Artist: The Waterboys
Title: The Whole Of The Moon
Description: single; album track, This Is The Sea
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985
Unicorns and cannonballs, palaces and piers …
Mike Scott had heard the Big Music, and he’d never be the same. I am loath to be so vague, but I don’t know who introduced me to the Waterboys during my college years. But their sizeable strain of rock moved me in a powerful way in the middle of a decade that was often characterised by scale. Drums went off like cannons in so much 80s music. Brass emphasised that which had already been expressed in foot-high capital letters. Male voices in particular strained hard for operatic grandeur. Producers stretched every overblown gesture to fill the widest screen.
Trumpets, towers and tenements, wide oceans full of tears …
Inadvertently or otherwise, the Waterboys coined the name of their own genre – The Big Music – on their second blood-stirring album, A Pagan Place. In characteristically arse-about-tit style, I got into their third album This Is The Sea first, then their second, then their first. So for me, their music got smaller, as This Is The Sea is the pinnacle of their bid for windswept magnitude. Ironically, they were never as big as their music sounded, and only got big when their music got more intimate. Arguably their signature tune, The Whole Of The Moon only managed number 26 on its first release (“too high, too far, too soon” indeed). Not that I cared as I attempted to apply the rubric of the song’s roof-raising lyric to whichever student relationship was falling apart around me at the time. It’s a pretty compelling device, with the narrator comparing his own feeble efforts at dealing with the complexities of the world around him with the cosmic equivalent of some estimable maiden. To whit: “I pictured a rainbow, you held it in your hands.” And again, “I had flashes, but you saw the plan.” And again, “I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon.” Who wouldn’t insert themselves and their unmanageable partner into this plan? (Or which self-pitying man wouldn’t?)
Flags, rags, ferryboats, scimitars and scarves …
It seems dimwitted to say it, but this is the Big Music writ large. It’s not just session man Chris Whitten’s gloriously elephantine drums, or the heavenward, multi-tracked trumpet of Roddy Lorimer, or Anthony Thistlethwaite’s unapologetic sax, or Karl Wallinger’s synth, which hits a spot somewhere between the fairground and Van Halen, it’s the sentiment. Scott could be delivering this sermon from a mount. It’s not about some of the moon, no more than the album’s title track is about a sea. I’m never sure how I feel about literal sound effects in serious songs, but when he testifies, possibly in a biblical hailstorm, “You climbed on a ladder, with the wind in your sails, you came like a comet …” the thundercrack of what we must assume is a comet proves pretty persuasive. (Naturally, as a young, romantically precarious twentysomething, the double entendre of a woman “coming like a comet” was not lost on me.)
Every precious dream and vision, underneath the stars …
And just when you’re getting the hang of this I’m-rubbish-you’re-amazing love declaration (“I saw the rain dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon”), the lyric dovetails into Gandalf’s shopping list. There’s something so fundamentally uncool about those scimitars and scarves, those unicorns and cannonballs (this was decades before Game Of Thrones), you’d have to have a heart of granite not to want to embark on a shopping spree.
It’s hard to think of a riper fruit than The Whole Of The Moon. I might once have argued you have to be in the mood for its overstatement and bombast, but this is a song that takes you by the lapels, orders you a drink and puts you in its mood. This erudite poet of the seas is so knocked out by the completion of the lunar object he gives up and just shouts, “Hey, yeah!” at one juncture. That Scott and fellow travellers put the brakes on after This Is The Sea and decamped to Spiddal to make Irish folk music – entering their “raggle-taggle” phase and lining up with the Hothouse Flowers et al – is a natural wind-down. Where can you fly to next when you’ve been to the whole of the moon on the back of a comet?
I didn’t know what Brigadoon was when I first entered this song in 1985-86 at the urging of someone I’ve misplaced. I subsequently found out and another jigsaw piece slotted into place.
7 thoughts on “The Waterboys, The Whole Of The Moon (1985)”
“I might once have argued you have to be in the mood for its overstatement and bombast, but this is a song that takes you by the lapels, orders you a drink and puts you in its mood.” That is so true – as proven by just now opening the video on YouTube and within 90 seconds I’m looking for a near up mountaintop from which to sing along. While I’m writing, I’m very much enjoying Circles of Life – thanks for sharing your 143 favorites.
I seem to recall reading at the time that it was about Prince (who, at that stage in his career, was hitting the sweet, world-dominating, spot in the middle of sales and critical acclaim). But that might be apocryphal.
The link from Wikipedia is dead, but its suggests Scott refuted the Prince rumour in an FAQ and confirmed it was more about CS Lewis?
I made a point of not looking at Wikipedia before commenting, specifically because I didn’t want my illusions shattered!
I’ve now had a look, because I wanted to check that the release of ‘Around The World In A Day’ – with a track called ‘The Ladder’ – predated the release of ‘The Whole Of The Moon’, which includes the lyric “You climbed on the ladder…”; this connection being part of my (admittedly unsourced) recollection.
Great piece thank you Andrew. I’m really enjoying Circles of Life. On a Polytechnic trip to Edinburgh in 1989 I’d excused myself for the afternoon to do the galleries and record shops. I bought a 45 of The Whole of the Moon and on the coach on the way back to Newcastle was showing off my purchases to anyone who was interested. A discussion started about what the song was about and being a 20 year old romantic I said it was about love and the idealised view of a partner when in the first flush of love. Some thought it was only about sex and in particular multiple orgasms. We had an enjoyable conversation about it across the seats in a hired coach. It was the Like A Virgin scene from Reservoir Dogs, only a few years before and in terrible clothes – the Aztec hoodie has never made a return has it.
Enjoyed this one Andrew.
Never seen in the same room together – MIke Scott and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. (same college year as you, but at Camberwell).
Thanks for retweeting this one Andrew. A pure classic. And everyone knows, the CORRECT way to do it is A Pagan Place, This is the Sea and then The Waterboys !