Sometimes life throws so many curveballs at you at once that your head starts spinning and you don’t know which direction is up.
Big Country frontman Stuart Adamson knew that better than most.
“I need a guidebook, get me a map!” he sang on the group’s overlooked 1995 album Why the Long Face.
“Not even Indiana Jones could deal with that!”
Personal demons plagued Adamson throughout his adult life, from his tenure in late ‘70s punk band The Skids to his Big Country stardom in the early ‘80s and country-flavored collaboration with Nashville pal Marcus Hummus (as the Raphaels) in 2000.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration all the external problems (social, political, and otherwise) out in the world, which Adamson thoughtfully—brilliantly—worked into some of Big Country’s best tunes (“Peace in Our Time,” “Remembrance Day,” “One Great Thing,” “Driving to Damascus,” “Where the Rose is Sown,” “East of Eden”).
Compounded by longstanding alcohol problem, Adamson’s issues caught up with him at the turn of the century. He disappeared, and not even friends or family members knew his whereabouts when he took his own life in December 2001.
Suddenly, lots of Adamson’s early lyrics seemed not only introspective or insightful but hauntingly prescient: “The tank is empty, a wheel came off. How can someone find me if no one knows I’m lost?”
If there’s a bright side to Stuart’s passing, it’s that he left behind a treasure trove of catchy, clever, Celtic-steeped rock ‘n’ roll across eight outstanding studio albums and as many live, in-concert sets and best-of compilations. Big Country’s stellar 1983 debut The Crossing benefitted from a deluxe reissue in 2012, and several other albums (1986’s The Seer, 1988’s Peace in Our Time) received similar makeovers over the years on various labels.
Adamson and his Big Country brethren were already swimming upstream by the time WTLF came out in June of ’95. Mercury / Polygram dropped the quartet when The Seer (though critically acclaimed) failed to produce the commercial results heralded by lead-off single “Look Away.” It was an ignominious blow to a band whose unique blend of harmony and heritage had led many to believe they’d be the next U2—a global phenomenon with an endearing, ear-catching worldview.
Instead, Big Country battled to break into the mainstream in the U.S. (as Ireland’s U2 had done with War and Unforgettable Fire)…and struggled to stay relevant in the ‘90s while leapfrogging from one obscure label to another.
“One could definitely make the case that the band didn’t fit in with current fashions,” writes Svein Borge Hjorthaug in the updated …Long Face liner notes.
“As Big Country entered its second decade as a band, Britain was swept off its feet by the new Britpop movement, with bands like Blur, Oasis, Suede, and Pulp now leading the charge. In America, the wave of bands collectively referred to as Grunge had taken a similar foothold.”
Fickle tastes and trends aside, the Peter Wolf-produced Peace in Our Time (“King of Emotion”) was a slick, topical tour de force to mark the end of the ‘80s, and No Place Like Home (“We’re Not in Kansas”) and Buffalo Skinners (“Alone”) a pair of terrific, hard-rocking releases to greet the ‘90s.
But Big Country had lost its foothold on the pop charts: No Place and Skinners weren’t even released stateside, which raised the stakes for Long Face—and tested the group’s mettle with minders, marketers, and bean-counters at Transatlantic, Castle, and Pure Records.
Suffice to say, ...Long Face didn’t broaden Big Country’s audience as intended. Following a similar fate as The Seer seven years prior, the disc—packed with muscular, melodic guitars and bold, book-smart verses—sated core fans but didn’t yield any radio hits or MTV mainstays like “In a Big Country” and “Fields of Fire.”
The album’s under-performance on the charts never really warranted it being overlooked by listeners (who by now had latched on to Nirvana, Dave Matthews, and Pearl Jam) or its dismissal in the annals of rock history.
That injustice is precisely what makes Cherry Red’s reassessment so crucial.
Handsomely packed in a sturdy yellow clamshell case (instead of original powder blue) with another photogenic Doberman on front, the 4CD Why the Long Face 2018 includes not only the remastered ’95 album, but three extra CD’s worth of bonus Big Country tracks, demos, covers, and in-concert cuts from that era (1994-1996).
Disc One contains the album proper—fourteen tracks of sparkling guitar (clean and crunchily distorted), robust rhythms, and intelligent lyrics (about love, regret, and hope), all anointed by another serving of the same hardy, anthem-like refrains that made Big Country famous.
Opener “You Dreamer” rides high on a bagpipe-esque guitar riff and rugged, dirty power chords (courtesy Adamson and Bruce Watson) before introducing Stuart’s vignette of forgotten souls in pizza shops (where “prescription junkies” “watch the window fill with flies”). It’s an electrifying ode to shattered dreams that ponders a plethora of what-ifs and what-might-have-been…yet—in true Big Country form—keeps positive rather than give up the ghost to adversity.
“Is this the way that you believed your life was gonna turn out?” muses Adamson (quite possibly about himself). “Is this the better world that you were making all those plans for?”
Then there’s the typical (but effective) valentines to both imagined paramours (“One in a Million,” “Send You”) and humanity at large (“Message of Love”), reflections on personal triumphs and private travails (“I’m Not Ashamed,” “Wildland in My Heart”), and sundry entries (“Sail Into Nothing,” “”God’s Great Mistake,” “Post Nuclear Talking Blues”) that couple the Dunfermline four-piece’s penchant for outdoor themes (nature, freedom, adventure) and affinity for its signature Scottish sound into upbeat, zeitgeist-sensitive zingers.
Disc Two is jam-packed with bonus tracks including single edits of “Dreamer” and “Ashamed,” early / alternate takes of “One in a Million,” and acoustic versions of old standbys “In a Big Country” and “All Go Together.” There’s also a bunch of extra songs that didn’t make the album (but might’ve popped up on the band’s Rarities series later), like “Crazy Times,” “Ice Cream Smile,” and “Bianca.” This is also where fans will find working versions recorded by Adamson, Butler, and company at House in the Woods studio in Surrey (“Hardly a Mountain,” “Can You Feel the Winter”).
Disc Three is a digitally-retouched edition of the in-concert Eclectic album released by Castle Communications in the year following …Long Face. Recorded live at Dingwalls in London in late March of ’96 (and long since out-of-print), the album shines with a mix of old and then-new Big Country classics (“River of Hope,” “Where the Rose is Sown”), all rendered before an elated audience. Also on the menu here is an assortment of choice cover songs that speak to the band’s early influences (The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My,” CCR’s “Down on the Corner.” The smoldering set (with bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki underpinning the guitar hysteria with glorious grooves) also features guest spots by British vocalist/actor Bobby Valentino, rocker Steve Harley (of Cockney Rebel), and American soul singer Kym Mazelle.
The …Long Face prototype is represented by Disc Four: This is where collectors and curators will discover working versions of the tunes that would be polished up later for the final version of the album. Workshopped at various locations in Scotland and England (Audiocraft, Riverside, Chapel, HITW), this missing-link record presents some of Adamson’s best ideas in a stripped-down format. But most the program is dominated by near-finished “jam” versions of “Dreamer,” “Message,” “Ashamed” and other stand-outs that sound—unlike most demos or garage versions—almost as concise (in performance) and as crystalline (in production) as the finished …Long Face LP.
So if you know Stuart Adamson and Big Country only by their earliest “essential” hits, now’s as good a time as any to revisit the well and get acclimated with the group’s strong, inspirational, and sorely-overlooked middle catalog. And there’s never been a better opportunity to take those first steps than with this respectfully-rendered …Long Face deluxe box.
It's also available on iTunes.