Hoe-Down in Steeltown

Article by (Creem, April 1985)

If you ask me, this business of sincerity in rock is getting out of hand. Today, for every Van Halen or ZZ Top that's dedicated to celebrating life's immediate (make that superficial) pleasures, there seems to be a Bruce Springsteen or a U2 insisting we take a thoughtful look beneath the surface for deeper meanings. Now it may well be true, as some philosopher once observed, that the unexamined life is not worth living. Who knows? Who cares? More important, does this sort of thing have a place in rock 'n' roll? The debate rages on.

Among those calling for more relevance in music are the earnest lads of Big Country, the half Scottish, half British band that made a mighty splash upon these shores in '83 with The Crossing. Led by Stuart Adamson, a veteran of punk era pioneers the Skids, the bonny boys found Top 20 favour with a robust brew of imitation bagpipe guitars, booming vocals, and rousing, anthemic tunes that had all the spirit and subtlety of a John Phillip Sousa march. Thanks to ditties like “Harvest Home” and “Fields Of Fire,” Adamson (guitar), fellow Scotsman Bruce Watson (guitar), and Londoners Tony Butler (bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums) became a hot ticket with folks who liked their fun served up at blast-furnace intensity. Whether anyone cared that Adamson's lyrics examined such burning issues as the Falklands war has yet to be determined.

When a debut LP goes gold, the sensible commercial thing to do is follow it up with more of the same. And so it is that Big Country has returned with unsurprising seconds in the form of Steeltown, a new bundle of hearty highland strains for tans of The Crossing. To tout the virtues of said platter, PolyGram has imported Adamson and Watson to its New York headquarters for a round of meet the press. When your trusty reporter encounters Stu 'n' Bru, they're in the midst of a grueling marathon session of interview roulette, which makes their stainless good manners all the more impressive; their mums and dads can be proud. On the other hand, this constant courtesy does permit them to evade ticklish questions like a master politician, so maybe it's more a matter of good strategy than good breeding. Whatever.

(Let the record show that Bruce Watson is present for the entire conversation. However, he says little, repeatedly deferring to his mate, and when he does talk, it's in an impenetrable Scottish brogue that makes Adamson seem practically American by comparison. Out of Watson's mouth, “I can't do it” becomes “Ole kigna doeiw aieat,” and so forth. Many times during our chat, he cheerfully says something along the lines of “lgdinga tewmch giddoo,” whereupon I nod and smile idiotically, totally at a loss. Rest assured, though, that the following quotes are all accurate, having been verified by a licensed linguist.)

Polite but forthright, Stuart Adamson begins by announcing that he's bursting with pride over Steeltown. “I think it's a harder, leaner, and tougher album than The Crossing. The songs are stronger and more straightforward, with less use of a metaphor and less romanticism.” Why the change? “Possibly because we've done so much touring in the last two years. It's given me the sense that it's possible to write about specific things you see going on in one area and they will connect with people in another place. The fact that the same feelings exist throughout the Western world has been a real eye-opener for me.” Adamson is quick to add that travelling hasn't changed his basic attitudes one iota. “Not at all! If anything, it's strengthened them. I get more pissed off about things than I used to, but rather than write ‘Kill the bastards,’ I try to take a situation and illustrate it, expand on it a bit.”

What pisses Stu off is the way ordinary people get worked over by the powers that be. For example, Steeltown's leadoff track, “Flame Of The West,” is an examination of “how right-wing and dictatorial Western politics are becoming, whether you're talking about Germany, Great Britain, or America, and how we're governed by big business and economic considerations, rather than by caring for people.”

“Where The Rose Is Sown” is about someone who's called up to fight in a war. He doesn't understand what's going on and becomes confused. Hence the lyrics "I know it's right/The good fight/I'm on my way/Why do I pray?" He continues, "That song links up with the one after it, “Come Back To Me.” One looks at things from the young guy's point of view and the other one shows a pregnant wife who's waiting for him to return from the war.” Adamson's tragic scenario finds the young soldier going home in a box.

The title cut is not the tale of one of Springsteen's New Jersey factory towns, though there's a similar feel. Adamson says it was inspired by the plight of an English town called Corby “that had a brand-new steel mill. People were encouraged to go and work there with the promise they'd have jobs for years and years. Then, about two years ago, the government decided to shut the mill down, leaving all these itinerant workers and their families in the shit. They're all unemployed now, which is very sad. Brave new world!” he laughs ruefully.

What's the solution to such a sorrowful situation? Don't ask Adamson. “I don't have answers. I'll leave those to the politicians. I'm only talking about things I see happening, trying to give people something to take away and think about.” Golly gee, isn't that awfully bleak fare to be offering? “Of course, but there's a sense of love and faith as well. My songs aren't bleak to the point of all hope being cast out.” By way of illustration, he points to “East Of Eden,” Which describes “the search for hope and a belief in something, anything, no matter where it comes from.” Somewhere, lines like “I found that hope and a luck card/Were all I had to walk with me” don't strike me as sufficient cause for optimism.

Curious to test the limits of Adamson's civility, I dare to compare Big Country with Springsteen. Some artists find it profoundly irritating to be likened to another they're original, y'know-but he answers evenly, “I really admire Bruce Springsteen's attitude. He's a hardworking musician who writes about what he sees going on, and that's something more groups should do. If rock music is ever going to be important, it's got to be a working part of the environment it comes from, like folk music. Folk music talks about and for people. So maybe Springsteen draws from American rock and country music the way we do from British folk music.”

Given Adamson's sober outlook, it's no surprise to find that he frowns on light entertainment like Duran Duran. “It's OK,” he comments, without much enthusiasm, “but don't expect me to go out and buy it. Music is something I care deeply about. If I treated it like fluff, I'd be treating my life like fluff, which is something I don't want to do. I'm serious about my life! I've got a wife and a son! I'm not pissin' about!”

But isn't it possible to become too serious? Didn't that prove to be the ruination of the Clash? “They got into making big sweeping statements and claims they couldn't possibly live up to. All we do is reflect the people we live among. There's a sense of fun about us-we don't go around in monk's shrouds.” In fact, they're wearing Big Country T-shirts at the interview. Isn't that cute? “We also get told some great jokes.” Any that are repeatable? “No!”

Watson notes that on one track he plays slide guitar for the first time, while elsewhere he strums his axe to mimic a mandolin, another personal first. Speaking of guitars, it's time for the question no Big Country interview would be complete without. “If it's anything to do with bagpipes,” exclaims Adamson, a mock frown creasing his face, “bagpipes from Hell!” You guessed it: Why the fake bagpipe sound? He denies they're imitating in the first place, observing, “The sound of Big Country has more to do with the melodies Bruce and I play than with the guitars themselves. If we played 'Johnny B. Goode' it wouldn't sound like 'Johnny B. Goode' on the bagpipes.”

By the same token, he (and Watson) are eager to point out that they aren't particularly good guitarists in a technical sense. “If you're talking about us as musicians, we'd rate about a two or three on a ten scale. I know of at least five guys in my home town who are better than me. Watson: “I don't even know the names of half the chords. I just make things up.” Adamson: “What we are good at is innovating.” There's no reason to doubt Adamson's sincerity when he assesses his limitations, but it's telling that he feels the need to make the point. Suppose he were a bona fide axe whiz. Would he admit it? Nope, the poor guy would likely be so embarrassed by the idea of superiority that he'd lie and claim to be mediocre.

Likewise, Adamson expresses discomfort with being a pop star and all that entails, including signing autographs. “I'd like to see music come down to earth and be more level-headed. I don't even like the word 'fan, because it implies a second-class citizen which is wrong. You've got to give your audience credit for having at least as much intelligence as you have. If more groups did that music wouldn't have to be a star-making thing It would be more human.” All right, I give up! Stuart Adamson will not be conned into saying something crummy.

And yes, his decency is commendable. I admit it. In 1977, Johnny Rotten belched, “We mean it, maaaan.” Today, Big Country's Stuart Adamson proclaims much the same thing though his choice of words is better. “With Steeltown, people who looked upon the band with a certain amount of cynicism now realize we are what we say we are. It's not a pose We're playing the game according to our own rules.” Just don't forget to smile once in a while OK?

Transcribed by Terry Bissessar

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