Lost in a big country

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It is February 1979. Jimmy Savile is talking into the camera in the Top of the Pops studio, "Owzabout that" he says, and then: "Here they are. At No 10, the Skids with Into the Valley. The camera pans over the dance floor, up on to the stage, and as soon as the song starts singer Richard Jobson begins his manic front-crawl dancing. The lads give a great performance.

But that night, for all the delight they give their fans back home in Dunfermline, what really turns on Jobson and guitarist Stuart Adamson is the sight of Diana Ross, the superstar who’s sharing the bill with them. It’s a supreme moment: they know they’ve made it.

It is a golden, punk memory. Everyone of a certain age from that era has them - from the fans whose spiky hair has given way to baldness or blue rinses to the band members whose ripped jeans have been replaced by cashmere suits.

These days Skids bassist Bill Simpson is a property manager with a firm of solicitors in Dunfermline. Drummer Tom Kellichan is said to have a travel business "down south". Jobson, sometime model, radio presenter and TV personality is now directing a film which, with a black irony, is entitled Sixteen Years of Alcohol. And Adamson who, of them all, made the most of his musical career, has taken off into the mist of alcoholism.

One Wednesday early last month, Adamson walked out of his house in Nashville, Tennessee, leaving a note on the table for his son Callum. It read "back by noon, Sunday". But it was a promise unfulfilled. Days later a fan saw him in an Irish bar in Atlanta. Then the musician met a man from Fife - a stranger, but a kindred spirit who liked football - who offered him a job as a part-time soccer coach in Atlanta. That was three weeks ago. Since then no-one has clapped eyes on him.

Alcoholism is a malignant disease which never goes away, and Adamson has been here before. In 1985, on the day his second band, Big Country, were part of Live Aid, he told friends of his intention to quit the drink, and for 12 years he stayed sober. When he finally broke his own rules, Adamson began a downward spiral that led him to let down his promoters for an album deal in 1999. That year, he "looked like death" on stage in Glasgow with his band Raphaels and he didn’t even turn up for the Edinburgh gig.

"He’s been going through a lot of bad times," says his manager of more than 20 years, Ian Grant. "The sad thing is they’re things that only he can solve. His demons have been bothering him and there’s been a steady decline. We’ve all been doing our best to help him through it."

These days, Jobson, the west Fife miner’s son, is comfortable at home in sleepy Bedfordshire. But Adamson from Crossgates is a musician on the skids, worlds away from agreeable middle age.

It is a stark contrast to the cocoon of the early days, when the Skids were boys together, barely out of their twenties and blinking in the first bright lights of fame.

They’d been spotted in Falkirk by the Stranglers bassist Jean Jacques Burnel, who persuaded his own band’s manager, the same Ian Grant, to book them for gigs at the Hope and Anchor and the Nashville Rooms. Radio One DJ John Peel picked up the beat and soon the band were signed to Virgin Records.

"We had some amazing times," remembers Grant, who soon became the Skids manager. "When you go on the road with a band it’s like being on holiday with someone - but it’s work as well.

"Stuart wasn’t a hellraiser - the Stranglers were far worse. But I guess he liked his alcohol in those early days. We partied a lot, most bands do. After a gig you go back to the hotel. What are you going to do - go to bed? You wind down, so you drink." It’s a lifestyle which can gobble up its victims fast. With hindsight, Jobson might be considered lucky when he fell ill and epilepsy was diagnosed; the former singer now only drinks in moderation.

Adamson, who is said to have suffered a nervous breakdown in the early 1980s, took another route and the beer kept flowing.

The easy conclusion is that fame and fortune took their toll on a very talented and likeable man. Well, yes and no, believes Grant, who went on to manage Big Country through their astonishing run of success in the 1980s.

"From the beginning they proved themselves. They opened for the Jam; six nights at Wembley in a very testing situation. The audience was very partisan and it was Big Country’s third or fourth gig - but they managed to pull it off.

"They supported the Stones in Zagreb. Imagine that. How can you go on the stage in front of 140,000 Croatians who only want to see the Stones? Or before Queen at Knebworth in 1986? They got as good a response as Queen, too.

"They pulled it off again and again. Why? Because Stuart could handle it and it was a great band."

The man who was fulcrum on stage could be cool in a crisis too, according to Grant. "I remember him once breaking a string, and on the spot he made up a little story for the audience while he changed it.

"He said he’d been given this new string which had come via Robert Johnson, who’d passed it on to BB King, who gave it to Eric Clapton - he went through all the genres until he said Steve Jones had given it to him at Virgin one day.

"By the time he’d finished, the string was on the guitar, the band had kept a rhythm going and Stuart picked the song up from where he left off. There’s many times he did extraordinary things like that on stage. If you can do that, that’s the utmost in confidence."

But there are other pressures on pop superstars, especially for bands as prominent as Big Country. Their distinctive "bagpipe" guitar sound (a description Adamson and co-founder Bruce Watson hated), was a quality which could be used against them. Adamson found it hilarious when Viz comic ran a Top Tip saying, "Big Country fans, play the same single over and over again, and you’ll have their greatest hits" but the joke became a stereotype, as reviewers quoted it all the time.

Grant remembers: "There have been times when he was less able to handle the pressure, especially when the media has given him a hard time, the trendy papers, the NMEs. Every band gets ridiculed when they become untrendy. It’s the way it is in the industry. It can be very frustrating as an artist, to have so many hurdles to overcome. Bands can be judged in this country before the CD is on the player."

As Big Country gradually wound down - they played Glastonbury as late as 1998 - Adamson struck out for new challenges. In 1996 he travelled with Grant to Nashville.

His manager recalls: "I thought that with his writing it would be good for him to be inspired by what he often embraced - country music. He’d been brought up on Patsy Cline. We met Tony Brown of MCA records - he used be in Elvis Presley’s band - and all the top people in town. They said: ‘You’re a talented guy, but if you want to get into Nashville, you won’t do it just like that. You’ve got to come here.’ So that’s what he did." Almost as soon as he arrived in America’s capital of Country and Western music, Adamson fell in with Marcus Hummel, a C&W writer who had five number one hits under his belt with other artists. It was a partnership that promised better things. "In the Raphaels, Marcus was a great foil to Stuart, arguably the best since Richard Jobson," says Grant. "There was Richard, then there was Bruce. He needed a foil. It worked - their first album was lovely." Back home he was getting air time on Radio Two: the musical world appeared to be at his fingertips again.

All the while, Adamson immersed himself in the Nashville scene. With his second wife, Melanie, he had a vested interest in the unisex salon TRIM - "classic barber, legendary beauty", - whose clients included Emmylou Harris and the Dixie Chicks. Business success matched his professional good fortune - it seemed like bliss to outsiders.

That is, until a month or two past when the singer appeared to friends to go into decline. Bruce Watson, his collaborator in Big Country, spoke to Adamson eight weeks ago by telephone.

"I could tell he was in a bad way but he seemed determined to get sober," said Watson. "We spoke about the possibility of getting a band together as we had been approached to play some gigs in the Balkans and Falklands.

"He joked about previous press reports that he was traumatised by the gigs we did in Kosovo and came to the conclusion that the most traumatic experience he had was sitting in the tour bus with Vanessa Redgrave for three hours. He still had his sense of humour but I could tell he was hurting badly. I hope all this press attention can get him help."

Ever since his disappearance, Grant and Sandra, Adamson’s first wife, have frantically searched for the musician, and fans all over Britain and America have been making offers of assistance.

Says Grant, "Stuart’s a world away from the po-faced image we created for Big Country. He’s a really nice guy, someone people always love. He loves to laugh, he’s good to be around, and that’s why people want to work with him.

"Maybe he’s just taken space somewhere from everybody. I’d like to think that’s what it is, and he’ll come back once he’s cleared his head." But there’s no pressure on the man, says Grant.

"If we hear he’s in Atlanta and he’s all right, then that’s that, we don’t want to put pressure on him.We don’t want to make it worse for him. We just want to know he’s safe."