If I’d Known He Was My Neighbor, I’d Have Brought Him Some Haggis

April 25, 2009

For a band that had such minimal commercial success here in the States, Big Country made their one shot a memorable one. In A Big Country is a well-worn touchstone in the world of ’80’s pop culture.

When the Scottish band arrived in the autumn of ’83, there was a lot of enthusiastic press. Big Country fit comfortably aside baby bands like U2, Simple Minds, Waterboys, The Alarm…groups making anthemic (sometimes sweeping) music fused with idealist lyrics which often sought to match (or exceed) the melodies for drama.

At the time, the outcome that U2 would someday achieve global success seemed to be a foregone conclusion. However, I would have offered a rebuttal had I been told that, following their almost self-titled hit, Big Country was headed for cultdom in America.

(I sometimes wonder if there’s a parallel universe where Big Country is doing stadium tours and U2 is known only for one song –say Where The Streets Have No Name.)

I’m not comparing Big Country’s body of work to U2, but their first two albums – ‘83’s The Crossing and Steeltown from the following year – are definitely worth owning.

But after setting a template with their debut album and refining it to near perfection with the follow-up, the band seemed to ebb a bit and tread water from album number three, 1986’ The Seer, and onward.

Big Country would put out albums to be largely ignored in the States for another decade (actually some wouldn’t be released), but it seems that much of the rest of the world had love for them.

I had a chance to see them live in a club that was a converted warehouse in a part of town where there is that transition from neighborhood where you are reasonably safe most of the time to neighborhood which has a slight risk of danger at most of the time.

Several years later, I would also have the chance to meet lead singer/guitarist Stuart Adamson. He lived in my neighborhood and was an acquaintance of a friend.

This friend, who worked for a record label, called me one afternoon, telling me how he was headed over to drop some CDs off for Stuart. Knowing that I was a fan, I was invited along.

Ten minutes later, we’re standing in Stuart Adamson’s front lawn; no more than a ten blocks from where I lived, hanging out with the man on an overcast, spring day.

We weren’t there long. Stuart’s young son was scampering around the front yard. Stuart seemed like a guy at ease with the world, at one point offering the hyperkinetic tyke the fatherly advice that jail was a place best avoided.

That’s about all I remember. I really needed subtitles. The brogue which I had grown up hearing on record was much more pronounced in person.

Sadly, in a year or so, he would be found dead in a hotel room in Hawaii, having lost his struggle with alcoholism.

Some of my more favorite Big Country songs from those first albums…

Big Country – The Storm
I posted The Storm several weeks ago, prompted by a viewing of a show on one-hit wonders. However, I can’t do a post on Big Country without including the song. It might be the band’s finest moment.

Big Country – Fields Of Fire
Sometimes lost in the attention given to the effects-laden guitars of Adamson and Bruce Watson, was that the band had a formidable rhythm section. Bassist Tony Butler has played with The Pretenders, Roger Daltrey, and Pete Townshend

Drummer Mark Brzezicki has an equally impressive array of credits. He also had one of the largest wingspans of any human I’ve ever seen (or so it seemed). Seeing him play live was mesmerizing – like watching the Hindu goddess Kali behind a drum kit.

Fields Of Fire was the follow-up single to In A Big Country that most people missed.

Big Country – Wonderland
Sandwiched between Big Country’s debut and follow-up was a four-track EP which arrived in the spring of 1984. The highlight was the bracing Wonderland, which was actually a (very) minor hit in the US and got a fair amount of airplay on the alternative radio station I was listening to at the time.

Big Country – Steeltown
The title track of their second album, Steeltown has a thunderous cadence reminiscent of In A Big Country. It’s bone-rattling.

Lyrically, it chronicles the struggles of the working class. On Steeltown, the themes were grittier and the band had an authenticity concerning such matters. In that respect, I’d describe Big Country as Scotland’s answer to Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band.

Big Country – Flame Of The West
Like In A Big Country, a sense of wanderlust pulsates throughout Flame Of The West. The first song on Steeltown, it kicked the album off in high gear, galloping along at a breakneck pace.

Big Country – Come Back To Me
Also from Steeltown, Come Back To Me closed the first side and showcases a different side of Big Country. Its tale revolves around a widow and a fatherless child with Adamson singing from the point of view of the former (hearing him deliver the line “I have your child inside me” is a bit jarring and always makes me imagine him as a seahorse).

Seahorses and male pregnancy aside, it’s a lovely, poignant song.