by Roger Wolmuth, reported by Terry Smith
When he visualized a new band in 1982, guitarist Stuart Adamson knew what he didn't want: a group like the Skids, a British punk quartet he had just abandoned after deciding that "punk was becoming its own cliche." Nor was he interested in a synth-pop band with electric keyboards and costumes, because they all seemed "interchangeable, like Identikit groups." What Adamson had in mind was a band of Scotsmen, like himself, whose rockhard riffs would borrow from his country's folk traditions.
Trouble was, Big Country, launched that year, looked like a big mistake. "It was the height of the synthesizer boom, all makeup and fancy videos, and no one was interested in a guitar band," recounts Adamson, 26. The group's first shows, opening for Alice Cooper, were "a disaster. We weren't ready, no one liked us, and we got kicked off the tour after two nights."
Adamson retreated to his home in Dunfermline (pop. 52,000), Scotland, regrouped and finally returned last year with a new edition of Big Country. Eschewing the rhythm-and-blues roots of most rock music, he and his bandmates turned Celtic martial cadences and used open, unfretted bass strings to evoke the droning quality of bagpipes. The blend of gutsy rock with echoes of Scottish folk music clicked and, instead of a rocky landing, this time the group came down in heather. Their debut LP, The Crossing, soared to No. 4 in the U.K., cracked the Top 20 in America and earned the band a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist.
Now Adamson & Co. are back climbing the charts with their second LP.
The lineup on Steeltown is the same – two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer – but this time the album's provenance is less Scotland's Highlands than its urban mill towns. Adamson's lyrics for The Great Divide are inspired by the rift between labor and management, while (sic) East Of Eden addresses the woes of a steel town whose mill is shut down by the government. In Flame Of The West he takes a subtle dig at President Reagan's 1984 visit to Ireland: "A stranger came by travelling and went to every door/He said he lost his people/He had come to look for more." Says Adamson: "He's had 70-odd years to visit where his folks came from, but he chose to do it in an election year. I thought it was a bit of a cheap shot."
Adamson's own folks were living in Manchester, England-his father was working as a coal-mine engineer-when the guitarist-to-be was born.
Shortly after his birth, the family returned to its native Dunfermline and there, at age 15, Adamson formed his first band. Later, deciding against college because "I was too interested in getting money together to buy musical instruments," he took a job inspecting local restaurants and sewage farms. Adamson eventually spent five years with the Skids, then bolted. Three weeks later he hooked up with a fellow Dunfermline resident, guitarist Bruce Watson, and two other locals to form his all-Scottish group.
Watson, a miner's son, once worked at the dockyards in Rosyth, cleaning ballast tanks on British nuclear subs. One night he went to a disco and noticed that the astronaut-style protective clothing he had borrowed from his job glowed green in the strobe lights. "I found out later that the suits weren't made to protect the wearer at all," explains Watson, 23. "They were to protect the aluminum on the inside of the subs from getting scratched." Playing it safe, he withdrew his money from the dockyard's pension plan and invested in an amplifier for his guitar.
Though the first Big Country quickly bombed, its two progenitors stuck together, retiring to a recording studio to perfect a Scottish sound. Soon they recruited two Englishmen, drummer Mark Brzezicki, the son of a Polish-born aircraft engineer, and bassist Tony Butler, a Londoner of West Indian descent. Both had played for The Who guitarist Pete Townshend and his brother Simon but quit to form a studio band called Rhythm for Hire. The pair, hired for a one-day recording session, "did three numbers with us in an afternoon, without rehearsal, and they ended up sounding like masters," Adamson remembers. "I knew then we had the right lineup for the group."
The four are like-minded, shunning the glitz of rock stardom in favor of more traditional vices-like a few bevies after a gig (translation:beer and Scotch). Adamson and his wife, Sandra, a former Highland Dance champion, expect a second child this June at their three-bedroom Dunfermline bungalow. Watson keeps a flat close by with a girlfriend of four years. Butler, 27, shares a semidetached in Berkshire England with his expectant wife and young son. Bachelor Brzezicki, 27, lives in Buckinghamshire, England.
This March the band will travel stateside for a four-week U.S. tour.
Although Adamson is urging fans not to think of them as only Scottish ("call us a modern rock band on the hard shoulder of the mainstream"), the sounds they play will surely summon visions of piping men in kilts and down-home reels. Because, rock band or not, Big Country seems destined for a good long Highland fling.