It’s perhaps difficult to sufficiently express just how popular Big Country were for a few years in the mid-1980s. Albums went straight to number 1, there were regular Top of the Pops appearances, they were lauded in music publications from pop paper Smash Hits to the weekly NME and Melody Maker and were also well-liked and respected by many of their peers. For a while few had a bad word to say. Even if the music wasn’t your particular thing people appreciated that there was an honesty about how and what they played. But this critical approval disappeared extraordinarily quickly.
There were multiple reasons for this, from the lazy reviews concentrating on their ‘bagpipes and tartan’ stylings, through their accidental omission from Live Aid, where their rightly admired live show would have been a highlight, to include some bad decisions in terms of producers. Allan Glen’s new biography of guitarist and singer Stuart Adamson: In A Big Country honestly, and concisely, covers all of these and all the other incredible highs and lows of Adamson’s life. It’s a fascinating story that will appeal to more people than just those who are fans of his music.
Although Adamson appears like a single minded character, his life and music are defined by the various partnerships that he entered into, both professional and personal. The depiction that comes across is that Adamson had a love/hate relationship with other people, or rather he needed, and desired, these relationships to create the music that was in his head, but was frustrated that this necessarily meant he had to compromise his vision. He was by instinct the leader of those bands he was involved in, but by ideology he wanted them to be socialist democracies; creative collectives. The tensions between these two positions were perhaps at the root of the problems he would encounter throughout his life.
The first significant partnership began when the young Adamson saw lead singer potential in fellow Fifer Richard Jobson. Together they fronted the Skids and what Glen makes clear, often through the testimony of others, is that they remain one of the more influential acts to come out of Scotland in the late 1970’s. Here they are with one of their best tracks, Charade. You can see the two characters playing their own roles. Jobson the hyperactive gobshite who seemed to be challenging the audience to a square go, and Adamson the serious muso, exploring the riffs that would make him famous:
The major part of the biography is taken up by the story of Adamson’s next band Big Country. They seemed to arrive perfectly formed, or you felt that they’d been around for years. With the benefit of hindsight, the success of their début The Crossing was actually the beginning of the end for Big Country, at least in terms of critical success. They would release two other hit albums, Steeltown and the more ‘mystic’ The Seer. Both sold well, making numbers 1 and 2 in the chart respectively, and another five albums would be made that had diminishing returns. Although the band kept a committed and sizable core of fans who to this day see them as life enhancing, their popularity shrank. Even those fans would admit that it was the sound of that début that overshadowed the rest of their career, unfairly so, something that Allan Glen makes clear.
Even with their recording career beginning to falter, the place they always made the most sense was live on stage, and that would never change. They were one of those live acts that would blow the roof off a venue, something that was rare from bands from the image obsessed 80s. The following clips are from a famous Hogmany show at the Glasgow Barrowlands at the end of 1983. The first track is the rousing Harvest Home, their first ever single, and a song that shows off the often underrated rhythm section that is Tony Butler on bass and Mark Brzezicki belting the life out of his drums. This is followed by the anthemic In A Big Country, the song which gave Allan Glen the title of his book and broke the band around the world. It’s an epic rock song that builds to an exultant end:
These clips express perfectly what fans loved and critics hated about Big Country. The tartan scarves, the backdrop of cardboard Munros, the duelling guitars, and imagery of the croft. They had such a strong identity that it was bound to split people. Again it can be said that one of their strengths eventually came to work against them. What comes across so clearly when you read the biography and consider their career is that Adamson understood music but seemed to be misled in the ways of the music business, although some of their latter lack of success was simply down to bad timing. But that original line-up of Adamson, Watson, Butler and Brzezicki were as tight a unit as could be found at that time.
One of the most interesting sections of the book are the mid-chapters where Adamson continued to write incredibly moving songs that, by this point, hardly anyone was listening to. That in itself must have broken his heart. Here is one of those songs, one which features Eddi Reader on backing vocals.
The final chapters of In a Big Country are really emotional as Glen sets out the last movements of Adamson before his death. I have to say that I could have done without the detailed coroner’s report, but Glen captures the sense of helplessness and loss that others felt when Adamson went missing, then the depth of feeling at his death. Many friends, family and other musicians are quoted as they eulogise Adamson’s life and work. The most concise but precise comes from U2’s guitarist The Edge who simply said ‘He had a heart as big as a mountain’. That is what Adamson brought to The Skids and Big Country, ‘heart’.
It often makes us uncomfortable when we encounter someone who cares this much, but have a look again at the crowd at the Barras in ’83 (above), that’s a celebration, and that’s what Allan Glen’s book is about. It’s a celebration of a man who cared too much, someone who wasn’t able to turn the emotion off. Listening to those early records again while reading In A Big Country made me realise that Scottish music misses him more than it realises. Allan Glen has written a biography that serves as a timely reminder of this.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next month’s novel: Duncan McLean’s ‘Bunker Man’. To say this novel will not be for everybody is my understatement of the year. And it’s only February. Not much shocks me anymore, but there are scenes of graphic sex and violence in the book which are genuinely disturbing, as McLean means them to be. They are not meant to be titillating. What we witness is the slow unravelling of Rob Catto; it is his increasingly violent reaction to those closest to him that is under examination, and McLean goes to such lengths for that reason.
People have compared the book to Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, but where later Welsh in particular shocked for shocks sake, I don’t think this is the case with ‘Bunker Man’. However, there are plenty of people who disagree with me, and strongly so. If you decide to go for it I’d be fascinated to know what you think.
Next 5 books:
- Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
- Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
- Ali Smith The Accidental (May)
- Robin Jenkins The Changeling (Jun)
- Doug Johnstone The Ossians (Jul)