How we made: Big Country on Chance | Music

Bruce Watson, guitarist and songwriter

I knew [singer/guitarist] Stuart Adamson when he was in Skids and I was in the Delinquents and all the bands in Dunfermline used to rehearse in stables next to each other. When Skids were doing their third album he said to me: “Wouldn’t it be great to do a twin guitar thing?” I thought he was just being nice. Then after Skids split he knocked on my door and said: “Remember that conversation? Do you still want to do it?”

The first Big Country lineup got on a tour with Alice Cooper, which was a crazy mistake. The crowd were throwing bottles of piss at us and all sorts, so we were pulled off the tour. Our rhythm section were really good musicians, but for some reason it wasn’t gelling. Our manager had seen Tony Butler [bass] and Mark Brzezicki [drums] playing with Pete Townshend. They were basically a rhythm section for hire, so we got them to play on some of our demos and thought: “This would be a great band.” We persuaded them to join us and it clicked.

The checked or tartan shirts idea came from Bruce Springsteen. American working guys wore them – plus you could buy them cheap at Millets! The plan was for a twin guitar band that wouldn’t sound like Thin Lizzy or Status Quo, so we avoided playing blues licks. We played a lot of drone strings, so people said “the guitars sound like bagpipes”.

Chance started out as an idea I put down on a four-track recorder. Stuart came up with the chorus and the lyrics, which were always fantastic. The music was usually really uplifting but there was a lot of tragedy in Stuart’s lyrics. Chance is almost a kitchen sink drama.

Some nights we’d go off stage and the audience would just start singing the chorus – “Oh Lord, where did the feeling go?” They wouldn’t stop, so you’d go back on and play along with them. I still dream about Stuart [the singer killed himself in 2001]. Chance can move you to tears, especially that line. I try not to think about it too much on stage when I’m playing it now, otherwise I’d just break down.

Tony Butler, bass and backing vocals

I wanted Mark and I to be the Sly and Robbie of Soho, but Big Country’s manager asked us if we wanted to have a play with these guys from Scotland. We got together and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying – but it was a great band to play in. Live it was fun from start to finish, and the songs were dynamic enough to keep an atmosphere going for ages. Being a black British West Indian, I like music to move in a certain way and that was an attraction to Stuart. Mark and I made the music swing.

Initially, Stuart wasn’t a very good singer. He’d always been a sideman – whether to Richard Jobson in Skids or whoever – but he was writing songs and wanted to be the person singing them. [Producer] Steve Lillywhite put a lot of work in with Stuart helping him to find his own voice and bridge from being a guitarist to a singer-guitarist-frontman.

Bagpipe guitars … Tony Butler, Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki and Bruce Watson in Munich in 1984.
Bagpipe guitars … Tony Butler, Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki and Bruce Watson in Munich in 1984. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

Stuart was well read but he didn’t have to look too far for inspiration. Chance is about a situation he would have encountered many times in a small town in Scotland: woman gets married young, has two sons, guy leaves and suddenly she’s a single parent. She fell for the first guy who treated her well – “He came like a hero from the factory floor” – and there’s that hint of violence, or at least rejection in her childhood, with “your father’s hand that always seemed like a fist”.

Stuart did something very special with the chorus. He wasn’t religious, but he used “Oh Lord” in the sense that someone might scream out “Oh Jesus Christ” when something goes wrong.

I got to know Stuart as well as he wanted me to. He was at pains to let people understand that he was a normal guy from a small town and that he wasn’t anything special or a “spokesperson for a generation”. He followed football, sat in the pub, kept himself to himself and didn’t talk about his feelings. Strapping his guitar on was the only thing that made him different, but in his songs he was able to articulate ordinary people’s lives and that connected.

  • Vinyl reissues of Big Country’s first live album Without the Aid of a Safety Net and sixth album The Buffalo Skinners are out now. The current lineup – featuring Bruce Watson and Mark Brzezicki – are touring the UK until June.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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