Sunday, 21 October 2018

Big Country

For me, Big Country were a much underrated band....

The Crossing (1983)

It has always puzzled me why Big Country have often got such a bad press. When discussing music, if you say you like Tom Waits, Neil Young or The Smiths, people will nod sagely in agreement with your great taste. If you say you like Big Country they either laugh or shake their heads. Quite why, I just don't know - a) this is a great debut album; b) their first four-five albums were all both competent and credible; c) they were superb live; d) their sound was unique; e) Stuart Adamson is much missed and was a much underrated songwriter and indeed singer/guitarist.
As I said, this is truly one of the great debut albums. Released in 1982 it contained a sound unlike anything anyone had ever heard. Yes, the band were Scottish, but the guitar sound really did sound like bagpipes. 

The album's two iconic upbeat hit singles, Fields Of Fire and In A Big Country (Chance was also a hit) hit you between the eyes and ears like a chill wind from the North. The latter's Edinburgh tattoo military-style drums kick in to start the album as it means to go on. It absolutely blows away any cobwebs, announcing itself big time.

The album is full of Jacobean imagery (aided by the inner sleeve drawings) and the skirl of rabble rousing calls to arms. Just listen to the opening riff of Harvest Home or the energy of some of the lesser-known rockers - the pounding, early U2-esque InwardsClose Action and Lost Patrol. Or the Celtic soul on the heartbreaking lament and in concert crowd favourite, Chance -

"....He came like a hero from the factory floor
With the sun and moon as gifts
But the only son you ever saw
Were the two he left you with...."

What great lyrics they were. Full of characterisation. What a wonderful, immense song it is too. So much sombre emotion in it, so much empathy. 

1000 Stars has an absolutely killer riff and a huge rolling drum sound, Inwards also rocks riffily, while the folky guitar-driven The Storm is overflowing with Scottish historical ambience. Then there is the mighty closer, Porrohman, which sounds great on this remaster. Some stonking guitar. Watching them perform this live was an experience. Big Country's audiences were always passionate, involved and enthusiastic. Singing along to Chance, bouncing along to Fields Of Fire. Great memories - a true Caledonian masterpiece. Incidentally, the "deluxe edition" contains several excellent tracks that did not appear on the album, notably the lively rock of Angle Park and The Crossing, the latter being particularly impressive.

Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder described the arrival of Big Country on the scene in these glowing, and very apt, terms-

"...Here's a big-noise guitar band from Britain that blows the knobs off all the synth-pop diddlers and fake-funk frauds who are cluttering up the charts these days....Big Country mops up the fops with an air-raid guitar sound that's unlike anything else around the young Irish band U2, with whom they share a producer in Steve Lillywhite, they have no use for synthesisers...."

I couldn't have said it better myself, hence my utilising this excellent quote. Pictured above is Harvest Home by John Linnell 1858

Steeltown (1984)

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 Northamptonshire, England, albeit a tough 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.
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 SteeltownWhere The Rose Is SownThe 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. Pictured above are Corby steelworks. The town is still full of Scots to this day. 

The Seer (1986)

This, Big Country's third album, harked back to their debut with its traditional Scottish ambience, cloaked in mythology and folklore. In some ways it is their most obviously Caledonian album with is references to Scottish history, landscape and landmarks.
In its sound, the album was just as powerful and rocky as its predecessor, Steeltown, and also introduced some folky elements into the mix, particularly on The Seer, which features Kate Bush on backing vocals. Other highlights are the rousing opener, Look Away, the singalong One Great Thing, the evocative, anthemic Remembrance Day and the two closers Red Fox and Sailor, both of which start slowly and have extended rocking guitar conclusions, which never fail to inspire. Eiledon and I Walk The Hill provide the afore-mentioned Caledonian feel and Hold The Heart has a tuneful, sad refrain. The Teacher is a chunky, solid rocker.

I always find this album is very much a winter one. I always tend to play it in November (because of Remembrance Day, no doubt ). Apart from that, it just seems to have a winter feel about many of the songs and images. It must be noted, though, that the track was actually written about the late 18th century Highland Clearances, when many Scots were deported against their will to New Zealand and Canada. 

There was a much better, clearer sound quality after the murk of the previous album and evidence here of the band beginning to diversify a little, instrumentally. There were more acoustic guitars and a bit less “bagpipe” sound. Again, this is another album that shows just what an underrated band Big Country were. The lyrics to this verse from The Seer give a taste of the historical, Celtic feel of much of the material on the album- 

"...Long ago I heard a tale I never will forget
The time was in the telling on the bank the scene was set
The sky was rolling blindly on, the daylight had not gone
She washed her hair among the stones and saw what was to come
All this will pass
There will be blood among the corn and heroes in the hills
But there is more to come my boy before you've had your fill
Men will come and rape the soil as though it were their own
And they will bathe their feet in oil as I have bathed my own...."

Good stuff. Pictured above are the Eildon Hills, Scottish Borders.

Peace In Our Time (1988)

Peace In Our TimeBig Country’s fourth album, from 1988, was very unfairly given a critical panning. I have absolutely no idea why, for me, it is their best album. It has some excellent rock numbers, but, more appealing to me are some genuinely moving and sensitive songs. As opposed to releasing another similar album to their first three - skirling guitars, rousing Caledonian anthems and a rock feel, they decided to diversify slightly and go down the more folky, melodic route.
Not that there weren’t a few tub thumpers on the album, though - the album kicks off with the Honky Tonk Women Stonesy riff of the pop rock of King Of Emotion, an excellent, rousing anthem. The two next songs are both quiet, understated, melodic and thoughtful songs - the  attractive, Celtic air of Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys) and the gentle, but also rocking and Celtic in places Thousand Yard Stare. How anyone can put these songs down is beyond me. They are fine folky rock songs, lyrically astute, evocative and well-delivered. Broken Heart has a rocky, upbeat drum-dominated chorus part anyway. It also has an excellent “pan-pipe” fade -out instrumental bit. The band are diversifying, good for them. Nevertheless, the Celtic influence is still clearly there. Also, I have to say that the sound quality on this album is the best on any of the band’s albums so far, despite contemporary criticisms of it, some from within the band itself. Have they not listened to Steeltown’s muffled-muddy sound? The instrumentation n this album is excellent, the best I have heard from the band so far, it really is. They do use a fair few other guest musicians though, to be fair. This adds to the improved, more diverse sound.

From Here To Eternity is also a solid piece of guitar rock, with a hook of a chorus and a killer swirling, lyrical intro, while Everything I Need is another subtle, quite folky ballad, with some crystal clear acoustic guitar. Eternity would certainly not be out of place on the much-vaunted previous album, The Seer. Peace In Our Time is an excellent, inspirational rocker, again with an addictive, singalong, fist-pumping chorus. Like King Of Emotion, a live concert favourite. 

Time For Leaving was not a popular song with some critics. I have no idea why, it is a vibrant historical tale of emigrants from Scotland in search of work, with some great guitar and another fine chorus. River Of Hope has a catchy drum sound to the whole track and a general upbeat feel, it is a powerful, pounding rocker, while the final two tracks are two of my favourites. Firstly, the moving and beautiful In This Place has some great lines, such as -

All the years I lived in this place
The people I knew here
I loved every face
I loved the parties, the funerals, and fights
The supermarket needs my land
I have no rights.

Those are heartfelt, socially conscious lyrics. People may try to put them down. Not me. Not for one second. Stuart Adamson should have been given far more credit. Some of his songs are genuinely moving. Secondly, I Could Be Happy Here is from a similar mould, but ends an album tied up with historical leaving of Scotland on an optimistic note, although the general feel of the album is one if sadness. I truly feel this was Big Country’s best album. Not a bagpipe guitar riff in earshot though, but in many ways it was their most Scottish album. The Caledonian-Celtic airs, ambiences and references are all still there, just as strongly as on many of the other albums, if not more. Whatever anyone says, this is a good album, in my opinion. Finally, the Celtic-flavoured instrumental The Travellers is included at the end on some releases not on others. Among the bonus material on the “deluxe edition” is a typical old-style Big Country rocker in When A Drum Beats and another solid one in Age Of Man. Both are worth checking out. Pictured above is Melrose. Scottish Borders

Check out Stuart Adamson's previous work with The Skids here (click on the image) :-

No comments:

Post a Comment