Big Country emerged from the aftermath of the UK punk scene in the late 1970s. Stuart Adamson had been the guitarist in the Dunfermline-based group the Skids, one of the first Scottish acts from that era to make the transition from local heroes to national chart success with hits including ‘Into The Valley’ and ‘Working For The Yankee Dollar’. In keeping with the spirit of the times, Adamson moved quickly on, putting together his own band as featured singer together with local guitarist Bruce Watson and a rhythm section of London session musicians Tony Butler (bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums).
Their first single ‘Harvest Home’, released in 1982, was a harbinger of the hits to come - a chanted chorus, driven along by skirling guitars, a galloping drum beat, and an ancient folk wisdom: “Just as you sow, you shall reap”. The song remained a perennial live favourite, even though it was the only one of their early singles which failed to reach the chart. The first album, The Crossing, released in 1983, refined and defined the band’s unique approach. At a time when British pop was dominated by synthesizer bands from Depeche Mode to the Human League, The Crossing produced by Steve Lillywhite (who also produced U2 and Simple Minds), swam defiantly against the tide. The band’s twin guitar attack, with its high-pitched tone and distinctive, Caledonian cadences, was often likened to the sound of bagpipes – an unusual comparison which underlined the group’s distinctive sound and Celtic folk roots. Housing the hit singles ‘Fields Of Fire (400 Miles)’, ‘In A Big Country’ (the band’s only US hit) and ‘Chance’, The Crossing was certified platinum in the UK and established the band as a new driving force in a British rock scene that had rather lost its way.
A stand-alone single, ‘Wonderland’, restating the theme of an honest life lived in the great outdoors, sailed into the UK Top 10 at the start of 1984. Then, in October, the band’s second album Steeltown, again produced by Lillywhite, entered the UK chart at No.1. The title track told the story of the Scottish diaspora of 1935 at the height of the Great Depression when workers reluctantly sought employment in the newly-opened steelworks in Corby, Northamptonshire. “All the landscape was the mill/Grim as the reaper with a heart like hell,” Adamson sang as the band pumped out a beat like a great, industrial steam hammer. With its Soviet propagandist cover artwork the album captured the oppositional mood of the times in the UK during the Thatcher years, when the industrial landscape was blighted by mine and factory closures.
Although invited to perform on the Band Aid charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, Big Country missed the session (they added a spoken message to the B-side). More significantly, despite being an obvious fit, they did not perform at the televised Live Aid concert in 1985 – other than joining the impromptu mass-choir finale of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. This historic event created a new pop aristocracy overnight. While their contemporaries U2, Simple Minds and many other prominently featured acts smoothly moved into a new global superstar bracket, Big Country stayed where they were.
Which wasn’t a bad place to be. The band’s third album, The Seer, released in 1986 found Big Country at the peak of their powers, exploring their now-familiar brand of Celtic rock with supreme panache and confidence. Adamson engaged in an animated duet with Kate Bush on the title track, a song which dug deep into the soil to expose the band’s folk roots, while ‘Look Away’ became the highest-placed single of Big Country’s career, peaking at No.7 in the UK and going all the way to No.1 in Ireland. The Seer reached No.2 in the UK, prevented from reaching the top only by Madonna’s True Blue.
To mark the release of their 1988 album Peace In Our Time, Big Country’s management invested heavily in a promotional visit to the Soviet Union, flying more than 250 media folk on an expenses-paid junket to Moscow, where the band staged a series of self-promoted concerts at the Palace Of Sports. It was a bold and unprecedented idea which guaranteed an impressive crescendo of news exposure around the world. It also landed the group with a vast bill which their record company was prepared to foot only in part.
The album, produced and recorded by Peter Wolf in America, had a distinctly trans-Atlantic gloss. But although the sentiment was timely and well-intentioned, the Peace In Our Time campaign was a promotional catastrophe. Released as a single, the title track was sold with postcards included for fans to send to the White House and the Kremlin demanding immediate action to secure world peace. Whatever impact this may have had on world leaders, it was not enough to lift the single beyond No.39 in the UK chart, or to galvanise sales of the album, which made a brief appearance in the UK Top 10 before fading swiftly from view. Ironically, little more than a year later the Berlin Wall was demolished and the iron curtain lowered. Maybe those postcards had not been entirely in vain, after all.
Big Country returned from their Moscow adventure exhausted, dispirited and virtually bankrupt. The group officially split up, and even though they reconvened within a few weeks, Brzezicki would only re-join as a paid session man. The checked-shirt, bagpipe-guitar tag had turned into an artistic straitjacket well before this point and the band made a radical musical departure with their 1991 album No Place Like Home. The first single ‘Republican Party Reptile’ was more dustbowl blues than Highland fling and other tracks featured banjo, mandolin and honky-tonk piano as the band explored an assortment of Americana traditions including country, folk and Southern blues. There were some fine moments on this underrated album, notably ‘The Hostage Speaks’, a song about Middle Eastern politics with an eerie, desert-baked riff that was at least a decade ahead of its time. But somewhere between Moscow and the Madrassas, the band had left behind a substantial chunk of their audience.
Having abandoned the formula which generated the mass-market sales of their heyday, Big Country embarked on a string of artistically rewarding but commercially underperforming albums including The Buffalo Skinners (1993), Why The Long Face (1995) and Driving To Damascus (1999). Looking back over this period, Watson declared it to be “The happiest time of our career. It was just the four of us, jeans, T-shirts, playing good rock music and being appreciated for it.”
But the journey was not so straightforward for Adamson. He moved to Nashville in 1996 where he teamed up with songwriter Marcus Hummon to form an alt.country duo called the Raphaels. Their debut album, Supernatural, was released in August 2001, by which time Big Country had already played a ‘Final Fling’ farewell tour before formally disbanding in October 2000.
As a recovering alcoholic who had remained sober for a decade, Adamson could not have chosen a worse moment to fall off the wagon. At the age of 43 he found himself without his band, estranged from his wife (who was filing for divorce) and due in court to face drunk-driving charges. He hanged himself in a hotel room in Honolulu on 16 December 2001.
Adamson’s life was celebrated at an emotional memorial concert in Glasgow in 2002 by his former bandmates from both Big Country and the Skids. And more recently his musical legacy has been revived in Big Country reunion tours in 2007 and 2010/11. A new Big Country album, The Journey, was released in 2013, written and recorded by a line-up comprising Brzezicki, Watson and Watson’s son Jamie on guitar, together with singer and guitarist Mike Peters (of the Alarm) and bass player Derek Forbes (of Simple Minds). With a new Big Country date sheet stretching well into 2016, the journey continues.
Words: David Sinclair
With producer Steve Lillywhite at the helm, Scotland's Big Country managed to deliver earnest, socially conscious arena anthems in a similar vein to U2 and the Alarm. The twist was their trademark bagpipe sound, achieved through the use of E-Bow. The unique sound of "In a Big Country" garnered the band considerable attention and a Top 20 single in the U.S. The Crossing, however, is an album whose richness goes beyond the single. The more subdued "Chance" is sparser and its personal lyrics are every bit as heartfelt as the more populist-inclined anthems like the wonderful "The Storm" or the thundering "Fields of Fire." The lyrics are straightforward and, despite the grand themes of many of the tracks, manage to steer clear of being overly pretentious. While this album earned the band a gold record, Big Country's sound and image (reinforced by the members' tartan checked shirts) resulted in them being tagged a novelty, and they never duplicated their initial success in America. [An expanded version of The Crossing appeared in 2012 to mark the 30th Anniversary of the formation of the group. The two-disc reissue reissue included a remastered version of the original album, as well as twenty-four bonus cuts (demos, outtakes, and B-sides) and a 20-page booklet.]
Words: Tom Demalon
Big Country came out of one of the less dominant parts of the United Kingdom with an anthemic sound and vaguely revolutionary-sounding lyrics to captivate the British listening public and at least interest Americans. Big Country continued their winning ways at home with this, its second album, which topped the charts and produced three Top 40 hits -- "East of Eden," "Where the Rose is Sown," and "Just a Shadow." But in the U.S., the album was perceived as proving that the band's sound, guitars-as-bagpipes, courtesy of the E-Bow, was a one-time novelty, while Stuart Adamson's lyrics, full of British socialist working-class fervor, seemed jingoistic and pretentious. Nevertheless, much of the music, as on the first album, made for stirring rock & roll.
Words: William Ruhlmann
The third proper album by Scottish quartet Big Country kicks off with the stellar "Look Away," a rocking outlaw tale with very cool guitar work from Bruce Watson and lead singer Stuart Adamson. However, the simple, anthemic choruses and effects-laden guitars are beginning to wear a little thin four years after the band's promising breakthrough. Big Country does little to expand on their sound or lyrical themes and The Seer is somewhat disappointing. There are a few solid tracks like the moody title song (with Kate Bush lending vocals) and the stirring "Eiledon," but the band had done these songs better. It managed to chart three singles in the U.K., with "Look Away" going Top Ten, but the American audience had dwindled to hard-core fans. It's the hardcore fans that The Seer is most likely to be of interest to.
Words: Tom Demalon
For its fourth album, Big Country made two changes seemingly intended to bolster its fortunes in America -- switching from Mercury Records to Reprise and enlisting hot producer Peter Wolf. The bagpipe guitar sound was de-emphasized, along with the political lyrics, and Wolf treated singer Stuart Adamson as he had Starship singer Mickey Thomas, adding echo and backup harmonies to beef him up. On songs like the lead-off single "King Of Emotion" (Top 20 in Britain, non-charting in the U.S.), Wolf sought to retain Big Country's heroic quality while adding the widescreen dramatic style and cheerleader choral approach of Starship's "We Built This City." It was a brave try, but didn't really suit the group, making Peace In Our Time Big Country's least representative and least interesting album. (Nevertheless, the title track made the U.K. Top 40, and "Broken Heart [Thirteen Valleys]" also charted.)
Words: William Ruhlmann
By 1993, ten years after their E-Bow-led domestic breakthrough, Big Country had largely given up on America. Without the novelty of their gingham shirts and bagpipe effects, the band's anthems didn't carry across the Atlantic, to say nothing of Stuart Adamson's call-to-action working-class lyricisms. Nevertheless, Big Country had sustained their trademark sound over that same period of time, charting here in there in the U.K. while not relying as heavily on gimmickry. Perhaps encouraged by the grassroots U.S. success of Glaswegians Del Amitri, Big Country's The Buffalo Skinners -- partly made up of a 1991 LP that hadn't kissed American soil -- was issued in the U.S. in 1993. It arrived with a shrug attached -- here it is, it seemed to say, whether you like it or not. But while Skinners forsook the E-Bow, it stood boldly, unabashedly behind its rousing, throaty rock sound and the righteous lyrics of Adamson. Opener "Alone" is like a template for the entire album. "I have been a lost and lonely sailor on your sea," the ever-dramatic Adamson croons, voice cracking a bit over tense, churning guitar and bass. This sets up the impossibly triumphant chorus, which in turn leads to a rangy solo. As the band cranks out "Alone"'s chorus repeatedly over the second half, it's easy to think of Big Country as the Scottish version of Live, who would have a hit with their own "I Alone" a year later. Both groups grafted the emotive passion of U2 to huge, arena riffing, but only one would make it in the U.S. (Maybe if Adamson shaved his head? Nevermind.) Skinners continues through a first half that has only one, exultant gear, but the strength of "Seven Waves" and "One I Love"'s choruses is so pure and honest, it's hard not to get butterflies in the bridge. Adamson's preachiness gets a bit hammy toward the middle of Buffalo Skinners, especially during "We're Not in Kansas" and "All Go Together," the latter of which lays on the rock riffage and "hey! hey!"s way too hard. But even these songs are convincing in their support of honest, guitar-based heroics. You probably don't need every Big Country album. But fans of their first -- not to mention the Alarm or American roots rockers like the Connells -- will find The Buffalo Skinners hard to deny.
Words: Johnny Loftus
The overly slick fourth Big Country album, Peace in Our Time, not only effectively killed off the band's commercial hopes in the US, it nearly broke up the band. On No Place Like Home, drummer Mark Brzezicki returned to the studio as a session drummer after leaving the band. The album finds the band trying to reinvent themselves and shift away from their '80s image. It does succeed in capturing a more organic sound than their previous release, whatever the style. "We're Not In Kansas" could almost pass for a late '80s AOR track. "Republican Party Reptile" sounds like the band had picked up a few tricks from one-time support act the Cult, and the mid-tempo "Dynamite Lady" is akin to one of Duran Duran's best ballads. It's all fairly well done, but the attempts at altering their sound just don't suit Big Country and several songs sound generic. No Place Like Home never saw the light of day in America, although several tracks would show up on 1993's The Buffalo Skinners.
Words: Tom Demalon
Recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on January 23, 1989, this hour-long concert recording captured Big Country a little past its peak, during its tour promoting Peace In Our Time, which had broken a string of excellent, uncompromising studio albums with what was, in essence, a commercially intended sell-out (and a failed one at that). Nevertheless, Big Country in person remained a stirring act, its twin guitars leading the way through some of the group's better known numbers. Stuart Adamson's Scottish burr of a speaking voice was a surprise given the more continental tone of his singing voice, but he was a funny, self-deprecating frontman, which was notable in a group that seemed to take itself so seriously. Big Country would have been well served by a live release during its heyday, and 1989 would not have been a bad time for it. Released more than six years after it was recorded, this album is an archival souvenir for the cult.
Words: William Ruhlmann
Big Country's Restless Natives & Rarities is a collection of B-sides, rare tracks, and alternate mixes recorded for Mercury from 1982 to 1995. The set takes its name from a soundtrack score Stuart Adamson completed in 1984. The 22-track double disc includes the Holy Grail of Big Country collecting: the long out-of-print and much sought-after 34-minute soundtrack to William Forsyth's 1985 Scottish comedy. Long-time fans will find this compilation worth the price for the score itself, which is reminiscent of Mark Knopfler's film work. Other highlights are "Balcony" from Against All Odds and some genuinely great B-sides never available on CD, including "The Longest Day," "Kiss the Girl Goodbye," "On the Shore," and "Song of the South." Though this album is made for the diehards, it will also appeal to the casual fan who owns a few of the early albums. Many fans consider the later Big Country releases to be inessential. Restless Natives & Rarities is somewhat of a return to the glory years and, as such, it is one of the most essential additions after the band's important albums from 1983 to 1988. Well worth tracking down.
Words: JT Griffith
Big Country may never have reached the commercial highs of similarly structured outfits like The Waterboys and U2, but the Scottish rockers had all the ingredients needed for stadium domination. This two-disc U.K. collection from Spectrum dutifully chronicles the underrated Dunfermline, Fife-based outfit’s nearly 20-year career, from the band's classic 1983 debut, The Crossing, to 1999’s Driving to Damascus. Listeners who only know the group’s two big international hits (“In a Big Country” and "Fields of Fire”) will find in Fields of Fire: The Ultimate Collection a veritable treasure trove (as in 35 excellent remastered tracks) of anthemic modern rock with a rural twist, propelled in large part by the late Stuart Adamson’s soaring, bagpipe-inspired guitar leads.
Words: James Christopher Monger