Remembrance Day

Over time I’ve noticed two types of bloggers: those who riff off other people’s entries to add their own experience, and those who avoid any subject riding high in Blogdex or raised by a big name. Actually, most of us do a bit of both, although individual styles can shift over time.

I used to do more riffing, but now I tend to wander the lonely path of the anti-zeitgeist. It has something to do with the phenomenon observed by Jill Walker of shutting up because someone else will say it anyway, or already has. It’s certainly affected my participation at MeFi, which was never enormous to start with; and over the past year or so it’s done the same here. Whenever one of my favourite bloggers writes about anything, I find myself unconsciously crossing the subject off my list—even though most of my favourite bloggers (and writers full-stop) aren’t “big names”. Perhaps it’s the academic training to seek the mythical “original contribution to knowledge”, or the cartoonist’s instinct to throw out a drawing when you learn the joke’s already been done. The trouble is, as I get to know more and more, the bar of originality gets higher and higher, and I find myself contributing less and less. It’s a habit I really should break, because my confidence is getting shot to hell.

Nowadays it seems that no subject is safe, not even the most private and obscure, as two links going around the traps demonstrated last week: Staggerin’ Dave Eggers wrote at Spin about his private obsession with a forgotten band; and the author of The War Against Silence, long identified with that same band, announced his retirement. That band happened to mean a lot to me, too, and now I’m faced with either shelving the memories Eggers and McDonald evoked, or breaking out of the ever-diminishing circle of originality and writing about them. For once, I’m going to escape from new yack.

Nineteen eighty three; what a year. The year I fell in love with popular music after resisting it throughout my early teens, and bought my first seven-inch singles: Midnight Oil’s “The Power and the Passion” and Falco’s “Der Kommissar”. By the end of it my experiments with the Top 40 were over; I’d discovered my first musical obsession and was about to discover my second. I swapped my LPs of Thriller and Fantastic with my brother (for what, I can’t remember), and my Purple Rain LP with his best friend—for a mere cassette, a definite step down on the music bartering scale, of an album which to my ears was a good two or three steps up: The Crossing by Big Country.

Big Country were riding high on the back of a video showing them riding around on quad-bikes, for a song named after the band itself (usually a sign of one-hit wonderness, which should have warned them). I liked that song well enough, but the album was so much more than its hit: full of epic, expansive tracks about storms and porroh men and fields of fire, it was a glimpse of another landscape, musical and physical. Its layers of guitars sounded like nothing else in the charts, not even the Irish band to whom they were always compared, and managed to evoke their homeland without using a single air-filled bladder. I listened to the tape again and again, savouring its ten album tracks and the four bonus ones (especially “Angle Park”) that made it worth getting over the LP.

Eggers writes well about the impression made by The Crossing on a certain kind of impressionable teenager; although, speaking of original contributions to knowledge, his (and my) comments about the music evoking the landscape really just reiterate what lead singer Stuart Adamson wrote in his liner notes to the 1996 CD re-issue (which includes “Angle Park”, and which you really, really should buy).

The second Big Country album, Steeltown, almost matched the first, although it was always blighted for me by the annoying hum running underneath the Australian cassette version (a problem fixed in the 1996 CD re-issue, which includes “Wonderland”, and which you really, really should swap your copy of Purple Rain for). A darker work full of the grit and grimness of life in Scotland’s industrial belt, it nevertheless had some outstanding, uplifting songs. I was sixteen when it came out, and not the happiest sixteen at that, and there were times when listening to Big Country was my only sure antidote to the teenage wasteland. Tasmania in mid-teen midwinter could be a gloomy place, but if these guys could survive the same in Scotland and come up screaming, so could I.

At the end of ’84 I bought my brother the Band-Aid single for Christmas, and listened in fascination to the roll-call b-side, where I heard Adamson speak for the first time. ’Hullo, thus us Bug Countreh.’ Hullo, thus us Bug Countreh. Hullo, thus us Bug Countreh. Little did I know that I was being prepared for not one but two accents I would one day be surrounded by.

A year later I was there, with my family, visiting Edinburgh and Stirling and then heading south to avoid one of the last bad winters before global warming kicked in. We didn’t get to Dunfermline, where Adamson came from, but I’m sure I thought about it. They were probably off performing somewhere though, as part of a constant touring schedule that took them everywhere from Glasgow to Glasnost-era Moscow.

They were a political band, Big Country—part of the Red Wedge, along with Billy Bragg—and like Bragg, the strains of national pride in their music were coupled with an anger at domestic injustice. By their third album, The Seer, they were looking outward at the injustices of the world. Adamson sang of the hope to see “One Great Thing” in his life—a time of peace—and the cover showed an American eagle over a ’50s-style picture of an atom, as unsubtle as it gets. Misleading, too, because of all their albums this was the most Scottish. The Seer went beyond the surface of Scotland’s natural and industrial landscapes and into the heart of its people—their legends and histories—and found a way of singing about them that could never end up as muzak on the Royal Mile. I wrote a review of it for the student mag at uni, an embarrassing apprentice work in hindsight, which thankfully they didn’t publish. But it was honest, even if it wasn’t that original:

It’s an album that takes a few listens to get into, but the end result is worth it. The Seer certainly deserves success, even though there’s only one song (“Hold the Heart”) that would sound appropriate in the top forty. Most of them would blow the average teenybopper away. Certainly those drums and Adamson’s sheee-ahs sound stronger and louder than some of the stuff that’s passed off as heavy metal these days.

I’ll always love The Crossing, but I might love The Seer even more. But how do you choose between the opening drums of “Look Away” and the first bars of “Fields of Fire”? There’s the best of the band in sixty seconds.

Big Country was the only band whose every single I bought for the b-sides, hunting down hidden gems like “All of Us” in Hobart’s second-hand record stores. Most of the world had forgotten them by now, though, even as they were recording some of their best work. Their next album, 1988’s Peace in Our Time (there’s that sentiment again), led with an unpromising single which sounded too much like the early ’80s hits of new producer Peter Wolf. But the album itself was great, full of fresh, bright songs which managed to sound like Big Country without sounding like the same ol’ Big Country. While the world sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, Adamson sang of rivers of hope and thousand-yard stares. He wanted us to be happy, but he didn’t pretend we’d get there with no worries.

And then... what?

The best-of a year later was the beginning of the long, drawn-out end. The album after that, 1991’s No Place Like Home, appeared on a new label, without the familiar band logo on the cover, with drummer Mark Brzezicki appearing only as “additional musician”, and with a blurb that said it was time to “move on” with “new vigour” to “new chapters”. It was a dispiriting work, with little of what had made Big Country distinctive. The band themselves must have been dissatisfied, because they remade two of the songs on the follow-up, The Buffalo Skinners. But that album—on yet another label—failed to recapture, for me, what had been lost. Reluctantly, I started to think of Big Country as back-thens, and to focus on new and more vigorous nows.

What happened? The usual bickerings and disillusionments, I suppose; but if I had to choose the real reason, I’d guess it was the one great thing. Nineteen eighty nine happened, and the fields of Adamson’s fire were swept clean. By the time No Place Like Home came out, the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were gone. Like another band on the other side of the world, Big Country lost much of their raison d’être in the ’90s.

They recaptured some of it a few years later, with Brzezicki back in the drummer’s seat, on 1995’s Why the Long Face? Still no match for their ’80s albums, and suffering from the CD syndrome of being three or four songs too long, it nonetheless showed real new vigour. But it appeared on yet another new label, and made little impact.

It was enough to revive my hopes, though, along with an excellent series of re-issues of their ’80s albums and b-sides by their original label. They can’t have sold well, because 1999’s Driving to Damascus (another solid work) appeared on the smallest label yet; for the first time, I had to order it over the internet. Big Country were playing out the sad song of a band in terminal decline; the world wasn’t listening, even if the fans still were. Adamson himself had moved to America to record country-tinged tunes with a new band, the Raphaels. Scotland, his strongest source of inspiration, was left behind.

Big Country, though, had left something of Scotland in all of their fans, a seed of inspiration that grew in unexpected places. Even now I wonder if they’re part of the reason I moved here. There were more obvious reasons, of course—a job offer, for one, and fond memories of previous visits—but they might not have taken root without that sixteen-year-old soil (with help from other Scottish bands old and new).

Is it that strange to think that music can uproot you from familiar landscapes and plant you in new ones? If I wasn’t a Split Enz fan, would I have fallen so completely in love with New Zealand? Did Midnight Oil make sense of the outback, so different from the part of Oz where I grew up? Are the Underground Lovers the real reason I love Melbourne? I don’t know, but if I visit Helsinki I’ll be humming Sibelius, and when I finally get down to Liverpool it’ll be because of the Beatles.

I probably hoped to see Big Country perform sometime after moving here; their last album was recent enough that there was a good chance of it. But that chance disappeared when I stepped off the plane from a Christmas trip to Canada and heard that Adamson had died—killed himself—while I was away. It affected me more than the death of George Harrison that same year, but I was too late for the eulogies that must have appeared in the local papers (even if no others), and had to dwell on the news alone. Well, almost alone.

December 2001 must have been a bad time for suicides, with all of us weighed down by the stormy world. A man who’d spent his life singing of peace in our time and rivers of hope must have felt the hopelessness even more. And knowing that his best music and his greatest success were behind him must have been hard. Maybe he was caught up in his own increasingly difficult search for the original contribution to knowledge, knowing that he’d lost what had made his music so original in the first place.

But fuck, mate. Who cares if the old songs were better than the new ones? It was good just having you here to sing them.

I’ve passed through Dunfermline plenty of times now—it’s just across the bridge—and nowadays I think of another musician when I hear its name, a friend who with any luck could make his own mark on Scotland’s rock history. But this country is still Big Country’s, even if it now belongs to Travis and Snow Patrol. I can hardly forget it, when one of the buses from work goes along Angle Park Terrace.

Last year we visited the highland games at Crieff with my brother and sister-in-law, and at the end of the day drove back through the golden landscape of Fife with The Crossing playing on the car stereo. That album will always be sixteen to me, a time in my life when Scotland was still an abstraction; but as we drove into Dunfermline on our way to the Forth Bridge, it felt like it was coming home.

The shining eye will never cry
The beating heart will never die
The house on fire holds no shame
I will be coming home again
Four hundred miles
Without a word until you smile
Four hundred miles
On fields of fire

Here’s what people said about this entry.

Big Country were a great band! They were huge when we were high school kids and you're so right about their first album. It's a classic Scottish record. We used to see Stuart Adamson walking through the Kingsgate shopping centre in Dunfermline which with hindsight is a bit of a surreal memory! He was always wearing a long leather trenchcoat and he seemed really tall but that might be an illusion due to the passage of time. He lived in the house directly opposite Andrew Carnegie's birthplace. Good to see they had an influence as far away as Tasmania!

By the way, The Skids used to practice in a wee hall next to Saline church (where I grew up)!

Added by Gareth on a Thursday in August.

Thanks, Gareth—or should I say, musical friend from Dunfermline... ;)

Andrew Carnegie had an influence on Tasmania too—he paid for Hobart’s public library, and thousands more around the world.

Added by Rory on a Thursday in August.

now that was just plain bloody brilliant, rory. hurry up and write a book :)

Added by shauny on a Thursday in August.

I always liked "Where the Rose is Sown."

Added by BT on a Saturday in August.

Having written all that I’ve (not surprisingly) gone back and listened to most of their albums again. I was probably a bit harsh on The Buffalo Skinners, which has some excellent tracks (‘All Go Together’ and ‘Alone’ in particular). A lot of fans do rate it as one of their favourites. But I miss Brzezicki’s drumming on it, and wouldn’t swap it for any of the first four. Besides, I can’t rewrite history; for whatever reason, it didn’t grab me when it first came out, and it’s rare the album you can warm to years later that you didn’t originally.

Added by Rory on a Saturday in August.

I should note: I’ve just learned that Snow Patrol are originally from Belfast, although they’re now based in Glasgow. Not actually Scottish, then, even if it can be easy to get the Scottish and Ulster accents confused.

Added by Rory on a Wednesday in September.