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TIM HUGHES talks to Big Country about their latest tour, supported by a well-known face On the surface it looks like the perfect combination of classic pop and popular culture. Eighties power pop act Big Country are back on the road. And they’re touring with – get this – that actress off of Downton Abbey!
Yes, the guys behind the monumental anthems Fields of Fire, Look Away, Chance and In a Big Country have regrouped and are reaching back over three decades to those glorious days when their Scottish-tinged sound battled away in the charts with the likes of U2 and Simple Minds.
And supporting them is singer-songwriter Elizabeth McGovern, one-time fiancée of Sean Penn and better known for her role as Cora, Countess of Grantham, in the Sunday evening telly show, but who also makes a living fronting her band Sadie & The Hotheads.
And, as weird as it sounds, it’s a beautiful partnership.
“It’s true that we are touring with a notorious actress from Downton Abbey,” grins bass player and founder member Tony Butler.
“A lot of people know her from the programme, but are not familiar with the band.”
And Tony admits that included him. “I watched Downton avidly,” he goes on, though it’s not clear whether this quick-witted pop star-turned-music-teacher-turned-born-again-rocker is having an elaborate joke at my expense.
“When I met her I asked her lots of questions about the next series. But she was bound to secrecy!”
Chatty, warm and self-effacing, Tony is one of those guys who, in the nicest possible way, has nothing to prove. His band were one of the biggest of the 1980s, and their classic album The Crossing sold two million copies. And although they have been through more than their share of ups and downs since, they have a loyal fanbase who will turn out to see them at the drop of a tartan hat.
And Big Country, despite the aching void left by the death of former frontman (and Skids legend) Stuart Adamson, still sound every inch the stadium rockers. And their show at the O2 Academy, Oxford, on Thursday, June 21 – a warm-up for their set at the Isle of Wight Festival two days later – will be a cause for celebration for any fan of 80s pop.
The tragic, but brilliant, Adamson (who Paul Weller described as “the finest human being on the planet”) died in 2001 – hanging himself in a hotel in Hawaii.
“Unfortunately, Stuart had problems with alcoholism and depression,” says Tony. “He never took the opportunity to go to see anyone about it, though, and took his own life.”
He is, says Tony, irreplaceable, though his space at the front of the band has been respectfully taken by Mike Peters of The Alarm. The Welshman makes a fine job of filling in for the only member of this most Scottish-sounding of bands to have actually been brought up (if not actually born) north of the border.
“None of the group is actually Scottish,” says Tony. “But then it doesn’t matter where you are from.”
Part of the reason for the band’s Scottish credentials is the high level of production on their records – creating Celtic-themed epic rock on which guitars are made to sound like bagpipes and fiddles. It can still send a shiver down the spine – even if the closest you’ve got to the Highlands is the single malt shelf of your local supermarket.
“We were just a bunch of like-minded musicians who came together, and the chemistry of the band worked. We all played with attitude and wanted to stand apart from everything else at the time,” explains Tony of their key sound. “That’s all we wanted to do. Like U2, at the time, we were never comfortable as celebs.
“After Stuart’s death, we felt the band had run its course, and we were reluctant to get the group together or join other musicians. I didn’t feel the need for it.
“But we eventually decided to get the band back together with Mike and put on a tour. And it went down so well it would have been a shame not to carry on.”
The line-up of 68 Guns star Mike, Tony, guitarist Bruce Watson, his son Jamie Watson, and drummer Mark Brzezicki certainly seems to work.
“We decided we were going to make it credible to ourselves,” continues Tony. “That meant finding someone we could perform with without being disrespectful to Stuart’s memory.
“And it has been well-received, which is a relief, as I didn’t know how people would feel about someone else fronting the band," says Tony.
“Stuart still has a spiritual presence though. His music is still important to all of us and when we are touring he’s still with us; we leave a space at the middle of the stage for him.”
And, says Tony, the band loves getting out in front of the fans. “The hardcore fans have seen us a few hundred times already, but it’s great because now they bring their kids – who love it just as much.
“All the songs we play feel very fresh. So if you are coming along to the show, wear a helmet and prepare to hear some hits!”
* Big Country, supported by Sadie & The Hotheads, play the O2 Academy, Oxford, on Thursday, June 21.
Tickets cost £20 from ticketweb.co.uk
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