Come Up Screaming
Big Country—big sound, big concepts and big guitars. It’s probably hard to imagine now, but when Big Country burst onto the British rock scene in 1982, it was indeed a breath of fresh air. Going against the grain of synth-pop and new wave, Big Country played intricate guitar rock, evoking the Highlands of Scotland with its ringing bagpipe mimicry and wearing its “common man” heart on its sleeve.
These qualities formed the basis for the huge success of the band’s 1983 debut album, The Crossing, a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Formed only two years before by ex-Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson, the line-up would be completed by the rhythm section of bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki. Butler and Brzezicki had previously played on Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass album and would be the perfect foil for the guitar histrionics of Adamson and Watson.
Sadly for the band, commercial acclaim would prove fleeting. Despite the British Top Ten achievement of stand-alone single “Wonderland”, the anticipated follow-up album Steeltown repeated the formula with lukewarm results and subsequent releases would yield diminishing returns.
Unsurprisingly, this new compilation concentrates mainly on The Crossing and its singles. On the breakthrough 45, “Fields of Fire (400 Miles)”, and on “In a Big Country”, the band’s identifying signature remains as invigorating as it was two decades ago. Brzezicki’s military rat-a-tat drumming plays as big a role in the overall impact as the ubiquitous and unique guitar stylings. The sense of idealism conveyed heightens the heady optimism in the face of adversity:
“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
400 miles without a word until you smile
400 miles on fields of fire”
Similarly, “In a Big Country” offers a word of encouragement in a celebratory anthem:
“I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert
But I can live and breathe
And see the sun in wintertime
In a big country dreams stay with you
Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside
“Chance”, the biggest hit single off The Crossing, is an affecting ballad (handled in the inimitable Big Country fashion) about the trials of a woman who pays the price for gambling on the wrong man to escape a hard life:
“All the rain came down On a cold new town As he carried you away From your father’s hand That always seemed like a fist Reaching out to make you pay”
“Now the skirts hang so heavy around your head
That you never knew you were young
Because you played chance with a lifetime’s romance
And the price was far too long”
Two singles from Steeltown are featured (“East of Eden” and “Where a Rose is Sown”), which despite the best intentions of the band are somewhat leaden. It seems ironic then that the singular majesty of “Just a Shadow” has been omitted. A Jimmy Iovine mix of b-side “All Fall Together” is included—presumably for serious collectors—and the album winds down somewhat after “Look Away”, a massive hit from the third album, The Seer, with its lesser singles “The Teacher” and “One Great Thing”.
You cannot go far wrong with this collection—it does, after all, contain all the early British hits of Big Country and it comes highly recommended to anyone who is interested in this intriguing group. If you like what you hear, however, you should pick up The Crossing to complete the picture.
// Notes from the Road
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