Stuart Adamson’s first words of 1984 were to his wife: “Happy New Year, Sandra….” He then turned to the other 1,899 people in the room. “And Happy New Year to all you fold. ” The beer and sweat-sodden inhabitants of Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom roared as Adamson and the other members of Bog Country made way for the Dysart & Dundonald Pipe Band to deliver the traditional sounds of Hogmany. Meanwhile, in a mobile studio outside the venue, Steve Lillywhite uttered his first words of 1984: “Will you marry me, Kirtsy MacColl?”

Marriage proposals and testimonial of faith were apt, for the old year had been euphoric in Big Country, 1983 dawned with the band striving to salvage a career that appeared over almost before it began, following an abortive attempt to record a debut album with producer Chris Thomas the previous summer.  One song survived from the tapes, Harvest Home, and reached Number 91 in the singles chart.  Given Adamson’s hit-making pedigree as the musical architect of maverick punks the Skids this was gravely disappointing.

But once teamed with the 27- year old Lillywhite – producer of U2′s Boy, October and War – Big Country found their voice.  Released in July 1983, The Crossing went Top 5, fuelled by three hit singles and a stakhanovite work ethic that saw the personable Adamson and his band’s bulging knapsack of romantic anthems stir hearts amid difficult times, both in recession – blighted Britain and also America, where their ingenious Celtic bluster seemed a natural fit.

One song especially struck a universal chord, as the dual guitars danced and the singer urged strength in adversity: “Pull up your head off the floor/Come up screaming”.  Uplifting in its embrace of empathy and sorrow, In A Big Country in quintessence, and came to define them, invariably closing the band’s live sets.  It does so even today, as a new version of Big Country tours and records in honour of the memory of Stuart Adamson, who committed suicide on December 16, 2001, aged 43.

“I’d like to thank each and every one of you for being at New Year,” said Adamson in the early minutes of 1984, “I wish you all the best year you have ever had, because you deserve it. Before I go, I’ve just got one more thing to say…Stay Alive.”

Richard Jobson was two and a half years younger than Stuart Adamson, a telling gap in the mezzanine period which separates youths from men.  they grew up 10 miles apart in the Fife mining villages of Ballingry and Crossgates, and met in nearby Dunfermline, mutually energised by the possibilities of punk.  The shy Adamson, a prodigious guitarist, saw this shakedown of the established order as musical platform; miner’s son Jobson, more natural extrovert front man than a singer, saw an escape from the constricted opportunities of small-town Scotland. ” I was 16 when I joined the Skids,” says Jobson. “Suddenly we were travelling and it was exciting. But Stuart was much more of a hometown boy, he liked getting back to Dunfermline, he had a girlfriend that was to become his wife, had ambitions for families, mortgages – all the things I didn’t care about.”

Sharing a flat watching bands and making trips to Edinburgh to see films  at the Cameo (Saturday Night Fever was a favourite), the pair were close during the Skids’ early days, through the latter half of 1977 and 1978, when they supported The Clash, Buzzcocks and The Stranglers, and released debut single Charles – significantly, an Adamson-penned dystopian vision of factory labour – on their own No Bad Label.  John Peel declared Adamson “the new Hendrix” and the band signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin label.  While recording the Skids’ debut album Scared To Dance, how ever, Adamson’s distaste for the machinations of the music industry became apparent when he walked out of London’s Air Studios and returned to Dunfermline, announcing he’d quit the band.  Appeased when Virgin halted a blue vinyl pressing of the album, Adamson had established a behavioral patten that would recur throughout life.

He was a famous for just vanishing” says Jobson. “You’d turn up in the studio and he wasn’t there, because he didn’t like the engineer. Or I’d come into rehearsals and he’d say, ‘I don’t want you to be the singer in the band anymore…’ I never saw (the Skids) as a career.  I knew my limitations, but Stuart probably did see a career in his musicianship – because he was a very good musician.  Without him we didn’t have a band.”

1980 saw the Skids embark upon their biggest UK tour to promote their third album, The Absolute Game, an artistic and commercial zenith.  But at this peak moment, Adamson’s estrangement from Jobson – now in London and immersing himself in European cinema and literature – had intensified beyond repair.  Adamson disappeared for the last time during initial sessions for what became the final Skids album, Joy, having played on just one track, Iona.  Jobson completed the record with bassist Russell Webb, but the Skids never recovered from the loss of their talismanic guitarist it was dead” says Jobson. “He wasn’t there anymore. I never really found a partnership like I had with Stuart ever again.”

Today a successful independent film -maker, Jobson no claims for the Skids’ importance – “but we were probably good for Stuart’s evolution”.  This much is clear from Ion’s attempt to reconnect rock with its folk roots, and its kinship to what Adamson would do with Big Country.  In Dunfermline, he bought a 4-track portastudio and called on Bruce Watson, a local guitarist the Skids had considered recruiting to play on 1979′s Days in Europa.  “There was no formula” says Watson, “The only rule was, ‘Let’s not do any blues bends on the guitars we don’t want to sound like Status Quo or Thin Lizzy’  The sort of twin-guitar thing we’d have fallen into if we’d been lazy.”

In the summer 1981, Skids manager Ian Grant arranged a session at London’s Townhouse Studio’s for Virgin to hear their still contracted artist’s future plans.  With John Leckie producing and The Jam’s Rick Buckler on drums, it was Grant’s first meeting with Watson. “Bruce in the back ground – I thought he was a roadie,” says Grant.”We did two songs: Heart and Soul and Angle Park. But {Virgin MD} Simon Draper passed.” If Virgin couldn’t see potential in Stuart Adamson’s  new prodject, nor did CBS, Polydor, Arista, A&M, Warners or EMI. All rejected the demo’s.  Adamson and Watson returned to Dunfermline and put a together a band.

Today Pete Wishart in the Scottish National Party Member of Parliament for Perth and North Perth shire (majority: 1,521). In 1981, however he was, asked by Stuart Adamson to join Big Country, along with his bass-playing brother Alan and drummer Clive Parker, late of Spizzenergi.  Adamson knew the Wisharts from their band The Subject, who’d supported the Skids at Aberdeen’s Capitol Theatre in November 1979.

“Stuart used to come to our gigs and took an interest in what we were doing in Subject,” says Wishart. “At the height of punk we went out without a guitar and played waltz music Stuart appreciated how mad it was. Stuart was somebody, you always respected, you wanted to get validation from him about anything.  I had just finished my first year at college but had no hesitation packing it in.”

After nine months’ preparation, Big Country made their lives debut at Dunfermline’s Glen Pavillion on February 4, 1982. With Pete Wishart bolstering the effects-laden twin-guitars, the pastoral prog-punk arrangements of such key Big Country songs as Lost Patrol and Porrohman weren’t dramatically different from versions that would appear on The Crossing.  On home turf, the new band was hailed.  Crossing the border a week later was a different story.  Booked somewhat optimistically by Ian Grant to support Alice Cooper, Big Country lasted just two dates before being bottled by fans, then fired by Cooper’s tour manager.

Stuart Adamson was euphoric – his son Callum had been born the night before the tour began, and now he could go home – but the experience was chastening.  The rhythm section’s competence had already been queried by Phonogram A&R man Chris Briggs, who watched the band rehearse prior to the gigs, and after a weekend’s deliberation, Adamson dismissed Cliver Parker and Alan Wishart, prompting Pete Wishart to resign in solidarity.

“It fell apart,” says Bruce Watson.  Behind the scenes, however, the wheels of fortune were moving.  Ian Grant remembered Mark Brzecki  and Tony Butler from On The Air, a west London power pop trio featuring Pete Townsend’s younger brother Simon, who’d supported the Skids in 1980.  By now the drummer and bassist were session duo Rhythm for Hire, establishing a reputation for brilliant musicianship on the elder Townsend’s solo album Empty Glass. Chris Briggs agreed to pair Adamson and Watson with Rhythm for Hire in Phonogram’s Hammersmith rehearsal studio.  Butler had fond memories of Skids – especially Adamson.

 ”Stuart and I hung out a little on that tour, I was in awe – I’d never worked with anybody with that kind of intensity. I grew up with Pete Townshend and I felt that same power with Stuart. And I felt it when we got together for that first demo.  I said to Mark on the way home, We’ve got to join this band, it’s fantastic.  Mark, who was married to his drums, was saying, ‘I enjoyed it, but I think we should carry on doing sessions.’ I said, Fuck off! Let’s join this fucking band!”

Big Country signed to Phonogram in May, 1982.  Twelve months later, The Crossing was in the can at the second attempt, decisive factors being Adamson’s increased confidence in his band, plus the addition of the irrepressible Lillywhite.

“Steve brought out the best in us,” says Watson. “At the mixing desk, it was like a performance.  He would be mixing, hands on, and I’m standing next to him, playing. It’s like you’re jamming with the producer.  I remember him getting the demo of In A Big Country and saying, “If we work on it, there’s a possibility this could be a single…”

The demo of Big Country’s signature song is similar to the finished version, except in two vital aspects: the melody guitar line and the second verse are missing.

“If you listen,” says Lillywhite, “you hear (sings) …see the sun in wintertime…!’ And then, Stuart went, ‘In A Big Country….’ I said, The chorus, it’s far too soon! So he put in that guitar riff and a ‘Shaa !,’ and then went into another verse.  And then when the chorus came it was really glorious.  That’s not normally a thing a producer would do – make the chorus come later – but that song was so good you could hold the tension.”

Big Country prove the adage that the best time to be in a popular group is just as they actually become popular the novelty factor that can sustain the soul through the band grind of promotion and touring soon fades.  Mark  found solace in the details of success for years, he had driven his drums in a London Borough of Hillingdon van from Slough to London en route to another routine session.  Every time he passed the Hammersmith Odeon next to the M4 flyover, he would say: “One day I’m going to play there,” On the Crossing tour, Big Country played two nights at the fabled venue, “That was it for me, ” he says, “I didn’t need to do anything else. To go over the bridge and to see ‘Big Country’ up there – that was massive,”

But for Stuart Adamson there was nothing novel about this, except the heightened intensity with was so which it impacted upon him as singer, songwriter, guitarist, front man.  For all that he smiled on-stage, it was clear this didn’t come naturally, and the rote anecdotes he relied upon felt like nervous ticks.  ‘Stuart’ became a version of the Skids’ ‘Charles’ , the worker who turned into a robot (and was eventually scrapped).  He looked like he wanted to disappear into the music, to be a speck on the horizon of the vast landscapes his band evoked.  Failing that, he simply left.

“A couple of times I’d be up late and Stuart would be getting into a taxi outside the hotel, ” says Chris Briggs,. “I said, Where are you going Stuart ? He goes ‘I’m going back to Dunfermline. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in time for the show tomorrow.’ And he was,”

Tony Butler estimates that although Adamson enjoyed the triumphant UK tour and the first US tour to promote The Crossing, a second six-week US tour in 1984 was too far.  They staggered on to Japan in May, but Australia was cancelled. “He started to dismantle through tiredness and alcohol.  He didn’t like having the spotlight when he was on stage.”

Essentially Adamson found being a front man excruciating. At least in the Skids he could play the silent foil to Jobson’s noble savage – or, as Chris Briggs puts it, be the Townshend to his Daltrey.  “The importance of the alpha male show-off with a great voice,” observes Briggs, the man who subsequently oversaw Robbie Williams’ career renaissance. ” It always felt as if Stuart could break the band up at any minute.  The pressure of coming up with the music was enough.  If Stuart had found somebody to share the load, who knows what might or might not have happened.2

Instead of pausing, the band plunged into making their next album, written from scratch and recorded at Abba’s Polar Studios in Stockhom in summer 1984 Steeltown had great songs, but lacked the moist- eyed riffs, the folk drones and the sheer naivety which had made The Crossing, for all its melancholy, so joyful.  In the process of attempting to define themselves as a successful rock band they lost the core of what had made them distinctive: the Scottish roots Adamson so desperate to cling to his personal life. “The Big Country that made The Crossing was more like the Skids than the Big Country that did Steeltown,” says Steve Lillywhite.

Big Country never regained their state of grace. After Chris Brigs left Phonogram, they drifted, constantly rebooting their sound, each time becoming less like Big Country. In mid 1989, at the end of the tour to promote 1988′s slick but anonymous Peace In Our Time, Adamson split the band, only to subsequently change his mind.

“We should have left it there,” says Watson. The details of Stuart Adamson’s decline into alcoholism and depression following his divorce from Sandra and a move Nashville – where he remarried and formed country duo The Raphaels – are desperate.  His final Big Country gig was in Kuala Lumpur, October 21, 2000.

“Horrendous, ” says Butler. “Of he was alive today, Stuart wouldn’t remember that gig because he was in such a state.” The following summer his final UK appearance with a Raphaels line-up featuring Mark Brzezicki saw him collapse on stage.  In October 2001, just before disappearing from his home in Nashville, Adamson phoned friends and family in Dunfermline, plus Ian Grant.  “he’d been busted for drink driving,” says Grant,” and was due to go to prison on December 18 – but he said: ‘I can handle it, it’s only for three weeks.  You know my grandfather committed suicide, don’t you? Well I’m not going to do that,’ Last time I ever heard from him.”

On December 16, 2001.  Stuart Adamson’s body was discovered hanging in a closet of a Honolulu hotel room, ” I was shocked,” says Bruce Watson. ” But I knew Stuart’s character really well, and I knew something like that would happen.  The last thing I said to him was, I love you and he said I love you too,”

To many Big Country fans, the notion of the current line up featuring The Alarm’s Mike Peters singing and Bruce Watson’s son Jamie on second guitar, simply doesn’t make sense.  That’s what Steve Lillywhite thought in 2011 when Ian Grant asked him to  listen to a new song, called Another Country.

“I went, Oh god, please don’t do this to me.  This is Big Country – you can replace many people in a band, but the singer songwriter and guitarist and still call it the same things?! But he sent me the song and I had to say it was a great Big Country song. So we cut it and it was fun.  Who knows what’s going to happen in the future?”

“it upsets me he’s not here, I’ll never get over that,” says Tony Butler, “But I’ve got over the fact that this band can work without him because we have a legacy that we’ve all shared.  If we can go out and continue to pay homage to Stuart through great gigs, that’s fantastic,”

Speculating about precisely what Stuart Adamson would make of all this is quite obviously futile.  But perhaps a clue lies in his deeply moving sleeve note for a CD reissue of The Crossing, written in 1996, just as his first marriage was ending and the band in which he had invested so much time and hope seemed lost: “The music told stories, little stories. Land were not conquered, treasure was left in the tombs, the magic was in the  everyday. We learned how we are together and how we coming apart. Life happens,”

The Stars Were Aligned By Steve Lillywhite

Big Country had been in the studio with Chris Thomas and no-one was particularly excited by the results, Chris Thomas was my hero at that time, so to try and better your hero fired my interest.  They were great musicians – certainly Tony and Mark were a step above most of the other people I’d worked with Stuarts guitar sound was distinctive, in the way The Edge and Brain May have distinctive sounds, He was using an E-bow – not a common instrumental back them.  The E-bow is a constant sonic, it gives you infinite sustain.  But the signature ‘bagpipe’ guitar sound, that was just Stuart.  His sound was based, I suppose,  in Scotland. But some Chinese music has very similar structures. So I think it’s just a traditional music thing.

We agreed to do a single- first, which was Fields of Fire.  I spent a lot of time on the vocals, pushing Stuart to sing it over and over again.  Everyone seemed to like it so we started the album and he came up with In A Big Country.  I always felt Stuart was inspired by the sound we were getting so he wrote a song that would work with that.

I’m no good at pre-production, I’m not very good at planning I just have this innate belief that when I go in and the stars are aligned. Something great can possibly happen. The Crossing is a deep album:  there’s crazy key changes and real muso stuff coupled with great pop sensibilities.  It all worked very well.  Big Country gave me a feeling of joy – I remember those times very fondly.

 

 

 

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