I wish I was a fisherman
Tumbling on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories
Casting out my sweet line
With abandonment and love
No ceiling bearing down on me
Save the starry sky above
With light in my head
You in my arms …
Even now, a quarter of a century after I first heard these words, sung with passion by Mike Scott and with Steve Wickham’s fiddle sweeping and soaring around his voice like waves on the sea, I still get shivers down my spine. The passion and wide-screen romanticism of Fisherman’s Blues make it one of my all-time favourite songs and albums. So I was in raptures a couple of months ago when I learnt that Mike Scott, after sifting through hours of session tapes, was releasing to the world a mammoth six-disc box set featuring 121 tracks from the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, 85 of which had been previously unavailable. Even more electrifying was the news that he had reunited the legendary Fisherman’s Blues band to tour a show featuring highlights from the Fisherman’s Box – and that the British leg of the tour would open at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall.
Fisherman’s Blues first TV performance: Channel 4’s The Tube
Speaking of the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, Mike Scott has asserted that ‘music isn’t worth the air it occupies if it doesn’t change both its makers and its listeners’. Despite being out of tune with a music scene in thrall to raves, ecstasy and sampling, Fisherman’s Blues would turn out to be the biggest selling Waterboys album, and you only have to attend a Waterboys concert to understand how much it means to those who have taken its songs to their hearts.
1984: the first Waterboys show
As Dave Simpson put in a Guardian feature last Friday, ‘At the end of 1985, Mike Scott had the world at his feet. His band of three years, the Waterboys, had just entered the charts with The Whole of the Moon, a song that would become his signature anthem. … Had Scott been a different, more compromising character, he would perhaps have followed [U2 and Simple Minds] into stadium-filling rock. However, the impassioned singer-songwriter wasn’t having any of it’. During Sunday’s concert at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, Mike Scott explained how he ‘had got bored with rock, hating the sound of synthesisers and snare drum drenched in echo’.
Mike Scott backstage in 1986
As a result of Scott’s distaste for the scene, the Waterboys disappeared off the radar for two years. Moving first to Dublin and then the west coast of Ireland, Scott went in search of ‘something older, more real and more rooted’, regrouping the band around fiddle and mandolin and pursuing deep explorations of Irish music and all points west: , the country blues of Hank Williams, soul, gospel, jump blues – anything that was earthy and real.
In recording sessions that took place over two years, ranging from Dublin in early 1986 to San Francisco, and then Dublin again the following spring and summer, Scott and his raggle taggle gypsies recorded nearly 100 songs, sometimes in several different versions. From all of those sessions the final version of Fisherman’s Blues was assembled and released in October of 1988. As Scott put it in an interview, ‘We started recording our fourth album in early ’86 and completed it 100 songs and 2 years later’.
In another recent interview, Scott was asked whether he felt like a pioneer at the time:
When we were blending rock with folk influences, we weren’t the first ones to be doing it… You could date it back to folk rock, when the folk boom music, the protest music, met the beat boom and you had people like The Byrds and the Turtles coming out. In Britain, we had Fairport Convention and bands like that in the late 60s and early 70s. And so it wasn’t even new when the Waterboys were doing it. I always think that the Pogues and the Waterboys were the two bands at that time, in the late 80s, that took the trad Celtic music and merged it with rock. […] And rediscovering isn’t enough. There has to be something original brought to it. Certainly Fairport Convention did that and the Pogues did that and I believe the Waterboys did that with Fisherman’s Blues. We did certain blendings of folk and rock music that hadn’t been done. We did more of that on our follow-up album, Room to Roam.
A re-creation of the cover photo of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, shot two years later during sessions for the follow-up, ‘Room to Roam’, at the same location, Spiddal House in County Galway. Back row, L-R: Colin Blakey (flute, pipes), Diarmuid O’Sullivan (guest vocalist), Barry Beckett (producer), Seamus & Eileen Begley (guest vocalists), Trevor Hutchinson (bass), John Dunford & Jimmy Hickey (crew). Front, L-R: Anto Thistlethwaite (sax), Sharon Shannon (accordion), Mike Scott (guitar/vocals), Noel Bridgeman (drums) & Steve Wickham (fiddle).
In 2013, some 25 years after the conclusion of the recording marathon that produced Fisherman’s Blues, Mike Scott assembled a 6-CD compilation from the archive of session recordings, chronologically charting the progress of the band – gathering discarded songs (many of them as much classics as those that made it onto the original album) and the varied attempts at songs as Scott sought the sound he wanted. In his memoir, Adventures of Waterboy, published in June, Scott explained the purpose behind his task:
The twelve songs, six from Spiddal and six from Windmill Lane, told only a fraction of the story not just of the music we’d made but of all that had happened since I’d come to Ireland three years earlier. We’d recorded nearly a hundred tracks and twice as many out-takes, probably the largest body of work ever for one album; and the stylistic and personal changes the music documented were as deep and manifold as some bands go through in whole careers. Fisherman’s Blues could and should have been a double or triple album but most of the Dublin recordings, including many of our best moments, would remain unfinished for another decade. Three hundred and seventy four master reels, piled floor to ceiling and wall to wall in a room at Windmill Lane, waited for the day twelve years hence when I’d return to complete the work.
Steve Wickham and Anto Thistlethwaite, Galway, 1987 (photo by Frank Miller)
Having presented the Fisherman’s Box to the world, Scott then set about re-assembling the original band:
I talked to Steve Wickham [electric fiddle and mandolin] first and he wanted to do it, too. And then I contacted Antony [Thistlethwaite] our old saxophone and mandolin player, and he was up for it. And then I contacted Trevor [Hutchinson], our bass player. Once everyone was in, then I spoke to our agent and he liked the idea, too.
Steve Wickham and Mike Scott on stage at the Phil
And so to the Phil. It’s been sold out for weeks, and now the auditorium is electric with anticipation. On the darkened stage, a figure steps forward into the spotlight, long black coat, floppy hat covering his face as he stoops toward the mike and sings:
We’re sailing on a strange boat
heading for a strange shore …
We’re sailing on a strange sea
blown by a strange wind
We’re sailing on a strange sea
blown by a strange wind
Carrying the strangest crew
that ever sinned …
We’re living in a strange time
working for a strange goal
We’re living in a strange time
working for a strange goal
We’re turning flesh and body
Another figure strides out, and Steve Wickham’s haunting fiddle takes up the refrain as the rest of the band slide into their positions before a back-projection of the house in Spiddal where several of the Fisherman’s Blues songs were recorded. With the exception of present Waterboys drummer Ralph Salmins, it’s the old eighties band reunited: Scott and Wickham, with Anthony Thistlethwaite (sax, fiddle and mandolin) and Trevor Hutchinson on bass guitar.
After opening with a couple of tracks from Fisherman’s Blues, Scott and the band paid tribute to John Lennon, as we near the 33rd anniversary of murder, with a blistering account of Cold Turkey. The set included some of the great covers that peppered the Fisherman’s Blues sessions, including one of the best versions of Dylan’s ‘Girl from the North Country’ that you’re ever likely to hear and a Celtic-flavoured rendition of Hank Williams’ ‘I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry’. Towards the end of the concert the band gave us their tremendous cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’ with the segue into the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ at the close.
There were plenty of reminders, too, that the Fisherman’s Blues sessions ran the gamut of musical styles. ‘Tenderfootin’ was a Scott original, a ‘cautionary tale’ with echoes of jump jive and Robert Parker’s ‘Barefootin”; ‘Blues for Your Baby’ was a sultry, late-night conversation between Scott at the piano and Thistlethwaite blowing on sax; while the band stormed their way through ‘Meet Me At the Station’ a traditional gospel number recorded by Reverend Gary Davis and the Memphis Sanctified Singers – the version that Scott had heard.
Scott introduced ‘Come Live With Me’ with a lengthy anecdote about how he and the band first heard the song. It was during the period in early 1986 when they had moved to California at the invitation of Bob Johnston, the legendary producer of Dylan (Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline), Johnny Cash (San Quentin) and Simon & Garfunkel, who had called Scott to suggest the band record with him in his home studio in southern California. Down the valley was a small town with ‘the best record shop in the world’. It was there that Thistlethwaite came across the 1974 Ray Charles album Come Live With Me. When they got back to Ireland, the title song ‘just blew our socks off’. At the time, Scott said, he had ‘just won – and lost a girl’ who had moved to New York. Scott learned the song – ‘a gorgeous mating call from a man in love with his woman’ – and the band spent a whole night recording it. Then Scott took the next flight to New York with a cassette tape of the track, found the girl’s apartment in Manhatten and said to her, ‘You gotta listen to this song…’
Come live with me
And won’t you be my love
Share my bread and wine
Be wife to me
Be life to me
Oh, come live with me
And be my love
Let our dreams combine
Anto Thistlethwaite playing in front of the Spiddal House backdrop
Naturally, the set was crammed, too, with the widescreen epics that emerged from the marriage between Scott’s exalted vision and the insistent, electrified violins of Thistlethwaite and Wickham. There was the fierce urgency of ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ in which the band dropped out to accentuate the timely lyrics of the last verse:
The world’s full of trouble
Landlords are frowning
Cupboards are bare
People are scrambling
like dogs for a share
It’s cruel and it’s hard
but it’s nothing compared to what we do to each other
There was ‘Higher Bound’, one of the triumphant songs that didn’t make it onto Fisherman’s Blues:
I‘m the song of the river
speeding unceasing to the sea
I’m in love!
Each and every time
there’s some for me
My head is in the stars
my feet are on the ground
I’m tumbling through the years
And there were old favourites, iconic Waterboys anthems like ‘A Girl Called Johnny’ and ‘Don’t Bang the Drum’:
Well here we are in a special place
what are you gonna do here?
Now we stand in a special place
what will you do here?
What show of soul are we gonna get from you?
It could be deliverance, or history
under these skies so blue
could be something true,
But if I know you you’ll bang the drum
like monkeys do
Here we are in a fabulous place
What are you gonna dream here?
We are standing in this fabulous place
What are you gonna play here?
I know you love the high life, you love to leap around
You love to beat your chest and make your sound
but not here man – this is sacred ground
The encore featured a stunning performance of the delicate and beautiful ‘Saints and Angels’ – just such a great song that it’s a puzzle why it wasn’t released on the original album:
It is a wide world we travel
and our paths rarely cross
and we do a whole lot of living in between
So come we’ll share more than time
We’ll put our cares far behind
while we sail the ship that never goes to sea (friendship)
It could be months, and it could be years
until we find one another once more standing here
until then my beautiful friend I have a wish for you
Many hearts to keep you warm
Many guides to speed you through the storm
and may the saints and angels watch over you
A magnificent and memorable show.
Waterboys and Sharon Shannon: Saints and Angels
Mike Scott and Steve Wickham play Waterboys live Fisherman’s Blues Epstein Theatre Liverpool 9th October 2012
The Waterboys Cold Turkey John Lennon Cover live Liverpool Philharmonic Hall 8th Dec 2013
- Strange Boat
- When Ye Go Away
- Cold Turkey
- Stranger To Me
- We Will Not Be Lovers
- Higher Bound
- Girl Of The North Country
- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
- When Will We Be Married?
- Blues For Your Baby
- Come Live With Me
- A Girl Called Johnny
- Sweet Thing/Blackbird
- How Long Will I Love You
- The Raggle Taggle Gypsy
- Fisherman’s Blues
- Don’t Bang the Drum
- Meet Me At The Station
- Saints and Angels