|Side One:||Side Two:|
I thought, for a moment, that I’d sorted out a pattern to how people vote in the polls. I thought it was a relatively simple matter: choose self-titled albums, choose “biggest” albums–but then that was ruined when someone I know who knows music said he chose The Crossing because it sounded cool. Which is fine with me–my object is not demanding an existing opinion from anyone, but rather to find a way to settle on a release where more than one is available from an artist. “Ooh, that title sounds good,” is a perfectly legitimate reason for me, and it can offset the knowledgeable to some extent–whether they push for a “familiar face” or a comparative obscurity. Variety of response is helpful in getting a more complete aggregation of interest–after all, tastes vary wildly. If I didn’t poll, I’d be choosing deliberately and people would or could lose interest–it’s also like saying directly that I have no interest in some records I own, as well as occasionally (if not always) guaranteeing an avoidance of digging deeper into catalogues I intended to (hence buying the records) but never bothered to (and would, then, continue to fail to acknowledge). This is all a way of leading into the relatively middling response to the poll that led to this particular entry.
Big Country was¹ a band that started in the early 1980s after Stuart Adamson left the Skids, a post-punk band that didn’t make quite the mark Stateside that Adamson’s followup did. We’ll get to them in, well, a number of months, I suppose. They are most known in the United States for “In a Big Country”, their first U.S. single. Of course, they’d released two others before it in the U.K.–no surprise, as the band was formed there (and, in large part, from there). Still, it stayed their only Top 40 hit in the US for their entire existence, though it was the herald, in many ways, of only their debut album. That album was, of course, The Crossing, which is why I initially thought it was going to storm my poll. As it happens, it didn’t, the final tally being split between it, Steeltown, and The Seer. I had to ask for a tie-breaker at random, and it came from a high school friend who put out his vote for The Seer (though I suppose you probably guessed that!). I will thank him here for that favour, as I did not relish the thought of being left with a three-way tie to sort out myself.
I’m rather pleased, in the end: I sought out The Crossing quite deliberately, and own it on both CD and vinyl, though I intend to replace the expanded edition I have with the two-disc deluxe edition at some point. I do actually have the Wonderland EP on vinyl as well, a U.S.-only release, and CD copies of Peace in Our Time (utterly abandoned in polling), Steeltown and The Buffalo Skinners. It means, then, that The Seer is the most neglected of all the Big Country albums I own–a happy coincidence that it ended up the one I was asked to listen to, as I was less likely to otherwise. The availability of digital versions of most of the rest means I’ve listened to them, passively at least, a few times.
Big Country’s greatest claim to fame was their “bagpipe guitar” sound, which the band oddly did not use e-bows for, despite the fact that they used e-bows–and more than one, at that. Both Stuart Adamson and second guitarist Bruce Watson used them, even, but neither for that sound. It is quite prominent in “In a Big Country”, though I’ve found that many (including myself) would never have identified it as such without having it pointed out. I am quite sure I heard the song numerous times in my youth, but it was during my rather lengthy spell of watching the U.K. show Nevermind the Buzzcocks that I was reminded of the group, when a brief clip of “In a Big Country” was actually played there and it was lent an air of appreciation. The Skids, too, were applauded there–which is why I have one of their albums on vinyl (and another on CD).
I picked up The Seer because–well, let’s be honest: it was there. I had a brief return to old habits in the past year or two, seeking out a few odd 80s artists with relative mainstream success on vinyl, which is something I used to do when I first started collecting. Any Big Country I saw, I picked up blind, by virtue of how much I liked the sound and the kind of appreciation lobbed in their direction. It’s their third album, following The Crossing and Steeltown, and may be the most, well, Scottish album I’ve heard from them.
“Look Away” is the big single from the album, a much bigger hit in the U.K. and Ireland, hitting #3 and #1 respectively. It establishes the Big Country style immediately–a big drum hit launches a clever and rather lengthy guitar lead, and uses an interesting guitar sound during the verses that follow: a heavily plucked, two-string, and slightly alien sound that is joined by a more traditional but smooth guitar that matches the sound of the initial lead. The chorus is catchy as all heck, and is in Stuart’s usual style of increased energy, driven by far more expected rock guitars that emphasize it in a darker tone that only shifts upward at the very end. It’s deserving of its placement–well, its placement across the Atlantic from me, anyway.
A claim to fame in some part for the album as a whole is the title track, which catches a whole second fanbase: that of Kate Bush, who sings it as a duet with Stuart. This is the advent of the song’s traditional sound, or at least its melding into the post-punk guitars of Adamson and Watson. There’s a nice, fat bass from Tony Butler, but the star is the vocal rhythm of the verses, which is unmistakably in the style of traditional Celtic music (not to be mistaken for exclusively Irish, the Scots also retain a lot of this same culture, as does traditional Scottish folk music). It’s actually an interesting duet: Stuart takes the high end in verses, and Bush actually nearly speaks the same lines below him, though hints of her more well-known vocal stylings appear in the chorus. The entire song carries the feeling of the album’s own feel, themes and tones; there is a sense of ancient thought in it, being about a mystic seer who seems to live outside “civilization”, but one who predicts violence, bloodshed and destruction of a kind that Stuart’s quite clearly opposed to, as the album makes more apparent later.
While the “bagpipe” sound may be their trademark, Big Country were not a one-trick pony with guitars. The introduction to “The Teacher” is a favourite: a guitar that slowly plucks along in ringing Edge-like style², but that is answered by a braking, reverberating echo that turns into a dual lead that establishes a melody in advance. Stuart sings out in the chorus, “Teacher will you show to me/The bond between the land and sea/For I am new to mystery/I want everything laid out for me/All of History”, and the sense of obscured, misty spiritualism and embrace of the greenery and natural history seems to shine through in even a story of a first lover. And then Stuart blasts off with a lead in his inimitable style, one that seems to hint at the traditionally-inflected songwriting he exhibits while sounding thoroughly modern at the same time. It’s a strong moment for Mark Brzezicki on the drums as well, who has a rhythm that lies under that lead in just the right way.
The crunchier opener for “I Walk the Hill”, with its crystal, slippery lead and huge drum sound takes the band to a more familiar ground, where short lyric lines are more rhythmic than defining for the song. It has the feeling of familiar rhymes in its simplicity, and echoes traditional songs in a somewhat different way–that infectious, easy-to-learn nature of folk songs that allows them to be picked up by a whole group is present here, though the song is its own. There’s a pride and a humility in the song, both of which almost seem to give cause to flirtations with his native Scottish accent (though born in Manchester, he was raised in Dumferline, Scotland, and comes from a Scottish line). The ending of the song is, admittedly, quite “80s”, with that huge drum sound that defined them (and my aforementioned best friend in college and high school hated–and probably still hates), but played in that spacious way that just calls out for a sing along moment.
When “Eiledon” opens, you are left quite immediately with the notion of greenery in untouched lands in the British Isles, the guitars played with e-bows that smooth out their movements. When Stuart begins singing, and you hear those first few lines, you realize that sense is not misplaced: “The eagle soared above the clouds/The deer ran in the hills/And I may walk in cities/Where the wolf once had his fill”. The way he sings the chorus, his voice peaking at the middle of “Eiledon”, you can hear an aching love of place, which is a different kind of love than that of a person. It’s a continuation, too, of the spoils of man’s advance: the image of the wolf in the city, which he closes the song by referencing again with a call to wake those wolves–and the suggestion that this will bring a reckoning. It is also one of the few songs on the album that does bring in that “bagpipe” sound.
If there’s a passable song on the album, it’s likely “One Great Thing”–the message is solid and the sound is good, but the lyrics and the nature of them is like a determined call for unified voices. It’s a call for peace, a call for this to be the “one great thing to happen in my life”. It’s a good idea, and one of the more earnest calls in a portion of culture that has never been short of the call, but it edges close to a sound of contrivance, even as it doesn’t feel contrived. You believe Stuart means this, but perhaps outreached his grasp with the song he put together–looking too much to bring everyone into shouting along (the video including constantly shifting groups of people singing along encourages this notion, too).
While many who meet me never guess it, I’ve always been a bit of a sap. I actually have a phone, three phones back, in which the first message from someone, saved deliberately, calls me exactly that (it’s not entirely coincidental that said person is actually a Scot). “Hold the Heart” is an absolutely fantastic love song. It’s the story of friendship splintered by the introduction of romantic love, but Stuart sings as someone who accepts that perhaps they acted wrongly in this, yet holding out for this lost love to find their way back–confident of this eventuality, but patient and undemanding. “I will be strong/And I will be warm/I will let no one be near me/Until you will hear me/Just once again”. It’s not sung directly, and that’s clear, so there’s no sense of attempted guilt or other manipulation–just the sound of soaring hope. Adamson’s voice shifts into its clearest for that chorus: “But I would wait a hundred years/To hear you say my name/The way you did before he came/The way you will again”. When he sings out “hundred years”, you can feel that he means exactly that–there’s an intense passion to it that is intensely believable. And I haven’t even said a word about that beautiful e-bow lead line, which just wavers like a slide with a warm sadness throughout the song.
At first, “In your fine green ware/I will walk with you tonight/In your raven hair/I will find a Summer night” appears to speak of another love, but when he sings, “I must leave the land/And the hunger that is here/But the place I stand/Is the one I love so dear/Like a flower in some forest/That the world will never see/I will stand so proud/For I know what we can be”, you know that he is singing of home, of a land and a people–and, indeed, Scotland remembers its lost veterans on “Remembrance Day”. And, more than that, it is a song of Remembrance Day itself, as it is clearly the voice of a soldier leaving with pride in his home, and choosing to “be the sacrifice”. It avoids any of the traps a song like this might fall into–jingoism, hypocritical (considering Stuart’s previous sentiments, and future ones, with albums like Peace in Our Time) war glorification.
When I heard “The Red Fox” and read along with the lyrics, I knew there was something here to “decode”, so to speak–I knew Stuart was singing about something that would be immediate or obvious to others, but lost to me. I guessed that it related to Scottish history, and a quick Googling confirmed this right away. The Red Fox was Collin Roy Campbell of Glenure, tasked with retrieving taxes from the clans who was shot dead in the woods. The clan thought responsible was the Stuarts of Appin, and the prime suspect disappeared. It is generally thought that the Stewart chosen to stand trial, James of the Glen, was not responsible and was railroaded by a jury composed primarily of Campbells (eleven of fifteen were), and presided over by the Chief of Clan Campbell. He was sentenced to death and executed protesting his innocence. There’s no doubt that this is the story Stuart was relaying by song–he begins with the narration of the killer moving to kill Campbell, and switches to the voice of James, singing “Kidnapped in the dead of night/I did no wrong/I will not fight/It was not me/I will not run/But I believe in what was done”. Unsurprisingly, this is another song that carries the rhythm of a traditional Scottish song in many ways, lyrically. One of the best parts, though, is the moment that the song transitions between narrators–a guitar rings, then fades, the second guitar comes in rhythmically, the drums matching its staccato riffing, gradually speeding, until we find ourselves in what is almost another song–for it is, it’s that of James instead of the man presumed to be Donald Stewart. We even get a new chorus, and it’s another good one. Historical songs can be of some difficulty to carry off properly, but this one manages even that trick brilliantly. It’s worth noting this same story is part of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped!
The album’s closer is “The Sailor”, and it is one of the lightest songs, though in that inimitable Big Country style. It has faint strains of songs associated with seamen, yet lifted to strains reminiscent more of a land-locked freedom on distant islands. Which, of course, is kind of the point: it’s a song about finding a distant, ideal future, one separated from a standing existence as sailors. The guitar leads that follow an energetic speed-up of the song seem to carry it off into a clear sky, ending the album on a high note.
It’s sometimes said that this was the end of Big Country’s heyday, or that this was a tired reptition of the two albums that came before, but I’ve often felt that there’s a certain tiresomeness to the idea that a style is valid only for a certain timeframe–certainly, many (most!) things can get tiresome if listened to in rapid succession for an extended period of time, but most often this seems to indicate a dulling of immediacy for a listener–not necessarily a band. It’s not a definitive thought, but it’s one that drives a lot of both my taste and my frustration with music criticism.
The value of this album isn’t that it’s stunningly innovative (per se), as Big Country had already established themselves quite handily by now, and Stuart had now led two bands (as he had actually introduced the “bagpipe guitar” in the Skids). Heck, John Peel called him “Britain’s answer to Jimi Hendrix”–high praise indeed from a man determined to find diamonds in the rough. Perhaps an overstatement, but Stuart’s guitar style never feels like anything familiar, except with regard to his own prior (or later, depending on listening order) work. And it’s this freshness, even if some see it as “stale” within the microcosm of a single career, that helps to render it useful, as it lets a band maintain a stylistic approach while exploring different ideas. Certainly, there are themes Adamson returns to (I should mention, a handful of songs are co-written by Watson and Butler, but only 3 on this album, 2 with Watson and 1 with Butler), but overall, this album feels more like a declaration of a kind of appreciation for Scottish culture and history. Perhaps it’s somewhat more general than that, and certainly it’s married to an anti-violence sentiment, but it’s so defined by tracks like “The Seer”, “The Sailor”, and “The Red Fox” that it’s hard to think otherwise.
This is actually the first album not produced by Steve Lillywhite (whose name will appear a fair number of times in my record collection), but it doesn’t suffer a debilitating change for that, and Millar does an admirable job of bringing the kind of “majesty” and power that Big Country’s style demands. It seems many fans actually think of this as their favourite album, and many more had it as their introduction. It’s not a bad choice in either place, even if “In a Big Country” may hold the quality of recognition that is so helpful to many people in understanding a sound–not least of which is myself.
¹Let’s not mince words: Stuart Adamson died in 2001, and it’s difficult to pretend it’s still the same band without its primary songwriter, lead vocalist and lead guitarist. At least, one established for nearly twenty years at the time of his death, and that only decided to release new material a decade later
²Recall that this is 1986–U2 has achieved fame, War and The Unforgettable Fire are released, but The Joshua Tree is yet to come, and the Edge himself said at Stuart’s eulogy that Adamson wrote the songs he himself wished U2 could.