Lost in the ’80s: Big Country, “Look Away”

lit80s

It’s amazing to even consider now, but once there were debates on who’d be the bigger band – U2 or Big Country?

It’s obvious who won that little argument, but believe it or not, there was a time around 1983 where it was a dead heat.  Both bands had critical acclaim, hotly touted live shows, and briskly selling albums.  But Big Country had the lead when it came to mainstream acceptance, scoring a Top 40 hit with “In A Big Country” and a platinum album with their debut, The Crossing.  U2 were just starting to break though with War, but singles “New Years Day” and “Two Hearts Beat As One” didn’t make much of a dent on the charts.

Things had changed a bit three years down the road.  U2 were coming off the biggest album of their career at that point, The Unforgettable Fire, and had finally crossed over to Top 40 with “Pride (In The Name Of Love).”  Meanwhile, Big Country remained one-hit wonders, with the EP Wonderland and their second full-length, Steeltown, both flopping in the States (while doing well in the UK).  In 1986, Big Country could use a hit.

Things looked good for their third album, The Seer.  It had peaked at #2 in the UK, and the lead single was the band’s highest charter.  “Look Away” (download) was also issued as the album’s first single in the States and thanks to a snazzy video, MTV embraced the band again.  Things looked hopeful and Big Country looked poised to hit big again:

While MTV jumped on the video, Top 40 radio in the U.S. still considered the band one-hit wonders and didn’t give “Look Away” a fair shake.  However, rock radio embraced the single, sending it into the Top Five of the AOR charts.  It wasn’t enough to push The Seer to the sales heights The Crossing enjoyed, and Big Country remained a marginal-selling cult act in the States.
Each Big Country release sold less and less, and lead singer Stuart Adamson’s alcoholism sent the singer into a downward spiral, culminating in his suicide in 2001.  It was a sad end to a band that, hard as it may be to believe, once had U2 looking over its Irish shoulders.
“Look Away” peaked at #5 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart in 1986.

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  • Jack

    You know what signaled the end? I believe it was what happened one year earlier, in 1985: Live Aid. That performance was U2's introduction to the big leagues. And where was Big Country? Sadly, someone didn't do their homework:

    The organisers of the London leg of Live Aid wanted to have them perform, but were under the mistaken belief that they had disbanded. Even so, the group still showed up for the finale and were even interviewed by the BBC during the day.

    http://rateyourmusic.com/list/yellowbrick/the_a

  • JohnHughes

    Excellent point!

  • MatthewF

    This was the first 12 inch single I ever bought. I remember that when I leant it to someone at school I carefully wrote my name and phone number on the back cover. I remember that the 12″ mix was a classic rubbish 80s mix which just extended the intro and added some whooshing noises.

  • Jonathan

    What other band on Top 40 radio had as energetic and creative a drummer as Big Coutnry had in Mark Brzezicki?!!

  • tdolbyfan

    this was always my favorite Big Country tune along with Wonderland which WXRT in Chicago played lots in the day. I own all of there cds, except all the live ones and compilations which they have 1000s of, but there best one is Greatest 12″ Hits V.1 with of course a 12″ Mix of Look Away. If you would like an mp3 I'm more then willing to send it to you.

  • deltaslide

    Indeed -he was a BADASS drummer-if If I'm not mistaken he also appeared on Pete Townshend's “Chinese Eyes” record playing some amazing stuff…

  • http://playitandbedamned.blogspot.com/ Rob

    Both Mark and Tony Butler (the band's bassist) were childhood friends of Simon Townshend, Pete's brother. They backed him on “Empty Glass” and Tony is featured prominently in the “Let My Love Open the Door” video. Mark now plays with fellow Big Country alum Stuart Watson, Simon and The Jam's Bruce Foxton in the occasional band Casbah Club. They Play Jam, Big Country and Simon songs, and also a few originals.

    “Steeltown,” the band's follow-up to their debut album, was stunning and more political than what U2 was putting out at the time, I thought. Produced again to perfection by Steve Lillywhite, it had the anti-Reagan diatribe “Flame of the West” and the anti-Falklands War single “Where The Rose Is Sown” – but nothing was as hooky as “In a Big Country.”

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com DavidMedsker

    I had that 12″ single as well (I believe they added some horns along with the whooshes), and was pissed when the mix that appeared on the instantly out-of-print Big Country 12″ collection was not the one I had on vinyl. Still looking for that mix, actually.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Dead on. U2's performance of “Bad” was one of the things most viewers took away from Live Aid. Now, it's hard to say if Big Country would have had seen an uptick, but it would have been more gracious than their figurative burst through the exit doors shouting, “We're not dead!”

    At that time though, there were lots of bands in competition for the coveted Next Big Thing assignment – anybody remember The Alarm?

  • http://playitandbedamned.blogspot.com/ rob

    The Alarm actually opened up for U2 for much of the “Under the Blood Red Sky”/”War” tour. They only had their EP out with “The Stand.”

    I would argue thata few American bands werea lso competing for that distinction: Red Rockers, last week's featured artist The Unforgiven, The Rain Makers, Ten Ten…

  • OJ Incandenza

    That, and “White City” too. Plus the Cult's “Love” album.

    I think it's been suggested elsewhere on this site that Big Country were cursed to one-hit wonderdom by having a huge lead single that had the band's name in the title (see also Box, Living in A).

    But then would “Fields of Fire”, “Harvest Home” or even “Wonderland” (outstanding tracks that they all were, and are) have worked as well as a first impression?

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    Heck, the BoDeans even tried being the next U2 for a minute.

  • OJ Incandenza

    Ah yes, the Alarm. Great band (even if their albums got more and more uneven, and I don't think they even saw any chart until dreck like “Presence of Love” and “Sold Me Down the River”), but I don't think early 80s Middle America was quite ready for that hair.

  • http://marcmaronrules.blogsopt.com/ Michael

    A very good band..So sad about Stuart Adamson..
    I thought Big Country was a Scottish band ?
    But,I've been wrong before.. :)

  • JohnHughes

    They are Scottish, yes – you may have misread where I said U2 were looking over their Irish shoulders.

  • Jeff

    Big Country is my favorite band, hands down, period, end of story.

    I've always lamented the fact that they never managed to be as successful in the U.S. as they were in The U.K. and Europe – heck, they were one of, if not THE first rock band to play a concert in Russia, and they were so well received by the fans of the Rolling Stones that they were asked to open for them on several legs of one of their European tours.

    Every single member of that band was and is a fantastic musician. Mark Brzezicki played on The Cult's Love album (well, every song EXCEPT that one), and I think he also played on Fish's (of Marillion fame) solo debut. Tony played with The Pretenders. Stuart's work in The Skids is incredible for being such a young kid at the time – he wrote “The Saints are Coming”, which, irony of ironies, U2 covered with Green Day at that New Orleans Saints game a few years ago.

    What kills me most about this band is that while I was enjoying the hell out of them in high school (early 80's, god I'm old), my friends were all into hair metal and actually laughed at Stuart and the rest of the band for wearing plaid and making bagpipe noises – fast forward to college (late 80's early 90's, when Big Country was still pumping out great songs), and suddenly all of my hair-metal friends are sudden Big Country devotees. I never could figure that out.

    Outside of “Look Away”, I think that Big Country only had one more minor 'hit' in the U.S with “The One I Love”, for the album The Buffalo Skinners, which was sadly underrated.

    I could go on for days about the greatness of this band. Thanks for shining the spotlight on them

  • Pete

    I always thought this song should have been bigger…the hook is easily as catchy as “In a Big Country”.

  • Jeff

    Not to mention that the B-Side of that 12″ contained the (at the time) only way to get the soundtrack to the film Restless Natives – the second half of the soundtrack was included as the B-Side of the single The Teacher.

    The entire soundtrack was later released on the double-CD collection Restless Natives & Rarities – well worth tracking down for a great collection from Big Country.

  • OJ Incandenza

    There's a 12″ mix that runs about 6:30 on the German-import “Seer” CD, along with a bizarre 'disco mix' of “One Great Thing” with saxophones and everything … if you've ever wondered what the Miami Vice theme would sound like if the show were set in Glasgow, I guess this would answer your question.

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  • Awe

    Way back in 83 I was 16 and both “War” and “The Crossing” were my favorite albums. I played them to death and I don't think I ever since have been so passionate aboute any records as I was then. I was not aware of that Stuart Adamson commited suicide i 2001, so I am a bit sad reading it today. I suppose I would have heard of it if it was Bono who had done it instead.

  • Awe

    Way back in 83 I was 16 and both “War” and “The Crossing” were my favorite albums. I played them to death and I don't think I ever since have been so passionate aboute any records as I was then. I was not aware of that Stuart Adamson commited suicide i 2001, so I am a bit sad reading it today. I suppose I would have heard of it if it was Bono who had done it instead.

  • Awe

    Way back in 83 I was 16 and both “War” and “The Crossing” were my favorite albums. I played them to death and I don't think I ever since have been so passionate aboute any records as I was then. I was not aware of that Stuart Adamson commited suicide i 2001, so I am a bit sad reading it today. I suppose I would have heard of it if it was Bono who had done it instead.