Big Country

I’ll ask for forgiveness on this account. Sometimes in the journey to get somewhere, you lose track of time. In this instance, I completely misplaced my timeline for one supremely important neo-folk band. Perhaps one of the best, and last of a dying breed, the true quintessential Scottish folk-rock band: Big Country. If, Mike Scott, from the Waterboys had any inkling of how to come out from the gutters and hit the sky, it would have been from seeing Stuart Adamson’s Icarus-like attempt to conquer the world starting from his own highlands. When you hear the first strains of his truly unique guitar sound, one that just begs you to run and join him to the mountaintop, one can’t help but wonder what could have been…

Big Country – In a Big Country from DarkNewWave on Vimeo.

The Skids

For a time in late November 2001, fans and friends were desperately looking for Stuart. Living from a hotel room at a Best Western in Nashville, Tennessee far from his adopted homeland Scotland, on November 7th, he had left a note for his 19-year old son telling him he would be “back by noon, Sunday”. Battling alcohol addiction, divorce, and bankruptcy, Stuart would be found inside the closet of a Honolulu hotel room dead from suicide. There hanging from a wardrobe, a few steps from an empty wine bottle, lay prone a man who had given so much hope, to far more people than he’d ever imagine when his life began.

Born in 1958, in Manchester, England to Scottish parents, from a young age Stuart had a rough life. His parents who couldn’t make do in England, upended their whole family and moved back to a small mining town, Crossgates, close to Dunfermline, Scotland. There his father got into the fishing business and his made do with whatever she could to get his family ahead. From a young age, Stuart’s parents encouraged him to partake in the Scottish folk music that floated around his area. In between studying literature, Stuart would hear the folk music his parents played at home, and the kind of pipe music he heard at the only pub in Crossgates, then imagine how it would sound if he could play it himself. Seeing the effects the mining industry and factories had on his neighborhood he started to foment beliefs. The ideal of championing justice, hope, and love in the face of all this decay was one. The idea of rock music would come much later.

The Skids (Stuart pictured third from left).

Sometime in the 1976, something interesting happened that triggered his pursuit of something grand. In 1976, Stuart saw a show put out by the Damned in Edinburgh. Punk music now infiltrated his headspace. Forming for a bit, a band called Tattoo, he quickly outgrew that band and formed another called the Skids. Finding the only other punk rocker in town, Richard Jobson, to sing vocals, they started to make Scottish punk history. Stuart co-writing most of the tracks, but taking lead guitar and synth duties, started to create a brilliant mix of Be Bop Deluxe-like art rock with punk music style (highly influenced by Bill Nelson’s own music). Promoted by English art-punkers The Stranglers, they were signed by Virgin to put on tape their raucous live sound. This is where you a taste of the sound Stuart would later bring to its fruition.

Albums from this period (1979-1980) like Scared to Dance, Days in Europa, and The Absolute Game, which a punk blogger would do better than I (at this moment) to detail show a smashing combo of pop hooks with lethal guitar playing. Tracks like “The Saints Are Coming”, “Masquerade”, “Working for the Yankee Dollar”, and many more were wildly entertaining harbingers of many styles that were yet to come like New Romantic, Power Punk, and lord knows what else. A young band, that truly should have been destined for stardom lust their main thrust though. A band that U2’s the Edge heard and was influenced by their guitarist was losing their most important cog. Sometime in 1980, Stuart suffered a nervous breakdown. While the rest of the band thrived and embodied the punk lifestyle, Stuart as they all came to discover was never into that sort of thing. Married and devoted to much simpler things in life, a certain realization of hitting it big, in a certain way, and all that entailed, got to him.

In a Big Country…

By 1982, two years after quitting this barnstorming band, normalcy had once again resurfaced in his life. Buoyed by the birth of his first child he started to fall in love with a certain feeling again. Enjoining his friend and guitarist Bruce Watson to help him start a new band, they fruitlessly tried to fit in with the times. An early version of Big Country featured dueling synthesizers and all sorts of New Romantic undertones. The first song they recorded, the one they used to shop to labels, was “Heart and Country”. Back then it was filled with all sorts of accompaniment that was wrong for it. They somehow got signed to Phonogram, only to head into the recording studio sounding flat and uninspired. An early single of “Harvest Home” was all that they salvaged from those sessions. The producer in charge of the recording Chris Thomas, doing his best to remove any of the things that could have made them stand out.

Maybe, as a reaction to a space that was free in the musical world, and a turn away from the dull, glossy production those early studio sessions led to, Stuart turned away from a keyboard sound and decided to go traditional. Back in the older days people would get together, take their guitar, and play around a fiddle or accordion. A synthesizer would be the last thing on anyone’s mind then. Now handed off to a more enlightened producer Steve Lillywhite, who produced U2’s similar but much more lacking War and later countless other big sounding releases, they were able to hone in on exactly what they needed to do.

Uplift, that’s the sonic descriptor they were after. Intensely melodic, they started to turn to their Scottish roots for ideas. They would eschew any blues notes, any string bends, and guitar solos. Using harmonizers, delay, reverb, and an e-bow (a magnetic device that lets you force string resonance on a guitar) they would be able to mimic bagpipes, flutes, violins, and all sorts of other instruments a synthesizer could have created. The talented rhythm section of Mark Brzezicki and Tony Butler would be entreated to get the stomping sound of a Scottish marching band. Together, with Steve’s insistence on trying any idea out, they started to create the unique sound of Big Country. Imagine Wishbone Ash or Horslips discovering the effects of U2 or the Cocteau Twins, that’s the new sound they were capturing.

This sound just played so vast. Remember the first time you heard “In a Big Country”. Remember how when you first heard those marshall beats pounded by Mark, that gave way to that shout from Stuart. Remember how your ears perked up? I remember hearing Stuart introduce that “green” guitar sound that gives way to those galloping vocals (with all the members of the band harmonizing) asking me to “COME UP SCREAMING” oof, that’s when we all get taken to some place special. Trying to create a sonic scape that connected to where he came from and no longer content to separate himself from the audience, or be above them, here was music pulling you on stage, asking you to create a new road, if all others are exhausted. People forget how the rest of 1983’s The Crossing, if you stick around, continues that empowering theme to its completion.

The Crossing album cover.

Sounding like the Marquee Sun to Television’s Marquee Moon, Stuart’s and Bruce’s intertwining guitars play with the notion of sustain and attack to maintain a wonderfully positive mood. Best of all, all this vast spaces sounded human in an era where many bands were now increasingly sounding robotic. Tracks like “Inward”, “1000 Stars, “The Storm”, “Fields of Fire”, all showing clear Gaelic influences, but rather than sound like a pastime pastiche, they sound of this modern era. Nowadays the heroes may not be mythical but they are more importantly people like you and me.

“Harvest Home” a rousing single if there ever was one, uses those sustaining guitars for a brief treaty on karmic living. Proclaiming the best of us, the ones who give to others, create a just sonic maelstrom of swinging electric jig music. Leaving room for peerless experimentation, its still a wonder today, to hear how guitars could conjure such siren-like and subsonic sounds like the ones you hear in “Lost Patrol”. Moving away from his punk beginnings and touching the archaic yielded something that should have sent them past beyond the realm of one-hit wonders. Ending the album on a true juggernaut, the epic “Porrohman” we hear glimpses of the darkness threatening Stuart’s psyche. “Save us from all love and hope/Give us iron give us rope” lyrics intoning the perils of living for the dollar and work, rather than more personal, fulfilling things.

A just ending, for one of the most humanist of all musical releases, its little wonder that in 1983, when competing with U2 for the title of biggest band in the world, Stuart’s jaunt will begin its tumble. For all the new fame that this album got him, the equal and debilitating rise of drinking away certain sacrifices he wasn’t ready to make, lodged what could have been another beaming source of inspiration away from our purview. Their next release was another sacrifice to the common man, 1984’s Steeltown with explicitly political overtones in the age of Thatcherism, where the mass market that made them stars was turning their back on them for bringing to light certain things they didn’t want aired, could have been the end. Their true end came when Live Aid rolled around in 1985, and they were mistakenly thought of as disbanded, and left of the bill, while another band of Gaelic misfits took the stage, aimed for the bleacher seats with a much more palatable take on Big Country’s staccato guitar sound and thoroughly sent them into the forgotten bin of history.

But oh, what a much different musical world it would have been if Stuart and the boys dialed back on the grim a bit, clarified a lot of the murk in Steeltown, and scaled back their sonic layers. Much as in real life, it was too much too soon, and they lost their chance at rock canon. It wouldn’t be until two albums later, in 1986’s The Seer where they managed to recapture some of their lost glory with hits like “Look Away”, but even a rarity like Kate Bush backing them up for the title track did little for them outside of England, and by then what had been their sonic calling card had become their expiration date and too much sloganeering gave way to bandwagoning. In the end, alcohol and bad decisions had dimmed the light on Stuart’s original vision. For one truly shining period though, Stuart gave us all a dream of what could have been. Anyway, let’s look forward to more neo-folk music that holds its place in time…

Listen to The Crossing at Spotify.

Bonus track, the joys of the 80s, on German tv, here’s Big Country “playing” “Where the Rose is Sown” (a brilliant track off Steeltown. Pay no mind to they being introduced to the wrong track, and doing a more spirited than faithful miming to the right one (though the audience seemed to enjoy it!)…