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Big Country - Without The Aid of a Safety Net
Big Country was the first band I ever saw live. It took a lot of cajoling and persuasion before my parents allowed me to head down to Ingleston, just outside Edinburgh with my then-boyfriend and two friends. I was sixteen and I still vividly remember that adventure.
And the gig itself. I was totally blown away. Live music was where it was at, I suddenly realised; the noise, the heat of the crowd, the pogo-ing....Trust my luck I lived in Inverness where there were no decent venues for live bands at that time!
I saw Big Country live on several subsequent occasions, and each time I was just as impressed as that very first time. I remember seeing them play at Legends, a small nightclub in Dingwall, north of Inverness, when the support band cancelled at the last minute. While the rest of the band went for their break, Stuart Adamson came back on to stage with his acoustic guitar and played a short set - just him, singing, on a chair with his guitar, and he was absolutely fantastic.
I could write an entire review on the genius and subsequent tragic death of Stuart Adamson, but that's for another day....may be.
And so to the album. Without The Aid of a Safety Net is, as you may have guessed, a live album, recorded in December 1993 at that most excellent of gigging venues, The Barrowlands in Glasgow. (If you have never been, you SO should - forget stadium venues, this is hot and sweaty and very atmospheric)
The CD come with a short booklet with a black and white stills shot of each of the band members, the track listing and the production details, acknowledgements etc. No lyrics, but then as it is a live album, the lyrics often stray from the original studio version anyway. Adamson's diction is pretty clear and most of the lyrics can be easily distinguished by listening.
So what is the music like? Heavily guitar based, Big Country were known for engineering their guitars to sound almost bagpipe-like (but in a good way!) and for playing rock music influenced by traditional Scottish arrangements and folk music. Hard to categorise explicitly, I have seen them described variously as alternative rock, folk music, new wave and rock! I have always felt they were at their best live, just them and their instruments, no gadgetry, no unnecessary hangers-on.
Their lyrics often address social issues; the crushing of the working man, class injustices and the dehumanising effects of mundane factory work. The music is not depressing, however, and often the underlying message is positive and full of hope.
Incidentally, although Big Country are almost always considered Scottish, none of the band members were born in Scotland, although both Adamson's parents were Scottish and he lived there for the majority of his life.
Who are they?
Stuart Adamson - guitar and vocals
Mark Brzezicki - drums, percussion and backing vocals
Tony Butler - bass and backing vocals
Bruce Watson - guitar and mandolin
All tracks were written by the band.
There are loads of clips available of the band on youtube if you want a flavour of this unique sounding band. (Details of clips for specific tracks included in this review)
"Hello, good evening and welcome to the Big Country extravaganza, right here at the Barras"
** Harvest Home (03:27), highest chart position #91, from The Crossing (1983) **
Jangly guitars, almost hints of a country influence...upbeat, to my mind it is played live at a slightly faster tempo than the original studio version
"Just as you sow, you shall reap"
To see the original (with a dated video, some dodgy haircuts and 80's dancing) see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deelprC1w8c
** Peace in Our Time (03:20), highest chart position #39, from Peace in Our Time (1988) **
Now there if there was ever an anthem that is still relevant today. A great guitar intro, but the lyrics are the main thing with this track for me. This song has a strong reprise and a quieter mid-section.
"Give us peace in our time; give us peace in our time
While I have a life to live, I have no life to give"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2bONftcYfY (studio version only, I couldn't find a clip of live version)
** Just a Shadow (03:33), highest chart position #26, from Steeltown (1984) **
A slightly slower, quieter track with its strength in the profound lyrics, giving hints of inner turmoil and torture, to my mind. The live version gives a cynic aside from Adamson;
"How did we ever have it good? (Fine chance...)"
"It's just a shadow of the man you should be
Like a garden in the forest that the world will never see"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMcol1uMYLw (an excellent clip of the band playing live on the Old Grey Whistle Test, gave me goosebumps watching it)
** Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys) (05:04), highest chart position #47, from Peace in Our Time (1988) **
A tale of love lost, of a man reminiscing on what might have been. It has an extended instrumental break, with some most excellent strumming, melancholy but uplifting at the same time, if that makes sense, it builds to a crescendo with the crowd clapping and singing part of the refrain.
"And you may fight or you may run, what was fast is now undone
A broken heart needs someone new to blame it on"
** The Storm (04:50), not released as a single, from The Crossing (1983) **
One of the best guitar intros ever; fast, upbeat, almost frenzied in parts, it speaks of a chase and you almost feel breathless listening to it as you imagine. Some crowd participation on this track but it just keeps coming back to the great guitar work.
"I know I can never return to the time of hope when I was born
Let the strength of peace run through my hands"
** Chance (03:44), highest chart position #9 (their biggest hit at that time), from The Crossing (1983) **
A haunting, painful song about taking a chance on a relationship that soured, of the oppression felt by a single mother, abandoned by her lover. Adamson was a bit of a champion of the working class underdog and I don't think it is seen more clearly as it is on this track. But honestly, it's not actually as depressing as it sounds. One of the real sing-along tracks on the album, the crowd take the refrain on towards the end of the track, and a pretty good job they do too. This is probably my favourite track from The Crossing.
"He came like a hero from the factory floor, with the sun and moon as gifts
But the only son you ever saw were the two he left you with"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2IY29Muc-o&feature=related (There is a clip on youtube of this track being played from the Barrowlands but when I looked at it, the audio was out of sync with the visual so I don't recommend it)
** Look Away (04:19), highest chart position #7, from The Seer **
Much more upbeat and energetic. This was the first single released from the The Seer album and the band's biggest hit ever, even reaching #5 on the US Mainstream Rock chart. Much more reminiscent of their early work, with some great guitar and drum work on this track too. One to really get the crowd pogo-ing madly, Adamson's voice is superb on this.
"You followed me when I said no
You lay with me when there was nowhere safe to go"
** What are You working For (04:00), not released as a single, from The Buffalo Skinners (1993) **
A noisy track with crashing guitars, less melodic than some of the other tracks, there is an underlying anger or frustration at the establishment and the system. Social injustice is a bit of an underlying theme in many of their lyrics. Another great guitar interlude features halfway through.
"Now I see what I must see
The poor do time the rich go free
You keep the faith and they keep score
Is this what you were working for"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_Uz8ud1qns (worth watching just for the spontaneous guitar intro of a traditional Scottish song "Will ye go, lassie go? (the Wild Mountain Thyme)" - absolutely brilliant!)
** Steeltown (05:38), not released as a single, from Steeltown (1984) **
Great guitar and drums intro, this is another "angry" track, about a town devastated by unemployment as heavy industry struggles.
"All the landscape was the mill
Grim as the reaper with a heart of hell
With a river of bodies flowing with the bell"
http://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=z4lAOha_gEs&feature=PlayList&p=DC27D95EC60BC070&index=115 (remove the space after "watch") (Although the sound quality is not great and at times you do struggle to hear the band over the noise of the very enthusiastic audience)
** Ships (Where were you) (06:05), highest chart position #29, from The Buffalo Skinners (1993) **
Change of tempo - a chance to catch your breath. Lighters aloft if you like.... This track is almost ballad like, melodic and smooth, the "softer" side of Big Country to the fore.
"Where were you when my ship went down?
Where were you when I ran aground?
Where were you when I turned it around?
Where were you when they burned me down?"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5Acj_zKWZs (this has piano accompaniment though and sounds very different from the version on this album, but it still worth a listen)
** Wonderland (05:53), highest chart position #8, from the Wonderland EP (1984) **
One of their biggest hits and the title track of the EP released between The Crossing and Steeltown. Back to fast tempo guitars, this track features a great guitar solo from Bruce Watson midway through. It's a down-to-earth love song, about making things perfect under tough conditions.
"I am an honest man
I need the love of you
I am a working man
I feel the winter too"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyFiyCa9pDo (not a live version, and Stuart is wearing a well-dodgy jumper in the video)
** Long Way Home (06:01), not released as a single, from The Buffalo Skinners (1993) **
Thus is probably my least favourite track on the album. It's not a bad track, some excellent guitar work again but it just seems to lack a certain something to my mind. It seems to be having a dig at TV evangelists, America, China, everyone really, and why not?
"A half a million Nixon babies
Some with toys and some with rabies
Hunted by the men in black
No room here, man send them back"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p37rSMgnYfo (this is from the actual Barras gig)
** In a Big Country (06:21), highest chart position #17, from The Crossing (1983) **
Now you're talking. Just brilliant. Great guitar work, a real rock track, this was a huge hit in the States. (In the words of Carly Simon "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you"...) This live version features a crowd sing-along interlude as well as Stuart saying how good it is to be playing back home.
"I'm not expecting to grow flowers in the desert
But I can live and breathe and see the sun in winter-time
In a big country dreams stay with you
Like a lover's voice fires the mountainside
** Lost Patrol (06:10), not released as a single, from The Crossing (1983) **
Another good guitar track, with more enthusiastic audience participation of singing the refrain but with possibly the most depressing lyrics of all the tracks on this album:
"But many went before us and still the cries are clear
There is no beauty here, just the stench of wine and beer"
Still that could probably accurately describe the Barras after a big gig...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN58R50hwWo&feature=related (video from this gig - you can almost feel the heat, the crush at the front and smell the sweat!)
If you want a flavour of how this great and under-rated band sounded live at their prime, buy, borrow or download this. It really is a fantastic album for any Big Country fan, or any lover of good guitar based rock music. The quality of the recording is really good; this is one band that really could play live without technical wizardry.
I can't help but feel wistful for my youth each time I listen to this, and full of regret that I will never hear them play live again.
From £9.32 on Amazon Marketplace (new)
£10.58 from Amazon (free delivery)
£7.95 to download on play.com
Various copies have been spotted on Ebay from time to time
Chart positions taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Country_discography
Lyrics mainly from just listening to the tracks but I have referred to various websites if I was unsure of certain words or to check any ambiguity.
(This is only my second music review, so all feedback and constructive criticism are welcomed and grateful accepted!)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Harvest Home
3 Peace In Our Time
4 Just A Shadow
5 13 Valleys
6 Winter Sky
7 The Storm
9 Tracks Of My Tears
10 Rockin' In The Free World
11 All Go Together
12 We're Not In Kansas
13 Look Away
14 What Are You Working For
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Stuart And the Audience
4 Long Way Home
6 In A Big Country
7 The Audience-Encore
8 Lost Patrol
9 (Hey Hey My My) Out Of The Blue (Into The Black)
10 Fields Of Fire