THE BIGGEST COUNTRY: BIG COUNTRY INTERVIEW
The ascendance of Mikhail Gorbachev to the world stage, and the resulting warm blast of perestroika that has swept through the icy hallways of the Kremlin, all seem a world away from the residential side–streets of Notting Hill Gate. But here, in this quiet backwater of West London, walking distance from Kensington Palace and the Russian Embassy, is the heart of the Big Country master–plan to bring their own little bit of Glasnost to a troubled world.
Guitarist Bruce Watson and bass player Tony Butler are seated in the very same management office that, until recently, was co–coordinating the Big Country invasion of the USSR. It lacks the grandeur of the nearby Embassy, but the compact office is unofficially helping to further the cause of international relations.
With a steady thawing of attitudes behind the Iron Curtain, and with the growing readiness of the Russians to accept Western ideas and product, rock music has suddenly become a sought–after commodity. Gone are the days of the Cliff Richard/Elton John monopoly of the Eastern Bloc; official Party invitations are out of the window, as Big Country set about exporting themselves to the land of vodka and volleyball!
Big Country’s latest album, ‘Peace In Our Time’, may have been recorded in America, but it was launched with a party inside the Russian Embassy, and promoted with a series of concerts inside the Soviet Union. Others have made the trip behind the Iron Curtain, but what made this package a little bit special was that, for the first time, the organization was in the hands of private individuals – not a Party official in sight, comrade!
Big Country’s first inroads into the Soviet market – sorry, attempts at furthering a sense of international openness – grew from Michael Jackson’s decision to play in only the Western half of Berlin. Across the wall, the East Berlin Peace Committee set up their own compensatory concert, and Big Country (along with Bryan Adams) were asked to perform. The show, staged in front of ‘about 120,000 people’, was a ‘phenomenal’ success, and from that point the idea of taking the show a bit further east began to grow… but it all took time to arrange.
‘‘We had no idea we were going to go to Russia when we started recording the album,’’ admits Tony. ‘‘When you’re sitting in the sunshine of Los Angeles, you don’t think about going to grey Russia.’’
Grey Russia? The slight slip of speech gives rise to images of drab buildings inhabited by drab people trudging to work to do drab jobs. But can the biggest country in the world really be as grey as it’s painted, or is that part and parcel of the Cold War propaganda package?
Tony: “You just have to go there with completely open eyes and a clear mind and just sort of take in… I went to a department store just to look at clothes and shoes and things like that: they’re not very well made things, but to them it doesn’t matter, they’re just functional. Materials were very ragged and unrefined unlike high fashion here – but people fighting over things because they were the last one’s in the shop. It was complete culture shock. Towards the end of it, I think everybody got used to the environment and ended up really appreciating it; but you have to realize that it’s so different out there.
‘‘We didn’t go over there as ambassadors, but we had to try and behave ourselves, and show the Russians that we weren’t the ogres that I suppose they think we are… We shouldn’t try and foist our way of life onto the people, especially the people who were trying to help us. They were forever trying to make us realize that they mean well and they want to learn and they want to get on and mix everything.”
“The only place we saw was Moscow,” adds Bruce, “but I was speaking to a lot of other people and they’ve been saying: ‘well, Moscow’s OK, but go to Leningrad because that’s happening!’ We were stuck in Red Square for 10 days or something like that. I’d love to go and see all these other places because you can’t just say ‘I’ve been to Russia’ when you’ve only been to Moscow. It’s like coming to Britain but only going to London!”
At least Bruce got a chance to see a bit of Moscow, escaping streetwards with an interpreter whenever the chance arose. “I was speaking to these young soldiers,” he recalls. “Squaddies! I was asking them what happens. You come out of school when you’re 16, you go into the army for five years and come out when you’re 21. It’s like national service; and you get Four Roubles, 75 Copex a month – which is just under a fiver.”
One of the most interesting points of the tour, was that unlike such trips by, say, Elton John and UB40, Big Country were being imported, not by the State, but by a private promoter.
“The Peace Movement initially invited us,” explains Tony, “but after a month of negotiations, we changed the onus to a private guy named Stas Namin, who’s a Russian pop star – he’s sold about 40 million albums and got nothing, but they gave him an arts centre to run instead. He took it on himself to organize our trip; and as you can imagine, they’re not particularly well established at organizing pop concerts, so our management was flying to Moscow every second week to help with the organization.”
One problem of this being a private promotion is that there was money to be made from the concerts – and as Russia is very particular about it’s Roubles, the dosh had to stay in the country.
“We had the problem of what to do with the money,” says Tony, “so the massive press junket was organized!”
A host of paparazzi, music biz hangers–on and Fleet Street hacks were flown to Moscow to cover the event. But more than a promotional ploy, Big Country wanted to turn this into a unique experience to break down a few barriers:
Tony: “The idea was that journalists came out and had a free run of Moscow. Rather than the more ordinary News At Ten type of journalism, we had people from the tabloids and they could go and investigate things and then come to the gig. And we had 6 days of strange feeling, because everyone was looking at the system, the people, their way of life.”
The reports that eventually made it back to Fleet Street were mixed, but Tony sees this as a result of a journalistic attitude problem.
“Our management office sent out a sheet saying: ‘don’t expect things to be plain sailing’… and I think we all had problems as soon as we landed in Moscow, like bags going missing, taking three or four hours to get out of the airport. And I think a few journalists didn’t really take to the situation as well as they should have done. They just got a bit silly. And by the time we got back to the hotel, when you just wanted to go and flop into your bed, there were 200 people to check–in; and they don’t have the sort of systems that they have in hotels here – it takes a long time. I think most of the journalists that went out there hated Moscow as soon as they actually arrived at the Hotel, let alone having to spend another 24 hours. But the same happened to us – Stuart lost his bag.”
“In the first two days it was hectic,” adds Bruce. “We were there for 10 days and in the last six days I got right into the place, it was fantastic…”
So the biggest country made a favourable impression on Big Country; but would they go back again?
“We’d go back if we were invited,” says Tony. “I think the Russians want to get involved in rock music, they want to see western bands. It’s opened up the whole of the Eastern Bloc; so when bands like us go on a world tour, we can now incorporate the Eastern Bloc and Russia.”
Bruce: “When you see people going on a world tour, they seem to spend eight months in America, a week in Europe, two days in Britain. And that’s a world tour!”
“We’re planning to go to places like Czechoslovakia, Hungry, Rumania – places like that,” continues Tony. “It’s now open to us because we’ve made a good impression on the authorities.”
“The people in all eastern bloc countries want rock music,” says Bruce. “It’s now been proven; I was there and that’s how they reacted. They definitely want it.”
Tony sees another advantage to the breaking down of these unnatural international barriers: “We should start crossing some cultures and getting some Russian bands to come over here,” he suggests. “It would be like us repaying them for their hospitality.”
Now how about that for a little Peace In Our Time?
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007