This Friday, April 11th, would have been the fiftieth birthday of my all-time favourite musician, Stuart Adamson, former leader of the band Big Country.
To mark the occasion, I've decided to post some YouTube links as well as a few thoughts on the man whose music sparked a passion in me which never wavers and will probably never be equalled.
Like many of you, my earliest memories of Stuart Adamson go something like this:
I was eleven years old when that video appeared in heavy rotation on Muchmusic. I adored it then, and I adore it now, even if the song became an albatross around the band's neck.
The album as a whole was brilliant, combing New Wave with traditional Scottish folk music, and some very progressive, complex musicianship on tracks like "Porrohman". The lyrics had a timeless, universal, epic quality, like folk songs that had been passed down for generations. At his best, Stuart's lyrics were a perfect combination of raw emotion and refined intellect.
The album also kicked some serious ass, which was very important to me then, as it is now. Few bands have ever been as energetic and invigorating as Big Country, and fewer still have had offered such depth combined with the sheer joy of an adrenalin rush.
"In A Big Country" appeared after a wave of songs like "Pass The Dutchie", "Down Under", and "Come On Eileen" which were often portrayed as ethnic novelty hits, so it became very easy for lazy critics to hear Big Country's Scottish influence and see the tartan shirts and dismiss the band as some sort of Bay City Rollers for the MTV generation.
Anyone who looked beyond the surface should have been able to tell that Stuart Adamson's love of traditional Scottish music was genuine, but no one else was scoring hits by combining Scottish folk music with modern sounds, so many people wrote it off as a gimmick instead of a genre. But as Stuart once said in an interview, "No one ever criticized a black guy from Detroit for playing soul music." But it was, and still is, politically correct to marginalize the Scots, so Big Country were stigmatized as that band whose guitars sounded like bagpipes.
Throw in the fact that their first international hit single had their band name in the title and suddenly the dreaded "one hit wonder" label followed the band everywhere they went.
Then, after a few short months in the spotlight, Big Country dropped off the face of the earth. At least, that's how it seemed to a young boy in small town Canada in the dark days before the internet.
But nearly a decade later, I still hadn't completely forgotten about that big blue album I'd loved so much as a kid, so one day in the early 90s I went digging through my parents' basement, searching for my small stash of vinyl which hadn't been played in years.
When I finally found my original copy of Big Country's debut album, songs like "Harvest Home" and "Chance" greeted me like old friends whose names I'd forgotten, but the memories of the good times we'd shared were still buried somewhere deep in my subconscious.
At that time, I had been drifting away from the mainstream for several years, listening to artists like the Pogues or Daniel Lanois, and rediscovering The Crossing was a watershed moment for me. Instead of relying on Muchmusic, local radio, or my peers to point me in certain musical directions, I turned my back on what everyone I knew was listening to at the time and began a lengthy obsession with this obscure Scottish band from the 80s that no one else remembered.
I realized that those early years with Big Country probably laid the groundwork for my love of the Pogues, who I'd discovered around the time of "Fairytale Of New York", and my growing appreciation for Celtic music in general.
That vinyl copy of The Crossing was already full of pops and scratches when I rediscovered it, so I began scouring the local record stores to try and find a copy on cassette, or maybe even one of those new-fangled compact disc thingys.
There wasn't a copy to be found anywhere, but one national chain had recently added a kiosk with a database of every album in their inventory, so I typed in Big Country and discovered something utterly shocking.
The band had recorded other albums!
If Big Country had truly been a one-trick pony, or if my renewed love of The Crossing had been all about nostalgia, the story might have ended there. But a quick glance at Dynamic Range Radio's weekly charts certainly proves that the story continues.
Form a purely commercial standpoint, the sophomore slump hit Big Country hard in North America, but they were at their peak creatively when they headed back into the studio to record their second full-length disc, Steeltown, which debuted at #1 in the UK, and is, quite simply, my favourite album of all time.
Stuart Adamson's lyrics were often full of death of despair, and never more so than on Steeltown, but it was the music which seemed to offer hope, like a king rallying the troops on the battlefield in the face of a seemingly unbeatable enemy. Maybe that's why the militaristic drumming and guitars as bagpipes have such a stirring effect on songs like "Where The Rose Is Sown".
If your favourite U2 song is Sunday Bloody Sunday and your favourite Springsteen album is Nebraska, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of Steeltown. It's dark, dense, furious, ethereal, cinematic, heart-breaking, yet ultimately cathartic. When the closing track, Just A Shadow, reaches its stirring climax, you'll feel like you've been on an epic journey and survived.
One of the most prolific and eloquent fans of Big Country is Glenn Macdonald, who maintains a music site called The War Against Silence. Regarding Steeltown, he once said the following:
These songs are part of me. I have taken them so thoroughly into myself that I imagine the converse to have happened, and I half feel like copies of this album go out into the world with pieces of me pressed inside. They probably don't, really, but just in case, handle your copy carefully.
This is turning out to be a lot longer than I planned, and I still have a lot to say, which is hardly surprising because once I get started talking about this band it's impossible to shut me up.
Stuart Adamson's 50th Birthday (Part II)
After The Crossing and Steeltown, the rest of Big Country's career found the band fading from the spotlight while maintaining a devoted cult following until the end.
I could write a book theorizing on the possible reasons for Big Country's decline in popularity, but I want this to be a tribute without letting my inner critic take over. But I will say this – very few artists maintain a high level of artistic and commercial success for a great length of time. The way a band is marketed is often out of their control and the quality of the music has rarely had much impact on what makes the charts and what doesn't.
If there's one trait that all truly massive artists share, it's that they crave fame more than anything else in world. People like Bono and Madonna feel like they deserve to have 100,000 people hanging on their every word, but Stuart Adamson was infinitely more humble, and, I suspect, plagued by self-doubt. That's someone I can relate to.
Big Country's early mainstream success had a lot to do with timing, luck, and a never-ending desire for the next big thing. Perhaps outside influences expecting them to repeat that success instead of letting the band find its own path is where things went wrong.
Their third album, 1986's The Seer, debuted at #2 on the UK charts and produced the top 10 single, "Look Away". Kate Bush liked the band well enough to provide guest vocals on the album's title track, and in my opinion, The Seer was, for the most part, a natural progression of Big Country's sound, but the lighter, more polished production values didn't appeal to me as much as the raw passion of Steeltown. And despite the more radio-friendly sound, mainstream success in the US eluded them once again.
The band was at a crossroads. Would they be allowed to continue as a cult favourite with artistic integrity and a devoted following, or would the major label demand major hits? During this time, Stuart Adamson once said that he "spent more time arguing about music than making music".
In 1988, under pressure from their record company, the band made a questionable decision to embrace then-current fashions (ie. keyboards), hire a producer who had recently scored some hit singles, and abandon their Celtic roots in an attempt to re-conquer North America.
That album, Peace In Our Time, failed to make a dent across the pond, wound up alienating some of the faithful, and was the first album not to go gold in the UK.
Such is the fate of a band with a distinctive sound. If you stick to the formula, critics complain about your songs all sounding the same. If you try something new, some fans will say you've abandoned them, compromised your vision, or "sold out".
The irony is that the demos and b-sides from the Peace In Our Time sessions showed that the band was still making the music they wanted, but the record company didn't know what to do with it.
The nineties saw a series of independently released albums which always contained some excellent songs, but, some might argue, lacked the cohesiveness or the distinctive vision of The Crossing and Steeltown.
There were some high-profile European gigs opening for the likes of the Rolling Stones or Page and Plant, but nothing the band did would capture the mainstream's attention. There was also a plethora of live albums, DVDs, and rarities collections that kept the fans like me well occupied.
If I'm giving the impression that the band peaked early, I would argue that there's no shame in that, especially since their peak reached such great heights. If Kurt Cobain had lived and Nirvana had stayed together for fifteen years, would their later output have been greeted with the same reverence as Nevermind? I doubt it.
What matters most to me is that Big Country recorded a lot of great songs during the nineties, including this gem from their 1993 album, The Buffalo Skinners.
Prior to Big Country, Stuart Adamson was the lead guitarist for a band called the Skids who started out as a punk band, but, like the Clash, quickly grew tired of punk's self-imposed limitations and started incorporating other influences. I once heard the Skids described as Celtic New Wave Art-Punks, and that sums them up about as well as any label could.
An early fan was legendary British DJ John Peel, who called Stuart Adamson the "Hendrix of the North".
Another admirer was a young fella who was going around calling himself the Edge and trying to start up a band called U2. Stuart's work in the Skids was a direct influence on the Edge's early sound, and U2 eventually covered a Skids track "The Saints Are Coming" as a charity single in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The Skids themselves managed a few hits in the UK, but lead singer Richard Jobson was an acquired taste to say the least, so many pundits began to see Stuart Adamson as the quiet visionary who was the Skids' not-so-secret weapon.
I thoroughly enjoy the best of the Skids, especially tracks like Charles, Masquerade, or Arena which place the emphasis more squarely on Stuart's contributions.
Stuart also spent a brief time in the late 90s in a band called the Raphaels, working alongside a successful Nashville songwriter, Marcus Hummon. Footage from that era is hard to come by, but there is this fan-made video for Shattered Cross, which is probably my favourite song from the lone Raphaels album. If you search for Shattered Cross on YouTube, you'll also find a wonderful cover by Darrell Scott and Paul Brady.
So much for Stuart Adamson's career, what about the man himself and how he affected me? I think I'll save that for part III, which I'll post tomorrow on what would have been Stuart's 50th.
Stuart Adamson's 50th Birthday (Part III)
During the early days, Stuart had a very thick Scottish brogue, which made it difficult for journalists outside of the UK to understand him. On at least one occasion, an American television show had to use subtitles to decipher Stuart's responses in an interview.
Foreign audiences also had trouble comprehending Stuart when he was on stage, and he would often ask them "Does anyone understand me here?" And when the crowd responded with a cheer, he would often reply "That's good, because my mother never did."
Before playing one of the band's quieter songs, he would often introduce it by saying something like "I want to get intimate with you all now. Especially you, sir." Then there's a song like The Storm which features the line "There is no beauty here friends/Just death and dark decay", which, in a live setting, would often be changed to "… just death and Danny Kaye."
Or there was the time when the band came out on stage, Stuart donned his guitar, then started fidgeting because his guitar strap became tangled behind his back. As the audience screamed for the show to begin, Stuart said "Hang on, there's nothing worse than having a twisted strap. It's like when your knickers go up your arse." Then after a roadie came out to remedy the situation, Stuart thanked him, laughed to himself, and said "Can you pull my knickers outta my arse, too?"
He had a remarkable ability to crack a few jokes onstage, then immediately launch into a devastatingly sad song like Come Back To Me and sing it with a passion that was far more genuine to me than all the vocal gymnastics of American Idol wannabes. That dichotomy is one of the things that continually amazes me about him.
He loved to perform, and that enthusiasm was infectious. He seemed to have a genuine love for his bandmates and his fans, which made the atmosphere at Big Country gigs something special to behold.
When I got my first internet connection in the mid 90s, the first words I typed into a search engine were "Big Country".
That was when I discovered that I wasn't alone in the universe. In fact, there was a vibrant online community of Big Country fans who were equally passionate and, in many cases, far more fortunate than I, because they had grown up in the UK and seen Big Country live on dozens of occasions, whereas I never had, and never would have the opportunity. Actually, I would discover later that the opportunity had been there, only I had missed it.
This was shortly after I'd moved to Vancouver, and I was excited to finally be in a major city with a thriving music scene, local radio I could stomach listening to, and stores which actually had Big Country and other music I liked on the shelves.
After introducing myself to the online community, one of the first questions someone asked me was "How was the concert?"
It turns out that Big Country had, just weeks before, made a rare appearance in Canada, playing at a small club in Vancouver called the Town Pump.
There had been no mention of it on my new radio station of choice, no posters that I had seen, and if there had been promotion for it in the local papers, I had somehow missed it.
I was incredibly frustrated, but at the time I was unaware of Big Country's sporadic touring history in North America and I assumed that I would get another chance to see them live. Unfortunately, that chance never came.
I can't pretend that I actually knew Stuart Adamson, but like many of his fans, it certainly felt like I knew him, and sometimes it felt like he knew me. Maybe that's because his lyrics helped define my own personality, or at least put parts of myself into words and gave me new perspective. At the very least, he gave me someone to identify with, and wrote songs that I wish I'd written myself.
I only ever "met" Stuart Adamson once, and that was during a week when he made regular appearances in an online chat room on a Big Country fansite. During those encounters, I found him to be quick-witted and very generous with his fans, patiently answering questions which must have been dreadfully dull for him. I remember trading Monty Python references with him, which made me like him more than ever, and when I talked about a recent accident I'd had and my worries that the nasty scar on my chin might never heal properly, Stuart told me to "wear my scars with pride". Somehow that made me feel better.
Stuart Adamson had a way of acknowledging that we all have scars, both external and internal, while reminding us that our wounds needn't make life unbearable. To write lyrics the way Stuart did, one has to truly understand pain, and I have no doubt that Stuart Adamson had his demons, one of which was alcoholism.
In the end, alcohol was instrumental in Stuart Adamson's death, and I wept for him as though I'd lost a brother. Now, I take solace in the fact that he managed to fight his demons for so long, and, in doing so, brought so much joy into the world.
Happy Birthday, Stuart.
You're gone, but never forgotten.