This Is the Sea
One chilly evening in November 1984, waiting for U2 to appear onstage at Wembley Arena, I found myself idly watching the unknown support band struggle through their set. Seated in a tier stage-left, close to the action, I saw everything in profile, as it were. The lead singer was wearing leather trousers, and brandishing a Gibson Les Paul Special, like Mick Jones from the Clash. His chestnut-coloured hair was coiffed into an impressive, if slightly dated, rock-star shag-pile; and his nose had an upward tilt, uncannily like my own. He was singing something about hearing the Big Music, after which he would never be the same. The noise they were making was rapturous, incandescent, exhilarating. It was clear the U2 fans couldn’t have cared less, talking in their seats like farmers at a livestock market, but I sensed the band had something I needed. I was 16 years old, still at school, and living in my staid Hertfordshire hometown, a nowheresville called Hitchin.
I immediately decided it was an injustice they were dying up there on stage. The frontman seemed to share this sentiment – even from 20 yards away one could feel him bristle at the audience’s indifference. Finally, the band played a long, curious, narrative song about World War Two, into which the singer poured his very soul.
When the tune finished: nothing. Tumbleweed. Only myself and a few others whistled and cheered. At this, the singer did something unforgettable. He cocked his head, turned on his heel, and walked purposefully offstage. He then proceeded calmly down a concrete gangway, Gibson slung upside down across his back, rock n roll-outlaw style, and vanished out of sight. Wow. That was a gesture. A fuck you. But also a challenge: are you with me or are you not? Are you in or are you out?
I was in.
The singer was Mike Scott, and his band was called the Waterboys. They had just released their second album, A Pagan Place, and were promoting it on U2’s Unforgettable Fire tour. A few weeks later, I borrowed the record from a friend, then illegally taped it, as was the custom in those days. On the sleeve, Scott peered enigmatically out from beneath the shag-pile, one eye visible only. He certainly possessed all the qualifications necessary for the job of wind-swept, romantic rock singer: fine cheekbones, full lips, scarily taut jaw-line, and that strangely vulnerable nose. Furthermore, as had been hinted at live, Scott’s voice was a revelation: forceful, moving, yet wistful. Every so often, for emphasis, he would emit a trademark ‘Whooo!’ – a sort of uninhibited Red Indian holler. There was almost too much to admire in Mike Scott’s voice. The grain. His power and range. The secure top notes – high As – of ‘A Pagan Place’ were particularly impressive.
Few facts about the band could be gleaned from the sleeve. I knew from an interview in an old issue of Sounds that Scott was from Edinburgh, now living in West London, and that the Waterboys were a fluid collection of associates rather than a ‘proper’ group like U2, or Led Zeppelin. On the back of the cover was written, quaintly, ‘For information send S.A.E to: 3 Monmouth Place, Off Monmouth Rd, London W2.’ I considered it for a moment. No, best to wait for the next album, which would be out soon enough, certain to be a masterpiece, and learn about the band from the surfeit of press it was sure to receive.
A whole year passed. Autumn 1985. No mention of the Waterboys in the music papers. I was 17 by then, an upper-sixth former, walking the carbolic corridors of my small-town comprehensive with an affectedly world-weary gait, a copy of The Penguin Book of English Verse, and a mullet. Exiting through the gates one splendid, blowy September afternoon, reading the Melody Maker (the habit of religiously reading the music press, especially the MM, had been established that year), I noticed a tiny News In Brief. The Waterboys were about to release their third album, This Is the Sea. The oddness of the idiom, and its inherent romantic quality, was immediately exciting. It had a great deal to live up to with a title like that. Not this is a sea, but this is the Sea.
I bought a copy on the day of release. Vinyl, of course. The sleeve, in ravishing black and white, displayed the same artfully cultivated mystique, but this time there was no eye contact, instead, Scott looked down, attaching a feather to his jacket. The pose was a direct reference to the cover of Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, the wrist canted at exactly the same angle. On the inner bag were lyrics, and copious illustrations. There was also a list of all the instruments used beneath each song. A bellzouki had been played on one tune. What the hell was a bellzouki? I was intrigued. On the back cover, Scott wore dark glasses, and peered intently over his piano at something just out of reach. Anthony Thistlethwaite, the sax player on A Pagan Place, was be-scarfed and be-shaded. And there was a new recruit: someone called Karl Wallinger, a geek in Lennon specs, enigmatically sniffing a wild flower. They looked cool as fuck. What would the Waterboys have for us this time?
This Is the Sea, released 30 years ago last autumn – in the same week as Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love – is one of those albums that writers throw the word ‘masterpiece’ at. For once, this is not an exaggeration. It is a perfect collection of songs, faultlessly executed, and, although not concept-driven, as side two of Hounds of Love is said to be, has an integrity of sequence; a will of its own, a flow. Grandstanding epics (‘Don’t Bang the Drum’) are audaciously succeeded by technicolour pop songs (‘The Whole of the Moon’). Numinous mediations (‘Spirit’) are tempered by brash Patti Smith-inspired devotionals (‘The Pan Within’). Meticulously arranged cold fury (‘Old England’) gives way to all-out Dylan ‘65 thrash (‘Be My Enemy’).
Aptly, the theme of the record’s eponymous final track is regeneration – the ending of an old life and the beginning of a new. Scott presents us with a simple idea: the unhappy past has faded, become irrelevant, and the far larger, more important present is here, right now. ‘That was the river / this is the sea’. Further, there’s a chance you might have a future, but ultimately, it’s up to you. Life’s what you make it. What a freeing, hopeful idea! This could have been trite, homespun wisdom if it wasn’t for the music’s huge elemental power, and the darker, conflicted undercurrents of the lyric. The song allows that past events don’t just vanish, they have consequences that intrude on the present. Yesterday mingles with today, making it harder, as each year accumulates, to make decisions. Indeed, the narrator (if one reads the lyric as inner dialogue, counsel to oneself, not a friend) is trawling through his memories, trying to identify where he went wrong. ‘These things you keep / you better throw them away’, the song begins. But he is stuck, and can’t just throw the past away. If only he could . . .
If you are familiar with the song, you will know that much of its power comes from the lyric’s uncanny ability to describe all your life’s crucial turning points as and when they happen. ‘This Is the Sea’ is a song about regeneration that constantly regenerates itself. The words always seem to fit the situation or dilemma precisely, like a mathematical formula. In this way it is perhaps the definitive ‘memory song’, where one can look back at the layers of memory, when and where the song was one’s companion, on which dark nights of the soul. It may be the end of a relationship, a friendship, a job, or time spent living somewhere, but the song’s lyric always represents it perfectly. At 17, the train in the fifth verse that you could catch if you hurried was the transport that would take me to London, where I intended to form a rock n roll band. I imagined I needed to get a move on; that time was running out.
After this verse – the drop, or lull where the band take it down – the song begins its ascent to a kind of summit. A gathering instrumental wave of frightening power, a giant breaker threatening a tsunami, starts to rise. The sound picture becomes dangerously engorged, Scott urging ‘THE RIVER!’ over and over. It builds and builds until it cannot build any further . . . Then it breaks, and there is calm. Scott had been true to his promise. The album’s title track was the sea, an ocean of personal meanings and connections, but also oddly mimetic of the sea itself, its dreadful power. And how unexpected and pleasing it was to discover that last unruffled line, the quiet injunction to behold the sea. Accept change, it seemed to say, marvel at it; don’t ask why. Such is the song’s strength, if I sit down to listen to it now, I still come away dazed, altered in some way.
Some of the effect, it has to be said, arises from straight musical repetition. Back in 1985, if you’d suggested Mike Scott was a Velvet Underground fan, I may not have believed you (he was a Bowie-phile and Lennon-head also, but I didn’t know that either). There were many bands beginning to use the Velvets as a template then – shades, turtlenecks, feedback – but the Waterboys were not one of them. Instead, he took their quintessence. In the sleeve notes to This Is the Sea’s 2004 re-issue, Scott states that from the Velvet Underground he learned: ‘The power of the two-chord song . . . the glory of sustaining a single dynamic intensity for an entire track.’ ‘This Is the Sea’ uses double-tracked 12-string acoustic guitars, playing a simple E to A sequence to create a rolling, repetitive tide of sound. Each guitar is ‘hard-panned’ (i.e. separated, so one is heard in the left speaker, the other in the right). Consequently, they spark against each other, talk to each other almost, one accent complimenting another. Over this, Scott layered multiple tambourines playing ‘disciplined rhythms’, as he called them – the triplets that drive the song. From this simple, naive palette, emerged a distinctive, sweeping, quixotic sound, one at odds with the cynical airbrushed eighties; something no other artist was attempting at the time.
If his musical influences were sometimes well hidden, Scott was, ironically, one of the great ‘portal artists’. Like Bowie, Scott’s work often alludes to, or quotes directly from, another artist or cultural figure. In this way they are, in a benevolent teacherly way, the portal to another body of work, a new world. Just as Aladdin Sane references Jung, Benny Goodman, Che Guevara, the New York Dolls, Marilyn Monroe, and, Jean Genet, via ‘The Jean Genie’; This Is the Sea alludes to, among others, Yeats, Joyce, the 19th Century English artist William Strutt, and Sylvia Plath (the album’s title is a direct quote from ‘Berck-Plage’). And not forgetting the name of the band. The Waterboys, I was delighted to discover, derived from Lou Reed’s Berlin: ‘I am the Waterboy’, from ‘The Kids’.
Scott also led back to an author who, fittingly, had written about an actual portal to another world, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis. I knew the book; it had been read to us by our form teacher as we sat cross-legged on the carpet of our classroom at Junior School. But I knew little about the man. A biopic of Lewis’s life, Shadowlands, was shown on television around this time. I watched it solely because Scott had referenced the title in the first line of an early song, ‘Church Not Made With Hands’. From the film it transpired Lewis had written an autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which I found in a dusty Hitchin bookshop. In this wonderful, short book I discovered a marvellous phrase. As a young man CS Lewis admitted to often feeling an almost nauseating thirst for ‘the idea of autumn’. Without any further explanation I knew precisely what he meant. It perfectly summarized how I felt at 17, an earnest, bookish young man, thinking himself a rock star, at all times longing for the season of melancholy and decay, loss and falling leaves. Keats’ mists and mellow fruitfulness. Good job the Waterboys were my new favourite band that fall, and not the Style Council. This Is the Sea was the apposite soundtrack – autumnal music par excellence.
Unsurprisingly, around this time, as un homage to Mike Scott, I started growing my hair out, wearing fisherman’s caps, blazer jackets, open-necked shirts. I even bought some leather trousers (PVC actually, from a rare trip to Camden market), and for a while thought these were a perfectly acceptable way for a young man to dress.
Concurrently, the press profile I’d hoped This Is the Sea would achieve was starting to build. The fabulous ‘The Whole of the Moon’ had attained a respectable chart placing – 26 – and as a result the band were starting to divide Hitchin’s small community of aspiring musicians, like Marmite. (You were either in, or you were out.) On the cover of the Melody Maker, Scott had revealed a sideburn. It was an affront to the clean-cut pop faces of the day, two fingers up to the wine bar bands, the Wham! wannabes. In the same photograph, the top three buttons of Scott’s shirt were undone. Shirts in the eighties were to be fully buttoned at all times. The transgression was the subtlest of code, Masonic almost, a faint visual recognition signal of ‘our people’, but all the more powerful for it. There were hints in the music too. Perhaps I imagined it, but wasn’t Scott’s ‘see-ea yeah!’ in verse four of ‘This Is the Sea’ a direct quote from Zeppelin’s ‘Custard Pie’?
An episode one day in the local guitar shop perfectly illustrates this polarity. The short-haired fellow behind the till was in one of the many local bands – outfits with names like Surface Tension, or the Passion Theory – jazz funk combos infested with tasty geezers in Pringle sweaters. Level 42 fans. His group didn’t wear Pringle but played a harder style of funk, and were called the Good Time Boys. I couldn’t have come up with a better eighties antonym of ‘Waterboys’ if I’d tried. That decade was about hedonism, summery, pastel colours; a particularly nasty, Tory, philistine set of values. The Waterboys were inward, autumnal, defiantly poetic. I knew which side I was on. The Good Time Boys wore ankle-length leather coats with the sleeves rolled up, and covered ‘Get it On’, not the fleet-footed T-Rex original but The Power Station’s pompous slaughtering.
I’d only asked for a pack of Ernie Ball strings, heavy gauge, when he embarked on a tirade.
Him: ‘You know the one band I can’t stand at the moment are the fucking Waterboys, and that ‘Hole in the Moon’. Absolutely hate them. Saw their video on The Tube last night. That’s everything that’s wrong with music at the moment that is. Just fucking hippies. Awful. Who let them back in? Him with his earring, long hair and sideburns. What year does he think it is? 1973? You probably like them . . . ’
And so on like that, until I zoned into a dream. Yes, the video was rather fine, Scott with the anchor jacket, Ovation acoustic held high, spinning round and round on his heel as the music reached one delirious climax after another. Flags, rags, ferryboats, scimitars and scarves, every precious dream and vision underneath the stars . . . God it was good. I saw myself onstage, throwing a few Scott-like shapes. You came like a comet (BANG!), blazing your trail, too far, too high, too soon . . .When I came to, the peroration was still in full swing.
‘Fuckin ‘The Hole in the Moon’, what does that mean?’
Me: ‘Er, actually it’s ‘The Whole of the Moon’. ’
‘Can I have the strings please? And my change . . . Thanks.’
In October, to mark the album’s release, the Waterboys headlined the Kentish Town Forum on the This Is the Sea tour. This time Scott, still wearing the leather keks, a Lou Reed sunburst Gibson 335, a fisherman’s cap, and the greatest haircut he would ever have, owned the audience. Opening with ‘Don’t Bang the Drum’, the first track on the record, Mike Scott demonstrated to those of us plotting to form a group how it should be done. Two hours of beauty, abandon and heartbreak followed. ‘This Is the Sea’, appearing towards the end of the set, almost felt like a religious experience. I exited feeling as if I had just witnessed the best live band in Britain, if not the world. Which of course, I had.
Autumn gave way to winter. Snow covered the dead leaves, banked up in all the lanes leading out of Hitchin. There are several references to snow on This Is the Sea. (Mike Scott’s music always made me want to ‘find my scarf / and wrap it around my throat’, as he sings on ‘Medicine Bow’.) One of my chief memories from the time is listening to the record at home, the snow falling outside in perfectly vertical lines, reading and re-reading the album’s Melody Maker review. It was a rave – written, appropriately enough, by MM stalwart Matt Snow – and concluded: ‘This is the Sea, and this is the one’. The old small-town life would soon be ending, the river emerging into the sea.
Fast forward. A long way forward. 26 years later, in autumn 2011, I switched the TV on one night, and there was Mike Scott, on Later With Jools Holland. Cocky Lennon-stance, well-cut suit, Bowie ‘Space Oddity’ 12-string. He and the Waterboys were halfway through ‘Mad as the Mist and Snow’, a song from Scott’s album of Yeats’ poetry set to music. With its wild punk energy, references to Cicero and Homer, and Scott’s incomparable voice, I experienced the same tremor of excitement as when I’d discovered them all those years ago. They were still hungry. Coldplay were on the same show, and, in the rock n roll vernacular, the Waterboys blew them off stage. It was hard not to smile – in Scott’s attitude to the bigger, more feted band, I recognised the same singer that had stalked off U2’s stage at Wembley in ‘84.
Mike Scott hadn’t been on my radar for a while, but now he was back. Nothing in the intervening years had challenged This Is the Sea’s status as his masterpiece. Sure, Fisherman’s Blues had sold more copies, but This Is the Sea was still the one. It had even permeated the wider culture thanks to a great piss-take of the song on Father Ted, and ‘The Whole of the Moon’ reaching number three in 1991. Mike Scott’s strange, rapturous unique vision was, and still is, a jukebox staple the land over.
I knew what I had to do. I switched off the telly, found the old battered vinyl edition of This Is the Sea in my collection, and dropped the needle somewhere towards the end of side two . . . These things you keep, you better throw them away . . .