I think there are few single days, or moments of days, that we can remember in our lifetimes with a degree of real clarity. Sure, some people’s power of recall, including the actual feelings of a moment, is better than others, but let’s face it, the past is a hazy place. We all remember lots about our wedding day. We remember what we were doing the morning of 9/11. We remember the birth of a child. And some people remember the day they heard one of their favourite artists had died.
That’s a testament to the power that art has over our emotional selves; we don’t know these artists personally. We have no idea what they were like to live with. They entered our lives through their art, which has penetrated our souls far deeper than we ever thought.
People love to mourn celebrities, both major and minor; it’s practically a Facebook sport to see who can out-RIP everyone else in their grief over stars they’ve never met. My attitude is pretty well scornful toward this sort of exhibitionism, and the death of a famous guy or gal generally doesn’t do anything to me at all; why would it? Still, I’m not made of stone. Every now and then a musician has passed on and it’s hit me in a strange, profound way, as though the significance of this musician’s art was so great to my psyche and my development as a sentient being that I didn’t even realize it. When that musician died, a little part of me and many other people went with him.
George Harrison was one such; Grant McLennan was another. And a third was Stuart Adamson. I remember what room I was in, what time of day it was, in December 2001 when I read that he’d died. I’d been a fan in my youth of his band, Big Country, and had followed the band’s career up to the mid-nineties. Unbeknownst to me and other fans, Adamson, who had seemed a strong, energetic, positive character, had, as people do, his own private sorrows that led him to take his own life, thus robbing us of any further offerings of his distinct blend of passion, humanism and lyricism. Adamson was one of the greatest cultural figures to come out of Scotland, whether the Scottish people recognize this or not, and his artistic legacy is to be celebrated.
To North Americans of my age group Big Country is, sadly, a leftover cultural gimmick consigned to eighties dance nights; a joke to many. When I tell people of my affection for the group’s music or that when I was a lead guitarist, Adamson’s distinct use of the “Scottish snap” rhythm was the primary influence on my soloing style, the reaction is bemusement or laughter. To people here, Big Country is a bunch of guys in kilts running around in a novelty hit video from the early eighties; an example of Scottish kitsch.
Even though “In a Big Country”, the 1983 megahit, broke the band and provided it with a career, I wonder if it was ultimately detrimental; aside from the Irish and Italians, few peoples have been parodied culturally more than the Scots, and Big Country’s proudly Scottish image was somewhat perverted to suit the needs of the early MTV age. What was lost, of course, in all the hoopla was the sheer quality of the music — The Crossing is possibly the best debut album ever made, an astonishingly confident declaration of cultural intent and musical virtuosity. It was, in fact, a new kind of music altogether.
Celtic rock was slow to develop; in England electric folk produced bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, which were relatively successful. In Scotland there was Five Hand Reel, the JSD Band and Runrig (Scottish nationalists and Big Country’s closest sonic contemporaries), and in Ireland Horslips and the folkier end of Thin Lizzy (say, “Emerald” and “Black Rose”). The fusion of aggressive rock with traditional melodies is a stirring one, but it wasn’t till the eighties that it was truly integrated; before that, folk rock was heavier on the folk and even a bit scholarly in tone, when it wasn’t mere pubbish fun (first example: Steeleye, second, seventies Fairport). And of course there were the “punk folk” types, The Pogues and The Men They Couldn’t Hang.
Stuart Adamson was the lead guitarist in punk/new wave band The Skids, which was actually quite successful, and he made a great team with incomprehensible singer Richard Jobson. The band’s arty punk not only got them produced by the legendary Bill Nelson but resulted in some hit songs like “Into the Valley” and “Scared to Dance”. If you listen to the band, you can already hear Big Country in Adamson’s Scots- (and Bill Nelson via “Sister Seagull“) influenced solos, and the odd folky-sounding melody.
After leaving that band with greater ambitions than post-punk, Adamson founded Big Country with, it would seem, the best rock musicians he could get his hands on: monster drummer Mark Brzezicki, nimble-fingered bassist Tony Butler and rhythm/lead guitarist Bruce Watson.
Together they crafted a highly unusual sound that emphasized not only the influence of Scottish music but the individual strengths of each super-talented musician; Brzezicki is left unchained to play inhuman fills while a laying down a positively Bonzo-ish stomp; Butler works the full neck of his bass, playing melodies as well as holding down the roots; while Adamson and Watson utilized a number of recently developed guitar effects such as delay and the Ebow, which is held over the strings to create a sustained tone and provided part of the band’s legendary “bagpipe guitar” sound.
All this is sounds great, but what about the tunes? I rather doubt that anyone in Adamson’s life could have imagined what a magnificent writer he would turn out to be; forget the big hit and its slightly gimmicky lyrics and listen instead to some other songs from The Crossing.
This incredible debut is packed full of meaningful songs. Adamson’s style was a mixture of the down-to-earth humanism of vintage Springsteen with a poetic sensibility in best misty tradition of Celtic poetry, as demonstrated on the mournful “Chance“, a sad kitchen sink tale made as tragic as a Child ballad: “He came like a hero from the factory floor/With the sun and moon as gifts/But the only son you ever saw/Were the two he left you with.” The heightened emotional and poetic tone makes the mundane seem epic, and that was part of Adamson’s mission: to invest in real-life stories a real nobility; to find the hero in the loser. Also on this album is the barnburner “Fields of Fire” with its fiery guitar leads and infectious shouting, but also a celebration of the rural worker’s life in “Harvest Home” and a mystic proggy epic in “Porroh Man”. While Scottish traditional music provides the melodic base, the combination of razor guitar sounds with exuberant vocals and sublime musicianship was a surefire hit with smart listeners and made stars out of Big Country. As bands often do, for the difficult sophomore album, they decided to go big or go home. But first they put out a fine EP, Wonderland, to capitalize on their new success (what a great song!).
This album is Big Country’s masterpiece and one of the greatest rock albums in my collection. Together with producer Steve Lillywhite, the band melded a production that is strangely murky as well as loud and up-front; odd, bell-like guitar and bass tones jump and chatter in and out the mix as the stentorian rhythm section pounds out the truth underneath; delay effects and minor keys provide an air of melancholy. Bands like U2 and The Church have been justly praised for eighties guitar innovation, but I suggest curious listeners check out Adamson and Watson’s contributions as well. And the songs! Side one almost acts as an epic suite, starting with a strange tale of a war-inciting demagogue in “Flame of the West”, which is about as epic as a song can get, almost reaching the intensity of metal but with an arty edge and those blazing Scottish guitar leads. The mordant title track and “East of Eden” keep the intensity up as well as the poetry and philosophy with visions of cloudy, polluted skies over dank factories: “Some days will stay a thousand years/Some pass like the flash of a spark/Who knows where all our days go?” and the Stygian vision of “Steeltown“: “All the landscape was the mill/Grim as the reaper with a heart like hell/With a river of bodies/Flowing with the bell/Here was a future for hands of skill.” In Thatcher’s Britain, the justly deserved and hard-won livelihood of “hands of skill” was under attack, as Adamson well knew, and many of his songs were passionate cries on behalf of the working class.
Two wartime tales follow: “Where the Rose is Sown” brings to life the nervous excitement of a soldier going off to war, aware of the tragedy that might await him, while “Come Back to Me“, probably Adamson’s greatest song, vividly shows the sorrow of the woman left behind with such heartbreaking lyrics as: “I will always be here/Fading by the day/I will wash the bloody hands/And cast the bowl away/As the years hang on me/You will always be young/And one day I will lie down/Where the rose was flung.” What a gift for imagery and what compassion!
After all this, side two is almost a letdown, though the super energetic “Tall Ships Go” is a lot of fun. The final track, “Just a Shadow“, provides an unusual, repetitive main guitar outro lick but also some of Adamson’s wisest lyrics: “It’s just a shadow of the people we should be/Like a garden in the forest that the world will never see.”
Steeltown is such a good album that it totally transcends time and place. These are some of the most poetic and noble lyrics ever sung in a rock band; they are what good music is all about. In the pantheon of eighties “big music” greats, this easily should rank up there with albums like The Unforgettable Fire and This Is the Sea but unfortunately has not achieved that recognition. It is better than both.
Still riding high, with Steeltown a number one UK hit album, an unwise production choice was made to clean up the band’s sound; it’s a good-sounding album but much more typical of the era. One reason why Steeltown sounds so fresh still is that it had its own sound, from the drums on up. This sound is a bit emasculated overall, with lots of plinky keyboards. Still, there are some great songs on here, albeit without that down-to-earth feeling or the artiness. “Look Away” is a classic, though, another great uplifting rocker with an earworm guitar hook. The duet with Kate Bush on the title track is overly long and not very memorable, and on “One Great Thing” Adamson may have felt pressure to write something more vapidly populist; despite its positivity, it’s not much of a song. The epics “Eiledon” and “Sailor”, however, are worth the price of the album, both mini prog suites that start quiet and lyrical before breaking out into the band’s typical rockin’ storm, driven as always by the sweetness of the Scottish snap. On “Eiledon”, Adamson’s romantic and idealistic windswept conjuring of the Scottish landscape is huge in scope: “So let us soar up with the eagles/In wild country among the deer/And wake the wolf in every city/And reckoning is drawing near.”
Between this album and The Seer, unfortunately, a huge label miscalculation put an end to the band’s time at the top; Peace in Our Time was produced by Peter Wolf, who has his production talents, I’m sure, but maximizing the potential of this kind of band was not one of them. He stripped the band of its signature sound to craft a bland AOR creation. It’s a shame, because songs like “Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys)” and “I Could Be Happy Here” have a lot of potential, but the horrible dryness and terrible sounds suck the life out of the tunes. The following album, No Place Like Home, on a new label, also failed to recapture the band’s classic vibe and Adamson started adding more even American imagery to the lyrics (“Republican Party Reptile”); Adamson would eventually settle in the U.S.
However, Big Country had one truly great album left in it. I think I was in my second year of university when The Buffalo Skinners came out. I’d lost my faith a bit by that point but duly put my money down, with few expectations. And boy was I surprised!
This is the loudest, most aggressive Big Country album. Session king skinsman Simon Phillips is on drums, and he’s a beast at Brzezicki’s level. The Buffalo Skinners is Big Country’s Thin Lizzy album; the guitars are unapologetically big, gainy and riffy. This is hard rock. The Scottish snap is back and screaming, as is Adamson’s lyrical acumen. A new tenderness has seeped into romantic songs like “The One I Love”, but that epic mysticism is back, too, and the melancholy of such lyrics as “The streets are filled with empty faces/Nothing here is new/It’s just the same in other places/I have journeyed to” (“Alone“). The social commentary is sharp, as in the impossibly loud “The Selling of America”, the spittin’ angry “Is This What You Are Working For?” and a couple of environmentalist numbers. The band even ably does country-rock on “Ships“, where the chicken-pickin’ is oddly interrupted by several Scottish metal interludes — but it works! On this tune, Adamson’s lyrical gifts are again directed toward highlighting the plight of the poor, lost and lonely: “Look at him now, another used man/Wearing the passing of his dignity with all the courage that he can.”
This incredible comeback didn’t make much of a dent in a now-grungy world where passion and a sense of justice and purpose had been sacrificed to a collective slacker shrug.
The band continued on for a while before Adamson started other projects, aiming as well to break into the country songwriting market, with mixed results. Out of the spotlight, he eventually, I remember reading, became disheartened about the loss of a flourishing career and took more to drinking; if only he’d known just how appreciated he was and how many lives his wonderful songs and incredible lead guitar playing touched. Adamson was as gifted a rock songwriter as this world has seen, whose music at its best worked on a whole other plane than the average, inspiring the listener to be a better, more open-minded person and custodian of this world.
Till the day I myself shed this mortal coil, I’ll be giving Steeltown or The Buffalo Skinners a periodic loud spin to remind myself to “Stay alive!”
As a postscript, remaining members still play and record — give ’em a visit!
NEW! I have recorded a tribute album featuring my performances of 10 Big Country classics. Read about it and listen at Bandcamp and listen everywhere else (Spotify, etc.)