Re-visiting The Waterboys’ ‘Room to Roam’

Back in the day, I was a huge Waterboys fan, right from the early ‘Big Music’ days and then the thrilling (and perfectly realised) sideways excursion into Irish traditional music that brought us the whole ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ phenomenon.  To me, The Waterboys were right up there on the shoulder of U2 and surely destined to be the next Celtic band to crack open the States and embrace global superstardom.

And then, in the space of one album (‘Room to Roam’) and a revisionist rock-out tour,  it all went horribly pear-shaped for The Waterboys.  Mike Scott had lost his mojo, it seemed and had also lost the aid and support of two key collaborators,  violinist Steve Wickham and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thistlethwaite.  The 90’s Waterboys were just Scott’s backing band as he pumped out empty versions of mid-80’s faves like ‘Be my enemy’ or ‘Savage Earth Heart’ and produced a series of forgettable albums – either under The Waterboys  imprint (by now just a marketing tool rather than a real band) or as solo albums.  There was the much-heralded ‘retreat’ to a spiritual community in the north of Scotland, but none of this could disguise an opportunity missed, a golden moment spurned……

Steve Wickham and Anthony Thistlethwaite – just not the same band without them

All of which takes me back to the era when I met Mike Scott a few times as The Waterboys released their ‘This is the Sea’ album and set off on the road for the first time, both as support on U2’s ‘Unforgettable Fire’ tour and also on a series of headline dates of their own.  I was friendly with – let’s call him Terry – who worked for Island Records, distributors of Waterboys ‘product’ in the UK – and he was looking after them as they toured the UK,  making substantial waves as support on U2’s European tour (What a bill that was!).  Terry was a big Dylan fan and had an impressive collection of Dylan bootlegs on vinyl.  I arrived at his house one day to find Terry & Mike Scott deeply into ‘Seems like a freeze-out’ or one of those mid-60’s gems and as Sancho Panza to Terry’s Quixote, I found myself tasked with transferring a number of these vinyl treasures to cassette for Mike Scott. 

By this point,  I had moved from Manchester up to Newcastle -upon-Tyne and though I had in some senses turned my back on the music biz, it seemed like the biz was following me as Tyne Tees TV started their immensely successful and influential TV show ‘The Tube’ in 1982, just months after I arrived.  My next encounter with Mike Scott was at Tyne Tees’ studios just prior to The Waterboys performance of December 1984.  Island had worked very patiently with the band to build their profile and the headline slot on the influential ‘Tube’ was a chance for them to promote their new single ‘The Whole of the Moon’ which even then was moving up the singles charts.  However, just minutes before they were due on stage, Mike Scott decided that they weren’t going to play ‘The Whole of the Moon‘, but instead would play some older songs like ‘A Girl called Johnny’.  Cue pandemonium backstage and red-hot phone lines between Tyne Tees and Island’s West London HQ.  Perhaps this was a typical Mike Scott moment and perhaps it explains why The Waterboys never fulfilled their promise.

By the time the band recorded again, I had lost touch with them because their record label of those days (Ensign) was now being promoted by Chrysalis rather than Island and in fact it would be another 2 years before the excellent  ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ appeared.  In the meantime, Scott relocated to Ireland and put together a new Waterboys, embracing a celtic folk direction and adding Steve Wickham from In Tua Nua as a permanent member.  The band toured extensively during the spring of 1986 and in fact played two gigs at different venues in Newcastle inside one month.  A friend supplied me with cassette tapes of both and I was able to digest at my leisure the new and extraordinary band that was now coalescing around Messrs Scott, Wickham & Thistlethwaite.  There were new Mike Scott songs for sure, but there were also some brilliant  cover versions as well – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Because the night’, the Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, Prince’s Purple Rain, Van Morrison’s Sweet Thing plus numerous country potboilers like ‘The Wayward Wind’.  They played long rambling sets that seemed to reflect a band that were just in love with their music and were mining a vein of pure magic.  It seemed impossible that such alchemy could survive the factory process of the recording studio and so it has proved – when it emerged in 1988, ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ was a really good album, but it captured only a distant gleam of the magic of those 1986 gigs.    Songs like ‘We will not be lovers’, transcendent epics on stage, became mere plodders on the album.  Even the posthumous recordings of the Windmill Lane sessions  like ‘Too close to heaven’ have only hinted at what an extraordinary creative explosion was going on inside the band at that time.  Perhaps the only recording to capture a fraction of  the band’s quicksilver beauty were the BBC recordings of their set at the 1986 Glastonbury Festival, which emerged on bootlegs first (‘A  Perfect Day’) before gaining a semi-official release on the double ‘Live Adventures’ set.

It was to be another year or so before I caught up with the band and by the time I did I had relocated to Birmingham.  I saw them at the old ‘Hummingbird’ in Dale End, currently the Carling Academy, which, whatever you call it,  is a great venue.  The place was packed for The Waterboys that night and they didn’t disappoint, giving us tremendous versions of many of the ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ songs as well as fringe tunes like ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’.  It was a great show, that served to some extent as a compensation for the curious ‘Room to Roam’ album which emerged in the autumn of 1990.

‘Room to Roam’ ; upon reflection, probably a bit of a curate’s egg

Room to Roam’  is filled with short tracks and fragments that hint at a far greater work.  We know now that Scott had assembled a revamped Waterboys in Spiddal, out where the road leaves the seaside fripperies of Salthill behind and there’s just the sky and the bay and the Burren across the water.  It seems likely that the band, with Sharon Shannon now added on accordion, recorded pretty ceaselessly and that only a fraction of the stuff in the can has seen the light of day.  What the album lacked was any truly memorable songs, though there were moments – like ‘A Life of Sundays’ –  that hinted  at something special just around the corner; something that was never really delivered.  What is now beyond doubt is that Steve Wickham left the band just as ‘Room to Roam’ was released and for Mike Scott, that appeared to be a decisive moment.  He seemingly felt that he had to leave all the Irish twiddly-diddlery behind and become a leather-clad rocker again, something which alienated Sharon Shannon and Anthony Thistlethwaite, so that by the time The Waterboys returned to Birmingham in 1991, they were now a 4-piece rock’n’roll band- and a desperately average one as well.

And that was pretty much that for me as far as The Waterboys were concerned.   Archive recordings, live concerts and expanded versions have all put flesh on the bones of The Waterboys’ late 80’s career, but nothing has really compensated for the huge disappointment of a band that had it all, then just seemed to fritter it all away.

Which brings me to ‘Room to Roam’, an album worthy of revisiting in its 2CD expanded format.  It was an album that always carried the can for my disappointments with The Waterboys and I played it only rarely before trading it in only a couple of years after it came out.  The expanded format doesn’t always do too many favours to ‘classic’ albums and I can think of numerous artists and albums that would have been better served without the expanded format that CD’s offer.  ‘Room to Roam’ is, however, an honourable exception to this trend as it brings together a number of The Waterboys’ peripheral songs and a few good live versions – notably ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ which I previously had only on a vinyl 12″ single.  ‘Sponsored Pedal Pusher Blues’ is a wry observation on the corporate culture that produced Waterboys  tour jackets, t-shirts and other promotional gizmos. the band version of ‘In search of a rose’ outstrips the released stripped-down version and ‘Down by the Sally Garden’ was apparently an Irish-only single release with vocals by Tomas McEoin in 1989.

Of course, nothing is going to recapture The Waterboys’ golden moment which probably happened somewhere between ‘This is the Sea’ and ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ , but it’s nice to be able to play a full range of recordings (both legal & bootlegged) from the 1985-1990 era and wonder at/enjoy/revel in the huge creative upsurge of this marvellous band who so nearly had the world on a string…

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