“In A Big Country, dreams stay with you, like a lover’s voice across the mountainside…“, lines to a song that was essential listening between me and my friends in the early 80s. Big Country’s debut album The Crossing opened with this joyful number, a song that spoke of the band and their country’s history. In 1984, they were to release Steeltown, an album which was to raise their political arm, speaking of the demise of the Steel indudustry in the 70s. But why was this so important? In the 30s steel became a big commodity and thousands of Scotts headed to the steelworks in Corby in search of work and a new life in these steel mills in Northamptonshire. In 1993, the band brought their telling of this to the Corby Festival Hall and this was a time when I was lucky enough to meet with Stewart and the band. Although the steel industry was well on the way to decline, the connection between the band and town was forged, even though this had been the case many years earlier. Almost nine years later Stuart Adamson was found dead in his hotel room in Honolulu. It’s said that the band’s longevity was because they lived separate lives, but at the same time, Adamson’s state of mind might have been identified before it was too late. However you choose to look at this situation, he left a fantastic legacy. The band still performs in a rejuvenated lineup of original members Mark Brzezicki and Bruce Watson, but with Jamie Watson on guitars, Scott Whitley on bass, and Simon Hough taking the role of vocals, guitar & harmonica.
Some consider Big Country to be the “…most underrated band in the entire history of music…” and I wouldn’t question this statement, but if you have any misgivings, I would direct you toward this new release by Cherry Red. Out Beyond The River…. It is both an audio and video set that might have those disbelievers reconsider their thoughts, and allow the fans to revel in these sights and sounds. My initial thought on pressing play and hearing the first track ‘Alone‘, was just what an impact it has. The Buffalo Skinners is a restored version of ’93’s recording. An album 10 years after their debut and following support the band gave to Robbie Williams in 1992. Following these shows, they were picked up again by Chris Biggs, the man who had given them their start 10 years earlier. It is reported that Biggs had commented on having seen them this time around, that “I went to see the band on the last tour, and thought they were better now than when I first signed them“. Praise indeed, but the fans knew this anyway. This remastered version of the album includes additional tracks, with demo versions and mixes put in place of those originally used and you might be surprised at how well this stands against the original. An excellent album’s worth of content & as I sit here in our existing economic climate it’s surprising just how political Adamson’s songwriting was. I’ve already raised the subject of Steeltown and the band’s connection with the town of Corby in particular (although I do concede that this wasn’t the only Steeltown in Britain), but the song ‘I Know we’re not in Kansas‘ (originally heard on 1991s No Place Like Home) still seems fitting, “…What did you learn at home today? Did you learn to hate in the proper way? Did your liberated parents patronise your friends. ‘Cause they had enough money, ’cause they had the right skin…“. With what’s happening in America today, it seems these lessons may never be learned and certainly suggests that The Buffalo Skinners (or No Place Like Home in its original form) deserves more attention today, more than ever. A recording of ‘Ships’ was included on the original album, which was also lifted from No Place Like Home, the remaining 13 tracks were original recordings.
Continuing this remastered demo version, disc two shows more B-sides, bonus tracks, and rarities. Kicking off with a recording of the band performing Neil Young‘s ‘Rockin’ In The Free World‘ this seems a tune whose message many might learn from today. A pretty awesome version of the track, but working with such a palette is a good start. A song that is younger than you might think, clocking in at almost 30 years, this has been covered dozens of times by many since its release by Young in 1989, including Young revisiting this himself in 1991 with Pearl Jam. Adamson’s vocal seems ideal in this reworking and the band’s solid backing gives it a feel that it was heaven-sent. An air of 1960s is lent to the band’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock‘, stepping down a gear this number speaks of a more gentle life, although written by Mitchell about an event that she hadn’t appeared at, only having learned about the festival from her then-boyfriend Graham Nash, albeit other versions of the story do exist. She had gone through a “born-again Christian trip“, leaning on God to help her write the song. A very good version it is, although some might consider this hippy trip, not quite what Big Country usually do best and by the time Peter Green‘s ‘Oh Well‘ and the Blue Oyster Cult‘s ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper‘ follow, we’re back on track. With further performances of Bowie‘s ‘Cracked Actor‘ and Black Sabbath‘s ‘Paranoid‘, a version I think would give even Ozzy Osbourne chills on a good day. Further versions of the band’s catalogue are included, reaffirming the message, if it were needed, of just how unique a songwriter Stuart Adamson was.
Disc three continues in the form of The Buffalo Skinners Demos, I’ve mentioned how well I feel the demo versions of these songs stand up against those put forward for official release and I will reiterate this fact. I much prefer this third disc, to that of those originally released. I find those mixed versions a little tiring. I’m glad they let this out of the cellars and let the album breathe in the form of this release. Disc four is something a little different. Without the Aid of a Safety Net, is the band recorded live at Glasgow Barrowlands. This was earlier released in the form of CD and audio cassette, as well as DVD, also included here. A 25 track set, across the following 2 CDs of the band live and acoustic (well in-part), kicking off this audio set with ‘Harvest Home‘ from their debut The Crossing and continuing through a greatest hits of the bands material, including a cover of Smokey Robinson‘s Tracks of My Tears and culminating with a number I feel invested in, my birthplace being the town I mentioned this was about, the track Steeltown. Then continuing on the fifth CD through a further greatest hits, but this time including those early numbers the band made their name performing, ‘Wonderland‘, ‘In A Big Country‘, ending in ‘Fields Of Fire‘. The 17 track DVD completes this set, with a very good visual record of this concert, performed at the Barrowlands Ballroom, on the 29th December 1993, a concert that has been described as “Big Country at their best. Honest, thoughtful Rock, played with passion and a conscious avoidance of frills or poses.“. Not to mention at times with a fair amount of tongue in cheek offered during the performance. So for fans of the band another piece to fit to the jigsaw and for those interested voyeurs, this might prove an entrance to a band, who might very well be one of the “…most underrated band‘s in the entire history of music…“.