Sunday, February 8, 2009

Big Country's Steeltown - Just East Of Eden

If Big Country were at all concerned about the reception for their sophomore album, they needn’t have been. ‘Steeltown’ bolted to #1 on the British charts first week in during October of ‘84, though surprisingly sales were poor beyond British shores (US#70/OZ#68). Rave reviews initially accompanied the set, aided by the success of singles ‘East Of Eden’ (UK#17/OZ#93), ‘Where The Rose Is Sown’ (UK#29), and ‘Just A Shadow’ (UK#26), though a top ten hit remained beyond the borders of Big Country on this venture. Musically, ‘Steeltown’, once again produced by Steve Lillywhite, shared much of the same territory as its predecessor, bursting with verve and pulsating energy in places, but lyrically Adamson was taking Big Country in a different direction. A working-class socialist manifesto began permeating a lot of the tracks, with issues such as the decaying state of Scotland’s industrial and economic profile getting a workout. Regardless, stirringly uplifting tracks such as ‘Flame Of The West’ offered up signs of hope. Big Country continued to undertake regular trade missions across the world throughout the next couple of years, and during ‘85 recorded the musical score to the independent Scottish film ‘Restless Natives’ (though it didn’t see commercial release until 1998).

By the time Big Country’s next official single surfaced, it had been nearly eighteen months since ‘Steeltown’ had shut down major operations on the charts. Initially, the extended hiatus didn’t appear to be an issue for the band, as ‘Look Away’ made a strong impact on the British charts following its April ‘86 debut. The driving rock track adhered to like formula of earlier Big Country fare, but was a stand out power packed effort nonetheless, and moved quickly to a peak of #7 in the U.K., and #24 in Australia. It was the lead out track from Big Country’s third album, ‘The Seer’, released in July ‘86 (produced by Robin Millar). Once more the album forged strongly into the British charts (#2), and this time around managed to rack up more promising sales elsewhere (OZ#26/US#59). A couple of years later, an old friend of mine gave me a dubbed copy of ‘The Seer’ on cassette, and the quality of the album is reflected by the fact that my cassette copy eventually broke from relentless playing. Some critics levelled the accusation of ‘sameness’ about Big Country’s formula, and yes I suppose the same anthemic choruses, and ‘bagpipe’ style guitar effects still course through the musical veins of ‘The Seer’, but tracks like ‘Eiledon’ proved the old adage that if it ain’t broke, why fix it - and to me, at least at this stage, the Big Country model was in perfect working order. ‘The Seer’’ realised three more hit singles; ‘The Teacher’ (UK#28), ‘One Great Thing’ (UK#19), and ‘Hold The Heart’ (UK#55), and also featured guest vocals from Kate Bush on the title track, which was one of several to explore themes of Scottish nationalism (Sean Connery would have been proud).

After a two year absence, Big Country unveiled the album ‘Peace In Our Time’ in late ‘88, enlisting the services of producer Peter Wolf for the project. The ex-Zappa keyboardist, turned producer, had come fresh from working on albums with Wang Chung (see previous post), Starship, and Kenny Loggins, so might not immediately spring to mind as being ideally fitted to the Big Country style. The album was recorded in Los Angeles, and some critics quickly levelled the charge that Big Country were making a blatant attempt to rekindle their flagging U.S. fortunes. Stylistically, the Big Country formula did appear to undergo some compromises, with the volume turned down on the ‘bagpipe’ guitars, and the political rhetoric wound back a notch. In critical terms ‘Peace In Our Time’ received some backlash as a consequence. The album still managed to crack the British top 10 (#9/US#160), and spawned three top fifty singles; ‘King Of Emotion’ (UK#16/OZ#69), ‘Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys)’ (UK#47) - which Adamson later cited as his favourite Big Country track, and ‘Peace In Our Time’ (UK#39). Big Country also performed a series of shows in Moscow shortly after the album’s release.

In February 1990 ex-Dave Howard Singers’ drummer Pat Ahern crossed the border into Big Country, taking the place of Mark Brzezicki, who went on to a stint with the Pretenders. The single ‘Save Me’ (UK#41) was released by way of entrée for the band’s first ‘best of package’, ‘Through A Big Country - Greatest Hits’, which rocketed to #2 on the British charts, reaffirming the loyalty of Big Country’s fan base at home. The stand alone single ‘Heart Of The World’ (UK#50) followed shortly after, but Big Country were about to enter some uncomfortable territory. Their 1991 album ‘No Place Like Home’ (UK#28), was about as far away from the Big Country home as the band had dared venture thus far. Produced by Pat Moran, it was a more back-to-basics, bare bones approach to things, with a few oddly styled exceptions, and overall came across as an unconvincing mix. It was the first Big Country album not to receive a release in the U.S., and would be the band’s final outing prior to being dumped by long time label Phonogram. The singles ‘Republican Party Reptile’ (UK#37), and ‘Beautiful People’ (UK#72) laboured to make any impact on the charts. From a personnel viewpoint, Big Country came perilously close to splitting, with tensions running high, perhaps in part due to drummer Mark Brzezicki returning to the mix, but relegated to the status of session player (he’s wasn’t included in any of the promo photos during that period). To all but the most fervent, partisan fans, the glory days of Big Country seemed to be a long distant memory.

After signing with the independent Compulsion label, Big Country resurfaced with 1993’s ‘The Buffalo Skinners’ (UK#25), which did receive a U.S. release. The album was warmly received by critics as a relative return to form by Big Country, and fans welcomed back with open arms, the band’s rousing guitar rock sound, and insightful, emotive lyrics. ‘The Buffalo Skinners’ yielded two British top 30 hits, ‘Alone’ (#24), and ‘Ships (Where Were You)’ (#29), both indicative of what would prove to be a last hoorah return to form for Big Country. When Big Country released the live album ‘Without The Aid Of A Safety Net’ (UK#35) in mid ‘94, drummer Mark Brzezicki had once more been officially included in Big Country census figures. Big Country continued to provide tactical support for rock giants such as the Rolling Stones, and The Who, with whom they had an ongoing association. They had provided instrumental backing on Roger Daltrey’s 1985 album ‘Under The Raging Moon’, whilst bassist Tony Butler had known, and played with on occasion, for years with Pete Townshend (Butler had played in a trio with Townshend’s brother Simon).

1995’s album ‘Why The Long Face’ (UK#48) became the first Big Country set to stall short of the top 25 in Britain. It yielded two minor hits in ‘I’m Not Ashamed’ (UK#69) and ‘You Dreamer’ (UK#68), with the performance of both being symptomatic of a larger decline in the band’s fortunes. In late ‘95 they released the EP ‘Non!’, which was a formal protest in song against France’s nuclear testing programme, on behalf of Greenpeace, and featuring guest backing vocals from Steve Harley and Kym Mazelle. Big Country once more hit the road (several in fact) in support of the album, and also performed a series of acoustic shows, captured on the 1996 album ‘Eclectic’ (UK#41).

Stuart Adamson then relocated to Nashville in the U.S., but aside from a side project called The Raphaels (with artist Marcus Hummon), largely withdrew from the music scene for a time, with issues of alcoholism later revealed as a factor. Big Country reconvened in 1999 for the album ‘Driving To Damascus’, their first to miss the U.K. charts completely, though the single ‘Fragile Thing’ (featuring Eddi Reader) did crawl to #69, and the album also featured the track ‘Somebody Else’, co-written by Adamson and Kinks’ legend Ray Davies. The poor reception offered the album, proved to be a major blow to Adamson in particular, leading to a brief disappearance in late ‘99, prior to an announcement that he needed some time off. The limited release ‘Nashville Album’ arrived in 2000, and during the first half of the year Big Country embarked on their ‘Final Fling’ farewell tour, which ended in Glasgow. The band declared they would continue to record and make further live appearances, but Adamson’s emotional state, and ongoing battle with alcoholism proved to be insurmountable issues. In November 2001, Adamson disappeared once more, prompting band and family to make a public appeal, via the band’s website, for him to contact someone. Tragically, Adamson committed suicide in December 2001. The remaining members of both Big Country and Skids attended a memorial in January 2002.

In 2007 the surviving core trio of Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki, and Tony Butler (who assumed vocal duties), embarked on a Big Country 25th anniversary tour of the U.K., with an accompanying live set released. As of September ‘08, the trio stated that Big Country was once more on indefinite hiatus, but an eight track CD titled ‘In Our Name’ was released in October ‘08, under the banner Brzezicki, Butler & Watson.

For a first rate collection of Big Country related videos, check out the YouTube channel bc1000stars - put together by Andy - well worth a visit for all Big Country fans.


Pablaktus said...

Before all, congratulations for the site, it's amusing can read about some of my favorites bands of these times.
And thanks for write about one of my 3 favorites band from Scotland, besies, I was very sad about the death of Adamson, and upset after hear the cover of "The saints are coming", Adamson must be there.
All the best

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Many thanks for your comment Pablaktus. It is always sad when a talented musician is lost to the world. It is good though that we still have the great music Adamson wrote and Big Country recorded.