Ahead of their show at The Barbican, I've embarked on a listen through all of the Van Der Graaf back-catalogue.
I haven't yet reached their greatest works (Pawn Hearts, Godbluff, Still Life) but even this far in, it has been an extraordinary musical journey.
It must be 30 years since I first heard Refugees, and I still find it to be an astonishingly beautiful song. House With No Door is almost as gorgeous. Of course, alongside these two languid songs there are tracks with furious riffing and brutal power. Sometimes these can be a challenging listen, but even at their most difficult, Van Der Graaf always had great melodies (a good example being After the Flood where, amongst all the doom and gloom that the band could muster, there are still many sing-out-loud moments .)
My favourite of these early songs is Lost, an epic song about a failed relationship ('I know we'll never dance like we used to') where the band achieve the perfect combination of complex and challenging music alongside glorious anthemic passages.
Pawn Hearts is next on my listening list. I can't wait to hear it again.
When writing began for English Electric I opened the trunk, came upon the article and started work on a song which I called Curator of Butterflies. The chord sequence was composed on an acoustic 12-string guitar with the second string tuned up to 'C'. The melody was written very much with David's vocal abilities in mind. Much of the later musical arrangement was by Dave Desmond (brass) and Danny (piano.) Dave Gregory also came up with one of the main musical motifs of the song so this is very much a track where a lot of people have made significant contributions.
Many of the songs on English Electric have a story to tell but this one is a more philosophical piece. There is a female character in the song but I must stress that this person is not Blanca Huertas. I do not know Ms Huertas and would not presume to write about her. However, that short article about Ms Huertas was the direct inspiration for the lyrics and, in particular, those final three words: '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.
Curator of Butterflies is the final song on English Electric Part Two and therefore brings to a close this series of pieces about the songs on the two BBT blogs. We do hope listeners find some music to enjoy on the album and we would like to thank all listeners to our music for their support and interest. We would especially like to thank the wonderful community of music lovers which has come together on the BBT Facebook group. If you can judge a band by its listeners, then BBT is a good band.
There will be a special double CD edition of English Electric later on in 2013. This will feature three additional songs and we will revise the track sequencing in the light of it being a double album rather than two separate releases. As we have made clear elsewhere, the three additional songs will also appear on an EP release and will be available for separate purchase as downloads so we are giving listeners various opportunities to purchase the extra songs without feeling the need to buy the albums again. We are also in discussion with Plane Groovy about releasing EE2 on vinyl (with the additional songs on the 4th side of a double release.)
We will tell you about these releases and other things when there is news.
'The permanent way' is a Victorian expression which means the finished track and bed of a railway. I am sure it was intended to be a utilitarian term but it's a phrase which is full of mystery and hidden meaning. ' Way' is an Old English word meaning "road, path or course of travel". 'The permanent way' seems to suggest a longstanding connection between the countryside and the people who work on the land linked by the ancient (and new) pathways running through the landscape.
English Electric is not a concept album but many of the songs are thematic. 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.
As well as the connections between the songs on the two parts of English Electric we have also sought to explore the links to our 2009 album The Underfall Yard and the 2010 EP Far Skies Deep Time. Many of the themes explored on The Underfall Yard defined our work on English Electric. The title track of The Underfall Yard is primarily about the visionary engineers who made their mark on the land during the 19th century. In that song, the navigators and the engineer can be found:
'Working the way through the valleys and fields,
grass grown hills and stone.
Parting the land
with the mark of man,
the permanent way.
Using just available light,
he could still see far skies,
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.
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. I'd seen pictures of the romantic ruins of this abbey throughout my childhood and had always wanted to spend some time there. The cottage allowed us access to the site after hours and so were able to see the ruins in their splendid isolation when all the visitors had gone. At night the abbey becomes a very eerie place which meant a ghost-hunting trip was in order and, of course, we spooked ourselves very badly (there were dark shadows and ravens that refused to sing.)
On our first day at Rievaulx I noticed a man tending to the stones. He was there throughout our stay and worked from dawn until dusk. He was an interesting-looking chap, lean and tall with a square-jaw and a face that had been exposed to the elements over the years. He reminded me a little of Ted Hughes or, in my imagination, Heathcliff.
I became fascinated by this keeper of the abbey and plucked up the courage to say hello. I expected him to be a typically taciturn Yorkshireman but, in fact, he was happy to talk and so I got to know a little bit about his story. He came down from the moors to the valley every day. He loved the abbey and wanted to make it beautiful so he worked hard throughout the hours of daylight. There was, however, an air of melancholy about him which I couldn't put my finger on. At one point he said he had really wanted to travel the world but had never managed to escape.
I walked back to the cottage and made some notes about the keeper of abbeys and later, from those notes, wrote the words that became the lyrics to the fifth song on English Electric Part Two. I have, of course, used some artistic license in painting a portrait of this character (in particular I imagined a reason for his melancholy state) but the song is for the most part a reflection of the man I met at Rievaulx.
As we reach Worked Out, the third song on English Electric Part Two, we have moved from the shipbuilders of the North East (see David's blog on Swan Hunter) back to 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 1920's, there were more than a million coal-miners and the number was still at around 700,000 into the 1950's. 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.
My parents live in Tamworth and rent some storage on a farm near Birch Coppice. I spent a fair bit of time in the late 80's and early 90's wandering around on the land around the farm which was becoming 'edgeland'. Above the farm loomed a huge man-made hill where the spoil from the mine had accumulated. Nature was reclaiming the site and the hill was greening over. In a cutting I found the track bed of a disused railway line (heaven!) and, surrounding it, the remains of industrial workings. In more recent years, much of the site has been cleared and has become a modern distribution centre but there are still large areas of encroaching wilderness.
And, in any case, it is what lies beneath that really interests me. Underneath the ground are the remains from over 150 years of mining. There are shafts (now capped) which reach depths of over 1000 feet. There are 18 miles of workings and passages and the farthest coal face was three miles from the shafts. It was a huge undertaking and all of the visible remains were disappearing back into the undergrowth (or were being buried by car parks and warehouses.)
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.
Photo: Gresley Society Trust
We are now seven weeks away from the release of English Electric Part Two, and as with Part One, we will be posting a weekly blog about the songs on the album up until the date of release.
The first song on Part Two is called East Coast Racer.
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.
Mallard has been preserved as a static exhibit and is normally on display at the National Railway Museum in York. Whilst she was made for speed the designers created a machine of extraordinary beauty; if you go to the museum, she will stop you in your tracks.
The story of Mallard has been described by Andrew Martin as being like Chariots of Fire with steam engines and it became, for me, an irresistible theme for a song. However, 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.
Progressive rock has a very vibrant presence on the internet, with a number of communities and sites all with their particular strengths and idiosyncrasies. Over the years, I have probably visited Progressive Ears, Progarchives and DPRP more often than most, but there are many others, including sites hosted by individual bands (such as the BBT Facebook Group.)
Now, there is a fine new prog site called Progarchy which I strongly recommend. The site functions as a blog and includes reviews and articles. The number of contributors and readers is expanding very rapidly and I forecast that Progarchy will become an essential resource for prog listeners. The site can be found here and followed on Twitter here.
Upper Kent Street, Highfields, Leicester
My grandad John was a wheeltapper and lived in a terraced railway house in Upper Kent Street, Highfields, for almost all of his adult life. The photograph below shows the railway yard where he and my uncles worked (Leicester Shed). The row of houses lit up by the sunlight on the left of the roundhouse is Upper Kent Street.
Leicester Shed and Upper Kent Street
We found that much had changed. Leicester Shed is just sidings now; Upper Kent Street is gone and the roundhouse is no more. The population of the area has changed too and, in many ways, it's a very different place from when John and Doreen and her brothers lived there.
However, the more we looked around the more familiar the place became to Mum. Many of the old redbrick buildings survive, including her old school. And the park at Spinney Hill where she played is still there (and still popular with the local children). There appeared to be a strong sense of community and, whilst Highfields is just an ordinary place, it seemed to me as good a place as anywhere.
As we drove away, we stopped to let a young girl cross the road. If we had been able to stand in that spot 70 years before, that little girl could have been my mum on her way down to Spinney Hill park. With this image in my mind, more clear to me than the changes in Highfields, was the golden thread of continuity running down from the past.
Summoned By Bells is about my mum's upbringing in Leicester and about our trip back to her childhood home. The early parts of the song are built around Danny's piano playing before the focus shifts to Dave's electric 12-string. The song also features our brass band, led by Dave Desmond, and the recorder playing of Jan Jaap Langereis.
In the next two weeks on his blog, David will be telling the stories of the sixth and seventh songs on English Electric, Upton Heath and A Boy in Darkness.
'Alfred had me made (or made me again)'
The third song on English Electric (Part One) is called Winchester From St Giles' Hill.Winchester is a beautiful and historic city in the south of England. St Giles’ Hill lies to the east of the city and forms part of the western edge of the South Downs. From the top of the hill you can see all of Winchester, and the song is an historical view of the development of the city and of (as Peter Ackroyd calls it) the ‘long song’ of England.Winchester stands at a number of crossroads in time and provides a narrative of British and English history in miniature. There was a prehistoric settlement at Oram’s Arbour, then it became a Roman town and afterwards, a Saxon capital and stronghold. The Normans built a castle and a massive cathedral. It became a centre of learning with the opening of Winchester College and, in Victorian times, the railways came and with them the modern age.Michael Wood has stated that 'Geography is history and history is geography' and Winchester From St Giles' Hill seeks to link the development of the city with its place in the landscape.'A river flowing from the chalkhills through the water meadows and the open fields.Walls were made and streets were laid down, halls and houses, schools and churches.'Winchester From St Giles' Hill begins and ends with a flute and piano motif. The theme also forms part of the instrumental section where it is played on classical guitar. Alongside David's flute, a key feature of the song is the beautiful and complex piano playing of Danny Manners. I asked Danny to develop the piano part so that it sounded like a mountain stream racing down a hillside: of such obscure requests, beautiful arrangements are made.The next song to be featured as we count down towards the release of English Electric will be Judas Unrepentant. David will be telling the tale of that song on his blog in a few days' time.
Over the next few weeks, in the run-up to September 3rd, David and I are going to tell the stories behind each song on English Electric Part One. I'm going to kick off with The First Rebreather, which is the opening song on the new album.
The First Rebreather
Like many people, I'm fascinated by the world beneath our feet. Many towns and cities in England are riddled with underground passages and chambers (London, Bristol and Exeter being obvious examples) and a number of books have been published on these hidden places. There is also an organisation called Subterranea Britannica dedicated to the study of man-made underground spaces in Britain.
As BBT listeners may know, we have featured one such underground place in a song on The Underfall Yard called Winchester Diver, which tells the true story of diver William Walker who saved Winchester Cathedral by diving under the flooded foundations. The title track of The Underfall Yard also included some references to the world below.
When it came to writing English Electric, I remembered a story that Dave Gregory told me about the making of the Severn railway tunnel. On the basis that there can never be too many prog songs about diving into flooded tunnels I started researching the story and found an article called The First Rebreather which gave me the song's title.
As soon as I've got a good title, the creative juices normally start to flow and so I quickly set about writing the soundtrack and lyrics to the true story of a man called Alexander Lambert who dived heroically into the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1880. The navvies who built the tunnel and who were hard-drinking fearless chaps were terrified that the river would break in and drown them all. However, when the tunnel flooded, the water was found to be fresh rather than tidal. The navvies had, in fact, struck an immense underwater spring which flowed through a fault in the rock (they called it The Great Spring). Conventional diving equipment was used to try to close an iron door in the tunnel to hold the water back. The equipment failed due to the air-hose continually being snagged.
The tunnel engineer had heard of a man called Henry Fleuss who had developed an experimental diving apparatus called a Rebreather (in effect, it was the first aqua-lung.) Fleuss was persuaded to make an attempt on the tunnel but was so frightened that he turned back and said he would not return to the darkness ‘for £10,000 or more.’ The equipment was handed over to Diver Lambert who carried out a number of dives which involved swimming 1000ft up the flooded tunnel in complete darkness. Lambert, The First Rebreather, confronts his fear in the tunnel whilst the workmen await his return.
‘The first rebreather’ is a strange phrase which sounds almost super-heroic which, indeed, Lambert was. So, I decided that, for the purposes of the song, The First Rebreather would be seen as a sort of superhuman creature come to save the navvies from the Great Spring.Lambert would, of course, have looked very odd in his diving gear and, to the superstitious men, I’ve imagined that he would have looked like a Mummer (also known as a Souler). Mummers’ plays generally feature a character who brings back to life a dead person, so that fitted quite nicely as Lambert tries to bring air back to the lungs of the tunnel.In the song, The Great Spring has also become a character. I remember being frightened as a child by the story of Beowulf swimming into the mere to slay the beast and again, I’ve used that imagery. In Beowulf, his men waited by the water for him to return. He returned ‘at the ninth hour’. The closing vocal section of the lyrics is about the workmen waiting for Lambert to swim back to the surface. As The First Rebreather is also a direct follow-up to Winchester Diver, I have also worked in some references to The Divine Comedy.Musically, The First Rebreather is built, for the most part, on Dave's insistent guitar riff and Andy Tillison's beautiful organ playing. In the choruses and in the Moog solo section we set out some themes which are reprised in different songs later on (and also in songs on Part Two). The First Rebreather also introduces the sound of our string quartet to the album.The next song we will be featuring in this series of blog posts will be Uncle Jack, which David will be writing about on his blog in a few days' time.
Quite a lot of things happening at the moment, so I thought I'd do a little round-up.
The new album English Electric (Part One) is out on 3rd September with pre-orders being taken at our new website here.
The track listing is:
1.The First Rebreather (8.32)
2.Uncle Jack (3.49)
3.Winchester From St Giles' Hill (7.16)
4.Judas Unrepentant (7.18)
5.Summoned By Bells (9.17)
6.Upton Heath (5.39)
7.A Boy In Darkness (8.03)
On English Electric, we are joined by special guest musicians Andy Tillison (The Tangent), Louis Philippe, Rachel Hall (Stackridge), Danny Manners (Robert Wyatt, Cathal Coughlan)and our brass band and string quartet. Full information on the album can be found here.
We also have an English Electric tee-shirt which will be nice to wear during the blazing hot summer sunshine we're having in England (ahem). Tee-shirt sales are being handled by the lovely people at The Merch Desk. Tee-shirts are available in various sizes and colours and in gents and ladies styles. The Merch Desk also have a special offer tee-shirt / CD pre-order deal which is worth checking out.
I've recently been interviewed by Brad Birzer and the interview has been published here. An interview with David will also shortly be published online.
Our Group page on Facebook continues to grow and has become a wonderful place to talk about music with like-minded people.
We are also active on Twitter and recently heard via Twitter that Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater is now a fan of BBT.
Finally, we are pleased to announce that BBT have signed a licensing deal with GEP. Whilst we are keen to retain our independence from record labels, we recognise that GEP will be able to assist us with distribution and promotion and so we have signed a deal which is right for the band and hopefully for GEP too.
More news soon.