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How We Made: Big Country on Chance

Bruce Watson, guitarist and songwriter

I knew [singer/guitarist] Stuart Adamson when he was in Skids and I was with the Delinquents and all the bands in Dunfermline used to rehearse in stables side by side. When Skids were making their third album, he said to me, “Wouldn’t it be great to do a double guitar thing?” I thought he was just nice. When Skids broke up, he knocked on my door and said, “Remember that conversation? Do you still want to do it?”

The first Big Country lineup went on tour with Alice Cooper, which was a crazy mistake. The crowd threw bottles of piss at us and all sorts so we were taken off the tour. Our rhythm section was really good musicians, but for some reason it didn’t go well. Our manager had seen Tony Butler [bass] and Mark Brzezicki [drums] playing with Pete Townshend. They were basically a rental rhythm section, so we had them play on some of our demos and thought, “This would be a great band.” We persuaded them to join us and we clicked.

The idea of ​​plaid or tartan shirts came from Bruce Springsteen. American working men wore them – and you could buy them cheap at millet! The plan was for a twin guitar band that wouldn’t sound like Thin Lizzy or Status Quo, so we avoided playing blues licks. We played a lot of drone strings, so people said “the guitars sound like bagpipes”.

Opportunity started as an idea that I put on a four-track recorder. Stuart came up with the chorus and lyrics, which were always fantastic. The music was usually very uplifting, but there was a lot of tragedy in Stuart’s lyrics. Chance is almost a sink drama.

Some nights we would go off stage and the audience just started singing the chorus – “Oh Lord, where did the feeling go?” They wouldn’t stop, so you’d go back and play with them. I still dream about Stuart [the singer killed himself in 2001]. Coincidence can move you to tears, especially that line. I try not to think too much about it on stage when I play it now, otherwise I would just give up.

Tony Butler, bass and backing vocals

I wanted Mark and I to be the Sly and Robbie of Soho, but the Big Country manager asked us if we wanted to play with these guys from Scotland. We got together and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying – but it was a great band to play in. Live it was fun from start to finish, and the songs were dynamic enough to hold the atmosphere for ages. As a black British West Indian I like music to move in a certain way and that appealed to Stuart. Mark and I let the music swing.

Initially, Stuart was not a very good singer. He’d always been a sideman—be it for Richard Jobson in Skids or anyone else—but he wrote songs and wanted to be the person who sang them. [Producer] Steve Lillywhite has done a lot of work with Stuart helping him find his own voice and bridge the gap from guitarist to singer-guitarist-frontman.

Bagpipe guitars… Tony Butler, Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki and Bruce Watson in Munich in 1984. Photo: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

Stuart was well read, but he didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Chance is about a situation he would often have encountered in a small town in Scotland: a woman marries young, has two sons, a man leaves and suddenly she is a single parent. She fell for the first man who treated her well – “He came off the factory floor like a hero” – and there’s that hint of violence, or at least rejection in her childhood, with “your father’s hand always on a fist seemed”.

Stuart did something very special with the chorus. He was not religious, but he used “Oh Lord” in the sense that someone could yell “Oh Jesus Christ” if something goes wrong.

I got to know Stuart as well as he wanted me to. He did his best to make people understand that he was a normal small-town man and that he was nothing special or a ‘spokesperson for a generation’. He followed football, sat in the pub, kept to himself and did not talk about his feelings. Strapping his guitar was the only thing that made him different, but in his songs he could articulate and connect the lives of ordinary people.

  • Vinyl reissues of Big Country’s first live album Without the Aid of a Safety Net and sixth album The Buffalo Skinners are out now. The current line-up – with Bruce Watson and Mark Brzezicki – is touring the UK until June.