Friday, 13 May 2016

Brooklands

This blog post is about a song called Brooklands which is the penultimate track on the Folklore album.

Brooklands is the first ever motor-racing circuit. It is located near the villages of Weybridge and Esher in Surrey, England. There was an aerodrome inside the circuit which was bombed in the war and consequently Brooklands fell out of use as a circuit in the 1930's. Brooklands had huge banked corners, 100 feet wide, and some of them still remain. In fact, the whole place now looks like a crumbling time-capsule with the eerie remains of the circuit hidden in the trees.



The song called Brooklands is about a true-life racing driver called John Cobb. Whilst he was a quiet and reserved man he had a love for speed and racing. He was born near the site of the race track and went from being a keen spectator to being a competitor. He went on to become the dominant driver at Brooklands in the days of the Napier Railtons and the Bentley Boys driving their ‘Blowers’

Here is some jaw-dropping footage of Cobb and Malcolm Campbell racing at Brooklands in 1932. As you will see if you watch the film, these men were extraordinarily brave.

Cobb went on to hold the ultimate track record at Brooklands with an average speed of nearly 144 miles per hour. Cobb broke several land and water speed records and continued with his record breaking attempts into middle-age. He died on Loch Ness in 1952 whilst attempting to break the water speed record. Cobb's beloved wife had died before him in 1948 after just a year of marriage. He had recently married again and his second wife was at the Loch when he crashed.

The opening of the song sets the scene as John is driving to Loch Ness to attempt the water speed record. As he takes his boat out onto the water he remembers back to his young days at Brooklands and then his later life as a racer. These are the last memories he will think about.  

After the crash, the people of the local villages raised money for a memorial on the Loch side:


Brooklands is about a man who is growing older and wonders, like many of us do: ‘where did all the time go?’ But John Cobb was determined to extract everything he could out of life and to lead the life he wanted to live right up to the end. I imagine that Brooklands was a kind of heaven for him, it being the place that defined him and where he found himself.

For those who want to read further about John Cobb, there is an excellent article about this reluctant hero here.

Brooklands is well worth a visit. There is a motor museum and an aviation museum on site and a number of period buildings. It is still possible to walk around many areas of the banked circuit and imagine the cars racing by.



Friday, 22 April 2016

The Transit of Venus Across the Sun

This blog post is about a song called The Transit of Venus Across the Sun which is the fifth track on Big Big Train's Folklore album.


A good explanation of the celestial event known as the transit of Venus across the sun can be found in this article in the Guardian, and I shall quote directly from it as it explains the phenomenon better than I can:

‘A transit of Venus occurs when the planet and Earth, whose paths round the Sun tilt at slightly different angles, line up exactly where their orbits cross. This occurs only four times every 243 years, in pairs separated by eight years. Only six transits of Venus are known to have been observed (though claims are made for earlier observations by Persian astronomers) with the last, in 2004, watched by millions who used telescopes to project images of the Sun's disc and the dot of Venus on to cards or electronic monitors. After this year's, the next will be in 2117 and then 2125. When the previous pair occurred, Queen Victoria was on the throne.’

The transit has been very important in developing an understanding of the relationship between the Earth and the sun, and the transits in the 18th century caused the launch of major scientific expeditions as set out in a wonderful book called Chasing Venus.

I first came across the transit when watching The Sky at Night in 2004. People from Britain will be very well aware of this television series which has been running on BBC TV since 1957. For most of its time, the Sky at Night was presented by an extraordinary chap called Sir Patrick Moore. Sir Patrick was an eccentric man, a very talented astronomer and musician and a gifted communicator. The BBC broadcast a programme on the 2004 transit live from Sir Patrick’s house which was called Farthings. An excerpt from the programme can be seen here (this may only be viewable in the UK.) The programme features the astrophysicist and guitarist Brian May who was a close friend of Sir Patrick.

My original thoughts when starting to write the song called The Transit of Venus Across the Sun was to make the song about the 18th century scientific expeditions. However, my mind kept coming back to the life of Sir Patrick Moore and so I changed course and decided to write about him.

Sir Patrick had a fascinating life and there were many stories that would have been worth telling in song. Some of his political views were certainly reactionary and this was not an area I wished to explore in any way, but he was very much a person of his time and, for me, the positive aspects of his life far outweigh the negative.

In the end, The Transit of Venus became almost a love song. Sir Patrick had only one love affair in his life, a woman called Lorna who was killed in the Second World War. Sir Patrick stated that he thought of Lorna every day, even in later life and that he could love nobody else. In the song, the transit becomes a metaphor for Lorna’s brief life, with Sir Patrick later setting a course for the stars and reaching out for far things.

In the 2004 programme, Sir Patrick can be heard saying that this is the only time he will see the transit. In the end, Sir Patrick lived just long enough to see the second transit of the 21st century pair in 2012. There is an interesting article here on the glimpse that Sir Patrick had of the 2012 transit.

When we were recording the song, David had an idea which led to a mention of somebody who was related to a character from another BBT song. We enjoy finding and following the connections between the stories we tell in our songs. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Along the Ridgeway and Salisbury Giant

Along the Ridgeway and Salisbury Giant are the third and fourth tracks on the album Folklore by Big Big Train which will be released on 27th May 2016

I am writing about two songs this week, as the two tunes in question form a single piece on the album.

When David and I decided that folklore would be the main theme of the album, we both felt that we should write some more songs specifically referencing folklore tales. I decided to set one of my songs on the Ridgeway and to explore some of the old stories associated with this ancient path.

The Royal Society published some research recently with the catchy title of: ‘Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales’. The research showed that a number of folklore tales have roots in the Bronze Age. One tale, The Smith and the Devil was estimated to have its origin as far back as 6000 years ago. These tales were told and retold many times before they were first written down.

The Ridgeway is an ancient pathway (itself perhaps 5000 years old) which runs from Wiltshire to the Thames. It used to be part of a longer path called The Icknield Way which ran from Salisbury to the Fens. The Ridgeway is associated with many folklore and historical tales including that of the Anglo-Saxon smith-god, Wayland (which clearly has shades of The Smith and the Devil.) The Wayland legend is pretty gruesome and, in the song, I have him smelting iron and blood to make wings to fly home.

Another story is that the Uffington Horse, on moonlit nights, comes to life and leaves the hillside to drink from the nearby wells. And it is told that St George slayed the dragon on a flat-topped hill just below the Uffington Horse. No grass ever grows on the hill because of the dragon's blood.
Painting by Eric Ravilious


One of my favourite Ridgeway tales concerns King Alfred, one of the great heroes of English history who fought a battle on the Ridgeway and defeated the Vikings there. Legend has it that you can hear him blowing the sounding stone which can be found near the Ridgeway (on Blowingstone Hill) to summon his men. Alfred's stone can be heard at the start of the song. The sample for the blowing stone was provided by Simon Chadwick  who is an expert on the early music and instruments of the British Isles. Simon has posted an interesting article on his website here which includes video of him sounding the blowing stone. 

The song itself is told from the perspective of a child with his head full of Alan Garner stories who can see magic and mystery all around him. I imagined him racing up to the Ridgeway and letting his imagination run away so that all of the old legends come back to life.

At the end of the song, the Salisbury Giant lumbers into view.  

The Giant is an astonishing survivor from folklore processions in medieval England. Alongside his hobby-horse, he would have led processions from the late 15th century onwards.

We visited the Victoria and Albert museum recently and found a stained glass panel from the 16th century depicting ‘A Mery May’ which includes folklore figures who would have taken place in these processions, including a hobby horse.  

One final thing to mention about Along the Ridgeway is that the Uffington Horse is, of course, closely associated with Dave Gregory's former band, XTC. Dave's choice of instrument on Along the Ridgeway was his 1976 Rickenbacker 360/12, a guitar he played on the English Settlement album and one he hasn't recorded with since 1992. She is a beautiful looking guitar, but not an easy one to play: 'an instrument of torture if ever there was one' says Dave.


Friday, 8 April 2016

London Plane

London Plane is the second track on the album Folklore by Big Big Train which will be released on 27th May 2016

Following on from David's blog about the title track of the Folklore album, this is the second in a series of blog posts about the songs on the new album which will lead up to release day on 27th May.
Like many Big Big Train songs, this one started with the title. I can’t remember where I saw or heard the phrase London Plane but it immediately struck me as an odd, and interesting, combination of words so I made a note of it and, when we came to write some new songs for the Folklore album, started to read up about the London Plane.
The London Plane is the classic city tree. It is resistant to pollution and is a common feature in the parks and streets of London and other cities. It grows to over 100 feet. It was first cross-pollinated in around 1600 and became widely planted from around 1700. It may have been discovered by the marvellously named (and spectacularly bearded) John Tradescant the Younger.
No London Plane tree has ever died of old age, so it is not known how long their natural life span is. As they re-grow vigorously when cut down, they can almost be said to be immortal.
I have written a few songs with a London theme in recent years so I began to think how a song about a tree named after the city might work. I decided that I would use a single tree as a 'witness' to the history of London over the last few hundred years.
I spent some time wandering around the city to find a good location for my tree (it didn’t necessarily have to be a real specimen, but I wanted to find somewhere where such a tree may have existed and where interesting things would have happened in proximity to the tree.) A couple of early favourite locations, including Mount Street gardens and St Pancras Old Church were eventually discarded in favour of York Watergate.
York Watergate was built at almost exactly the right time as a starting point for the period of history in the song. The Watergate was at the edge of the river Thames until it was left stranded by the building of Victoria Embankment. It is now landlocked, but a tall tree near the Watergate would still be in sight of the river and at the centre of the metropolis.
There are, in fact, a number of large London Planes close-by the Watergate and for the purposes of the song, I decided that one of these would be ‘my’ tree and that it may just have been a sapling when the Watergate was constructed in 1626.
So, the device in the song is that some of the human stories of London from the mid 1600’s to the present day are told, in a roughly chronological order, from the perspective of a London Plane tree growing alongside York Watergate.
I must stress that I made no attempt to anthropomorphise the tree (by law, since the late 70’s, progressive rock bands are not allowed to stray onto Tolkien-esque territory so there would be no ‘ents’ in this song. ) Instead, the tree provides the song with a perspective and an element of stasis around which time passes as England's river flows nearby.
And the passage of time is the main subtext of the song. I am 50 years old now and I am all too aware of how quickly time seems to pass and of how fragile life is.
I won’t explain all of the references within the song, but it is worth saying that Skylon makes an appearance and that this will be the subject of another BBT song which will feature on an EP we will be releasing in 2017. The EP will also include a piece which was written as a prelude to London Plane called Turner on the Thames.  
Finally, the vinyl version of Folklore includes two additional tracks: Mudlarks and Lost Rivers of London (originally released only on the Wassail EP). We have taken the opportunity to sequence London Plane, Mudlarks and Lost Rivers so that they form one side of the vinyl double album as a ‘suite’ of London songs.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Another year gone by

As the year draws to a close, we wanted to say thank you to listeners for their support during 2015. The music industry is changing very quickly at the moment but one of the more positive aspects of the contemporary music scene is that bands and their listeners can be drawn very closely together. We feel very lucky in Big Big Train that there is such an amazing and friendly group of people who support us in so many different ways. Whether it is by buying our music and concert tickets, writing and posting reviews, talking to others about us or simply making the BBT forum such a friendly, lively and interesting place, it all helps to sustain our musical endeavours.

We know that many listeners are sceptical about the ‘best of’ lists which are published at this time of year by magazines, websites and individuals. However, for bands, these lists do provide a useful ‘weather vane’ to assess how things are going. It has been very encouraging for our gigs to appear on a number of lists as one of the year’s highlights and for BBT to feature in such a strong position in Prog magazine’s recent fan-voted list of greatest artists. Results like this suggest we are making a wider impact and that things are heading in a positive direction
.
We are only too aware that it has been longer than two years since the last BBT studio album and we are happy to confirm that next couple of years will be very busy for us, with a new studio album, a double live album, an EP, a Blu-ray and more gigs all in the pipeline.

We will share more detailed news with you about our activities as soon as we have it (starting very soon) but, in the meantime, thank you once again for your support.

Greg

Page scans courtesy of Prog magazine.


Friday, 10 July 2015

Latest Big Big Train news

Apologies to those people who still keep an occasional eye on this blog for the lack of recent updates.

I will do my best to write more blog posts in the autumn to share information about the new album. In the meantime, we are preparing for this summer's gigs and minor updates and new photos will most likely be on the band's Facebook forum or on my Twitter account.

In the meantime, here is a link to a round-up of recent news (includes information on the gigs and our recent nomination for a Progressive Music Award.)

And here is a link to our new range of merchandise (which includes fine art prints, t-shirts, polo shirts, badges, mugs and shopping bags.)

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Big Big Train update

Left to right: Andy Poole / Danny Manners / David Longdon / Rikard Sjoblom /
Nick D'Virgilio / Dave Gregory / Rachel Hall / Greg Spawton. Photograph by Kain Dear.

This post is a quick round-up of recent news which we will publish on all of the various BBT internet and social media outlets in the next few days.

Big Big Train recently announced two shows in London in August 2015. The gigs both sold out during the pre-sale and a third concert has now been announced. Tickets for this show will shortly go on general sale. These are the only gigs currently planned in the next year. BBT will be joined for the gigs by the wonderful brass band which featured on The Underfall Yard and English Electric albums.

We will be releasing a DVD and Blu-Ray of our recent performances at Real World studios in the spring 2015.

We have written around 2 hours of new songs (many of which are now at least partially recorded). We aim to complete these songs for album releases in 2016 and 2017.

We are slowly making progress with the Station Masters retrospective release and will try to get that finished off alongside the new songs.

We are pleased to welcome Rachel Hall and Rikard Sjöblom into both the live and recording line-up of Big Big Train.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Questions for the Big Big Train video release


As listeners to BBT may be aware, we are making a film of our rehearsals at Real World studios in August. The rehearsals are an important event for us as they will show BBT evolving from a studio-based band into a band which will be getting ready to play some shows, so we thought it would be good to have a visual record. As well as footage of the rehearsals, we want to include some bonus material on the DVD / Blu-Ray, including interviews and other items. Rather than a static interview with a single interviewer, we thought we might try to answer some questions from members of the very friendly BBT forum (join here) or from other BBT listeners.

So, if there are any questions, we'd be happy to hear from you. The only thing is, you will need to film yourself asking the question and send an email with the video file to us at:


The video file does not need to be of amazing quality (eg phone camera footage is fine) but you will need to ensure we can see and hear you clearly as the footage may end up on the DVD. Please also state your name and where you are from. Questions can be serious, or fun, there are no restrictions and we will need any questions by the end of June.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Lots of pictures of Big Big Train with pink ears

Ahead of our time at Real World and gigs next year, we popped to Enfield today for a fitting of in-ear monitors at Handheld Audio.

Nick has used in-ear monitors for many years but this was a new experience for the rest of us, and a slightly bizarre one.

In-ear monitors need to sit very tightly inside the ear so that the musician can hear all frequencies. This means that molds of the ear have to be taken around an impression of a small speaker which will sit on the ear drum.

The fitting today involved a lot of poking around inside the ear like this:


and this:


and this:


before we had to bite on a piece of plastic and have our ears filled with a pink blancmange-like substance like this:


and this:


and this:


and this:


After five minutes or so, the impression is solid enough to remove and they will shortly be sent off to Ultimate Ears in the States to be made into monitors.

Here we are afterwards, job done (except for Rikard who is having his fitted in Sweden).





Saturday, 1 March 2014

Prog on prescription (or how listeners find out about music which is new to them)

On the BBT forum, Chris Allen posted a thread which asked: 'how did you discover Big Big Train?'

There were enough responses (150 or so individual ones) for some themes to emerge which I thought were worth some analysis and some brief comments.

The first thing of interest was the wide diversity of different channels for finding out about music. There were more than 20 different routes to finding out about BBT.

Five main routes stood out from the others. These were:

  • Personal recommendations from friends or family (16%)
  • Prog and Classic Rock covermount CD's (12%)
  • Links to other bands (12%)
  • Internet radio shows (12%)
  • Prog rock websites (11%)

Other popular routes were Spotify (6%) and iTunes and Amazon recommendations (each at 3%). Our own downloads (particularly the 23 minute freebie of The Underfall Yard) and the Progstreaming website also received a few mentions. 

Surprisingly, some of the best-known social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) were hardly mentioned and Soundcloud and Last FM received only one mention each.

It was interesting that old-fashioned 'word-of-mouth' is still the most important factor. Word-of-mouth has been facilitated by new technology (eg the ability to easily share music and information and by social-networking), so it may be that there is some crossover between these things. 

One listener mentioned that his GP had recommended our music which was intriguing. ('Doctor, Doctor, I'm poorly what can you give me?' 'I am prescribing you a dose of progressive rock'...) 

Internet radio was a popular route, so hats-off to those who put their shows and podcasts together and get them online. I suspect that these shows take a great deal of time and trouble to produce and it is pleasing to see that they result in increased music appreciation. The recent increase in progressive rock on digital radio shows will also surely have an impact.

Big Big Train has a lot of links with other bands through its members and through past associations (eg XTC, Spock's Beard, Anthony Phillips, Genesis, Frost) and some of these links have clearly been influential (one listener described it as 'following the breadcrumbs'). So, for bands thinking of inviting higher profile guest musicians, it may be a good idea to follow this through.

Distribution of music through covermount CD's on Prog, Classic Rock and the Classic Rock Society also appears to pay significant dividends (although, as with all of these routes, the material being distributed has to be of good quality.)

Amongst the listeners who have been following us since earlier days, Cyclops mail-order received several mentions. Malcolm Parker and Cyclops / GFT clearly played quite a part in sustaining an interest in progressive rock before the internet really took off.

Finally, one person did mention seeing BBT live back in the 90's in the Netherlands. I'm a bit sceptical about whether live performances actually create many new listeners as I suspect they are more about playing to the already converted. However, the promotional effort around live shows must also be of benefit. This will be interesting for BBT as we go forward.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Making Music in 2014

Following on from David's recent post about 2013, here is a brief look ahead to our plans in 2014.

As we've mentioned before, we are now gearing up for some live activity. This is a major undertaking for us as Big Big Train hasn't played any gigs since earlier incarnations of the band and, when the current BBT started working together in 2009, we did not expect to be in a position to be playing live again. This meant that the songs on our studio albums became multi-layered recordings (with brass and strings and all sorts of things) and these are not easy to perform live.

We did have the option of stripping the tracks back to more basic arrangements for live performances, but we like the sound of the music we make these days and want to perform the songs in as full a fashion as possible. So, we've decided that we'll be aiming for performances with brass and strings and have been working hard on preparing a number of songs to test out in our August rehearsals at Real World studios. Once we're happy that everything is sounding strong, we'll be looking to make some announcements about a live show or two (not sure where yet but certainly in England to start with.) As we've previously mentioned, we'll also be filming the Real World performances for a Blu-Ray and DVD release at a later stage.

In working through the songs, we've identified a need for a strong additional keyboard player, guitarist and vocalist. I am very pleased to announce that we will be joined at Real World and for live shows by the wonderful Rikard Sjöblom from one of our favourite bands, Beardfish. Rikard is a fine keyboard player, guitarist and singer and so is able to fill all of our requirements in one person. He is a also a top chap which is very important to us.

Alongside our Real World preparation we are well into recording a new studio album, and work continues on Station Masters where we are revisiting some of our earlier songs with the new line-up. So, we are extremely busy and, if you see a little less of us in the BBT forum from time-to-time it's simply because we're working hard on new music, old music, or both.

Finally, the subscription copies of Prog magazine have started to arrive today ahead of going on sale in the shops on the 8th January. I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank-you to everybody who took the trouble to vote for us in the readers' polls in the magazine. The results Big Big Train achieved in the Prog polls (in band, album, vocalist and drummer categories) have given us a wonderful start to 2014.

       




Sunday, 8 September 2013

Making Some Noise

Photograph by Willem Klopper
Quite a lot happening for Big Big Train at the moment so thought I'd do a blog post just to draw some of the threads together.

First of all, I want to say, on behalf of the band, a heartfelt thank-you to everybody who took the time to vote for us in the Progressive Music Awards which were held at Kew gardens on the 3rd September. We were delighted to be nominated, even more thrilled to be invited and stunned to win the Breakthrough award. It was an extraordinary night at a beautiful location where everybody, wherever they are in the prog firmament, was friendly and approachable. All of the musicians are fans of progressive music and there was a lovely sense of 'we're all in this together' which has seen the genre through some tough times. We would especially like to thank Jerry, Jo, Russell, Philip and the other writers and staff at Prog magazine for their vision in launching the magazine and the awards. Again, they are also fans and, like the musicians, they are trying to run a business in difficult times for the publishing industry.

Team Rock Radio has tonight broadcast a show on the awards including many interviews and excerpts from speeches and it's well worth a listen. It should be available on the Team Rock On Demand service very soon. One of the few disadvantages of winning an award is that you are ushered backstage for interviews and photos so we actually missed much of the ceremony. Philip Wilding's radio show has helped to fill in some of the gaps for us.

In the next couple of weeks we will be releasing two new CD's - English Electric: Full Power and the Make Some Noise EP. The former is the ultimate statement of our English Electric releases and the latter provides an affordable option for listeners who already have English Electric Parts One and Two and want to hear the additional songs. Alongside the new CD's, English Electric Part Two will be released on vinyl through the Plane Groovy label. The double vinyl album features the four new tracks from English Electric: Full Power.

We have commenced work on a new album as well as the Station Masters retrospective and Nick returns to England at the end of September for some more recording. We are also spending a week at Real World next year to try out our planned live show. We are committed to playing a show as soon as we can but want to do a full rehearsal with the brass and string musicians in a controlled environment just to iron out any teething problems. We will be filming the Real World event as it's an extraordinary place to play and we would like to show you what we are up to. All being well, we'll follow Real World with a gig or two and then we hope to be playing live on a more regular basis after that.

We hope you enjoy the new releases and, once again, thank you for supporting Big Big Train.  

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Early Music of Van Der Graaf Generator

Ahead of their show at The Barbican, I've embarked on a listen through all of the Van Der Graaf back-catalogue.

I haven't yet reached their greatest works (Pawn Hearts, Godbluff, Still Life) but even this far in, it has been an extraordinary musical journey.

It must be 30 years since I first heard Refugees, and I still find it to be an astonishingly beautiful song. House With No Door is almost as gorgeous. Of course, alongside these two languid songs there are tracks with furious riffing and brutal power. Sometimes these can be a challenging listen, but even at their most difficult, Van Der Graaf always had great melodies (a good example being After the Flood where, amongst all the doom and gloom that the band could muster, there are still many sing-out-loud moments .)     

My favourite of these early songs is Lost, an epic song about a failed relationship ('I know we'll never dance like we used to') where the band achieve the perfect combination of complex and challenging music alongside glorious anthemic passages.

Pawn Hearts is next on my listening list. I can't wait to hear it again.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Video review of English Electric Part One

Just ahead of the release of English Electric Part Two, here is Marcel Haster's new video review of English Electric Part One on the excellent Live Prog website.



Sunday, 24 February 2013

Curator of Butterflies

The idea for this song started with a short newspaper article. The article was about the Natural History Museum and had a sub-heading of Curator of Butterflies which caught my eye. I was also interested in the final paragraph where Blanca Huertas, the Museum's Curator Lepidoptera describes how, as a teacher, she can explain 'everything with butterflies: genetics, taxonomy, camouflage, life and death'. As you can see from the scan of the cutting above, I underlined the final three words of the article. I tore the article out of the paper and placed it in the trunk where I keep ideas for songs.

When writing began for English Electric I opened the trunk, came upon the article and started work on a song which I called Curator of Butterflies. The chord sequence was composed on an acoustic 12-string guitar with the second string tuned up to 'C'. The melody was written very much with David's vocal abilities in mind. Much of the later musical arrangement was by Dave Desmond (brass) and Danny (piano.) Dave Gregory also came up with one of the main musical motifs of the song so this is very much a track where a lot of people have made significant contributions.

Many of the songs on English Electric have a story to tell but this one is a more philosophical piece. There is a female character in the song but I must stress that this person is not Blanca Huertas. I do not know Ms Huertas and would not presume to write about her. However, that short article about Ms Huertas was the direct inspiration for the lyrics and, in particular, those final three words: 'life and death'. The song is about the fine line between those two extremes. As I grow older I become more aware of my mortality and the mortality of my family and friends. The knowledge that we hold about our mortality means that life can be a beautiful burden.

Curator of Butterflies is the final song on English Electric Part Two and therefore brings to a close this series of pieces about the songs on the two BBT blogs. We do hope listeners find some music to enjoy on the album and we would like to thank all listeners to our music for their support and interest. We would especially like to thank the wonderful community of music lovers which has come together on the BBT Facebook group. If you can judge a band by its listeners, then BBT is a good band.

There will be a special double CD edition of English Electric later on in 2013. This will feature three additional songs and we will revise the track sequencing in the light of it being a double album rather than two separate releases. As we have made clear elsewhere, the three additional songs will also appear on an EP release and will be available for separate purchase as downloads so we are giving listeners various opportunities to purchase the extra songs without feeling the need to buy the albums again. We are also in discussion with Plane Groovy about releasing EE2 on vinyl (with the additional songs on the 4th side of a double release.)

We will tell you about these releases and other things when there is news.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Permanent Way



'The permanent way' is a Victorian expression which means the finished track and bed of a railway. I am sure it was intended to be a utilitarian term but it's a phrase which is full of mystery and hidden meaning. 'Way' is an Old English word meaning "road, path or course of travel". 'The permanent way' seems to suggest a longstanding connection between the countryside and the people who work on the land linked by the ancient (and new) pathways running through the landscape.

English Electric is not a concept album but many of the songs are thematic. On The Permanent Way, which is the penultimate track on the album, we have brought together the stories of the individuals and communities working on and under the land who, along with inescapable geological forces, helped to forge the British landscape.

As well as the connections between the songs on the two parts of English Electric we have also sought to explore the links to our 2009 album The Underfall Yard and the 2010 EP Far Skies Deep Time. Many of the themes explored on The Underfall Yard defined our work on English Electric. The title track of The Underfall Yard is primarily about the visionary engineers who made their mark on the land during the 19th century. In that song, the navigators and the engineer can be found:

'Working the way through the valleys and fields,
grass grown hills and stone.
Parting the land
with the mark of man,
the permanent way.
Using just available light,
he could still see far skies,
deep time.'

Where people have helped to shape the landscape it is at the hands of ordinary folk that this has been done. Sometimes this has been at the behest of powerful land-owners and at other times it has been due to the vision of those far-sighted men-of-iron. But in the end it all comes down to ordinary men and women, in communities past and present, working on the land.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Keeper of Abbeys


A few years back we visited the North Yorkshire Moors. We stayed for a few days at an English Heritage cottage within the grounds of an abbey at Rievaulx. I'd seen pictures of the romantic ruins of this abbey throughout my childhood and had always wanted to spend some time there. The cottage allowed us access to the site after hours and so were able to see the ruins in their splendid isolation when all the visitors had gone. At night the abbey becomes a very eerie place which meant a ghost-hunting trip was in order and, of course, we spooked ourselves very badly (there were dark shadows and ravens that refused to sing.)

On our first day at Rievaulx I noticed a man tending to the stones. He was there throughout our stay and worked from dawn until dusk. He was an interesting-looking chap, lean and tall with a square-jaw and a face that had been exposed to the elements over the years. He reminded me a little of Ted Hughes or, in my imagination, Heathcliff.

I became fascinated by this keeper of the abbey and plucked up the courage to say hello. I expected him to be a typically taciturn Yorkshireman but, in fact, he was happy to talk and so I got to know a little bit about his story. He came down from the moors to the valley every day. He loved the abbey and wanted to make it beautiful so he worked hard throughout the hours of daylight. There was, however, an air of melancholy about him which I couldn't put my finger on. At one point he said he had really wanted to travel the world but had never managed to escape.

I walked back to the cottage and made some notes about the keeper of abbeys and later, from those notes, wrote the words that became the lyrics to the fifth song on English Electric Part Two. I have, of course, used some artistic license in painting a portrait of this character (in particular I imagined a reason for his melancholy state) but the song is for the most part a reflection of the man I met at Rievaulx.








Saturday, 26 January 2013

Worked Out


As we reach Worked Out, the third song on English Electric Part Two, we have moved from the shipbuilders of the North East (see David's blog on Swan Hunter) back to the mining industry of the Midlands (which featured as a setting in Uncle Jack, Hedgerow and A Boy in Darkness on Part One).

It is difficult to contemplate the immense scale of coal mining in Britain before its relatively recent decline. In the 1920's, there were more than a million coal-miners and the number was still at around 700,000 into the 1950's. By 1994, there were just 20,000 coal-miners.

The loss of so many mines was a disaster for communities which relied on the industry for work. Some have recovered but others still suffer very low levels of employment with all of the problems that lack of work brings.

Worked Out tells the story of a community from a mine which lasted longer than most. The colliery was called Birch Coppice and mined the Warwickshire coalfield until 1987. In the end, the colliery was closed because of a faultline in the coalface rather than for political or economic reasons.

My parents live in Tamworth and rent some storage on a farm near Birch Coppice. I spent a fair bit of time in the late 80's and early 90's wandering around on the land around the farm which was becoming 'edgeland'. Above the farm loomed a huge man-made hill where the spoil from the mine had accumulated. Nature was reclaiming the site and the hill was greening over. In a cutting I found the track bed of a disused railway line (heaven!) and, surrounding it, the remains of industrial workings. In more recent years, much of the site has been cleared and has become a modern distribution centre but there are still large areas of encroaching wilderness.

And, in any case, it is what lies beneath that really interests me. Underneath the ground are the remains from over 150 years of mining. There are shafts (now capped) which reach depths of over 1000 feet. There are 18 miles of workings and passages and the farthest coal face was three miles from the shafts. It was a huge undertaking and all of the visible remains were disappearing back into the undergrowth (or were being buried by car parks and warehouses.)


The same type of story can be found in the landscape all over Britain as the physical remnants of the gigantic undertaking that was the Industrial Revolution are lost. Worked Out is a song about the miners of Birch Coppice but it could be about any of the mining communities which have seen the closure of the pits and the loss of a way of life.

Monday, 14 January 2013

East Coast Racer

Photo: Gresley Society Trust

We are now seven weeks away from the release of English Electric Part Two, and as with Part One, we will be posting a weekly blog about the songs on the album up until the date of release.

The first song on Part Two is called East Coast Racer.

75 years ago, on 3rd July 1938, a streamlined locomotive called Mallard set the world speed record for steam trains, travelling at 126mph on a straight, downhill stretch of the East Coast Mainline.

Mallard has been preserved as a static exhibit and is normally on display at the National Railway Museum in York. Whilst she was made for speed the designers created a machine of extraordinary beauty; if you go to the museum, she will stop you in your tracks.

The story of Mallard has been described by Andrew Martin as being like Chariots of Fire with steam engines and it became, for me, an irresistible theme for a song. However, it wasn't so much  Mallard but the people who designed, made, fired and drove her that interested me. And it is their tale we tell over the 15 minutes or so of East Coast Racer.

It is a story with a wonderful list of main characters; designer Sir Nigel Gresley, his assistant Oliver Bulleid, fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington. Alongside those with starring roles was a community of engineers and railwaymen who all played a part in the making of a legend.

But, in the end, we come back to Mallard.

Émile Zola said: 'Somewhere in the course of manufacture, a hammer blow or a deft mechanic's hand imparts to a locomotive a soul of its own'.

In this short sentence, Zola puts his finger on the connection between the maker and the machine. Mallard has outlived its creators but in it, this company of men and the work they carried out, lives on.




                             





Friday, 19 October 2012

Progarchy: 'Pointing Toward Proghalla'

Progressive rock has a very vibrant presence on the internet, with a number of communities and sites all with their particular strengths and idiosyncrasies. Over the years, I have probably visited Progressive Ears, Progarchives and DPRP more often than most, but there are many others, including sites hosted by individual bands (such as the BBT Facebook Group.)

Now, there is a fine new prog site called Progarchy which I strongly recommend. The site functions as a blog and includes reviews and articles. The number of contributors and readers is expanding very rapidly and I forecast that Progarchy will become an essential resource for prog listeners. The site can be found here and followed on Twitter here.



Sunday, 12 August 2012

Summoned By Bells

Upper Kent Street, Highfields, Leicester
The title of the fifth song on English Electric, Summoned By Bells, was pinched from Sir John Betjeman's book. Like Betjeman's poem, the song takes a look back at an earlier part of the subject's life, but in this case the memories are from my mum, Doreen, who grew up in a working class area of Leicester called Highfields.

My grandad John was a wheeltapper and lived in a terraced railway house in Upper Kent Street, Highfields, for almost all of his adult life. The photograph below shows the railway yard where he and my uncles worked (Leicester Shed). The row of houses lit up by the sunlight on the left of the roundhouse is Upper Kent Street.

Leicester Shed and Upper Kent Street
My mum has told me many stories about her upbringing in Highfields and, a couple of years ago, we decided to take a family trip back to the area to have a look around.

We found that much had changed. Leicester Shed is just sidings now; Upper Kent Street is gone and the roundhouse is no more. The population of the area has changed too and, in many ways, it's a very different place from when John and Doreen and her brothers lived there.

However, the more we looked around the more familiar the place became to Mum. Many of the old redbrick buildings survive, including her old school. And the park at Spinney Hill where she played is still there (and still popular with the local children). There appeared to be a strong sense of community and, whilst Highfields is just an ordinary place, it seemed to me as good a place as anywhere.

As we drove away, we stopped to let a young girl cross the road. If we had been able to stand in that spot 70 years before, that little girl could have been my mum on her way down to Spinney Hill park. With this image in my mind, more clear to me than the changes in Highfields, was the golden thread of continuity running down from the past.

Summoned By Bells is about my mum's upbringing in Leicester and about our trip back to her childhood home. The early parts of the song are built around Danny's piano playing before the focus shifts to Dave's electric 12-string. The song also features our brass band, led by Dave Desmond, and the recorder playing of Jan Jaap Langereis.

In the next two weeks on his blog, David will be telling the stories of the sixth and seventh songs on English Electric, Upton Heath and A Boy in Darkness.






Monday, 30 July 2012

Winchester From St Giles' Hill

'Alfred had me made (or made me again)'

The third song on English Electric (Part One) is called Winchester From St Giles' Hill.
Winchester is a beautiful and historic city in the south of England. St Giles’ Hill lies to the east of the city and forms part of the western edge of the South Downs. From the top of the hill you can see all of Winchester, and the song is an historical view of the development of the city and of (as Peter Ackroyd calls it) the ‘long song’ of England.
Winchester stands at a number of crossroads in time and provides a narrative of British and English history in miniature. There was a prehistoric settlement at Oram’s Arbour, then it became a Roman town and afterwards, a Saxon capital and stronghold. The Normans built a castle and a massive cathedral. It became a centre of learning with the opening of Winchester College and, in Victorian times, the railways came and with them the modern age.
Michael Wood has stated that 'Geography is history and history is geography' and Winchester From St Giles' Hill seeks to link the development of the city with its place in the landscape.
'A river flowing from the chalkhills through the water meadows and the open fields.
Walls were made and streets were laid down,halls and houses, schools and churches.'
Winchester From St Giles' Hill begins and ends with a flute and piano motif. The theme also forms part of the instrumental section where it is played on classical guitar. Alongside David's flute, a key feature of the song is the beautiful and complex piano playing of Danny Manners. I asked Danny to develop the piano part so that it sounded like a mountain stream racing down a hillside: of such obscure requests, beautiful arrangements are made.
The next song to be featured as we count down towards the release  of English Electric will be Judas Unrepentant. David will be telling the tale of that song on his blog in a few days' time.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Judas Unrepentant

Judas Unrepentant from English Electric Part One appears on the covermount CD of Prog magazine which is available from newsagents tomorrow.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

About the new songs - The First Rebreather

Over the next few weeks, in the run-up to September 3rd, David and I are going to tell the stories behind each song on English Electric Part One. I'm going to kick off with The First Rebreather, which is the opening song on the new album.

The First Rebreather


Like many people, I'm fascinated by the world beneath our feet. Many towns and cities in England are riddled with underground passages and chambers (London, Bristol and Exeter being obvious examples) and a number of books have been published on these hidden places. There is also an organisation called Subterranea Britannica dedicated to the study of man-made underground spaces in Britain.

As BBT listeners may know, we have featured one such underground place in a song on The Underfall Yard called Winchester Diver, which tells the true story of diver William Walker who saved Winchester Cathedral by diving under the flooded foundations. The title track of The Underfall Yard also included some references to the world below.

When it came to writing English Electric, I remembered a story that Dave Gregory told me about the making of the Severn railway tunnel. On the basis that there can never be too many prog songs about diving into flooded tunnels I started researching the story and found an article called The First Rebreather which gave me the song's title.

As soon as I've got a good title, the creative juices normally start to flow and so I quickly set about writing the soundtrack and lyrics to the true story of a man called Alexander Lambert who dived heroically into the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1880. The navvies who built the tunnel and who were hard-drinking fearless chaps were terrified that the river would break in and drown them all. However, when the tunnel flooded, the water was found to be fresh rather than tidal. The navvies had, in fact, struck an immense underwater spring which flowed through a fault in the rock (they called it The Great Spring). Conventional diving equipment was used to try to close an iron door in the tunnel to hold the water back. The equipment failed due to the air-hose continually being snagged.

The tunnel engineer had heard of a man called Henry Fleuss who had developed an experimental diving apparatus called a Rebreather (in effect, it was the first aqua-lung.) Fleuss was persuaded to make an attempt on the tunnel but was so frightened that he turned back and said he would not return to the darkness ‘for £10,000 or more.’ The equipment was handed over to Diver Lambert who carried out a number of dives which involved swimming 1000ft up the flooded tunnel in complete darkness. Lambert, The First Rebreather, confronts his fear in the tunnel whilst the workmen await his return.

‘The first rebreather’ is a strange phrase which sounds almost super-heroic which, indeed, Lambert was.  So, I decided that, for the purposes of the song, The First Rebreather would be seen as a sort of superhuman creature come to save the navvies from the Great Spring.
Lambert would, of course, have looked very odd in his diving gear and, to the superstitious men, I’ve imagined that he would have looked like a Mummer (also known as a Souler). Mummers’ plays generally feature a character who brings back to life a dead person, so that fitted quite nicely as Lambert tries to bring air back to the lungs of the tunnel.
In the song, The Great Spring has also become a character. I remember being frightened as a child by the story of Beowulf swimming into the mere to slay the beast and again, I’ve used that imagery. In Beowulf, his men waited by the water for him to return. He returned ‘at the ninth hour’. The closing vocal section of the lyrics is about the workmen waiting for Lambert to swim back to the surface. As The First Rebreather is also a direct follow-up to Winchester Diver, I have also worked in some references to The Divine Comedy.
Musically, The First Rebreather is built, for the most part, on Dave's insistent guitar riff and Andy Tillison's beautiful organ playing. In the choruses and in the Moog solo section we set out some themes which are reprised in different songs later on (and also in songs on Part Two). The First Rebreather also introduces the sound of our string quartet to the album.
The next song we will be featuring in this series of blog posts will be Uncle Jack, which David will be writing about on his blog in a few days' time.