When Big Country leader Stuart Adamson and guitarist Bruce Watson returned to their hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, after the band’s successful tour of Japan last year, the talk in the local pubs had turned from soccer scores to more serious matters. Factories were shutting down and friends had lost their jobs in the dockyards. The working-class area, already socked hard by soaring unemployment, had been strongly affected by the British miners’ strike. Adamson and Watson were shocked to find boxes set out in pubs and stores for contributions to the miners’ suffering families.
Knocking back Heinekens with Watson in their record company’s Manhattan offices, Adamson is affable and open, with a boyish sense of humor. He reserves his anger for his songwriting. On Big Country’s 1983 debut album, The Crossing, he aired his concern with a poetic fervor, etching images of useless wars and personal victories in hard rock. But while English hit singles piled up for the band and sales of The Crossing hit 600,000 in America, things got worse in Dunfermline. The economic plight of Adamson’s hometown and his neighbors’ emotional heroism served as the inspiration for the songs on Steeltown, the group’s second album.
“People weren’t expecting us to make a record like this,” Adamson confesses. “They were expecting a rehashed Crossing.” Where the first record was contagiously anthemic, a righteous call to rock & roll battle, Steeltown confronts sobering reality with those bristling dual guitars vacuum-packed in a gulping echo by producer Steve Lillywhite, Adamson’s passionate vocals fighting to be heard over the angry din. He is a defiant lyricist, tilting at Reagan’s windmill in “Flame of the West” and rendering true stories like the shuttering of the entire British factory town of Corby in “Steeltown” in journalistic black and white. Although Steeltown entered the British charts at Number One, the record hasn’t cracked the Top Fifty in this country.
“It’s a sad indication of the state of the other music around us that what we do is too real,” Adamson, 26, snaps. “Popular music can never be valid and worthwhile unless it reflects the environment that it comes from. I think it should be more like folk music in that I can talk about these situations with people, that I can specify events. Music of any kind should be a working, living, breathing part of a community, something that is everyday and completely natural for people to think and feel about, not something that is tied up in a fantasy-island world of sex and drugs and fast cars. That, to me, is all the bullshit of modern music, the distance that it has from being valid, of being a genuine part of life.”
Personal experience has fueled the band’s anger. Adamson’s own father, who worked as a miner and a trawler fisherman and spent fifteen years in night school to become a marine engineer, had been out of work for a year when this interview took place. “The Great Divide,” a song describing the delicate, dangerous balance between unions and management, was inspired by a friend who was employed at the same dockyard where Bruce Watson used to work.
“He was talking about going on strike because the government was going to sell the yard off and have it privatized,” Adamson explains. “The bosses were trying to persuade the men that even though 2,000 men would have to be laid off, it would mean a more secure future for the men who would still be working. It was unbelievable.”
Had it not been for music, Stuart Adamson might have ended up sweating about his dockyard job or cursing the end of his steel-town future. Late-Seventies punk, he says, “was an attitude toward music in which you could play and sing the way you wanted to.” Which is precisely what he did on three albums with key Scottish punkers the Skids, with whom he first developed the ice-pick guitar harmonics and hearty bagpipe swirl that were to be such a crucial influence on U2 guitarist the Edge.
“I was going to leave the group after the first album, because I hated the music business totally,” Adamson says, chuckling at his naiveté. “I hated having people produce records; I couldn’t see that as a working thing at all. I didn’t realize it was just the guy producing that I didn’t get along with.”
Watson, 23, discovered the joys of punk at about the same time, playing in a band that included Adamson’s brother-in-law and, for a brief time, one of the Skids’ old drummers. “Bruce’s band used to use our old practice place for rehearsing,” Adamson explains. “Rick [Skids vocalist Richard Jobson] had left some lyrics lying about, and he” — pointing comically at Watson — “nicked them.”
“Because I can’t write lyrics,” Watson confesses. “And I’d found these lying on the floor. So I stole them and used them for our songs.”
Adamson formed an early version of Big Country with Watson in Dunfermline in 1981 and recruited bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki, both top London session players, within a year. The crusader complex in his songwriting, evident in such early British singles as the frenzied anti-Falklands War blast “Fields of Fire,” was probably hereditary; his grandfather founded the Communist party in the Scottish county of Fife. However, Adamson has since discovered that, as a forum for social and political argument, pop music isn’t all it could be.
The group, for example, declined to participate in a major London concert last fall to benefit the striking miners because Watson’s father, a miner, insisted the miners in Scotland would not actually receive financial aid from the show. When Adamson later saw the reviews from the concert, he felt even more justified. “They treated it as just another gig. Wham! miming along to their backing tracks — it was a complete farce.” Adds Watson testily, “These people treated it like another fashion. Before, it was hip to play for Rock against Racism. Now it’s hip to play miners’ benefit gigs.”
Instead, Big Country agreed to participate in an anti-heroin campaign. Adamson and Watson posed for publicity photos in Frankie-style T-shirts with slogans like “Heroin is a life sentence.” The band would have worn the shirts during an appearance on Top of the Pops, the weekly British pop TV show, had it not been for paranoid BBC authorities. “The problem was,” Watson says weakly in their defense, “when I was wearing my guitar with it, the shirt looked like it said ‘Heroin is life.’ “
Adamson doesn’t kid himself that playing in a rock band, no matter how successful, will significantly improve the world his young son Callum (and the second child that’s on the way) will grow up in. “I’d like to think you can touch people and make them understand about things they may not have thought about before. But I don’t think what I do has the capacity for basic political change. The world Callum is going to grow up in will be built by the Thatchers and Reagans of this world,” he says with a shiver.
In March, Big Country will be spreading its message during a four-week tour of the United States. Adamson is proud that they’ve thrived, without sacrificing their ideals, in a business that often does not tolerate such behavior, or at best ignores it. “Yeah, it’s good, innit?” he boasts. “I think it’s good that guys like us can come from the area that we do, do things the way we want to do them and still be seen with a measure of respect by people who are involved in one of the biggest businesses in the world.”
And even for a down-to-earth band like Big Country, pop stardom does have its advantages. “My sister and her friends were comin’ back from holiday,” Adamson explains, “and they said, ‘Agh, it was great. We were telling everybody we came from Dunfermline and we knew the guys in Big Country.’ That was it — they’d go out on weekends and have no trouble getting fixed up with dates.”