1988: The Waterboys / Fisherman’s Blues

by J A Gray

Fisherman's Blues

I was so preoccupied with the records coming from the American underground in those days that I was barely paying any attention to the domestic music scene any more.  I remember having a chat with Sid Griffin of The Long Ryders in 1985 and him asking me which British guitar bands I was into.  I ummed and ahhed.  I think I mentioned The Smiths and Echo And The Bunnymen, though in truth I was fast losing interest in either of these bands.  By 1987 I’d grown so tired of Morrissey that I gave all my Smiths records away to my friend Vince.*  Other friends would tell me about groups like The Jesus And Mary Chain, or The Wedding Present, but I couldn’t get excited about any of these people.  The American music I was hearing sounded so free and so full of life, but the music being made by British indie bands seemed dour and miserable by comparison.  Where was the sparkle?  In truth, though, my attitude may have had more to do with my lifelong yankophilia being at an all-time peak.  But eventually I came across a band who renewed my interest in music closer to home.

In the summer of 1986, a whole bunch of us trooped down to the Glastonbury Festival.  I recall that it was my friend Nick from Liverpool who instigated it.  Most of us had never been to a big festival before, but Nick was very enthusiastic and his fervour was infectious.  We organised various cars and vans and proceeded to get very pumped up about the whole affair.  My friend Bill and I went down to Somerset together in what I assume was Bill’s car, though I can’t for the life of me recall him ever driving it other than that weekend.  Maybe he kept it at his parents’ house.  Taking the bus was always the easier option in Birmingham.  Bill played Live Rust by Neil Young and Crazy Horse on the way down.  I was still at the start of a steep learning curve with Neil in those days.  I recall not being able to get my head around Cortez The Killer.  I would catch up soon enough.

When we arrived at the festival site, we all met up at a pre-arranged spot.  I’d never seen so many people in one place before.  It was more than a little overwhelming.  But I had music as my focus.  Armed with a copy of the programme, I would zigzag from stage to stage, catching as many of the acts as I could squeeze in.  There were occasional breaks in my itinerary though, certain times of the day when I didn’t care where I was.  At such times I made my way to a place about half-way up the bank from the main Pyramid Stage to catch up with my friends and see what was going on.  On one such occasion I arrived in time to catch The Waterboys play their set.

I’d heard of The Waterboys.  In fact, I had one of their songs on a compilation album.  I’d sent off for the LP in question because it included an R.E.M. song that was, at the time, otherwise unavailable in the UK.  Determined to get my money’s worth, I tried very hard to like everything else on the record too, but, in truth, there were only about three or four tracks on there I cared much for.  One of these was a song called A Pagan Place by The Waterboys.  The amount of echo on the production was a bit overdone for my tastes, but the song was spirited.  I put it on a various artists cassette I took with me to Birmingham, and I played it a lot.  I thought about maybe buying an LP by them, but I didn’t get around to it.  Now they were on stage in front of me in Glastonbury.  Well they had to be worth a listen, right?

I was stood next to a lad called Tim.  He’d had been in my hall of residence.  In fact he’d taken over Jon’s room – you remember the Hanoi Rocks fan from the Psychedelic Furs chapter? – when Jon had moved on.  Tim now lived in a house with Liverpool Nick and Multiple Personality Ian.  He was at Glastonbury with his girlfriend, who I think was called Nadine.  She was a huge Waterboys fan, and she was on her feet and well into the music.  Meanwhile, my attention was all but totally focussed on their violin player.  This fellow in a battered top hat with a hole in the top where his hair poked through, who was leaping all over the stage and playing the holy crap out of a black electric violin.  I asked Nadine about him and she told me he was new to the group.

I took a walk down nearer the front of the stage and watched the band from a fresh angle.  There was this other guy over on the far side of the stage who was changing instruments every other song.  He played saxophone, then mandolin, then a slide guitar, then a Hammond organ.  Very impressive indeed.  And then there was the main dude, the leader of the band, alternating between guitars and an electric piano, and singing with so much fire in his belly.  I went back up the hill and watched with a big grin on my face as these three guys stood at the front of the stage and lead the rest of the band through this new song called Fisherman’s Blues.  Every so often they’d do a high kick in unison, and then twirl around 360 degrees.  Not only were they bloody good musicians, but they evidently liked to have a good laugh too.  The violin man was playing this fantastic little hook on his fiddle all the while.  I had to get a copy of this song!  I carried on quizzing Nadine.  She told me that the Fisherman’s Blues song hadn’t come out on a record yet.  The most recent album was called This Is The Sea, but the violin player was only on one track.  I decided to wait for the next album.  It was sure to sound more like the gig I was watching and really enjoying.

So I waited.  And waited.  It wasn’t until more than two years later that I saw a review of Fisherman’s Blues in one of the music papers.  I can’t remember who wrote it, but it described a record that was full of romance and wonder.  Filled with much eager anticipation, I went out and bought a copy on the day of release.  Reading through the notes on the LP’s inner bag, I learned the names of the people I’d seen on stage all those months before.  Mike Scott was the main man, the songwriter and the singer (I later learned that the band was, in truth, only ever Mike and whoever he chose to take along for the ride).  The multi-instrumentalist was Anto Thistlethwaite.  And that amazing man on the fiddle was Steve Wickham.  I was also intrigued to discover that The Waterboys hadn’t been avoiding the studio for the past three years.  I had presumed that they’d been touring and doing other things and had only just gotten around to making their new record, but the notes told me otherwise.  The oldest tracks, Fisherman’s Blues itself and the cover of Van Morrison’s Sweet Thing, had been recorded in January 1986, months before that Glastonbury concert; side two of the album had been recorded in the spring of 1988; the other songs on side one at various points in between.  How strange.  It seemed as if this was both a new album, but also a compilation culled from something far greater.  I had no idea at the time just how true this would prove to be.

But back there in late 1988, there was just the one vinyl album with its twelve songs.  Side one kicked off with the title track, the first thing recorded for the album.  It showcased the band’s new sound, with Wickham to the fore, and Thistlethwaite largely forsaking his sax to concentrate on mandolin.  I learned later that earlier Waterboys albums had been built up layer by layer in the studio, producing records that sounded like a 1980s take on Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”.  The recording of Fisherman’s Blues had been far more organic.  The band would play the songs live, with only minimal overdubbing being added to the takes that were selected as masters.  This new approach let the songs breathe, and allowed the musicians to play off one another.  The title track, now firmly regarded as a classic, covered by countless bar bands, busked on the streets all over the world – and second only to The Whole Of The Moon when it comes to Waterboys songs most likely to be played on the radio – retains its freshness to this day.  Scott sings it like a man reborn, and Wickham’s killer hook never fails to lift the spirits.

The album moves into darker, edgier territory for We Will Not Be Lovers, with its nagging riff full of claustrophobia and tension.  Then we’re back into calmer waters with Strange Boat, another key song and another superb example of the Scott/Wickham/Thistlethwaite chemistry.  This is followed by World Party, which sounds almost like a throwback to the previous Waterboys sound with its denser, layered production.  The first side of the album concludes with Sweet Thing which segues into The Beatles’ Blackbird towards the end.  Wickham’s fiddle improvisations are stunning on this track, and the band make the song their own.

Side one then is all good stuff, and I’d have settled for more like this and been happy enough.  But side two is something else again.  There’s a definite shift.  Maybe a little background is needed here.  Scott had gone to visit Wickham in Dublin  in early 1986, needing a change of scene.  It was supposed to be just a break, but he ended up living there for the next few years.  Recording sessions mostly took place in Dublin, but with occasional trips to California to record with legendary producer Bob Johnston at the controls.  By the end of 1987, Scott was sitting on a mountain of session tapes, with songs in various states of completion.  The material ran the gamut from structured pop and rock, to long freewheeling improvised pieces, taking in folk, country, blues and gospel influences along the way.  There was a lot of music.  And because most of it was recorded live, there were countless takes of many of the songs.  Scott was finding it hard to make decisions about which performances should make the final cut.  His solution might have appeared bizarre to those who were already frustrated by the seemingly endless wait for a new Waterboys album, but it lead to some of the finest music his band would ever record.  He decided to select a small handful of the 1986/7 recordings, and lead the band through a fresh series of recording sessions in the spring of 1988.  These sessions would be more focussed, with the band sticking with a song until they completed a master.  Only then would they tackle the next song.  In this way he hoped to complete the album.

Scott moved to the West of Ireland to prepare his latest songs for the upcoming sessions.  He rented a cottage on the outskirts of the small coastal village of Spiddal in County Galway.  He became so enamoured of the place that he decided to have the band record there too, only there were no ‘proper’ recording studios out there in the wild west.  What they did was rent a manor house just up the road from the village crossroads in the centre of Spiddal, then they had recording equipment brought in, and this is where the main sessions for Fisherman’s Blues were completed.

Side two of the record was all done in Spiddal and the ‘spirit of place’ oozes from every last note.  The nearest thing to a rock song is the side opener, And A Bang On The Ear – a journey through the back pages of Mike Scott’s little red book.  It may not mention all the girls he’d loved before, but we get to hear about the ones closest to his heart.  The lyric manages to walk a fine line between the heartfelt and the humorous.  As a song it could so easily have turned into a novelty item or a bit of light relief.  However, the performance is so compelling and so full of life and joy that it rises far above any such concerns.  Jay Dee Daugherty – who had drummed with Scott’s beloved Patti Smith and with Tom Verlaine – was sitting in for this session, and he drives the band with a powerful yet subtle swing.  And once again Wickham is in top fiddling form.  The result is a masterful example of how to achieve the perfect blend of folk and rock.  And though it’s a fairly long song, it seems to skip by you in a giddy heartbeat.

After this we leave rock music behind.  Has Anybody Here Seen Hank? could have been written by the titular country legend himself.  When Will We Be Married is the first of many Waterboys rewrites from the traditional folk songbook.  And then there’s the absolutely beautiful When Ye Go Away, with its words of melancholy resignation and its unforgettable instrumental reel composed and played by Scott’s new landlord, Charlie Lennon.  When Ye Go Away had started life as a punky Dylanesque organ-driven tune, then titled Killing My Heart, but the new setting was both more sophisticated, and better suited to the lyric.

And then, after the short instrumental Dunford’s Fancy, came the absolute jewel in the crown.  The Stolen Child was a Yeats poem set to Scott’s music.  The band tracked down local sean-nós** singer Tomás Mac Eoin to recite the poem, while Scott sang the refrain.  The vocals were set against Scott’s rolling piano motif, and decorated by an undulating flute figure played by soon-to-be full-time Waterboy Colin Blakey.  Other instruments fade in and out of the sonic picture, and the result is truly enchanted music.  It’s as if the woods and stream around Spiddal House have come to life and this is their soundtrack.  To this day I can’t hear this track without shedding a few tears.  It wipes the floor with me.

I was utterly beguiled by the second side of Fisherman’s Blues.  It had a depth and an otherworldly charm about it that resonated deeply with me.  This wasn’t rock music or pop music, this was spiritual music.  It had its roots in older, less frivolous times.  It had mystery and it had a gentle power.

I was so influenced by the album that I started wearing big sweaters and a denim cap – trying my best to look all rural and folky.  I tried to get my band Onionhead to get a violin player in, but they wouldn’t have any of it, save for allowing my friend Martin in to play fiddle on a demo recording and a solitary gig.  When The Waterboys came to Birmingham on their 1989 tour, I saw a couple of members of The Wonderstuff at the front of the audience.  They had a fiddle player in their ranks a short time later.  Miles Hunt must have had more clout than I did.

It was a great gig, the only disappointment for me being that Tomás didn’t show up to sing The Stolen Child as he did at some of the other Waterboys shows from that tour.  We did get treated to an unexpected rendition of Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’Aime though.  The band was clearly having a blast.  What I didn’t know was it was to be the last time I was to see them live for over twenty years.  I thought Fisherman’s Blues was going to be the start of a series of amazing Celtic folk rock albums, but they only made one more (the criminally underrated Room To Roam) before Steve Wickham decided to leave the band.  When he did, that whole era of The Waterboys drew to a close.  As for me, I simply wasn’t interested in seeing the band without him, and when they toured as a rocking four-piece in 1990, I stayed at home and sulked.  But in all seriousness, I was devastated when Wickham left.  I couldn’t believe he’d walk out on something so special.

Wickham rejoined The Waterboys in 2001.  Scott had just put together a CD of Fisherman’s Blues outtakes called Too Close To Heaven***.  For years I had heard the rumours about all the wonderful songs that had been cut for the original album and left in the vaults.  Scott regretted that he hadn’t put out a double (or even a triple) album at the time.  Some of these abandoned songs had snuck out on b-sides and compilations, but Too Close To Heaven was the first full-scale archival release.  In all honesty much of this second album disappointed me, with Scott seemingly determined to downplay the folkier side of the sessions and focus more on the gospel, blues, and improvisational material cut in the earlier sessions.  I was also more than a little dubious about some of the new overdubs added to the vintage recordings, especially some of the freshly recorded vocal performances.  I appreciate that a song isn’t finished until the artist has signed off on it, but I could almost hear the join of where the new was bolted onto the old.  But on the other hand, the album contains Higher In Time, a song so gobsmackingly mighty that you can’t believe it didn’t get pride of place on the original record.  The way the band kicks into the song midway through the intro is real hairs standing up on the back of your neck stuff.  I was instantly reminded of just how much I’d missed Steve Wickham’s violin.  And the title track was similarly magnificent, surely only its epic length cost it a 1988 release.

A further disc’s worth of archival material saw the light of day when Fisherman’s Blues was given the “Collector’s Edition” treatment in 2006.  Again I couldn’t help wishing that Scott had left more songs with their original vocals intact, but on the whole the second disc of new material was much more to my tastes.  Highlights include the instrumental performance of Carolan’s Welcome recorded at Spiddal House – a thing of wonder and deathless beauty.  And the song You In The Sky is yet another contender in the “how did this not make the original record?” sweepstakes.

For me, an even greater thrill than hearing such long lost gems was seeing Scott and Wickham playing together again on stage.  The first time I saw them back together I spent most of the concert alternating between tears and laughter.  I must have appeared to be mentally unstable, but I was so profoundly moved by the music and the occasion that I couldn’t help myself.  The two men complement each other so well that they almost complete each other.  Mike’s songs take flight and soar when Steve plays.  As far as my ears are concerned, none of the material either of them recorded in their decade apart came anywhere near to capturing the magic that is there every time they perform together.

Over the last decade or so I’ve come to know Mike a little bit.  I can’t make any claim that we’re what you’d call bosom buddies, but we have a good artist/fan relationship.  At one point we were having an email exchange regarding the then upcoming “Collector’s Edition” version of Room To Roam, and I made some suggestions regarding possible bonus tracks.  Now, some of these suggestions didn’t float his boat, but a couple of them were taken on board.  When the expanded reissue came out I was absolutely delighted to find my name in the list of “thank you”s.  I still smile to myself whenever I remember.  Proof positive that meeting your heroes needn’t be such a bad thing after all.


* I wonder if Vince still has those records.  If he does then I’ll wager that they are in what gets euphemistically called a “pre loved” condition by now.

** Sean-nós is a traditional Gaelic style of solo, unaccompanied singing.

*** The album was titled Fisherman’s Blues Part 2 in the States.

N.B. Fisherman’s Blues is currently available, in remastered form, as a “Collector’s Edition” double CD pack with a selection of session out-takes on the second disc.  The other CD of songs from the same sessions, Too Close To Heaven, is also still available.  However, both of these releases are soon to be superceded by the forthcoming Fisherman’s Box, a seven-disc box set which is due to be released in October 2013, marking the 25th anniversary of the original LP’s release.  I can hardly wait!

My other nominations for 1988 albums of merit:

The Icicle Works / Blind

R.E.M. / Green

Galaxie 500 / Today

The Pogues / If I Should Fall From Grace With God

Brian Wilson

Talk Talk / Spirit Of Eden

Leonard Cohen / I’m Your Man

Sonic Youth / Daydream Nation