On the anniversary of the day Stuart Adamson died Dave Jennings pays a brief tribute to Big Country’s main man.
Everyone knows where they were when whatever happenedâ is a well-used phrase and in my case I know exactly where I was when I heard that Stuart Adamson had died on December 16th 2001.Iâd called home for literally 5 minutes before dashing to nursery to pick up my eighteen month old little boy and was listening to BBC news at 5pm when I heard the announcement. We knew he was missing and had seen the desperate appeals for information on the net. It didnât make it any easier to take in though. This was the guitar genius from The Skids who had led Big Country throughÂ from their birth in 1982 to the outstanding âDriving to Damascusâ in 1999 and had recently released âSupernaturalâ with his new band, The Raphaels . A man whose musical potential seemed limitless yet, like so many before him, was now eternally silent far too soon.
Stuartâs work in Dunfermlineâs post-punk pioneers The Skids, helped to engineer a distinctive sound whose legacy has yet to be fully evaluated and certainly gave notice that here was a guitarist with an extraordinary talent.
The classic Big Country line-up came together in 1982 and released what is seen by many as their definitive album, âThe Crossingâ in 1983. The âdifficult second albumâ, âSteeltownâ, went straight in at Number 1 and the band went on to achieve huge commercial success over the following years. Record sales are irrelevant when considering the impact his work had on me and the purpose of this article is just to offer some personal thoughts on Stuart Adamson, rather than attempt to analyse his career. In doing so, itâs also important to remember those who worked with him in The Skids, Simpson, Jobson and Kellichan and in Big Country, Brzezicki, Butler and Watson who all played a part in delivering such distinctive sounds.
The first time I saw him live was on a Friday night during the Steeltown tour in a rammed Liverpool Royal Court (and anyone whoâs been there knows what I mean by rammed) in a gig that was interrupted by sound problems but was later described by Bruce Watson as the best the band had played to date. Adamson admitted on stage that he was driven on by the support of the crowd to pull the performance round and whenever I saw Big Country live after that, the audience and band would engage in a mutual exchange of energy to ensure live shows became more a celebration than mere gig. Itâs on stage that many will always remember him, whether itâs firing out riffs at will, conducting a mass sing along or charging across the stage and back along with Bruce and Tony. I saw Stuart Adamson play live many times but it was nowhere near enough.
Live performance was as essential to Stuart, who loved people coming together to share music, as it was to the fans but itâs the songs that live on. Stuart shared so many principles with a large amount of his audience that mattered then and still do today. He wrote of the destruction that was being visited on communities by the economic policies pursued by the Thatcher government. âSteeltownâ, Number 1 in the album charts in 1984 referred to the closure of the steelworks in Corby, Northamptonshire, and the desolation of the Scots who had moved down with the promise of a future. Also on that album is âFlame of the Westâ a response to President Reaganâs perceived aggressive nuclear stance and âWhere the Rose is sown/Come Back to Meâ which brutally summarise the realities of war from an individual perspective. Oh for a Number 1 album that says so much in these troubled times. As much as he despised oppression and the divisions created by governments, Stuart Adamson equally valued the loyalty and dignity of working communities and these ideals shine through in numerous tracks like âThe Stormâ, âWhat Are You Working For?â , âJust a Shadowâ and âWonderlandâ. He was equally adept at capturing individual strife in the likes of âCharlotteâ, âChanceâ and âSee Youâ. As Bruce Watson once said âStuart had this talent for harnessing a pop melody to lyrics which are quite darkâ. His desire to use music as a force for good is clearly summarised by 1988âs âPeace in Our Timeâ album and visit to Moscow. He was proud of being apparently the first non-government booked band to play a major concert in Moscow with a crowd who were free to attend and not invited by the state. The picture that accompanies this article shows him in Moscow interacting with the crowds and says so much about Stuart and his beliefs.
Two labels which were attached to Big Country which Iâm not sure they approved of were âCeltic Rockâ and âbagpipe guitarsâ. Any band that emerged from Wales, Scotland or Ireland at this time were likely to be dubbed âCelticâ as opposed to the âcockney-punkâ or âbrummie-metalâ that we never seemed to hear about. The reality was that all 4 members of Big Country were superb musicians who pioneered a new, guitar-based, sound and songs that were built around âonce heard never forgottenâ riffs and sing-along choruses. The songs were folk-influenced to the extent that Stuart wrote about people and the events that affected their communities. He was quite simply one of this countryâs greatest ever song-writers and guitar players and his passing left a gap in rock that can never be filled.
My eighteen month old is now nearly a teenager and (thankfully) a big guitar fan. He recently mentioned in passing his âfantasy bandâ line-up which included Keith Moon (drums), Paul McCartney (bass), Jimi Hendrix (guitar) and Stuart Adamson (vocals and guitar). Well, theyâll have to get a stand -in on bass for a while yet but, after the arguments over whoâs handling lead and rhythm duties are sorted, itâs nice to think of Stuart smiling out over a celestial mosh pit, before launching into the familiar riffs and shouting âFields of Fireâ.
Stuart, thanks for coming out and sharing those songs with us, you helped many be proud of who they are and what theyâre about, and remember, youâll always stay alive in our memory.
All words Dave Jennings. More articles by Dave can be read here. The photograph of Stuart Adamson was taken in Moscow in 1988 by Kari Kuukka & is reproduced by kind permission of Jamie Davidson.