Listen to this track of anthemic proportions, from “big” music proponents from Fife – Big Country. It’s their sole North American hit, the almost self-referential “In A Big Country” as taken from their 1983 album The Crossing.
The song was a smash radio single from a band with an impressive output, none of which had any impact on North American radio waves but for this one song. But, what a song! A tune that fuses folk-influences with big pop choruses and post-punk textures, too.
This tune seemed to come out of nowhere, with the curious addition of guitars that sounded similar to a legion of bagpipers, catching everyone’s attention. But, this tradition of pop music had been well-established in Europe, with U2, and the Alarm scoring success with audiences there, using this same approach of Celtic folk approach filtered through rock presentation.
This was the band’s first album, helmed by Steve Lilywhite, who also had worked with u2, with this song instantly capturing the imaginations of top 40 listeners. Yet, this would be a bright light that was soon to go out for the band, maybe because of the very reason that this song garnered attention in the first place. They were looked upon as a novelty in North America.
It didn’t matter what the rest of the record sounded like – in this case, substantially realized rock music that expanded well beyond the success of the single. This song defined the band on North American rock radio in 1983. This is the supreme irony of ‘making it’ it seems to me. You want your song to stand out. You want it to capture a signature sound. But, even with these achievements in place, you still need momentum. That first song has to be big, but not so big that it creates a shadow too large for the next single you put out. It was the trap of the one-hit wonder, in the days when radio really mattered.
The band put out a number of albums, and were a successful touring band in Europe, aware of their status as “one-hit wonders” where North American audiences were concerned. U2 were ultimately the darlings of this sort of sound, also with a distinctive guitar sound, and sweeping, anthemic choruses. Who knows what drives the forces of success when it comes to pop music? Perhaps U2 were able to tap into that vital momentum referred to earlier, where Big Country were not.
Where the band scored modest success with subsequent releases, and opened for huge stadium acts in The Who and The Rolling Stones, by the late ’90s, they fizzled out. A farewell gig in 2000 closed off a period of diminishing sales returns on the band’s releases from the beginning of the ’90s onward. Plagued by long-term alcoholism, and depression, frontman and guitarist Stuart Adamson committed suicide in December of 2001. Despite a tragic denouement, to me this song is an amazing testament to Adamson’s talent, and to the achievement of a band who were able to craft a unique sound. It’s a huge, a glorious slab of electrified folk-rock at a time when nothing else sounded like this one top 40 radio. It marked a time when you could be pleasantly surprised by radio hits like this one.
It immortalizes the band for fans of anthemic rock music of any era.
A reformed Big Country, with Mike Peters of the Alarm added to the line-up, will be playing this year’s Isle of Wight Festival. Check the Isle of Wight 2011 lineup June 10, 11, and 12 to see who else is on the bill.