The end of The Waterboys’ ‘big music’ trilogy: This Is The Sea

The Waterboys 1985 (

The Waterboys 1985 (fltr Karl Wallinger, Anthony Thistlethwaite, Chris Whitten, Mike Scott, Steve Wickham, Marco Sin)


In 1985 The Waterboys released This Is The Sea. It was supposed to deliver on the promise the band had made with A Pagan Place. Did they succeed?

Following A Pagan Place

The Waterboys - A Pagan Place (

The Waterboys – A Pagan Place

Following the release of masterpiece A Pagan Place, the band toured for quite some time. The band played as a support act to The Pretenders and U2 and made their debut on the prestigious Glastonbury Festival.

Early 1985 the band started recording for their next album, which was supposed to cash in on their bright future. Their ‘big music’ was gaining popularity. A Pagan Place sold well, their live shows were selling out and highly valued.

The first songs for the new album were written as early as spring 1984. The song Trumpets was the first that was written for This Is The Sea. Mike Scott wrote songs in between shows and in his apartment. He wrote about 35 to 40 songs for the album, of which 9 ended up on the album.

In New York in December, during The Waterboys’ first American tour, I bought 2 huge hard-bound books filled with thick blank white pages in which to assemble my new songs. These “black books” were soon filled with lyrics, poems, dreams, artwork ideas, instructions-to-myself, sonic blueprints, manifestos-of-the-spirit and all manner of content pertaining to the record about to be made.

Mike Scott, sleevenotes of the 2004 re-release

The Waterboys - This Is The Sea (

The Waterboys – This Is The Sea

This Is The Sea

On September 16th, 1985, the third album by The Waterboys was released. The third (and last) album in the so-called ‘big music’ trilogy.

The album starts off with Don’t Bang The Drum, a song that was initially written by Karl Wallinger, who, by this time, had become a regular member of the group. Scott consequently arranged the song. The song is indicative of what is to come sound-wise. The rock sound is big and loud, less subtle than on A Pagan Place.

Next up, the album reveals its first prize song, the phenomenal The Whole Of The Moon, a song The Waterboys are known for to this very day. It started as a scribble on the back of an envelope, after Scott’s girlfriend at the time asked him whether it was hard to write a song. It was the only song that wasn’t finished yet as the band entered the studio for the album’s final recordings. For years, rumor had it that the song’s main subject was Prince, an artist much admired by Scott, but Scott later claimed it was about “a composite of many people”, Prince not being one of them.

I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon!

© Mike Scott 1985

In 2014 Prince played an über funky cover of The Whole Of The Moon, accompanying himself on bass.

Next is Spirit, a short song about the power of the mind (spirit). I love the song, which is minimalistic musically, but the lyrics are kind of endearing to me.

Man gets tired / Spirit don’t
Man surrenders / Spirit won’t
Man crawls / Spirit flies
Spirit lives when man dies

Man seems / Spirit is
Man dreams / Spirit lives
Man is tethered / Spirit free
What Spirit is man can be!

© Mike Scott 1985

The Pan Within has a great groove and has historic significance to (the future of) The Waterboys. It’s the very first Waterboys song on which violin player (“fiddler”) Steve Wickham can be heard.

On Medicine Bow, a somewhat mediocre rock song, Scott writes in the sleevenotes of the 2004 re-release that the name was made up and that he didn’t know that such a place actually existed in the US state of Wyoming.

On to prized song number two, Old England. A bitter attack on England during the rule of Margaret Thatcher. The chorus “Old England is dying” is a quote by author James Joyce. The lines “You’re asking what makes me sigh now / What it is makes me shudder so” stem from the poem “Mad as the Mist and Snow” by W.B. Yeats. In 2011 The Waterboys would release the impressive album An Appointment With Mr Yeats, consisting of Yeats’ poems set to music, including “Mad as the Mist and Snow”.

After Old England everything can only pale by comparison, yet it doesn’t. Be My Enemy is a great rock song, quick and loud with great lyrics. Love it.

But the disappointment does kick in anyway, Trumpets is a rather bland song that just carries on.

The closing title song This Is The Sea is acoustic and, given the position on the album, should possess the same impact as the last song on A Pagan Place. It doesn’t, live it was an undisputed highlight, but it sounds a bit flat on the album.

The Waterboys - This Is The Sea - Album cover outtakes (

The Waterboys – This Is The Sea – Album cover outtakes


With the release of This Is The Sea, The Waterboys delivered on their promise. The album contained a huge hit with the fantastic The Whole Of The Moon and sold extremely well. The songs were great and Scott’s voice was in rare form. His feel and timing made the songs even more impressive.

But still, to me it felt like something was missing. The production as a bit too grand for my taste, too much ‘Steve Lillywhite’ mannerisms. And, the wailing of the saxophone was a bit too much. The world had enough with one Clarence Clemons (famed saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band). And it fit the exuberant Bruce Springsteen rock much better than the (initially) more subtle music by The Waterboys. That’s the one thing this album lacked, I think.

According to Scott This Is The Sea is the album “on which I achieved all my youthful musical ambitions”, yet it’s not The Waterboys’ ultimate statement.

So why the relative high score then? Songs like Don’t Bang The Drum, Be My Enemy, and particularly The Whole Of The Moon and Old England make this album turn out wonderfully well. Listen and listen again!

The Waterboys - This Is The Sea - Singles (

The Waterboys – This Is The Sea – Singles


Three singles were culled from the album. The first one was a global release and the other two were made/released in Germany only.

  • The Whole Of The Moon
    B-sides: The Girl In The Swing (live), Spirit (extended) and Medicine Jack
    (released on October 14th, 1985)
  • Don’t Bang The Drum
    B-side: Ways Of Men
    (released in 1985)
  • Medicine Bow
    B-side: Don’t Bang The Drum (instrumental)
    (released in 1986)

A video was made for The Whole Of The Moon. Because Scott hates lip-synching, the song was largely played and recorded live.

The Waterboys - This Is The Sea - William Strutt's Peace (

The Waterboys – This Is The Sea – William Strutt’s Peace


The album cover photo was made by Lynn Goldsmith. The inner sleeve contains Peace, an 1896 image by William Strutt, based on the Old-testament book Isaiah (11:6–7).

Mike Scott 1985 (

Mike Scott 1985


All songs written by Mike Scott, unless stated otherwise.

  • Don’t Bang The Drum (written by Mike Scott and Karl Wallinger)
  • The Whole Of The Moon
  • Spirit
  • The Pan Within
  • Medicine Bow (written by Mike Scott and Anthony Thistlethwaite)
  • Old England
  • Be My Enemy
  • Trumpets
  • This Is The Sea


The 2004 re-release consisted of some demos and extra songs from the recording sessions for This Is The Sea. Once again, all songs written by Mike Scott, unless stated otherwise.

  • Beverly Penn
  • Sleek White Schooner
  • Medicine Bow (Full Length) (written by Mike Scott and Anthony Thistlethwaite)
  • Medicine Jack
  • High Far Soon
  • Even The Trees Are Dancing
  • Towers Open Fire
  • This Is The Sea (Live)
  • Then You Hold Me
  • Spirit (Full Length)
  • Miracle
  • I Am Not Here
  • Sweet Thing (written by Van Morrison)
  • The Waves
Mike Scott & Karl Wallinger 1985 (

Mike Scott & Karl Wallinger 1985


The Waterboys:

  • Mike Scott – vocals, guitar, piano, percussion, synthesizer, drum machine programming, bells and effects
  • Anthony Thistlethwaite – saxophone, (standing)bass, mandolin
  • Karl Wallinger – bass synthesizer, piano, organ, keyboard programming, synthesizer, celesta, percussion and background vocals

With help from:

  • Steve Wickham, Marek Lipski – violin
  • Roddy Lorimer – trumpet, background vocals
  • Stewart Bartlett – French horn
  • Kevin Wilkinson – bass, drums
  • Martin Swain, Lu Edmonds, Matthew Seligman – bass
  • Chris Whitten – drums
  • Pete Thomas – snare drum
  • Martin Ditcham – percussion
  • Max Edie – background vocals
  • Adrian Johnston – piano (only on the re-release)

In the sleevenotes to the 2004 re-release Mike Scott writes extensively about the contributors to the album. Quite remarkably, given the way their relationship developed, Karl Wallinger receives a lot of credit for his work (see paragraph After This Is The Sea).

The contributions of my bandmates can be understood to a degree from the musician credits but require further clarification.

I’d worked with sax player Anthony Thistlethwaite since early 1982, and we developed a great empathy. On the sessions for This Is The Sea, Anthony is not featured as a soloist as much as on the previous album A Pagan Place, but he is still all over the music; in the brass sections on “Medicine Bow”, “Sweet Thing” and “This Is The Sea”; bursting out of the comet with a sax solo at the end of “The Whole Of The Moon”; multitracked on “Sleek White Schooner”; baritoned on “Then You Hold Me”; blowing us out on “Don’t Bang The Drum”, “Beverly Penn” and “Be My Enemy”; playing free double bass on “Spirit” and “Sweet Thing” and the pumping electric bass on “Medicine Jack”. And once, when I’d been working too hard, he turned up at my door to drive me off for a therapeutic day in the country.

Karl Wallinger joined The Waterboys in time to play piano and organ on half of A Pagan Place. I then became a regular visitor to “Seaview”, his home studio in London, and several songs for This Is The Sea were demoed there, including “Old England”. With skill and sympathy Karl doubled as recording engineer on all Seaview sessions, and it was there that he recorded his own first draft of “Don’t Bang The Drum”, for which he wrote the music. His version had a different rhythm and feel, but established the melody and chords that are on the finished record.

During all-night sessions at Seaview we recorded instrumentals exploring shapes, rhythms and sounds for the forthcoming album. Some of these are included on the 2nd CD here : “Towers Open Fire” has interlocking Reichian piano motifs and the “Pan Within” drum rhythm, including the climactic section where the snare drops out. “Even The Trees Are Dancing” features brass hangings a la “This Is The Sea”, offbeat piano ‘oysters’, the melodic theme from “Spirit” and Karl’s unique synth bass sound.

On sessions for the album proper Karl plays synth parts on “The Whole Of The Moon”, on which he also sings backing vocals, including the descending “How on earth…” line at the end. His keyboard bass features on several tracks. He plays piano on “Be My Enemy”, “Sweet Thing” and “This Is The Sea”, synthesised harmonium on “Old England”, organ on “Beverly Penn” and “Medicine Jack”, celeste (the tiny, bell-like sound) on “Trumpets”, synths on “Spirit” and “Then You Hold Me”, and drum-rolls and cymbal crashes on “The Pan Within”. Having Karl in the studio was like having a one-man orchestra around. There might have been a This Is The Sea without him, but it wouldn’t have been the same – or as good.

Roddy Lorimer played the trumpets on “The Whole Of The Moon” and led the brass sections on “Medicine Bow”, “This Is The Sea” and “Sweet Thing”. And he plays on the intro of “Don’t Bang The Drum” – a luminous high flying freeform trumpet solo in the style of “Sketches Of Spain” by Miles Davis, set against a dark 12 string guitar and piano landscape. I forgot to credit Roddy on the original album for his backing vocals on “Moon” – as he loves to remind me – but that’s he and I singing “You were there in the summer…” behind the “Unicorns and Cannonballs” section. Roddy’s is the high falsetto voice.

Kevin Wilkinson and Chris Whitten play drums on several tracks each. Kevin’s is a bright and angular, unusual sound; Chris’s is more mainstream, bold and thundering. Max Edie is the lady who sings the “la la” backing vocal on “The Whole Of The Moon”. I asked her to sing while imagining she was a carefree eight year old, which she did, admirably. Steve Wickham makes his debut with the strings on “The Pan Within”. Adrian Johnston, drummer, film-score composer and bandmate from my Edinburgh days, plays the piano storm – from first sonic droplets of rain to final crashing thunder and lightning – in the instrumental of the long “Medicine Bow”. Martyn Swain, our live bassist circa 1984, plays on “The Waves”.

Mike Scott, sleevenotes in 2004 re-release

The Waterboys - Pinkpop 1986 (

The Waterboys – Pinkpop 1986

After This Is The Sea

Immediately following the release the band went on tour in England and the US. Singer Sinead O’Connor debuted on stage as a background singer during one of The Waterboys gigs. At the end December the band tagged along as opening act for Simple Minds.

In the meantime things were getting uncomfortable within the band. Violin player Steve Wickham was added to the band’s line-up and his influence grew fast. Several band members were annoyed by Scott’s soloist behavior. Karl Wallinger had his own ambitions, acknowledged he couldn’t fulfill them within the band and subsequently quit at the end of 1985. Over the following years Wallinger would spill his guts on Scott and his mannerisms, while working on an interesting career with his own band World Party.

In 1986 the band toured on (using the so-called “Raggle Taggle” line-up, as Scott named it) and played at numerous festivals, including the Dutch Pinkpop Festival, where I witnessed the band live for the very first time. They closed their wonderful set with a Prince song, Purple Rain. This performance was part of the fantastic, unfortunately no longer available, double live album The Live Adventures Of The Waterboys.

The Waterboys - The Live Adventures Of The Waterboys (

The Waterboys – The Live Adventures Of The Waterboys

The Live Adventures Of The Waterboys

This live double album was released in August of 1998. Mike Scott classifies this release as a bootleg, because the company that released the album stopped paying royalties to Scott, yet continued selling it. Initially this album was part of the official discography (located at, but was deleted when the payments stopped.

After buying the album, it didn’t leave my player for months. I was (and still am) completely infatuated with this album. Besides the fact that it contains a cover of Purple Rain, written by personal favorite Prince (recorded at Pinkpop 1986), the album is filled with glorious versions of Fisherman’s Blues, This Is The Sea, We Will Not Be Lovers (“dedicated to Atilla the Hun, Adolf Hitler, Michael Heseltine, the Blue Meanies, the Joker, the Incredible Hulk, Mrs.Thatcher”) and the complete Glastonbury Festival 1986 concert (including a genius version of Old England). A lot of the This Is The Sea songs are played, all performed with fire and passion. An impressive document!

In closing

The Waterboys - Logo (

It didn’t take long for Scott to say goodbye to England and move to Ireland. Read everything about the move, and all that happened next, in the story: The Waterboys say farewell to ‘the big music’: Fisherman’s Blues!.

What do you think of The Waterboys and This Is The Sea in particular? Let me know!

This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: The end of The Waterboys’ ‘big music’ trilogy: This Is The Sea. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.

Compliments/remarks? Yes, please!