March 6th, 2012 | Published in Featured
By Pete Roche
Stuart Adamson had a dream.
The teenager from Dunfermline, Scotland wanted to use his guitar to give voice to the swirling panoramas in his brain. He hoped to use rock to weave musical tapestries that paid homage to Man and his environment. To create a soundtrack for rivers and the bridges traversing them as much as the men who constructed these winding roads and waged war over them. Torn between two worlds—one populated by close-knit families in distressed factory towns and the other an open wilderness brimming with natural beauty and wonder—Adamson sought a unification of his passions in song. And while he’d mined the surface strata for gritty, earthbound tunes in The Skids, punk rock wasn’t a broad enough canvas for the restless lad’s aural painting.
A few phone calls later, Adamson found himself in a room with the dynamic duo of Mark Brzezicki and Tony Butler (whose inventive and propulsive rhythms propelled Pete Townshend’s 80s albums Empty Glass and All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes). The guitarist knew after a cursory rehearsal he’d met the only drum-bass bedrock he’d ever need. Rounded out by fellow string-picker Bruce Watson, the quartet began booking club dates and thrilling audiences with its rowdy rustic sets. Word-of-mouth soon piqued the attention of U2 producer Steve Lillywhite, who got the band signed to Mercury Polygram.
The ever-inquisitive Adamson was tinkering with gear during demos for “Harvest Home” in early 1982 when he hit upon what would become the trademark Big Country sound. By vibrating his guitar strings with the electromagnetic field generated by a hand-held E-bow device and directing the resulting signal through an MXR Pitch Transposer, Adamson unwittingly discovered the bigger-than-life sound he’d been after. At first, listeners mistook the bright, wailing sound for Highland bagpipes—an understandable error, given Stuart’s Scottish upbringing. But no, these were indeed guitars, and their sonic majesty would grace many of Adamson’s songs—beginning with an out-of-nowhere hit named for his new band. Tracked at The Manor in Oxforshire and RAK Studios in London, The Crossing was born.
“In a Big Country” soared to #3 on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Tracks and hit #17 on the Billboard Hot 100. Anyone over 40 will recall the accompanying music video, which depicted the flannel-clad band riding three-wheel ATVs and donning wetsuits on a treasure-hunting escapade. At the end of the film, Adamson outwits a rival adventurer—a woman his character apparently knows intimately—then the group celebrates onstage by playing the song’s memorable chorus. So infectious and otherworldly were Big Country’s exotic, ancient-sounding guitars that when it came time for a follow-up single, radio (and MTV) audiences wouldn’t settle for anything less than a “bagpipe”-drenched repeat. “Fields of Fire” recaptured some of that kilt-kicking energy, its video showing Adamson and company on another mission (this time by train). But the tune (whose release actually predated “In a Big Country”) wasn’t enough to sustain a following in the United States, where the group was unfairly pegged as one of that decade’s many one-hit wonders.
The quartet fared better in Europe, where their energetic live shows became the stuff of legend. Following the stopgap Wonderland EP, 1984’s Steeltown was Big Country’s sole #1 album in the UK. Tunes like “Where the Rose is Sown” and “East of Eden” were reverb-laden portraits of fallen soldiers and displaced families, while the title track chronicled shop closings in the mill towns that had long relied on them for jobs and prosperity. While the LP yielded no break-out smashes like “In a Big Country,” it was a creative achievement on par with U2’s opus of the day, War (not coincidentally also produced by Lillywhite). Adamson determined to keep up—if not overtake—his Irish counterparts, work-shopping 1986’s terrific The Seer with Watson, Brzezicki, and Butler even as the ripples of U2’s Unforgettable Fire settled. The album was a stylish foray that furthered Adamson’s vision while indulging the anthem-rock idiom and “We Are the World” philanthropy so popular at the time, with boisterous tunes “One Great Thing,” “Remembrance Day,” and “I Walk the Hill” either advocating peace or reminding us of the growing need for it. Moreover, lead-off track “Look Away” went number one in Bono and Edge’s native Ireland, cementing Big Country’s burgeoning UK appeal.
I picked up The Seer on cassette a few months after its release stateside—around the same time I snagged Joshua Tree. To say I loved U2’s breakthrough album would be an understatement—but I found myself wishing my peers enjoyed the spiritually kindred (and too not dissimilar-sounding) “Teacher” and “Hold the Heart” as much as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “In God’s Country.” But it wasn’t to be. Bono and Edge had tapped the global consciousness at just the right moment, making the pages (if not covers) of Time, Rolling Stone, and Newsweek on the strength of its Americana-tinged epic. Meanwhile, precious few American teens could have told you the name of Big Country’s spike-haired singer, much less quote the band’s songs.
Undeterred, I followed Big Country’s musical exploits through my high school and college years. Peace in Our Time was practically the soundtrack of my Autumn 1988. Critics treated the band’s fourth full-length harshly, deriding its pop-rock sound and Adamson’s sentimental approach to environmentally-conscious messages like “River of Hope” and “Time for Leaving.” The sleeve’s photo inlay showed an updated Adamson, grinning and ready for the 90s. Brzezicki had a mullet, Butler sported dreads, and Watson—his fiery auburn hair now heavy-metal long—now looked like he’d be just as comfortable playing in Iron Maiden as BC. But like any faithful, self-respecting fan, I ignored any press panning the group and simply let songs like “Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys),” “Time for Leaving” and “In This Place” speak on their own terms. Namely, Adamson’s terms—a perspective I’d grown to trust.
But Stuart’s skies were darkening.
I lost touch with Big Country in the 90s through no fault of my own. The albums No Place Like Home and Buffalo Skinners saw a band up against the ropes, jumping labels and fighting for relevance in a market saturated with pop-metal, dance music, and grunge. The discs didn’t receive proper release in the States until months—if not years—after their UK pressings, which in those pre-Internet days meant few would-be-interested Yankees knew they existed until later (although the band did tour briefly in the US in ’93). Ah, but import-specialists Transatlantic distributed 1995’s Why the Long Face?, which I fortuitously happened upon in one of those then-chic franchise music retailers—and damned if this disc (yes, BC on CD now), like Peace, wasn’t the shot of adrenaline I needed. “You Dreamer,” “I’m Not Ashamed,” and “Message of Love” had Adamson wayfaring again—even channeling Hollywood adventurer Indiana Jones in verse—and reminiscing a bit, too, albeit with guitar feedback and artificial harmonics decorating the melodic mix. Jumping on the Unplugged bandwagon, the guys (or was it their label?) tacked a long-overdue acoustic version of “In a Big Country” to the end of the disc. 1999’s Driving to Damascus again showcased a band pursuing its vision while adapting to changes in the musical landscape. Rechristened John Wayne’s Dream in the U.S., the disc included a half-dozen hard-chargers and ballads that would’ve been hits in an ideal world (“Dive Into Me,” “Perfect World,” “Fragile Thing”). Adamson’s writing also bore traces of the alt-country leanings he’d started embracing, and by the end of the decade he’d moved to Nashville to team with songwriter Marcus Hammond for the eloquent side project Supernatural. Attributed to The Raphaels, the overlooked record became a sturdy (if unexpected) bookend to Stuart’s remarkable career.
News of Adamson’s suicide made the back pages in the music press in December 2001. Despite lurid details of the almost-too-typical rock star hotel-room demise and speculation over the singer’s longstanding alcohol problem, the tragedy was understandably eclipsed by the aftermath of 911. Stuart had been missing for some time, with both his band and family reaching out for help online and encouraging misguided fans not to harbor the troubled musician. But it was too late for interventions. Adamson had given up on his dreams long before his body was found in a Honolulu hotel room. Big Country’s catalog became Adamson’s legacy—a lost ark of musical integrity and passion left interred and in wait for hungrier, more scrupulous audiophiles to uncover its majesty.
Uncertain about pressing on without their de facto leader, surviving Big Country members allowed their musical collective to lapse into hibernation. Their label pumped out several Rarities discs, live albums, and compilations while Butler, Brzezicki, and Watson wrote new music for a BBW ep. Big Country still exists today, with The Alarm’s Mike Peters subbing for Stuart at the microphone and Bruce’s son Jamie Watson joining his father on guitar. Whether the new lineup can dodge the “heritage band” label remains to be seen. At least it’s a heritage of which they can be proud.
The Crossinghas popped up every now and again since its 1983 street date in various guises. Originally shipped in a royal blue sleeve in the U.S., the record had a dark blue cover for its 1996 re-master, then red for a 2002 deluxe edition. Now—on the occasion of the band’s 30th anniversary—the classic album returns as a 2CD set, wearing the same forest green jacket as its U.K. pressing all those years ago.
Subjected to a rigorous 24-bit re-engineering by Audio Archive mix master Paschal Byrne, The Crossing now breathes like never before, its ten proper cuts augmented with B-sides like “Flag of Nations,” “All of Us,” “Heart and Soul,” and “Angle Park.” Disc One closes with the triumphant title track, followed by a moving in-concert tribute to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (“Tracks of My Tears”).
Disc Two is a treasure trove of demos and unreleased material, including 4-track home demos for “Angle Park,” “We Could Laugh,” and “Harvest Home” made by Stuart and Bruce in 1981. The liner notes (which boast a splendid intro by journalist Tim Barr) caution that quality of the three lo-fidelity home recordings doesn’t compare with the in-studio run-throughs, but that’s to be expected for private, shoestring budget work-prints that weren’t intended to see light of day. The remaining fourteen tracks, culled from later demos, TV appearances, and studio sessions with Chris Thomas—are historical gems chronicling the evolution of the signature Big Country sound. And some of these versions (“Big City,” “The Storm,” “Fields of Fire”) made the Rarities editions, at least ten selections (“Close Action,” “Lost Patrol,” “Inwards”) appear here for the first time ever. It’s fitting that an in-progress version of “Chance” ends Disc Two; the brooding-yet-optimistic fan-favorite was played at Adamson’s funeral and remains a Big Country benchmark. This is the definitive audio almanac of a unique, storied sound in rock and roll: From Butler’s thick, throbbing bass meanderings, Brzezicki’s kung-fu drumming, and Watson’s droning guitar leads to Adamson’s harmonies and amusing vocal interjections of “Hot!” The Crossing: 30th Anniversary is a rewarding romp through a veritable Big Valley of wonder and imagination. Wellies optional.
Those unfamiliar with the band’s work outside their big hits will find Fields of Fire: Ultimate Collection or 20th Century Masters: Best of Big Country suitable points of entry to Adamson’s prodigious library of musical wanderlust. But those ready to breech the surface and listen past the bagpipe guitars for expertly-crafted songs about nature’s grandeur, embattled everymen, and other heroes in crisis could do worse than “go green” with this lovingly-assembled combo package.
Dreams do stay with you, after all. Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside.