Big Country show their Steeltown mettle – the Bruce Watson interview

10009315_714201701961679_1233763750436338762_nBe honest. What do you think of if someone mentions Big Country?

The band that is, not the 1958 Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons film success based on Donald Hamilton’s novel, with that fantastically-evocative and stirring musical score.

Do you think 1980s’ stadium rock, gingham shirts and a strong Scottish identity?

Well, surviving member Bruce Watson can put us right on a bit of that, and it’s worth noting that while they made four albums in the ’80s, they made another four in the decade that followed.

What’s more, since the tragic passing of original front-man and former Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson in late 2001, they’ve been playing regularly these last four years and released a ninth studio album.

Perhaps most startlingly, it’s the Scottish identity bit that Bruce takes me to task on, albeit in a friendly manner.

You see, Bruce – while he had moved to Fife by his third birthday – was born in Ontario, Canada.

Furthermore, of the original quartet, drummer and fellow stalwart Mark Brzezicki was born in Berkshire, Stuart was from Manchester, and bassist Tony Butler from London.

So if nothing else, I might have provided you with some good ammunition for a future pub quiz there.

As Bruce puts it, “We didn’t just see ourselves as a Scottish band, and none of us were born there anyway. We were just a band.

“It was more a press angle. You wouldn’t say Mott the Hoople or Def Leppard were English bands. We’re just a rock band.”

10406458_661158467266003_3005931025864662636_nBruce moved to Dunfermline in 1963, leaving on the Queen Mary the same day John F. Kennedy was shot.

Seeing as his band had a reputation for evoking the spirit of bagpipes, fiddles and other traditional Caledonian instruments though, I asked if he grew up with Scottish folk music.

“Not really, more rock music, mostly The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.”

As it turns out, Bruce only started playing guitar when he was around 14, and it took a while to come together.

“I wanted to be a football player, but when I discovered I was no good I wanted to learn guitar after seeing films like Tommy, Stardust and all that.

“That’s what made me want to do it, seeing David Essex eyeing up that red guitar in the window. It was like, ’I want that!’

That was the iconic scene that bridged the gap between 1973’s That’ll Be the Day and 1974’s Stardust, but did the reality turn out more like the more gritty 1975 Slade film Flame?

“Well, that was a good movie as well, and I thought Don Powell was excellent in that.”

Was it always inevitable from there that playing guitar would lead to something?

“It was just something I wanted to do so badly.”

Dunfermline Days: The Skids, with Stuart Adamson second from the right

Dunfermline Days: Skids, with Stuart Adamson second from the right

Stuart Adamson was three years older than Bruce, and saw success first with Richard Jobson in new wave outfit Skids, another Dunfermline-based band.

“I met Stuart in around 1977 when I started putting my band together. My best friend, Raymond, who I’d known since primary school, had an older sister who was going out with Stuart at the time, and they later married.”

Was there a healthy scene in Dunfermline back then?

“Dunfermline was a hot bed for music! In the street I lived, next door was Manny Charlton from Nazareth, and next street down was Skids drummer Mike Baillie.

“You had two options for work. You worked down the pit or down the dockyard. I worked in the dockyard and there must have been 10 bands that came out of there.

“I was there about three and a half years, working on submarines, before I went full-time with the band.”

Did that job sharpen your resolve to get away?

“Not really. It was just part of your upbringing. My father worked in the pit, and they had so many accidents down there, he said, ‘You don’t want to go there’. The docks were a better option.”

Thankfully, Bruce soon carved out his own career, and fast forward to 2014, Big Country are back, touring with their latest line-up, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their second album, Steeltown, playing it in its entirety each night.

Big_Country_-_SteeltownDoes it seem like it’s been 30 years since Steeltown?

“No, it doesn’t. Funnily enough, we did a gig last night, playing Steeltown for the first time since, a free warm-up show at Keystreet, Clitheroe, a music bar where we’d rehearsed the past couple of days.

“We invited fans along, playing as Men of Steel, and around 200 people turned up!”

Hang on, did he say Clitheroe? Yes, the band may be forever identified with Scotland the Brave, but their current base is in Lancashire.

So, just a few weeks after the ‘no’ vote tipped the Scottish referendum, Big Country are based in an area which remains at the geographical heart of the United Kingdom.

“We don’t live in Clitheroe, but we’re here most of the time working, the most central point in the UK. Get a map of Britain and you’ll see for yourself!”

Of course, it helps that the band’s manager, Pete Barton, lives in the town, and with band members in London and north of the border, it’s proved a perfect base.

Steeltown marked a happy time for the band, coming after the success of debut album The Crossing and their third top-10 hit, Wonderland.

The title track was written about Corby, the Northamptonshire town which attracted a significant influx of Scottish workers when its steelworks opened in the mid-1930s, but was facing major unemployment issues by the early ‘80s.

Steeltown proved to be Big Country’s sole No.1, and spawned three more top-30 singles, and was – like their debut LP – produced by Steve Lillywhite.

“It was very strange, because Steve was working with so many bands at the time, and took a year out for tax purposes. So we went to Stockholm to record at Abba’s Polar Studios.

“That was absolutely amazing, and we got to see Benny and Bjorn, who were there planning their musical, Chess.

Apart from alphabetically, I don’t suppose too many people would have put Abba and Big Country too close to each other.

“Not really, but it was an interesting time, albeit in an expensive city. You wouldn’t want to go there for a party, that’s for sure.”

Wonder Days: The original line-up, from  left - Tony Butler, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki and Stuart Adamson

Wonder Days: The original line-up, from left – Tony Butler, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki and Stuart Adamson

The album went straight to the top of the charts, and it seemed like Big Country were at the top of their game.

“True. And you don’t expect things like that. But when it happens it is quite nice, and it’s life-changing.”

They even played a part in the original Band Aid project, soon after the album came out, although a busy European touring schedule limited them to recording a message for the b-side.

Has Bruce a favourite Big Country recording after all these years?

“I’m still drawn towards the Wonderland 12”, which came after The Crossing and before Steeltown. That kind of worked.

“We had to go away to tour America after recording the song, and Steve Lillywhite mixed it without the band being present.”

You’ve quite a long tour up to Christmas. I’m guessing you still get a buzz out of playing live.

“Definitely. This is our second lease of life. We didn’t do it for a lot of years. After Stuart passed away, nothing happened. Now, we’re out there doing it, and it’s good.”

By the late ‘90s, the album sales were suffering and Stuart was suffering with alcoholism and depression.

The band had a Final Fling farewell tour in 2000, but remained adamant they would return.

1972304_625680920813758_1070099452_nAs it turned out, they played later that year in Kuala Lumpur, but Stuart’s problems continued and in December 2001 he was found dead in a hotel room in Hawaii.

Was there ever a sense of foreboding about what was to happen?

“Not really. The band used to break up every year or so. Like any band, where you’ve had enough and just want to take a break from it.

“We broke up at that stage, but as it turned out we got back together about a month later to do some gigs in Malaysia. And we were intending to carry on.”

Were you still in touch with Stuart at the end?

“Oh yeah. He was out in Nashville, but we’d phone each other and talk a lot.”

I guess that devastating loss must have made you re-evaluate just what was important.

“Kind of. You just don’t know what’s around the corner, and make every day count.”

The current Big Country line-up consists of Bruce (guitar/vocals) and his 25-year-old son Jamie Watson (guitar), founder member Mark Brzezicki on drums, former Simple Minds and Propaganda bass player Derek Forbes, and vocalist Simon Hough.

Is it nice to be playing with your lad?

“It’s great, and Jimmy’s been in the band since we started back up in 2007, initially when I got a call from Richard Jobson putting the Skids back together.

“U2 and Green Day got to together to record The Saints Are Coming. I think that was the catalyst for Richard to call me.

“Jamie was involved as well, and we felt if we could get the Skids back together we could do the same with Big Country.”

Did Jamie grow up hearing a lot of his dad’s band?

“He knew all that stuff. I’ve two sons, and while my oldest isn’t interested in music, which is great, with Jamie, from the moment he was born he fell in love it all, and it seems he’s always had a guitar around his neck.”

Family Way: Bruce and Jamie in live action with Big Country

Family Way: guitar duo Bruce Watson and his son Jamie Watson in live action with Big Country

Does he play like you?

“He’s totally different from me. He’s more a technical player. Like myself, he was heavily into the Beatles, but also all the contemporary stuff from over the years.”

Can his old man still embarrass him on the road?

“Oh … easily!”

On the band’s last tour, The Alarm’s front-man Mike Peters was the lead singer. Is it a little different with Simon Hough now?

“Simon’s done a lot of session work in the past, with the likes of Denny Laine. When we were working with Mike, we changed the key of the songs to suit his voice.

“He also brought his own thing to the table. With Simon it’s very much doing the songs exactly as they were done back in the day, and how it sounded on the record.

“It’s going to happen in any occupation where you’ve got one guy doing two things. It’s going to come to a head at some point.

“And last year, Mike told us he was going to have to take a year away from Big Country to do his own 30th anniversary albums!

“That was fine, but we couldn’t just sit on our bums for a year, so had to go out and find another vocalist. There’s certainly not been any fall-out though.”

Between commitments, Mark has played drums for Bruce Foxton and From the Jam. But I always got the feeling, despite his full commitment, that Big Country remained his top priority.

In fact, the drumming on Senses of Summer, the last song on Bruce Foxton’s comeback album, Back in the Room, seems to suggest something of an amalgam of Big Country and The Jam.

“Really? I’ll have to have a listen.”

10295736_658547474193769_8726595812681789272_n

Stepping Up: The new line-up. From the left: Simon Hough, Derek Forbes, Mark Brzezicki, Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson

And then there’s Derek Forbes on bass, replacing founder member Tony Butler.

“Tony retired from music around a year and a half ago, and teaches music in a college in Cornwall …”

I was aware of that, actually, as my Bude-based nephew, Dexter Wyatt, has enjoyed the benefits of Tony’s tutorial experience at Petroc College.

“Ah, brilliant! Well, when Tony left, I’d worked with Derek previously, so he was our first port of call. He was working with his ex-band members from Simple Minds but looking to do something else.

”We’d always kept in touch, so he came on board. So even though Mark and I are original members, we’ve three more guys in the band now, and it’s fresh.”

While the band’s commercial success dwindled throughout the 80s, they retained a loyal fan-base, paving the way for their later reformation.

What can we expect when we come along to The Muni Theatre in Colne (this Friday, October 10) or any of the dates that follow?

“The set will be split into two 45-minute halves, just like a game of football, with the Steeltown album followed by songs from the back-catalogue.

“Back then of course, we were limited to vinyl or cassette formats, and because of that we were limited to around 40 minutes or so.”

Personally, I prefer those days, when you’d have a fifth or sixth track that would sign you off before the second side of the record.

“And then you turn over – exactly! That’s what we did last night. After five songs I said that.

“All you really need is the sound of a needle going on to the vinyl, then you can go on to side two!”

1908072_704943299554186_3988669027947201360_nFor full details of Big Country’s Steeltown 30th anniversary tour, the newly-released deluxe edition of the album, and all the latest from the band, head here.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on October 9th, 2014. For the original online version, head here

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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One Response to Big Country show their Steeltown mettle – the Bruce Watson interview

  1. Pingback: Dreams stay with you – in conversation with Mark Brzezicki | writewyattuk

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