Monday 17 December 2012

Ant Music

David Longdon: ANT Self Portrait: 02/12/12

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!"

We [in BBT] are planning to meet in Southampton early in the New Year. Nick is once again flying in from the states and we will be recording rhythm tracks for new material including pieces designated for THE BIG BIG THING. I'm really looking forward to getting together again with the band and hearing the new tracks start to come to life.

We are also working on something special that will be available in early 2013 but that is all I can tell you for now!

What a year it's been. EE pt 1 was released back in September and it has been incredibly well received.  Thank you all for the support you have given us throughout 2012.

On a slightly religious note [well it is Christmas!] has anyone else noticed an implied Christ-like face on the cover of EE Pt.1? My friend Simon Withers noticed it and mentioned it to me the other evening. I have to say that I have never noticed it but Simon is an artist, so he spends much of his time either making images or looking at them.

What do you think? Can you see it too?

Q: What's with the ant reference and the ant-like portrait then David?

Well... in November 2012, Andy Tillison [from The Tangent and also recently involved with BBT on English Electric] invited me to contribute vocals and vocal arrangements for the new album by The Tangent called Le Sacre Du Travail. The piece is written by Andy and some of it is influenced by the orchestral works of Igor Stravinsky, especially the Rite of Spring. It will feature musical performances by Theo Travis, Jakko Jakszyk, Gavin Harrison, Jonathan Barrett and me!

Ants are featured in the concept of this album.

With English Electric Part 2 being released in March 2013 and Le Sacre Du Travail coming out later in the year, it looks as though 2013 is going to be busy!

"Although it's been said, many times, many ways... 

Merry Christmas!

To you."



Sunday 2 September 2012


Hedgerow is the eighth and final song on English Electric Part 1

So, here we are with the last blog entry for the songs featured on English Electric Part 1. When we began working on English Electric, Greg Spawton had been working on some musical ideas for a song called Hedgerow. I had written Uncle Jack which also mentions hedgerows in the lyric, so it was natural for us to make a rural comparison between the two pieces. As I have said in other posts, my uncle was a collier who spent his working life below the ground which gave him a deep appreciation for the natural world, nature, seasons and wildlife. He would walk his dog 'Peg' and spend as much time outdoors as possible. (Listen out for Peg in the track)

When I heard the initial demo for Hedgerow, it featured an opening section that had a 1960's feel to it. It reminded Andy Poole of something that The Move might have written. I wrote some lyrics for it based around Greg's demo phrasing. It is about my Uncle Jack once again only this time it focusses on the contrast between his life on the earth's surface and his working life below. The song has an anthemic feel to it as it develops. It includes great musical contributions from Rachel Hall who adds layered violin. Backing vocalists Lily Adams and Violet Adams reprise their nursery rhyme-like list of the sort of things that you would expect to find in a british hedgerow, previously featured in Uncle Jack (track two) . Danny Manners once again plays piano and the track also features Daniel Steinhardt on guitar who plays with Dave Gregory in Tin Spirits.

Hedgerow has a 'cast of thousands'. Well, not thousands but it does feature a large number of musicians. The Brass band are back! Dave Desmond and his men once again make the hairs stand up on the back of our necks with the Beatles-esque coda, especially with Ben Godfrey's cornet lines. I remember writing the embryonic demo idea for the brass one sunday afternoon and when I reached the final bar I added a 'tally-ho' trumpet phrase. I did this mainly to make Andy laugh when he received my audio files but it was I who laughed when I heard the brass sessions and good old Dave Desmond had included it in his arrangement. The 'Hedgehoppers Chorus' consists of, the voices of the brass players, Nick D'Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Martin Orford and Sandra Olma. It adds an 'all together now' sing along feel. We've included a number of 'sing along' songs on English Electric because when we play live, it will be great to get you all involved!

The blogs written by Greg and I over the last few months have helped us reveal the various stories, ideas, meanings and developments that have gone into making the music of English Electric. We hope that it adds to your listening experience and from the positive feedback we have received, it has been successful. 

We would also like to thank you for all the continued support you have given to us. It makes a difference. We especially enjoy reading the comments and debates from all our friends who are part of the ever growing BBT Facebook Group community. Thank you for your comments and words of encouragement. It really has spurred us on and given us the confidence to be braver and to reach further.

English Electric Part 1 has received some fabulous comments so far including Rich Wilson's glowing review [which made us shelve long term plans for our 'BBT presents Fred Dibnah/The Musical' album] and Nick Shilton's interview with us for PROG magazine Aug 2012. Geoff Barton the legendary music journalist brilliantly said in the September edition of Classic Rock, that we are 'the prog equivalent of the Olympics opening ceremony.'

We would like to thank Professor Brad Birzer and David 'Wilf' Elliot for their championing of 'The Train' over the last few years and urge you to listen to David's Dividing Line, European Perspective special on English Electric. There are other interviews coming along soon from Alison Henderson and Cliff Pearson as well as the recent one from Jordan Blum, and, again, thank you to Alison, Cliff and Jordan for helping to spread the word.

Once again we have reached the point where we now pass the album over to you.

We hope you enjoy English Electric Part 1


Big Big Train: Andy, Greg, David, Dave & Nick

Big Big Train will return with English Electric Part 2

Sunday 26 August 2012

A Boy in Darkness

A Boy in Darkness is track seven on English Electric (Part 1)

Warning: Part 3 of this post concerns subject matter and a link that some people may find distressing

I have mentioned in earlier posts that my Uncle Jack was a collier who worked from a young age in the Derbyshire coal mines in the 20th century up until he retired in the late 1970's. At that time young lads were expected to work down the mines in hard conditions once they had left school. It was hard and dangerous work but that is how it was in those days. By the time I'd arrived on the planet during the mid 1960's and had grown up into a teenager by the 1980's, the pits were on their last legs and a world of educational and work opportunities were now opening up. 

One day, Jack told me the story from when he was working down the pit and how a lad had become trapped and injured below ground in an accident. Jack and his crew stayed with the frightened boy but he tragically died from his injuries. Jack said 'no one should have to die like that, down there... especially a boy.' That stuck with me. That was the seed of the song.

Over the years I have tried to write a song about the unfortunate young man but each attempt did not seem to do it justice. There have been many songs written about mining fatalities but the further I went down this route, the more I realised that it was not what I was trying to say. So the undeveloped song remained on the shelf for a few years.

The title of the song is based on the Mervyn Peake story. I chose it because I liked the imagery but not because it relates to Peake's story line.

Part 1
When Andy and Greg invited me to contribute material for English Electric, I thought about revisiting A Boy in Darkness because the mysterious sounding opening piano and acoustic guitar part was possibly the most typically mournful Big Big Train-esque piece of music that I had. I wanted these verse sections to be eerie, ghostly and sparse. In contrast to the choruses, which should be powerful and emotional with the lead vocal predominantly holding the same fixed note while the other instruments swirl dramatically around it. 

I inherited many books from my Uncle Jack's library and there were several books concerning mining. The most fascinating ones were the volumes by the Heanor & District Local History Society. I gathered most of the information for part 1 from 'A History of Mining in the Heanor Area' - ISBN 0 9508430 3 2.

As I read more I discovered that the day to day stories of conditions in the 19th century mines for the young. The Mining in Heanor book contained extracts from a Sub Commissioners report detailing the working conditions of children and young people employed in the collieries in 1842. The pits employed many young children who worked 'extremely long hours', six days a week and they would have to walk several miles to the pit. These daily demands placed upon those local children were dramatic enough and that is what I decided to write about.

The character Godfrey Fletcher was made up from some of the case studies contained in the Sub Commissioners report. In 1842 Lord Ashley (who would later become Earl of Shaftesbury) proposed a bill which excluded women and children from working underground and in the August of 1842 Parliament passed it.

Part 2:
The middle instrumental section is meant to denote the passing of time between Part 1 and Part 3. I had the organ riff in place and imagined guitar, organ and flute trading solos with each other. 

The string parts on ABID were arranged by Louis Philippe, performed at the height of the London riots by The Covent Garden String Quartet and recorded by Ken Brake. In the first part they add drama to the verses and in this part they are playing some swift and furious lines.
L to R: Sue Bowran, Ken Brake, Geraldine Berreen, Teresa Whipple, Louis Philippe and Abigail Trundle.
The organ playing is by Andy Tillison (The Tangent) who adds enormous energy and passion to the proceedings. Dave Gregory also cranks up his guitar here (using a Fender Strat that he has fiddled and tweaked - previously used on Drums and Wires) spraying aggressive bursts of searing electric guitar vandalism! 

It's very easy to naively look back on previous generations and think that the bad and unenlightened aspects of ourselves and who we are, is all safely in the past. We can reassure ourselves of how far we have moved on. Young people of later generations certainly have rights and choices with greater protection and provision. 


Part 3:
The final section of this song was the hardest part to write. 

I vividly remember the headline story of Peter Connelly breaking and being horrified by the unfolding events. Listening to the harrowing reports of what happened made me think that no one should have to die like that and for me, that realisation was the final piece in the puzzle.

ABID is not about the death of Peter Connelly but Baby P was definitely a boy in darkness. He was one child out of many children who suffer at the hand of those to whom they are entrusted. Other news stories to break during the writing of ABID included certain individuals hiding inside respected establishments like the church and education. These stories were the catalyst behind completing the song. 

There is a connection between Godfrey Fletcher and the young protagonist in this final section. They were both in different circumstances but they are both boys in darkness. 

The message within the song is this:- Don't be afraid to shine bright light into dark corners.

Next week, the story behind Hedgerow (the last song on English Electric Part 1) will be disclosed.



Saturday 18 August 2012

Upton Heath

Upton Heath is the sixth song on English Electric Part 1.

Big Big Train: Oxford August 2012
L to R: Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Dave Gregory and Andy Poole
Photograph by Amy Mumford

The words and music to Upton Heath are by Greg Spawton and I. Upton Heath is a place in Dorset, UK and Greg has chosen this title because it is one of his favourite places to go walking.

I initially received the audio files which contained an arrangement of the song with the addition of a few sketched out lyrics. It also had a delicate 'world music/roots style rhythm' beautifully performed by Nick D'Virgilio. I was told to avoid being seduced by this rhythm and not follow it down the 'world music' path. 

Those initial impressions are very important and when I listened to the track I thought it would be a good idea to give it a campfire sing along feel. I kept as many of the original lyrics that I could and keeping it simple, I then repeated them. I used a call and response theme between the lead and backing vocals, to give it that campfire feel.

I severely re-arranged the structure of the song because the chorus section (that you will hear) was only a very short four bar phrase in the original arrangement. I decided to use it and extend it as the chorus and so I edited a new structure together. The audio files were bounced and sent down to Bournemouth.

Other than shortening the length of the piece and changing one chord in the reprise of the bridge, that (as they say) was that! Structure in place, it was now time to colour it all in.

I came down to Aubitt Studios in Southampton to record the vocals and added the folky riff which is played in unison on mandolin, accordion and violin. It also features Dave Gregory playing banjo for the first time! 

Upton Heath was a track that could have gone either way, it could have worked or it could have been abandoned. In context of the album, it is a moment of calm amidst the frantic, flamboyant and epic moments elsewhere. Some Big Big Train songs can be lengthy, dynamic and intense, Upton Heath is none of these things, it is uplifting, relaxed and has its own sense of peace.

The track also features Rachel Hall who has added some lovely strings along with Abigail Trundle who plays the cello.  Danny Manners plays double bass. Lily and Violet Adams are in fine voice and they seamlessly blend their voices with the moving wave vocal sample patch, giving Upton Heath an etherial quality.

' And all that we are
And all we shall be
Walk with me
Up on Upton Heath'

I will be in the chair once again next week when I will tell you the story behind A Boy In Darkness

Sunday 5 August 2012

Judas Unrepentant

Judas Unrepentant is the fourth song on English Electric Part 1

Some of you may already be familiar with this track because of its inclusion on the cover mount CD for the July 2012 edition of Classic Prog.

Greg and I had a conversation one evening about the flow of the songs we had been working on for English Electric and we highlighted the need for a quick progressive rock song. I thought that Judas would be able to fit the bill because I already had the story in mind, Greg and Andy liked the story and I also had many of the sections sketched out so it would be simple enough to develop. 

Judas Unrepentant is a song that concerns Tom Keating. There is plenty available on the internet which will give you information about his life but here is a brief overview.

Tom was an art restorer who eventually turned to art forgery after failing to break into the art market. He was on a personal crusade to destabalise the art world by forging works to fool the experts. He deliberately planted clues in the works that would reveal them as forgeries. He also cunningly managed to falsify provenances for his forgeries.

However, eventually in 1970 an article appeared in The Times concerning auctioneers suspicions about the provenance of thirteen water colours. Tom knew the game was up and handed himself in. He was eventually arrested and charged in 1977 but the case was dropped due to his deteriorating health.  

During 1982 and 1983, Tom had his own television series in which he demonstrated the painting techniques of the great masters.  If you are interested in seeing footage of Tom paint, then treat yourself and click here.

Tom died at the age of 66 and in an interview he said that he did not consider himself to be a good painter. I have to disagree with him on that point.

I was at art college in the early 1980's and that is where I learned about the notorious Tom Keating. He was an anti-hero for me and I have often thought that his story is a remarkable one and it deserves to be heard. I also think it would have made a brilliant  HandMade film.

After his death, I am sure you will not be at all surprised to learn that Tom's paintings have increased in value and his forgeries also reach high prices. Ironically, there are also forgers out there who are now forging Tom Keating forgeries! 

Tom Keating's favourite artist was Rembrandt. The title of the song came from my variation on the title of the painting above which is called  'Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver' by Rembrandt. Tom may possibly have been considered to be a 'judas' by the art establishment for his forgeries but because he refused to disclose which forgeries he had made and put into circulation, it struck me that he was an unrepentant judas. I like the drama of the title and it sets the scene for the song.

Judas Unrepentant is a ripping yarn which is driven buy the relentless opening riff and rhythm along with a lyrical narrative. Check out Nick's complex drumming alongside Greg's crazy bouncing bass line. Andy Tillison (from The Tangent) has added boundless energy with his organ playing.

The middle 'court room' scene includes Dave Gregory's throaty 'All rise' courtroom usher vocal (a role he was destined to play). It also contains some beautiful piano playing by Danny Manners and expressive violin work from Rachel Hall (who has previously worked with Stackridge)

If you would like to listen to Judas Unrepentant, please click here.

In the next episode Greg Spawton will tell you about Summoned by Bells

Sunday 22 July 2012

Uncle Jack

'Uncle Jack knows, a song of the hedgerow'

Uncle Jack is the second song on English Electric part 1.

I wanted to write a song about my Uncle Jack. John Henry Herring was a collier and  he worked in the pits around the Heanor (Derbyshire:UK) area. He spent so much time beneath the ground that he truly valued his time on the surface. Jack would walk his dog (Peg) and would take notice of all that was happening around him in the natural world. The changing of the seasons, birdsong, woodland wildlife and the 'bustle in your hedgerow.' 

At Christmas time and for birthdays he would buy me books. The books usually concerned wildlife, birds and the ways of country life. However, there were also books like 'Tales of Mystery and Imagination' by Edgar Allen Poe and the collected poetry of Sir John Betjeman.

Greg, Andy and I were talking one day about possible songs for inclusion on English Electric and I mentioned Uncle Jack and how it is about a colliers love of nature, seasons and hedgerows and Greg said he had been tinkering around with an idea for a song called Hedgerow. That's how it works. One thing leads to another and gradually songs and albums begin to take shape.

The writing of it started before I was in Big Big Train. I had bought an old Windsor banjo that had clearly seen better days but once I had sat down with it, tuned it and began to play, the main riff came within a couple of minutes and the other sections quickly followed. All there under my fingers, fifteen minutes max! It's not always like that... believe me.

I am very fond of My Friend The Sun by Family and Ooh La La by Faces and 
I wanted  Uncle Jack to have that 'all-together-now-sing-along' feel to it. 
Verse one concerns itself with how seasons happen on earth and the end 'nursery rhyme' section was just a list of the typical inhabitants you would expect to find within british hedgerows. I wanted Violet and Lily's chanting to have a pagan-like Wicker Man soundtrack flavour. There is also a nod and a wink to my favourite XTC album Mummer.

Uncle Jack is really a personal thank you to my Uncle for all those childhood memories.

The next EEpt1 installment will be courtesy of Greg, when he will reveal the story behind Winchester from St Giles' Hill.



Tuesday 13 March 2012

It's that time once again...

English Electric is nearly ready to head off into Aubitt to be mixed and mastered. Andy Poole is furiously preparing the files and tweaking the initial working mixes to get them ready for their final transformation.

For Greg and I this is the eerie bit. We've been full on writing, arranging and performing. Musicians have added their invaluable contributions and notched everything up with each inspired addition. Time is ticking, the mixing deadline looms and then ...........................................

All is still....... calmer at least..... or so it seems.
It is an illusion. The focus has just...shifted - elsewhere.

It's a bit like that feeling you get when you have come to the end of a gripping novel x1000.  Energy, time, emotion and money has been lovingly poured into the making of the album from all concerned. Once the making comes to an end, it changes. It becomes defined. Then upon release, it becomes something else again.

English Electric has been a long haul. It is a double album and it has been a huge undertaking. I wonder what listeners will make of it on release?

We are collating performance credits for inside the CD booklet. We are listening back through the working mixes to make sure the lyrics that will be also printed in the booklet are accurate. It is an odd thing to finally hear and see English Electric come to life.

A journey from the mind into the tangible, audible world.