Hand Picked

In A Big Country

ARITE!! This is one of my favorite songs of ALL TIME!! Big Country’s “In A Big Country” is one of them jams that will immediately whisk you back to the first time that you either heard it, or saw the video, on MTV, if you are of that age. An anthem with their first song and one that also utilizes the band name as the song title, it could’ve been a recipe for disaster. Instead it became indelible if you were a child of the 80’s. The album that it came from, 1983’s The Crossing, proffered a couple of other mid-chart singles, “Chance” and “Fields of Fire”, and helped establish the band’s unique sound that immediately separated them from all other comers in that year. Kurt Loder’s GLOWING review in Rolling Stone said it all:

“Here’s a big-noise guitar band from Britain that blows the knobs off all the synth-pop diddlers and fake-funk frauds who are cluttering up the charts these days. Big Country mops up the fops with an air-raid guitar sound that’s unlike anything else around, anywhere … Like the Irish band U2 (with whom they share young, guitar-wise producer Steve Lillywhite), Big Country has no use for synthesizers, and their extraordinary twin-guitar sound should make The Crossing a must-own item for rock die-hards.”

Big Country was built on the backs of the two guitar players Bruce Watson and Stuart Adamson, the latter also being the vocalist who had left the punk band The Skids citing “artistic differences.” but brought that energy and ethos to his new band along with a desire to prove a point. Between the two of them they created the signature guitar sound that made their songs so recognizable. A critic once likened it to the sound of bagpipes and Adamson recoiled against it so vocally that it became a bone of contention for him for the remainder of his time in Big Country. This is unfortunate, as it really is quite an accomplishment and part of the reason that the radio legend John Peel once called him “Scotland’s Jimmi Hendrix.” It is thought that one of the decisions that plagued the band was turning down an appearance at Live Aid in favor of playing another show. A band named U2 took their place. And music is not the same after that day. What would the future had held for both bands had that not been the way it went?

A “Sliding Doors” moment if ever there was one.

The band members were as follows:

Drums – Mark Brzezicki (Bruhzicki) 

Bass – Tony Butler

Guitars- Bruce Watson

Vocals/Guitars – Stuart Adamson

The song starts with an absolute barrage of drums courtesy of the impossible to pronounce Mark Brzezicki. The only over-dub in that drum part is the hand-claps, the rest of it is played by him. He’s one one of my favorite drummers ever and his playing is without equal in 80’s Pop Rock, as far as I am concerned. There is a drum-fill at the 3:10 mark in their song “Peace In Our Time” that STILL blows my mind and I’ve heard it a billion times at this point. If that isn’t enough to convince you then I encourage a listen to the album version of Roger Daltrey’s “Under A Raging Moon” which features a series of drum-solos played by some of the greatest ever and MB’s contribution is so brilliantly executed that one will find oneself completely confused by what he’s done. It’s inside out and upside down. So bloody good. Mark motors through the entirety of “In A Big Country” with military precision that provides a back-bone groove that somehow still manages to march. He’s a WIZARD I tell ya! And, yes, that is the HEAVILY gated and compressed 80’s drum sound that we’ve all come to know and love. I’m fairly sure that the hi-hats are either triggering, or are played on, a drum-machine, which seems a weird choice. If Steve Lillywhite is listening, can I get some clarification please?!?

Tony Butler and Mark B. had been playing as a combo for a while before they joined Big Country and came as a bit of a “Matched Set,” They certainly play beautifully together. The relationship between drummer and bassist is a unique in music. When you play with a bassist who “gets you” it is a sublime experience. These two are a RELENTLESS Engine Room. Holy smokes. Butler provides the drive that the song needs, especially with MB marching behind him, but also weaves a melody line throughout that helps to create the anthemic enormity that a song named “In A Big Country” would demand. It’s perfect. From the bounce of the verse to the turnarounds and octave moves out of the chorus, I am getting chills as I listen to it and write this. Tony went on to take over the position of lead singer after the unfortunate passing of Adamson in 2001. He has also played bass for Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and The Pretenders. His pedigree speaks to his abilities. This song is a wonderful example of his creativity. Powerhouse. His choices in the “break-down” are inspired, as his entire line during the choruses. The “stop-go-roll” bit. Man…i love this friggin’ song. Start to finish.

Here’s Christian’s breakdown of “In A Big Country”, track by track. Enjoy!

Bruce Watson is one  half of the guitar sound of the band. His role was to support the brilliance of Adamson’s choices. But, don’t think for a minute that he is not integral. Sometimes the most creative person in a band is the one who knows when to come and when to go. Don’t forget that the two guitar players had known each other forever and the style that they developed was done so in concert with each other. It is hard to know where one starts and the other stops. Just give the attached a listen, you’ll see what I am talking about. The fact that the song’s verses are based entirely on the spiky, sineous, slippery, line that flows through it is another inspired choice. So few HUGE chords in a song so big. It’s a trick pioneered by Pete Townshend and utilized fantastically here. He and Adamson are a wonderful complement to each other. The secret to the “sound” is the MXR Pitch-Transposer 129, by all accounts, guitar nerds REJOICE!

What is to be said of Stuart Adamson? His voice is immediately recognizable. Every lyric in the song is a call to arms. From the first “HOT!” to the final “SHOT!” Stuart stands at the ramparts and commands us to follow his stare to the horizon in search of whatever answer it is lies there. The entire vocal is harmonized to create the feeling of all of us singing it—a brilliant conceit. I believe that it is Stuart and Tony harmonizing throughout. Good grief. And then the break-down. I am actually crying as I listen to it and write this. It IS Stuart. The build. The way he presents the hope as the fight comes on. The passionate delivery. The empathy displayed. “Come up screaming! Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted!” The whispered over-dub. It is  painful to remember that Stuart’s alcoholism eventually gets the better of him and in 2001 he was found hanged in his hotel room in Hawaii. Similar to the death of another Scottish singer/lyricist hero of mine, Scott Hutchison of the band Frightened Rabbit, you wonder why he couldn’t find the hope he professed in his own lyrics. How could he have not felt what is so clearly on display for the rest of us? And if he did, why was it not enough? As I listen now my heart breaks because this younger version of him had no clue of the highs, and lows, that life would bring him and the tragic loneliness of his passing. It adds a level of poignancy to the lyrics and performance of this, his most iconic, vocal. “You can’t stay here with every single hope you have shattered.” It is fitting and ironic that this song of loss and hope is the thing that he is known best for. It’s everything that he continues to do over his career distilled into one 4 and 1/2 minute treatise. His “Call To Arms.”

The song took the MTV airwaves by storm, and put the ridiculous video into high rotation. It changed the lives of all of those involved and became a touchstone for any kid that grew up in the Era Of MTV. For a teenager who had just moved from his homeland of England to the John Hughes Film Life of high school on Long Island in 1983, it was the sound of a place a long, long, way away, and it is probably in the Top 10 songs of my life. There are people I know whose memory of the song is irrevocably linked to me— and for that I am eternally grateful to Stuart, Tony, Bruce, and Mark. It was a tremendous honor to get to show the listeners of KLOS in Los Angeles the pure brilliance behind what is, at first listen, a simple pop song. It isn’t. And neither is its message. It is just a shame that its author couldn’t continue to find the strength that he spoke of in his own lyrics. A great sadness.

RIP Stuart. May you have found the Peace you searched for. And thank you for this and all of the music that you and the lads recorded.

“Just ’cause it happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded.”

Listen to The Crossing in its entirety. The last remaster is a massive leap from the original version. It’s a HUGE record. The bottom-end will test your speakers and its sonic textures will push an amp to its limits as it drowns out the neighbors. EXACTLY how the band would’ve wanted it.

“Come up screaming!”

Until next time,

cjh

The RIDICULOUS Music Video: