Big Country – ‘Steeltown’: Round 90 – Rob’s choice

steeltown-5320afbac36d4The theme warped a little even as Tom was trying to explain it. Bring something you owned before age 18. Bring something that you owned before you started to think music was cool. Bring a record from your childhood.

I think I know what he was getting at. Records that you bought and loved before you were conscious of the fact that the records you declared love for might be considered to say something about you and who you thought you were. I decided, therefore, to restrict myself to records I owned before I left school at 16. Between 16 and 18 I bought so much stuff that it would hardly be respecting the spirit of the theme to consider most of them, and at some point between those two ages, I definitely began to consider which records I was seen walking around with, which I lent in the common room.

Like a lot of you I’m sure, I can remember where I was and what I was up to when I bought many of my records, particularly those earliest ones. And so I also liked the idea of using these divining powers to lay my hands on my record collection and pull out the ones I knew I owned before I left school, effectively recreating the record collection I had at age 16. So I did, and it runs to no more than 25 albums, closing, I think, with Joy Division’s ‘Closer’, somewhat appropriately.

When it came to what to bring to the meeting, and knowing what Tom was after, there were only two or three records that were genuine contenders, and those narrowed down to one pretty quickly. The first record I ever bought was ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ by Adam and the Ants (as an aside, not only was this my first ever record, it was also alphabetically the first in my collection for 35 years, up until last month when I finally picked up a second hand copy of ‘Lexicon of Love’ by ABC). I’ve already played this at DRC. Next I fell for Frankie Goes To Hollywood and, much as I would relish the opportunity to unfurl surely the biggest gatefold glans in rock history for the boys at Record Club, sadly ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’, like it’s cartoon phallus, is just too long.

After Frankie I found – I think in this order – Big Country and then U2. The two bands seemed to me to be linked somehow at that point, perhaps as fellow Celtic descendants of shared punk and rock ancestors. I had the first five U2 albums but fell terminally out of love with them after seeing them play live on the Joshua Tree tour in June 1987. Even as a 16 year old thrilled by the scale of the event, there seemed something empty about the overall experience of what I had accepted was ‘the best live rock band in the world’. As a direct result of my disillusionment they remain the only band whose records I have ever sold on. Only ‘Boy’ remains in my collection. It’s only the last few years that I’ve regretted it and then very rarely. If anything my general feelings towards U2 have only chilled further, but I would still like to spin ‘War’ and particularly ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ another couple of times, for old times sake.

And so to Big Country. The process was, as I remember it, that I heard ‘Where The Rose Is Sown’ on the evening radio show that Timmy Mallett (for it is he) used to host on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester during the early 80s. I have a fairly clear, and probably unwittingly fabricated, memory of standing in my bedroom in the midst of some sort of fugue of brotherly mucking about, and stopping to listen to this brooding, stormy, military stomp coming from my clock radio. I was baffled, intrigued, and beguiled by it. Like so much of my favourite music, my initial encounter left me concerned and disturbed. Something about Stuart Adamson’s brutish open-throated moan, and the line ‘If I die in a combat zone, box me up and send me home’ seemed to immediately connect me to whole worlds I never knew existed and which I wasn’t sure I wanted to see. I was 13.

I got the album, not sure where from, maybe Tesco, knowing very little about the band and less about what to expect from the record. It was a lurch into the unknown, but one that it felt like I needed to take. Ultimately, spending time in ‘Steeltown’ further extended my growing realisation that music could shift me into completely new temporal and mental spaces. Here were sounds and shapes and characters and places and situations I had never encountered or considered before. Tellingly, in hindsight at least, here also was music that none of my friends knew anything about (although it turns out that ‘Steeltown’ was a number 1 album in the UK – I had no idea), and so began, in some small way, a lifelong quest to find music that would surprise and shock and perplex and be different.

I remember feeling so strongly that this strange, other place, embodied by the browns, purples and oranges of the soviet-style cover art, was somewhere I could reach, even though it didn’t sound like a particularly fun place to be. Here were abandoned wives, disenfranchised foundry men, conscripted soldiers in foxholes, a population mourning across the full gamete of loss. I found the sound incredible too. Energetic, dark, intoxicating, anthemic, strange and foreign. Clattering drums and shattering guitars and Adamson’s other-worldly voice all being driven along with insistent force.

And then, after the next album ’The Seer’, I moved on. Public Image Limited became The Fall became The Smiths became Joy Division and by the time I left school Big Country had become music that I used to listen to in the past. Whereas I could always stand up Frankie and Adam and the Ants as great, culture-defining pop music, Big Country seemed to be music that belonged in the attic of my personal past. I went back there every so often, maybe once every ten years, and usually with the patronising air of a tourist visiting a deprived country just to remind himself how much better he’s doing. How quaint this music that I used to enjoy!

All of which is to say that ‘Steeltown’ was the inevitable choice for this theme and now, having listened to it a dozen or so times over the last couple of weeks, I’m through the nostalgia and out the other side and into a rousing, inventive and distinctive rock record. It’s just as I remembered it, except, having listened past all the associations it has with my proto-teenage self, the years have not dulled it as I assumed they would. It’s a full and rollicking set, cut through with a darkness of tone that is enough to take the edge off the occasionally blunt songwriting.

The whole of the first side is pretty fantastic, high-reaching, energetic rock. The band seemed to understand that you could write songs and create albums about personal and communal desolation without having to make your music sound gloomy and dour. Instead ‘Steeltown’ swirls and chimes with the sounds of the land that created it. Mark Brzezicki’s militarily-minded drumming keeps the whole thing marching whilst Adamson’s guitar skirls and echoes in an almost shoe-gazing invocation of the bagpipes. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it seems arguable to me that what Big Country were doing when they created a form which blended contemporary rock with the sounds and textures of traditional Scottish music, deserved to be considered in the same light as the far more lauded efforts that Fairport Convention made to cross-breed rock with English folk.

And so there you have it. When the proposed theme began to morph from ‘Records You Liked Before You Knew What Was Cool’ into ‘Records You Liked When Your Cement Was Still Wet’, I should have swerved to XTC or Dexy’s or Madness or Human League or skipped forward to the impressions that really seemed to have shaped everything I’ve listened to since, see references above. Big Country were a first love, but one that I’d moved on from, one I actually forget when people ask me what bands got me started. However, it seemed right to go back to them, if only to revisit the flimsy favourites of youth. I was prepared to be embarrassed at DRC in the name of thematic honesty. Little did I suspect that the record would lose its surface covering of childhood memory and would begin to sing again in a different, perhaps even better way. It turns out that either I had amazing taste even as a 13-year old, or alternatively, that unbeknownst to me for all these years, Big Country have been mixed throughout the very cement that my foundations are cast in.

U2 Afterword: I’ve just had a brief listen back to ‘War’ for the first time in decades and within seconds it becomes annoyingly overwrought. Good grief Bono is a self-impressed vocalist, and with him helming, the whole thing is just so pompously over-inflated. Neither ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ nor ‘New Years Day’, both essentially fine, sharp post-punk rock tracks, can hold Bono back for more than 15 seconds before he barges in with an unnecessary ‘yeah!’ the only purpose of which is to declare, “I am here, listen to me”.

Stuart Adamson, by contrast, is a vocalist with a heavy and distinct style, but who uses it to serve the song. Fair enough, he doesn’t have the classical, physical strength of Bono as a singer, but sometimes singing is about what you don’t do, and what Adamson doesn’t do, Bono can’t stop himself from doing. Where Bono let’s fly constantly with the ‘oooooooh ooh oooooh’s, Adamson’s additional vocal touches run to the occasional ‘chk!’ sound, coming over like the noise of a man gasping for air amidst powerful emotional undercurrents.

When Stuart Adamson died The Edge gave a eulogy at his funeral, declaring that, “Big Country wrote the songs U2 wished they had.” He was right, and so was I.

Steve’s comment: I must say that before our meeting I would have put myself in the anti-Big Country camp. Following a listen to ‘Steeltown’ I was amazed at the richness and texture of the songs and was also inspired by the idea of taking Scottish folk and turning it into rock – almost the equivalent of roots based blues into rock & roll. At times the music did sound like a form rabble-rousing, a call to arms if it were. I will have to give it more of a listen since there seemed to be a lot in there that a first run would not pick up. The influences of Big Country on modern groups like Glasvegas seemed quite strong to me.

I have to agree with Rob on U2 though. I have never been a fan and even the early stuff grates on me. It is Bono to be honest. His vocal strainings and rock star pomposity come over all to early on in their career. Like he was trying too hard.

Tom listened: The stars aligned here – Rob’s offering contrasting starkly with Graham’s (thankfully) brief U2 interlude. The two groups stand comparison because they cover the same sort of ground (and were doing so at roughly the same time) and, despite not being a million miles apart musically, couldn’t be more different in almost every other way. Just goes to show how pivotal the frontman is, not just as an influence on the way the band sounds but, possibly more importantly, the way they make you feel.

Adamson sounds completely unpretentious throughout Steeltown. The instrumentation was a bit of an onslaught and, as a result, at times it was hard to see the melodies etched (scoured?) into the sonic barrage (my favourite song on a first listen was the last song on side 1 – it had a bit more space to it as it lilted in a vaguely folky way) but I would take a hundred listens of Steeltown (in fact that would probably be quite enjoyable) over spending another 4 minutes in the presence of bloody Sunday Bloody Sunday!

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