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