The Biggest Country
from america to russia and back again, rock 'n' roll puts the cold war on ice
AFTER RECORDING THEIR LAST ALBUM IN CALIFORNIA AND GIGGING IN THE SOVIET UNION, BIG COUNTRY ARE ONE OF BRITAIN'S MOST "INTERNATIONAL" ROCK GROUPS. HOW HAS THE WORLD AFFECTED THEIR MUSIC?
THE ASCENDANCE OF Mikhail Gorbachev to the world stage, the warm blast of "perestroika" that has swept through the icy hallways of the Kremlin, and the subsequent regional disputes between the various ethnic races of the Soviet Union - all seem a world away from the residential side-streets of Notting Hill Gate. But here, in this quiet backwater of West London, walking distance from Kensington Palace and the Russian Embassy, is the heart of the Big Country master-plan to bring their own little bit of Glasnost to a troubled world.
Guitarist Bruce Watson and bass player Tony Butler are seated in the very same management office that, until recently, was co-ordinating the Big Country invasion of the USSR. It lacks the grandeur of the nearby Embassy, but the compact office is unofficially helping to further the cause of international relations.
With a steady thawing of attitudes behind the Iron Curtain, and with the growing readiness of the Russians to accept Western ideas and products, rock music has suddenly become a sought-after commodity "over there". Gone are the days of the Cliff Richard/Elton John monopoly of the Eastern Bloc; official Party invitations are out of the window, as Big Country set about exporting themselves to the Land of Vodka and Volleyball.
Big Country's latest album, 'Peace In Our Time', may have been recorded in America, but it was launched with a party in the Russian Embassy, and promoted with a series of concerts inside the Soviet Union. Others have made the trip behind the Iron Curtain, but what made this package a little bit special was that, for the first time, the organisation was in the hands of private individuals - not a Party official in sight, comrade!
Big Country's first inroads into the Soviet market - sorry, attempts at furthering a sense of international openness - were made as a direct result of Michael Jackson's decision to play in only the Western half of Berlin. The East set up its own compensatory concert, and Big Country (along with Bryan Adams) were asked to perform. The show, staged in front of "about 120,000 people", was a "phenomenal" success, and from that point the idea of the Russian concerts began to come together... but it took time to arrange.
"We had no idea we were going to go to Russia when we started recording the album", admits Tony. "When you're sitting in the sunshine of Los Angeles, you don't think about going to grey Russia."
Grey Russia? The slight slip of speech gives rise to images of drab buildings inhabited by drab people trudging to work to do drab jobs. But can the biggest country in the world really be as grey as it's painted, or is that part and parcel of the Cold War propaganda package?
Tony: "You just have to go there with completely open eyes and a clear mind and just sort of take it in... I went to a department store just to look at clothes and shoes and things like that; they're not very well made things, but to them it doesn't matter, they're just functional. Materials were very ragged and unrefined, and people were fighting over things because they were the last ones in the shop. It was a complete culture shock. Towards the end of the trip, I think everybody got used to the environment and ended up really appreciating it; but you have to realise that it's so different out there.
"We didn't go over there as ambassadors, but we had to try and behave ourselves and show the Russians that we weren't the ogres that I suppose they think we are... We shouldn't try and foist our way of life onto the people, especially the people who were trying to help us. They were forever trying to make us realise that they mean well, that they want to learn and they want to get on and mix everything."
"The only place we saw was Moscow", adds Bruce, "but I was speaking to a lot of other people and they've been saying: 'well, Moscow's OK, but go to Leningrad because that's happening!'. We were stuck in Red Square for 10 days! I'd love to go and see all these other places - you can't just say 'I've been to Russia' when you've only been to Moscow. It's like coming to Britain but only going to London!"
Tony: "We'd go back if we were invited again, because I think the Russians want to get involved in rock music, they want to see Western bands. It's opened up the whole of the Eastern Bloc; so when bands like us go on a world tour, we can now incorporate the Eastern Bloc and Russia."
Bruce: "When you see people going on a world tour, they seem to spend eight months in America, a week in Europe, two days in Britain. And that's a world tour!"
If the music business idea of a world tour seems a mite bizarre, then the contradictions behind the 'Peace In Our Time' promotional concept and album would seem to be irreconcilable - that the Great Russian Album was, in fact, recorded in America. And for all the talk of a more open world, 'Peace In Our Time' does seem to have taken on a more American feel than we would normally expect from Big Country. After all, its producer, Peter Wolf, is better known for his work with American AOR ("Adult Orientated Rock") bands like Heart and Starship. This is an accusation that Tony and Bruce are both sharp to refute. They regard it as by far their best album to date, and they jump to its defence.
"I wouldn't call it an American-style record", says Bruce quickly. "I'd call it 'clear'."
Tony: "It is a clear record for us."
"There's space in it, there's holes in it, and it breathes", continues Bruce. "'Steeltown' is quite a dense album. I thought some of our greatest songs were on the 'Steeltown' album, but just because of the way that we played them: you know it was like every gap was filled up, we just never had room to breathe."
Tony and Bruce may not see the American rock tendency that is seeping into their recordings, but they are the first to admit the American influence in everyday life - even going so far as to sleeve-credit a list of Californian activities that amused them through the recording period.
"WE'D GO BACK IF WE WERE INVITED AGAIN, BECAUSE THE RUSSIANS WANT TO GET INVOLVED IN ROCK MUSIC, THEY WANT TO SEE WESTERN BANDS."
"I think that was part of the experience", says Tony. "We were all in this environment that we didn't know a lot about, and we had to find a way of entertaining ourselves, so we all got into different things. Stuart was well into baseball, I was into hanging out in a particular bar, Mark was into jogging and going to the beach, I don't know what he was doing!" They both laugh as Tony points to Bruce. His broad smile widens as he continues to recall their activities in California. "All these things helped to make our stay enjoyable and we thought it would be nice to put all these things on the album... People think that when you go to LA to record an album it's all Hollywood and big-time, and it's not really like that, it's what you make of it."
Recording in Hollywood, gigging in Moscow... Big Country are certainly taking the old adage that "all the world's a stage" to its logical conclusion. It's all a far cry from the succession of Scottish punk bands that saw Bruce Watson through his teenage years. Growing up on a diet of Nazareth, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and later Led Zeppelin, it was the dawning of the punk age that finally convinced Bruce there could be a future in the music business - even if your playing ability didn't quite live up to the standard set by Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page.
"I'd played guitar in my younger days", he recalls. "I never thought I was a great guitarist, but when punk came along, I could stand up on a stage and say 'this is me, look what I can do', and not give a toss about how I played or what I played."
Tony Butler couldn't have had a more radically different musical baptism. "I started playing guitar because I didn't want to play trumpet - my father was a trumpet player... Then I watched 'Top of the Pops' and saw Norman Greenbaum doing 'Spirit In The Sky', and there was a close-up of a Fender bass. I thought: 'it's only got four strings, so it might be easy to learn.'"
Tony's early years saw him trying to fulfil a simple ambition: to achieve a greater mastery of his instrument, and to make the music business a full-time career.
"I was not so much into punk bands", he readily confesses. "I always wanted to be in a band, but I started more on the theoretical side. I studied Music at school and I was about to go to the Royal Academy of Music, but I discovered rock 'n' roll just in the nick of time. I found out that reading music and playing it wasn't the most exhilarating thing in the world... but at the time, I thought that in order to get on I had to be very good at my instrument and keep up my knowledge of the theoretical side. That's how you get in on the session world, and that's a way of making money, but you end up sitting in the studio with a sheet of music in front of you, and it's really boring."
So, although he was fulfilling his ambition to make a living from music, Tony was none too happy. Together with Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki, he formed a session rhythm section - "hiring ourselves out to the highest bidder, like musical prostitutes".
They worked on a variety of recordings, including albums with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, until they were asked to play on a session with the embryonic Big Country - in other words, with Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson. "We did the songs and sat down and listened to them - my head exploded", says Tony. "They were brilliant. Then we started talking about putting it together as a proper band!"
Almost immediately, Tony realised that working as a part of Big Country was more than just a way of earning a living - it altered his whole musical outlook.
"It wasn't until I met Bruce and Stuart that I realised what punk was really about. It was an attitude rather than anything else: apart from being a very good musician, I wanted to be more raw within myself and my attitude to music, and meeting Bruce especially was maybe the best thing that happened to me."
"You learn off each other", adds Bruce. "I've been learning from Tony's 'real' musical background, just as Tony can learn off my licks."
And having tasted life at both ends of the rock 'n' roll career road - with a number of stops in between - both bassist and guitarist have plenty of advice for anyone just starting out along the same track.
Tony: "The worst thing that anyone can do is to get involved in rock 'n' roll just to become a star. You've got to have a talent so you can believe in yourself, so if you're a star or not, you still enjoy what you do. Stick to your main aims and try to keep a lot of self-esteem... It's worth being good at your instrument, but there's no point in being able to play a million notes a second. Playing it with feeling is different."
Bruce: "Some of the best songwriters in the world were never great musicians. John Lennon wasn't a great guitar player, Keith Richard was never a great guitar player; but they had such great grooves and such great feels and attitudes, they couldn't fail."
Tony: "It's like writing your first songs. Ten years down the line you refuse to write a song so simple, because you feel that you're so far down the road as a musician that each song you write has got to have at least 20 different chord changes in it. But it doesn't work like that - it's just down to feeling."
"In a song you've got A and you've got B", says Bruce, ramming the point home. "Why take the longest way to get from A to B, when you can just have a groove and cut it short?"
Why indeed! Especially when you can keep it simple and see the world.
Interview by Chris Hunt
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