The Waterboys: Shake Some Action, Part I

Mike Scott continues a late period winning streak with yet another aces new album

The Waterboys 1986

If in the mid-‘80s, you latched on to the Waterboys – as well you should have done -– you quickly realized there was a sense of optimism that coursed through those first three albums.

Struggle, but survival and maybe even triumph. Spiritual, sometimes pastoral, sometimes grand and anthemic It was a sound and style that was termed “the big music,” after the song of the same name on their second album, A Pagan Place.

A young Mike Scott led this band of Celtic-flavored rockers. So, a simple question posed to Scott in the autumn of 2019, with the Waterboys on tour across America featuring songs from their latest album Where the Action Is: Does that optimism still flow?

The answer is not so simple.

First, a sigh. Then, an “Ooh.” And then, on the other end of the phone, gathering his thoughts, Scott says, “It’s an interesting world.”

And then an outpouring. “I’ve got double vision,” Scott continues. “On one hand, I look and I see the great advantages of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s being eaten away by charlatans and crooks and fear-based ideologies. On the other hand, I also look with the eye of spirits and that seeing the dance of Shiva and that everything works together for an ultimate purpose and an ultimate good. 

“So, I see both things and I inhabit both and I write my songs from both places, sometimes both in the one song like ‘In My Time on Earth.’ I also think just to go a little bit deeper, because of the developments in mass communication and the internet a lot of things that are hidden are coming up to the surface. It may look like a sudden swelling of authoritarian, fear-based ideologies, I think that things have always been under the surface, not always though and sometimes right up front like in Germany [pre-World War II]. But now all over the world, it’s come up and held in the light and I don’t think for a moment that they’ll prevail and become a new world order. I think there’s a built-in obsolescence; they’ve all got the destruction built in because they’re not ideologies that are based on the actual true principles of the universe, the principles of evolution and growth.”

So much of that is based on the fear of “the other,” I suggest.

“That’s right, exactly,” Scott says. “And on hatred of the self.  Underneath hate of the other is hate of the self.”

I pose this: A fear we have the idea that even if Trump is impeached and convicted (fat chance) or voted out, he’s established that ethos, that mean-ness and cruelty as norms. And the Republicans won’t become “respectable” Republicans again. He’s emboldened their anger. 

“I think the Republican party was heavily compromised before Trump came along,” says Scott.  “As many commentators have said, it didn’t begin with Trump – he’s just the end result of a whole lot of processes. But I don’t think his abusive politics will become norm; I think there will be a swing back to decency. I bloody hope so.”

And with that we leave politics behind and dig into the Waterboys music, past and present.

The Waterboys Where The Action Is, BMG 2019


When we last talked maybe four years ago, you were telling me about two versions of the Waterboys, a European band and an American band with you and fiddler Steve Wickham being the links between the two. Is that still the case? 

No. In 2015 we blended the two bands and it became a Euromerican Waterboys and we’ve less Americans in the band now. But we still have one, Brother Paul [Brown] from Memphis.  It’s seven of us usually, but on this North American tour it will be five counting me.


In terms of structuring the set, there’s so much material and so many different styles of music. How do you balance the old and the new, audience favorites and deep cuts? What’s your strategy?

I play what I like. I play what turns me on.


Do the song selections change over time?

Yeah. Of course there are favorites and if you study the tour repertories over the years, they keep recurring. There are songs that I like and then some songs that stick around for ten years and then I get bored with them. And of course I’m always keen to play the newer songs because that’s what I’m interested in right now. And then some of those become perennials and so on. But I basically do the set list partly to please myself and partly to make it as good as I possibly can. 


One of the fun upbeat rockers on the new album is about The Clash’s Mick Jones, “London Mick.” There’s lots of detail about you and him doing this and that. I’m guessing virtually all those anecdotes are true.



VIDEO: The Waterboys “London Mick”


Generally, Joe Strummer gets lots of praise, but there’s maybe less going Mick’s way.  

Yeah, I like Strummer as much as all the other Clash fans. I think partly because he was such a magnetic frontman, one of the greatest rock and rollers of all time. No argument of that. And also because he died it puts his life into a different relief. Yet, Mick was crucial and also Mick was the one who made the records, the record crafter in the Clash. As wonderful musician and a wonderful guy. I would like to work with him, neer have. We have jammed together, at least once.


What is he doing?

He did a solo EP, the Rock and Roll Library a series of collages and masups on vinyl only to coincide with his rock and roll liberay exhibiton. He’s always been a great collector of reords,magazine and fanzies and all his collectins are exhbitedd.  Cooking Vinyl, our label, he is working on a record. 


You’re growing up and older in the rock idiom and are 60. Did you ever envision doing this at 60 when you were in your 20s?

Never thought about it. 


Album to album, tour to tour …

I just got on with the job. 


Taken  breaks?

Only from touring. I had a break from 91 92 93 that was the biggest break but I was busy, I was making the endless record Har5der for Geffen and went to  Findorne and wrote most of the Briga moreland album.


You made albums under you own name, good albums but they didn’t reach the Waterboys sales mark. The brand name is bigger; you sell to more people.

Of course, it is a better known name. But wo knows, I could have gone solo and had a huge hit and then Mike Scott would be the biggest known name. Who remembers Wham! now? It’s George Michael. And I began my solo career with a one man acoustic album of very inteimate spiritual community recorded in the northeast of Scotalnd. I kind of think that’s funny.


Not a commercial venture.

That’s right. Laughs. 


What joy do you get from playing concerts?

Yeah. I just played the best shows of my life in Scotland over the weekend. 


Never a routine.

Never, no. 


Some just punch the clock.

I love rock and roll too much to do that. 


I interviewed Bryan Ferry and he told me about the three phases of the band. He carved it up that way. Do you do that? Do you look at in terms of phases?

Yeah, I guess I do. There are the first three reecords made under the process of layering and overdubbing in London and then there wer the next tow records made by capturing the band in performance in Ireland with mreo acoustic and free roaming sounds. And then I consider the  next five or six album wilderness periods where I’m looking for things, finding new members, trying to find new ways of experessing myself, trying to bring through the spriautila things I learned in my life into the music. Then, bang I moved back to Ireland in 2008 and then there are all the reocrds after that which to me are proably the best recofrds w’eve made from Mr. Yeats onward.

The Waterboys A Pagan Place, Ensign 1984

Is there a seamless thread from the beginning to now. Do you see continuity, progression?

Yeah, I think so. All I can say, my fascinations and my musical interests that created the first three records and that took me to to Ireland which changes the sound and style of the next couple of records. It was the same driving impulse from inside that took me through the more spiritual records of the ‘90s when I was trying to bring through a different sound which is actually the same as I’ve always sounded but I wanted it to sound in a clearer way. It’s always the same inner direction pushing me. 


Do any not sound right to play?

For sure. I have a relationship with every song and some of them always work like “Fisherman’s Blues,”  “The Whole of the Moon,” “Don’t Bang the Drum,” “The Pan Within.” Doesn’t matter what the lineup is, they always work. Then there are some I overlooked for a long time and then they a come back into the frame. Maybe it’s the new lineup inspires me to try a song. And then there are songs that seem great for a while and then I get bored with them. In fact, even some of my favorites I get bored with them. “The Pan Within” has been played on every Waterboys tour for ten years now, and I just really …. I need a break from it. (laughs) 


VIDEO: The Waterboys “Where The Action Is”

Its title inspired by the chorus of Robert Parker’s 1960s mod / northern soul classic “Let’s Go Baby”, Where The Action Is is a 10-song, genre-defying album, testament to the enduring talents of the band’s founder and front man Mike Scott. One of the finest British songwriters of the past four decades, his songs have been covered and/or recorded by artists including Prince, who crafted two different arrangements of Scott’s classic “The Whole Of The Moon”, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Steve Earle, and Ellie Goulding, who had a number three hit in 2013 with “How Long Will I Love You”.

The title track’s update of the Parker classic – with lyrics to reflect Mike’s own preoccupations – is a cyclone of a song, all swirling Hammond, lead guitar solos played by Steve Wickham on his fuzzboxed-up fiddle, and female vocals provided by the band’s fabulous Jess and Zeenie.

More visceral rock’n’roll follows on “London Mick,” a tribute to legendary Clash guitarist, Mick Jones. This little stomper is rendered in Mick’s own style circa 1977. A companion piece comes in the shape Of Ladbroke Grove Symphony, a brilliant paean to the former Bohemian heart of West London.

The first single from the album, “Right Side Of Heartbreak (Wrong Side Of Love),” was recorded by Mike at home, guitar and vocal into a single microphone, then sent to Waterboys’ keyboard whizz Brother Paul who added the soundscape, beats and effects at his studio in Nashville. An understated, yet infectious, soulful number addressing the trials and tribs of love, it is one of the album’s standout moments. Further experimentation can be found on “And There Is Love” (a collaboration with brilliant English producer Simon Dine) and “Take Me There I Will Follow You”, with its multi-rhyming lyrics over Brother Paul’s beats.

Where The Action Is also features a song called “Out Of All This Blue”, the title of the last album. Recorded for that record, but not nailed, Mike revisited it last year with some changes of style. Written for a friend who’s been to a dark place, the result is a compassionate song of reassurance.

The centerpiece of the album is “In My Time On Earth”, impassioned, raw and poetic, in which Mike casts a cold eye over the present day cultural landscape. The chorus tells the secret of the heart, a divine mystery which hides in plain sight. 

The two closing songs are inspired by towering literary figures. “Then She Made The Lasses-O” is based on Robert Burns’ poem Green Grow The Rashes-O and the album’s final track is “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”.

The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

This is a reading of the most beautiful part of the chapter of the same name from Kenneth Grahame’s famous book The Wind In The Willows. Cut last summer in a single instrumental take at Real World Studios, with Mike adding the vocal in Dublin, the combination of Scott’s exquisite and emotive reading and the wondrous soundscape provided by Brother Paul and Steve Wickham, bassist Aongus Ralston and drummer Ralph Salmins makes a transcendent piece and an extraordinary ending to the album.

Diverse in breadth, Where The Action Is is an album of incredible songwriting, experimentation and musical brilliance. It will excite Waterboys fans and new converts alike.


AUDIO: The Waterboys Where The Action Is  (full album)


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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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