I freely admit that I am an Anglophile. When I was 13, my father took a one-semester sabbatical from Vanderbilt University – where he was a materials science professor – to do research at Cambridge University. He loved to tell me how he worked in the same lab where J. J. Thomson discovered electrons. Our family lived in a house in Cambridge, and I went to school at Comberton Village College. The few months we were there were some of the happiest of my life.
I don’t know how we first learned about brass rubbing, but we quickly adopted it as our family hobby while we lived in England. Brasses are engraved plates of brass that were placed over tombs in English churches. They were popular from the 1200’s until Victorian times, and they were often quite ornate representations of the person they commemorated. Many are over six feet long and portray knight crusaders. Others are more modest in size, and they might represent prosperous merchants or accomplished academics.
Brass rubbing is the same as putting a penny under a piece of paper and rubbing it with a crayon. As you rub, all the details of the penny emerge onto the paper. With a medieval brass, it’s same principle, just on a much larger scale.
My family had a book that catalogued all of the brasses in Europe and Great Britain. Every week, we would locate a promising brass somewhere within driving distance and spend a Saturday afternoon making rubbings of it. Some small country churches had many beautiful examples, hidden under old rugs in the aisles, or atop sarcophagi in side chapels.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but our family hobby ended up being a marvelous way of visiting out-of-the-way villages all over East Anglia. We even got fairly proficient at spotting churches that were likely to contain hidden brass treasures. While we worked, the local vicar would often stop by to chat with us and share the history of the church and the person under the brass. To my 13-year-old eyes and ears, these impossibly old churches and the persons buried in them came to life, and I grew to love British culture and history.
Which is a convoluted way of explaining why I also love Big Big Train, possibly the most “British” group working today. In song after song, they sing of forgotten heroes and heroines, everyday Britons who labored without complaint to make their communities safe and prosperous. As an American, I don’t understand all of the references in their lyrics, but, God bless ‘em, their albums contain enough notes for me to get the gist of what they are trying to convey.
One of Big Big Train’s albums that is most grounded in English life is English Electric Part One. (Even the title is a reference that is easily missed by a non-Britisher. English Electric manufactured diesel engines for trains.) It is also one of the strongest set of songs they ever recorded.
Released in September of 2012, it came two years after BBT’s Far Skies, Deep Time EP, and three years after The Underfall Yard. So BBT fans were eager to hear new music from them, and English Electric did not disappoint. From the energetic opener The First Rebreather to the immensely satisfying closer Hedgerow, there is not a weak track on this perfectly sequenced album. Even the cover art, featuring Matt Sefton’s close up photos of rusted and worn metal surfaces, contributes to the sense of past glories and forgotten men and women.
The Underfall Yard was the first album that featured vocalist/flutist David Longdon, and with English Electric Part One, he is a fully integrated member of the group. Drummer Nick D’Virgilio is also officially on board, so the original core trio of Greg Spawton, Dave Gregory, and Andy Poole is now a quintet.
The First Rebreather is a tale of diver Alexander Lambert, who, in 1880, used an experimental “rebreather” (like today’s scuba equipment) to rescue some workmen who were trapped in an underground tunnel. While they were digging the tunnel, they struck a spring which quickly flooded their exit. Lambert used the rebreather to swim 1000 feet in total darkness to reach the trapped workers. Greg Spawton brilliantly imagines Lambert as a “mummer” (a British folk actor who brings dead characters to life). The guitar-driven melody features a beautiful string interlude composed by Dave Gregory. The musical tension builds inexorably until it is blessedly released with the spring water bursting out to the words “Here she comes/the sleeper wakes/ten thousand years/she lay in wait for this.”
After the intense drama of The First Rebreather, we need a little relief, and Longdon’s Uncle Jack is the perfect song for that. It starts with a down-home banjo riff that is soon augmented with fiddle, keyboards, double bass, and melodica. It features one of the most infectious melodies BBT has ever recorded, particularly when Lily and Violet Adams chime in on background vocals to sing, “Rose Hips/Haw Berries/Hedgerow/Dry Stone/Dog Rose/Honeysuckle/Blackbirds/Red Wing” – all inconspicuous and mundane sights of an outdoor stroll, but to Longdon’s coal miner Uncle Jack they are magical elements that cannot be taken for granted. Spending hours toiling underground makes any time in the sun outdoors infinitely precious.
Spawton’s Winchester From St. Giles’ Hill is a beautiful ode to the historic town of Winchester. Its heritage goes back to ancient times of chalkhills and Alfred. Danny Manners’ piano and Longdon’s flute combine for an exquisite duet on this celebration of a quintessentially British town.
Judas Unrepentent is a tribute to Tom Keating, a frustrated artist who turned to painting forgeries of masters’ works to undermine the art establishment. He left clues in all his works, and he was eventually found out. He has since passed away, but he has the last laugh, as his art now fetches high prices. “So now we can all buy/Real genuine fakes/That’s posthumous fame/It’s always the same”. Another Longdon composition, this track features an insistent rhythmic base supporting an irresistible melodic hook and cascading vocal harmonies. It is one of the most enjoyable songs in BBT’s entire catalog.
Summoned By Bells is a gentle celebration of Spawton’s mother’s hometown of Leicester. Spawton’s lyrics describe the nostalgia and disorientation one feels when returning to a place of one’s childhood after it has changed and evolved: “A stone’s throw from the line/some of the old places survive/ a golden thread in time.” Once again, Danny Manners’ piano playing is masterful, and a musical theme emerges that will be heard again in the finale, Hedgerow.
Upton Heath is a Spawton/Longdon collaboration, and it draws on the strengths of both songwriters. The melody conveys a yearning that cannot be put into words, yet the lyrics complement it perfectly. Ethereal voices sing, “And all that we are/And all that we shall be/Walk with me/Up on Upton Heath” and transform the simple activity of strolling through the countryside into a sacramental act. The instrumentation is all acoustic – this is timeless folk music, and like the best folk music, it manages to evoke contradictory emotions. Listening to it makes me melancholy and joyful at the same time. It is a masterpiece, plain and simple.
From the heavenly heights of Upton Heath, we are brought down to earth with a crash by the harrowing A Boy In Darkness. This song begins with a clear-eyed depiction of the horrors of child labor in 19th century British coal mines and fast forwards to the suffering of abused children in our supposedly more enlightened times. It is a fearless and unflinching song, performed with sensitivity. It doesn’t preach; it just makes its case. You have to have a heart of stone to not say a prayer for the young innocents who suffer after hearing this song.
English Electric Part One finishes with another masterpiece, the Longdon/Poole/Spawton composed Hedgerow. An ebullient guitar riff kicks it off, and before you know it, we’re off on another jaunt outdoors with Uncle Jack. Musical and lyrical motifs from Uncle Jack, Summoned By Bells, and Upton Heath pop up, tying together the entire album into a satisfying whole. It is the perfect conclusion to a song cycle that celebrates all that is good (and weeps for some that is bad) in England.
I titled this reflection on English Electric Part One The Overshadowed Child Of Big Big Train, because one year later they released English Electric Part Two, and a few months after that they combined both (with a few extra tracks) into English Electric: Full Power. Full Power is a gorgeous two-disc package with a huge full-color booklet featuring explanatory notes on every song, brief bios of all the contributors, and beautiful photos. It makes sense to plunk down the money for the two-disc set, right?
Well, yes, but I also want to make the case for English Electric Part One as a major work that deserves its own place in the BBT pantheon. As I stated at the beginning of this essay, it is a perfectly sequenced album, moving effortlessly from peak to musical peak. Spawton and Longdon both subsume their individual songwriting styles to serve the needs of the group, and as a result come up with some of their finest efforts ever. There is quite a large supporting cast of musicians (including future official members Danny Manners and Rachel Hall), but every song sounds intimate, like someone tapping you on the shoulder and asking, “Can I share with you a story about this place you might find interesting?”
In these times of streaming music, you can create endless playlists of your favorite songs of your favorite artists, but back in 2012, Big Big Train released an album that they obviously lavished great care on. Do them a favor and listen to it as they originally intended. Uncle Jack would appreciate it.