The Waterboys are a band formed in 1983 by Mike Scott. The band’s membership, past and present, has been composed mainly of musicians from Scotland, Ireland and England. London, Dublin, Spiddal, New York and Findhorn have all served as homes for the group. The band has played in a number of different styles, but their music is a mix of Celtic folk music with rock and roll or folk rock. After ten years of recording and touring, they dissolved in 1993 and Scott pursued a solo career. They reformed in 2000, and continue to release albums and tour worldwide. Scott emphasizes a continuity between The Waterboys and his solo work, saying that “To me there’s no difference between Mike Scott and the Waterboys; they both mean the same thing. They mean myself and whoever are my current traveling musical companions.”
The early Waterboys sound was dubbed “The Big Music” after a song on their second album, A Pagan Place. This musical style was described by Scott as “a metaphor for seeing God’s signature in the world.” It either influenced or was used to describe a number of other bands, including Simple Minds, The Alarm, In Tua Nua, Big Country, the Hothouse Flowers and World Party, the last of which was made up of former Waterboys members. In the late 1980s the band became significantly more folk influenced. However, the Waterboys eventually returned to rock and roll, and have released both rock and folk albums since reforming. Their songs, largely written by Scott, often contain literary references and are frequently concerned with spirituality. Both the group and its members’ solo careers have received much praise from both rock and folk music critics, but the Waterboys as a band has never received the commercial success that some of its members have had independently. Aside from World Party, the Waterboys have also influenced musicians such as Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, Grant Nicholas of Feeder and Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff; both Bono and The Edge from U2 are fans of the band.
The Waterboys have gone through three distinct phases. Their early years - or “Big Music” period - were both productive and defined a new sound in British rock and roll. The following folk music period was characterized by an emphasis on touring and by a remarkably large band membership, leading to the description of the group as a “Raggle Taggle band”. After a brief return to the “Big Music” for one tour and the release of a mainstream rock and roll album with Dream Harder, the band dissolved until its rebirth in 2000. In the years since, the band has revisited both rock and folk music, and continues to tour and release studio albums.
Mike Scott, the founder and only permanent member of The Waterboys, made a number of solo recordings in late 1981 and early 1982 while in a band named Another Pretty Face (later called Funhouse). These sessions at Redshop Studio are the earliest recordings that would be released under The Waterboys name. During the same period, Scott formed the short-lived band The Red and the Black, with saxophone player Anthony Thistlethwaite, after hearing him play on Waiting on Egypt, a Nikki Sudden album. The Red and the Black performed nine concerts in London. Thistlethwaite introduced Scott to drummer Kevin Wilkinson, who joined The Red and the Black. During 1982, Scott made a number of recordings, both solo and with Thistlethwaite and Wilkinson. These recording sessions of both of Scott’s solo work and the group performances would later be divided between The Waterboys’ first and second albums.
In 1983, even though Scott’s record label, Ensign Records, expected his first album to be a solo effort, Scott decided to start a new band. He chose The Waterboys as its name from a line in the Lou Reed song “The Kids” on the Berlin album. In March 1983, Ensign released the first recording under the new band name, a single titled “A Girl Called Johnny”, the A-side of which was a tribute to Patti Smith. This was followed in May by The Waterboys’ first performance as a group on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test. The BBC performance included a new member, keyboard player Karl Wallinger. The Waterboys released their self-titled debut, The Waterboys, in July 1983. Their music, influenced by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and David Bowie, was compared by critics to Van Morrison and U2 in its cinematic sweep.
After the release of their debut, The Waterboys began touring. The band consisted of Mike Scott on vocals and guitar, Anthony Thistlethwaite on saxophone and mandolin, Karl Wallinger on keyboards, Roddy Lorimer on trumpets, Martyn Swain on bass and Kevin Wilkinson on drums. John Caldwell from Another Pretty Face also played guitar, and Scottish singer Eddi Reader sang backing vocals for the band’s first two concerts. The band made some new recordings and over-dubbed old material in late 1983 and the spring of 1984 which would be released as The Waterboys’ second album, A Pagan Place, in June 1984. The “official” Waterboys’ line-up at this time, according to the sleeve of A Pagan Place, was Scott, Thistlethwaite, Wallinger and Wilkinson, with guest contributions from Reader, Lorimer and many others.
A Pagan Place was preceded by the single “The Big Music”. The name of the single’s A-side track, was adopted by some commentators as a description of The Waterboys’ sound, and is still used to refer to the musical style of their first three albums. The release of the album was followed by further touring including support for The Pretenders and U2.
The band began to record new material in the spring of 1985 for a new album, with Wilkinson leaving the band to join China Crisis. Late in the sessions future Waterboy Steve Wickham added his violin to the track “The Pan Within”; he had been invited after Scott had heard him on a Sin蠤 O’Connor demo recorded at Karl Wallinger’s house.
The Waterboys (officially a trio of Scott, Thistlethwaite and Wallinger with a slew of guests) released their third album, This is the Sea, in October 1985. It sold better than either of the two earlier albums, and managed to get into the Top Forty. A single from it, “The Whole of the Moon”, reached number 26 in the UK. Promotion efforts were hampered by Scott’s refusal to perform on Top of the Pops, which insisted that its performers lip sync. The album release was followed by successful tours of the UK and North America with Wickham becoming a full-time member, Marco Sin replacing Martyn Swain on bass, and Chris Whitten replacing Kevin Wilkinson on drums. Towards the end of the tour Wallinger left to form his own band, World Party, and was replaced by Guy Chambers. At the same time, drummer Dave Ruffy replaced Chris Whitten.
At the invitation of new member Steve Wickham, Mike Scott moved to Dublin and quickly became influenced by the traditional Irish music there as well as by country and gospel. The band’s lineup changed once again with Scott, Wickham and Thistlethwaite now joined by Trevor Hutchinson on bass and Peter McKinney on drums. The new band, which the official Waterboys’ website refers to as the “Raggle Taggle band” lineup, spent 1986 and 1987 recording in Dublin and touring the UK, Ireland, Europe and Israel. Some of these performances were released in 1998 on The Live Adventures of the Waterboys, including a famous Glastonbury performance in 1986.
In 1988 Scott took the band to Spiddal in the west of Ireland where they set up a recording studio in Spiddal House to finish recording their new album. Fisherman’s Blues was released in October 1988 and showcased many guest musicians that had played with the band in Dublin and Spiddal. Critics and fans were split between those embracing the new influence of Irish and Scottish folk music and others disappointed after hoping for a continuation of the style of This is the Sea. Scott himself explains that it was the Irish tradition that influenced him; “I was in love with Ireland. Every day was a new adventure, it was mythical. . . . Being part of a brotherhood of musicians was a great thing in those days, with all the many musicians of all stripes we befriended in Ireland. I still have that connection to the Irish musicians and tap into it. . . .”Owing to the large number of tracks that were recorded in the three years between This is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues, The Waterboys released a second album of songs from this period in 2001, titled Too Close to Heaven (or Fisherman’s Blues, Part 2 in North America), and more material was released as bonus tracks for the 2006 reissue of the remastered Fisherman’s Blues album.
After further touring the band returned to Spiddal in order to record a new album. The Waterboys now consisted of Mike Scott, Steve Wickham, Anthony Thistlethwaite, Colin Blakey on whistle, flute and piano, Sharon Shannon on accordion, Trevor Hutchinson on bass and Noel Bridgeman on drums. Their fifth album, Room to Roam was released in September 1990. It is from Room to Roam that the “Raggle Taggle band” reference comes from. One of the album’s tracks was a recording of the traditional folk ballad “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy”.
Just before Room to Roam was released Wickham left over a disagreement with Scott and Thistlethwaite regarding the future direction of the band’s sound. Scott and Thistlethwaite wanted to move the band back to a more rock and roll style, and Wickham disagreed. His departure started the band’s dissolution, and in his wake Shannon and Blakey both left. Scott, Thistlethwaite and Hutchinson recruited Ken Blevins on drums to fulfill the group’s tour dates.
Trevor Hutchinson left the band in 1991, a momentous year for the group that also saw a re-release of the single, “The Whole of the Moon”, from This is the Sea. The single reached number three on the United Kingdom charts. Scott spent the rest of the year writing new material and moved to New York. Thistlethwaite left the band in December, leaving Mike Scott as The Waterboys’ only member. The next album was completed with session musicians and was released in 1993 as Dream Harder with a new hard rock-influenced sound. Frustrated by not being able to get a new touring Waterboys band together, Scott left New York, abandoning the “Waterboys” name and embarking upon a solo career.
However, Scott later resurrected the Waterboys’ name, citing its recognition among fans, for the 2000 album, A Rock in the Weary Land. The album had a new, experimental rock sound, inspired by contemporary bands Radiohead and Beck that “shocked” some listeners. Scott described the new sound as “Sonic Rock”. A number of old Waterboys guested on the album including Thistlethwaite and Wilkinson. By 2001 the core of the new Waterboys included Mike Scott on vocals and guitar, Richard Naiff on keyboards and organs and Wickham, who had returned to the band, on violin. The group changed direction once again in 2003 and released Universal Hall a mostly acoustic album with a return of some Celtic influences from the Fisherman’s Blues era. The album was followed by a tour of the UK and then Europe. Their first official live album, Karma to Burn, was released in 2005. A new studio album, Book of Lightning, was released in April 2007.
With Book of Lightning (2007), The Waterboys have created a natural successor to their classics This is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues and 2000’s acclaimed comeback, A Rock In The Weary Land - an album containing elements of those powerful works, but also taking us into thrilling new territory; an album as literate and compelling as anything in The Waterboys’ catalog to date. As the opening bars of “The Crash of Angel Wings” thunder out, we know that Book of Lightning is going to be a new, unpredictable installment in The Waterboys’ story. Book of Lightning was recorded in London in Fall 2006 and was produced by Mike Scott and Philip Tennant, who previously worked with The Waterboys on Fisherman’s Blues. The album features electric fiddler Steve Wickham, whose involvement in the band dates back to 1985. Mike Scott is also joined by regular Waterboys’ keyboardist Richard Naiff, Louisiana-born drummer Brady Blade, top London drummer Jeremy Stacey, bassman Mark Smith, hot young guitar stylist Leo Abrahams and long-time Waterboys’ alumni Roddy Lorimer (trumpet), Thighpaulsandra (keyboards) and Chris Bruce (electric guitar). In addition,”Sustain” was recorded in Vancouver with members of Canadian art-rockers Great Aunt Ida. Book of Lightning is brilliantly bound together by Scott’s lyrical talents, which have taken on even more maturity and confidence. The consistent presence of weather and nature throughout the lyrics and sound of Book of Lightning acts as a masterful unifying stroke, drawing us into a world that could only be created by Mike Scott at that moment in time - a world that is a mirror of Scott’s self-awareness, his understanding of nature of love, and his observance of the destructive effects of the glamour of power.