Big Country Reviews and Interviews 1987 – 1991
Big Daddy – LM, January 1987
BIG COUNTRY are back on the road this month, and STUART ADAMSON is in a quandry. Performing live in front of the band’s loyal and dedicated fans has always been important to him, part of the process of breaking down the barriers between stage and audience. But, as he told DAVID CHEAL, touring also drags Stuart away from his beloved Scotland and his equally beloved family.
Big Country were shooting the video for their latest single, Hold The Heart, in a community arts centre in north London. My appointment with Stuart Adamson was scheduled to come at a convenient break in the filming, at an unspecified time during the course of the afternoon. I couldn’t sit in on the shoot because it was in a room with mirrored walls, and hangers-on were excluded – they might creep into the shot.
So I sat downstairs, drank several gallons of coffee and leafed through a fascinating B&I Ferries brochure until Stuart finally appeared clad in a stylish, expensive-looking suit (with cuffs turned up) and a porkpie hat. A tuft of spikey hair bristled out in front of the hat’s rim. Stuart lit a cigarette, took his hat off and placed it on the table next to my tape recorder. I half-expected the tuft of hair to remain attached to the hat, but it stayed firmly on his head.
Stuart spoke in a gentle, lilting Scots accent, by no means as incomprehensible as I feared it might be. He’s a very thoughtful bloke, a member
of that rare species, the intelligent pop star; Stuart avoids the platitudes and cliches which make up the vocabulary of the average music celebrity.
It’s been a good year for Big Country: an album, three succesful singles, two tours in the UK, the second of which is currently underway. They’ve also just started to break into the American market, following their successful US tour.
“We have a good live following over there,” says Stuart. “It’s not mega-platinum status but it’s good, a lot of people buying records and coming to
gigs. Our show over there is pretty much the same as the one over here; we don’t do a different stage show just because we’re in America or Japan or whatever. We tend to get pretty much the same reaction wherever we play.”
Does he find that Big Country attract similar audiences the world over?”We get a much more varied audience than a lot of people think, a mixture of ages and cultures, and if our audiences are the same the world over they’re the same because we get the same sort of mixture of different people.”
Their album The Seer is still doing the business, too. Was he pleased with it?
“I was ecstatic. Every aspect of it – musically, lyrically, and live, it’s something that’s been an absolute joy to work on. There’s a lot of space and a
lot of atmosphere in the album, and it’s brought out a lot of subtleties in the group that were always there but never quite came through before.”
It also brought out a lot of subtleties in Kate Bush, who’s featured on one of the tracks. Stuart explains how she came to be involved. “I’ve been a big admirer of hers for a long time. We were working on The Seer and because the song itslef has a woman as a central character we thought it would be nice to have a woman singing it. We’ve used a girl singer in the past – for some reason it seems to match up quite well with my voice; I
don’t have a traditional gravelly rock’n'roll voice, it’s a bit more straight
“And because Kate has such a vast range of vocal styles and because of the way she arranges her own stuff vocally, I thought it would be smashing if she could do some work for us. So I called her up, sent her a tape and she really liked the song. We didn’t want to tell her what to do; we just wanted her to be Kate Bush, so she worked out her own arrangement and came in and sang for 12 hours straight. I was quite in awe of her actually.”
The album’s lyrics continue Stuart Adamson’s mythical, mystical storytelling style of songwriting.
“It’s a lyrical style that interests me a great deal. It’s a way I feel I can put not only human situations but moods and emotions and intangible things like spiritual things across, rather than sitting there saying ‘I felt great”. It’s trying to create the mental landscape, a mental picture that can re-create the mood or emotion in the listener. On The Seer, the idea around which the album revolves is one of learning from the past not to make the same mistakes again in the future.
“The song itself drew ona story I’d heard about a sort of Scottish Nostradamus who lived in the 12th Century. I thought it would be nice to use
that with modern ideas. The Red Fox was about a guy who was in charge of the English forces in Scotland and was shot by someone, and no-one knew who had done it and it was like an historical act of terrorism. And it was using that idea to show how people’s frustrations at their ownsituation can spill over into violence.” There are obvious parallels with the 20th Century and with unemployment, something about which Stuart has gone on the record with particularly strong views. And it’s typical of his attitude that what impresses him is that the frustrations of the unemployed have not spilled over into violence on a large scale, despite the most devastating of circumstances.
“I was reading Bob Geldof’s autobiography, adn there’s one passage in it where he says that when people are at their worst they’re at their best, and I think there’s a lot in that. In the area where I come from, we’ve got the second-highest unemployment rate in Scotland. A fifth of the workforce is out of work. It’s farcical, a ridiculous situation. But people still seem to have a sense of humour, and I think that’s something that’s worth believing in.”
What helps the people back home through this rough period is their strong sense of community, believes Stuart. This concept is a strong thread throughout his work, and growing up in a small community near Dunfermline has taught him the advantages of living your life among people you know and trust.
“I find it very sad that we seem to be developing more and more into a nation that subscribes to the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ theory. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I did grow up in a close-knit community and I think it’s something special, it gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, and a sense of being pert of something. When they’re left to their own devices people tend to turn in on themselves and become suspicious and malicious. It causes a great deal of hostility between people, and causes you to look for people’s differences rather than their similarities.”
Stuart still lives in the town where he was brought up, and seems to be at his happiest there, surrounded by the most important people in his life: his family. Stuart is now the father of two young children, and he takes his responsibilities as a father very seriously.
“To say that my family is important to me would be an understatement. I’m very important to my family too, and that’s a nice situation to be in, there’s a mutual dependency. I think it’s important not to teach children how to learn or how to grow up, but to help them, because they do it themselves. Also the basic warmth and company within a family is something that’s important for kids.”
Stuart once described himself as a ‘depressed optimist’, but bringing up a family has altered this view: “Children give you a sense of naivety, and I mean that in a nice sense, in that kids do see the wonder of things, and can see hope in things, and don’t always look at the negatives. I see it in people’s faces; I think your basic average human being is a pretty nice person, and I think you have to rely on hope for the human spirit.”
Prolonged absences from his family have altered Stuart’s attitude to touring, now ambivalent. “It’s something that’s very much a part of me – the actual physical act of playing in a band is something that I derive a great deal of fulfilment from, and it’s something I feel very lucky about. I do earn a living out of doing something that I love doing, and not many people can say that.
“But it does get a bit of a bind sometimes, and I do suffer very severely from homesickness. But we’ve tempered that this year by doing three or four weeks on and then three weeks off. It’s a much more civilised way of doing things, particularly since three out of four members of the band now have families.”
The continued success of Big Country surprises some critics, but not Stuart. He believes that the Big Country success story is largely attributed to the control they’ve maintained over their lives, their careers, their music, and their integrity, remaining true to themselves rather than adhering to an idea of what might be commercially successful.
“We’ve been successful by doing what we want do to and by keeping control of it. I don’t think the group would last very long if we started doing stuff that was aimed specifically at a commercial market. We obviously want our stuff to be successful, because I don’t see any reason in working in a communicative form and playing to myself, my family and my living-room, but it’s important to us to do stuff that we are committed to. You do have a certain amount of clashes and arguments, and we do listen to what other people have to say, but when you do have fixed ideas about whatever it is that you want to do you have to stand by them.
“It would be a very vainglorious form of success if it was all done on someone else’s conception of what the group should be. I’m not interested in
success for success’s sake – it’s too narrow a concept for me to find any great lasting satisfaction from.”
What is success? “Finding myself deeply committed and deeply satisfied by my work, finding that the responsibilities I have as a father are repaid, and finding that I do what I do without looking too much of a prat, really. That’s what it’s all about.”
Another important element in the Big Country success story is Stuart’s refusal to be sucked into the star system; he prefers to present himself as a
pretty regular sort of guy, because that’s what he is.
“I’m not really into hero-worship. What I do through my work and through the way I live is something that just goes to make up part of me as a human being, and it doesn’t set me apart from other people. I find it disorienting when people do look upon me in that manner. People that are interested in the group come up to us and talk to us and don’t feel inhibited, and it could be like that for anybody; I think it’s just a matter of how you view yourself. I don’t have a stage persona that I can just turn on; Stuart Adamson the songwriter, guitar- player, singer, husband and father is all the same person.
“People where I live are pretty straightforward and don’t make a great deal of fuss about it and just see it as my job. It is a very expressive and
emotional form of work, but work it is, it’s what I do to make my living. I don’t think it’s a matter of taking something special and making it everyday, I think it’s seeing what there is special in the everyday, I think that’s the magic.”
Finally, there’s the group itself. Musically, personally, politically, they all clicked from the word go and have gone on without any major conflicts.
“We have something very special between the four of us. I don’t know quite what it is, whether it’s something in the cut of our trousers or what, there’s something there. It’s something that’s more than the input of each of the individuals. We do play and write with a great deal of spirit. It’s something more than just sitting down with a guitar and strumming a few chords. It’s a very intangible sort of thing, but it’s part and parcel of what goes to make up the group.”
Suddenly it’s time to go; Stuart has a photographic session to attend, then the sleeper train back up to Scotland. We talk about the film Restless
Natives for which he wrote and recorded the score: “I liked the discipline of writing to illustrate someone else’s pictures. I’d like to do more of that,” he says.
He’s an ambitious man, but not in the traditional sense of the word. Ask most men what their ambitions are, and they’ll talk to you about work, careers; most pop stars would mention unfulfilled yearnings to be novelists, film directors, poets or racing drivers. Stuart Adamson’s greatest ambition is more realistic, but given his views on children and families as an expression of hope in the future, perhaps it’s more important.
“I’d like to be someone’s grandfather. I think that would be a fine thing to be.”
The Madcap World Of Big Country “SMash Hits”, August 1988
Cast your minds back, pop tarts, through the swirly mists of time to approximately one billion light years ago. Stuart Adamson, Mark
Unpronounceablename and two other blokes, otherwise known as Big Country, were gadding about the charts with their infectious pop
tootlings such as “In A Big Country” and all the other ones that sounded just like it! All was going hunky “dory” when suddenly The “Tree”, as they were then known , slipped off the face of the universe never to be seen or heard of again…until now that is. Yes – yes! – they’re back!
Their new single “King Of Emotion” is sweeping its way across the nation and Big Country are pop stars once again! So, Bitz has rudely awakened Mark Unpronounceablename to find out just what happened to ver lads in their so-called “twighlight” years…only there seems to be a slight “hitch” as Mark is having a fit or something.
“Hahaaaheheh! Mark Unpronounceablename!!! That’s a good one that is. Smash Hits christened me that years ago and it’s stuck! Everyone calls me that now! Hoho…guffaw… teehee!!! Even fans come up to me and say ‘Oh, you’re that Unpronounceablename bloke aren’t you?’ It doesn’t bother me at all. I like it best when you say ‘Markunpronounceablenameofbigcountry’ in one long swoop. That looks even more fangled!”
So it does. So what have you been up to since you last hat a “hit” then?
“Well, it’s been two and a half years since we were in the charts but we’ve been busy. You see, we’re a gigging band. Lots of bands go into the studio these days and have the Lock, Stock and Barrel treatment but they can’t actually play live. We’re really good at it.!
Oh. So, you weren’t down the dumper then?
“Certainly not! The thing is we also write all our own songs and that takes time to do… (goes on about the time-consuming art of writing “proper” songs for a few months). We’ve also been in the studio making a new LP. It’s called ‘Peace In Our Time’.”
Oh dear, sounds a bit like a dreaded “concept” album to Bitz…”Oh God, no!! Every song is about something different. I’m not telling you about what though, because Stuart writes the lyrics and he’s one for letting the audience decide for themselves.”
How very wise of him. So what else have you been doing to “while” away the hours?
“Well, I’ve been learning to fly an aeroplane, and Stuart has been sponsoring the Big Country Racing Team. Honestly! He’s mad about motorbikes is Stuart, but he had to sell all his bikes because he kept…er…well, let’s just say he’s better off watching than he is riding. I was watchingWorld Of
Sport the other day and it’s really wierd watching this bloke going round with ‘Big Country’ written on his motorbike! Anyway, I’m still going to learn to fly. As soon as I get time off I’m going to take to the air! Hee hee!”
Mark Unpronounceablename! Unpronounceable name – crazy guy!(??)
Big Country are doing their bit to help East-West relations. “Moscow Here We Come The Sport, September 1988
They became the first British rock band to perform a concert inside the Soviet Embassy in London.The band, who set off this week to headline a major Moscow rock festival, brought a touch of noisy Glasnost to the embassy.
They performed in front of a specially invited audience that included concerned-looking embassy officials. There was also the rare sight of the nation’s music press in “smart” dress as requested on the much sought after embassy passes. The band’s new LP aptly named Peace In Our Time, is released this week. And stay tuned for tales of the band’s trip to Moscow in a couple of weeks.
Showbiz Soviet David Sinclair – joins in the ballyhoo over the first private enterprise rock concerts in Moscow
The Times, Monday 3rd October 1988
It looked for a moment as if the centre piece of Big Country’s contribution to glasnost was going to end up as a fiasco. Over a weekend when
Mikhail Gorbachov was teching the Politburo to sing a new song, the Anglo-Scottish band was performing the second of five concerts at one of
Moscow’s Palace of Sports, an 8,000 capacity ice skating rink called the Palace of Wings. But a voltage regulator essential for protecting the group’s sophisticated guitar electronics from the extreme fluctuations in the Moscow power supply, had been disconnected and the band was forced to give up half way through the first number, while the road crew searched for the fault.
Half an hour later the musicians bounded back on. “Let’s do it properly,” said the vocalist and leader Stuart Adamson. They lasted less than eight bars before a related problem prompted them to leave the stage again. The lights went up and a bemused Russian crowd was left waiting for another hald an hour.
Although audiences are still trying to get a fix on the various stylistic and behavioural co-ordinates associated with rock, the market for the music in the Soviet Union has already been revealed as one of massive potential. This show was not sold out, but in a society where there is virtually no advertising, approximately 5,000 people had nevertheless turned out and paid 5.7 roubles each for the privilege of seeing a group whose music most of them had never even heard before. The trickle of acts which started in the early Eighties, with mainstream pop artists such as Cliff Richard, Elton John, Abba and Boney M has swollen, since glasnost, into a steady flow of rock bands, including in recent months UB40, Status Quo, Public Image Limited, The Scorpions and Uriah Heep.
However, Big Country is the first Western act to have set up its concerts through a promoter independently of the state-run Goskontsert agency. The shows have been organized by the Russian former pop star Stas Namin, who now runs a music school.
Big Country’s records are not available in the Soviet Union, where there is only the one state-run record label, Melodiya and no copyright law to enable collection, let alone payment of royalties. During a lengthy career, the aforementioned Stas Namin is reputed to have sold 40 million albums in the Soviet Union, but has never earned more than the basic wage for a musician.
But, if Big Country receives nothing from this visit in terms of income generated within the Soviet Union, the band’s record company Phonogram, is determined that the rest of the world will get to hear about the rest of these shows, and Big Country’s otherwise unremarkable new album: Peace In Our Time. the company flew more than 230 people from the media in the UK, Europe and North America, to be at this concert: a junket that will long be remembered in such circles, not least because it looked for a while as if the group was not going to play.
The days have long passed when Big Country was routinely classed as the equal of bands like U2 and Simple Minds and, predictably, new material such as “Broken Heart (13 Valleys)” and “Thousand Yard Stare” was not a patch on the oldest songs such as “In a Big Country”. Nor could the audience be relied on to know numbers like “Steeltown” and “The Seer”, which lack instant appeal, whatever their merits.
It was intriguing to see so many Red Army conscripts in their dark green uniforms, some with their hats on, dotted about the crowd, not as security but as excited members of the audience.
“I think this is an important event in the spirit of glasnost,” said drummer Mark Brzezicki after the show. “It’s obviously a promotional launch of
the album, but at the same time it springs from a genuine desire to play over here. People who know the band know our intentions are genuine, but of course there will always be those who read the worst into any situation.”
The Amnesty International tour featuring Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel has not been granted permission to visit the Soviet Union, where Amnesty remains a banned organisation, and the scope for participaion by Western rock musicians in the Soviet Union remains limited. Nevertheless, one can only admire the spirit in which this and similar events have been undertaken.
Big Country “King of Emotion
2nd June 1990 – good review!
In what Stuart Adamson calls, “The Big Country Nostalgia Extravaganza”, a Bowie-styled jaunt designed to promote their worthy Greatest Hits collection, every crowd-thriller Big Country have ever learned is present, correct and kicking its legs fervently in the air.
“This band have been in fashion, out of fashion, praised, hated, up, down,” says Adamson, prefacing a song of the but-you’ve-always-been-with-me variety. The ropey new single, “Save Me”, even comes with a touch of the vitriol more commonly reserved for the asset stripping Southern vultures who haunt Big Country’s lowland industrial anthems: “How many people here listen to Radio One?” Huge cheer. “Here’s one you probably won’t know then”.
What has always marked Big Country out from the other stadium contenders has been their ability to move an audience without reducing them to drooling, Pavlovian slabs of meat. It’s not just to do with the egalitarianism which allows them to bring four punters from the stalls onstage to add their vocals to a blistering “King Of Emotion”. It’s also the supple electric delicacy of their songs – stirring, throat-lumping, defiant, but never crass or over played. There is still plenty of fodder for cynics, though: the spectacle of awestruck fans knocking lumps out of each other in their attempts to secure Adamson’s discarded plectrums during songs on the desirability of global harmony, the crushingly bad piece of rapping which dissects “Heart Of The World”, the other songs about “the soul” and “the heart” and other metaphysical babble that tempts one to scream “Nietschze, ya bass!” at regular interval. It would still be a shame if they went the way of all flesh, though. If nothing else (and there is a lot else to Big Country), they were a troupe of hearty minstrels who asked whether the noble, the epic, the transcendent couldbe articulated by a medium as morally tarnished as rock and whether an audience could submit to music without being labelled vegetable. Tonight, in what may or
may not have been their swansong, in front of a wild, good-vibed, packed-beyond-capacity crowd, they got their answe.r
What a nice bloke this Allan Brown is: not only does he appear to have been to the gig and managed to stay for more than five minutes (unlike most music journalists) he also gives an unbiased pro/con account of the great night out! Oliver.
Glasgow BarrowlandsNME (?), June 1990 – pretty good reviews
“Swing yer pants! Swing yer pants!” Two thousand Glaswegians issue their terrifying orders to Stuart Adamson and he can only obey. Adamson and his chums swing their gaily coloured garments, running around the stage like big girlies playing rounders on drugs. “We come down from Dunfermline and you people call us ‘teuchters’ and say we do things with sheep,” complains Adamson, stilling his neatherwear for a moment. He points gaily at the world’s thinnest man, Bruce Watson. “And here’s the proof.”
Big Country are a jovial live performance. The (to quote Shagger Stu) Big Country Nostalgia Extravaganza is here to promote a Greatest Hits LP that entered the charts 1,000 units away from Number One, and so everything from the skirl of the pipes to the fiery rock to the weird Heavy Metal is unrolled and beaten mightily. It is great fun, and the audience control the show. They count in the songs. The demand pant-swinging. And they sing everything. It would have been no surprise had they recited Adamson’s between-song patter along with him (especially as this tends not to vary from night to night).
Yet Big Country had their secret weapon. After a hundred ‘Fields Of Fire’ and ‘Kings Of Emotion’ and ‘Wonderlands’ they return to perform The Equals’ awesome funk metal monster ‘Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys’. For a moment we believe Stuart Adamson to be Eddy Grant. Stuart waves to the crowd, basking in their love. With one voice they wave back and shout, “YOU’RE A DICK! YOU’RE A DICK! YOU’RE A DICK!”
A fantastic review considering that it’s come from
Big Country “Long Play”
Through A Big Country
Express, June 2 1990 – average review…
OH GOOD. Just what the world needed, a compilation of Big Country’s greatest hits. Contractual obligations can lead to the most tedious consequences. But hang on a minute – didn’t Stu and the boys support The Jam at the latter’s farewell gigs? Didn’t they once record a much-cherished Peel session? Didn’t Big Country inject the rock scene with a healthy dose of spirited reality when their compatriots sought pompous grandeur and overblown reverence? yes, yes and thrice yes.
Shame, then, that “Through..” kicks off with current smash “Save Me”, a turgid meander across Gary Moore’s builder’s yard terrain which taints the subsequent clutch of faves from “The Crossing”. The likes of “In A Big Country”, “Fields Of Fire” and “Chance” reveal the band at their peak, emotive and toying with their bonkers gosh-don’t-they-sound-like-bagpipes? guitars.
Thereafter, the formula becomes a touch repetitive, a few shades duller as the Biggies started socialising with rock’s royalty (Phil, Midge et al) and
pandering to thrill-seeking bank clerks. Curiously, both “Just A Shadow” and”East Of Eden” threaten to turn into Cocteaus classics, shimmering ten second false promises which ultimately follow the traditional Big Country pattern of thumpathumpa beats with a shower of twiddly plectrum bits on top.
So it’s loud but safe, invigorating without ever being intimidating. Rock music with neither exceptional qualities nor truly execrable characteristics. Which is quite possibly the worst way to be. Safety hurts
I suspect that Mr. Williams reviewed this LP whilst
doing a hundred and one other things, not giving the songs his full attention,
and thus can be forgiven for producing the average review seen above…
Big Country “Republican Party Reptile” (Vertigo)
Melody Maker, 24th August 1991 – typical MM
In which the caber-tossing, girder monsters attempt their “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and rail against all things right-wing in a lyric including lines like “industrial kickbacks” and “offshore banking”. As you’d expect, it shimmmers rather less than does Prince. Stuart Adamson may leave us in no doubt he’s voting Labour, but does this labour.
Big Country “No Place Like Home”
MM/NME(?), 1991 – very poor
“What do you do”, wonders the writer of the sleevenotes with undisguised awe, “when you are a group that has created one of the truly distinctive sounds in rock and been at the top of your profession eight years?” What indeed. The truly distinctive shall always be distinguished from the falsely distinctive, and where I come from, that means only one thing: BAGPIPE.
The great thing about Big Country is that they were never able to live that one down. Better, they can never stop themselves from bringing it up in a vain attempt at pre-emption. For the rest of the world it’s a joke, but for Stuart Adamson, it’s an obsession. If Adamson were on his deathbed with the priest approaching to give him extreme unction, his last words would be “Don’t mention the bagpipes!”. Did I mention that Big Country are also SICK AND TIRED of malicious journalists making cheap shots about bagpipes? In fact, just to make sure we know they’re not kidding about this, they enlist the help of (again) the sleevenotes writer, who tells us, his nostrils quivering with indignation, that “For too long, the emotionally charged essence of Big Country’s music has been obscured by LAZY and CLICHED talk of bagpipe guitars and checked-shirt rock”.
Well, I never. The terrible thing about Big Country is that their music is crap. This is a band that makes Lime Spiders look like the Rolling Stones. Adamson is responsible for the “emotionally charged essences” that make him sound like a Celtic Springsteen wannabe, gasping through a series of insufferable bar-room boogies. This, we are told, is Big Country getting back to their basics, their R&B roots. Naturally, all sentient listeners will wish they wouldn’t, but who listens to us anyway?
In terms of songwriting technique, I invite you to consider this couplet from “I Know We’re Not In Kansas”: “They took up all the yellow bricks/And sold them to Japan/And still the advertisers tell you/There’s no place like home”. Did I happen to mention that Big Country are sick of being laughed at?
Another narrow-minded, short-sighted,
self-opinionated review by a ‘nobody’ journalist trying to cater for the
‘trendy’ masses who only exist in the minds of the record company and
‘newspaper’ (I use the term loosely) marketing executives… Oliver.
Big Country “It’s only Rock ‘n’ Roll…”
Melody Maker, 21st September 1991
BIG COUNTRY’s new album, ‘No Place Like Home’, is meant to be a return to the basics of classic, honest-to-God guitar rock, a celebration of straight-from-the-shoulder rock’n'roll. To the ears of THE STUD BROTHERS, however, it still sounds like the bombastic swagger of yore. Pics: TOM SHEEHAN
“We were the band that made your brain think and your foot tap at the same time (not a trick everybody can manage, mind you – there are some real thickets around). We had – dare I say it – class. And we were the and whose gimmick was…music. Oh, yes, we had that reputation” – Iain Banks, “Espedair Street”
We’re early. A good two hours early. Some sort of time-warp, a loop in time, or something. Our airline tickets promised us we’d be in
Edingburgh by 11, the press officer told us the cab ride from Edingburgh to Dunfermline would take 40 minutes. We were to interview the band at 12.30. but it’s 10.30, so unless we got up early we must’ve gone back through time.We’re pondering the mystery in a bakery-come-caff just off
Dunfermline’s only busy street when Bruce Watson walks in. Bruce Watson is 30 years old and still looks a more convincing Dunfermline docker than he does a rock’n'roll guitarist. His demeanour’s part amiable pub racontuer, part ned hardman. He smiles a lot and has a front tooth missing. He keeps his new tooth in the breast pocket of his denim jacket. Bruce greets our photographer Tom Sheehan warmly. Tom’s known Bruce for f***ing years. According to Tom, Bruce used to be a real rascal around a drink. “Och, Tom,” grins Bruce. “It’s
been six years now. Six years without a drink. Six months without a cigarette.”He considers this feat of self-control for a moment then adds with a flourish, “So, would anyone like any heroin?” With that Bruce is sharpley summoned to a nearby table to appear before his Auntie Mary who would like to know why she’s seen neither hide nor hair of him for weeks now. We can think of a number of good excuses – writing and recording a new album, making videos, organising next year’s world tour – but then we’re not Auntie Mary. Auntie Mary’s wounded expression reminds us of a headmaster who once told us
excuses are lies.
We retreat to the street and from there to a hotel where Tony Butler, Big Country’s bassist, turns up bearing a massive hangover he’s eager to share. We offer sympathetic ears. Bruce, though has evidently discovered that one of the few pleasures of not drinking is to exacerbate Tony’s
hangovers with finger-wagging I-told-you-so’s. He tells Tony, “I told you so.” Tony was born in West London but now lives with his family in a tony Cornish village. He didn’t even bother going back for this year’s Notting Hill Carnival. When Tony was a kid, the Carnival was the biggest event of his year. He played in the calypso bands and helped to decorate the floats. Now London’s out of the question – too fast, too frenetic, too smelly. Maybe even too dangerous. Stuart Adamson arrives sporting a spectacular quiff, leather motorcycle boots, a heavy leather belt and a huge leather jacket. Adamson lives just around the corner with his wife, two kids and two retrievers. Everywhere Adamson goes people ask “How’s yer wee bairns?” Adamson at least looks like he’s involved in pop music. Tony kind of does but only in an erstwhil capacity. Part-time roadie. Bruce is so determinedly proletarian he makes The Farm look like Motley Crue. As rock’n'roll stars go, Big Country aren’t up to much. We like them immediately Homely, affable, intelligent, Big Country who eschew any gimmick more ostentatious than a leather jacket, look awfully dignified. This, though laudable in blues or soul, bemuses the pop fan. Dignity, to pop, looks undignified. Big Country have simply written honest rock’n'roll
songs about, well, Stuart Adamson. What Adamson does, thinks, reads, cares about. Simple, artless honesty looks to some contrived. “Yeah, well,
people think,” says Adamson, “that we’re simply a career band, working musicians, or just doing it because it’s something to do. People think we’re not into it, that it doesn’t mean much to us. But I care passionately about music, I just get really cheesed off with all the nonsense that goes with it. For me being in a band is writing songs and playing the guitar. The most important response we can get is if one of our songs can affect someone’s life in the same way a song can affect my life, if someone can just identify with it.”
With the recent “Republican Party Reptile” single, Adamson identifies with the right-wing American journalist PJ O’Rourke. “Republican
Party Reptile” (the title is lifted from a collection of essays by O’Rourke) is an assessment, maybe even a celebration, of PJ’s hedonistic, self-seeking capitalist, someone to which Adamson, the still-committed socialist, admits a helpless attraction.
“You could never admit to being like that”, he says. “It’s just so not-right-on. But to know someone like that, someone who wants it all – who wants to get wasted and laid and wants a career in politics as well – would be brilliant.” While we approve of the sentiment, we’re far less keen on the music, an oddly characterless lump of blunt guitar riffola. These feelings extend to the album, “No Place Like Home”, a perpetually bombastic affair that swaggers in an objectionably American way, which, even at its most plaintive and pastoral, sounds inexplicably impersonal. “No Place Like Home” leaves all Big Country’s idiosyncrasies behind and instead makes reverent reference to an impeccable lexicon of American stars – Neil Young, early Heart, early ZZ Top, even John Waite’s one hit-single. It left us feeling genuinely bewildered. We even wondered if Stuart Adamson had gone mad.
“From theoutside it will look like a real departure,” says Stuart. “But for us it’s what we do and what we are. I wouldn’t even begin to pretend we’re the same band we were three years ago, that we’re even the same people. What we’ve done with this album is to emphasise the different musical sides of the band. We can’t go and make a record wondering what people will think about it afterwards. We do it the way we wanna do it and if we can’t do it that way then we won’t do it at all.”
We don’t for a minute doubt the sincerity with which Big Country’s new album was written and recorded. Adamson is a long-time fan of American music and, long before his punk days with The Skids, played R&B with a band called Tattoo. Jon Bon Jovi once told us he was still just playing in a bar band. The only difference was the bars had turned into stadia. The same applies to Big Country. Still in Dunfermline with family, kids and dogs and now back with an album that pays homage to the American guitar rock they’ve loved for years, Big Country are probably the biggest, brightest pub-rock band in the world. Still the band whose only gimmick is…music.
The album, “No Place Like Home”, is out on Phonogram this
Big Country “Tale of Big Country Folk”
Town & Country
The Times, Saturday October 5th 1991 (Arts
section) – not a bad review
Having reached a creative impasse and suffered grievous financial losses on their 1988 Moscow adventure to promote the Peace in our Time album, Big Country were ready to throw in the towel. In the event only drummer Mark Brzezicki quit. Nevertheless, the group has turned to a new page with their latest album, No Place Like Home, a radical and inspired departure from the galloping rhythms and skirling guitar sounds of old.
Even so, Big Country remain a band painfully out of joint with the times. Dominated by the thoughtful, honourable and down-to-earth personality of singer and guitarist Stuart Adamson, they have neither the “dangerous” attitude to compete with such young turks as Guns N’Roses or the lofty pretensions of contempories like Simple Minds.
If anything, their relationship with their audience is akin to the easy and cosy rapport of a long-established folk act, and indeed halfway through this, the first of a five-night residency, Adamson strapped on an acoustic guitar and asked for requests. The result was an unaccompanied version of “Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys)” with the crowd enthusiastically adding their football-chant vocalese to the chorus.
However, there is no folk act that gets the kind of response which greeted the opening salvo of “We’re Not In Kansas”, “King of Emotion” and “Look Away”. It looked as if the dance floor had been turned into a giant trampoline, such was the mass of bodies bouncing at the front.
The new material was greeted with more restraint, but the bluesy “Republican Party Reptile” and the country-tinged ballad “Ships” nevertheless dovetailed surprisingly smoothly into the structure of the set. The honkey-tonk piano, mandolin and mellow sentiments of “Beautiful People” sat less comfortably in the mix, and an old song about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, “Winter Sky”, seemed a perversely dated choice, both musically and topically. Better by farwas the taut menace of “The Hostage Speaks”, with its picaresque lyric and haunting wah-wah soloing from Adamson.
The old standbys, “Chance”, and “In a Big Country” gave way to encoresncluding an emotional reading of Neil Young’s epic “Rocking in the FreeWorld”and an ill-advised stab at Muddy Water’s cock-of-the-roost anthem “Mannish Boy”.
Well, well, well…another good review! Seems The Times sends reviewers to concerts who are prepared to report honestly and constuctively about the gig. Shame that that happens less and less these days…I think this is the same guy that did the liner notes for NPLH… Oliver.