An edited version of an article written by Wyndham Wallace in 2011 for The Quietus
"I have heard the BIG music and I'll never be the same
Something so pure, just called my name
I've climbed the big tree and I've touched the big sky
I just stuck my hand up in the air, and everything came into color
Like jazz manna from sweet, sweet chariots"
- From 'The Big Music'
You only had to take one look at Mike Scott in the early 1980s to know that he was born to write. His carefully cultivated appearance --- long dark overcoat with collar turned up to the wind, shoulder length hair only a shampoo away from Bob Geldof's unkempt mop and tucked away beneath a Greek fisherman's cap --- gave him the look of a poet, conveying an earnest, literary image no doubt enhanced by his study of English literature in his native Edinburgh. Like Morrissey, who formed The Smiths around much the same time as The Waterboys were born, Scott was a bookish romantic and also a product of punk culture. While Morrissey was running the New York Dolls fan club, Scott was publishing a fanzine, 'Jungleland.' But unlike Morrissey, Scott wasn't immersed in the kitchen sink culture of 1950s England, and neither did he write of gritty streets and the day-to-day minutiae of dreary disappointment. Instead he buried himself in the work of William Butler Yeats, Robbie Burns, and William Blake, dreaming of "unicorns and cannonballs, palaces and piers/Trumpets, towers and tenements, wide oceans full of tears." Scott sought to give voice to a sense of the epic rather than the prosaic, almost guitar music's polar opposite of The Smiths, and he wasn't alone. U2 had made tentative steps towards grand themes on their early releases just as The Waterboys had on their first two impressive albums. By 1985, however, the year that their third album, 'This Is The Sea' emerged, Scott had perfected a concept that 'The Unforgettable Fire,' a year earlier could only aspire to, a sound that rapidly became known as 'The BIG Music.'
It took its name from a Waterboys song, the first single to be released from their second album, 'A Pagan Place.' Though metaphorical in intent, its lyrics (quoted above) applied perfectly to the scale and grandeur with which Scott was beginning to carve his style. 'The BIG Music" was defined by brass fanfares, booming drums, muscular horns, grand pianos, and multi-tracked 12 string guitars, all densely layered, nearly claustrophobic. Additionally, it's packed with handsomely poetic, almost archaic language and blessed with a rich diversity of instrumentation, Scott's, BIG Music became an epic collection that searched for spiritual meaning and astonishingly, communicated it.
'The BIG Music' is not a Spector-esque 'wall of sound' however. It's too in love with open spaces to allow for any sense of boundaries. Instead it brings walls tumbling down, sending light flooding across an often mythical landscape, conjuring spirits, calling out to a universal force. It's fantastic --- for its exuberance, its sentiments, its poetry, and its ambition. It's also fantastic in the truest sense of the word --- 'extravagantly fanciful.' The sound is honest, organic, and true. It seems to be the authentic product of creative inspiration captured at the moment it struck. Scott's voice is key, characterised by its irrepressible passion, the musicians carried along with him, united behind his cause. Scott credits this solidarity to "hunger," but the sense that the band members were all there in the studio, buzzing on the adrenalin provoked by his cosmic themes and "high on the wine of life," certainly lent the music a profound sincerity.
Scott's music is also packed with spiritual references, and there's a joyful sense throughout that, even when battling demons, the world offers an abundance of mysterious magic that offers more than enough to live for, even if we don't understand its source. But these allusions are inclusive. They don't adhere to any particular religion, calling upon Greek mythology as often as Christianity, and even invoking the legend of Brigadoon. And although 'The BIG Music' is a modern sound born of wonder at what surrounds us, it employs a vocabulary that is at times antiquated --- though never twee --- and calls upon writers that inspired Scott such as Yeats and Blake, Keats and C.S. Lewis, Burns and Joyce. It rejects rock's more commonplace language without fear of alienating those unfamiliar with such a style, and in so doing lends the music a charming gravitas and a timeless quality that match its themes. Part of its appeal however, lies in the fact that it is far from blind to the world's problems, its optimism and love balanced by an acknowledgement of the evil prevalent around us. It is, in other words, a mature vision of the world, viewed through a far from rose-tinted lens. It is grand vision, and it's a gorgeous one. This is 'The BIG Music.'
1) The BIG Music
2) A Girl Called Johnny
3) I Will Not Follow
4) Love That Kills
5) The Whole Of The Moon
8) Going To Paris
9) Bury My Heart
10) Savage Earth Heart
11) The Earth Only Endures
12) Somebody Might Wave Back
13) Don't Bang The Drum (v2)
14) Billy Sparks
15) This Is The Sea
16) A Pagan Place (Remix)
17) Wonderful Disguise
The BIG Music II
1) Medicine Bow
3) My Dark Side
4) The Thrill Is Gone
5) Down Through The Dark Streets
6) Kiss The Wind
7) Iona Song
9) Rare, Precious, And Gone
11) Peace Of Iona
12) Custer's Blues
13) Dark Man Of My Dreams
14) Ain't No Words For The Things I'm Feeling
15) Long Way To The Light
16) Universal Hall
17) What Do You Want Me To Do
Source material for 'The BIG Music I&II' comes from the following:
As 'The Waterboys'
The Waterboys (1983)/A Pagan Place (Expanded) (1984)
This Is The Sea (Expanded) (1985) /Room To Roam (Expanded) (1990)
The Secret Life Of The Waterboys (1994)
Universal Hall (2003)/Kiss The Wind (2008)
As 'Mike Scott'
Bring 'Em All In (1995)/Still Burning (1997)
My thanks to Wyndham Wallace and The Quietus
Raggle Taggle Gypsies: The Waterboys, Pt.2 here.