“Suddenly, you were gone, From all the lives you left your mark upon……”
( Afterimage – Rush)
…..And that’s just how it happened. The tragic news about the accident which had taken you so quickly, so unexpectedly and so cruelly came through that fateful Saturday afternoon. You could hear the collective cries of disbelief from us all, the friends, fans and admirers who still mourn your terrible loss.
The magnitude of the grief that afternoon and still continues is monumental.
But it was that suddenness, recalling everything that had gone before, and anticipating what could still have been, that left us all so shattered.
It was also remembering everything you brought to us through the way you shared your unique, cosmos-given talents which you spent most of your life refining and perfecting, while at the same time, maintaining your incredible love of life and for people which always reflects in the music.
Winchester Diver from The Underfall Yard, a track a friend brought to my attention as I lived in the ancient city at the time, was my initial introduction to the world of Big Big Train.
However, it was in 2012 following a visit to Aubitt Recording Studios when Rob Aubrey placed a copy of English Electric Pt 1 in my hand, saying: “Greg would like you to hear this”, that it all fell into place.
In the car heading north from Southampton to Winchester on the M3, I was totally lost in the music, but the life-changing, life-affirming moment came when, after that flute-led introduction and gentle verse on Winchester From St Giles Hill, you raised up that transcendental voice of yours and out it poured:
“A river flowing from the chalkhills, Through the water meadows and the open fields.”
There you were singing to the world the history of my city, where I lived and worked, my spiritual home. Oh how I sobbed uncontrollably (though this was probably not a particularly good idea when behind the wheel of a car!)
That album was a watershed in my music listening, my portal to the pastoral universe you and Gregory Spawton were building with Big Big Train through your observations and storytelling, and your mutual appreciation for our cultural and industrial history carved into the natural landscapes.
I loved this album, especially as it introduced us to your Uncle Jack, who relished in the beauty of the countryside when he was above ground, instead of under it mining coal, walking the fields with his beloved dog Peg, observing the wildlife inhabiting the hedgerows.
Though you were unable to join us on the Big Big Weekend in Winchester back in 2013, Rob Aubrey recounted your unique way of doing things while he and Andy Poole were giving us a “guided tour” of both the studio and the construction of Judas Unrepentant, another of your inimitable person-centred songs.
Rob described how he was in awe of the silkiness of your voice which completely enveloped the sound in the studio. Later, he revealed some of your trade secrets such as eating chocolate to coat your voice to thicken its effect. Rumour has it Kate Bush did the very same.
Rob also said that for backing vocals, you were never happy with providing ten similar versions of David, so to make it more interesting, you would cup one hand or two around your mouth to vary the sound.
After all this intel, you had already become something of a folk hero in my eyes.
We finally met in early 2014 at the CRS Awards at the Montgomery Hall in Wath-on-Dearne and I was immediately taken by your charming, soft-spoken nature. It was quite a night as you won the Best Male Singer Award while Big Big Train, also represented that night by Danny Manners and David Gregory, picked up the awards for Best Band and Best Track for East Coast Racer from Fish. But you took all the plaudits with a great deal of modesty and warmth, characteristics which were so much part of who you are as you continued to pick up the accolades on a regular basis.
Our paths continued to cross usually when there was an interview to do for CRS magazine: it was always fun to meet up and catch up.
2015 was the first in a succession of red-letter years for we “Passengers” as Big Big Train organised its first live gigs, somewhat tentatively, after a 17-year hiatus, at Kings Place in London.
Those were my very favourite live shows, David. They were intimate, drawing together your most fervent fans while you were all experimenting with the show format, creating stunning visuals on a huge backdrop to complement the music.
They were a total triumph, David. Many tears were shed during those shows, most notably when we first experienced East Coast Racer live and the way you raised the roof when you exclaimed “She flies”. By then, we were all flying with you.
But there was an even more heart-wrenchingly perfect moment during that concert, perhaps my favourite among all your live shows. Concluding the first part of the concert, you performed Victorian Brickwork, Gregory’s epic, tragic song about “the love you never meant to hide” with the exquisite brass, gorgeous guitar and intense seascape visuals.
Towards the end, you moved forward and sat on the edge of the stage to sing those last few lines. Then, as everyone rose to give you a standing ovation, you shook the hands of the entire front row. Meanwhile, further back in the stalls, I was flanked by two grown men sobbing their hearts out. A moment of undiluted, pure emotion. You owned that stage and as with all your performances, you reached out and touched each one of us.
You then put your own spiritually-centred lyrics to Steve Hackett’s timeless Spectral Mornings, recording it with Christina Booth and Rob Reed, all with the blessing and participation of the great man. We all wept at its innate beauty, your and Tina’s voices coming together in musical communion, and it raised thousands of pounds for Parkinson’s disease. Seeing it performed live with Magenta was another of those frequent spine-tingling moments which had become hallmarks of your personal musical marque.
And just when we thought it could not get any better, it did. 2016 was another landmark year, which all began on a hillside on a freezing cold March Sunday morning, where the Passengers’ chorus line assembled to appear in the video for Folklore. I get the feeling all the band were very amused about this motley crew of recycled teenagers who had turned up to throw some choreographed shapes to the astonishment of local joggers and dog walkers. There you were at the head of the column, wearing your Green Man mask and “playing” your flute like the Prog Pied Piper that you were.
Three months later, all assembled at Real World Studios for that incredible listening party to hear Folklore in its entirety for the first time, which also saw you giving us all a fabulous live performance in that holiest of the holies. You, Gregory, Andy, Dave, Danny, Rachel and Rikard – with Nick on a live link to the USA, mingled happily amongst the Passengers for the whole day. Again, the album further cemented your reputation as an inspired composer and consummate teller of stories, pigeons, the Green Man and the bees being among the cornucopia of subjects this time.
The Cadogan Hall shows of 2017 came around all too quickly and by then Grimspound had arrived, again expanding your own dramatis personae of characters with First World War flying ace Captain Albert Ball, the Brave Captain and another proud son of Nottingham. The shows saw you flying again, this time up in the clouds in aviator goggles rather than along rail tracks, then peering into the heavens with a telescope. It became a bit of a talking point because during one show, you forgot to use it, much to everyone’s amusement.
But one of my most personal memories of you, David, was that lovely afternoon we spent in Nottingham in October 2018 after I had paid a visit to Sherwood Forest to interview Peter Jones about the new Tiger Moth Tales’ album.
We lunched at that ancient city centre pub Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, then visited the statues of Robin Hood and Brian Clough but could not see Ball’s memorial as the castle was closed. We also had coffee in the cat café and talked all afternoon. It was joy – your company and getting to know your home city. I also recall you mentioned you had started seeing someone. I found out the following year it was your beloved Sarah.
And so we arrived in 2019 with the release of Grand Tour on which your song writing touched even greater heights, your influences this time being Leonardo da Vinci, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The teacher/classicist/historian had finally hit his stride and the shows reflected your heightened powers as a charismatic frontman. It was an honour to be asked to contribute a feature for the Grand Tour programme, this time to present the Big Big Train map of the UK, which really did turn into a major geographical and historical research project! The shows again offered another high-water mark in the Big Big Train story.
We also saw you reprising Spectral Mornings with Tina Booth during that lovely Magenta Angels and Damned show in Newbury, when one of your fellow musicians on stage was Peter Jones. Then Big Big Train pulled in at the Anvil Theatre in Basingstoke for a warm-up show before your epic European debut at the Loreley festival.
The hiatus of last year gave you the opportunity to release that beautiful intimate album Between a Breath and a Breath with Judy Dyble, again so full of affection and warmth. Then news came through that another Big Big Train album was in the offing but not before The Underfall Yard, so many people’s favourite album, was given a new lease of life.
Earlier this year, you, Gregory and I had a bit of a giggle during a Zoom call about Common Ground for Prog magazine earlier this year. Having thoroughly researched the content of the album through the accompanying Press release, you laughed when you realised I had not actually heard it as your trusty PR Julian had forgotten to send across the review copy!
During our chat, Gregory also wondered whether including your song The Strangest Times about the effects of the pandemic might be slightly passé by the time it came out.
On another Prog assignment, I spoke to Theo Travis about his new album Songs from The Apricot Tree on which he plays the haunting duduk, an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument. Your very special contribution is the most tender version of David Sylvian and Jon Hassell’s Brilliant Trees, the video of which was made by Sarah, so it is now almost too heart-rending to watch.
We were all by now anticipating the new 2022 Common Ground tour when word got out that another album Welcome to The Planet was ready for release next January. The train with some new crew on board was under full steam yet again.
Our paths crossed a final time at the wedding of Rosie and Steve Harvey in September, where you and Sarah radiated such happiness and love on what was such a blessed, beautiful day.
Seeing the photograph of you and Gregory with Peter Gabriel at the Real World studio absolutely gladdened my heart. It was something Martin and I were looking forward to talking to you about on our overnight stop in Nottingham on the way back from the north-east.
On the day we were due to arrive, we learned that someone with whom you had been in close contact at Real World had tested positive for Covid. After much soul-searching, sadly, we had to call off our get-together while you had your tests. The Strangest of Times had not gone away. However, we found out that Eastwood, the town in which we were staying, was the birthplace of that other great Nottinghamshire artistic force, D H Lawrence.
Like him, you leave behind a legacy of exquisite insights into your inner world. Your Nottinghamshire roots were integral to the way you perceived and shared your life, your interests and passions with us through your music, rooted in your remarkable creative relationship with Gregory, and how your visions, individually and collectively, informed the intricate workings of the band, while allowing the other band members like Rachel, Nick and Rikard to step up to the footplate and flourish.
Above everything else David, it was the way in which you, not just through your voice but also your ability to totally inhabit a song, that could convey so many different feelings and emotions. I think of the agony (A Boy in Darkness), the triumph (East Coast Racer), the joy (Alive), the playfulness (Make Some Noise), the exaltation (Ariel) and world weariness (The Permanent Way). However, all of these you delivered with such love and compassion.
We all still grieve for and miss you, and our hearts are with Sarah, your daughters Amelia and Eloise, your Mum Vera and of course, the band which has been your extended family for the past 12 years.
Who you truly are and what you represent are encapsulated in that song for which that noble band of Passengers who gathered on the hillside five years ago retain such special personal memories.
“I am a messenger: I speak
With integrity, truth, love and light……”
Folklore – Big Big Train
Photograph by Martin Reijman.