When Big Big Train appeared on the prog rock scene in the early 90s, they immediately set themselves apart from other new bands. Whereas other new arrivals seemed set on reworking things that were obviously derived from early Marillion or writing their own ‘Supper’s Ready’, Big Big Train were different. Their love of all things pastoral and a deep respect for the solo works of Anthony Phillips gave them a heart so much bigger than their would-be peers. With shifting line-ups came changes in sound, but the idea of “the song” always seemed to be key, but it wasn’t until the arrival of vocalist David Longdon in 2009 that they really broke into the big leagues.
Longdon’s arrival was essentially the missing piece of the jigsaw. Here was a vocalist/multi-instrumentalist able to bring so much to the studio-based band’s art. Beginning with ‘The Underfall Yard’, David’s deep and rich tones were able to bring Big Big Train’s true life narratives to life with a real ease. His natural presence on record drew listeners in, no matter the scenario. The tales of a diver working beneath a flooded Winchester Cathedral and rural train lines became intensely vivid. The album’s ‘Victorian Brickwork’, driven by Greg Spawton’s huge bass tones and retro keyboard parts, became an instant fan favourite, but a huge part of the number’s melodic core comes from David’s soaring vocal melodies, dropped so effortlessly into the quieter sections.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to the ever changing BBT history was his role in taking the band from the studio and back to the stage. In 2015, promoting the ambitious ‘English Electric: Full Power’ release, Big Big Train played their first live shows in almost twenty years. The appearances at London’s King’s Place were more than gigs; they were an historic event in the genuine sense. They weren’t quite prog’s equivalent of The Beatles on the roof of the Apple building, but they were pretty close. A complete sell out in record time, fans were able to experience the band up close – many of whom weren’t even aware of BBT back in the 90s – and gain an even greater perspective into some fine works. Memories were made, but the most enduring images of those shows are of David Longdon’s tall, lean figure, centre stage, striding back and forth on the spot with his tambourine and flute. He was far more than a vocalist; never a spare wheel during the brass led instrumental sections and really sprung into action on the premier of the brand new chorus driven folk-prog number ‘Wassail’. Just as importantly, at these shows, he maintained the kind of friendly presence in person that BBT had long kept up online.
With later albums like ‘Grimspound’ and ‘The Second Brightest Star’, the band’s popularity grew and their love of all things narrative and wistful settled into a very natural flow. They soon became one of prog’s most endearing and prolific acts, but there was never a feeling of quality over quantity at any time, and Longdon never contributed anything much less than a perfect vocal. It had taken forever, but the band had finally found the perfect man to fill a difficult and demanding role. It was a role David approached with grace and pride, exactly the way he approached fans and people in the real world. Unlike so many musicians, he often took time out to meet and chat with fans after shows, and as has been noted, he made a point of answering almost every online comment and query that came his way.
His death came just days after the band shared a beautiful winter single ‘A Proper Jack Froster’, a tune which one prog fan noted “has all the hallmarks of a prog winter standard – like Chris Squire’s ‘Run With The Fox’”. Although merely a brief piece foreshadowing a new work, the last BBT recording issued in David’s lifetime has every bit as much love and spirit poured into it as his earliest contributions, when he arguably had so much more to prove.
He gave his music, his band, his life – everything. With David’s passing, the prog rock community has lost one of its very brightest stars. When no amount of words will ever be enough, we invite you to celebrate David Longdon’s legacy with these wonderful video clips from the King’s Place live shows.