Saturday 14 August 2010

The Wide Open Sea: Part.1

"After this, I don't think we'll be doing another epic! At least not on this scale...." 
So said Big Big Train collectively to themselves during the final moments of the vocal tracking sessions for The Underfall Yard in the summer of 2009.

After completing the album we embarked on some collaborative songwriting and one of the first pieces Andy Poole thought had possibilities was a huge sprawling atmospheric track with the working title of The Wide Open Sea. From the off it was destined to be a huge undertaking.

Brel Book & Candle
The Wide Open Sea lyrics, vibraphone, banjo and Brel book:  All good to go! 
Far Skies Deep Time e.p sessions: Aubitt Studio Southampton UK: July 2010
Photograph: Amy Mumford July 2010

Big Big Train spotters out there will know that The Difference Machine already contains a track called From The Wide Open Sea. When you hear TWOS for the first time the association between the two pieces is apparent. FTWOS is a segment taken from TWOS.

Greg had read an article concerning the last years in the life of legendary Belgian singer/ songwriter Jacques Brel and thought it would make a good subject for a piece of music. TWOS was to be about the time Jacques spent aboard his boat The Askoy II.  In 1973 Brel had begun to sail the world but when he reached the Canary Islands he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He went to Paris to receive treatment and then eventually returned aboard The Askoy to resume his voyage. Brel later arrived at Les Marquises Islands. He recorded one last album in 1977 called Les Marquises.  Jacques died on 9th October 1978 aged 49 and was buried next to the grave of Paul Gauguin at Calvary CemeteryAtuonaHiva Oa, Les Marquises (French Polynesia).

The title of the song is taken from a line found in Mort Schuman's translation of Brel's Amsterdam.

"In the port of Amsterdam
There's a sailor who sings
Of the dreams that he brings
From the wide open sea..."

I received the raw files from The Poole in the autumn of 2009 and was instructed... 
"Do what you want with it. Let's see what happens..." 

It didn't neccessarily have to be about Jacques Brel at all but I liked Greg's idea. This is a fine example of the many similar interest that we share in common. I have been a great admirer of Brel for many years and I've spent a great deal of time in France, where his legacy is still quite rightly revered. I also have several albums of his material and have enjoyed interpretations of his work by the likes of Scott Walker, David Bowie, Marc Almond, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and many others. So the opportunity to write a song about Brel's time on board The Askoy was something that caught my imagination immediately.

I researched Jacques' life and death. Listened back once again to his music and watched live footage of his electrifying vintage performances where each song is melodramatically played out. He does not waste a single note and he delivers each line as though his life depends upon it. 

TWOS moves through several different sections so the idea of having each section representing episodes in Jacques' life seemed to be the right way to go.

I tried to keep as many of Greg's sparse guide lyrics as possible. They made a sort of weird sense and captured the spirit of Jacques at sea. The sections came together and I wrote my lyrics around these isolated pieces.

As the track began to take shape I noticed that the timeline of the track was unusual. The thread of the narrative was unsettling. How could Jacques (in our song) know all of these things about his life,  even his own death when he was on board The Askoy and had not yet died?

One Saturday morning I was having breakfast with my daughters and we were listening to a rough mix I'd done to track the progress of the song.

'What's this Dad?" said my eldest daughter "It sounds like ghosts!"


That's it!

The Wide Open Sea will be a ghost story!

TWOS clocks in at approximately 17 minutes, give or take a few seconds and so BBT once again find themselves in epic land but this particular epic is a different beast to The Underfall Yard

Stay tuned.

To be continued...


  1. "Dans le port d'Amsterdam" was one of the first songs I listened to over and over again as a little boy. So your post was a great reading. Jacques Brel sang, like you say, like his life depended upon it. (What an extremely terrible difference to the posh "ironic" way of seeing things nowadays in most media. Well, that might change again.) There are so many of Brel's songs highly inspiring, and some are for the future, like "les bourgeois". (Sometimes, listening to music, we suddenly see how bizarre our nowadays' perspectives are, I think.)

    And epic songs - I know a lot of people who dislike prog rock. The first sentence always is - "ah, those looooong boring songs". All smile and things are settled, hooorray. The word "boring" does fit more to those sentences out of the big big country of prejudice.
    Some songs need more notes, others not so many, that's all...
    If there is a "Spannungsbogen" (that's german), tension never leaves, a change of atmospheres, many ideas...
    So this will be a great project, I'm sure!

  2. Pleased you enjoyed the post Klemperer,

    Jacques Brel is a fascinating performer. If you watch the concert footage in the correct sequence (rather than in isolated You Tube hits) I am struck by the extremes of his work.

    Jacques is also an interesting character to work with.

    The Wide Open Sea was allowed to find it's own way. It unfolded as it needed to. Parts were taken away and other parts were extended as the piece developed. We worked on it until it naturally felt complete.

    It's never a case of 'Oh, lets write an epic!', it was right to do it this way.

    I only hope that when The Wide Open Sea is heard, it is understood.



  3. Hi, David--"The Wide Open Sea" has become on of my favorite BBT songs. The last couple of So intense, yet ultimately uplifting. I have no idea how you guys can create such complex pieces of music. Amazing work by everyone involved.