Has it really been six years since I last posted on this blog? Certainly my blogging activity has been primarily on Spacerock Reviews but still…
With a new edition of Strange Boat – Mike Scott & The Waterboys issued recently in print by Gonzo Multimedia and under my own Lumoni Press imprint as e-Book it seemed a good time to resurrect this blog. I’ve not even been along to see how it looked for quite some time, so I’m disappointed to see the photographs have disappeared, but relived to discover the text still live. Over the next week or so I’ll revise the links and generally update and re-establish the blog, though my review blog will continue alongside it, but to stat its refurbishment, here’s an extract from the new version of Strange Boat.
Mike Scott entered the world on 14th December 1958 in Edinburgh, destined to be an only child. His mother was a college lecturer and his father a shadowy, remote figure who has been characterised as having abandoned his family, playing little part in Mike Scott’s story until becoming immortalised in Scott’s cathartic song: ‘My Dark Side’.
“The dark man of my dreams is my father, who left home when I was very young and I’ve never seen him since,” he recalled. “You know, when I picture my mother I’ve got a picture in my mind. When I try to picture my father, there’s a bit of a blank space.” He believed he had inherited his mother’s mind; from his father all he could really acknowledge was an assumed physical resemblance: “My father never stuck around long enough for me to figure out what his characteristics were.” In a stark and painful song simply entitled ‘Father’ and recorded for his band Another Pretty Face in late 1979 he agonised over this long rift. Why and where his father had gone; how there could possibly have been something more pressing or important on his time than his family. He pondered what his father’s life was like, a decade on from disappearing, whether he talked about having left behind his son. It’s a song raw with disappointment and hurt.
The dislocation and trauma this separation caused took many years to reconcile. It was something that Mike Scott took personally, as though it was his own fault. Alastair McKay of the Scotsman, a regular interviewer of Scott, delineated it as “a void,” which in turn Scott described as being “so big that I didn’t have the measure of it.” Mike carried a typical guilt complex and internalised the blame for his father’s disappearance. He felt that “it was not necessarily my fault that my parents split up, but it was my fault that my father wasn’t around. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m unlovable’.” It was a “shadow question. Never conscious, but in the background of my mind.”
On the other hand, his relationship with his mother was always close and protective. “When there was just the two of us, we were great pals,” he further explained to McKay. “Obviously I was loveable in that context. I had lots of friends, so this question, ‘Am I unlovable?’ - it was in the background, but it was only one part of my psyche.”
Norman Rodgers, of the Scottish band TV21, knew Mike and his mother during the late 70s and recalls a relationship built on parent to child encouragement, observed through many visits to their home which became an almost ‘open house’ for budding musicians. “He had a lot of support; his mother was supportive of him in a way that none of our parents were of us. They tolerated us playing music but none of them would put up with what she put up with. Mike and his mother had a quite different relationship from the way the rest of us had with our mothers, there was just the two of them and she was very supportive of what he wanted to do; stuff that the rest of us wouldn’t have got away with. Mike used to get up in the morning and he’d say that he’d play the piano and sing ‘Mother’, the John Lennon song, to work on his vocals, and he’d do that primal scream thing. My mother would have gone mental if I’d tried to do that every morning, but she just let him get on with it. The house felt like Mike’s house, it didn’t feel like her house. His bedroom would be decorated from floor to ceiling with newspaper cuttings and posters and with records and tapes everywhere so that the only thing that was identifiably hers was her own bedroom, everywhere else was just a clutter of Mike’s stuff and it was just a whole different vibe from anybody else we knew – in a good way of course. She was really tolerant; we could rehearse in the front room with a drum kit and a full PA while she’d be back in the kitchen reading books with this entire racket going on.”
There was a reel-to-reel tape that Mrs Scott had preserved, harking back to a young Mike Scott, aged eight or nine, who’d telephoned in to a live radio show to deliver perhaps his first public vocal performance. “He sang ‘Eloise’ [written by Paul Ryan and originally recorded by his brother Barry, later providing a hit for The Damned], unaccompanied, and she’d obviously heard something then that made her keep this tape.” And again, overall the sense is of someone dedicated to allowing her son to follow his interests and passions and just let them flow and see where they’d lead him.
But to Nikki Sudden, writing for ZigZag, he confessed how he “grew up feeling inferior. Teachers made me feel ashamed of not conforming to things, grown-ups made me ashamed of not wanting to do the expected things. And I grew up scared of religion, police, school... scared of my mother, because she expected things of me that weren’t the things I wanted to give her. The way for me to now overcome that is to prove that what I decided to do in place of all those things that were expected of me was worth doing.”
Mike Scott came from ancestors steeped in Scottish heritage. His Grandmother hailed from the Isle of Mull, a Gaelic speaker, though for her young grandson this was a simply an ambient surrounding to his own identity, as he explained: “When I was growing up, my grandmother would be listening to Gaelic on the radio. I never got any Gaelic myself because they don’t teach it in Scottish schools. But I understood it as part of my background, almost a lost part of my background.” BBC Scotland, through its Gaelic identity Radio Highland – Radio na Gaidhealtachd - had picked up the baton of Gaelic language broadcasts since 1935, though it didn’t have a dedicated service until 1979 (and continues to do so, under the banner of BBC Radio nan Gàidheal). Another time Scott noted how he’d “thought traditional Scottish music was uncool. It wasn’t until I went to live in Ireland that I got hip to Celtic music.”
The family moved to Ayr, probably as part of his mother’s career as it seems she taught at the Local College of Higher Education. Mike was twelve. He’d already absorbed some of the things that would ferment inside and brew up his world outlook and which would set him on the road to being the Mike Scott of spiritual strength and of musical diversity. He grew up surrounded by books, establishing in him a lifelong passion for the printed page and the wonders it could hold. “I had seventeen bookcases in one room which instilled in me early the value of literature and the beauty of books. I love books. Whenever I go on tour I buy so many, my case is just full of books.” He’d immersed himself in literature that resonated with religious undertones, particularly the Narnian Chronicles of C. S. Lewis, which he’d discovered at the age of seven or eight. He fell in love with the way in which Lewis could move from the mundane to the magical in tales where a simple wardrobe, or more religiously symbolic, a stable door, could provide the entry point into something more fantastical or wonderful. And he loved the romanticism of the Pauline Baynes illustrations for the books, finding them “mythological”. He would return regularly to the stories for inspiration and say how they gave him “an early sense of the divine, which has never left me.”
He found this elsewhere too, looking and thinking deeply, recognising injustice in situations and deriving a form of moral guidance from this. “As a child I always identified with the Indians in the cowboy films. Because they were right!” he told Mat Smith in Melody Maker. “In the films they were always portrayed as cold-blooded murders and thieves but there was something more. Something I can’t quite put into words.” He expressed no particular love of formal education. For a while he attended the independent George Heriot’s School, adjacent to Edinburgh Castle. Imposing in its own right – the school was founded in 1628 and is drenched in history – there is no indication that Scott found it a happy experience. “School? They don’t teach you what life is,” he exclaimed in an early interview with Chris Heath. “They don’t teach you that you can be what you want to be. It requires a massive shift in emphasis in society. We have a society based on having and owning. We need a society based around being and giving.”
It was around that time that Mike made a trip down the thoroughfare of Edinburgh’s Princes Street and into the record department of the Boots store to buy his first 45rpm single: ‘Last Night In Soho’ released in 1968 by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. It was a pivotal experience, a starting pointing in his musical education. Journalist Hayley Bartlett related how “Everyone has to start somewhere and for Scott it was being given a guitar for his tenth birthday. Scott went on to admit that his first strumming was to the tune of Mungo Jerry’s ‘In The Summertime’.”
From there on his record buying became eclectic. “The Sixties were really a wonderful time for music. It was like a crack opened in the sky and this big light came through and everyone thought we’d got there. But we hadn’t. We had to go through the Seventies… until Johnny Rotten started spitting.” His earliest real enthusiasm was for The Beatles. “It was watching The Beatles doing ‘All You Need Is Love’ on TV that first showed me that rock music could be a transformative force,” he told Jon Wilde in Uncut. He particularly identified with George Harrison, perhaps in the process absorbing that wistful, melancholic spirituality that Harrison had acquired. He described George’s first solo album, All Things Must Pass, as being his “favourite record [ever] since I bought it in 1971. I love the big, full Phil Spector sound and that kitchen sink production. I love the songs; ‘All Things Must Pass’, ‘Awaiting On You’ and ‘Let It Down’. I love that it’s touched by Beatle Magic, the shadow of The Beatles still hanging over it.”
On 17th November 1972 he travelled to Glasgow for his first taste of a major live band, attending an Emerson, Lake and Palmer show at Green’s Playhouse, “sitting way up the back, miles from the stage,” as he recalled in a Q magazine questionnaire, with “Keith Emerson hopping around on his Hammond.” But what really remained imprinted upon him and so demonstrates his writer’s eye for characters and personalities was the train journey to the gig and back. “All these strange looking people with long hair and denim jackets talking about song titles... That impressed me more than the concert. I didn’t understand the music and I wasn’t even a fan.”
His musical endeavours led him to the inevitable round of school bands and finally, at fifteen, to a partnership with John Caldwell, another enthusiastic guitarist who would become Scott’s first significant musical comrade-in-arms. They formed a group – Karma – which, writing for Record Collector, long-time Scott aficionado Peter Anderson noted as being “a garage band inspired by Scott’s chief influences, The Beatles, David Bowie and Bob Dylan.”
“This was my first true band – we played in my living room every Saturday,” he recalled to Hayley Bartlett, also remembering another band he started which “went under two different names, White Heat and White Light. We were really into Lou Reed at the time.” But these bands and the initial association with John Caldwell were little more than signposts to the future rather than the beginnings of an out-and-out assault on the music business. Instead Scott took himself off to Edinburgh University and a degree course in Philosophy and English Literature that he never completed. He’d started at University in 1977, one of the most significant years in musical history. Instead of hearing the learned voices and their collective wisdom in the lecture halls, Scott heard the spite and bile of The Clash and of Patti Smith in the exploding storm of Punk.
“With Patti Smith, it was her sense of the transcendent that drew me in,” he told Jon Wilde. “It was like there were angels over her shoulder, and she showed that rock music should be both transcendent and extremely sexual.” To Chris Heath, in Jamming magazine, he expanded further, in the same breath elucidating a state of mind and a perception of the worth of rock music that could be seen as evolving into part of his own manifesto. “She knew that communication between people on as high a level as possible is one of the highest pursuits that an artist can follow. And she had a fantastic soul that was inspired by wonderful things. She recounted her dreams in songs. She lived on stage; she didn’t go and give a show, she went on and lived. And because of that she was real.”
His own involvement with Punk was, in a sense, reportage from the trenches. He was writing his own fanzines: Kingdom Come (taken, perhaps, from the Arthur Brown vehicle) and most notably Jungleland, its title deriving from the gritty, operatic closing track from Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run masterpiece. In fact, Scott was finding a fascination for Springsteen that endured even though he recognised and conceded the bombastic and overwrought side of “The Boss”. In the way Springsteen evolved his multi-layered sound, Scott discovered something that resonated with his own huge musical ambitions. ‘Jungleland’, for example, was described by Springsteen biographer Christopher Sandford as “switchblade hop… it had the lot, violin, cocktail piano, the guitar solo that virtually gave Boston’s Tom Scholz his braggadocio sound, and Springsteen’s roaring vocal.” Not that Scott was uncritical when he felt that one of his heroes wasn’t producing the material that Scott felt he should be, suggesting to Nick Kelly in the early 80s that Springsteen should steer away from the blue-collar imagery and characters that he was writing and singing about. “If he started exploring the mythology of America, and tying the wisdom that can be gained from that into an exploration of what has to be done to save the Earth ecologically, he’d do it brilliantly.” Lofty ideals; Scott would have a go at that one himself.
Scott’s Jungleland fanzine became the focal point for his creative output in the late 1970s, giving him the opportunity to get up close with some of punk’s movers and shakers: he interviewed The Damned, The Clash and Patti Smith amongst others. “It was just a fanzine about all sorts of things, just like every other,” he recalled. “It was the stuff I liked best at the time that I wrote about, which was Television, Patti Smith and Dylan. I met [Television’s] Tom Verlaine and Patti just by hustling. The first person I met was Richard Hell when he was touring with The Clash as Richard Hell and the Voidoids.” He finally made a face-to-face encounter with his idol Patti Smith in 1978 and found her “always really good to all the kids who used to follow her around. I was just one of them.” What he saw in her was the way in which her stage persona was simply an extension of who she was and how she felt at that moment. “So much life in one person she just had to be admired,” he enthused to Nick Kelly. “She went out on stage every night and if she was in a bad mood, it was a bad gig, and if she was in a good mood it was a good gig. I think that’s quite justifiable.”
Mike’s admiration for Patti Smith was one of the mutual interests that brought him together with TV21’s Norman Rodger. “I first met Mike round about Easter time of 1978, at that time I was playing in a band in Prestwick, on the west coast of Scotland, near to Ayr where Mike was. This was a band called The Aaargh! John Caldwell, who went on to play in Another Pretty Face was in that band, along with Ally Palmer who I got TV21 together with. Mike had come along to see a couple of gigs that we’d done and we met him. John took us along to meet him in this bar in Prestwick because they’d been at school together. Mike and I hit it off pretty quickly because we had a lot in common, in terms of what we were listening to, particularly Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. Patti Smith had released Easter only a couple of days earlier and we were comparing notes on that. I remember once he was really pissed off because I’d seen the broadcast on The Old Grey Whistle Test when she’d performed ‘Horses’ and one or two songs off the album, and he’d hadn’t seen it.”
Mike’s meeting with Patti Smith was in the summer of 1978 when she appeared in Edinburgh. “I think she did a poetry reading first. Mike had written to her lots of times but had never actually met her. So he went to the poetry session with a book and records to get signed, which she did, but during the poetry reading she couldn’t remember some words and said, ‘Mike, have you got my book there so I can read it?’ He was so chuffed because she remembered his name and because she used his copy of the book to read this poem out on stage – and the appearance was bootlegged! I don’t know quite what happened between Mike and Patti Smith, right up until her Wave album he was still really into her but then later I mentioned Patti Smith to him and it was, ‘Don’t mention Patti Smith, I don’t want to hear about her ever again’. So I don’t know what happened between that point and three or four years further down the road.”
The final issue of Jungleland was published in 1980, by which time Scott was established as a musician in his own right. “I backtracked and did one extra,” he explained to Marc Issue in Beat. “It was a kind of personal manifesto of where I was at the time, and God I must have been a pain in the arse! It was so negative! I could hardly believe it could be so depressing to read, but then I recall I was pretty miserable in 1980.”
While he was making his first tentative literary mark, and was drifting away from his University education (Anderson, in Record Collector, makes note of his assertion that “I was always more interested in what Joe Strummer was saying than William Shakespeare”) he was getting involved with a few bands. Over the summer of 1978 he rehearsed with what started out as a covers band, The Bootlegs, whose members included Norman Rodger, Alan McConnell and future Another Pretty Face Scott-collaborator Ian Grieg (also known as ‘Crigg’).
“We had this intention of playing cover versions of Dylan, Patti Smith or whoever,” explains Norman Rodger. “We’d rehearsed all these songs with the intention of doing one gig and that being the end of it. After that gig the other guys wanted to keep going. I wasn’t so keen; I’d kind of lost heart with it. But we went into a studio and did a session, plugged in and played live, ran through eighteen to twenty songs over about four hours, largely cover versions but also a couple of my songs and a couple of Mike’s.”
Mike talked about this session as being undertaken under the name DNV. “DNV was a group that I had in 1978 that only ever did two shows,” he recalled. “We did one recording session, twenty-one songs in one night, and from those twenty-one we released a single, ‘Death In Venice’.”
“Some of the recordings came out as the DNV single,” says Norman Rodger. “‘Death In Venice’ and ‘Mafia’ were both from The Bootlegs recordings and then Mike subsequently remixed them and added that ‘Goodbye 1970s’ track which we hadn’t done at that point. But we’d just run through all these tracks live and it was pretty atrocious, mainly! My performance was abominable because I wasn’t into it and I was, I’m ashamed to say, quite deliberately messing it up to try and hurry it up a bit; my singing was appalling. A lot of that stuff appeared on Waterboys bootlegs; I was mortified when it came out. The idea was that it would be a bit of fun but I think at the time I was pretty broke and when the other guys wanted to chip-in, I couldn’t really afford it but felt obliged to fork out. I mean, the band was great fun and we had a fantastic summer, one of the best summers of my entire youth, really. We’d play almost every night - at Mike’s place most of those nights - but it didn’t feel right taking it seriously at the end. It was never meant to be that, it was meant to be fun. We only did two gigs, the first was all covers and the second we started dropping in our own material and I think at that point there might have been a bit of rivalry with Mike, who was always the more talented musician. There’s no doubt about that; I think everyone knew that at the time. But I think it was a bit of a fight between me getting my songs in and Mike getting his and so it changed a bit towards the end. That took the edge off it for me; it was still good fun though and I enjoyed pretty much all of it, looking back.”
There were other short associations with groups now long forgotten. Norman Rodger talks with embarrassment of a band named The Evil Turks. “That one gets buried quite a bit. It’s one that Mike doesn’t want to promote particularly, I think. We had this notion one day, it might have been just before The Bootlegs, where we were hanging out around Prestwick Airport, because there wasn’t a lot to do in that part of the world, but we were hanging around the airport, just messing around, and we had an idea that we’d form a band that day and go back, write some songs and perform them that night. The whole thing was meant to be a spoof, this spoof reggae band called The Evil Turks, which was a really unfortunate name. We went back to my house and wrote a bunch of songs – which were really the same song with different lyrics - and then went to Mike’s place, phoned all our mates up and had about thirty people round, got some beer and a few spliffs. Mike sang, I played bass and, with an echo machine, sang echoes to Mike’s vocals. I think Ally Palmer played drums and maybe Alan McConnell played second guitar. It was just a laugh but it’s gone down in the most obscure Waterboys folklore; there are tapes kicking about of that which are highly embarrassing.”
The real sense that you get of Mike Scott’s initial forays into making music with others is of someone recognisably at a higher level than those he was mixing and playing with. As fondly remembered as TV21 might be, they are remembered that way by a small clutch of aficionados, never reaching the level of Scott’s contemporary band, Another Pretty Face, let alone the heights achieved in the future with The Waterboys. “He was obviously ambitious and obviously talented,” says Rodger. “There was quite a vibrant little scene going on in Ayr but most of the bands were quite happy to play small gigs or even just rehearse. Of all the guys in that scene, Mike had the talent. A lot of us were quite ambitious but his songs had a more mature quality to them. Most of us who’d been playing with him, we’d all been listening to the same stuff, the Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and then into the punk thing, but until punk came along none of the rest of us were talented enough to aspire to music as a career. When punk arrived we felt we could play as good as The Damned, or whoever, so we started forming bands but by that point Mike had gone beyond where we were and was writing songs like ‘Death In Venice’ which was a much better song than any of the rest of us could write at that point. That was his career, he knew back then he was going to be a musician. The rest of us were quite happy to think about being musicians but we were studying or working at other jobs hoping to be musicians. Mike knew he wanted to be a musician. That was the difference.”
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