To the Waters and the Wild

Spiddal, County Galway

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Photo of The Waterboys, Open East, 2013 by Nick, licensed under Creative Commons

In the winter of 1987-88, Mike Scott was looking for inspiration. His band, the Waterboys,  had started out as a rock band, but fiddler Steve Wickham was bringing a traditional Irish influence on their music. Scott and Wickham wanted to tap into some primeval Celtic spirit for their next project, and so they drove westwards from Dublin.

The full majestic expanse of Galway Bay now opened on our left, while to our right lay a strange, rocky land of hills and ancient stone walls. I began to get goosebumps. The wildness of the land and the light on the bay did something fateful to me and I turned and said to Dunford, with a sudden certainty ‘This is the land of my soul!’

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

They found the perfect place at Spiddal House: the wood-paneled lounge became the control room with the mixing desk, while the dining room was transformed into a recording studio.

The core Waterboys at that stage sounded like the lineup for a joke: an Englishman (Anthony Thistlethwaite), a Scotsman (the aptly-surnamed Scott), a Dubliner (Wickham), and a Northern Irishman (Trevor Hutchinson). Other musicians were drafted in as needed, the huge kitchen table accommodating the rotating bunch. On fine days, the front lawn became a football pitch. In the evenings, the band played sessions with locals in Hughes’ pub.

To avoid cabin fever, the band lived in holiday homes throughout the village. That spring, Mike Scott started each day with a deep breath of clear Atlantic air before hopping on his bike and pedaling to Spiddal House. As he entered the doors, he heard his bandmates playing drums and fiddles. There was no phone or TV in the house, and they kept to a strict timetable. In this atmosphere, the Waterboys produced tracks like When Ye Go Away and A Bang on the Ear.

It was not all magical dreamtime. The cook was a local gay man named Bandy Donovan, and  his unrequited passion for these leather-trousered troubadours finally turned his head. When he got his first wages, he downed several drinks along with his anti-depressant pills and marched on the house with a double-barrelled shotgun. Producer John Dunford tackled him to the ground and broke the loaded gun across his knee. Scott emerged from the recording studio to find Dunford dragging Donovan from the house, the hapless cook asking “should I go in and make the dinner now?”

As we approached the end of the sessions, spring gave way to summer and a spell of gorgeous weather enfolded the west of Ireland. This and the long light evenings impacted on us like a draught of magic and turned us what in older, more innocent times would have been termed fey.

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

Perhaps the most ambitious number was a recording of W.B. Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child. They recruited Scottish musician Colin Blakey of We Free Kings to play the flute. The expected drummer failed to appear, but fortunately Padraig Stevens of the Sawdoctors was in the area. Stevens couldn’t make the drums work with the tune, so he borrowed some little brass bells from the neighbours to evoke the fairy feeling.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

— The Stolen Child, W.B. Yeats (1889)

Scott sang the chorus of The Stolen Child, but he didn’t like the way his voice sounded in the spoken verses. A few months earlier, he’d bought a cassette by local sean-nos singer Tomás Mac Eoin, and now he sent Hutchinson and Thistlethwaite up the coast to Carraroe to persuade the old man to perform on the track.

We went into the studio, the rock ‘n’roller and the sean-nós singer, and sat facing each other across the gulf between our different worlds… When the music started playing I gave Tomás a gentle signal with my hand a split-second in advance of where I imagined each line of the poem falling. And he responded, his giant of a voice rolling out the rich syllables on cue like an old god pouring wine down a mountainside.

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

On their penultimate night in Spiddal House, the Waterboys held a jam session until 8am, when the roadies arrived from Galway to haul away the mixing desk and other gear. The next evening a party began in Hughes’ bar and finished up at Hutchinson and Thistlethwaite’s bungalow. At the end of the night, a chorus line of musicians and Spiddal folk smoked reefers and kicked their legs up in a can-can.

The Waterboys’ third album, Fisherman’s Blues, was released that October. Critics were divided, some bemoaning the band’s change of direction, others proclaiming it their best work yet. But the air of Spiddal had done its magic;  Fisherman’s Blues  would be their biggest selling album, and their next tour was a sellout.

The Waterboys themselves would never be the same after the summer of 1988. A young accordionist called Sharon Shannon joined them for a while, but after a disagreement in the direction of the band, she left along with Wickham. Hutchinson eventually became a full-time trad musician, while Thistlethwaite returned to Galway to join The Sawdoctors and raise a family.

By 1993, the Waterboys were no more, although Scott re-recruited Wickham and resurrected the name with new members in 2000. The Spiddal sessions had been so productive that, in 2001, he was able to release a new album (Too Close to Heaven) with the leftover material. The band returned to their favourite Sligo poet as an inspiration for their 10th album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats.

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Author: fionahurley

Fiona Hurley returned to her native Galway after sojourns in Dublin, Glasgow, and Valencia. She works as a technical writer for a multinational I.T. company. Her articles have appeared on the websites Bootsnall.com and SavvyAuntie.com and she has been published by Crannóg and Number Eleven magazines. She loves reading, swing dancing, learning weird facts, and planning journeys to places that she may or may not visit.

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