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Big Country

+ {The Raphaels}

Caledonia’s own BIG COUNTRY, English-born, but Scots-bred Stuart Adamson (and Co) rung the changes in the uninspiring 80s from their base in the Fife burgh of Dunfermline. A founding member of The SKIDS, a local punk act led by frenetic frontman RICHARD JOBSON, Stu’s cult status had already taken shape on hits such as `Into The Valley’ and `Masquerade’. Marching onwards and upwards, the Celtic-inspired BIG COUNTRY went global almost immediately after the impact of their debut album, “The Crossing”.
Not quite living up to the record’s massive success, arena-rock status slowly but surely eroded – everywhere but Scotland. Tragically, in late 2001, with over two decades in the business, and on the crest of a new country wave with splinter group, The RAPHAELS, and a rejuvenated BC, Adamson took his own life in Hawaii hotel room. A decade on, stalwart friend and fellow leader of BIG COUNTRY re-formed the band, surprising many critics and fans alike by appointing former ALARM boss as their frontman.
BIG COUNTRY were originally formed in the autumn of 1981; long-time buddies Stuart Adamson and Canadian-born Bruce Watson finally getting their chance to play guitar in a band together. With the former stepping up to the microphone, the pair surrounded themselves with casual alumni, ex-SPIZZ man Clive Parker (drums), future RUNRIG-er Peter Wishart (keyboards) and his brother Alan (bass). By early the following year, the latter three had been superseded by the lynchpin rhythm section of On The Air geezers: Mark Brzezicki and Tony Butler. After the quartet turned down a contract with Ensign Records, they signed to Mercury that spring, while relocating to London (at first to support The JAM) seemed a positive move in the right direction.
Previewed by one flop 45 (`Harvest Home’), and a couple of classic singles in `Fields Of Fire’ and `In A Big Country’, parent set THE CROSSING (1983) {*8} traversed the charts in both Britain and America, introducing the famous (and, in certain quarters, much maligned) “bagpipe”-like/E-Bow guitar sound. Very much in the Celtic, stir-the-blood tradition, the grandiose set was a call to arms in a posturing, terminally pretentious early 80s music scene, its expansive, soaring booms transporting even the most smog-bound city dweller to the Scottish highlands. Adamson somehow managed to sing from the heart without sounding earnest, the chiming lament, `Chance’ (their third hit), displaying the raw emotive power this band once harnessed. Despite their straightforward approach, BIG COUNTRY were initially lauded by the music press, even making something of a fashion statement with their trademark check shirts. With follow-up set, STEELTOWN (1984) {*7}, Adamson’s voice of conscience examined Scottish industrial and economic decay; despite the subject matter, tracks such as the rousing `Flame Of The West’, `Where The Rose Is Sown’, `East Of Eden’ and `Just A Shadow’, burned with hope and optimism. Though the record entered the chart at No.1, its less immediate appeal failed to translate into further Stateside success, where it scraped a Top 75 position.
This is where BIG COUNTRY began to lose their vision; although subsequent album releases such as THE SEER (1986) {*5} and PEACE IN OUR TIME (1988) {*4} continued to chart relatively high and feature some inspired moments, creatively the band were merely treading water. The fact that the 1986 track `One Great Thing’ was used on a subsequent Tennent’s lager advert, only seemed to underline its more pedestrian qualities.
Meanwhile, Pat Ahern was drafted in for the new decade, a decade that saw `Save Me’ only reaching a lowly No.41 place, although positioned as lead-off track inside the glorious compilation, THROUGH A BIG COUNTRY: GREATEST HITS (1990) {*9}, the band showed just how important they were to the 80s.
Despite periods where the band came perilously close to splitting, BIG COUNTRY survived further into the 90s, albums such as NO PLACE LIKE HOME (1991) {*3} and the much-improved call-to-arms THE BUFFALO SKINNERS (1993) {*6}, never quite breaking the mould, although eagerly received by the band’s fiercely partisan fans. The homecoming Glasgow Barrowlands recording, WITHOUT THE AID OF A SAFETY NET (1994) {*6}, found BC (with short-stop Simon Phillips making way for the return of Brzezicki) in part stripped-down acoustic/part electric mode.
Adamson had always addressed social/political issues in a challenging and often sympathetic fashion; the band releasing a 1995 EP, `Non!’, in protest at France’s nuclear testing programme.
Signed to the rejuvenated Transatlantic imprint, however, the poor commercial showing of BIG COUNTRY’s studio set, WHY THE LONG FACE (1995) {*5} and the live-in-concert ECLECTIC (1996) {*6}, suggested that their appeal was waning. The latter album clocked up recent cuts with a selection of several covers:- JONI MITCHELL’s `Big Yellow Taxi’, Gershwin’s `Summertime’, The BAND’s `The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, The BEATLES’ `Eleanor Rigby’, STEVE HARLEY’s `Sling It!’, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’s `I’m On Fire’ and The ROLLING STONES’ `Ruby Tuesday’. Over the years BIG COUNTRY balanced their 45s with cover B-sides, including `Tracks Of My Tears’ (SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES), `Honky Tonk Woman’ (The ROLLING STONES), `Rockin In The Freeworld’ (NEIL YOUNG), `Fly Like An Eagle’ (The STEVE MILLER BAND), `Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys’ (EQUALS / EDDY GRANT), `Oh Well’ (FLEETWOOD MAC), `(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ (BLUE OYSTER CULT), `Woodstock’ (JONI MITCHELL), `Cracked Actor’ (DAVID BOWIE), `Paranoid’ (BLACK SABBATH), `Vicious’ (LOU REED), `I’m Eighteen’ (ALICE COOPER) and `On The Road Again’ (CANNED HEAT).
On the back of an almost forgotten live update, BRIGHTON ROCK (1997) {*5}, recorded a few years back, DRIVING TO DAMASCUS (1999) {*7} resurrected BIG COUNTRY, at least critically in some quarters; Adamson had moved house to Nashville. Tougher, yet friendly and accessible, the presence of RAY DAVIES on `Somebody Else’ was indeed inspiring, while `Devil In The Eye’, the glam-country title track and `Dive In To Me’ were almost Brit-pop; COME UP SCREAMING (2000) {*5} was yet another exploitative, stop-gap concert set (this time a double), while Stuart fought his growing alcohol problems.
Stuart come out of retirement to form The RAPHAELS, a roots country-orientated outfit based in Nashville. They released one set, SUPERNATURAL (2001) {*5}. Sadly, this was to be Stuart’s last outing. For nearly two months the man went awol, but was subsequently found dead in an Hawaiian hotel room on the 16th of December, 2001. Scotland, and indeed the world of music, would mourn the death of such an enigmatic figure.
In respect to their former Fife buddy, the remaining BIG COUNTRY alumni re-formed in 2007 for concerts in Europe to commemorate 25 years; TWENTY FIVE LIVE {*5} accompanied the tour. Little was heard of Messrs Watson, Butler and Brzezicki until the unveiling of a new BIG COUNTRY, complete with another legend of-sorts as their frontman: MIKE PETERS (formerly of Celtic cousins, The ALARM); Bruce’s son, Jamie, was the 5th member. DREAMS STAY WITH YOU: LIVE APRIL 2011 {*6} tested the waters prior to the band returning to the studio.
With Butler retired; former SIMPLE MINDS bassist Derek Forbes was now in tow, the BIG COUNTRY supergroup were back on song with their first studio album in 14 years, THE JOURNEY (2013) {*6}. Recorded in Wrexham, Wales, and released on Cherry Red Records (who’d have thought that would happen thirty years ago), the trademark E-bow sound of BIG COUNTRY peaked with rousing tracks such as `After The Flood’, `In A Broken Promise Land’, et al. Although `Hurt’, `Another Country’ and `Strong (All Through This Land)’ dipped into the style of U2, or, dare one say it, The ALARM, the spirit of Stuart Adamson was still intact. Thank God.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Apr2013

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