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. 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.