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Big Country 35 at Celtic Connections

Big Country were one of the biggest Scottish noises of the 1980s, renowned for their anthemic singles and the distinctive twin guitar attack of the late Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson, which seemed to echo the skirl of the bagpipes. The current incarnation of the band, including Watson and his son Jamie, original drummer Mark Brzezicki, bass Scott Whitley and vocalist Simon Hough make their Celtic Connections debut this year with a concert to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their beloved debut album, The Crossing.

We spoke to Watson, who now also fills Adamson’s shoes in his original band, Dunfermline punk veterans The Skids, about his memories of the early days of Big Country and working on the songs which would form the backbone of The Crossing.

“The Skids actually wanted me to be in the band round about the time of their second album because Stuart was doing all the guitars in the studio, so they thought about getting me in when it came to do it live. But I was probably too young. I was working at the dockyard at the time and there was another ten bands that played down the dockyard and everybody played in each other’s bands. You couldn’t go to school or college to learn about music, you just had to pick it up in little dark rooms above pubs.

Stuart always said that during that Skids period he wanted to do a two-guitar thing with me and I just thought he was being kind but one day he just turned up at my flat and said ‘today’s the day’. The week after that we got ourselves a portastudio, a couple of guitars and a synthesizer and started writing songs and those songs became part of the first album. We had at least half the album written early 1981.

At the time it was just Stuart and myself, we never had a band, we had a drum machine and a synthesizer. We would stick the synthesizer on an ironing board. We could have ended up like Soft Cell or Depeche Mode at one point because we were doing a lot of synthesizer stuff. There wasn’t a time limit or pressure to come up with something because no one else was interested at the time so we were doing it to amuse ourselves, but there was an end game aswell, which was to come up with some really good songs. We would send demos away to different labels but a lot of them weren’t interested and said ‘guitar music’s dead, synthesizer music is coming in now’ but we kept chipping away at it.

The idea from the very start was to make it cinematic and as big as you can get. There was loads of twin guitar bands out there like Status Quo, Thin Lizzy and AC/DC and we loved those bands but we didn’t want to sound like them. They were very blues-based and we decided not to do any blues bending, though we did do that later on. What we did was play melodic lines straight and put loads of effects on them and we had the big power chords. Every song that Stuart and I recorded in the early days was almost like The Shadows without Cliff Richard – every track was an instrumental until Stuart took the cassette away at the end of the day and worked on his lyrics and we would change guitar lines to suit the vocals after that.

It’s like losing your virginity, it’s your first time and it was a good experience. Everything was new to me and I can remember a lot of stuff from that era. I was able to work in big studios with top class producers, just watching them, looking and learning all the time. It was a dream come true for me. I preferred the studio to live actually because that’s what I always wanted to do.

Nowadays technology is so different. I could record an album on my phone. It’s great being back in the studio with The Skids again, that was absolutely wonderful. There’s not that many recording studios left apart from RAK, Abbey Road and Rockfield from those days. There’s just the sound of the room and a combination of the desks, the microphones, the engineers. It’s just the mojo, it’s the magic.”

Big Country play ABC, Glasgow on 26 Jan