Monday, 4 June 2018

Big Country - Steeltown (1984)

Where the rose is sown....


Released October 1984

Recorded in Stockholm, Sweden and London

Running time 47.54

Big Country's second album from 1984 followed their impressive debut. Again this is packed full of Scottish imagery and hard as nails tales of Caledonian life. On this album, lyricist Stuart Adamson comes down from the rain-blasted Highlands to the factory floors of the industrial heartlands of Scotland. He tells slightly mythologised, romantic tales of tough steel workers, steadfast, loyal wives and heroic soldiers, all part of an industrial nation from a time rapidly going by. Scotland was full of "steeltowns", but ironically, Adamson's inspiration was Corby, in Northamptonsire, England, albeit a town populated by emigrant Scottish steelworkers.

Other themes on this highly politicised album, as well as the decline of traditional industries with no replacements in mind, was the mid-eighties obsession with nuclear war and armed conflict in general, and strong romantic orthodox male and female characteristics. The archetypal Big Country male character is square-jawed, flinty-eyed, hard-working but taciturn, his female partner is pretty, but stoic and stronger than you would believe.


1. Flame Of The West
2. East Of Eden
3. Steeltown
4. Where The Rose Is Sown
5. Come Back To Me
6. Tall Ships Go
7. Girl With Grey Eyes
8. Rain Dance
9. The Great Divide
10. Just A Shadow                                        

The sound is a little heavier, a little more introspective and a little less tub-thumping than on the previous album. There are still some great anthems on there though - the powerful and pounding Steeltown, Where The Rose Is Sown, The Great Divide and the impressive, anthemic but very sad Just A Shadow.

Come Back To Me is both maudlin (about a girl waiting for the return of her soldier lover) and singalong, simultaneously. Both East Of Eden and Flame Of The West are solid, muscular rockers with great hooks. Tall Ships Go, inspired by Adamson's mariner father, is packed full of riffs and a great rock refrain, while Rain Dance also possesses an easy to grab melody. Composer Adamson and his band mates had a great knack for finding a hook in a melody that meant you could sing a snatch of the song almost as soon as you had first heard it.

Adamson was also a very underrated lyricist. Check these out from Girl With Grey Eyes -

"...Just like Josephine, it will not be tonight
Still I have the dream, still I have the sight
Will you and I always be like this, will you and I always have this
I only see those sad grey eyes, I only hear you singing
I am the ticket, you the prize, when begins the winning..."

Great stuff. Adamson wrote it for his wife, apparently. 

I have always had a problem with the sound on this album, though - it is muffled, indistinct and decidedly lo-fi. Some critics reacted negatively towards the album, calling it muddled and overly dense, in many ways I have to agree, however, this latest "deluxe edition" has finally remastered it acceptably, although I believe there will always be limitations from the original recording sessions. Just the way it was recorded at the time. No amount of remasterings can change that. 

Maybe the slightly dulled sound was intentional, like the crashes and thumps of a Glasgow sheet metal foundry. Maybe therein lies its appeal. The music somehow mirrors the intended ambience. Check out the dull thump of the title track's intro. Somehow this album has to be listened to on a cold wet, winter's day. It is certainly not a "sunny day album". 

"...Where will we find the newborn year as the winter crashes down?...". That line from Rain Dance acts as a leitmotif of the whole album. 

Love the cover image too. This was still good album, despite the murky recording. Let nobody say otherwise.


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