Friday, September 7, 2012

The Waterboys - Fisherman's Blues

About a year or so ago, a series of small album-themed books called 33-1/3 was bought by a new publisher, which then decided to request proposals for new books in the series. I seized the opportunity to submit a proposal to write a book about the Waterboys album, Fisherman's Blues. Unfortunately, the opportunity did not seize me: my proposal was rejected. Part of the proposal involved writing a sample chapter. So that my effort is not fully wasted, I have decided to publish the chapter here. This was to have been the introduction to the book.


When the Waterboys fourth album, Fisherman’s Blues, appeared in record shops in October 1988, it had been more than three years since its predecessor, This Is the Sea, had been released. The latter had been a success (at least by Waterboys standards), the album posting in the Top Forty UK chart, and a single, “The Whole of the Moon,” peaking at number twenty-eight. It may have done better had Mike Scott, founder, leader, singer, songwriter, guitarist, and frontman of the group, not refused to promote it on the Top of the Pops television program due to an aversion to lip-syncing. (When reissued in 1990, the song reached number three and was honored with the Ivor Novello Award the following year.)

A three-year absence in the pop music marketplace is crime enough; Fisherman’s Blues added insult to injury by shifting radically from the “Big Music” of the Waterboys’ first three albums – marked by blaring horns, roaring guitars, layers of electric keyboards, and thudding drums – to a more acoustic format melding Celtic fiddle tunes with influences from folk and American country music.

By any accounting of the situation, it would appear that the album was both commercial heresy and career suicide. There wasn’t much demand from MTV for Celtic fiddle tunes, and no self-respecting fan would wait three years for the follow-up to a hit single, especially when the subject matter had turned from moon to fish (though, of course, both “The Whole of the Moon” and “Fisherman’s Blues” were relationship songs).

And yet, something strange happened. Somehow, Fisherman’s Blues became The Waterboys’ best-selling album – not just to date, but of all time – and has since come to be regarded as the band’s high-water mark. Subsequent Waterboys releases, those cut from the same musical cloth and those pursuing an entirely different aesthetic, have typically been unfairly – and unfavorably – compared to it. Though the album reached no higher than thirteen on the UK chart, and the title track peaked at thirty-two as a single, Fisherman’s Blues continues to loom high in the history of the band and in the reputation of head Waterboy Mike Scott. After just one more album exploring Celtic/folk music, he broke up the band and released a pair of solo albums before bringing back the Waterboys name (though not the players) for a series of albums with more of a guitar and synthesizer-based rock sound.

How did this happen? From whence did this musical magic come? Certainly not even Scott himself could have predicted that his 180-degree turn from mulleted ’80s rock performer to earthy roots music explorer would so drastically raise his profile and lead to the rewards of commercial success. The song “Fisherman’s Blues” has appeared in the soundtracks to the American movie Good Will Hunting (about math), the Irish film Waking Ned Devine (about death), and in the pilot episode of the American television series Lights Out (about boxing). Such broad appeal seems unusual for a project originally intended to trod the road less traveled.

The highly literate Scott puts it best himself in the liner notes to the 2006 deluxe remaster of the album, as he describes the context in which he began to move away from what the Waterboys had done to date:

“This journey began with a confluence of events in late 1985. At that point I’d taken the broad, symphonic sound of the first three Waterboys albums … as far as I could. Frustrated that I couldn’t reproduce the sound on stage, and seeking new musical roads to travel, I’d started to listen to country, folk and old-style gospel music, envying their simplicity and purity.

“I was excited by the possibilities of writing and playing these different kinds of music, and by the liberating prospect of departing from the repeat-formula-for-success script that managers, agents, record companies, journalists and even fans were devising for me.”

In retrospect, long-time Waterboys fans see this metamorphosis as nothing particularly out of character for Scott. Thirty years on, one can see that he has regularly showed disdain for pure commerciality for its own sake, displayed a restless creativity that prevents him from repeating himself or treading water in any one pond for too long a time, and consistently honored his muse in realms both musical and spiritual with honesty and without apology.

This is a man, after all, who followed up his most electronic and at times harrowing-sounding album (2000’s A Rock in the Weary Land) with the pin-drop stillness and religiosity of 2003’s Universal Hall, only to bounce back to hard rock with 2007’s Book of Lightning and then take a complete left turn with 2011’s An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, in which he sets a number of the poet’s works to music. That all these works are all aesthetically successful to a greater or lesser extent is besides the point; after all, regardless of their diversity of execution they spring from the same fount: the mind, heart, and soul of Mike Scott.

No, the point is that nothing would surprise a Waterboys fan more than to see a Vol. 2 of any of these works. The prolific Scott seems often ready to move on to another rail while the train he rides is still in motion. The only expectation one can have at this juncture of his career is that he will do the reverse of what he last accomplished. And yet each Waterboys album is unmistakably a Waterboys album, united as they are by his expansive vision and his distinctive voice.

In 1988, however, such a perspective did not exist. Each of the first three Waterboys albums seemed to build on its predecessor, and the only rational expectation was that the fourth Waterboys album would represent an extension of the third. That was not the case. As it turned out, Scott and his conspirators would spend more than two years and countless miles of recording tape going as far from expectation as possible, moving not to the frontier of musical and recording technology where so many others were staking claims, but rather looking backward at simpler times, more basic forms, and more timeless themes.

That Scott found an audience willing to go there with him was to his good fortune. That he found such sympathetic players willing to help create this bold vision and make it such a remarkable reality is our good fortune. A quarter-century later, Fisherman’s Blues has indeed stood the test of time. To hardcore fans, it is an apex of achievement; to more casual fans, it might be the one and only Waterboys recording in their collection. Regardless, it remains an essential album, the history of which – as this book will attempt to demonstrate – is as unexpected and delightful as the music itself.

I’ll let Mike Scott have one more word before we begin our journey. Here again, from the liner notes to the 2006 remaster, Scott sums up what this album represented to him and to the world, at that time and for all time:

“[W]hile we were completing ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ in Galway, I felt it was an act of power to stand in one’s own heritage; not with a fundamentalist my-culture’s-the-only-way attitude, but by being open to the shared global culture, with all its interactive creative possibilities, while being centred in one’s own. And that it was perfectly cool – in fact it is very excellent – to inhabit my Celtic genes. For the Celt is a warrior, a mystic, a trickster, a shaman, a dreamer, a mischief- and magic-maker.

“So if ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ has a message to impart other than the pure expression of the music itself, it is this:

  • music is music, and no musician or band need be limited to any genre; all are fair territory for the questing musical explorer.
  • British and Irish music need not be divorced from its own roots to be relevant; if it is in tune with its own deep sense of identity, music can have – and can transmit – more power and more cultural, mythical and practical resonance.

    “In this spirit, ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and all the Waterboys music that has followed it admits of no barrier or categorisation, and is built on the mighty foundation rock of the Celtic soul.”


    Susan of Malden said...

    Hey, man, they totally should have asked you to do a whole book. That's such a great album and I love how you wrote about it.

    Anonymous said...

    I bought this album because it stayed on top of the college radio chart for 6 consecutive weeks. The only other release I can recall doing that was Modest Mouse's "The Lonsome Crowded West". Good company and a great album.