It took us ten years or so to get itchy feet again after our move to Canada. The small boys who came to Prince George with us in 2006 were graduating High School and forging their own paths by 2016, and in the last year or so up north, I was beginning to wonder ‘what next?’
I had been doing a part-time IT job all those years; one which allowed me the flexibility to do all the parenting things I wanted, which mostly seemed to involve standing at the side of soccer fields yelling at teenagers while I tried to transplant my vision of the effortless game in my head to the feet of boys who weren’t all as confident as I was of their ability.
By the summer of 2015, I was more or less surplus to requirements as a coach, and was beginning to wonder if I could find my way back into a more career-shaped job, while I was just beginning to tire of the endless winter pastime of shovelling the driveway.
So when opportunity called for Zoë to expand her working horizons with the kind of job which seemed perfect for her, I was ready to dust off our ‘how to move house’ plans one more time.
The first time we visited BC’s capital, Victoria, perched at the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, I think we both thought ‘not for us’. It seemed less Canadian than everywhere else we’d seen, almost as if a genteel English seaside town had been plonked down in the shadow of the Olympic mountains. Of course, first impressions can be misleading, and subsequent visits revealed all the hidden parts of Victoria we had missed first time round, and a trip in February of 2016 revealed that they have spring here, not just the sense of ‘only three more months of snow to go’ we had in PG.
So, with decisions made and job offer accepted, we set about the single hardest task known to 21st century humans – trying to buy a house in Victoria. This required several trips – together or separately – until we finally managed to persuade someone to take our money in return for an extraordinarily expensive piece of land – the house is something of an afterthought in these proceedings; it’s the location you’re buying.
The house wasn’t, and isn’t, perfect, which only means that we’ll likely be moving again before we lose our enthusiasm for packing and unpacking things. However, the process of buying it involved me driving around various previously unexplored areas of Greater Victoria one weekend in May, accompanied by the new album by my new favourite band.
I hadn’t realised, as we entered the 2010s and my age suddenly had a 5 at the beginning of it, that I was in the market for a New Favourite Band, but having been in the musical doldrums for long enough, I suddenly found myself surrounded by things I’d never heard before – the last three entries on this list fall into that category, but this one surpasses them all as there can’t have been a time in my life since I was in the grip of teenaged obsessions (qv) that I so rapidly and completely became immersed in the sounds of something completely new to me.
Big Big Train came into my life as a result of the first real Canadian friends we made on arrival – not that Andrew and Janet are any more Canadian than we are, in truth – which is to say, the people we bought our first Canadian house from.
We do things differently in Canada.
Not only did our predecessors in our enormous new house make the process as pain-free as possible, having been through the same process themselves only a few years before), but they stuck around, made us welcome, invited us to their ‘house cooling’ party so we could meet the neighbours and get to see the house in action, as it were, and generally behaved about as unlike anyone we’d ever bought a house from in the past as it’s possible to imagine.
After moving out, Andrew was a regular visitor, as he and I were both at something of a loose end – he waiting for his children to finish their last school year in PG, me trying to ensure mine got to school in something approximating upright, fed and dressed while our respective wives got on with the whole ‘earning a living’ part of things.
We lunched and watched World Cup games together; Andrew accompanied me to my driving test in case I failed and he had to drive me home; and gradually discovered a similar taste in music.
Which meant that when, a few years later, began raving about this English band he’d discovered, I paid attention. By now, of course, when someone recommended a piece of music to me, I could just click on a link and listen to it, and I too became immersed in the world of Big Big Train.
It is hard to describe the music of this band without referencing a great many things which make it sound like they’re somehow still living in 1973, and I’m going to try to avoid all that if I can, because there’s a lot more to them than a surface reading, or a description might reveal.
Big Big Train make music which is unabashedly English. And I do mean English rather than British; there are influences from all over the world, because of course there are, but the first few Big Big Train albums, including – and perhaps especially – this one, mine the seam of what it means to be English and to be surrounded by the depth of history in that ancient land.
None of it is tub-thumping or bombastic, rather it’s reflective and even pastoral in places; it celebrates the rural as much as it does the urban, and it’s interested in the corners of history perhaps overlooked by most. If Elgar had made rock music, I think it would have sounded like this.
And here I was, in the May of 2016, eager to properly listen to a new Big Big Train album, while driving around what is perhaps the most English of Canadian cities. This album will always be to me my ‘moving to Victoria’ album, even though its subject matter actually harks back to earlier periods in my life.
Oh, I also have to make a decision with this one which is becoming more common, which is to say: what is the correct tracklisting for it? The vinyl issue contains two extra tracks, and moves things around to perhaps make a more complete story in places, but after some thought, I’m sticking to the CD (and streaming) version, as that’s the one I heard first, and still think of when I consider this album. So, for once, I suggest that you listen along with Spotify, rather than skip bits…
Folklore begins with a sound which was familiar to Big Big Train fans, but which might cause the newcomers to raise an eyebrow – it’s essentially a fanfare of strings and brass, with not a rock instrument in sight. Even when the song proper starts, it’s essentially voice and drums for the first verse; appropriately setting the scene of the traditional folklorist, travelling from village to village, passing on the legends of the land. Of course, the full extent of the band gradually reveals itself, placing this modern music firmly into the tradition; allowing us to accept that what follows is a telling of some tales ancient and modern in this idiom.
Instead of a middle eight, there’s David Longdon’s breathy voice underscoring that while these are stories, they each contain a kernel of truth, a moral or a message. It’s deliberately set as a message from the past before it withdraws and allows this band of spectacular musicians to each put their stamp on the song before a gentle laugh reminds us that this is all an entertainment in the way it has been done for millennia.
London Plane is a contemplative stroll through the history of the River Thames, taking us not only around the bends in the river, but the history of a city and a nation. It does this, not by invoking the obvious, but by gently pushing us to make the connections between the Runnymede of the Magna Carta, the sunsets of JMW Turner, the briefest glimpse of Alice in her Wonderland, to the Festival of Britain, whereupon the music shifts gear to show us the modern city in all its hurry and wonder, still shot through, as the riverside is, with oases of calm and contemplation.
Incidentally, with the recent news of the passing of Hilary Mantel, I now see her Thomas Cromwell in those ‘kings and crowds and priests’ as the river passes through Putney, but maybe that’s just me.
As the Thames reaches out to the North Sea and ‘the fires grow cold in the east’, the music returns to a calm certainty as the voice soars and we drift out to sea, passing Canvey Island on one side, and then the Isle of Sheppey on the other.
I can tie the novels of David Mitchell and Neal Stephenson to all this, too, but I’d like to keep this to something around the same length as the others, so…
So we move out Along the Ridgeway, a landscape I know well, having lived alongside it for several years. To be fair, the part of the Ridgeway which this song references are much further south and west than the Dunstable Downs, but I can hear those familiar landscapes in this, alongside St. George, King Alfred and Wayland the Smith (which reminds me to recommend the novel The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, another revocation of an ancient England which lives long in the memory after reading).
Along The Ridgeway paints its pictures in that sumptuous Big Big Train soundscape – rarely has the solo violin, so strongly associated with the Celtic nations, sounded so English, before doing a thing which you rarely hear, actually introducing the next song before it fades into it: ‘Here comes the Salisbury Giant’, we are told, and then…
Here, indeed, comes the Salisbury Giant. It’s a mainly instrumental piece, representing the 15th century processions of the giant and his hobby-horse which used to lead the midsummer processions in Salisbury, and which can still be seen (albeit in much restored form) in the Salisbury museum, where it can be seen in a context which stretches back to Stonehenge, and – I’d suggest – forward to this song and this album.
The Transit of Venus across the Sun is an extraordinary song which packs an enormous emotional punch even if you don’t know the story behind it. Inspired by the English astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, it uses the rare astronomical event of the transit of Venus to illustrate another aspect of his life; the death during the second world war of the only woman he claimed ever to have loved. The loss and regret bound up in this song with the almost mystical readings of features of the planet Venus as the narrator reaches the end of his long life is emotional enough, but then the representation of the transit itself takes it onto another level with what seems a simple trick.
There are three lines towards the end of the song which begin ‘So many words left unsaid’ which repeat three times, then the entire song takes a breath, gathers itself, and without missing a beat, moves into the sublime. On the face of it, it’s a modulation and the addition of an extra line, but it’s infused with such majestic power that it stops me in my tracks every time. It is, I think, intended to represent the pair of transits which happen every 247 years, in pairs eight years apart, assuming I’ve understood the maths correctly.
But it’s only possible to think about that once the song is over, because the force of that simple change is overpowering, and the subsequent return to the chorus with brass band accompaniment almost always passes by with me in something of a daze. Without the pair of transits, this would be a favourite song by a favourite band. With them, it’s something almost indescribable in its effect on me.
Fortunately, we get to have something of a party to clear our heads. Wassail celebrates the ancient English tradition, tied to Christmas, but probably predating it, where the last of the autumn’s cider was served warm to fend off the beginning of winter, celebrated in merry-making and song. Out of season, it’s a joyful celebration; in the depths of winter, it gives off a warming glow all its own.
Which brings us to the album’s first attempt to establish a modern folk tale. Winkie, despite its slightly unfortunate name, uses the structure of traditional storytelling to tell the tale of the first recipient of the Dickin Medal, awarded to animals who display what is described as ‘conspicuous gallantry’. Winkie was a pigeon, which allows for some appropriate sound effects and a jaunty tune which establishes what seems to be a slight tale of radio taking the place of pigeons for sending messages in wartime.
The jauntiness in turn, allows for the music to take a much darker turn when tragedy strikes, and then to illustrate the dauntless flight of Winkie herself. It’s a bit of a ‘schoolboys’ own’ tale of assumed heroism on the part of a bird doing what it had been trained to do, but the strength of this band is the way they can paint pictures with music, and sweep you up in the tension of the search (the Last Post is played at one point, seemingly dooming the story to a tragic ending) and the way the whole thing is played with straight faces and heartfelt honesty delivers a remarkably satisfying conclusion. It really shouldn’t work, but it really does.
Brooklands is not so much a story as a poem. Another twentieth century story, this spreads out and takes its time to establish the story of John Cobb, imagining his thoughts and memories as he prepares for his doomed water speed record attempt on Loch Ness in 1952. Cobb’s thoughts turn to Brooklands motor racing circuit, a place which future historians might seize upon to help explain the advances of the early 20th century. The lyric and the music treat this place of fairly recent memory with the same reverence as Runnymede and the Uffington White Horse earlier; one of the key themes Big Big Train work with is the place of advances in technology in the broader story of England.
At once elegiac and celebratory, Brooklands has time to breathe, time to reflect, before taking us into the cockpit of the Crusader as it reaches its top speed before breaking up. We don’t hear the disaster, we hear Cobb’s spirit ascend, still pleading for ‘one last run’.
I will admit that after the emotional punch of earlier tracks, this one doesn’t quite get to me in the same way, magnificent song though it is. I can’t quite put my finger on it, perhaps I just need to listen to it more.
The end is reached by way of Telling the Bees, another ancient English custom, here given a light touch and an arrangement distinct from the other, more serious songs on here. This is a perfect delight of a song, the very epitome of a fabulous album, in both senses of the word. ‘The joy is in the telling’, indeed.
I’ve avoided any reflection on the fact that some of the albums in this list were made by people who are no longer with us, but I cannot let the passing of David Longdon go without a mention. A charismatic frontman, powerful and expressive singer, lyricist and multi-instrumentalist, he was, by all accounts a lovely man, and his sudden early death last November was one of those which seemed to come as a physical blow. I’m delighted that the band has decided to carry on with a new vocalist, and am enormously looking forward to hearing what this iteration of Big Big Train will sound like.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Certainly. For all the impact this delightful album has on me, I’m not sure it’s even in my top three Big Big Train albums. The recent remixed and tweaked version of The Underfall Yard is spectacular, as is the combined English Electric: Full Power, which can keep me occupied for days once I get started. There are many others, including the tantalising glimpse that Welcome to the Planet gave us of what the future sound with Longdon might have been. I suspect it divides opinion, but I love its quirks and tangents.
Also, as with most of my favourites, try them all – there’s something for everyone here.
Compilations to consider?
Well, I kind of gave English Electric: Full Power non-compilation status up there, but technically it’s a compilation, so…
It took a long time for Big Big Train to establish themselves as a band who play live shows – a combination of a desire for something close to perfection and the complexity of the arrangements meant that any show would be expensive to produce, but with the support of their remarkable fans, collectively (and inevitably) known as the Passengers, they ventured into the light in 2015. Those concerts are captured on A Stone’s Throw From the Line, the following set of shows on Merchants of Light. Both are highly recommended, and I’m off to listen properly to Empire, so you can probably take it as read that it’s also worth your time.
Big Big Train has had a revolving cast of members over the years, many of whom have much other work to recommend, from Dave Gregory’s time with XTC to Nick D’Virgilio’s extraordinary drumming with Spock’s Beard. Having been in Big Big Train is not an absolute guarantee of a musician’s quality, of course, but it’s pretty damn close. However, I’m going to end by pointing you to the book – Between the Lines covers the entire band history, of which there is a lot more than you might expect, and one more footnote:
The album Between a Breath and a Breath by Dyble Longdon was a collaboration between the legendary Judy Dyble and David Longdon. It now, sadly, stands as a tribute to them both, and is also highly recommended. It also, by its mere existence allows me to tie this band all the way back to King Crimson, Fairport Convention (they surely stand musically somewhere between those two), and tangentially to Joni Mitchell and (again) the novels of David Mitchell – Judy Dyble surely having been one of the inspirations behind the staggeringly good Utopia Avenue.
You think this post is long? You should have seen the first draft…