Adamson was born at Moss Side, Manchester, England. He read comic books from an early age. At school he immersed himself in art, music and film and produced his first song - "Brain Pain" - at the age of 10. His diverse musical tastes range from Alice Cooper to Motown to David Bowie.
After leaving school, Adamson drifted into graphic design whilst attending Stockport Art College but quit shortly after, preferring to venture into the exploding punk rock scene of the late 1970s. He joined ex-Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto's band Magazine to play bass guitar, with whom he scored one chart single, "Shot by Both Sides"; in late 1977, he also joined Buzzcocks, as a temporary replacement for Garth Smith. He played on all of Magazine's albums, and contributed to Devoto's solo album and his next band, Luxuria. He also contributed to the studio-based band Visage, playing on the ensemble's first two albums, Visage and The Anvil.
After Magazine broke up, Adamson worked with another ex-Buzzcock, Pete Shelley, before joining Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, featuring on four of their albums: From Her to Eternity, The Firstborn Is Dead, Kicking Against the Pricks and Your Funeral, My Trial. After his stint with the band and a European tour with Iggy Pop in 1987, he went solo, releasing an EP, The Man with the Golden Arm in 1988, and his first solo album, Moss Side Story, the following year, the "soundtrack" to a non-existent film noir. The album incorporated newscasts and sampled sound effects and featured guest musicians Marcia Schofield (of The Fall), Diamanda Galas, and former colleagues from the Bad Seeds. Adamson's second solo album was the soundtrack to a real film this time – Carl Colpaert's Delusion, and he would go on to provide soundtracks for several other films.
Adamson's third album, Soul Murder, was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize in 1992.
His solo work has mostly been influenced by John Barry, Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, whilst his later works include jazz, electronica, soul, funk, and dub-styles.
In 1996, Adamson contributed to the AIDS-Benefit Album, Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip, produced by the Red Hot Organization. His own album that year, Oedipus Schmoedipus, reached #51 in the UK Albums Chart. It would later be included in the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die list, along with Moss Side Story.
In 2002, Adamson left his long-term label, Mute Records, and started his own production home, Central Control International. In 2006, he released Stranger on the Sofa, first for his Central Control International imprint, to critical acclaim. Back To The Cat, his second album for the label, was released in March 2008.
In 2007 it was announced that Magazine would re-form for concerts in 2008. Adamson took part in the same band line-up that recorded Secondhand Daylight, with the exception of the late John McGeoch, who was replaced by Apollo 440 member Noko. However, Adamson has since withdrawn from the reunion and new recordings.
On 27 August 2010, Adamson released "Rag and Bone", as a digital download and as a 12-inch vinyl record. He then released a studio album, I Will Set You Free, on 30 January 2012.
Adamson rejoined the Bad Seeds for the release of their 2013 album, Push the Sky Away. He played bass on several songs and also toured with the band on drums and keyboards to fill in for an ailing Thomas Wydler.
Adamson's "Refugee Song" was included in Derek Jarman's The Last of England. Adamson also contributed soundtrack material to Gas Food Lodging, David Lynch's Lost Highway and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Back to the Cat's opening track, "The Beaten Side of Town", was featured in the hit video game, Alan Wake. He also contributed substantial material to the Delusion soundtrack, which has also been released.
In the earliest Real Life Magazine videos, Adamson played a Rickenbacker JG, (although possibly a 4001 or 4003 model) and in Secondhand Daylight, a Gibson EB-3. However, his primary bass during Magazine was an Ovation Magnum 2. For the 2008 Magazine concerts, he alternated between the Ovation, a Fender Artist and a Fender Jaguar Bass. He often used a Boss Chorus unit on his basses, giving a slightly processed sound that was much imitated in the UK 1980s rock scene.
In his autobiography, It's So Easy (And Other Lies), Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses said he was influenced by bass-driven bands such as that of Barry Adamson in Magazine.