Thursday, April 9, 2009

Random Release: In a Big Decade

Ah, the 80s, part joke, part heartfelt nostalgia; they were a decade that saw the remnants of punk, the death of classic rock, birthed hardcore, new wave, synth pop, modern rap, hair metal, boy bands, slick R&B and set the foundations for alternative music to stick its head into the mainstream and have it subsequently lopped off. When one thinks of this decade, they’re almost always drawn to the early to mid portion, the gummy-glam styles of spiked, multi-colored hair, mismatched clothes, vibrant attitudes and immense musical sounds. Compilations of hit 80s songs, some bigger than others, have been hitting the stores since the early 90s, filling us with a sense of nostalgia even before the final fumes of the potion had worn off. And what’s really interesting to me about the 80s -- the icy, synth sound, heavy danceable beats and quirky, fun sing-a-long choruses -- is that a vast majority of them were essentially one hit wonders, proof that the times were of the moment, for as long as it took a 45 record to spin off the grooves before interest waned and refocused on the next big thing.

And while there were definitely some superstar bands that churned out multiple hits, it wasn’t so much a decade of albums and it was of singles. I honestly can’t think of one seminal album (and please speak up if you can) that speaks for the decade of lip gloss, jelly bracelets and bright bandanas, that sums up in ten songs and just over half an hour, everything that was “new wave.” And I suppose part of that is because like with all musical genres, new wave had definite variations. Duran Duran was not Tears for Fears was not Eurythmics was not Modern English, and yet it’s likely that most fans of the movement celebrated most if not all these bands. And yes, these bands all put out wonderful, cohesive, groundbreaking and even long lasting albums – Rio, Songs from the Big Chair (a possible exception now that I think about it), Sweet Dreams, After the Snow – but none of them really stand out now as “speaking for a decade” like say Sgt Peppers, Are You Experienced or My Generation does for the 60s, or Dark Side of the Moon, Rumors or Bat out of Hell does for the 70s.

Yes, there were HUGE albums in the 80s: 1984, Born in the USA, Synchronicity and let us not forget the almighty Thriller. But all of these acts were artists unto themselves, not part of any movement or so far removed from where they had come that they set a strata all their own. And no, I’ve not forgotten bands like REM, U2, B-52s and the Cure living in cult stardom, putting out record after record of fantastic music, but again, their "big" time was yet to come and even if it did occur in the 80s, it was later on, after the glitz had begun to fade and more “roots” oriented music was coming back into play.

Of all the one hit wonders and of all the bands who wanted to be so much, to speak for a generation, to produce that one album that yelled (or rather yelped): We ARE the 80s, none to my mind is more prominent or evident than Big Country. They’ll be remembered as a band simply because their only massive hit (in the US at least) was essentially the same name. In a Big Country is one of those ridiculously infectious songs that makes you want to jump up and dance and wave your hands and conquer mountains and scream, “I am alive!” And really, the same can be said for their debut (and arguably greatest album), The Crossing, a collection of guitar driven, drum heavy anthems led by the emotively plaintive vocals of guitarist and principle songwriter Stuart Adamson.

And what is truly unique and innovative (which is what so much of the 80s/new wave was supposed to be about) was that while they were by all means a rock outfit, they approached the music in their own way. Masters of the e-bow and running their guitars through specialized FX processors, they were able to recreate the sounds of the bagpipes and fiddles that represented their home base of Scotland. This is evident on virtually every track on The Crossing, a series of straightforward songs lyrically bent on turmoil both within and without and reflected in the desperate urgency of the music. This is probably best represented in the second track, Inwards, where Adamson sings of paranoia in a time when a person isn’t safe with differing views even within their own home. And the pattern pretty much follows true going forward, from the tribal drum and screeching guitar intro of 1000 Stars to the chugging home through diversity rant Fields of Fire. The one exception, in beat, and most obvious of their Scottish influences is The Storm, a six plus minute dirge to unwarranted destruction, most frantically accented by a triplicate bass line. This album almost loses itself to the fact that the lead track, single and best-known song is so great, but honestly, the rest of these songs may slightly shudder but in no way bend or break beneath In a Big Country’s heavy-handed glory.

The minor flaws in The Crossing are simply due to the telltale glassy production (by Steve Lillywhite) of the era in which it was bred, bombastic drums that nearly overpower everything else and a shimmering coat of luster to make these otherwise gritty songs that much easier to swallow on the radio. Unfortunately this album was Big Country’s only hurrah in the States, and while they did well for a time in Europe, an attempt to regain their momentum back in the US by abandoning their signature sound pretty much derailed the group creatively and critically and they were relegated to a second tier act even on the European market by the 90s. This and alcohol abuse all took its toll on the emotional Adamson (who at one time in the mid 90s lived in Nashville) and in late 2001 he took his own life at a hotel in Hawaii after having disappeared from fans and friends for several months.

In the heraldic traditions of U2 and The Alarm, Big Country brought their own brand of heartfelt, all-hands-up-in-the-arena rock, and yet because of their one hit wonder status they’re forever another token 80s act. Honestly, this suits them just as well, but in all fairness, The Crossing deserves a bit more respect to a wider audience than just the curious (like me) or the die hard believers that are apparently out there.

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