Stuart Adamson (Getty Images)
On his birthday we look back on the life and career of guitarist and songwriter Stuart Adamson, once called "Britain's answer to Jimi Hendrix."
When Adamson scored his biggest hit with Big Country's anthemic "In a Big County" and the video was in heavy rotation on MTV, a friend convinced me that even though Adamson played a guitar in the video, there wasn't actually one in the recorded song. My seemingly knowledgeable friend assured me that the razor-sharp, ringing sound in the Celtic-flavored solo was in fact produced by an electric bagpipe. It was a notion I believed at the time because, well, it sounded much as I imagined an electric bagpipe would.
In reality, it was a guitar – albeit one run though a bevy of effects – but Adamson produced such a unique tone one could be forgiven for thinking it was issued from some exotic instrument hitherto unheard in the annals of rock 'n' roll.
Adamson hated the bagpipe comparison, and would do much to distance himself from it in the latter stages of his career, but it may be one reason that he was recently voted Scotland's best guitarist ever in a recent online poll. Despite having only one global hit to his credit, one can surmise he beat out the likes of Angus Young (AC/DC) and Brian 'Robo' Robertson (Thin Lizzy, Motorhead) not because of his virtuosic technical ability, but because he managed to give the instrument a uniquely tartan sound.
Williams Stuart Adamson was born 11 April 1958 not in Scotland but in Manchester, England. The Scots family returned to Scotland when Adamson was 4, settling in a small mining village called Crossgates. Stuart's well-travelled father was in the fishing industry. Both his parents had a love of folk music and encouraged their children to pursue literature and music.
The punk rock ethos that dictated anyone could be in a band regardless of musical ability further inspired Adamson. After he saw a performance by The Damned in 1976, he formed his first band, The Tattoos. Two years later, he recruited singer Richard Jobson, a teenager Adamson described as "the only other punk in town," and formed The Skids.
The Skids had a UK Top 10 hit with 1979's "Into the Valley" and, despite being a relatively short-lived outfit plagued by a host of line-up changes, would manage to chart in the UK four times and later have their songs covered by the likes of U2 and Green Day.
But it is his work with Big County for which Adamson is chiefly remembered. The band formed in 1981 and spent eight months rehearsing in a furniture warehouse before emerging with a triumphant gig in their hometown of Dumferline. After playing an ill-conceived opening slot for Alice Cooper (the band was dropped from the tour after only two gigs), Big Country first charted with 1982's "Harvest Home" and would later reach the Top 10 on the UK Singles chart with "Fields of Fire."
But it was "In A Big Country" that became a worldwide hit, propelling their album The Crossing to a million sales in the UK and gold record status in America, where they'd make appearances on Saturday Night Live and at the Grammys.
Adamson's distinctive guitar sound, for all you six-string geeks out there, was largely achieved through the use of an MRX pitch transposer and an e-bow, a device that Adamson was among the first to master but that was later incorporated by the likes of U2's The Edge, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and James Hetfield of Metallica.
Big Country's first album would prove their commercial high point, at least in the U.S. They charted only one more song in America (1984's "Wonderland" stalled out at No. 86), but had continued success in Europe, their second album debuting at No. 1 in the UK. Their third, The Seer also did well, but the fickle beast of UK musical tabloid journalism finally turned against them with the release of Peace in Our Time. Recorded in Los Angeles, the album was dismissed as a transparent attempt to win back a share of the U.S. market and was roundly panned.
After their next album sold even more poorly, the band was dropped by their label in 1991. Despite this, they retained a large following in the UK and were a popular supporting act, opening for the likes of The Who and The Rolling Stones.
But during the 1990s, Adamson's personal problems came increasingly to the fore. After he and his first wife divorced, she detailed his struggle with alcoholism to the tabloids.
"When Big Country exploded into the big time, Stuart couldn't really handle it," Adamson's manager and friend Ian Grant told the Sunday Herald in 2001. "He didn't want to be Mr. Celebrity. He loved the limelight but shunned the attention. He was paradoxical about what fame gave him."
Adamson moved to Nashville in 1996 and with songwriter Marcus Hummon recorded an alt-country album as The Raphaels. Despite joining AA and achieving short-term sobriety, he still struggled with relapses. He disappeared for a time in 1999, failing to show for a series of gigs.
In 2000 Adamson returned to Big County for a successful farewell tour, including a well-received, sold-out performance in Glasgow. But 2001 saw him drifting again, unable to decide whether to record another Big Country album, to continue with The Raphaels, or to record a punk rock solo album he'd been mulling over. A longtime football fanatic who counted Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson among his friends, Adamson considered becoming a youth soccer coach in Atlanta as way to escape the pressures of the music industry.
It was while watching a soccer game on TV at an Irish pub in Atlanta that Adamson enacted his final disappearance. He stood up and walked out of the bar. Days later, he was found in a Honolulu hotel room, dead at 43. His death was ruled a suicide by hanging and his autopsy showed a blood alcohol level of .28.
Among those to eulogize him was U2's The Edge, who summed up what Adamson's music conveyed and why so many fans were drawn to him.
"He had a heart as big as a mountain."