Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Top Ten Albums: This is the Sea


I was given this album on tape by a boy two years older than me at school. Mackey. His surname was Maclean, so we called him Mackey. He didn't like me very much.

One day he handed me a cassette. "You'll like this." he said. "Ignore the trumpety shit at the beginning. It's good."

Because the album had been copied, I assumed the "trumpety shit" was something that had been imperfectly taped over.

I took the cassette out of his hand. "Why the trumpets?" I asked nervously, for something to say.

"How the fuck should I know!" he bellowed.

"Er, okay. Thanks." I said, as he stormed off, muttering.

That night, I lay on my bed and put my walkman on. When I was a kid I always listened to as much new music as I possibly could prone, and in the dark. Especially new stuff. No distractions.

There is quite a lot of trumpety stuff at the beginning. One minute, twenty-seven seconds in all (I've just timed it).

What follows is the most thrilling guitar riff ever. That first time, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I lay, rigid, my arms by my side, my feet stretched out in front of me and my eyes staring straight up at the ceiling frozen in a kind of goonish ecstasy. What a fucking beautiful sound. How was it even possible to make that screeching, grinding, melodic, electrifying... noise? Sweet Mary mother of Jesus - how good is this?

The brilliance of the opening track (Don't Bang The Drum) isn't matched in sonic terms by the rest of the album, but there were enough gems in there to elevate This Is The Sea and The Waterboys to (nearly) favourite band status for a good few years.

If you have never come across This is the Sea before, here's a quick tour:

Be My Enemy and Medicine Bow are two straight-up roister-doistering this-is-who-we-are-and-this-is-what-we-do pop songs. The music is uncomplicated celtic-soul-rock, made outstanding by arrangement, production and performance. Listening back, the lyrics seem genetically engineered to appeal to fourteen year old boys, which is, funnily enough, exactly how old I was when I first heard them.

Medicine Bow is about going on an epic journey to somewhere epic, whenceforth everything will be significantly better than it has been before:

There's a black wind blowing
A typhoon on the rise
Pummelin' rain
Murderous skies

I'm gonna take my boots
I'm gonna wear my coat
I'm gonna find my scarf
And wrap it around my throat

And you can come with me
Through the driving snow
We gonna ride on up to 
Medicine Bow

Be My Enemy is a fantasy about tracking down someone who is being an almost biblical pain in the arse, and duffing them up. 

I've got goons on my landing
Thieves on my trail
Nazis on my telephone
Willing me to fail
And they were all sent by someone
Obviously you

(...)

Now from the slime on your tongue to the nails on your toes
From the scales on your skin to the stains on your clothes
You're gonna make me have to do something, I do not want to do
But if you will be my enemy, I'll be your enemy too.

Every line is thoughtfully metred and measured, and the result is almost cartoon-ishly spot on. This is an exercise in lyrical rhetoric, and it is up there with the very best.

My hands are tied, nailed to the floor,
Feel like I'm knocking on unknown doors.
Gun at my back, blade at my throat, 
I keep on finding hatemail in the pockets of my coat,

Oh I've been, trying to grow
I have been, cooling my heels
I have been, working on the treadmill
I've been, working in the fields...

And I, can't get to sleep...

And I, can't catch my breath...

I can't stop talking and I look like death,

But I will put right this disgrace.

I will RE-ARRANGE YOU!

('Cos if you'll be my enemy, I'll be your enemy too).


Love it. Trumpets I can take or leave, and I was never that sold on Old England or The Whole of the Moon, but The Pan Within is kind of groovy, and This Is The Sea is a perfect album ender - 12-string guitars and we're-all-flowing-downstream-through-life-and-then-we-reach-the-sea-which-is-when-we-die-but-it's-great-because-we're-all-one-intermingling-of-celestial-energy lyrical gubbins.

As someone who had already happily consumed The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and most of CS Lewis, the album's celtic-leaning spirituality and Yeatsian imagery was perfect fodder at the perfect time.

Once I'd acquired This Is The Sea on vinyl (Mackey wanted his tape back) I dug out the first two Waterboys albums. They weren't as good, but they didn't disappoint. The title track of A Pagan Place is still my favourite Waterboys song, but I don't think anyone would deny This is the Sea marks the band's creative high point, and it just scrapes into my top ten albums ever.



****************

Postscript:

When I started this project, Max Velody, top TV producer, made the following comment on Facebook:

"A question. Will your top 10 albums be, the albums you think are the best, or, the albums you play the most, or, are they one and the same for you? I ask because whenever I mentally draw up these lists, I am aware that the two don't always match and I wonder, should they. For instance - I don't think Iggy Pop's Lust For Life would make it into my list of the top 10 albums ever, however, I have played it a few times each and every year since it came out, 37 years ago, and I don't think that's true of any other album I own. So maybe it should be in my top 10, maybe it should be number one. I just don't know....."

Which obviously got me thinking. Am I really writing up my top ten albums at all? I rarely listen to This is the Sea nowadays, and certainly haven't at any time over the last 5 years. Musically and lyrically, I've kinda moved on. It is a great album, but it is something of a period piece.

This is the Sea is in the top ten because it meant so much to me at the time. But there are plenty of albums like that. What is the difference between those which meant a lot when I was younger and made it into the list and those that didn't?

The Damned's Phantasmagoria changed my relationship to music overnight. It created a step-shift in my aesthetic at a time when I was frankly floundering and set me off on a journey of discovery which basically opened up The Cure, The Cult,  The Cocteau Twins, The Sisters of Mercy, all of punk, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Mission etc to me. But I was thirteen and it is a terrible album. I'm embarrassed I ever liked it and you don't need to hear it.

So I will admit, part of the reason for presenting you a top ten album list is in the hope you will have a listen to them, and this has inevitably had an impact on what they are.

If I had to do a top ten album list based on how much particular records may have meant to me at particular stages of my life, it would be a pretty stringy list. It would also not be a true reflection of what I consider to the ten best albums I've ever heard.

But if I took out all the ropey albums which meant such a colossal amount to me at the time and tried to look objectively at everything I've ever listened to, the result would be even more pointless than it is already because the albums on the list would be there for technical or cultural reasons, rather than personal ones.

So in answer to your question Max, my top ten consists of:

- some albums which meant a lot to me at the time, but in retrospect, aren't objectively that good, or ones I particularly listen to now, but have something in them which is worth sharing.

- some albums I genuinely love but don't really listen to any more.

- some albums I still listen to a lot and seem to be getting closer to as we grow old together.

It doesn't contain some albums which meant more to me at the time than many of the records in my top ten, but which are nowhere near as good as I thought they were, and aren't worth sharing.

If you think this is getting over-thought, wait until we get onto the subject of compilations.

If you have no idea why I'm writing this, please read my introductory piece.


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