The early Waterboys sound was dubbed "The Big Music" after a song on their second album, A Pagan Place. This musical style was described by Scott as "a metaphor for seeing God's signature in the world." It either influenced or was used to describe a number of other bands, including Simple Minds, The Alarm, In Tua Nua, Big Country, the Hothouse Flowers and World Party, the last of which was made up of former Waterboys members. In the late 1980s the band became significantly more folk influenced. The Waterboys eventually returned to rock and roll, and have released both rock and folk albums since reforming. Their songs, largely written by Scott, often contain literary references and are frequently concerned with spirituality. Both the group and its members' solo careers have received much praise from both rock and folk music critics, but The Waterboys as a band has never received the commercial success that some of its members have had independently. Aside from World Party, The Waterboys have also influenced musicians such as Colin Meloy of The Decemberists Grant Nicholas of Feeder and Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff; both Bono and The Edge from U2 are fans of the band.
In 1983, even though Scott's record label, Ensign Records, expected his first album to be a solo effort, Scott decided to start a new band. He chose The Waterboys as its name from a line in the Lou Reed song "The Kids" on the album Berlin. In March 1983, Ensign released the first recording under the new band name, a single titled A Girl Called Johnny, the A-side of which was a tribute to Patti Smith. This was followed in May by The Waterboys' first performance as a group, on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test. The BBC performance included a new member, keyboard player Karl Wallinger. The Waterboys released their self-titled debut, The Waterboys, in July 1983. Their music, influenced by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and David Bowie, was compared by critics to Van Morrison and U2 in its cinematic sweep.
After the release of their debut The Waterboys began touring. Their first show was at the Batschkapp Club in Frankfurt in February 1984. The band then consisted of Mike Scott on vocals and guitar, Anthony Thistlethwaite on saxophone and mandolin, Wallinger on keyboards, Roddy Lorimer on trumpets, Martyn Swain on bass and Kevin Wilkinson on drums. John Caldwell from Another Pretty Face also played guitar, and Scottish singer Eddi Reader sang backing vocals for the band's first two concerts. The band made some new recordings and over-dubbed old material in late 1983 and the spring of 1984 which would be released as The Waterboys' second album, A Pagan Place, in June 1984. The "official" Waterboys line-up at this time, according to the sleeve of A Pagan Place, was Scott, Thistlethwaite, Wallinger and Wilkinson, with guest contributions from Reader, Lorimer and many others.
A Pagan Place was preceded by the single The Big Music. "The Big Music", the name of the single's A-side track, was adopted by some commentators as a description of The Waterboys' sound, and is still used to refer to the musical style of their first three albums. The release of the album was followed by further touring including support for The Pretenders and U2 and a show at the Glastonbury Festival.
The band began to record new material in the spring of 1985 for a new album, with Wilkinson leaving the band to join China Crisis. Late in the sessions future Waterboy Steve Wickham added his violin to the track The Pan Within; he had been invited after Scott had heard him on a Sinéad O'Connor demo recorded at Karl Wallinger's house.
The Waterboys (officially a trio of Scott, Thistlethwaite and Wallinger with a slew of guests) released their third album This Is the Sea in October 1985. It sold better than either of the two earlier albums, and managed to get into the Top Forty. A single from it, The Whole of the Moon, reached number 26 in the UK. Promotion efforts were hampered by Scott's refusal to perform on Top of the Pops, which insisted that its performers lip sync. The album release was followed by successful tours of the UK and North America with Wickham becoming a full-time member, Marco Sin replacing Martyn Swain on bass, and Chris Whitten replacing Kevin Wilkinson on drums. Towards the end of the tour Wallinger left to form his own band, World Party, and was replaced by Guy Chambers. At the same time, drummer Dave Ruffy replaced Chris Whitten.
In 1988 Scott took the band to Spiddal in the west of Ireland where they set up a recording studio in Spiddal House to finish recording their new album. Fisherman's Blues was released in October 1988 and showcased many guest musicians that had played with the band in Dublin and Spiddal. Critics and fans were split between those embracing the new influence of Scottish and Irish folk music and others disappointed after hoping for a continuation of the style of This Is the Sea. The album helped to increase the growing popularity of Irish music. World Music: The Rough Guide notes that "some cynics claim that Scotsman Mike Scott gave Irish music back to the Irish... his impact can't be underestimated", but Scott himself explains that it was the Irish tradition that influenced him; "I was in love with Ireland. Every day was a new adventure, it was mythical... Being part of a brotherhood of musicians was a great thing in those days, with all the many musicians of all stripes we befriended in Ireland. I still have that connection to the Irish musicians and tap into it..." Owing to the large number of tracks that were recorded in the three years between This Is the Sea and Fisherman's Blues, The Waterboys released a second album of songs from this period in 2001, titled Too Close to Heaven (or Fisherman's Blues, Part 2 in North America), and more material was released as bonus tracks for the 2006 reissue of the remastered Fisherman's Blues album.
After further touring the band returned to Spiddal in order to record a new album. The Waterboys now consisted of Mike Scott, Steve Wickham, Anthony Thistlethwaite, Colin Blakey on whistle, flute and piano, Sharon Shannon on accordion, Trevor Hutchinson on bass and Noel Bridgeman on drums. Their fifth album, Room to Roam was released in September, 1990. It is from Room to Roam that the "Raggle Taggle band" reference comes from. One of the album's tracks was a recording of the traditional folk ballad "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy".
Just before Room to Roam was released Wickham left over a disagreement with Scott and Thistlethwaite regarding the future direction of the band's sound. Scott and Thistlethwaite wanted to move the band back to a more rock and roll style, and Wickham disagreed. His departure started the band's dissolution, and in his wake Shannon and Blakey both left. Scott, Thistlethwaite and Hutchinson recruited Ken Blevins on drums to fulfil the group's tour dates.
However, Scott later resurrected the Waterboys name, citing its recognition amongst fans, for the 2000 album A Rock in the Weary Land. The album had a new, experimental rock sound, inspired by contemporary bands Radiohead and Beck that "shocked" some listeners. Scott described the new sound as "Sonic Rock". A number of old Waterboys guested on the album including Thistlethwaite and Wilkinson. By 2001 the core of the new Waterboys included Mike Scott on vocals and guitar, Richard Naiff on keyboards and organs and Wickham, who had returned to the band, on violin. The group changed direction once again in 2003 and released Universal Hall a mostly acoustic album with a return of some Celtic influences from the Fisherman's Blues era. The album was followed by a tour of the UK and then Europe. Their first official live album, Karma to Burn, was released in 2005. A new studio album, Book of Lightning, was released 2 April 2007.
Scott, who briefly studied literature and philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, has made heavy use of English literature in his music. "The Whole of the Moon", one of The Waterboys' signature songs, is partially a tribute to writer C. S. Lewis. Lewis' work is also referenced in other Waterboys' songs, such as "Church Not Made With Hands" and "Further Up, Further In".
The Waterboys have recorded poems set to music by writers including William Butler Yeats ("The Stolen Child" and "Love and Death"), George MacDonald ("Room to Roam"), and Robert Burns ("Ever To Be Near Ye"). A member of the Academy of American Poets writes that "The Waterboys' gift lies in locating Burns and Yeats within a poetic tradition of song, revelry, and celebration, re-invigorating their verses with the energy of contemporary music". So close is the identification of The Waterboys with their literary influences that the writer also remarks that "W.B.", the initials to which Yeats' first and middle names are often shortened, could also stand for "Waterboys".
Scott has also used a number of poetic tropes in lyrics, including anthropomorphism (eg. "Islandman"), metaphor (eg. "A Church Not Made with Hands", "The Whole of the Moon"), and metonymy (eg. "Old England"). The latter song quotes from both Yeats and James Joyce. While the lyrics of the band have explored a large number of themes, symbolic references to water are especially prominent. Water is often referenced in their songs (eg. "This Is the Sea", "Strange Boat", "Fisherman's Blues"). The Waterboys' logo, first seen on the album cover of The Waterboys, symbolizes waves.
Scott has also said, "I've always been interested in spirituality, and I've never joined any religion. And it really turns me off when people from one religion say theirs is the only way. And I believe all religions are just different ways to spirituality. And if you call that universality, well, then I'm all for it." Despite Scott's pluralist perspective, The Waterboys have been labelled as "Christian rock" by some reviewers.
More than thirty musicians have performed live as a Waterboy. Some have spent only a short time with the band, contributing to a single tour or album, while others have been long-term members with significant contributions. Scott has been the band's lead vocalist, motivating force, and principal songwriter throughout the group's history, but a number of other musicians are closely identified with the band.
Anthony Thistlethwaite was an original member of the band, and remained a member until 1991 when the band broke up, although he also joined a few recording sessions for A Rock in the Weary Land. After Scott and Wickham, Thistlethwaite has more songwriting credits than any other Waterboy. His saxophone, regularly featured in solos, was one half of the early group's distinctive brass section, but he has also played guitar, keyboards and a number of other instruments for the band. He pressed to return The Waterboys to a rock music sound after Room to Roam, but did not appear on Dream Harder, the result of that decision. He is now a member of The Saw Doctors, and has also released three solo albums.
Kevin Wilkinson, another original member, was The Waterboys' drummer from 1983–1984, and continued to play in some studio sessions afterwards. His most recent appearance was on A Rock in the Weary Land. He led the rhythm section of the group during its "Big Music" phase, sometimes without the assistance of any bass guitar. Scott describes Wilkinson's drumming as "bright and angular, an unusual sound".
Karl Wallinger joined the group in 1983, shortly after its formation. He left the group two years later, but in that relatively short period made important contributions to both A Pagan Place and This is the Sea. He co-wrote "Don't Bang the Drum", the environmentalism anthem on This is the Sea. His keyboards and synthesizer work expanded the group's sound, and he also did some studio work for demo sessions. Wallinger's World Party project was heavily influenced by his work with The Waterboys.
Roddy Lorimer's participation in the group began in 1983, contributing his trumpet playing "on and off" through 1990. He and Thistlethwaite took turns leading the brass section of the band, and Lorimer was also a featured soloist, most famously on "The Whole of the Moon" and "Don't Bang the Drum". He further contributed backing vocals to the song. His trumpet style is a combination of his classical training with an experimental approach encouraged by Scott. Lorimer returned for some studio work in 2006.
Steve Wickham transformed the group with his joining in 1985. His strong interest in folk music directly resulted in the band's change of direction. His initial involvement with The Waterboys ended in 1990 when Scott and Thistlethwaite wanted to return to rock and roll, but Wickham rejoined the group again in 2000, and, as of 2007, continues to perform with the band. Described by Scott as "the world's greatest rock fiddle player", he has written more songs for the band than anyone other than Scott, including the group's handful of instrumental recordings.
Richard Naiff first recorded with the band in 1999, and joined permanently in 2000. As of 2007, he is a core member, along with Scott and Wickham. He is a classically-trained pianist and flautist, and plays keyboards for The Waterboys. Ian McNabb described him as Scott's "find of the century" and reviewers have described him as "phenomenally talented".
Other notable members of the band include bassist McNabb, leader of Icicle Works; Sharon Shannon, who became Ireland's all-time best-selling traditional musician; the experimental musician Thighpaulsandra, producer Guy Chambers, and Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty.
For the sake of convenience, singles by Another Pretty Face, The Waterboys and by Mike Scott are included in this chart. All tracks were released as singles in the UK, except:
|Year||Title||Artist Credit||Chart Positions||Album|
|U.K. Singles||Australia||Canada||Ireland||US Modern Rock|
|1979||"All The Boys Love Carrie"||Another Pretty Face||-||-||-||-||-||Non-album release|
|1980||"Whatever Happened to the West?"||-||-||-||-||-|
|"Heaven Gets Closer Everyday"||-||-||-||-||-|
|1981||"Soul to Soul"||-||-||-||-||-|
|1983||"A Girl Called Johnny"||The Waterboys||80||-||-||-||-||The Waterboys|
|1984||"The Big Music"||-||-||-||-||-||A Pagan Place|
|♦ "Church Not Made With Hands"||-||-||-||-||-|
|♦ "All The Things She Gave Me"||-||-||-||-||-|
|1985||"The Whole of the Moon"||26||-||71||-||-||This Is the Sea|
|♦ "Don't Bang The Drum"||-||-||-||-||-|
|1988||"Fisherman's Blues"||32||-||-||13||3||Fisherman's Blues|
|1989||"And a Bang on the Ear"||51||-||-||1||-|
|♦♦ "World Party"||-||-||-||-||19|
|1990||♦ "How Long Will I Love You?"||-||-||-||28||-||Room to Roam|
|♦♦ "A Life of Sundays"||-||-||-||-||15|
|1991||"The Whole of the Moon" |
|3||-||-||2||-||The Best of the Waterboys 81–90|
|"Fisherman's Blues" |
|1993||"The Return of Pan"||24||-||68||28||10||Dream Harder|
|♦♦"Preparing To Fly"||-||-||-||-||-|
|1995||"Bring 'em All In"||Mike Scott||56||-||-||-||-||Bring 'em All In|
|"Buliding The City Of Light"||60||-||-||-||-|
|1997||"Love Anyway"||50||-||-||-||-||Still Burning|
|1998||"Rare, Precious and Gone"||74||-||-||-||-|
|2000||"Is She Conscious?"||The Waterboys||-||-||-||-||-||A Rock in the Weary Land|
|"A Rock in the Weary Land"||-||-||-||-||-|
|"We Are Jonah"||-||-||-||-||-|
|2007||"Everybody Takes a Tumble"||125||-||-||-||-||Book of Lightning|
For the sake of convenience, albums by The Waterboys and by Mike Scott are included here. Scott has stated on numerous occasions that he sees no qualitative or creative difference between the music produced under the two brand names.