BIG COUNTRY (Live at The O2 Academy, Newcastle, U.K., September 14, 2019)
Photo: Mick Burgess

As a drummer in Big Country, his unique style influenced by Jazz Fusion, Prog Rock and Military bands fired the band to a Number One album and a bunch of Top 40 singles. His skills as a session player saw him play on The Cult’s classic Love album as well as playing with The Who’s Roger Daltrey and former Marillion singer, Fish. Mick Burgess called up Mark to chat about the 35th anniversary of Big Country’s classic Steeltown album, the Return To Steeltown tour as well as talking about working with The Cult on their Love album.

You’re playing a string of shows in the UK soon. Is this the second leg of the tour you did earlier in the year or is the start of a new touring cycle?

This is a different tour. We’re at the start of our Return To Steeltown tour that starts at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. We’re regulars at The Cavern Club and have played there for many years. Last year we put a brick in the wall with our name on it as we are part of their history. That’s quite an accolade for us. It’s a great venue but being tall I have to be careful when I stand up on stage.

You seem to play a LOT of shows. How many do you tend to do each year?

It varies really. We usually play most weekends but when we do a specialised tour like the tour that we are about to start we’ll do 15 to 20 shows a month. When we go to Australia in a few weeks the shows are pretty much back to back. The distance between shows is massive but we play pretty much each day that we’re there.

You’re playing two Newcastle’s within a couple of weeks but on different continents?

That’s right, one in the UK and one down in Australia. We always consider Newcastle in the North of England as almost home turf being a Scottish band and we have great memories of playing Newcastle City Hall. Newcastle has always been very special to us with working class people who love real music. We always get a fantastic response when we play in Newcastle.

The current run of shows is called The Return To Steeltown to mark the 35th anniversary of the Steeltown album. Does it really feel like 35 years has passed since that was released?

Sometimes when I look back and see photos it’s almost like looking back when you were at school and it feels like a lifetime away but musically it doesn’t. When we pick up the songs it feels like we just wrote them yesterday and still feels fresh and current. The songs have stood the test of time. If I was to play drums on those songs again if I heard them fresh, I think I’d still take the same approach. I think we got it right when we did it back then and we got a Number One album too.

On this tour will you be playing the album in full, in its original running order?

We’ll be ready to play all of the songs but I think timewise, because we still have to play Fields Of Fire, In A Big Country, Chance and Wonderland, we won’t do the whole album each night but we’ll do most of it and play the songs we don’t play another night so we will perform the whole album on the tour just not the whole album every night as we have so many other songs to fit in. We’ve got too much choice which is a good position to be in.

How did it feel revisiting that album again and playing those songs again after so many years?

It’s been fantastic playing some of those again. Of course we’ve played the hits, like Steeltown, the title track a lot, so we’re up to speed with that but some we haven’t played in a long time such as Flame Of The West, Come Back To Me and Tall Ships Go haven’t been performed for a long time so I’ve had to revisit my playing but it came back to me once I sat behind my drums. It’s second nature to me, just like riding a bike.

Going back 35 years, what were you aiming to achieve when your started work on the album?

Although I didn’t feel it at the time as it was complete mayhem at the time and things got much bigger than we ever thought that my feet never touched the ground and was hardly ever at home. Time moved so quickly and we were very busy so a lot of songs were written on the road and at soundchecks so we were writing Steeltown as we were touring with The Crossing. We really just wanted to develop the band further and make the best album we possibly could.

Steeltown is a song about Corby. Why did you decide to write a song about the steel works in that town?

It was inspired by Corby and the government closing down the steelworks. It was about those times of working men losing their jobs and industries that we were so good at such as ship building and steel making closing down. Those places relied so much on heavy industry. All those industries were changing and the album was a reaction to that. Stuart Adamson was very much in tune to the working man and that came out in his lyrics. I think we still have a following because of that.

Why did you decide to record the album in ABBA’s Polar Studio in Stockholm?

I’d done a solo album for Frida from ABBA and Steve Lilywhite wanted to go out and work there again after working with Frida. That was incredible as I was in the same drum room as all those ABBA hits were recorded in using the same microphones through the same desk. We were one of the first bands to record using 3M digital tape that for some reason gave us a slightly harder drum sound and the whole album had a hard sound as the digital format didn’t have the warmth of analogue tape however we all thought it suited the Steeltown industrial theme. My drums sounded like someone banging an anvil. It was a great place to record an album and Stockholm is a fabulous city.

You worked with producer Steve Lillywhite, who also worked with you on your debut album, The Crossing. What did he bring to the band?

He was both a hard taskmaster but he also nurtured and encouraged us. He knew how he wanted the record to sound and how to bring out the best from the band. He gave me a huge drum sound with ambient mikes, which I hadn’t experimented with before. With the multiple layers of guitars that we used; Steve always knew which ones to bring to the fore. He encouraged Stuart with his vocal technique and he also encouraged me to pretty much play what I liked. When I did session work I’d tend to work to a brief within a framework of what was expected of me but in Big Country, it was our band so Steve said that as we were creating stuff that people were going to copy so I was making the blueprint, then I should cast the die as I wanted. Steve loved my playing and he encouraged me to be pretty busy on the drums. He was incredible to work with, he brought out the best in us and didn’t make us feel under pressure. He was a joy to work with.

The album charted at Number One in the UK charts. Where were you when you heard that news?

I can’t really remember. We were so rushed off our feet we weren’t aware of the gravity of what was said so it didn’t really sink in at first. I believe we knocked U2 off the charts but I do remember the feeling that I’d achieved something that I never thought I’d ever achieve when I started playing. I never thought we’d have that level of commercial success with us sounding so different. We had a couple of Number One singles in Ireland and a handful of Top 40 hit singles as well which is a great achievement along with our Number One album. It’s a great feeling.

That was such a great period for Big Country.

I still have to remind myself how long ago that was, what we achieved and how young we were. The fans still love that record. I think the fans see The Crossing, Steeltown and The Seer as our golden period and I can understand that.

Did that success of the album put pressure on you for the follow up The Seer?

Not really. Again, we were just so busy, it was like a whirlwind of playing, writing, rehearsing, doing TV shows that my feet never really touched the ground. We used Robin Millar who was Sade’s producer, who had incredible ears and we were at the Power Plant in North London and it was the record company’s idea to move on as Steve Lilywhite was busy with U2. He nurtured our sound. He knew where we came from and wanted to move us on texturally so that made the recording process easier for us. That was a great album, very song driven and a little bit calmer than what we did with Steeltown. It was more reflective.

Big Country has such a unique sound. What did you make of it when you first heard it?

I’m very proud of our sound. When I first joined the band I’d never heard anything like it. I was doing a lot of sessions at the time but when Big Country came about when me and Tony Butler came down to complete the rhythm section, I listened to the early demos and I just didn’t know what I was listening to, it was so unique and different. I wasn’t sure if it’d have any success despite thinking that it was brilliantly played. At the end of the day I think it’s the personality and character of the music that makes you stand out, having that unique style certainly gave us something different. We were also able to grow musically and experiment with different sounds and producers over the years too but we did stay true to ourselves.

You’re quite a unique band in that you can appeal to a Pop audience and also cross over to a Rock audience too?

I do think we manage to win them over mainly because I think it’s great songwriting and musicianship and also, we are a powerful band. We did a Metal cruise last year and we’ve always been a loud Rock band and although we have different textures within our music, we can still strut that stuff like the heavier bands do, not that we like to be loud for loudness sake but our music in a way, needs to be at a certain level for the power and intensity of the tunes to have the impact that the songs deserve. We’re a very hard band to pin down and that’s almost been to our detriment because the record company always struggled with choosing singles and wanting us to head in a more commercial direction but we also wanted to stick to what the band stood for and how we sounded as a unit and didn’t want to be steered into a manufactured way of sounding. We stayed true to ourselves. We didn’t sell out and we had a clear vision of how the band should sound. There was real chemistry within the band and it was the sum of the parts that made it all work.

You played drums on Love by The Cult in 1985. How did you end up involved with The Cult?

I got a call from the management company. Part of the company managed us and another part The Cult. I got a call to say that there were problems with Nigel Preston, the original drummer. He’d recorded She Sells Sanctuary and they needed to do a video but he wasn’t around to do it so I went down to appear on the video. They wanted to go straight into the studio to record the album that became Love and I recorded the rest of the album with them.

What was the experience of working with The Cult like for you?

It was fantastic. I felt like I was a band member. I bailed them out of a very awkward situation as the record company schedule needed adhering to and they were being held back. Sadly, Nigel died. I didn’t know him personally but he was a great drummer, had a great sound and played some really good parts.

Was that only on a session basis or did you do some live shows as well?

Well I was already in Big Country and The Crossing had been a success. They really liked my playing and I was their first choice and they knew that with my session work I could come in and do it pretty quickly. I didn’t treat it like a session though. When I do a session I always try to feel and act as if I’m a member of the band and contribute to ideas. They didn’t tell me what to play and just played me the song and I added my parts. We’d had a run through the album at a place called Sandwich in Kent. I jammed with the band for a few days to get a feel for how the bass player worked. I got on great with them and they’re really good friends of mine. We went into the studio with Steve Brown. I heard later from Billy Duffy that they thought they’d booked Steve Lillywhite but there’d been a mix up at the record label but it worked out really well as Steve Brown produced a brilliant album. They did say that they would love me to be in the band but I was fully committed to Big Country. I was having success with them and co-writing songs so it was difficult being all things to everyone.

Did you play any live shows with The Cult?

I did get up on stage with them when we were on tour in The States with The Journey album when Mike Peters was in the band and I got up and played with them. I also played with them at Shepherd’s Bush Empire when they toured for the anniversary of the Love album. Jamie Stewart was invited to play the encores and I was invited too as special guests to reunite the line up that played on the Love album. We jumped up on stage and it brought the house down. We did She Sells Sanctuary, Phoenix and a couple of other tracks, no rehearsals and straight in at the deep end. It was a stonking gig.

Amongst many other artists you have played with you also played with The Who’s Roger Daltrey?

That’s right, I played drums on Under A Raging Moon. There were guest appearances by other drummers on the title track including Roger Taylor of Queen, Stewart Copeland, Carl Palmer and Cozy Powell. I played on the whole album and the concept was at the end, on the playout we’d each have 16 bars each to play a little solo. We all played great.

That’s quite a formidable line up of drummers. Did you get to play with the others in the studio?

I played mine in the studio on the day of the recording of the album but the other drummers were sent the backing track to add their parts to. It was a real joy to play on that album and Alan Shacklock got a really good sound on my drums for that. I was really pleased with it. John Siegler was brought in to play bass on most of the album and we locked in really well. Tony Butler and Bruce Watson from Big Country also came in to play on After The Fire, a song written by Pete Townsend that opened the album.

You worked for years with Tony Butler as the rhythm section of Big Country. How did you first meet?

I saw an advert in the back of Melody Maker seeking a Phil Collins/Bill Bruford style of drummer. I was a teenager playing in covers bands at the time and wanted to play in an original group. I ended up going down to Shepperton Film studios and I had no idea that I was going to audition for the Simon Townsend Band. I arrived a little bit too late and Tony came out and said they’d seen enough drummers and was going to pick one even though nobody could really play the songs. I got there earlier in the day and could hear all these drummers train crashing on odd time signatures which I knew how to play from listening to all of my Prog Rock stuff. I learned the songs and was desperate to audition and in the end, they invited me in and I played through the songs and got them right the first time and got the gig. Me and Tony were in the rhythm section on that and went from Prog Rock to Power Pop. When we were out on tour, we met The Skids which featured Stuart Adamson and that’s how we connected with him and ended up in Big Country. Before that Me and Tony had an outfit called Rhythm For Hire and people could call us up and we’d go and play for them. It was kind of unique at that time. We worked really well together and I think that shows on those Big Country albums. I still stay in touch with Tony now. He’s a dear friend of mine.

You’ve worked with an incredible array of artists from Roger Daltrey, Procol Harum, Ultravox and Bruce Foxton from The Jam. Is there anyone that you’d particularly like to work with if you had the chance?

Jeff Beck. He’s a hero of mine.

Who were those drummers that inspired you when you first started playing?

When I was a young drummer, I didn’t have the usual influences that you’d expect. My father had an RAF book of military drumming and I looked at that and thought I’d study the marching rudiments to help develop my technique. In the early days I was in a 5-piece Prog Rock band with Tony Butler and Simon Townsend, who was The Who’s guitarist, Pete Townsend’s brother. Nothing was in 4:4, everything was in amazing time signatures. We were like a mini Rush. We were incredible back then. Even now if I listen back to those recordings I’d have to think carefully how I played them as we were really ahead of the game. I listened to a very different style of music to what I do in Big Country. I was influenced by Jazz Fusion drummers such as Billy Cobham and Steve Gadd. I also liked some of the harder edged drummers as well like Alex Van Halen who had a great drum sound but my biggest influence for me was seeing Phil Collins play with Brand X. That was the first band I ever saw at the Roundhouse and I was floored when I saw him and still say he’s the best drummer that I’ve seen. I have ended up working with Phil over the years and have become friends and I’m very privileged to be able to say that. I’ve played some of his drum parts at Princes Trust shows over the years and they really are incredible. He’s a drummer’s drummer. I also love Stewart Copeland and crazy bands like Dixie Dregs with Rod Morgenstein. A lot of music I listened to didn’t have vocals so I could concentrate on the drums and I was heavily influenced by them. Steely Dan had great drummers too and also Toto with Jeff Porcaro and I loved Bernard Purdie too. All of those bands influenced me. When Punk broke, we went from a Prog Rock band to a three-piece Power Pop band influenced by the likes of The Clash, The Jam and The Police so I took my twisted style of Jazz Fusion Prog Rock to a more straightforward Rock style. The music of Big Country made me want to play a kind of military style. I tried to take a Steve Gadd type of approach but make it more Rocky and make it interesting on a hi-hat to give it some feel instead of just mushing it up and I tried to put the detail in like I was doing in the other genres of music that I listened to. I tried to make it my own as the band allowed and I have hopefully done that. I always liked drummers who you could recognise right away. I always wanted my own identity and I’m told that I have that.

Is there a new Big Country album in the pipeline?

We concentrate on the live stuff now as when we do new stuff people want to get nostalgic so it doesn’t really do much to do new music other than the personal gratification that we can still write songs which we know we can. It’s not high on our list at the moment but I’ve spoken to Bruce Watson about it and it’s not out of the question that we do an album it’s just a question of when. We probably will release something. There are ideas kicking around all the time but Bruce is also playing with The Skids and I’m out in America when we’re not with Big Country so it’s just a matter of finding the right time to do it. It will come together. We never say never but we just don’t know when it will be.

Do you have any projects lined up outside of Big Country?

I have some drum clinics coming up where I’ll break my drum parts down that I did in Big Country, The Cult and right across the board and there’ll be a Q&A too. I’ll be appearing at The Studio in Southend on 17th January 2020, on 18th January I’ll Wyvern Arts Centre in Swindon; on the 19th at Elgiva in Chesham then 21st at the Gatehouse Theatre in Stafford and on 22nd January I’ll be doing the Barnoldswick Arts Centre near Colne.

For more on Big Country see


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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1 Comment

  1. A great drummer musician and all rounded person
    Has a great feel and approach to music , you can tell that he does his home work and doesn’t over play
    Right on the money

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