Big Country - Steeltown
This album marks a distinct and critical point in the career of Big Country. It was always going to be difficult to top their stunning first album, The Crossing. Yet the band almost did just that with Steeltown. The reasons why they failed to top it provide the most salutary of lessons for all bands who have hit on perfection and do not know what to do next if they have, early in their career, reached the pinnacle of achievement.
What Big Country did was the obvious thing to do but also was, in retrospect, a mistake. They did the same thing as they had done with the first album. Don't get me wrong, I love this album. The strengths of the band which had come to the fore on The Crossing were retained here, but with a more political edge. Yet the album still had that "Famous Five" feel about it, a sort of wide eyed wonder that people, seemingly so insignificant, could have stories to tell, lives to live, adventures to have and a real impact on the destinies of others to make. This was as much an album for the future as it was for the present. The problem was that Steeltown wasn't sufficiently different from The Crossing for people to feel that Big Country were advancing, musically.
The title track was one of the few political songs to hit the charts at a time when Thatcher was busy destroying British manufacturing industry and the livelihoods of thousands of people. Despite its title, it was really about the coal industry and in particular the Miners' Union and, by extension, the role of trade unions and the place of the working man in British society. Billy Bragg might have been too party political for some, but Big Country just told it like it was. This was the view of the ordinary man - promised a future and then betrayed.
Indeed, the whole album has clever political undertones running through it, juxtaposing the theme of war with the destruction of the British manufacturing industry in a subtle subtext, which in itself juxtaposed Thatcher's warmongering over the Falklands with her destructive domestic agenda. And always it comes back to the effect of these macro-scale political decisions on the micro-scale of the lives of ordinary people.
"Just a Shadow" is my favourite track on the whole album, a superb ballad with some great lyrics and a masterful display of guitar work from Stuart Adamson. Then there are the two, closely related, war theme songs. "Where the Rose Is Sown" captures the moment of enthusiasm as young men sign up for war, and at the same time provides some justification for not getting involved, cleverly done by splitting two different verses and then joining them together verse A line 1, verse B line 1, verse A line 2, verse B line 2 and so on. "Come Back to Me" is a heart rending song which tells of a young widow's reaction to the return of men from the war, but not her own.
So what is the downside. Well the simple truth is that The Crossing could not be copied or repeated. Big Country (or more likely their record company) thought they had hit on a winning formula with it, but in fact they had created a one-off masterpiece. They then struggled to repeat the unrepeatable. Their style did not evolve and change to bring new themes, ideas and sounds to the listener. Steeltown is good because it is almost like The Crossing. It is flawed because it is too much like The Crossing.
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on 2011-06-23 Sonata_Girl Said:
I received this album on my sixteenth birthday. That was also the day my uncle, my dad's favorite brother, died suddenly. Your sixteenth birthday, particularly for a girl, is supposed to be something special but it's forever remembered for being a sad day. It's the only day I've ever seen my dad cry.
As much as I love Big Country (and it's a lot) this album comes with a lot of emotional baggage for me. It's been many, many years since I've listened to this on vinyl. To be perfectly honest I'm not sure I could even if I wanted to. Even to listen the remastered cd with bonus tracks takes its toll on me. Even though this album helped me get through that incredibly difficult time, it became so associated with the events of that day that I had to step away from it.
A lot of people say Big Country never lived up to the promise of their debut The Crossing. I don't subscribe to that theory. Steeltown built on the incredible foundation they laid. In the years after this they were a few misfires but personally I feel the lack of success for Big Country, perhaps just in the US, was because of poor marketing. In the early 80's if it came from the UK it was marketed as "New Wave" riding the coattails of Duran Duran. Big Country and Duran Duran are miles apart stylistically but they were marketed the same way. The record companies didn't know what to make of the four Scottish lads with the big guitar sounds so they called them "New Wave", make ridiculous videos trying to emulate Duran Duran yet again and sat back to count their money. When they didn't sell like DD, they promptly ignored them and moved on to the next big thing. This was frustrating for the band I'm sure. They managed to have far more hits in the rest of the world while the US never caught on. It was our loss.
I loved this album in 1985 when I got and I still love it 2009. When I was 16 I was convinced Stuart Adamson was singing "Girl with Grey Eyes" to me. Since then I've figured out he wasn't but it was a fun dream while it lasted. "Where the Rose Is Sown" is still one of my all time favorite songs with it's rightful indignation of war. "Tall Ships Go", "Rain Dance", "Steeltown" and "Flame of the West" still sound just as amazing today as they did way back when.
Looking at the track listing now, I'm singing all of these songs in my head. I still know all of the words. Yes, I have the cd and have listened to it countless times but I know, it's from the summer of 85 when I'd put my headphones on and listen to this album until the pain stopped.
One day perhaps, I can break the vinyl out and listen to it again but if that never happens I'm okay with it. I know how much this album means to me and it will forever be a part of me as Big Country always will be.
on 2011-02-22 CharlesMartel Said:
Sophomore album which almost lived up to the promise of the debut. Big Country's most political album has flaws, but these seem to diminish with time.