In this article series on music, I want to focus on great Scottish rock and pop bands. We begin with a focus on Big Country. Perhaps the best way to begin is with one of their most famous songs:
For me, the song In a Big Country evokes fond memories of times travelling in Scotland, most recently when staying in Kippen with long-lost friends.
Adamson was able to capture the highs and lows of the human soul in his lyrical expression and through the emotion which he captured in his songwriting.“ He had a heart as big as a mountain and he was a real romantic soul” as The Edge from U2 stated.
Speaking as a writer and musician myself, much of Big Country and Adamson’s music flows from a virtuoso lesson in the pentatonic scale, following the tradition of Scottish folk music. Many traditional Scottish folk songs are rooted in the pentatonic scale. For example Auld Lang Syne, Skye Boat Song and Mhairi’s Wedding and this may help to account for the resonance with Big Country’s music with more traditional folk roots.
Some of Adamson’s’s guitar lines are also reminiscent of the bagpipes and this gave the band a unique sound in rock music. If we do a quick dive into the ‘tech’ that he used to create this musical illusion, Adamson used an MXR pitch transposer. This added an extra octave to his notes, creating a shrill sound and giving the impression of bagpipes. He was also an exponent of the device known as an e-bow. The e-bow is essentially an electro-magnet which makes guitar strings act as if they are being bowed rather than struck, evoking the sound of a violin. The song In a Big Country offers a textbook example of these guitar treatments.
From punk to protest
Adamson’s mainstream music career began with punk/new wave band The Skids, a band he formed in Dunfermline with Richard Jobson in 1977. The Skids quickly signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin label and were not without controversy, due to Jobson’s fascination with politics and military history. The album Days In Europa saw Jobson in full flow with lyrical references to death, glory, gore and sacrifice. The song Dulce Et Decorum Est was inspired by a poem by Wilfred Owen, a young man who was forced by society and propaganda to fight in the trenches in World War I and died there – “ It is a sweet and glorious thing (to die for one’s country)” – Dulce Et Decorum Est, Wilfrid Owen.
By 1981, Adamson was ready to form his own band and Big Country was born, gaining acclaim from U2, with The Edge stating that Adamson had written the songs that he wished U2 could write. At one point, current SNP MP and former Runrig member Pete Wishart was in the band playing keyboards. “ Runrig were fascinated by Big Country’s sound and headhunted Wishart to be their keyboard player”– Interview with Pete Wishart.
Triumph and lament
Big Country’s first success came with Fields of Fire and was followed by a string of hits including In a Big Country, Wonderland and Look Away, the latter a number one hit in Ireland, with a Celtic pentatonic feel to it. The band had a ten year run of success, but the 1990s saw some of that success begin to fade. In 1999, Adamson released an album which he said he was very happy with, but sales did not come. He did, however, sell out Glasgow’s Barrowlands in 2000.
Sadly, Adamson’s last years were dogged by alcohol abuse, after he moved to Nashville in 1996. He passed away in Hawaii on 16 December 2001. He is believed to have died by suicide. Of course, it is impossible to know his reasoning for this desperate act, but his career had ten years of triumph and ten years of slow decline. His writing revealed a depth of thinking uncommon in the rock business and we will never know what happened, apart from feeling total sadness for his desperation.
Who holds the money, who holds the need
Who holds the strings of misery or the purse of greed
And the gunmen reap while the gangsters sow
And law is cheap when the smugglers go
(Give us peace) Give us peace in our time
(Give us peace) Give us peace in our time
“Peace in our time” – Big Country
Adamson’s lifelong musical inspiration, Bill Nelson, composed a tribute to him For Stuart, which Nelson performed at a concert in Adamson’s honour at Glasgow’s Barrowlands, alongside Midge Ure and members of U2. Nelson was the leader of Be-Bop Deluxe and Red Noise, and I’m honoured to have become friends with him over the years. He produced the Skids Days In Europa and Adamson was a massive Be-Bop Deluxe fan. Nelson and Adamson traded musical licks and are both master exponents of the pentatonic scale. You can hear many of Adamson’s musical ‘ornaments’ in Nelson’s tribute For Stuart, many of which Adamson borrowed from Nelson’s own output in the 1970s, in a kind of virtuous circle of ‘co-petition’. For Stuart is a chillingly beautiful piece of work and it is here for your pleasure.