Real World Studios, Box, Wiltshire
22nd May 2016
Big Big Train are a band which does not follow the usual and mundane in any shape or form, whether it is in their finely crafted progressive rock albums or their commitment to their musical integrity and sound quality, characterised by their three very rare but excellently presented live performances last August in London. Alongside those endeavours they have nurtured an ever growing and committed fan base through high quality product and intelligent marketing, such as the free download of the title track from The Underfall Yard album back in 2009/10, which was the first introduction for many to their intricately layered, thoughtful music and idiosyncratic tales of Britain. The inspiring music and creatively realised artwork/concepts in the packaging encourages great loyalty and fervour in fans fascinated by these imaginative glimpses into stories of industrial age history, personal memories, pastoral musical landscapes and English legend. Which other band could release an album in two parts and then re-release it soon afterwards in an expanded and beautifully presented package (English Electric Full Power) to be lapped up enthusiastically by the fans, the vast majority of whom already own all the music? And with not a murmur of disquiet from the fan base who love each different edition of the album.
Alongside that approach the band have also intelligently and intuitively fostered their fan base through their vibrant and ever growing Facebook group, which is far from restricted to all things Big Big Train. It is awash with postings and debates about a whole range of progressive music and themes, sincere personal thoughts and musings, amidst the inevitable ‘in-jokes’ of sprouts, cowbells and chocolate! Such openness has been a master stroke as this is a welcoming and interesting place which many fans visit very often, and in which band members themselves communicate openly, interestingly and sometimes compassionately with the group. It has been instrumental in developing further interest in the band, and has also engendered a remarkable sense of community, a real and international online gathering of fans, some of whom have met through the group and gone on to form real friendships. Therefore, it was perhaps inevitable that Big Big Train would announce their special Folklore album launch event through the Facebook page, announcing that they were inviting some of those who had been helpful to the band or contributed significantly to the Facebook group. Spaces were also available for fans who could apply for places, to be chosen at random, to attend the first public listening of the album in the studios in which the songs had largely been recorded, Peter Gabriel’s eminent and almost mythical Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire, near the city of Bath.
I was fortunate enough to gain a couple of tickets, unaware if I had been ‘invited’ or ‘chosen at random’, but I did not really care as long as I could be present for a truly special moment in my life. To attend the legendary studios of musical idol Peter Gabriel and listen to the new album by my latest musical heroes Big Big Train, and to meet with the band and so many ‘BBT friends’ felt such a special honour. After a period of loss and sadness in my life this felt like some light and balance was being restored in my life.
I arrived at the studios with my wife Bronwen, whom had also been bitten by the Big Big Train bug, and my great ‘Prog mate’, Martin Hutchinson, and we were all immediately struck by what a special place Real World Studios is in its idyllic setting. The site of an old mill, situated amidst streams and lakes, Real World has been the recording venue for an impressive array of artists, including Robert Plant, Brian Eno, Muse, A-ha, Van Morrison, Marillion, Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics, Afro-Celt Sound System, Laura Marling, Crowded House, Take That, New Order, Tom Jones, Ludovico Einaudi, The Beautiful South, Elbow and Guy Garvey amongst many others – even Kanye West (!!) – and now Big Big Train.
The Big Big Train ‘Passengers’ walked around the lovely grounds in a state of awe and excitement, akin to the feeling of children on Christmas morning. They were about to enter into one of the great studios in music and hear their heroes’ new album amidst friends. To be honest, it all felt a little unreal. Complimentary wine and beer certainly helped lubricate the overwhelming sense of goodwill, and whilst the outside weather was disappointingly a little damp and dull that seemed irrelevant as there was plenty of metaphorical sunshine and good feeling brimming over within the Real World complex. The virtual ‘Mother’ of the Big Big Train Facebook group, Sue Heather, welcomed us all warmly, ensuring that we all had our special BBT Folklore wristbands on… how many ‘Passengers’ kept that on their wrists for days after the event? Nellie Pitts of The Merch Desk tirelessly and cheerfully provided as much BBT merchandise as most of us could carry or afford (or not!) – what would we do without people like Nellie providing such a great service?
Old friendships were renewed and people that had only ever known each other through the Facebook group formed new friendships. This felt like such a warm ‘coming together’ of a fortunate and committed part of the Big Big Train community. The serving of a complimentary curry along with the wine and beer could lead to lazy analogies of the bread and wine of ‘Communion’, but that would imply that the band were somehow unapproachable or ‘set apart’ like some sort of ‘Prog High Priesthood’ – that was certainly not the case. Corny as it may sound, this actually felt like some sort of party for extended family and friends… many of whom you had not previously met but got on with anyway!
Going into the studio where the album playback was to happen did, however, feel like entering a sacred place – the enormous altar-like mixing desk at the front of the congregated chairs with lofty ceilings and wide, shimmering windows evoking a modern cathedral of sound. The wonders of the production desk and impressively huge speakers led to murmurs of reverence and awe amongst the fans, many of whom snapped away to get a photographic record of this epic moment in their lives. I could not resist sitting at the main production desk to have a photo taken – others followed with similar grins on their faces. Eventually we all sat in the assembled chairs and the band (minus Nick D’Virgilio) walked out to warm applause. Danny Manners welcomed us all and explained that the album would be played like an LP with an intermission half way through to allow for refreshment and ‘comfort breaks’. Wassail was not going to be part of the album playback as it had already been released last year and they had limited time in the studio, and… much to the delight of the ‘Passengers’, because the band were going to play an acoustic version of the song. I feel sure that many of us attending secretly hoped the band would play something but we could not be sure so this was an added delight.
We settled down to listen to the album, but I will not talk about that here as this is more about the experience of the launch event rather than a review of the album, which a TPA colleague will cover separately. However, I will offer some of my thoughts as I sat there in front of the mixing desk, mesmerized by the equaliser lights throbbing on the screens as the music played to respectful and thoughtful silence from the listeners.
It’s difficult to think of a more perfect spot for Big Big Train to host this event than in the studios of Prog maestro Peter Gabriel, as this is a band whom without copying the classic Genesis sound have clearly assumed their mantle of writing beautiful, imaginative, dramatic and fantastical songs of such ‘Englishness’. The lovely rural location is also evocative of Big Big Train’s more pastoral songs, whilst the building’s history as a mill echoes the band’s interest in tales of industrial progress.
This is further echoed by the very close proximity of the legendary Box Tunnel, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, with it’s impressive portal into the hillside. Where better for a band that takes its name and considerable inspiration from the railways to record than a stone’s throw from such iconic architecture and engineering – Victorian Brickwork indeed! The excellence and technology at this renowned studio also underlines the band’s commitment to QUALITY – they do not compromise on what they are willing to invest in their music and the fans are rewarded with outstanding art. My eyes were closed for much of the playback as I lost myself in the music, but at one point I gazed out of the enormous windows upon the waters that lap right up to the glass and reflected on just why this was the right venue for Big Big Train to launch their album. Some days are just perfect and I knew that I needed to mentally capture the moment and feeling in my memory and heart as a truly special event in my life. Yep, I admit it, I’m a soppy git, but this is a band that allows its fans to tap into their emotional depths.
The playback received a standing ovation and much warm applause, much to the delight of the band. Big Big Train then assembled to play Wassail, with the ‘Passengers’ supplying loud and enthusiastic backing vocals. This was followed by a lovely performance of Uncle Jack, with similar audience participation on the choruses.
The day finished with the ‘Passengers’ being able to chat with each band member in turn, obtaining the inevitable autographs and ‘selfies’. This was done with such patience and warmth by the band who took the time to have pictures taken and chat with everyone about the music. Nick D’Virgilio made a surprise appearance late in the event, via a Skype link-up to him in America, and spoke with the assembled fans – I humorously suggested that we had been told he was ‘working’ but it appeared that he was actually in a buggy whilst playing golf! He gamely got off the vehicle to show that it was in fact a lawnmower – albeit of Prog proportions!
Finally, the event ended, rightfully and touchingly, with the fans presenting Kathy Spawton, wife of band member Greg Spawton, with a large bouquet to show their appreciation for her organizing such a great day… and then everyone sang Happy Birthday to Greg.
This was a day I and many other very lucky BBT ‘Passengers’ will never forget. The band should be commended for putting on such a friendly, accessible and memorable event amidst a setting of such high class facilities, excellent ambience and pastoral beauty. Of course, none of that would count for anything if the songs were rubbish… but Big Big Train don’t do poor quality…
Thank you Big Big Train.