Men made in the crossing, their anthem rising over the highlands and drifting toward us on the same tide that brought the call and the alarm. Definitely one for the fresh new sounds of 1983, they made a fan of me in the moment I heard this song. The single version sounds like a different mix than the elpee version, smoother and shorter where the latter was edgy. You’d sell your soul (metaphorically speaking) to write a song like this, and for an instant it looked like they might make it big in this country. But Americans didn’t seem to be hungry for more, instead content to gnosh on an alternative sampler plate that included Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Split Enz, etc. If you tuned in for Wonderland and Steeltown, give yourself a gold star for loyalty. The B side is a nonalbum track, “All of Us,” that features the same idiosyncratic sound but in a less-pressurized setting. It was later added to the 1996 Mercury remaster.
A new band of heroes emerged in the early ‘80s whose music seemed to bristle against English rule (of the airwaves anyway) while championing the working-class struggle: U2, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Alarm, Big Country. The Crossing is a powerful debut, a call to arms and a call for change, led by the intoxicating “In A Big Country.” Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson both played the e-bow, an instrument that evoked their Scottish roots with its plaintive sound. Their music was instantly identifiable and, unfortunately, just as quickly pigeonholed by American listeners. Like the work of Echo & The Bunnymen, it takes a little while for Big Country’s songs to develop their own identities, and lazy ears might dismiss their albums as so much British brouhaha. However, at the core of The Crossing is plenty of talent and tunefulness, almost a cross between The Cure and U2. Producer Steve Lillywhite understood that even alternative rock could benefit from mainstream melodies, and you’ll find that logic behind tracks like “Chance” and “Close Action.” Yet it was the anthems that won them an audience, such as “Fields of Fire,” “Harvest Home” and “1000 Stars.” The image of fire appears throughout, as working-class people are driven from their homes, crossing into an uncertain future. In a sense, the music of Big Country embodies the relentless pursuit of hardships that its characters endure. America, the land of aspiring hedonists, didn’t share the band’s dour outlook and had little long-term use for songs about life’s struggles, while in the UK this message had particular resonance. Thus the music of Big Country was a reluctant export to the US, its ethnic ardor quickly filed under “quirky foreigners” and revived only when their famous four-minute rallying cry (“In A Big Country”) proved efficacious in a parade of ‘80s anthems. The Crossing is so much more than that, of course. It’s the ardent, uncompromising voice of youth and revolution, the Scottish voice that would not be subdued, a standard under which the meek shall inherit the earth. Unchained spirits will hear this in The Crossing, and realize that no country was big enough to contain such a significant talent.
The story of the EP (in which nearly nothing is learned of wonderland)… At the tony orlando and dawn of the ‘80s, music only existed in one of three forms: cassette, elpee or single. 8-tracks were dead, reel-to-reel was never alive. Each medium had its own consumer: elpees were for the connoisseurs, cassettes for the busy masses, singles for the fickle and financially timid. And each medium had its respective place in the store: elpees in long and labelled columns (vinyl people are very organized and delight in the tactile experience of touching album spines), cassettes in bland stacks with the label clearly identified (busy, busy, got it), singles in the front of the store (since you know they’re going to walk up to the counter and immediately ask where they can find the song “I Want Candy” or whatever’s on the radio that week, which allows the clerk to simply point to the display next to the counter). All of this to set the stage for the story of the EP. You see, an EP was actually an inflated single; intermediary product marketed as a mini-album that allowed record companies to reach their most loyal consumers (elpee buyers) in between albums. Vinyl enthusiasts would encounter these in their spiny travels with a giant sticker that said $4.99 or $5.99, almost half the price of an elpee. While EPs have added greatly to the work of discographers ever since, they haven’t accounted for much great music. Take Wonderland, for example. It’s only half new: “Wonderland” (in case you didn’t make the connection) and “All Fall Together.” The second side of Wonderland consists of two old (relatively speaking) B sides, “Angle Park” and “The Crossing” (which actually did not appear on the album of that name, in case you made the connection). They’re fine, insofar as any four songs from the band’s early albums burn with the same fire, but Wonderland the EP can’t hold company with The Crossing and Steeltown. It’s an appetizer, half of it made from leftovers. Steeltown, now that’s a meal.
Big Country’s second album turned out to be stronger than the first; by mid-album (“Come Back To Me”) it’ll give you chills. This is relentless, romantic, self-righteous rock and roll, just the sort of stuff from which legends are made. Or not. The album topped the UK charts, but Steeltown failed to produce a US single of the first’s magnitude (“In A Big Country”) and they were labeled here a one-hit wonder. Their sound is idiosyncratic, with the e-bows and impassioned vocals suggesting an ethnic U2, but after a few listens the songs of Steeltown reveal themselves: “Girl With Grey Eyes,” “East of Eden,” “Where The Rose Is Sown.” Sometimes an album is so strong that it can forge a lifetime of fealty, and Steeltown is that album for me. As much as I liked “In A Big Country” and their first record, it’s here that Stuart Adamson’s genius shines. Steve Lillywhite’s production is more sophisticated, the sounds richer, the material as principled as poetry of a high order. I always hear a theme on this album, like an English Steinbeck novel about a working-class people duped by the movers and shakers into a war they didn’t want. That theme falls apart some on the second side, but the music still stands tall. It’s clearly a fussed-over album with flawless arrangements, dazzling guitar textures and seamless shifts from verse to chorus. If I were making a shortlist of the best albums from 1984, Steeltown would be near the top (so would Echo’s Ocean Rain). Sadly, our heroes arrived in time for the brave new world and we let them slip away. The world needed more strong, brave voices like Big Country then as now, so if you missed Steeltown the first time, it’s worth revisiting.
The proper follow-up to Steeltown, The Seer featured a cleaner, crisper sound than earlier efforts. The material is outstanding (as always), the melodies more accessible, the Scottish self-identity still strong but not overpowering. Should’ve made them stars. Instead, The Seer performed only slightly better than their last album, leaving one to wonder what Big Country would have to do to re-ignite American interest. Song for song, The Seer is probably the best thing they’ve done. Their first two records were a little too self-important in spots, but The Seer moves beyond sloganeering to focus on the music. The lean production from Robin Millar tears away the wall of sound and puts the band’s appeal in better light: Stuart Adamson’s voice, the strong rhythms and melodic guitars shine. You could see The Seer as a commercial overture; certainly “One Great Thing” and “Hold The Heart” are more accessible than anything they’ve done so far. The knock on Big Country was the omnipresent e-bow; it made every song sound the same. Not so The Seer. The e-bow isn’t the story any more. It’s in how they change tempos, use different effects, add and subtract sounds sparingly. These aren’t four angry young men stormtrooping through their songbook behind a Scottish banner but four musicians who treat the muse more gently. I couldn’t tell you whether the change came from the band, the label or the producer. I can tell you that Peace In Our Time and this are of a piece in the exchange of the overarching e-bow for space. Steeltown was a difficult work but worth the effort. The Seer is an easier album to know. I warmed up to it almost immediately, and suspect a good half of this will go running through my head for the next few months. If the early stuff seemed heavy to you, seek The Seer and be enlightened.
Kronomyth 1.8: HEIRING AID. A year after Live Aid, Midge Ure and a smaller, star-studded cast returned to Wembley Arena to celebrate the 10th anniversary of (and raise money for) the Prince’s Trust Charity. This disc highlights the biggest stars from the concert, including bits by Ure, Dire Straits, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Sir Macca himself. As concert discs go, this one is pretty tepid; so was Live Aid for that matter. Performers don’t get a chance to set up the acoustics the way they’d like, they don’t get a chance to warm up, in some cases they’re playing with ad hoc bands (albeit with very good players), all of it conspiring toward mediocrity. The sound engineering on this one isn’t particularly good either; a lot of sound seeps out and what remains sounds thin. So if you weren’t invited to the original party, Highlights is no magic ticket. Some of the performances are good, most of them fall flat. Honestly, if you’re interested in hearing an oldies revue like this, pick up one of Ringo’s All-Starr albums. Speaking of The Beatles, McCartney does a decent version of “Get Back” with Tina taking a few lines and a short, spirited revival of “Long Tall Sally.” (The elpee version featured a bonus single with Sally and I Saw Her Standing There.) As someone who still isn’t completely sold on the merits of live albums, I’m rarely charitably disposed to these save the worldwind tours. The Trust’s Tenth is a great cast for a good cause, but a good live album it isn’t.
On their fourth album, Peace In Our Time, Big Country toned down the e-bow attack and began playing songs that accentuated the guitar/bass/drums interplay that was always under the surface. Given how idiosyncratic the heroic e-bow guitars and Stuart Adamson’s passionate singing had become, Peace In Our Time sounded initially like Big Country was backing away from their own image, and maybe they were. Fist-clenched thunderbolts of fury are only sustainable for so long, and even fans would admit that playing everything like survival depended on it painted their songs in a draining sameness. There’s more “space” between the songs on Peace, which allows them to develop their own identities quickly: the war cry (“Peace In Our Time”), the sneaky sleeper (“Thousand Yard Stare”), the ballad (“Everything I Need”), and the little lump in the throat (“In This Place”). Lyrically, Adamson has less to say than The Crossing or Steeltown, or rather chooses to paint these sometimes painful vignettes in conversational language rather than the poetic sloganeering of old. The result is a more intimate album in some ways, though at the cost of fire. The quality of the material on this album (and the excess of material recorded during the same period) show that Big Country still had plenty of gas in their tank, but poor charting in the US suggested that the band’s fortunes were waning all the same. A kinder, gentler, more peaceful Big Country didn’t have the same place in the world as an angry Anglo novelty (“In A Big Country”), and American record companies resigned themselves to the fact that the band would always be something of an enigma to the big country across the ocean. Though they’d softened their attack, Peace In Our Time is hardly a dud, and fans should rally around it with time.