Big Big Train is keeping the art of the album alive. We may not buy gatefold vinyl anymore, but in conjunction with our CDs or digital downloads, we can nevertheless read blog posts which function to create a set of virtual “liner notes.”
To aid you with your forthcoming enjoyment of the masterpiece that is English Electric—Part 2, here is a compilation of the virtual “liner notes” that Greg Spawton [GS] and David Longdon [DL] have made available on their blogs. And for the last three songs, I also quote from the recent Progarchy interview with the band:
English Electric—Part 2
1. East Coast Racer is about how “75 years ago, on 3rd July 1938, a streamlined locomotive called Mallard set the world speed record for steam trains, travelling at 126mph on a straight, downhill stretch of the East Coast Mainline.” Greg Spawton observes that “it wasn’t so much Mallard but the people who designed, made, fired and drove her that interested me. And it is their tale we tell over the 15 minutes or so of East Coast Racer.
It is a story with a wonderful list of main characters; designer Sir Nigel Gresley, his assistant Oliver Bulleid, fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington. Alongside those with starring roles was a community of engineers and railwaymen who all played a part in the making of a legend.
But, in the end, we come back to Mallard.
Émile Zola said: ‘Somewhere in the course of manufacture, a hammer blow or a deft mechanic’s hand imparts to a locomotive a soul of its own’.
In this short sentence, Zola puts his finger on the connection between the maker and the machine. Mallard has outlived its creators but in it, this company of men and the work they carried out, lives on.” [GS]
2. Swan Hunter is “a song about the inevitable changing world and how these changes impact directly upon local communities.” Inspired by a letter from BBT artist Jim Trainer to Greg Spawton, the song is an evocation of the men in Jim’s family, many of whom shared the same name; the song thus imaginatively “centres around a main character. Let’s call him Jim. Jim is now an old man and he is reflecting back on his life as a shipbuilder who worked at Swan Hunter in the Neptune Yard. Imagine Jim, sitting by his fireside and recounting tales to his son about how it all once was and how much life has changed. Jim accepts the impermanence of material things and the inevitable passing of time.” [DL]
3. Worked Out is about “the mining industry of the Midlands (which featured as a setting in Uncle Jack, Hedgerow and A Boy in Darkness on Part One).
It is difficult to contemplate the immense scale of coal mining in Britain before its relatively recent decline. In the 1920s, there were more than a million coal-miners and the number was still at around 700,000 into the 1950s. By 1994, there were just 20,000 coal-miners.
The loss of so many mines was a disaster for communities which relied on the industry for work. Some have recovered but others still suffer very low levels of employment with all of the problems that lack of work brings.
Worked Out tells the story of a community from a mine which lasted longer than most. The colliery was called Birch Coppice and mined the Warwickshire coalfield until 1987. In the end, the colliery was closed because of a faultline in the coalface rather than for political or economic reasons.” Greg Spawton reflects on the changing landscape, as nature reclaims the sites and greens over the hills, covering up what lies beneath: “Underneath the ground are the remains from over 150 years of mining. … The same type of story can be found in the landscape all over Britain as the physical remnants of the gigantic undertaking that was the Industrial Revolution are lost. Worked Out is a song about the miners of Birch Coppice but it could be about any of the mining communities which have seen the closure of the pits and the loss of a way of life.” [GS]
4. Leopards is a love story “about two people who had gone their separate ways after the end of their relationship. Years pass until one day, by chance, the pair meet again. Their mutual feelings are rekindled and they carefully begin to rebuild their relationship. Inevitably, they both have their insecurities, their baggage and fears.
On the eve of her birthday, he presents her with a small ornate jewellery box which when opened, contains a beautiful Cartier Panther brooch. The jewelled body of the beast sparkles in the light. It must have cost a fortune. She pins the bejewelled feline to the lapel of her dress and as she stands to admire it in the large mirror above the mantlepiece, he drapes her shawl around her shoulders. He gently kisses the nape of her neck as he does so. It may be the champagne or the high emotion of the moment but she finds herself lost for a while in her reverie.
‘Happy birthday darling’ he whispers.
But she is troubled by her rekindled love towards her former lover. Back then she loved him dearly and afterwards she then had to learn to live without him. She remembers her terrible sorrow and it has taken time and courage to learn to trust and to give again.
Her dilemma is this:- He tells her that he was a fool to leave her. He says that not one single day had passed since they parted without him thinking of her and regretting his selfish act. He also says that he has changed but the question she asks herself is this:- Are we really able to change?
On one hand, if she does not surrender herself, she will never know what could be. On the other, will her fear of being hurt all over again outweigh her overwhelming desire to love him and be loved by him? …
The leopard metaphor within the title concerns itself of course with the old proverbial question ‘can a leopard change its spots?’” [DL]
5. “Keeper of Abbeys is about a chap I met at a ruined abbey in the north of England. This man worked from dawn until dusk every day, tending to the stones. I got to know him a little bit but used my imagination to join up the missing parts of his story.” “A few years back we visited the North Yorkshire Moors. We stayed for a few days at an English Heritage cottage within the grounds of an abbey at Rievaulx.” [GS]
6. “The Permanent Way is the pivotal track where we try to bring everything together.” The title phrase “is a Victorian expression which means the finished track and bed of a railway. … On The Permanent Way, which is the penultimate track on the album, we have brought together the stories of the individuals and communities working on and under the land who, along with inescapable geological forces, helped to forge the British landscape. … Where people have helped to shape the landscape it is at the hands of ordinary folk that this has been done. Sometimes this has been at the behest of powerful land-owners and at other times it has been due to the vision of those far-sighted men-of-iron. But in the end it all comes down to ordinary men and women, in communities past and present, working on the land.” [GS]
7. “Curator of Butterflies is inspired by a woman called Blanca Huertas who is the Curator Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum. I read an article about her where she said the study of butterflies can allow so many tales to be told. The song is about how narrow the line is between life and death. I was very anxious about it sounding trite and so I wove a character into it to make it a story and tempt me away from spouting platitudes.” Life and death: “The song is about the fine line between those two extremes. As I grow older I become more aware of my mortality and the mortality of my family and friends. The knowledge that we hold about our mortality means that life can be a beautiful burden.” [GS]