Sunday 25 May 2014

BIG COUNTRY: Steeltown

(#303: 27 October 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: Flame Of The West/East Of Eden/Steeltown/Where The Rose Is Sown/Come Back To Me/Tall Ships Go/Girl With Grey Eyes/Rain Dance/The Great Divide/Just A Shadow

‘”’Garngad’s too low to be seen from here. I’m trying to see McHargs. It should be near those cranes behind Ibrox. Aye, there! There! The top of the machine shop is showing above those tenements.”

“I should be able to see the art school, it’s on top of a hill behind Sauchiehall Street – Glasgow seems all built on hills. Why don’t we notice them when we’re in it?”

“Because none of the main roads touch them. The main roads run east and west and the hills are all between.””
(Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life In 4 Books. Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Limited, 1981; Chapter 20, “Employers”)

“And he didn’t believe that the Lord created people to be unequal. That he created one set of people designed to rule the earth and others, you know, to just be the hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
(Harold Wilson, speaking to Bill Shankly about Robert Burns, Radio City (Liverpool), 1976, quoted by David Peace in Red Or Dead. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2013; Chapter 61, “I Am A Christian And A Socialist, Despite You”)

“But the only ‘son’ you ever saw/Were the two he left you with”
(Big Country, “Chance”)

Two weeks ago I was in Scotland, in and around Glasgow, on family business. Lena has already remarked on the immediate difference you feel once you are a few minutes out of Carlisle on the train and have left England for Scotland. The hills, even the clouds, look different. And for me there is still this slowly escalating sense of a homecoming, once I am out of the Lowlands countryside and have reached Carstairs or thereabouts; by the time the train patiently pulls across the bridge, over the Clyde, past the Gorbals, the distant and derelict but still intact building which used to house the Bridge Street Library, into town, the feeling is manifest and palpable. So much of the city has changed and yet so little of it; this, Glasgow, is my home, the place from whence I came. This is how Ian S Munro described the place at the beginning of his 1975 radio monologue, “The Artist in Search of a City”:

“Glasgow. A smoky haze, a smouldering blaze of sheer vitality. A city grey at the edges but coloured fire in its belly. Shoddy, shabby, rugged, craggy; broody, braggy. An unstopped twelve-ring circus of tumbling humanity. A mood, an expression, a nightmare. Clattering, shattering. Confusing…but complete.”

Glasgow is different from London. I should clarify what looks like a crass statement of patronising obviousness. The air is different and so are the people. You emerge out of Central Station into Union Street. The buildings are high, frequently taller than those in London, but never arrogant or threatening in their tallness. Everything seems to know where it is going. One feels more comfortable here. Nobody runs for a bus; they wait, very patiently, and file onto the bus when it comes with equal patience and grace. Once out of the city centre, there is very little in the way of traffic lights. Drivers are trusted. There is the very secure feeling that everything gets done.

Oh, they have done up bits of the city all right, but none of it seems obtrusive or cosmetic.  There is a certain pertinacious quality about Glasgow and the Glaswegians which has nothing to do with inflexibility but everything to do with what one might call a benign stubbornness. I should know; I was born and grew up, went to school, here. Most of what I learned about music, literature and art I learned walking around here, reading, listening, watching and always paying attention.

And yet, does it make me, or has it (that is to say, life) converted me into being, an incurable and unalterable London tourist to enjoy myself so much spending time in Hillhead whenever I visit? For when you think about it, Hillhead is a sort of mini-London within Glasgow for visitors, complete with its own Waitrose, very decent book and record shops (new and old), trendy restaurants (despite being generally perceived as a new phenomenon, the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant in Ashton Lane has been in existence since 1971), a fine university and a world-class art gallery (the Kelvingrove). But of course that is far from all there is about Glasgow, and even if I might feel queasily nostalgic about the now defunct record and book shops which I haunted like a spectre in my teenage years, I still know enough about the city to realise that it is nothing without its people (and yes, Tam Shepherd’s Trick Shop is still in Queen Street, and likely to remain such a century hence). A people who, like the Scottish people in general, are immediately approachable and empathetic precisely because they feel attached to what sentimental old twentieth-century bagpipes like me refer to as a greater good; that is, the value, the worth, of the society of which they are an immutable part. This is not something that I have felt after being in England for approximately three decades.

So, just as the theory has arisen that one cannot completely understand The Prisoner unless one is a Celt, it is, I think, equally the case that unless you come from Scotland, you are not really going to understand musicians like Simple Minds and Big Country, how crucial an understanding of their society is to appreciating their art.

But Big Country, despite the common use of Steve Lillywhite as producer, are not really like Simple Minds at all. Jim Kerr is an amused, if slightly cynical, citizen of the world; but you do not listen to a second of Stuart Adamson, his voice or his guitar, without knowing, feeling, that he is a citizen of Dunfermline, right in the middle of Gordon Brown territory. Ah, Fife; you can go over the Forth Rail Bridge, ten or so minutes out of Edinburgh, and amble up the jolly coastline – Kinghorn, Aberdour, Burntisland, Kirkcaldy, Markinch etc. – without ever having to go through Glenrothes or Dunfermline, to see how people in Fife actually live. But travelling up the East Coast brings its own implications of magic; one theory of British music is that the further north you travel, away from the workmanlike south, you encounter otherworldliness; think of the Associates’ Dundee (or even Linlithgow), or, for that matter, on the other side of Waverley Station, the track that runs down and at one point diverts in the oil refinery town of Grangemouth. Look at these huge mechanisms, the iron, the ore and the distilling funnels, and you discern a parallel, if less immediately comprehensible, song of Scotland, one which became available just four weeks after the second Big Country album:

You travel through the monstrous nothingness of Grangemouth and you can understand why people here would want to make music that sounded like nothing else on Earth, or nothing else in Stirlingshire, though at the time like everything else in Scotland. Treasure was the Cocteau Twins’ third and most fully realised album, with its ten songs and their Victorian girls’ names of titles. Like Big Country (and Simple Minds) the music’s cumulative effect depends on implied hugeness; the fusillade of drum programming (sometimes, for instance on “Lorelei,” reminding the listener of no one as much as Phil Collins), the ability to amplify and overdub one or two guitars until they sound like the electrical current charging the Earth’s core, Elizabeth Frazer’s voice as instrument in itself, like Coltrane or Garbarek, and a profound seriousness  - the whispered “Otterley” sounds as though one is standing at the world’s final frontier before falling off the edge, or maybe it was always only Portobello seafront on a Wednesday teatime in November – which slowly and patiently works its way towards a liberating, cathartic climax (“Donimo”; the dreams of “Sealand” now fully worked through to reveal the kiss lurking, or just patiently waiting, behind the foghorn warnings). It doesn’t matter what Frazer is singing – you feel it rather than feel compelled to decode it (the Bono of “A Sort Of Homecoming” understands this instinctively). It is as if they have stumbled upon or struck the biggest gold mine human beings have ever known. And yet it sings for its home country, a message that is unavoidable, even if you don’t necessarily (phonetically) understand it.

Stuart Adamson had begun slowly extricating himself from The Skids at some point in 1980 – his ability to create hill-leaping guitar melodies was evident as early as “Masquerade” – but Joy, the band’s final, under-promoted and under-selling album, from 1981, does point fairly decisively ahead towards the New Celtic Pastoralism; Adamson was involved in its second single, “Iona” (which, though not a hit, was at the time talked about as a serious contender for the 1981 Christmas number one single), and indeed the many participants in the album included Peter Wishart, future member of Runrig (and eventually an SNP MP), who was in the initial Big Country line-up. By the time the group had settled, however, Adamson was their only Scottish member – bassist Tony Butler was from Shepherd’s Bush, drummer Mark Brzezicki from Slough, and guitarist Bruce Watson, despite his Scots accent, came originally from Timmins in Ontario; thus there is a Canadian dimension to Big Country’s work, though it is not an obvious or particularly major one.

There was never any doubt, however, that Big Country was Adamson’s group, and therefore a fundamentally Scottish one. Their 1983 debut album The Crossing hit big (#3 in the UK, rather more than that in Scotland) because it sounded big at a time when bigness was allegedly being called for. The bagpipe guitars, the thrusting shrieks and chanted choruses; they were all designed to raise the ghost of auld Scottish myths and legends and make it live again – you’d trample over the heather, look out over the promontory at North Berwick, hear “Fields Of Fire (400 Miles)” or “In A Big Country” on your Walkman (the cassette edition, with its second side of 12-inch remixes, was the one to have) and feel elated and proud about the country across which you were striding. Only the slower “Chance,” the record’s best song and biggest hit single, gives an idea of what was to come, telling a fairly bitter, if compassionate, story about a woman who had been left behind, abandoned, by both father and husband in a “cold new town.” “Oh, Lord, I never felt so low,” wailed Adamson, making the “low” sound like “alone”  – and the song cut deeper. “Now the skirts hang heavy around your head” was not the sort of sentiment or imagery deemed fitting to the thrusting Thatcher-cheerleading of most 1983 mainstream pop.

And so Steeltown, a year later, refused (like Springsteen in the same year; see entry #310) to settle for easy answers or a formula-repeating follow-up. Here the chords, beats and voices are harder (and yet at times, e.g. “Girl With Grey Eyes,” also softer) than they were on The Crossing. It is as if Adamson has come face to face with these myths and legends – and is now trying to prevent them from being destroyed by Thatcher’s wrecking ball. The subject of the title song – and, I think, also the location of the inner sleeve photographs of the group – is not Dunfermline but Corby in Northamptonshire, the place where many Scots (particularly Central Scots) moved to work in the steel industry (Stewarts and Lloyds steelworks, before the firm was assimilated into British Steel) before successive governments decided to curtail the experiment. The song plays like an extended death rattle with scenes more in keeping with Goya than Leslie Hunter (“Grim as the Reaper with a heart like Hell/With a river of bodies/Flowing with the bell/Here was the future for hands of skill”) as an angry Adamson contemplates “the end of everything” (“Finally the dream is gone/Nothing left to hang upon” – a decline from the opening “I’ve had enough of hanging on,” although it is hard to listen to any of it, in the context of what would happen to Adamson seventeen years later). Brzezicki’s onomatopoeic foundry drumming raises the spectre of the worker being crushed by the wheels of his industry.

Whereupon I feel it necessary to introduce an album released a couple of years previously but which stands as Steeltown’s acoustic blood brother:

As the seventies ended, Dick Gaughan was not in the best of ways. Born in Glasgow and raised in Rutherglen and then Leith, he had been a member of Boys of the Lough and Five Hand Reel but was now a solo artist. But by 1979 he was in poor health, much of it, as he readily admits, of his own doing. Moreover, Thatcher had come to power as an indirect result of the failure of the Scottish Devolution Referendum – this failure was not down to the Scottish people, as a majority of eligible voters had voted in favour of devolution, but by certain careerist Labour MPs (chief amongst whom was, apparently, the late Robin Cook) who pushed through an amendment demanding a 40% majority vote. The 40% mark was not quite reached, and Callaghan’s government were accordingly humiliated and made to look incompetent and embarrassing; thus the pathway for eighteen years of Conservative rule was consolidated.

Gaughan himself suffered a nervous breakdown around this time, and decided to pull himself together and make himself better. He did a few low-key solo tours, joined the hard Left theatre group 7:84 and made one or two records. Finally, by the spring of 1980, he felt ready to record a full-blown album, and Handful Of Earth was the result.

It is one of the great and most truthfully passionate records of its decade. Its opening song, a setting of the traditional “Erin Go Bragh,” is as fast-paced and menacing as Martin Carthy’s “Reynard The Fox.” The title is Irish Gaelic for “Ireland forever” and the song deals with prejudices against both Irish and Highland Scots in the ancient Lowlands.  “Now Westlin Winds” is another traditional song, with words by Robert Burns (deemed by Bill Shankly in the interview cited above as “one of the instigators of socialism”), and is lovely and heartfelt; a love song not just to the loved, but to the nature which makes up its author’s country.

“Craigie Hill” is perhaps the record’s most hard-hitting song; a story of how the Scots were forced into emigrating to America, away from their loved ones, which Gaughan sings with a vulnerable glide which strives with cloths of grief to hold life together like the ships’ unstable masts, which he sings as though leaving Scotland and its people, and his people, is the last thing he wants to do; he clings to vowels, clutches at consonants, on a shaky wave of suppressed grief as though willing himself to awaken at any moment and decide that this was just a dream. And he is going away – “to purchase a plantation.” Thus the cycle of slavery, as enlarged upon in “The Workers’ Song,” is propagated.

Gaughan then tackles Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down,” a tale of jaunty fury, about the Diggers, their ideals and their ultimate annihilation. “The Snows They Melt The Soonest” is incredibly moving, a song of love and belief about and on behalf of the working class; no matter how bad their situation is, they never do forget about love and delight, and Gaughan’s performances touches the heart as easily and profoundly as did Stewart on this song’s direct descendent, “Mandolin Wind.”

“Lough Erne” takes a more optimistic view of the Irish emigrant; here he and his love positively cannot wait to reach America and their new lives; this dovetails perfectly into “First Kiss At Parting” instrumental coda. Another instrumental medley follows (“Scojun Waltz/Randers Hopsa”), and then Gaughan performs “Song Of Ireland”; the migrant is over there now, in America, looking at the Atlantic from the other end, wondering how things are back home and whether the falcons still fly.

Then comes the majestic “The Workers’ Song” from which the album gets its title (“And expected to die for the land of our birth/When we’ve never owned  one handful of earth?”), which Gaughan sings in a low, clenched-teeth, threatening manner, and it all comes out; the rotten system of masters and servants – note the subtle emotional alterations between the phrases “keep up with the times” and “they’ve streamlined the job” – the non-sacrifices of war and starvation, the rooted unfairness. The album closes with “Both Sides The Tweed,” a slightly rewritten traditional protest song against the 1707 Act of Union which emphasises both the importance of Scotland being in charge of its own destiny and the need to cooperate with, rather than wage war against, your geographic neighbours. Even in a world of “Town Called Malice” and “Dead Cities,” this was uncomfortably direct stuff (but then isn’t “Dead Cities” also another Edinburgh folk song – “I’m getting wasted in this city/Those council houses are getting me down”?) but by facing the things most eighties pop strove very hard to avoid seeing, Handful Of Earth remains an essential, if searing, listen.

Steeltown’s themes really are not that far away from Gaughan’s, although sometimes their more general expression can result in misinterpretations of bombast, for instance the Constructivist Bolshevism of the cover illustration and typography, or the opening “Flame Of The West” which howls against Reagan and the credulous masses who kept him in power with an anger rivalled only (but by no means surpassed) by the Reagan-Hitler analogy on “Two Tribes” (Big Country are much less camp and far more genuinely angry than Frankie). Musically it is “Up On The Catwalk” gone to Cecil Sharp House – never does the listener forget that Big Country are, essentially, a folk group, with their songs’ Aeolian and Dorian cadences and rhythmic rhyming schemes.

I cannot improve on the comments Adamson makes in his sleevenote to the 1996 CD reissue of the album (“The songs are very dark and dense, they come from hard times, fearful places…”). In terms of “the words of the powerless” and “people whose traditions denied them any show of emotion,” Adamson is actually placing himself very close to Bob Marley, giving a voice to the dispossessed and detested underclass. And yet the album was in great part recorded in Abba’s Polar Studios – hence the curiously familiar bigness of its sounds – in a manner which makes it sound as if the group could not express themselves fully without leaving Scotland. But the group never truly “leaves” Scotland; if anything, they are worried about Scotland leaving them.

“East Of Eden,” a possibly reluctant choice of lead single (from the record company’s perspective), paces back and forth on an emotional boardwalk of its own making, Adamson desperately trying to find some meaning to the whole thing, but whichever way he walks, heartbreak is in first (“I looked West in search of freedom and I saw slavery/I looked East in search of answers and I saw misery”). It plays like “Big Country,” or in particular “Wonderland,” gone askew.

There are few more harrowing sequences of songs on any mid-eighties number one albums than the sequence of war songs which constitute the core of Steeltown. On “When The Rose Is Sown,” the group set up a confrontational call-and-response arena where, on one side, The Man cajoles the hapless conscript, who then gives his baffled responses (“WE ARE STRONG! It wasn’t us/WE ARE RIGHT! Who started this?,” “SOUND ALARMS! The school bell rings”). Bass and drums, too, demonstrate contradictory stances; hard triplets for the propaganda, ruminative quarters for the response.* He goes to fight – or sits around in the trenches, playing impatient poker – and knows that he is being sacrificed for nothing (“The Workers’ Song” again). The song was a single, but loses a great deal of its impact when uncoupled from its linked sequel, “Come Back To Me.” Beginning with Cocteau-y guitar ambience, the song quickly builds up force and intensity; this is the wife, or the lover, of the soldier who has gone off to die, and she is pregnant with his child, a child who will never know its father, and this is a song of undiluted mourning which subverts its predecessors’ devices; hence “We give life to feed the cause” becomes “I knew this house had lost the cause,” and as the song dies – growing in intensity, with Watson’s E-bowed guitar almost out of control, as the years, rather than the skirts of “Chance,” hang around the protagonist – Adamson yells contemptuously, “And one day I will lie down/Where the rose was flung.” Although the song suggests a First or Second World War setting – perhaps the latter, with its “He handed out cigars” line (Churchill?) – the ghost of the Falklands is lurking behind every thought unarticulated.

(*And this is the not-so-secret engine behind Mike Westbrook's Marching Song, an anti-war suite inspired not so much by Vietnam, but more World War I, the whole 50-years-on/Oh What A Lovely War scenario. Designed as specifically programmatic music, its progress makes perfect sense in that context; exultant off-to-war cheers are followed by slow, ruminative piano and flute meditations - out there in the boring trenches, just waiting, waiting. The double rhythm section also serves the function of dramatic onomatopoeia, so the occasional explosion from one drumkit or the other is a reminder that there's actually a war going on here. It's not meant to be comfortable, or even particularly logical - could one rightly apply either adjective to the business of war?)

On side two of the record, Adamson looks at those closest to him; “Tall Ships Go” is about his father, who was a merchant seaman, though the song’s references to “the enemy” being, effective ly, a mirror suggest more recent struggles. “Girl With Grey Eyes” is a straightforward and very affecting love song to his first wife Sandra (“Alexandra will never sound the same,” “You talk to me/Just like no other/Like the brother/That I never had”). “Rain Dance,” a cautiously celebratory song about being young, was smarter than the Stones had sounded in years, although its sequel, “The Great Divide,” has Adamson wondering whether he really was being wise doing what he did, although the excitement and promise of youth has been steadily diluted to conventional adult responsibilities (“I know all my dreams/I shout and scream/Until the day’s first break!” – like Coulter, of Gray’s Lanark, condemned to a life in McHargs works until he finds the wit to write himself out of it).

Hope has steadily been dissolving throughout this side of music, and in the closing “Just A Shadow” it collapses entirely. The song is told from three different viewpoints – like its descendent, the Blue Nile’s “Family Life” – firstly from the point of view of the man with hopes of prospering, or even just working, but who finally failed himself (“But some blows break the spell/That it hits you every day/Until you need to hit as well”); secondly from the point of view of the man’s wife who ends up a victim of domestic violence; and thirdly, and most dramatically, when Adamson turns to camera and addresses a nation: “It’s just a shadow of the people we should be,” the personal, the political and the national now framed in one huge, despairing WHY? “The promise comes of living fit for all,” he continues, “If we only get our back against the wall/I look at backs that pushed the wall for years/Scarred by many knives and too much fear.” Over and over the word “fear” crops up on this record – the fear that keeps a nation’s people in chains, that stops people from really fighting back, rather than fighting amongst themselves. And just as Gaughan thought, at the time he set to make Handful Of Earth, that he needed to stop observing and start participating, then “Just A Shadow” is likewise a dramatic step forward, one which I am not sure resonates beyond Scotland (although it should). The record’s final question is: well, what are WE going to do about all this? Like "Come Back To Me," Watson's E-bow sends the song into something approaching intensity overdrive.

I’m still thinking, just as I thought all the way down on the train from Glasgow, emerging back into London, this overpriced, over-polluted, over-populated, cramped, carbon-emitting, heart attack-inducing, unforgiving, push-or-be-pushed London which I am increasingly weary about and reluctant to call “home.” OK, just as Adamson asks: “Did we ever have it good while we lived in Eldorado?,” there was never a golden age when London was quiet and restrained. There were as many people here in the eighties.

It’s just that in eighties and nineties London, the city seemed like much more of a playground to people like me, whereas in the 21st century it has steadily been closing down its shutters. When I first came here you could live in the middle of town for next to nothing; everything was on your doorstep but, more importantly, was affordable. If you wanted to go to the cinema or the theatre AND buy books and records AND feed and clothe yourself AND pay the rent AND still have money left over, all on a very basic salary, you could. And the people were there, too; people like me, like us, and things could be imagined, created and realised. Things which, at the time, I could never have dreamed of doing had I stayed in Glasgow.

Now nearly all of that has gone and the situation is reversed. Glasgow has not just caught up, as I kept hoping it would do when I was here in the seventies and early eighties, but overtaken London. The book shops are nearly all gone, as are the record shops, as are the affordable temples of culture. I’m not going for the easy, selective nostalgia option – I suspect that the culture scene in London today is far, far superior to what it was even twenty years ago. It’s just that I, and we, have been priced out of it.

However, as I implied near the start of this piece, this would all count for nothing, except that the friends, the network of people I knew and worked with, have also now dissipated  - they “moved on,” as people are wont to do, but I wonder whether something fundamental changed after 7/7. Before then the city was open; after the bombing, it began to close in on itself, habitually view outsiders with suspicion – and that has been growing in the intervening nine or so years. What is therefore left but a city, a blank space which views people who don’t quite fit in with practically undisguised hatred, in a country whose media repeatedly hammers home the lie that “foreigners” are “ruining” things, a country in which even supposedly Left-wing newspapers cackle about “community” being nothing but a “leftie hooray-word” – a country which is making it clearer and clearer that it doesn’t want me in it? Without the people who made it so special, London is nothing.

And so I look back to Scotland, and I read reports about a fire at the Glasgow School of Art – a building which Lena and I walked past less than a fortnight ago – and most things in it having been destroyed; a building which I have known for practically all of my life, a building which plays a major part in my favourite novel (from which I quoted at the beginning of this piece)…and you know what the voice in the back of my head is saying to me? It is saying: you should never have gone, you should have STAYED, you should have FOUGHT BACK.

Or, in the words of a song I heard - and saw - while I was up there, and has subsequently resonated with me in relation to where I was:

"Rise like a phoenix
Out of the ashes
Seeking rather than vengeance
You were warned
Once I'm transformed
Once I’m reborn."

I don’t know what to do about it, and obviously it’s not just about me. But I listen to Steeltown in this context, and I hope in my bones that Scotland has the courage to vote “YES,” defy the threats and start again. And I look at the many orbital roads which circle the city, and how one can suddenly come out right next to Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and I survey what Ian S Munro referred to as “that cracked old gargoyle of a face” that is still the Glasgow skyline, and I know that people, nations of people, are more important than places, or personal advancement. This, Glasgow, is my home, the place from which I come.

It is also important to remember that “Steeltown” is one of the nicknames of Hamilton, Ontario, a place which was almost certainly named after Hamilton, Lanarkshire.

(To RB, the world's second real socialist who happens to share a birthday with me)