it's a uniquely self-effacing song with Scott acknowledging that another (Scott has subsequently backtracked on his contemporary assertion that the subject was Prince after his bizarre behaviour at the British Rock And Pop Awards and eccentric Around The World In A Day album ) has surpassed all his achievements but there's a catch in the chorus. The subject has crashed and burned so the song is both an admiring tribute and lament. The key musical ingredients are again Wallinger's tumbling piano and Lorimer's antiphonal trumpets which grow in prominence as the song progresses. Despite another inimitable half-shouted vocal from Scott it's attracted a fair few covers and deservedly so.
There's a pause for breath with the short , uncluttered "Spirit" where Scott affirms the superiority of the spiritual life over Wallinger's restless piano and a more muted contribution from Lorimer.
Then it's back to the barnstorming with "The Pan Within" . Its exhortation to let loose the Dionysian spirit would make it a perfect choice to soundtrack the film of The Secret History ( if it ever gets made ) though there's no hint here that it would turn destructive. A six-plus minute epic it rumbles along on a solid backbeat with new boy Steve Wickham adding all the musical colour with his fiddle. There's also a brief Peter Hook-esque bass solo but as there are four bass players credited on the LP I've no idea who 's playing it. My only complaint about the song is that there's no climax; it just ends at a seemingly random point.
Side Two begins with the uptempo "Medicine Bow" , a Thistlethwaite co-write and a short-ish slice of driving rock (with some discreet synth work ) that owes a lot to Echo And the Bunnymen. It's a statement of Scott's desire to cast off all the trappings of his old life and start anew although he was apparently ignorant that there was a real place of that name in Wyoming. There's not that much of a tune in amongst the churning guitar and drum racket so its relative brevity is a plus.
"Old England" has Scott trying on Paul Weller's clothes with a critique of the evils of Thatcherism ( from which the other countries in the UK were hardly immune ) using James Joyce's "Old England is dying" as the pay-off line and stealing another couplet from WB Yeats. I don't find it very convincing ; the lyrics offer no fresh insights and musically it's boring , five and a half minutes of an annoyingly repetitive piano riff , military drums and Thistlethwaite trying to add some colour with freeform squawking.
"Be My Enemy" begins with a strange staccato synth passage but turns into a rollicking rockabilly number reminiscent of Shakespeare's Sister. The uncharacteristically violent lyrics with hints of Southern Gothic -" I feel like I've been sleeping in a cellarful of snakes" - suggest Nick Cave as an additional influence. Apart from a serious lack of melody it's well executed.
"Trumpets", the first song to be written , rescues the second side. A refreshingly direct love song featuring only the core trio ( and a classic Wallinger piano riff ) , it exemplifies the mark 1 version of the band at their best with its compelling poetic beauty. Despite the present tense of the lyric ( including a little steal from I'm Only Sleeping ) there's a choking poignancy to the song - " your love is like high summer " - acknowledging that such delights are rare and transitory.
"This Is The Sea " is another long song ( though considerably shortened from Scott's original 20 verse epic ) that attempts to tie up the various threads on the LP with references back to the preceding songs. The over-riding theme is cutting loose from the past and seems self-addressed ( though that view may be influenced by knowledge of what came next ) . The dense acoustic guitar work is worthy of Johnny Marr and the song builds nicely but it's comparatively bland and sails a little too close to Van Morrison for me.
So it wasn't quite the classic I was hoping for and I don't rate it the best of their LPs by some margin. It was however a significant milestone in their career. Wallinger quit the band before the end of the promotional tour and that spelled the end of their "Big Music" phase; when they re-emerged at the end of 1988 both music and image had changed radically ( as we shall see) .