Guitarist Stuart Adamson — the unsung hero and sound shaper of the Skids — survived that once-wonderful Scottish band’s miserable end to form a down-to-Earth rock quartet unhampered (at the outset, anyway) by grandiose artistic pretensions. Strengthened by guitarist Bruce Watson and the ace rhythm section of Tony Butler and Mark Brzezicki (who have also played, individually and collectively, on records by Pete Townshend, the Pretenders, Roger Daltrey and others), Big Country quickly jumped into the vanguard of resurgent guitar-hero bands.
Retaining some of the Skids’ six-string-bagpipe effects, The Crossing, brilliantly produced by Steve Lillywhite, offers rousing anthems (“In a Big Country,” “Inwards” and “Fields of Fire,” its riff cleverly lifted from “The Guns of Navarone”) and moving romantic ballads (“The Storm,” “Chance”) that neatly intertwine Celtic folk traditions with blazing guitar riffs. (The UK tape edition has extra tracks.) The four- song Wonderland 12-inch includes an early B-side and the uplifting, catchy title track, one of the band’s best efforts.
Steeltown breaks no new ground and is basically a formulaic reprise, but the band is so unique, passionate and skilled at what they do that you don’t really mind. Best selections: “East of Eden,” “Where the Rose Is Sown” (a virtual rewrite of “In a Big Country,” itself not all that different from “Fields of Fire”) and “Just a Shadow.”
Well-crafted, with melancholy lyrics and a guest vocal appearance by Kate Bush on the title track, The Seer holds close to the band’s by-now-standard sound, with no loss in appeal. Even if they don’t vary much in content or style, Big Country’s early records are original and invigorating, a distinctive brand of modern rock’n’roll with deep cultural resonance.
Big Country took a surprising detour on the deliriously overproduced Peace in Our Time, which submerges its trademark sound in sanitized, synthesized musical settings. While a few decent songs — “Thousand Yard Stare,” “From Here to Eternity” and the title track — shine through, Peace in Our Time‘s drastic recast feels like commercial desperation rather than artistic restlessness. More to the point, it just isn’t much fun.
Through a Big Country is a fine 14-track career summary, with material from all four preceding albums, plus “Wonderland” and the non-LP “Save Me.” The CD and tape contain three more bonus cuts, all previously released.
Following a five-year absence from the American record racks (and an even longer US touring gap) — during which time drummer Mark Brzezicki left and returned — Big Country dropped back into sight with The Buffalo Skinners, a zealous, self-produced wheel-spinner with loads of urgent, anthemic guitar. It’s not that far in sound from Bon Jovi or Bryan Adams, but no amount of instrumental flash can hide knuckleheaded verses like this, from “Long Way Home”: “Out upon the China Sea / Boats will run eternally / Storms on land and storms avail / Captains roar and women wail / Half-million Nixon babies / Some with toys and some with rabies.” Elsewhere, Adamson continues a trait inaugurated on No Place Like Home, relocating the geographical loci of his lyrics in “The Selling of America” and “We’re Not in Kansas.”
Why the Long Face ably integrates Big Country’s familiar strengths into a much tastier brew, one that steers clear of egregious lyrical minefields and soaks deep in the band’s original Scot-o-sonic rock formula. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a single untested idea here — unless the terrible cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious” or an unplugged bumpkin version of “In a Big Country” (both tracks added as bonuses to the album’s American issue)count — but unabashed vitality redeems the band’s traditionalism. In Adamson’s words, “I’m not ashamed of the things I’ve done / I took the blame when I could have run.” If there’s a musical ethos in there somewhere, good on him.
The simply played, weakly mixed studio broadcast performances on Radio 1 Sessions date from ’82 and ’83; six of the eight songs come off The Crossing, although no singles are among them. The genuine 1989 London show documented on the full-length BBC Live in Concert, on the other hand, has all the early songs anyone would want to hear given full-on renditions before an audibly enthusiastic audience. Adamson’s song introductions are an amusing bonus.
Adamson, who had reportedly suffered from alcoholism and depression, was found dead in a Hawaii hotel room in December 2001.