Skids – The Singles Collection 1978 – 1981

Big Country – The Crossing 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

Guest reviewer Bill Nelson reappraises the music of two bands who experimented and also knew the secret of the classic rock/pop single.

Before getting in to deep, I have to confess to a more than slight bias not only was I involved with the Skids as their producer for a time, I also came to regard myself  as both friend and mentor  to Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson.  As a result, it’s impossible for me to review these recordings without the intrusion of fond memories. But , rather than dance around the issue, I’ll abandon any attempt to coyness and come clean.  Long ago I spent many happy hours with Richard and Stuart, both inside and outside of our personal musical pursuits. Getting past that to a place of objectivity is to say the least tricky.

For fans of the Skids and/or Big Country it’s inevitable that the disturbing premature conclusion to Stuart Adamson’s life will colour their view of his music and unfortunately, bring more than a hint of tragedy to the table.  It’s a cliche of course but rock’n'roll loves a hero gone too soon.

Stuart’s story falls all too easily into the mythical, self-sacrificial singer/songwriter-guitarist stereotype -something which Todd Rundgren once referred to as “the ever-popular tortured artist effect”.  Ironically this was exactly the kind of thing Stuart, at least when I knew him was sensibly a great pains to avoid.  It’s undeniable and deeply regrettable that he eventually succumbed to dark demons but the young man I remember from the late 70′s was a clear shining beacon, bright with laughter and enthusiasm.

The Skids were a band riding a home-made rocket ship, their progress fuelled by an appetite for the marvellous, their trajectory guided by the ambitions, intellectually hungry yet charming gauche navigation of Captains Jobson and Adamson, a duo whose individual passions – and sometimes conflicting ideals – propelled the band to sparking planets: worlds where humour irony, rude elegance and spunky energy were equally celebrated.  They were sweet to be around.

While my own involvement with them focused on their desire to make stimulating and (whisper it) experimental album tracks, they nevertheless understood the fundamental requirements of the classic  rock/pop single.  As is evidenced in this fine collection of A’s and B’s that is The Singles Collection78-1981.

Although initially marketed as a gang of Dunfermline punks, the Skids natural sensibilities and musical talents embraced an entire universe of post-punk, post modern possibilities; songs about television soap operas (TV Stars) existential angst (Charles, The Saints Are Coming, Of One Skin) and more.

If you forgive me the soft-blowing my own producer’s trumpet Out of Town still sounds like pone of the finest things they ever recorded.  Yes the Skids had a weather eye open to everything an ear tuned to the sublime as well as to the sublimely ridiculous.kids

The Singles Collection gathers together 33 tracks on two disc’s.  It’s all here: the fun, the folly and the sheer brass-faced nerve – qualities sadly lacking in much of what passes for’pop’ nowadays. Beautifully and sublimely imperfect, of course, yet utterly heart-warming Into The Valley still resonates with overtones of idealised glory. Charade sounds like an unholy alliance between Siouxsie and The Banshee’s, a triumphant football crowd and the sequenced mathematics of a rocked-up, Kraftwerk I can still recall, while creating the original mix of this track, filtering the bass drum and percussion through at time modulator to achieve that weird pitch shifting effect, while simultaneously wondering whether the lyrics should be edited or not.  Truth is, Richard’s fire and sincerity made it difficult to bring the producer;s scissors to bear on line he so passionately contributed.  All these years later, I’m glad that I snipped only lightly at his poetry.

Richard and I spent many happily inebriated hours in Yorkshire, pouring over my collection of books by Cocteau, Gide, Sartre and others, while(in attempt to point out WIre’s influences) playing him the Floy’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn album and delighting in his appetite for literary adventure.

And Stuart, spending  his honeymoon at my home with his first wife, Sandra, eager to talk guitars and technique, and with no hint of the tragedy ahead.  All of those moments, collisions and collisions are here in these 33 tracks the Skids with their compass set for glory.

Big Country were both an extension of the Skids and yet sometimes altogether different.  The ying-yang of the Jobson-Adamson era had been abandoned in favour of Stuart’s personal vision.  And it quickly brought him international success.

Within a short space of time, Big Country were filling stadiums as audiences yielded and yelled to their clarion guitar orchestrations and wide-screen grandeur. Much has been made of Stuart’s ‘bagpipe’ guitar sound but there’s far more to it than that (although an Eventide harmoniser and a chorus pedal was the sonic key to it.) The interplay of Stuart and Bruce Watson’s twin axes provided both inspiration and template for several younger bands while still offering a familiar foothold for those of more traditional persuasion. Big Country’s success seemed inevitable.  And yet, for Stuart, some might say that the success opened the door of both heaven and hell.

The song Chance, with frightened foresight, seems to manifest the darkness that enveloped Stuart in his last years, while The Storm opens, eerily and now ghost-like, with the sound of the E-Bow device that I gave him so long ago.

This Deluxe, two -cd reissue of Big Country’s debut album The Crossing contains, among other rarities, a selection of demo’s, some of them just basic four-track recordings. While the finished, released studio versions are slickly produced, these raw sketches conspire to return Stuart to the Skids ethic.  They’re quirky, rough and very ready.  It’s a delight to hear Angle Park in this form, with Stuart’s experimental side to the forefront. There’s an honest joy in these four-track recordings a sense of play that can so easily become lost in the lust for commercial success.

So, 34 tracks in all, and all of them a testament to Big Country’s Grand Canyon sound and vision. But, above all, the story of a young man with a guitar and th roller-coaster ride it took him on.

When dark, shadows are stripped away, when myths and misconceptions are finally dispelled, there sits Stuart, in boyhood bedroom, dreaming of bright lights and big stages.

And it all still sings.

Bill Nelson

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