Monday, 3 February 2020

Robbie Burns Special ~ The Rise & Fall Of The Big Sound Of Celtic Post Punk

The early to mid eighties brought a brief but powerful genre of post-punk guitar rock; Celt Rockers, guitar based bands with ringing guitars, rousing vocals and martial drums, all drenched in echo all playing soaring anthems that sounded like calls to battle. Bands like U2 (Ireland), Big Country (Scotland), The Alarm (Wales), the rootsier Waterboys (Scotland), and briefly Simple Minds (Scotland) were the leaders of this clan. Although these bands had roots in the same post-punk scene as the likes of Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Gang Of Four, Magazine, Ultravox, Wire, Psychedelic Furs, the Cure, Cult and Echo & The Bunnymen. The Celts had a distinctive approach, the English post-punks, while certainly capable of playing rousing calls to action (especially Gang Of Four) for the most part cultivated an image of dour, moody, introspection and lyrical obscurity. Their music belonged in dark underground clubs and occasionally cavernous dance halls or for sitting at home scanning the covers and liner notes for hidden meanings. The Celt bands on-the-other-hand sounded like they belonged in misty hills and glens gathering the clans for combat. Instead of English reserve and faux-profundity their lyrics invoked dreamy mystical imagery with more overt left-wing nationalistic political calls to action.


There were already punk and post-punk bands from the Celtic fringe era of course but they fit into existing genres of Punk (Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Exploited, Outsiders), Post-Punk (Midge Ure of Ultravox and Visage, John McGeogh of Magazine, The Banshees and Visage, The Boomtown Rats, Simple Minds), Pop Punk (The Jolt, The Revillos) New Wave (the Cuban Heels, Altered Images, Orange Juice), Proto-Industrial (Robert Rental), Rockabilly (Shakin' Pyramids) or Pub Rock (Billy Bremner of Rockpile and the Knopfler Bros of Dire Straits) plus proto-punks Thin Lizzy if they count. But these bands were not notably different from Anglo bands. There was nothing particularly Celtic about them aside from a few Irish folk music refrences from Thin Lizzy.


The most iconic and successful of these bands was of course U2 whose first three albums ("Boy" (1980), "October" (1981), "War" (1983) and the 1984 live "Under A Blood Red Sky") basically codified the sound with Big Country following up with three albums starting with "The Crossing" (1983), "Wonderland" (1984) and "Steeltown" (1985) and the Alarm with an ep in 1983 and the "Declaration" (1984) album. All these albums differed from the English post punk guitar bands in another significant way; they were actually hits in the USA. The Anglo bands were often critical darlings and earned cult followings in a few big cities in the American North East and a few college towns and Canada but the response from the heartland and commercial radio was underwhelming. All that mopey English reserve and arch artiness along with guys in eyeliner and severe haircuts left the heartland cold, but U2 and Big Country had a populist streak and their rousing epic sound were perfect for the stadiums of the mid-west industrial towns in a way that even Joy Division, for all their brilliance, could never be. To say nothing of the harsh, dour Marxist dialectics of Gang Of Four, New Model Army or Easterhouse, the only Anglo bands who actually could, and occasionally did, record a rousing anthem.


Actually this whole genre did not start with U2's 1980 album "Boy" but with a band that has been largely forgotten outside their native Scotland; The Skids. Headed by singer/lyricist Richard Jobson and guitarist Stuart Adamson and starting in with their 1978 first ep and 79 album, "Scared To Dance" and the iconic singles "Into The Valley" and "The Saints Are Coming" all the essentials are there. Loud, ringing guitars, rousing battle cry vocals and war drums in a joyous headlong gathering of the clans. The cornerstones of everything the eighties U2, Big Country and Alarm would be are clearly on deck. As a singer Richard Jobson was an acquired taste, with his tuneless, wobbly, bellow making Sham 69's Jimmy Pursey sound like Brian Ferry but Stuart Adamson's guitar clearly previewing his later work in Big Country albeit without the one piece missing; the echo-drenched production that Steve Lillywhite would bring to U2 and Big Country. More on him later. The Skids anthemic Celt Rock would be cited as an influence by both U2 (who would cover Skids songs in their early days and occasionally afterwards) and The Alarm while Tenpole Tudor's "Swords Of 1000 Men" would basically sound like a drunken version of the Skids.


The Skids would have a couple hits and get attention from critics in the UK (but not elsewhere) but their biggest impact would be in the Celtic fringe of Scotland, Ireland and Wales where they offered a stadium ready escapist alternative to Anglo gloom and doom, and one rooted in Celtic culture. The Skids themselves would not survive long enough to make good on their promise however. They were already a chronically unstable band (each album has a different rhythm section) but the bigger problem was Jobson. Besides being a terrible singer he was also a dilettante with ambitions of being a poet, play-write and actor, in the early days he did however have enough boisterous energy to spare. For the 1979 second album "Days In Europa" his lyrics are becoming denser and more pretentious although there were enough anthems like "Working For The Yankee Dollar" to make it work. The album cover also got some flack for using the same sort of Nazi poster Joy Division used on their 1978 ep. Neither band were in any way Nazis but flirting with Nazi imagery was briefly fashionable in the punk and post-punk scene until they realized they were attracting the wrong sort of attention. The Skids later switched the cover art with a more Wiemar Republic influenced one, something that other bands would also do, notably Ultravox and Visage. By the 1980 third album "The Absolute Game" the Skids had clearly lost their way. Jobson was spending more time branching out into poetry and acting and the album is a dreary pretentious mess. After that Stuart Adamson left and that really should have the end of things but Jobson carried on with the Skids as essentially a backup group to his artsy posturings for a year or so before the inevitable pretentious solo album backed with Scottish guitarist John McGeogh, fresh from English post punkers Magazine and Visage, and English pianist/singer Virginia Astley for an album of dreamy Celtic mysticism that would presage ethereal Scottish dream pop band the Cocteau Twins, and traditional Irish bands Clannad and Enya who would do it much better.


Another early influential Scottish Post-Punk guitar band were Josef K starting in 1979 whose dark, angular, jittery music had much in common with artsy Anglo-Post punks Joy Division, Wire, Subway Sect, Desperate Bicycles and the Fall albeit somewhat more upbeat and dance-able. They would only record a string of singles which had some middling chart success and one 1981 album before breaking up. Although their short career did not get a lot of attention they were an obvious influence on some later bands including Bauhaus, Gang Of Four, The Smiths and especially Franz Ferdinand.


A more hard to place Scottish band were Fingerprintz who were one of the great lost bands of the post-punk era, a talented, eccentric band led by singer Jimmy O'Neil who got uniformly enthusiastic reviews over the course of three solid but very different albums that were too hard to classify. The first album "The Very Dab" was full of dark quirky guitar art-pop somewhat similar to XTC that showed much promise while the second was more polished but still did not managed to score a real hit. The third album "Bete Noir" was a complete change in direction, a slickly dark dance album with funky basslines and even horns similar to Visage's second album. But while songs like "Catwalk" and "Beat Escape" got some play from dance club DJ's play it had little appeal for rock fans and the album's only middling sales cost them their record deal and the band then broke up.


As fate would have it just as the musical Skids were hitting the metaphorical skids U2 were taking their template to the obvious next level with their 1980 debut "Boy" produced by English producer Steve Lillywhite who would provide the distinctive ringing echo-drenched guitar with soaring vocals that would become the signature sound for U2 and Big Country. That he got the gig at all was due to the death of Ian Curtis. By 1980 U2 had recorded two singles in Ireland that got enough attention to get them signed to a UK label and a deal to record with Joy Division's producer Martin Hannett. The first two singles were in the same basic neighbourhood as other literate guitar based post-punk like Magazine, and the Skids. The Hannett produced single "11 O'Clock Tic Toc" b/w "Touch" cleaned up their sound and set them in a direction best described as "Happy Joy Division". How the planned debut album would have sounded with Hannett at the helm is one of the great unanswered questions of the Post-Punk era. But then Ian Curtis hanged himself and Hannett dropped his existing projects to guide the surviving members (as New Order) through a new album. The two most promising of these projects were an English band, The Psychedelic Furs (who had also already recorded a single with Hannett) and U2. Ironically both bands then turned to (or were assigned to) the same producer; Steve Lillywhite.

U2 ~ "GLORIA";

Steve Lillywhite had made a bit of name producing producing an impressive array of good albums; Peter Gabriel's second album (the one with "Games Without Frontiers" "I Don't Remember" and "Biko"), Siouxsie & Banshee's debut, the first two albums from Ultravox (then led by John Foxx), the third and fourth albums by XTC and the second album from Penetration. These albums, while not sounding the same, did have similar features; loud ringing guitars, vocals clear and out front, staccato drums, clean separation of all the instruments and echo, lots of echo. This turned out to be the missing piece for for U2 giving them the perfect pallet for their canvas of epic guitar rock through the next three albums. The rest of the U2 story is too well-known to dwell on here but one by-product of their surprising success was getting the attention of Stuart Adamson then free of the Skid's sinking ship. Adamson had formed a new band named Big Country, going the Skids (and U2) one better by having not one but two ringing guitars, bassist Tony Butler fresh from recording the Pretenders brilliant single "Back On The Chain Gang" b/w "My City Was Gone" and ace drummer Mark Brezezcki who would also play on the Cult's classic "Love" album. The main feature however was Stuart Adamson's guitar; everybody took note of the wailing bagpipe sound but the Scottish influences went deeper than mere production tricks. Adamson's playing incorporated bagpipe melodies and and fiddle reels and Brezezcki's drums worked in pipeband drum rolls on songs like "Fields Of Fire" and "Close Action" and the big hit "In A Big Country".


The resulting debut album "The Crossing" scored an immediate cross Atlanic hit with "In A Big Country" and sent record labels searching for the next in what now appeared to be an actual genre of Celtic guitar bands. Up popped Welsh band the Alarm. They had been playing around the punk scene with their quirk being using acoustic guitars (albeit amplified) with their rousing Clash and Sham 69 anthems and wearing a combination of American cowboy and Civil War outfits with giant exploding thatches of hair. Their 1983 debut album and album "Declaration" (neither produced by Lillywhite this time) did not get the same kind of critical hosannas as U2 and Big Country with most critics finding them promising but somewhat derivative. Still it got success on both sides of the ocean with songs "68 Guns", "The Stand" and "Where Were You Hiding". The 1985 followup "Strength" carried on in a similar vein albeit with less success.


Another Scottish figure would also take a while to figure out his sound was Mike Scott who started out as early as 1978 in the wake of the Skids with a similar Another Pretty Face wich included some big guitar anthems like "Whatever Happened To The West" and "All The Boys Love Carrie" along with some more pretentious piano driven ballads. They scored some early success in the UK and toured the USA before falling apart by 1981.


When Scott reemerged a couple years later with a new band the Waterboys with a ever-changing cast. Their sound was both more authentically folkrock and soulful then the other bands, mixing in some organ and horns while still having some stadium bombast with songs like "The Whole Of The Sea" and "Don't Bang The Drum" making them a more like a post-punk Van Morrison. They would also give this whole genre of Celt Rock a name which they dubbed "The Big Sound" even though they didn't really have the same dose of loud guitar anthems any more. The Waterboys would end up scoring more success than Another Pretty Face in America and especially Canada.


A band that would score the biggest (and frankly surprising) success with a fusion of Celtic Folk Rock were Dexy's Midnight Runners, a Birmingham based band led by Irish born Kevin Rowland. He had started out with the Killjoys, a typical Pop Punk band who scored a minor hit in 1978. By 1979 Rowland had broken up the Killjoys and formed a new band as Dexys which would reject punk entirely in favour of 1960's inspired Soul Rock with a horn section. They scored some more success with their first album "Searching For The Lost Soul Rebels" and touring with similar sounding and looking Ska bands like The Specials and The English Beat. However the band was unstable and rebelled against Rowland's autocratic rule and broke up. Rowland would start over again with another lineup which got dropped from thier label and broke up yet again. When the ever stubborn Rowland reformed the band yet again it was in a very differnt form as he leaned into his Irish roots channelling Van Morrison for a Celtic Soul sound adding in traditional instruments like fiddles, accordians and banjos along with Irish vagabond clothes finally scoring a shockingly massive hit with "Come On Irene" in 1982. The song was a huge hit making the number one spot on both sides of the Atlantic the next year and is still a classic example of Celtic Folk Rock, if not THE classic Celtic Folk Hit however the song could not avoid looking like a novelty especially given their raggamuffin look.


Rowland found himself resentful of the hit and image he had created and this lineup broke up yet again and Rowland took two years and went back to the earlier Soul sound and look for the third album "Don't Stand Me Down" which dropped the folk elements in favour of longer soul ballads. The album got some good reviews but flopped commercially leading to the end of the band and Rowland's withdrawl into drug abuse and depression. Rowland has since alternated between periodic attempts at Dexys reunions (whithout original members) and the occasional odd and obscure solo albums.

Another band working an older tradition were the Bluebells who updated Folk Rock mixed with Skiffle, Britain's first wave of homegrown R&R from the 1950's the biggest star of which had been Lonnie Donegan of Glasgow. Starting in 1982 the Bluebells, led by indie journalist Bobby Bluebell and an ever shifting lineup, played an upbeat version of Folk Rock with the addition of fiddles and harmonicas scoring hits with songs like "Cath" and "Young At Heart", both of which actually made the charts twice. They only managed to record only an EP and album before breaking up in 1985.


Scottish band Aztec Camera were not really part of the Big Sound having a lighter mix of folk and soul led by the seventeen year old Roddy Frame. On the first, album "High land Hard Rain" was largely acoustic but did share some of the lyrical themes of the other bands scoring a minor hit with the single "Oblivious". The second album (produced by Mark Knopfler) added more instruments to the mix and an ep brought a surprising (and surprisingly loud) cover of Van Halen's "Jump" that turned out to have a guitar solo that Eddie Van Halen might have found excessive.


Somewhat similar to early Aztec Camera were another Scottish band, Del Amitri who had a familiar mix of Folk Rock, Soul and Guitar Pop influnces starting in 1985 scoring some success in Britain and even briefly saw some minor chart action in the USA on the first album albeit mostly on the campus charts. Although they never managed to get the kind of attention most of the other bands here did they have managed to stick together with various lineups and continue to record today.


While all this was going on some former stablemates of U2 were coming up with their own completely unique take on post-punk guitar rock. The Virgin Prunes had been friends with U2 from the the very beginings of both bands with guitarist Dik Evans being the older brother of U2 guitarist Dave "The Edge" Evans. In fact Dik had actually been one of the founding members of U2 before they decided they didn't need two guitars. While U2 were making their almost methodical climb to the big time the Virgin Prunes were doing the exact opposite. Starting around 1980 they made a series of eps and cassettes which even a fan would have to admit were willfully unlistenable cacophony. It was almost like they listened to the most wretchedly sprawling, pretentious, tuneless, murky, excessively over-the-top demos and obscure b-sides from PIL, Bauhaus, Wire, the Banshees and Clock DVA and said "I think we can top it". Their live show was even more excessive with the male band members heavily made-up and in drag like the most decadent Weimar/Dada cabaret act. By 1983 they were finally ready to make a proper record with the album "If I Die, I Die". Produced by Colin Newman (from Wire) who added some much needed discipline, basic song structure and crystalline production sheen. There was still plenty of droning and caterwauling but they did manage some proper guitar rock anthems like "Caucasian Walk". The Virgin Prunes were far too deeply weird to ever reach a larger audience even among Goths however and they took the next few years meandering around without bothering to record a followup.


Zerra One were another Irish guitar band who showed far less originality. They had been kicking around since 1982 recording a couple indie singles with little success until their 1984 debut album which fully adapted the sounds of U2 and Big Country and scored a minor UK hit with the anthem "10,000 Voices" but followups were less noticed and critics largely dismissed them as blander clones of U2 and Big Country which was a fair assessment.

ZERRA ONE ~ "10,000 VOICES";

An Irish band with a specific U2 connection were Cactus World News who got the attention of Bono who produced their first single in 1985 with "The Bridge". The debut followed the next year which got good reviews and scored three decent UK chart hits. However after spending the next few years touring their 1989 followup was turned down by their label which dropped the band who soon broke up with one of the guitarists joining the Australian band The Church.


Another Scottish band would be plagued with similar bad luck with record labels and US radio but would manage a longer career. With the poorly chosen name GoodBye Mr Mackenzie, this Glasgow band scored their first hit on the indie singles charts in 1984 with "Death Of A Salesman". Blessed with a few singers and songwriters (including one Shirley Manson) and a slicker sound with keyboard washes to smooth out their echoing guitars courtesy of Big John Duncan (formerly of iconically obnoxious mohawk crested Punks the Exploited!) they would continue to score low level indie single hits as well as their first album in 1986. However they had problems with record labels and management and a name change to Angelfish but were never able to scare up any interest in America. They slogged on until 1994 when Shirley Manson left to join a new band, Garbage which would have much better luck.


Meanwhile former Skids singer Richard Jobson had been watching his former bandmate Adamson make the big time with a sound noticably not disimilar from the Skids. After the breakup of that band Jobson had recorded a couple albums of pretentious poetry and meandering music and writing and acting a a few plays to little notice. By 1983 he formed a new band with fellow Scot John McGeogh on guitar, lately from Siouxsie & The Banshees and before that Magazine and Visage (he had also briefly replaced Stuart Adamson on one of the Skids' final lineups) along with one of the Skids ex bassists and drummer from Magazine. Called the Armoury Show they scored a mid-sized hit with "We Can Be Brave Again", a typical Skids style call-to-action that hit most of the notes of old but with noticeably less force. This issue wasn't really Jobson this time but McGeogh. His work with the Banshees had been brilliant and innovative with Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr citing him as a major influence. However his atmospheric style was not really suited to rousing battle cries. As for Jobson he predictably got bored anyway and wandered off to back to his poetry and McGeogh quit and joined PIL and that was that.


Also carefully watching all this was another Scottish band who had been around longer than any of them. Simple Minds had formed out of Johnny & The Self Abusers, an earlier Rezillos type punk band in 1978 with their first album coming out in 1979. However at the time they seemed to have little in common with the Skids and U2. While Simple Minds clearly had guitar and drums they obviously took their influence from artsier bands like Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel and Ultravox with songs based not on guitar riffs but on the funky baselines from Derek Forbes (one of the best bassists of the post-punk era) around which were layered cascading keyboards and guitar arpeggios from Charlie Burchill and enigmatic stream of consciousness vocals from Jim Kerr. By their third album. "Empires & Dance" (1981) they had clearly made the style their own and they spent the next three albums perfecting it until they got to the critically acclaimed atmospheric "New Gold Dream" (1983) which made a lot of top ten lists. However they still had not been able to break into America aside from the club scene in a few cities and college towns nor could they get radio airplay. The solution was obvious, so in 1984 they brought in Steve Lillywhite to produce their next album, "Sparkle In The Rain" which took their usual intricate arrangements and driving basslines and ampped up the guitars and drums. The resulting album finally broke into US radio with songs like "Waterfront", "Catwalk" and "Speed Your Love To Me" and it brought them to the attention of director John Hughes in 1985 who would get them to record the theme for his next movie "Don't You Forget About Me" which would finally get them a bonafide US hit. By this time some critics pointed out that Simple Minds were doing a better U2 than U2 was, then working "Unforgettable Fire", more on that to come.


In the mid-eighties there was also a somewhat related genre happening that incorporated the more dreamy, ethereal side of Celtic culture with dreamy albums from Scottish band the Cocteau Twins and Clannad, an Irish band of siblings and cousins who had actually been recording since the late 70's as a fairly traditional but modernized Celtic folk band who now plugged in, added some atmospheric keyboards and recorded a single with Bono and some soundtrack music. Enya, another member of the Clannad clan went solo, added more keys and scored an international hit with "Orinoco Flow".


The Pogues, a more traditional Irish folk band went another way. Instead of the dreamy atmospherics of Clannad and Enya they adopted the rough & ready DIY attitude of punk in the person of drunken punk Shane McGowan who had been kicking around the London punk scene since from the start. The band's ramshackle Irish Folk-Punk scored unlikely hits starting in 1985 with traditional songs "Dirty Old Town" and "Waltzing Matilda". 1987's "If I Should Fall From Grace From God" (produced by Steve Lillywhite) brought another hit with "Fairy Tale Of New York".


The first and most beloved of the Irish punk bands of the first wave of Punk were the Undertones who scored classic hits with "Teenage Kicks", "My Perfect Cousin" and "Jimmy Jimmy" but by 1983 they had evolved into a slick pop band before breaking up. Singer Feargal Sharkey would go on to score a couple of pop hit singles. Guitarists John O'Neill and Damian O'Neill however formed the far more stadium friendly and overtly political band That Petrol Emotion in 1984 who would score their own Big Sound hit with the rousing nationalist anthem "Big Decision" in 1987. After a couple of minor followups the band lost their record deal and started to fragment.


Scotland's Jesus & Mary Chain were of course the loudest guitar band of them all. Scrawny, drunken rugrat brothers Jim and William Reid formed the band with a couple of friends as rhythm section undeterred by their being barely competent musicians. Like most enthusiastic amateurs they started out as a ragged three chord punk band just as the likes of U2, The Skids, Simple Minds, Josef K and the Virgin Prunes had, albeit with non-punk influences from 1960's Folk Rock, Garage Punk and Girl Groups. By 1984 they had come up with a unique sound of their own; simple pop or folk rock songs utterly drenched in layer upon layer of screeching feedback, dense distortion and echo with booming drums and Jim Reid's droning vocals for a sound they dubbed the "Wall Of Noise" after Phil Spector. Their live shows set new standards of shambolic chaos with short sets, out of tune guitars (not that mattered considering the sheer cacophony) and drunken band members stumbling about until the inevitable crowd riot. This version lasted for a trio of independent singles and debut album "Psychocandy" in 1985 to rave if bemused reviews. But while they generated a sensation for their louder-than-loud records, riotous shows, distinctive big-black hairdos and all-black clothes and drunken interviews they were savvy enough to realize that this image would be self-limiting and by their 1987 second album they had reworked their sound to a more conventional but still distinctive guitar based echoing drone that they would follow on and off to the present day. Making them one of the least expected survivors of this era.


Former Fingerprintz singer Jimmy O'Neil and guitarist Cha Burnz finally returned to the fray with a new band, the Silencers with a solid 1987 album "A Letter From St Paul" which as usual got them plenty of critical raves but only middling success. It would however be enough to keep them recording albums and touring for years until Burns died of cancer in 2007.


1986/87 would turn out to be both the highwater mark for the Big Sound and the beginning of the end as it's major players changed direction or faded away. Fittingly U2 were the first to do so. Just as Simple Minds had been eager to reach U2's stadium audience U2 were even more desperate to have something post-punk bands like Simple Minds, Joy Division, Japan, Magazine and John Foxx era Ultravox had long achieved; serious artistic credibility. U2 had always gotten good reviews but were seen as a good guitar rock band, but not serious, thoughtful artistes, and that is what they most wanted to be. This would require a change in direction as thorough as Simple Minds was in the process of doing, so just as Simple Minds were enlisting Steve Lillywhite to produce "Sparkle In The Rain", U2 were replacing him with none other than Brian Eno, ex of Roxy Music, the main influence of Simple Minds, Ultravox and Japan. The resulting 1985 album "The Unforgettable Fire" had a few songs that fit into their usual stadium ready repertoire but was mostly moody atmospherics that left critics and fans divided. As we all know 1987's more stadium friendly "Joshua Tree" and "Rattle & Hum" made them the biggest band in the world but it also made them and the whole genre terribly unhip, especially the film that went along with "Rattle & Hum" which allowed the band to give vent to their most cloying self-importance. Since then they have of course become the biggest band in the world in the 1990's and 2000's although nobody thinks they are cool or cutting edge anymore.


Too much success would create more problems for Simple Minds. "Don't You Forget About Me" was a massive US radio hit that left them with the problem of how to follow it up. They too decided to dispense with Steve Lillywhite's dense production in favour of American top-forty producers Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain for the 1987 album "Once Upon A Time". Bassist Derek Forbes, an important part of their sound was also forced out. The album which would finally give them the serious US hit they had been working towards. But even more than U2 it also appalled their longtime fans and was widely condemned as a sell-out. Songs like "Alive & Kicking", "Oh Jungleland" and "Sanctify Yourself" got plenty of airtime but they sounded more like an artsier late eighties Genesis or Cutting Crew than anything resembling Simple Minds, or even U2 for that matter. They spent the next couple of years on the road trying to figure their next move, facing more lineup changes and killing time with a live album which tellingly consisted almost entirely of songs from the last two albums. When they finally went in the studio with 1989's "Street Fighting Years" the results were not reassuring. The strongest song; the epic "Belfast Child" showed a band formerly known for obscure lyics embracing both an overtly political stance (to be fair they had also been supporting causes like Live Aid and Anti-Apartheid) and expressly Celtic folk-rock sound. Strong as it was it sounded nothing like Simple Minds. Another track to get airplay was a solid but perfunctory version of Peter Gabriel's "Biko" which they had been playing live and further showed their political awareness but also their lack of musical ideas, especially for a band whose only previous cover song had been a typically note-perfect version of Lou Reed's "Street Hassle" on "Sparkle In The Rain". Although the album topped the UK charts that was pretty much the end of their time as relevant figures in the USA. Long recording delays, record label hassles and lineup changes along with changing musical tastes in the 90's left them behind. The 1995 album "Good News From The Next World" might have been a tolerable followup to "Street Fighting Years" if it had only been released several years earlier, but by 1995 it was dangerously out-of-touch and saw little chart or radio action in the USA. The next album wasn't even released in the USA and the one after that wasn't released at all. They would continue to record and tour in the UK, indeed they still do, and they maintain a loyal following in Scotland but it speaks volumes about their status that the most notable of their sporadic releases in the last twenty years have been an album of cover songs, a surprisingly good album of acoustic covers of their older songs and a series of box sets of their glory years.


Big Country would have a similar but more tragic decline. In a way the success of "The Crossing" was a curse. "Steeltown" album was a worthy followup artistically, but it's more overtly political subject matter and downbeat songs left Americans cold and it lacked an obvious hit single and it saw only middling chart action. If "The Crossing" hadn't have been so huge it wouldn't have mattered but label expectations (and possibly the band as well) were bound to be disappointed. So for the next album Big Country followed the lead of Simple Minds and ditched producer Steve Lillywhite in favour of Sade producer Robin Millar who gave them a less dense, more radio friendly sound for "The Seer". The resulting album was not as drastic a change to their basic sound as Simple Minds had done with "Once Upon A Time" but it also wasn't as successful either and effectively blunted their momentum, something subsequent albums did nothing to fix. Like Simple Minds they continued to record and tour through the nineties (including the obligatory cover album) until Stuart Adamson quit to start an abortive solo project. That floundered due to his increased mental and emotional breakdown which led to his packing up and moving to Hawaii. One day in 2001 his bandmates discovered he had disappeared without warning and desperately posted a notice on their website asking for fans to find him or for him to make contact. He never did. His body was found, a suicide. More lately Big Country has reformed with guitarist Chris Watson and drummer Mark Brezezcki with Alarm singer Mike Peters filling in for Adamson.


The Alarm also had trouble following up their debut album "Declaration". 1985's "Strength" was largely seen as mediocre so for their third album followed the usual pattern of changing producers and recording a more commercial sounding album with 1987's "Eye Of The Hurricane" which did score a hit with "Rain In The Summertime" but their new sound was a complete break with their previous albums being light and poppy with the addition of keyboards making them sound more like Belinda Carlisle. This effectively killed whatever underground credibility they once had. 1989's "Change" which scored another hit in "Sold Me Down The River" reverted to a more folk rock sound and including a version of the album recorded in Welsh. After another album, 1991's "Raw" was less successful and led band then broke-up after Peters quit onstage although there have been periodic reunions when Peters isn't filling in for Big Country.


Yet another Irish band to get U2's patronage would be Hothouse Flowers, a Dublin band whose dense mix of Irish soul and folk was closer to Dexy's Midnight Runners, the Waterboys and mid-period Aztec Camera than the stadium-ready guitars of U2 and Big Country. Their 1988 debut album was an immediate hit on both sides of the Atlantic and Australia. However subsequent albums failed to have much success in America as tastes changed at the end of the 80's and their clean and over produced sound seemed passe. Besides collaborations with the Indigo Girls and a bizarre one with Def Leppard the next few years were spent on the road until the burned out band called a hiatus in 1994 which became essentially permanent.


As Celt Rock was petering out there would be one more spectacular by-product in the arresting presence, both sonically and visually, of Sinead O'Connor whose 1987 debut caused a sensation with songs like "Mandinka" and "Put Your Hands On Me" but while she had been given early support from U2 and Irish folk rock band In Tou Nua it became clear that she had little common with the Big Sound and guitar bands in general and she soon distanced herself from the scene.


The last notable band to come out of the Big Sound were the almost absurdly Scottish Proclaimers who shocked everybody (including no doubt themelves) by scoring a massive cross Atlantic hit with the insanely catchy "500 Miles" and then even managed to score a follow-up with "I'm On My Way". Twin brothers Criag and Charlie Reid had started off at the start of the 80's in a punk band called Black Flag (not that one) but been playing a version of Celtic Folk Rock since 1983 as a largely accoustic duo which got the attention of Kevin Rowland who helped them record a demo which got earned them a record deal by 1987. Their first album scored enough success in Britain to gain a spot on "Top Of The Pops" but it was the second album that scored their still iconic two hits. Like Dexy's however their idiosyncratic folky sound, nerdy look and impenetrable accents marked them out as one-hit-wonders and so they turned out to be. However unlike Kevin Rowland the wholesome Reid Bros did not have any drug problems or mental problems and seemed to be genuinely happy to return to Scotland where they continue to recored and tour and busy themselves supporting the Scottish National Party's campaign for independence.

THE PROCLAIMERS ~ "500 Miles";

By 1990 The Alarm, Armoury Show, That Petrol Emotion, Bluebells, Dexys and Zerra One had broken up and the Pogues were in a state of near collapse brought on by Shane McGowan's serious drinking problem which led to his being fired. They carried on for a while with replacement singers (including briefly his old friend Joe Strummer) but there was obviously not much point. The Virgin Prunes wandered back into the studio again for the 1987 album "The Moon Looked Down And Laughed", a slickly produced (by Soft Cell's Dave Ball) but sprawling and pretentious glam/goth/cabaret concept album that found few friends and the band promptly broke up on the eve of a North American tour. Singer Gavin Friday has since occasionally popped up with a couple of similarly art-damaged cabaret albums. Aztec Camera's third album "Love" was a slickly produced soul album similar to Style Council which got decent reviews but was not really suitable for touring. Singer/songwriter and only steady member Roddy Frame then moved to America where he continued in a similar low-key vein until retiring the band name in 1996. The Waterboys took an opposite approach with Mike Scott changing the lineup and moving to a more traditional Celtic Folk sound for 1988's "Fisherman's Blues" which was fairly successful and inspired a couple of similar album followups before Scott retired the name for awhile. He would later change his mind and resurrect the band who have recorded several more albums that range back and forth between the Folk Rock and Big Sound of their past none of which have made any waves outside of the UK.


By the early 90's most of the Big Sound was largely gone to be replaced by the related but less mystical Brit-Pop and U2 was experimenting with electro-dance but echoes would be heard in the Irish Cranberries and Scottish Franz Ferdinand. In 1995 producer Steve Lillywhite, who had gone back to working with U2 on their 1991 return to guitar rock "Achtung Baby" and some subsequent albums had a final entry into the genre with the debut from Irish band Engine Alley which scored hits in Ireland with their distinctive Celtic Folk Rock sound which included a fiddle along with the electric guitars. They failed to get much traction outside Ireland something a move to England and a reworking and re-release of the debut album failed to change and by 1999 they had effectively petered out.


The last of the Big Sound band would turn out to be one of the most successful and tragic with the Cranberries who briefly dethroned U2 as the biggest Celtic band in the world starting in with their first hit with 1992's "Dreams" and followed it up with a string of hits until the end of the 90's. Their big guitar sound showed obvious influences from earlier Celt Rock bands but it was singer Dolores O'Riordan's distinctive sharp yodelling vocals, influenced by traditional Gaelic singing along with her winsome lyrics and beauty which really held people's attention until they took a hiatus at the end of the decade. A return to action in 2009 was less successful as tastes changed away from stadium guitars to processed studio Pop, Electronica, Rave, Dance and Hip Hop, even U2 were experimenting with electro rock, and their activities were sporadic until O'Riordan's shocking death drowning in the bathtub from complications from an addiction to painkillers in 2018. By that time the Celt Rock sound which had ruled the mid-eighties was largely a memory.


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