[sic] Magazine

Big Country – The Crossing (1983)

Come up screaming

Before we get into anything else, The Crossing is a terrifically playable record. The guitars alone are an absolute joy. Musically it is that perfect blend of competence and naivety. Thematically it is practically a hymn sheet to a romanticised Scotland, which probably never existed at any point in history. I’m not even Scottish but listening to The Crossing makes me yearn for that land in a way no other record has. The album is rife with non sequiturs in fact. Song lyrics are routinely suggestive of honest, working toil, misguided relationships, honour, struggle and worries. Yet Stuart Adamson and his fledgling band make those things sound enviable and even heroic.

The Crossing was a zeitgeist album at the time despite not really fitting with its era and thus exhibits qualities of timelessness. When I first heard The Crossing it quickly became my favourite ‘complete’ album. Having grown up on new wave (singles) acts and graduated to post-punk I wasn’t too familiar with records which were glorious from start to finish. I have never been a believer in perfection but The Crossing comes mightily close. Structurally it makes total sense. Four terrific singles are sequenced cleverly to bait and then hook the listener. The rest is more than fleshed out by album tracks that either intrigue or dazzle. Even the two vinyl ‘sides’ (important back in 1983) made sequential sense. Starting, as it does with MTV breakthrough hit ‘In A Big Country’ and already aware of UK singles ‘Fields Of Fire’ and ‘Harvest Home’, one could easily be forgiven for assuming the ‘album tracks’ might provide little more than filler. This is belied immediately by the brilliance of ‘Inwards’. A young, teenaged ‘me’ simply couldn’t comprehend how the song between ‘In A Big Country’ and ‘Chance’ was somehow better than either. ‘Inwards’ is urgent, joyous even. Guitars duel – Adamson sounds invincible. However a careful listen to the lyrics reveals the songs darker side.

“The light in the window has burned its fuse”

Then ‘Chance’. How my father loved this song, always pausing at my bedroom doorway to listen. He didn’t like much of my stuff, bless the old fella, but he was right about this one. ‘Chance’ is almost shocking in its maturity, a devastatingly sad tale of un-planned pregnancy and settling down for all the wrong reasons. ‘Chance’ would grace any songwriter’s back catalogue.

“He came like a hero from the Factory Floor
With the sun and the moon his gifts”
But the only son you ever saw
Were the two he left you with”

After that astonishing opening salvo the rest continues in much the same vein. We have the two well-known, agricultural anthems ‘Fields Of Fire’ and ‘Harvest Home’ providing accessibility. The former riffs off The Clash, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ (rips off?) and gave the band their UK breakthrough. Elsewhere progressive behemoths ‘The Storm’ and ‘Porrohman’ provide epic conclusions to each vinyl side. As for the tracks between, you’ve guessed it; they’re up there with ‘Inwards’. Personally I prefer the album tracks to the singles.

The Crossing was the debut long player of Big Country, but actually the fourth album in the career of leader and frontman Stuart Adamson. Prior to this Adamson had founded Dunfermline punk outfit The Skids with whom he recorded three out of four albums before leaving due to the ubiquitous musical differences, chiefly with Skids frontman Richard Jobson. Adamson had been dubbed the “Scottish Hendrix” by John Peel and his distinctive guitar sound can be heard even in The Skids’ earliest material. I often wonder if The Crossing was actually the culmination of Adamson’s hitherto vetoed ideas whilst still in The Skids. In all likelihood it was, but we can only speculate. What is clear is that while Jobson harboured increasingly ‘art-rock’ ambitions, Adamson was yearning toward the fresher, wide open spaces of his native homeland. As such there’s a sense of freedom and honesty running throughout The Crossing and indeed all of Big Country until Adamson’s untimely death in 2001.

Stuart Adamson formed Big Country with second guitarist Bruce Watson, and the pair gave the outfit their distinctive ‘wailing’ guitar sound. The band was then augmented into the classic four piece with two session musicians identified by the label. Though Tony Butler and Mark Brzezicki would become integral pieces of the Big Country jigsaw, it was the guitars upon which press and public began to fixate. Remember this was an era of noodly synth acts and burgeoning new romanticism. As such Big Country’s heartfelt swell packed an emotive punch. Together with a handful of other acts, most notably the fledgling U2, they created what became known as the ‘big sound’. Theirs were unabashed anthems, eschewing the UK scene’s aloof coolness in favour of a more American influenced rock. Yet, one of the great things about The Crossing (as well as some of the other ‘peer’ band records of that time) is that it captures the band pre-arena sized and their anthemic rock was still recognisably ‘British Isles’.

One can only speculate as to why Big Country failed (commercially). Several factors were at play. Chief among which …fashion. Big Country’s famous lumberjack shirts were out of fashion almost as quickly as they were in, yet the band held firm, rendering the quartet slightly ridiculous in the eyes of the media and the easily led youth. Worse still was the reaction of Adamson when a critic likened Big Country’s guitar sound to bagpipes. Adamson bristled at this, becoming overly defensive to the point of denial. He should have shrugged it off. Embraced it, even. Put simply, Big Country’s guitars sounded brilliant (I’m including the eBow into this discussion). They were, if we are being honest, reminiscent of bagpipes in the sense of their exhilarating wail. It is a sound that resurfaced on Editors‘ debut album The Back Room (Think ‘Munich’). Once Adamson had bitten, the critics took great delight in bringing the same subject up over and over, just to provoke a rise out of him. It was pathetic, yet strangely damaging.

And then there was Live Aid. Big Country had been invited but could not play due to another commitment. Instead it was U2 who blew worldwide audiences away and showed how their ‘big sound’ worked well in a big stadium environment. It was U2’s next album that cemented their place as the world’s biggest band. All that being said, there was no rivalry between Big Country and U2. Both band’s music had a lot of common ground and a mutual following. I do not think that Big Country shared U2’s planetary ambitions though. To make an example, Big Country could have made (and indeed did make) a kind of Rattle and Hum and it would have occurred naturally. They would never have made an Achtung Baby. However we paint it, U2 took their opportunity where Big Country were unable and the rest is history.

In all honesty The Crossing should have been in ‘Classics’ ages ago, but I procrastinated for far too long between this and Steeltown, Big Country’s oft-neglected second album. Steeltown never gets its due credit. It captures the band at its tightest and most focused. It also captures the band at the very moment they began to slide out of fashion with UK music press. One of the main reasons we created the Classic Albums Revisited section of the magazine was to shine a light on overlooked excellence. Steeltown more than fits that remit. Yet it would be perverse to include Steeltown at the expense of The Crossing. Whichever way this coin landed, one of these epic albums was going to be omitted. However one of them should have been granted ‘classic’ status years ago. My bad, as they say in modern parlance.

There are several versions of both including the 30th Anniversary edition of The Crossing, but it does not matter which one you pick up. The album is the album.