The astonishing thirty-plus year existence of Big Big Train, one of England’s foremost heavyweight bands of the latter-day progressive rock scene, has finally been chronicled in Between The Lines, Grant Moon’s tantalizing 270 page hardcover coffee table biography which proves an essential companion piece to the BBT music library. Die-hard fans (‘Passengers’ as they are officially known) will have already lapped up every word of this book, having placed pre-orders the nanosecond they were able to, but for the more casual fan or newcomer – or simply someone who has procrastinated or is waiting for their interest to be piqued – read on, because this one is worth hopping off the fence for.
‘Is there really enough in that band’s history to warrant a book?’, one might ask. The answer is yes, surprisingly. For a band that have very little in the way of the typical drama or rock star excess and aren’t quite big enough to fuel national tabloid fodder, Between The Lines is a remarkably engaging read (perhaps it’s because of the absence of such nonsense that it’s so enjoyable). Moon’s writing is fluid and well-paced as he delivers a story that’s easy to read without being oversimplified for the masses (too often I’ve read musician biographies that are geared towards a ten year-old’s reading skill).
Another huge point in its favour is that it does not gloss over particular albums or lineups as these things often do; rather, it devotes fair attention to every period, bringing us straight up to the present day with a sense of respect and importance bestowed upon each stepping stone along the way. There was nothing meteoric about the rise of this band; they seemed to steadily climb (despite how wobbly it might have seemed to those in the trenches). From modest origins in deepest Bournemouth through to numerous lineup changes and powerhouse live performances, we learn a great deal about our little band-that-could and the way it bravely faced the types of setbacks that have felled lesser groups throughout history. And in the process, we are reminded of what a spectacular catalogue of albums they have produced over the course of four different decades.
Further gold stars are awarded for the book’s sense of balance. At no time do we detect inherent bias in the author’s tone (yet another common problem), and it’s rich with quotes from just about everyone involved, from bandleader Greg Spawton to producer/engineer Rob Aubrey to one Anthony George Banks! It’s also loaded with anecdotes that dart from humorous to heartbreaking to fascinating… sometimes all at once, as evidenced by this little nugget from a less than triumphant early gig:
‘Galahad were a good live band,’ says Spawton, ‘and we weren’t. We paid their lighting guy a tenner to give us lights. In his mind that meant one spotlight in the middle of the stage. So Martin and I spent the gig edging each other out of the way to get into it, with the rest of the band in darkness’.
Over 180 photos and illustrations – many published for the first time – are peppered throughout, and complement the story as it unfolds chronologically. You name the era, Moon has done the detective work. I thought I knew a lot about this band, but every page seemed to unearth more and more about their history, and it became even more riveting as I continued. Some revelations were moving (like the origin of the song Victorian Brickwork), and some were tense (certain band member dismissals, for example). Some were even downright shocking; there was an audible gasp as I came across Spawton’s frank admission: ‘I hate Bard… it’s a terrible plod… wallpaper music.’ Oh Greg, you do wound me sir!
Conversely, as a major lover of the English Electric albums, I was pleased to read not only a plethora of information about their creation, but the band members’ more positive opinions of them, even now. ‘It has always been my goal in life to leave behind a substantial body of work’, says Spawton, ‘and by the time we got to the end of English Electric I felt that we were getting there…’
In fact, there are so many quote-worthy tidbits, this review could easily balloon into something almost as long as the book itself. So I’ll leave those spoilers to the reader to hopefully discover for themselves. Suffice to say there is much woven around tales of member departures, onstage equipment gremlins, Real World studios, arguments, stress, triumphs, Jenny Agutter (sly grin), and hedgerows (even slyer grin)… this book covers a lot of ground.
One thing that becomes crystal clear is that no matter how fond some fans may be of the earlier BBT catalogue or any of the musicians within, there’s no doubt that the arrival of David Longdon can be viewed as a sea change that lifted them to another level (if not two more levels). The sheer scope of what he brought to the table is evident in the tone of his bandmates’ ensuing quotes, and in the nature of their albums – and even this book – from that point on. Naturally, the immense tragedy of Longdon’s untimely death last year couldn’t be skipped over, and is dealt with respectfully in the final chapter. It’s a reminder that his loss still stings, and the heartstrings of every BBT fan shall remain firmly tugged on for some time to come.
Big Big Train came along twenty years after the most classic progressive rock albums that influenced them were made. Nonetheless, they were born in an era where this kind of music was still crafted organically, long before the software and technology took over (and digital magic provided a little too much assistance), allowing the landscape to be flooded with bedroom amateurs and pretenders. This book illustrates what in truth we already know: this band is the real deal, a wonderful and vital part of our lives, and a group of musicians to be admired. They carved out their niche with patience, hard work, and a willingness to adapt, without help from radio promotion or massive world tours. We are fortunate to still have them around, chinks in their armour but standing stoically, with a hopefully rosy future still ahead of them as they embark on their next chapter. In the meantime, Between The Lines – much like the band it documents – comes highly recommended.