Culture

Big Country's Big Enduring Scottish Rock

Big Country rocketed up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s with a very big sound. They were nominated for two Grammy Awards in 1984 (Best Rock Group, Best New Group). They joined other monster acts in playing Live Aid in 1985. “In a Big Country” and other songs still receive regular rotation on multiple SiriusXM channels and the band is considered one of Scotland’s best live acts. The sound of Big Country matches the name – soaring, enduring, expansive.

PJ Lifestyle had the opportunity to interview Bruce Watson, the group’s guitarist and one of the founding members.

PJ: You are starting a tour this fall that commemorates the 30th anniversary of Steeltown. You have dates all over the UK — Manchester October 31, London November 28, along with Squeeze at Weyfest this coming weekend. What can people expect on this tour?

Watson:  It’s the 30th anniversary of the release of Steeltown back in 1984. So we are doing gigs all over this coming fall. We will play most of the songs off Steeltown, then take an intermission and then come back out and do a lot of the older catalog. We are mostly doing weekend festivals. We just travel up and down the country.

PJ: In preparing for this interview, I talked to my friend Jim Dispirito who did the drumming for Rusted Root.  I learned about a quote regarding touring — “the road is a very hard place for an active mind.” Did the band, or particularly Stuart Adamson, experience that?

Watson: We’re the kind of band that never really writes on the road. There’s a lot of down time and we do tend to read a lot. It’s not like you can sit in the bus and write songs. Every day, your day is mapped out. You have to be at the venue for sound check. Then the show, back to the hotel, get as much sleep as you can and then do the same thing the next day. It’s Groundhog Day. It’s very hard to write songs.


PJ: The name Big Country seems to fit the sound: huge, uncontainable, expansive. Where did the name come from?

Watson: That’s right.  Stuart Adamson came up with an idea to have a big twin guitar, like a movie soundtrack.  Stuart said he wanted to have a sound to move mountains. The name Big Country, well it goes with the sound, the music.

PJ: Talk about what was going on in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s. So many bands broke through to the United States – U2, The Alarm, Big County, A Flock of Seagulls.

Watson: Well, that’s MTV. MTV helped. A lot of Americans saw these bands because of MTV.

PJ: Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I can remember Big Country was being played across the dial on three different radio stations — WDVE, the album-oriented rock station; WYDD, the new wave station; and even B-94, the pop station. That hardly ever happens, that sort of radio cross-appeal.  What do you remember about Big Country breaking out in the USA?

Watson: It was something we mostly heard about.  See, we went to the States really only three times in the 1980s.  I think we just got lucky.  We got nominated for two Grammy Awards and that got the band out to a big audience in the United States.  We never got to hear the mechanics of what was going on in the USA, what radio station was playing what.  We are a small country [in the UK] and it was mindboggling to hear. When we did go to America, we were in a different state every day and it could take days to travel between gigs.  When we tour in the UK, its so much closer.

PJ: How could musicians break out today, without the benefit of MTV and radio like it was?

Watson: Well it’s a lot harder, isn’t it? The music business has completely changed.  It’s done by YouTube and Facebook.  Apart from playing live and putting on the performance of your life, plenty of musicians are happy to be tribute bands or wedding bands.

PJ: The guitars in Big Country songs like “I Walk the Hill” almost sound like bagpipes. Is that playing, or was it production?

Watson: It was playing. We use digital delays and chord sounds, but what Stuart and I did was to not bend notes. We played single notes. We didn’t want to sound like Thin Lizzy, bluesy like that.  I love Thin Lizzy, but we wanted to play melodies without bending, and not sound bluesy.  We deliberately played single guitar notes and it sounded like a bagpipe.

PJ: What was it like working with Steve Lillywhite as a producer?

Watson:  He’s great.  We just did a single with him and we hadn’t seen him for 20 odd years. Back then he was just a breath of fresh air.  He’d put you at ease.  He’d say, “Yeah, lets try it.” I was young and enthusiastic and I was just throwing ideas at him and he helped them along.

PJ: So many lyrics in Big County conjure images of the first World War – “Remembrance Day,” “Fields of Fire,” even the song “Close Action” seem to borrow a martial term for a title. Was this just because that war is so much more a part of the culture in the UK — for example everyone wearing poppies at Remembrance Day — or was there something else?

Watson: Stuart Adamson was a big reader. His grandfather might have been killed in the Great War, or as you say World War I.  He used to read lots and lots of books about the war.  A lot of the songs came from book titles. You mentioned “Close Action” — that came from Signal-Close Action!.

PJ: There’s  poetry in the lyrics, isn’t there? Some of it sounds like Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, for example in “Where the Rose is Sown“:

Sons of men who stand like Gods/ We give life to feed the cause/ And run to ground the heathen foe/ Our name will never die/ this time will be forever.

Watson: Yes, the poets of the Great War. Again, Stuart was a big reader. The things he was reading, yes they are in there.

PJ: “Harvest Home is just sublime.  Where does this come from? The swirling guitar, the lyrics?  The Bible, obviously, in parts.

Who saw the fences falling  Who broke the ploughman’s bread Who heard the winter calling
Who wore the tailors thread  How many sheaves were counted How did the carriage shine
How many thoughts were doubted  How did the landlord dine  Just as you sow you shall reap

Watson:  It was one of the first things that Stuart and I recorded.  It was a demo.  It was the formula for Big Country.  We would write the music first and then it was like an instrumental.  Then Sutart would take the cassette of the music home and the next day he’d come back with lyrics.

http://vimeo.com/53115963

PJ: The lyrical poetry extends to describing almost an Everyman’s existence in industrial Scotland.  But unlike other attempts at describing this life, Big Country’s version has no complaint. The folks go about their lives, in the mines, in the factories, they work hard, this is just who they are. Were these cultural references around you to see, or did they come from what Stuart was reading? For example, “Close Action” talks of stokers sweating.

A score of years this line has run/ Above the crests that drown the sun/ A mile high the turbines turned/ The stokers sweat the monkeys burned/ I will carry you home/ With the gods in my eyes/ I will carry you home/ While the westerlies sigh/ The continents will fly apart/ The oceans scream and never part

Watson: Oh, it was all around us. We grew up in a very industrial area of Scotland.  My father was a coal miner.  I worked in the docks.  We saw these things.  The songs are about everyday life.  Some of them are about everyday love.

PJ: What of all this poetry put to music?  You’ve heard how The Edge eulogized Stuart Adamson when he died in 2001, saying Big Country wrote the songs U2 wished they could write.  Do you know that quote?

Watson: Oh yes, its a beautiful thing to say. The lyrics were absolutely fantastic. See, in the 1970s, a lot of the songs being written were written by songwriters instead of singers. But then more bands started doing more of their own material. In the 1980s it just sort of exploded with people writing their own stuff instead of using the formula that had been used.

PJ: When did you first realize Big Country was going to be big? When did you feel the rush of knowing all the work and sweat and dreams  were coming true?

Watson: When the second single [“Fields of Fire“] got in the top 20 and we did Top of the Pops and the album went to #4 in the charts.  I’ll always remember when it got played on Radio One.

PJ: And Big Country did five nights at Wembley Arena?

Watson: With The Jam.  It was a big change. We had been touring and we’d been playing pubs.  Then there were these nights at Wembley with The Jam — we got asked to do that.  That was the start of it.

PJ: Lead singer Stuart Adamson committed suicide in Hawaii in December 2001.  Ian Grant said that he had a very hard time with success.  Why did it take 20 years after success for that to happen?

Watson: Stuart was just never comfortable with success.  It was something that he wanted.  Then when he got it, it was hard. He wanted to be private, go to his room and hide.  Some people thrive on that.  I wasn’t the focal point in the band. They tended to want to court him more.  They wanted to have him on TV.  He was never comfortable with that.

PJ: Mike Peters of The Alarm was singing with the band. Will he be back?

Watson: No — definitely not.  We got a new vocalist with Simon Hough.

PJ: Any hopes or plans to play back in the USA?

Watson: We’d love to.  Maybe next year. We are currently writing a new album.