This past summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a month living in the gorgeous Midlands of England – the town of Warwick, to be exact. I say living, rather than visiting, because I truly felt like I was living there. I spent my time researching Warwick church history at the Warwickshire County Records Office, during the week. The weekends, however, found me frolicking in the beautiful English countryside, villages, and cities in the area. I visited one of the local churches (one that I also happened to be researching) on Sunday mornings, and one of the families there invited me over for dinner several times during my stay. It is good to see that the English are still very much a hospitable people, and talking with locals helped me obtain a greater understanding of English culture and politics, as well as what it means to be “English.”
When I went to England, I knew that one of the things I really wanted to do was listen to Big Big Train’s English Electric Full Power whilst traveling through the country. I know this may sound strange, particularly to those of you that are British, but, as an American who has spent quite a bit of time studying English history, culture, and music, it just seemed like the right, or fitting, thing to do. Part of it, I think, is that I wanted to associate this wonderful music with my actual experiences in England. I succeeded in that desire, for every time I listen to that album, like I am right now, my mind is flooded with memories of my time in England.
I believe I was on the bus between Warwick and Coventry when I plugged my headphones in and began listening to English Electric. Gazing out the foggy window at little flocks of sheep, hedgerows, and gently rolling hills, I let the music that was born, crafted, and recorded in that magical land wash over me. I did the same on my train trips to Birmingham and London, both of which gave me the opportunity to see even more of the English countryside. On one occasion, I walked 3 miles along the side of the road to visit a mansion/art gallery called Compton Verney. Walking through the countryside gave me a wonderful chance to soak in the Wordsworthian pastoral.
An aside on England, I was particularly struck with how rural the country can be one minute and how urban it can be the next. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago where we had to drive an hour to be out in the “country.” In the roughly 12 mile bus ride from Warwick to Coventry, the landscape went from urban to rural to relatively big city in the distance of a few miles. I find that remarkable. But enough of that, back to BBT.
English Electric so perfectly captures the beauty of England, from the hills and rivers, to the coal mines and factories, to the bustling cities. The songs give you just the right amount of instrumental space between verses to ponder the beauty of both what has been said and what can be imagined. You can picture the young boy covered in coal dust deep within the earth just as much as you can imagine the miles of hedgerow marked country roads backdropped by fields of little yellow flowers, all without leaving your office. The music truly brings these images to life.
Big Big Train also connect with a different part of English culture, which, for most readers, might be the crucial reason this music is so good. Without copying or plagiarizing, they revive the sounds and motifs of classic English progressive rock. The essence of Genesis undergirds this music just enough to make it “feel” English. (I’ll add that I also listened to Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound during one of my train rides.) As an American, listening to the English progressive rock from the 70s (Genesis, Yes, and Jethro Tull, in particular) has impressed upon me an idea of what England is and what it should sound like. Big Big Train faithfully carry on that tradition. In fact, culturally, I think they improve on that musical tradition and masterfully add to it, just as T. S. Eliot added to and improved upon the poetic tradition of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats.
As I once again sit here and let English Electric wash over me, I am reminded of the beauty of England, of her people, her music, her rivers, her fields, her castles, her cities, and her sheep. As I listen to this music, I am drawn into a world uncorrupted by current events, yet still tainted by sin and darkness. Big Big Train softly remind us of the dangers of industrialism and Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” yet above all else, they call us to walk along the hedgerows, to wander around the ruined abbeys, to think about the meaning of life. They call us to get off of our computers, to put our phones down, to leave our hiding places and go out and appreciate life, nature, and who we are as humans. Life is only so short.
That is where you will find me