Bruce Watson was an apprentice at Rosyth Dockyard when he teamed up with Stuart Adamson to form Big Country in the early 80s. As he prepares to celebrate 35 years since iconic debut album The Crossing, the guitarist tells Fiona Shepherd about the band’s early days
In December, Big Country and The Skids, those two Dunfermline rock behemoths, linked in spirit and bereavement, played a joint gig for the first time ever, raising funds for Paisley’s Loud n Proud rock school. For guitarist Bruce Watson, a member of both bands along with his son Jamie, this was potentially double trouble. “I try not to cross-contaminate the two bands if possible but I think our paths will cross in the future,” he says.
Both groups are very much active in 2018. Big Country are marking the 35th birthday of their stirring, soaring debut album, The Crossing, including a date at Celtic Connections. Meanwhile, The Skids’ 40th anniversary celebrations continue apace with the release of Burning Cities, their first new album since 1981’s Joy. Watson was never part of their original Skids incarnation but as a Dunfermline guitar-for-hire he was a candidate to join as a wingman to their trailblazing lead guitarist Stuart Adamson.
“At the time I was probably too young and I was still doing my apprenticeship at the dockyard,” he says. But the seed was planted for the driven Adamson and when he left The Skids at the turn of the 80s for unknown pastures new, it was to Watson’s door he came knocking.
“He said ‘we should get together and do some guitar thing’ and I just thought he was being kind,” Watson recalls, “but one day he just turned up at my flat and said ‘today’s the day’. The week after that we got ourselves a portastudio and got ourselves up to Townhill Institute [now the Townhill Community Centre in Dunfermline, for those who would like to make a pilgrimage] and started writing songs. Those songs became part of the first [Big Country] album.
“At the time it was just Stuart and myself, we never had a band. We had a drum machine and a synthesizer, which we would stick on an ironing board. We could have ended up like Soft Cell or Depeche Mode at one point because we were doing a lot of synthesizer stuff and we would just experiment.
“There wasn’t a time limit or pressure to come up with something because no one else was interested, but there was an end game, which was to come up with some really good songs.”
Ironically, given the synthesizers in the mix, their early demos were rejected by record companies who were focused on the nascent synth pop scene of the early 80s. Big Country, as they were to develop with their hearty guitars, unapologetic Celtrock anthems and flannel shirts, were at polar odds with the Eurochic sheen of the synth pop acts and the foppish poseurs of the New Romantic movement.
“The idea from the very start was to make it cinematic and as big as you can get,” says Watson. “There were loads of twin guitar bands out there like Status Quo, Thin Lizzy and AC/DC, and we loved those bands but we didn’t want to sound like them. They were very blues-based so we thought let’s stay away from the blues and play melodic lines straight and put loads of effects on them. If you can whistle the vocal melody and the guitar melody, that is the thing. You couldn’t go to school or college to learn about music, you just had to pick it up in little dark rooms above pubs, so I would just learn recording techniques off Stuart. Every song that Stuart and I recorded in the early days was almost like The Shadows without Cliff Richard – every track was an instrumental until Stuart took the cassette away at the end of the day to work on his lyrics and overdub his vocals.”
There were further false starts along the way. Brothers Pete and Alan Wishart – the former now better known as the SNP Member of Parliament for Perth – joined the band for a support tour with Alice Cooper, a trial-by-fire (literally, given Cooper’s stage antics) which only lasted a few dates before the budding band were asked/told to leave the tour. Rhythm section sessioneers Tony Butler and Mark Brzezicki were recruited instead to polish up some recordings and ended up getting the permanent gig, forming a stable foursome with Adamson and Watson through their 80s prime right up to Adamson’s devastating suicide in 2001.
Watson was a reluctant participant in Big Country’s initial reunion when the three surviving members came together in 2007 to mark the band’s quarter century, with Adamson’s place centre stage respectfully remaining vacant. However, moving forward, Watson had other ideas. “I always thought for Big Country to work you would need at least four or five people involved if you wanted to do the old songs justice,” he says.
He’s much happier celebrating the group’s 35th birthday with an expanded line-up which now includes vocalist Simon Hough and bassist Scott Whitley, serving that justice to a set of timeless songs, including debut hit Fields of Fire (400 Miles), the chiming ballad Chance and their title anthem In A Big Country, which forged their distinctive bagpipe-toned guitar sound, set the benchmark for their career and influenced young bucks such as Manic Street Preachers’ singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, who has been a passionate acolyte of Adamson’s playing over the years.
For Watson, it is an opportunity to revisit that most exciting period in a band’s life, when the right elements come together, spark off each other and produce a sound for band and fans to rally behind.
“It’s like losing your virginity,” he laughs. “It’s your first time and it was a good experience. Everything was new to me and I can remember a lot of stuff from that era. I was able to work in big studios with top class producers, just watching them, looking and learning all the time. It was a dream come true for me.”
Big Country mark the 35th anniversary of The Crossing at ABC, Glasgow, 26 January as part of Celtic Connections