Wednesday, July 27, 2005

No 7. Close Action - Big Country

What? I hear you universally say. I can guarantee that almost no one else has ever included this song on their top 10 list.

On the one hand are those who haven't heard much or anything of Big Country, or simply aren't fans of their music. To them, I can only repeat the strongly held belief of every true Big Country-ite: if you would only listen, not only would you become a convert, but the world would be a better place. Let me quote one fan, who does a better job than me at describing this conviction:

"I am torn between the frantic compulsion to track every one of you down and play [Big Country] for you, and the horrible, gnawing awareness that if I did, some of you still wouldn't be convinced. What a botched design-project people must be if these songs can make me feel this way, yet leave you untouched. If we don't share redemption this fundamental, no wonder we fight over abstractions like religions and copyright law. We invented guitars and drums, and somebody figured out how to coax these songs out of them. That should have been all we needed. Why does the planet still need saving? "

For those who need some background, Big Country, who released their debut album The Crossing in 1983, were often described alongside contemporaries U2 and Simple Minds as part of a new wave of Celtic rock, but their sound and style were truly unique. Driving rhythms were combined with soaring Celtic melodies from the twin lead guitars of Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson; the songs vignettes from Scottish history, yearning romantic ballads or lyrical elegies about industrial decay in Scotland and northern England.

The band made eight studio albums up until 1999, but it was during 1983-86 that all their classic stuff (three albums, an EP and a movie soundtrack) was produced. Since the age of fourteen, when I first heard them, I've probably listened more to Big Country than to any other artist. No other music has ever struck me so hard and so viscerally. You only need to read the reviews to see that there's plenty of others across the world who feel the same way.

But even among hard-core BC fans, my choice would probably raise quite a few eyebrows. What am I doing picking "Close Action", the rather obscure track 4 off The Crossing? The acknowledged classics include "In a Big Country" (the one that even non-fans know), "Wonderland", "Fields of Fire", "Chance", "Look Away" and "Just a Shadow". Skip to tier two, the much-loved album tracks that lend their names to fanatics' web sites, and it still doesn't get a look in. I can only conclude that I see something few others do.

Let me confess that I always intended to pick a Big Country song for this list as a representative of their entire work. There are several songs which have missed out on the top 10 which have probably grabbed me more in isolation than any one Big Country song--yet Big Country have been too important to me not to have a song on the list. Is that cheating? I did tell you there would be a range of criteria.

There's many special moments in the BC ouevre. "Where the Rose is Sown" has the most neckhair-raising guitar chorus you'll ever hear. "The Sailor" off The Seer is an awsome epic which turns a gentle mandolin ballad into a drum-crashing opus. "Look Away" is probably the best straight-ahead pop song the band did. "Steeltown" evokes the rise and fall of the working-class dream with a vivdness and economy of phrase which is worthy of good poetry:

All the landscape was the mill / Grim as the reaper with a heart like hell
With a river of bodies flowing with the bell / Here was a future for hands of skill

But none of them are quite right. It's long been a source of frustration to me that I've never found the perfect Big Country song--all my favourites have little flaws somewhere. Perhaps this is just from caring too much.

In the end, the one I keep coming back to, to remind myself of what I love about Big Country, is "Close Action". To be fair, it's a something of a dirge. But what an epic, romantic dirge it is. Crashing drums, two separate guitar solos which lift the song into a different key and off on a cinematic journey across the wild Scottish highlands. And Stuart Adamson's singing at its impassioned best.

Like many other songs on the Crossing, the lyrics are a little cryptic. The first verse prefigures the more specific tales of industrial decay to feature on Steeltown, while the next two have mysterious references to sirens wailing and lovers waiting. There's no mistaking the chorus, however :

I will carry you home with the gods in my eyes
I will carry you home while the westerlies sigh

I reckon there's something uniquely Scottish about this. It partakes of the same fierce, yearning romanticism which is subtly different from the more mischievous, ironic Irish, and is exemplified in folk tunes like "Wild Mountain Thyme" and "Amazing Grace" (the bapipe tune, subtract the flaky religious lyrics which were added later). Big Country's music affected me in the same way as those tunes--with a chill down the spine and a twist in the pit of the stomach that I can only speculate is due to something passed down through the blood.

To anybody moved by the optimism of Big Country's best music, it remains tragically inexplicable that Stuart Adamson chose to take his life in a hotel room in Hawaii in 2003. The songs live on.

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Cecilia said...

Another excellent choice, Simon, though it must have been tough to pick just one Big Country song. My favorite line is

A mile high the turbines turn
The stokers sweat, the monkeys burn

Great alliteration and a fine example of Big Country´s roots and identification with the workers and laborers.

After Stuart Adamson commited suicide, I couldn´t listen to Big Country for a good year as it felt too close to home and like all the songs were now tainted. How could the same man who gave us rousing lines like:

The shining eye will never cry
The beating heart will never die

then go on to leave us all behind in a drunken haze of despair in a cheap hotel room. However, in the last year or so, I´ve loaded about 20 Big Country songs onto my iPod for whenever I´m in need of crashing drums and anthemic bagpipe guitars.

Anonymous said...

Love that song. I think it is only natural that a fan of the band would choose one of the more obscure jewels for a fave. Marvelous song, marvelous band. I've always been partial to The Sailor, another obscure song from the band.

Anonymous said...

My favs are Restless Natives(1985) and The Flame of the West(1984).
I have 29 BC songs in my laptop.