Big Big Train

TrackAlbum / EP
Blue Silver RedGoodbye To The Age Of Steam
Albion PerfideEnglish Boy Wonders
High Tide, Last StandGathering Speed
Salt Water Falling On Uneven GroundThe Difference Machine
Victorian BrickworkThe Underfall Yard
British Racing GreenFar Skies Deep Time
Judas UnrepentantEnglish Electric Part One
East Coast RacerEnglish Electric Part Two
FolkloreFolklore
BrooklandsFolklore

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Big Big Train photo

Big Big Train (l to r): Andy Poole, Danny Manners, David Longdon, Rikard Sjoblom, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Rachel Hall, Greg Spawton (photo by Kain Dear)

 

“They make beautiful, pastoral quintessentially English music: their name is Big Big Train” Bob Harris, BBC Radio Two

 

Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

Where to start?

I hit my teens at around the same time as Glam Rock hit the charts. The bands I liked were Slade, T. Rex, Alice Cooper and David Bowie et al. 10cc were not really Glam Rock, but I really liked them too. Growing up in North West London, when commercial radio was launched in the mid-1970s, my local station was Capital Radio and Nicky Horne’s evening rock show ‘Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It’ brought exposure to Prog Rock. This occasionally maligned genre has been with me ever since and has, periodically, renewed my appetite with a stunning band. Big Big Train are just such a band.

I cannot remember how, or even when, I discovered the music of Big Big Train. I was aware of the name of the band, they are mentioned on Prog Archives. It seems it was some time after reading the piece that I began to listen to the music itself – it may have been via YouTube. Suffice to say, I liked what I heard enough to explore the band and its music.

Big Big Train’s influences are clear: Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator are there, also Mew, Sigur Rós, King Crimson. When former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory joined in 2011 he brought those influences with him.

The genesis (no pun intended) of the band – or a band called Big Big Train – seems to have been as a punk outfit in Birmingham in 1981, one of whose members was Greg Spawton’s brother, Nigel; far removed from the eight piece prog rock band we have today and without any of the original members. The band seemed to exist sporadically between 1981 and around 1990 by which time Spawton had moved to Bournemouth where he met Andy Poole and discovered a mutual appreciation of bands like Van der Graaf Generator. The pair recorded some demos together and the ‘new’ Big Big Train was formed with Spawton on guitar and Poole on bass with the addition of Ian Cooper (keyboards), Steve Hughes (drums) and Martin Read (vocals). The band released a demo tape called From The River To The Sea in 1991. This was followed in 1993 by The Infant Hercules, another demo album. Neither of these early recordings are noted on the band’s website.

The official debut album is listed as Goodbye To The Age Of Steam in 1994 which was remastered and expanded in 2011. The album feels like a single contiguous piece of music but I’ve selected Blue Silver Red to open this toppermost collection with the juxtaposition of keyboards and guitar over a steady drum pattern – the Genesis influences are there from the beginning. Martin Read’s vocals are enhanced by a retinue of backing singers.

By 1997, and the release of English Boy Wonders, Ian Cooper had left the band and Tony Muller had joined and co-wrote Albion Perfide with Spawton and Poole. The title is a take on the pejorative phrase for Britain ‘Perfidious Albion’ as a metaphor for coming home to a lover who has been less than faithful.

Bard released in 2002 saw the return of Ian Cooper; the album is now out of print and currently unavailable. It is the Big Big Train album that speaks to me the least and is the least prog rock of their recordings. Blacksmithing is a very good track with the vocals shared by Martin Read, Jo Michaels and Tony Muller, their voices blending well.

Gathering Speed (2004) is dedicated to the airman and women who lost their lives in the Battle of Britain, and Sean Filkins had joined the band to take vocal duties from Martin Read. High Tide, Last Stand opens the album with a Spitfire crossing between the speakers. My Father was RAF Ground Crew during World War II so this album resonates with me. From its calm opening, Pell Mell builds to capture the chaos of war, particularly war in the air with planes flying in all directions. The follow-up, The Difference Machine (2007), was another concept album, exploring chaos theory, communication, failure, death, loss, and bereavement. The story is of the death of an individual, which was linked to an exploding star in a distant galaxy. Some of the music is quite harsh and less melodic than before in keeping with the themes, illustrated by Salt Water Falling On Uneven Ground.

The Underfall Yard is a boatyard in Bristol and is also the title of Big Big Train’s next album. Released in 2009, multi-instrumentalist David Longdon had joined as lead vocalist and provided the band with a focus. In my opinion he is by far the best (and most powerful) vocalist the band has had.

The outstanding track is Victorian Brickwork with its historical imagery in keeping with the whole album. It’s about Greg Spawton’s father who died shortly before the album was released. The title track at 23 minutes explores Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the great Victorian engineers. The Underfall Yard was inspired by Richard Fortey’s book “The Hidden Landscape” that describes a journey west along Brunel’s Great Western Railway. There followed in 2010 the first official EP, Far Skies Deep Time, a five track offering that opens with either Masters Of Time or a re-recorded version of Kingmaker (originally on The Infant Hercules) depending on whether you have a CD or imported/downloaded version. The centrepiece is an 18 minute epic, The Wide Open Sea, that traces the last voyage of Belgian singer Jacques Brel. David Longdon plays the rarely used theremin on this EP. One of the shorter tracks in the canon is British Racing Green and seems to be a song about a short tempestuous relationship but has the layers of music that you expect from Big Big Train.

The pair of albums, English Electric Part One (2012) and English Electric Part Two (2013) are simply stunning. The band is in its stride and the music shows; the pair were subsequently released as a double album along with four new tracks as English Electric: Full Power. From English Electric Part One we have Judas Unrepentant which tells the true story of Tom Keating, an unsuccessful artist who becomes a restorer and then a forger. Following his death in 1984, and with great irony, Keating’s paintings became ‘genuine forgeries’ and now sell for tens of thousands of pounds. I’d also commend the musical and lyrical imagery of Winchester From St Giles’ Hill. From English Electric Part Two we have the story of ‘The Mallard’ and its famous attempt at the speed record for a steam locomotive on 3rd July 1938 when it achieved 125.88 mph just south of Grantham in Lincolnshire on the East Coast Main Line; the appropriately named East Coast Racer celebrates both the locomotive and the event. The album also contains a eulogy to the Swan Hunter shipyard on Tyneside.

In between the releases of the two English Electric albums and the Full Power compilation, there was a 9 track EP Make Some Noise which contained the four tracks that were later to be included on the English Electric: Full Power set and selections from the two ‘parent’ albums, albeit two being ‘branch line editions’ and edited from the originals.

June 2015 saw the release of a four track EP Wassail, the title track being included on the CD edition of Folklore (see below), and two of the others were included on the vinyl edition of the album.

In August 2015, Big Big Train played their first live performances for seventeen years with three dates at Kings Place, London. The gigs sold out within days of tickets being released, and subsequently voted Event of the Year by readers of Prog magazine.

I haven’t documented all the changes in the band over time – the current line-up is:

David Longdon (vocals, flute, acoustic guitar, mandolin, percussion)
Nick D’Virgilio (drums, percussion, backing vocals)
Greg Spawton (acoustic guitar, bass guitar, bass pedals, backing vocals)
Andy Poole (acoustic guitar, mandolin, keyboards, backing vocals)
Dave Gregory (guitars)
Danny Manners (keyboards, double bass)
Rachel Hall (violin, viola, cello, backing vocals)
Rikard Sjöblom (keyboards, guitars, accordion, backing vocals)

In May 2016, Big Big Train released their most recent album at the time of writing. A collection of prog rock for the modern age, Folklore was released as a 9 track CD and 11 track double vinyl album. I’ve included the title track that tells of how we are custodians of our world for future generations. My last selection, Brooklands, harks back to the heyday of the famous motor racing circuit when Ettore Bugatti described the Bentley 3-litre as ‘the fastest lorry in the world’.

Where next for this band? Some more live dates maybe, and definitely a lot more quality music to be written, recorded and released.

 

STOP PRESS
Big Big Train were nominated in three categories in the 2016 Progressive Music Awards: best band, best live event for the London shows in August 2015 and best album for the new release, Folklore. They won Best Live Event and Band Of The Year.

 

Big Big Train official website

Big Big Train blog

Big Big Train biography (iTunes)

 

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
10cc
Sigur Rós
Slade
T. Rex
Van der Graaf Generator

TopperPost #549

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