Once in a while, a musician slips through the net and, for various reasons, doesn’t get the applause he deserves from the general public. While there are many notable examples of this phenomenon, from Nick Drake to the pioneers of Death Punk, I was recently reminded of one of contemporary culture’s most criminally overlooked geniuses. It’s the story of Stuart Adamson, a man once hailed as Jimi Hendrix’s successor.
From the European Football Champions in the summer of 2021, an image has been circulating online of The Cure frontman Robert Smith taken in the 1980s. Smith sports his hair combed back and dons a long England football shirt, with questionably short shorts. In the photo, Smith shakes hands with a taller man with spiky hair who is wearing a Scottish kit. It amazed me how well the photo made the rounds, but hardly anyone seems to know who the Scottish gentleman is. Actually has been. That man is Stuart Adamson, and he might be the most influential musician you’ve ever heard of.
Adamson’s story is not as well known as it should be, due to his suicide, aged 43, in Hawaii in December 2001. However, to his peers and fans, Adamson’s work speaks for itself. Born in Manchester in 1958, the budding musician’s family moved to the Dunfermline area of Scotland when he was just four years old. During his youth, Adamson dabbled in music, always keeping a close eye on the folk genre. However, it was in the mid-1970s that Adamson really hit his stride. Like many of his generation, he was galvanized by the punk movement, and after seeing The Damned perform in Edinburgh in 1976, he formed Tattoo, a band with his friend William Simpson on bass. Then, the following year, at the age of 18, Adamson founded The Skids, a band that would become one of the most influential bands of the time.
Taking Simpson with him, Tattoo recruited drummer Thomas Kellichan, and they played as a trio until they met 16-year-old Richard Jobson. Recruiting Jobson on the spot, the young teenager became the band’s frontman, with him and Adamson beginning a formidable songwriting partnership. Their most memorable hit came in the form of 1979’s “Into the Valley”, but it was just one of four tracks that were recorded in the UK that year.
However, one of their biggest cuts from this period was “The Saints are Coming”, one of the most visceral punk tracks released at the time. In fact, the track was so influential that it established the band as a genre staple, so much so that in 2006 Green Day and U2 recorded a charity cover of the song. The U2 guitarist Edge has long been a vocal admirer of Adamson and called him a “great inspiration” for early U2.
Finding his bearings, Adamson played on the Skids’ first three albums before leaving in 1981 after a period of line-up changes and disagreements with Jobson, who is said to have become increasingly dominant. Interestingly, the band ended their first chapter the following year, with Jobson and bassist Russell Webb forming the short-lived act titled The Armory Show. As seems to be the trend, this band also falls into the criminally neglected category, with the single “Castles in Spain” providing an absolute masterclass in post-punk guitar playing.
Adamson will then experience his most fruitful period, a time when he is now master of his creative destiny. Giving fans an account of what he looked like, Jobson, who would later reflect on his former bandmate, said, “He was a guy who had a mortgage, a wife and a family when we were all trying to live a mythical punk lifestyle. ,” he said. “He seemed level-headed, grounded.”
Big Country became the pioneer of a loose collection of acts falling within the ‘Big Music’ genre, alongside the Waterboys, U2, Simple Minds, The Alarm and, more tenuously, Echo and the Bunnymen. Their music was more upbeat than anything else, augmented by expansive production and a penchant for a soaring chorus. The band released their debut album, The passage, in 1983, which included singles such as ‘Harvest Home, ‘Fields of Fire’ and the unforgettable ‘In a Big Country’. They became one of the most prominent artists of the time, with Adamson being almost universally renowned for his songwriting and guitar playing. Famous, the latter was characterized by being a supporter of the E-bow and MXR height transmitter.
By 1991, they had released five albums, including 1984’s Steeltown and 1986 Warning light. Reflecting how prominent Adamson’s position was by now, it was the most famous purveyor of new music, John Peel, who went so far as to call him “the new Jimi Hendrix”. To compound how well-respected Adamson was, an anecdote published in the world news in 2006. It told the story of Big Country bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki coming up against a stunned Noel Gallagher at the 1998 Sky Sports Awards in London. “I know who you are,” Gallagher told the pair after walking through the crowd, eager to meet them. “I have all your files.” He then revealed that Oasis was playing Big Country music at full volume on their tour bus, with Butler saying, “We would have a lot of fun with Noel. He knew the band so well… It was very flattering to get such respect from him.
Recalling the powerful partnership between Adamson and band guitarist Bruce Watson, Brzezicki recalled, “Bruce’s guitar style was unique, the way he and Stuart worked together was amazing…and, of course, as a vocalist, Stuart was unique with a great voice.”
Big Country separated in 2000. At the time, Adamson was living in Nashville, Tennessee, having moved there at the end of his first marriage. In 1999, he formed alternative country band The Raphaels alongside Marcus Hummon. However, things quickly came to a halt.
Adamson’s death came as a surprise to everyone, as he was found hanged in his Honolulu hotel, using an electrical cord from a pole in the closet. A coroner’s report later found he had consumed a “very heavy” amount of alcohol before his death. Reflecting the impact he had in his life, his funeral on December 27 was attended by hundreds of people, including Jobson, his former Big Country bandmates and U2. After Adamson’s death, The Edge said, “Stuart has made great music over his career and his character has gone through everything he’s done.”
He continued, “He had a heart as big as a mountain, and he was a real romantic soul…He will be missed by all who loved his music and even more so by those lucky enough to know him personally.”
Stuart Adamson was one of a kind and, 21 years after his death, there’s no better time to dive into his work and explore the breadth of his talent.
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