by Adam Thrills (Record, 1983)
Towering above sticky tarmac streets and steaming manhole covers, the Lincoln Center for the performing arts is an impressive building. One of New York's major cultural complexes, its arched facade is the most striking landmark on a west side skyline glistening in the bright September sun.
Beneath the monolithic monument of concrete and glass, the city's Sunday morning strollers seem almost insignificant. But, as is always the case in this madhouse of a town, they are far from dull or inactive.
A mumbling Broadway bum rustles through a garbage can before aiming a wild kick at a passing cyclist for no apparent reason; the driver of a Checker cab unloads his cargo of Japanese tourists onto the sidewalk completely oblivious to the impatient honking of a dozen car horns in the jam behind him… and two former punk rockers from the other side of the Atlantic sit barefoot beside an ornamental fountain debating whether or not to take a cooling dip. It's only eight in the morning but the Manhattan thermometer is already rocketing into the lower 90s. By the middle of the afternoon the temperature will have reached a stifling 97 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest autumn reading in 50 years. This is what one might call a heatwave. Stuart Adamson curses the two watchful armed cops preventing he and I from plunging into the ornamental pool and contents himself with a chilled can of Budweiser in a brown paper bag, it being a punishable offence to openly consume alcohol in the street.
"You wouldn't get Simon LeBon doing anything like this", the Big Country singer and guitarist jibes, his sharp jawline cracking into a wide grin. That much is undoubtedly true. Then again, there are not too many similarities between Adamson and any of the members of Duran Duran, as became more and more apparent on hearing the craggy Scot in the sleeveless tartan shirt talking about music with fervent passion and an effusive, infectious warmth.
"I don't have any great plan about music. If music is important, it has to come down to emotion. It should be a human thing. Maybe that has something top do with coming from Scotland, where music has always been really close to the heart of the community. I certainly don't see it as something escapist. It can have a deep emotional effect.
"I've never seen it as a great quest for the world with Big Country, either. It's still something small and innocent. It doesn't matter to me if I'm playing to one person or a thousand people. It is still just a matter of sharing some songs. Music should be simple, emotive human language.
"I don't really see what all this fuss is about half the time. For me it's just about making a record to show people what your feelings are. If those feelings connect, then the record sells. It's not about creating a fashion, it's just about… ah, I don't really know. Sometimes the whole thing just leaves me totally confused."
The quivering brogue breaks off for a moment. It is a struggle to fully articulate something that is essentially a case of instinct and inspiration. Adamson pauses and tries again.
"It's hard for me to theorize about it. It should be a natural thing, not something you can take apart like a set of building blocks. the idea for a song will come to me in a momentarily flash. I could never just sit down and deliberately set out to write some songs.
"It's not that I'm flippant about it. Far from it. But I sometimes think that sitting down and analyzing it all can be slightly demeaning. I always feel that I'm making a real fanny of myself when I try and explain it in interviews – the big rock'n'roll star telling kids where his head is at! At the same time, interviews can help to break the myth that there is something special about people in bands. There's nothing special about musicians and songwriters. They might sometimes make some magical music, but that doesn't make them better people.
"But I think it's great that a lot of kids in their early teens are buying records like ours as well as buying the Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo stuff, because there's nothing lightweight about our songs. If there's any future for music, it has got to come through young people being shown that you can express yourself honestly through music."
Words like 'soul', 'honesty' and 'passion' have been so debased through overuse by the young saps and old lags of the pop world that they now mean next to nothing. Adamson, though, is one of the few performers who can still make them ring true. His sheer enthusiasm is usually enough to bring even the most tired phrase to life.
"I can only write songs the way that I feel them. If the words that describe those feelings have become cliches, I can't help that. I can't help the way I feel. I certainly don't think I should have to apologize for it, because I've never made any great claims about our music. There are no great ideologies in our songs. If there is one overall thing worth emphasizing, it's just the importance of people. That's about it… and that water in the fountain looks so bloody cool!"
The courtyard outside Lincoln Center is rapidly becoming too hot and humid to handle and—with the two cops still eyeing us from a distance—the lure of an air-conditioned hotel on nearby Central Park West is too much to resist.
As we head back across Broadway towards welcome relief from the heat, Adamson permits himself one last glance at the five impressive arches of the buildings behind us.
"I just don't ken some of these Americans. They put up this great center for the arts, but they've never produced a thing worth calling art themselves! They've had to borrow anything from Europe… even punk rock, they even took that!"
The previous evening Big Country had played the second and final night of their brief New York residency, working for the Yankee dollar in the faded grandeur of the Ritz. As live rock music goes, it had been something truly special, one of these rare occasions where everything clicks miraculously into place and a band is able to cut through the suffocating barriers between the stage and the floor like a hot knife through butter. Almost alone in the rock arena, big Country can still send a shiver down the spine.
Their performance had begun badly. Chronic sound problems drove them off the stage after only four songs; but, while a lesser band might have wilted, big country turned adversity to their advantage. They simply crouched by the footlights and chatted with the crowd while matters were rectified before returning to resume their set at its beginning.
In responding with guts to a situation that could so easily have spoiled their prestigious date in downtown Manhattan, Big Country grew almost visibly in stature during their hour-long set. Adamson is the volatile vortex of the group, standing stage center in a white vest and rolled up jeans, a Fender slanted obliquely across his torso. He leads the group by example, and, when things threaten to turn sour, his three cohorts – guitarist Bruce Watson, bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki – seem to draw inspiration from his powerful presence at the helm.
But Big Country is no one man band, and one of the more satisfying aspects of their performance was the spectre of all four members of the passion patrol pulling together to keep the undivided attention of their audience for the entire duration of en effervescent, impetuous show.
Putting the Big in the Country club is down largely to the heroic six-string dynamism of twin guitarists Adamson and Watson. A rousing barrage of inventive guitar work has become one of the band's hallmarks and on stage they strike a perfect balance between booming cacophony and stinging, melodic grace. A similar combination of powerful combustion and more delicate, subtle poly-rhythmic interplay extends to the rhythm section, while Adamson is also improving as a singer, compensating for his lack of range and tonal perfection by the force and character of his vocal delivery
Old Father Rock, of course, has become tres unfashionable over the past couple of years. The emergence of a band like big Country, however, emphasizes how dumb it is to make rules about music. To regard all guitar-based rock as a reactionary evil would be sheer stupidity. The fact that most of it is indeed rotten to the core is irrelevant; inspiring and original bands do still exist in 1983, and, in that particular field of fire and skill, Big Country is already threatening to leave almost all the other contenders floundering in their feedback.
But there is a lot more to Big Country than just the sound of blazing guitars. The real heart of the band is in the songs of Adamson and the spirit in which the group plays them. Drawing both on the healthier aspects of recent British rock history from the Jam to Joy Division and on his own Scottish Highland heritage, Adamson has forged a highly original musical framework on which to hang his songs of justice, freedom and pain.
Big country is sometimes criticized for being a progressive rock band dressed up in modern trimmings. In fact, they rarely veer anywhere near the overwrought musical delivery of the mid-'70s, making a virtue instead of precision and economy: apart from their two mini-epics, 'Porrohman' and 'the Storm', all the songs in their set have the same crisp immediacy and cohesion as their four singles, 'Harvest Home', 'Fields of Fire', 'In a Big Country' and 'Chance'.
The songs themselves are musical parables, taking tales from Celtic folklore, highland history and Boys Own adventure to explore deeper themes of love, fear and pride. A strong sense of continuity runs through their work, bolstered by the recurrence of certain elemental images – one can hardly scan a line of the lyric sheet that comes with their debut album, The Crossing, without being struck by references to sun, sea, rain or fire.
But for the receptive crowd downstairs at the Ritz, it was the music rather than the words that was the main concern, and Big Country did not disappoint. They were in inspired form, the first rock band since the Clash that actually made me want to dance through a 13-song set that showcased every track on the LP plus single flipsides 'Angle Park', 'Balcony' and a cover of Smokey Robinson's 'Tracks of My Tears'.
Though born in Manchester, England, Adamson was raised in the small village of Crossgates near Dunfermline, Fife; hence the undeniable Scottish edge to the Big Country beat. Adamson recalls his mother having "a lot of old Irish and Scottish folk records lying around, so it's something I've been brought up with. There would always be folks around on Friday and Saturday night after the pubs and dancehalls shut and everyone would have to get up and sing or play a song. There would be guys up there playing guitars, bagpipes, accordions and fiddles, so I suppose some of the things I write go right back to that.
"It's not as if I've decided to sit down and write something really ethnic. I think it's a bit dilettantish to adopt style like that. It would be dishonest of me to play electrofunk or disco. Not that I've got anything against it, but just because it's not something I've grown up with."
The impact of punk pricked Adamson into seriously putting together a band of his own. After assembling bassist Tom Kellichan, drummer Willie Simpson and young vocalist Richard Jobson, he launched the Skids in 1977; and though the rhythm section subsequently underwent a series of changes, Adamson and Jobson remained together until 1981.
The Skids were an intriguing group. the creative tension between Adamson's passionate, almost earnest drive and Jobson's cultural hooliganism produced three albums, all on Virgin, in as many years. Their debut, Scared To Dance, was rich in spikey promise but neither the futuristic Days In Europa nor the more rounded pop of The Absolute Game lived up to its potential, leaving a string of stirring singles as the most enduring testimony to their talents. Though they received neither the credit nor the commercial success that they perhaps deserved, the Skids proved to be a firm foundation for what Adamson is doing now in Big Country and Jobson in his new band, the Armoury Show.
After the Skids broke up, Adamson quietly went back underground in Dunfermline. His wife gave birth to their first child and he began writing songs with guitarist Bruce Watson, a flame-haired young firebrand whose two previous bands, the Delinquents and Eurosect, had often supported the Skids on Scottish dates.
The pair worked for months in a portable studio beneath a community pool hall, perfecting the blueprint that was to become Big Country. By the end of the year, they were ready to test the prototype and extended their lineup to embrace a lineup to embrace a rhythm section and keyboards. But their initial appearances—one in their home town and two down in England supporting Alice Cooper—were waking nightmares and, within two weeks of being formed, Big Country Mark One nosedived out of existence.
Mark Two came about when Phonogram Records talent scout Chris Briggs offered Adamson and Watson some demo time in a London studio. Lacking a permanent rhythm section, the pair called in a session team known as Rhythm For Hire – Tony Butler and Mark Brzezicki – for the task. The first song they ever played was 'Harvest Home' and that was all it took to convince Adamson that this was the group he'd been striving for.
Butler recalls the studio scene as "something special. It still amazes me to think of it today. We just did one song and decided there and then that we had the makings of a group. There was just something right about the whole thing. Not only musically, but also personally, it was the best thing that could have happened for us all."
Butler and Brzezicki had been together for some time, having played in Simon Townshend's group On The Air and worked with Simon's more illustrious older brother Pete on the Empty glass and Chinese Eyes solo projects. though still in their mid-20s, they were a part of the old school of sessioneers – the real musicians – before they joined Adamson and Watson.
"The music we were playing before was technically proficient beyond belief", Butler relates, "but there was something misguided in our whole approach to it. Meeting Stuart proved to be a revelation because had a totally different approach to the one we had grown used to. Having missed out on punk completely myself, Stuart showed me something new. When he was with the Skids, you could see that there was something special about the way he played. He had an ability to lift an audience, not just the people in the front rows but those at the back of the hall, too. If we've taken anything from the Skids, I hope it's that power to generate hope and optimism."
Big Country is frequently mentioned in the same breath as other guitar bands such as U2 and the Alarm, although Adamson shies away from comparisons, preferring to see them as part of a much wider sphere that also includes Echo and the Bunnymen, Dexys Midnight Runners and the Style Council.
"If there are any kindred bands", Adamson notes, "it is those who are presenting music as something to be shared. I think we should be wary of making an antifashion into a fashion. One of the reasons certain groups are being lumped together, ourselves included, is that there is still a certain innocence about what they do. A lot of people still feel very deeply about music and that's a good way to be."
At the core of Big Country lies an assertion of basic human values such as pride and dignity. Adamson's songs are inextricably linked to his family life and the small town community that surrounds him, although he can hardly be accused of turning a blind eye to universal concerns. He says his family has "always been a source of inspiration", and adds that "having a son has also made me automatically aware. I really want to have the chance to see him grow up. Since the Second World War we've had to learn to live with the fear that we could all be blown up tomorrow, and I think that's put a lot of barriers between people, making them more selfish.
"But the hardest thing to come to terms with, as far as the nuclear thing goes, is the fact that it would be a human being that presses the trigger. It wouldn't be a quirk of fate or an accident. It would be a supposedly rational decision. That's the most terrifying thing."
Such acute awareness of life's fragile nature informs Adamson's work without being explicitly stated. Better that music be used as a force to define and assert spirit and individual enterprise. "Scotland is steeped in trade unionism and a socialist history, and I think some of those socialist values, that sense of fair play and justice, come across in the songs.
"Up in Dunfermline, they're killing off all the old industries and putting nothing in their place. At the same time they're educating all the kids in a Victorian work ethic, giving them the idea that they are going to be able to walk into a career of their choice when they leave school. The truth is that they will be lucky if they get a job that lasts a couple of months. To slap school leavers in the face like that is disgusting. If there are no jobs, then we should be showing people how to express themselves and be creative with their leisure time."
Concludes Adamson: "I still believe music has a very important part to play in people's lives. If we ever do anything that helps to give people an idea of self, then we'll have done something worth doing."
A big country: where dreams live with you and the value of love meets the power of pride. Play it loud, play it strong. And let the people hear.
Transcribed by Svein Borge Hjorthaug