Monday, August 29, 2011

Another Country

Those who know me and those who’ve prowled around my little corner of the web are no doubt aware that I have quite a passion for music and several artists in particular. I’m a big fan of Squeeze, New Order, Jethro Tull, a-ha, Midnight Oil, and others. And I like to keep up with newer music, too, and have recently become a fan of Florence & The Machine, Metric, and Foster the People, among others. But there is one band that — at least for me — stands at the pinnacle and has, since 1984 been my favorite band: Big Country.

By the summer of 1984, I was already a fan of Big Country and when I went away to be a summer camp counselor in Michigan, I took a cassette (remember those?) of the band’s first album The Crossing and follow-up EP Wonderland. Listening to those songs as I drove through old pine forests or sat by the lake or took walks along the beach elevated those songs — both words and music — to a special place in my heart. By the time the second album Steeltown came out later in 1984, Big Country had become my favorite band.

Through sheer happenstance, I discovered a record store (remember, this was before CDs…) near Northwestern’s campus that sold records imported from England (who knew…?). And then, I discovered that many bands like Big Country released singles (or 12” records) with songs not found on the albums. For a kid who grew up in Carmel, this was a whole new world. And, thus, over the next few years, part of my weekly routine was to stop by that store to see if they had anything new from Big Country (again, remember that this was all pre-Internet). Most weeks, the answer was “no” but every so often I’d find something new… I can still recall the excitement when I found a 12” single that had on its b-side half of the soundtrack that Big Country recorded for the film Restless Natives (which was only shown in art theaters here in the US). Until the moment that I found that record, I’d never heard of the movie, let alone had any idea that Big Country had recorded this long-form work. After that, it became a bit of a mission to find the other half of that soundtrack (and I was eventually successful).

As time went by, my passion for Big Country’s music didn’t wane, though like any band, new releases became a bit less frequent. But when a new record (or eventually these new-fangled things called CDs) were released, I would rarely listen to much of anything else for several days if not several weeks. And I remember that when I finally shelled out the cash for a CD player (man, they were expensive back then…), the first CD that I purchased was The Crossing. Unfortunately, very few of my friends showed any interest (let alone passion) for the band. My college girlfriend actually disliked Big Country. I still don’t think that I’ve forgiven her for that particular offense…

When I went on my first date with my wife, I happened to have The Crossing in my car’s cassette player (hey, it was a 1988 car, before CDs were standard issue…). Not only did she recognize the band, she said that she owned the album too. Now that was a relationship with potential, I realized (unfortunately, she’s now far too influenced by our pre-teen daughter and spends her music listening moments tuned to Radio Disney…).

Anyway, jump forward a few years to the early days of the web. One of the very first web searches that I can recall doing (in Yahoo or maybe Lycos or Alta Vista?) was for “Big Country”. And imagine my surprise to discover a web-based community of other Big Country fans. There may not have been any other huge fans near me, but through the marvels of the Internet, I could now communicate with fans from across the world. And communicate we did. On a Yahoo group mailing list (still in existence, though relatively quiet) and a smattering of web sites, we shared our passion for the band’s music.

I can remember discussions about rumored hard-to-find tracks. The efforts that we went through in the early days of MP3s to find and share the bits we could were a bit like a Da Vinci Code challenge. I can remember the excitement I felt when I received my first bootleg CD with several tracks that I’d only heard whispers about and which were not officially released until years later. And it was this fan community that pestered the record label repeatedly and mercilessly following the release of a series of remastered CDs in the mid-90s that omitted key and important tracks. Following those efforts, the first of what would eventually turn into a series of nine “rarities” CDs was released (the first of which included that entire soundtrack I mentioned earlier).

One project that arose from this web community became known as the Big Country Book of Lyrics. As I mentioned, Big Country released numerous b-sides (and eventually whole CDs worth of material that had not made it onto their studio albums). Because so many of Big Country’s songs had something to say (be it about politics, society, the environment, or history), deciphering the lyrics became important, but only the studio albums came with printed lyrics. And so the online community worked to try to figure out just what was being said (and what it might mean). The Book of Lyrics was originally compiled, designed, and hosted by Robert Oliver on his excellent Steeltown website. He continued to add to the Book of Lyrics as new releases and live recordings were made available. Eventually, though, Mr. Oliver stepped aside and I (perhaps foolishly) cajoled him into allowing me to take over the project. A year or so later (and after learning how to use Adobe PageMaker) the Big Country Book of Lyrics was reborn. The product of that work can still be found at my Big Country Book of Lyrics page.

Unfortunately, I have not updated the Book of Lyrics since 2007 (and haven’t updated the webpage since 2008); I keep promising to do so, but other things (most notably this blog) have become a larger focus of my time. Thankfully, another online friend and fan, John Gouveia, stepped in with an excellent online html version of the Book of Lyrics that he continues to update regularly. It has become my go-to source.

Big Country released their eighth and final studio album Driving to Damascus in the fall of 1999. I can still remember listening to it as I drove to and from the hospital where my wife was on bed rest for the latter stages of her pregnancy. And I remember listening to that album as I drove to the hospital before dawn after getting the call that her water had broken.

But as good as that album was, it passed by without being noticed by most of the world. And thus, the end of Big Country was in sight. In May 2000, they played their penultimate concert at their “home” venue in Scotland. And then the band members, Stuart Adamson (lead vocals and guitar), Bruce Watson (guitar), Tony Butler (bass), and Mark Brzezicki (drums) went their separate ways.

In December 2001, Adamson’s problems with alcohol caught up with him and he committed suicide in a Hawaiian hotel room.

I never did manage to see Big Country live. I had tickets to see them in early 1984 when they played in Indianapolis, but for the one and only time ever, my parents prohibited me from going to a concert (it was on a school night and I had a test the next day). For our honeymoon, my wife and I went to London. We had our fingers crossed that Big Country might be performing while we were there; alas, it turns out that they were in Chicago while we were in London. I finally had a chance to see Stuart Adamson perform with country artist Marcus Hummon in 1998 in Nashville, Tennessee. I even had a chance to get my picture taken with Adamson (sadly, the photo did not turn out well because the flash didn't work) and had him autograph a copy of the liner notes for the “Through a Big Country” Japanese box set (once a sort of Holy Grail of Big Country CDs). Adamson’s autograph can be seen on the Photo Gallery at my Big Country Book of Lyrics site (along with my name and my kids’ names in the liner notes of a Big Country single).

Though nominated for two Grammy awards, Big Country never achieved the sort of fame and popularity here that they did in the UK and Europe. Why did Big Country never make it big in the United States? I think it can be attributed to three things. First, I think that in the US, the word “country” in the name of the band acted as unfortunate misdirection. I suspect that lots of people presumed from that part of the name that the band was actually a country band. Second, I think that many people who’d only heard the song “In a Big Country” (you know, the song where the guitars sound a bit like bagpipes) thought that the song was some kind of novelty song and never looked past it to the band’s other work. And finally, I blame the movie “Against All Odds”. How’s that? That hugely popular movie spawned a best-selling soundtrack album that featured a chart-topping Phil Collins song. Big Country has a song on that soundtrack. The song was supposed to be “Chance”, one of the band’s best songs and an hugely evocative piece of music and storytelling. It remains one of the two or three songs played in almost every concert and often the fans will sing an extended chorus. But for some reason, at the last minute, “Chance” was replaced on the “Against All Odds” soundtrack by the song “Balcony”, one of the worst songs that Big Country ever recorded. (To be fair, the song can grow on you, especially if you focus on the story it tells of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, but I’m not sure how many listeners are willing to give it that kind of time and attention.) So the millions who bought and listened to that album were treated to probably the only Big Country song other than “In a Big Country” that they’d ever heard (or would ever hear) and it wasn’t a good song.

In the years following Adamson’s death, the band continued to release additional “rarities” and live material (predating Adamson’s death). Both Watson and Butler released solo material and each of the remaining members worked with other artists. Then in 2007, to celebrate Big Country’s 25th anniversary, Watson, Butler, and Brzezicki got together to play some live dates, Watson endeavoring to play both his and Adamson’s guitar parts (and if you’re familiar with Big Country’s music, you’ll recognize what a challenge that was) and Butler singing. They even released an EP with five new songs (though it wasn’t released under the name Big Country). And it’s not that the songs weren’t good … it’s just that something … or actually someone … was missing. I don’t think that any of the remaining band members would disagree with the statement that the loss of Adamson had left a huge hole in the center of the band. And so that EP came … and went.

In the year’s since Adamson’s death, we fans have sometimes fantasized about whether and, if so, who, could take the place behind the microphone for a Big Country revival. For a while, some suggested Adamson’s son or even his daughter. And a few other names were tossed about now and then. But the one name that was consistently mentioned as the only possible viable stand in (never replacement) for Adamson was Mike Peters.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Peters was the lead singer for the band The Alarm. They were another band that I was very fond of, though they never quite grabbed my attention in the way that Big Country did (though I have plenty of The Alarm’s CDs). Peters’ voice is not a clone of Adamson’s, but Peters does sing with the same kind of passion and emotion that was Adamson’s trademark. Moreover, much of Peters’ material tended to focus on issues and themes similar to so much of Big Country’s music. And, throughout the years, Peters and Big Country have been friends. In fact, during Peters’ occasional “Alarm-fest” fan gatherings, Watson would sometimes join him on stage for a set combining The Alarm’s material with Big Country songs. But having Mike Peters step on stage as a part of Big Country was just a fantasy…

Until late 2010, when Big Country announced a set of concert dates in the UK with Mike Peters as the new lead singer (and Watson’s son Jamie joining the band to play guitar with his dad). Those shows were sold out and as both fan and critical praise grew, the band added more and then more shows. And in each of those shows, the band has taken pains to honor Adamson, often leaving an empty microphone stand in the center of the stage.

And then earlier this summer, during one of those shows, the band played the brand new song “Another Country”. As of the time of this writing, they’ve debuted four new songs in their live shows (and yes, I have bootleg copies of those songs…) and Watson has stated that they have three additional songs written. So with the renewed energy from those live dates, Big Country went back into the studio earlier this summer. And joining them in the studio was legendary producer Steve Lillywhite who produced Big Country’s first two albums.

And so today marks the release (in the UK at least) of the first new Big Country single since 2000. My copy is in the mail.

Will this song put Big Country back on the charts? Will the song be enough to make people remember Big Country? Who knows. I do know that for the last week or so, “Another Country” has been at the top of Amazon.co.uk’s singles sales chart. And a concerted effort is underway to try to get UK radio stations to give the song some airplay.

In a few days (hopefully) my CD will arrive in the mail. And then I hope you’ll pardon me if I stop listening to NPR and MSNBC and, for a day or three, just let the sounds of my favorite band fill my commutes.

So now, without any further ado, here is Big Country with their new single “Another Country”.

Update (August 30, 2011): Cleaned up way too many typos.

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6 Comments:

At Sunday, September 04, 2011 2:18:00 PM , Blogger Jus said...

Nice article. i do have to say though, Balcony is one of my favourite Big Country songs. It's bloody genius!!

 
At Tuesday, September 06, 2011 4:55:00 PM , Blogger MSWallack said...

Really? Balcony? Um, OK. I mean it's not Eggplant ... but Balcony? I'm curious then, what about the song makes it one of your favorites? And what other songs would you rank as your favorites (and which do you like least)?

 
At Sunday, January 15, 2012 6:53:00 PM , Blogger Jus said...

Love the guitar sound. Interesting to hear keys in the mix. The added electronic drums in a very prominent fill is something you'd never hear again! The drama of the tune really gets me too. They're my fave of all time, 1982 - 1986 that is. Other faves...Tall ships go, Raindance, Inwards, Wonderland, Close Action, Look Away, rose is sown....every tune between 82 and 86.

 
At Monday, January 16, 2012 10:48:00 AM , Blogger MSWallack said...

Jus: By and large the early stuff is my favorite too, but I hope that you haven't missed Buffalo Skinners and Driving to Damascus. Some great songs. For that matter, Peace in Our Time, No Place Like Home, and Why the Long Face also have some really good stuff, too. And while I'm at it, I can't leave out the Rarities CDs. Too bad some of that material wasn't included on the albums.

 
At Friday, March 01, 2013 9:12:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well those BC boys are on their way over to play a North American tour, hopefully you get chance to finally see them.
And if ever you wish to part with any BC stuff do let me know. Stay Alive! Davy

 
At Saturday, March 02, 2013 10:39:00 AM , Blogger MSWallack said...

Anonymous: Rumor has it that they'll be playing Chicago, Detroit, and Columbus ... and I'm hoping to do a little road trip myself. And don't forget that the new CD ("The Journey") comes out in mid-April (yes, I've already pre-ordered) as does a limited edition vinyl 7" (again, already ordered).

 

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