“Quite often I would wake up in the middle of the night, and David Longdon would be kind of with me… I’d get very upset because I was on my own”: Big Big Train’s battle back from their frontman’s death

Big Big Train
(Image credit: Massimo Goina)

When Big Big Train’s frontman David Longdon unexpectedly passed away in 2021, there was uncertainly over whether the band would continue. With an updated line-up that includes PFM’s Alberto Bravin on vocals, the multinational collective have returned with 15th album The Likes Of Us.

One night in Germany, during Big Big Train’s most recent tour, Greg Spawton found himself in the middle of his own audience. Bandmate Nick D’Virgilio had suggested they spice things up by taking their usual pre-show ritual to the fans – quite literally. For Spawton, a softly spoken man with a house full of history books and a career spent largely in studios, it was the latest in a series of unexpected turns: gigs across the world; a record deal with progressive super-label InsideOutMusic; the recruitment of a singer from Italian prog royalty PFM, who’d become a creative partner and friend; the death of the man he’d expected to be sharing all this with.

Come showtime, the band strode into the crowd. They had their usual huddle. They went onto the stage and the room erupted, the rebirthing power of surprise – of this multinational, multigenerational seven-piece (aged between 30 and 58), plus a brass section – laid bare.

“Suddenly the auditorium was lit up with smiling faces,” Spawton remembers. “Prog is a serious business, and life is a serious business, but it can also be full of pleasure, happiness and laughter. For me, a good gig is when I can look out and see a grown man crying one minute, and then with a big smile on his face a few minutes later.”

That’s Big Big Train right there – the true side, perhaps, of a band often described as ‘quintessentially English.’ Not that it’s unfounded. There are Wordsworthian, pastoral sensibilities in their music. Characters teased out from British history. Strains of Genesis and The Beatles. Neo-prog flashes of Marillion, IQ and Twelfth Night, which Spawton ingested in the 80s, riding into London from Sutton Coldfield on night buses and trains – an insecure 17-year-old finding his tribe alongside Steven Wilson, Jerry Ewing and others.

On The Likes Of Us, their first full LP with Alberto Bravin at the microphone, they’ve swapped third-person storytelling for something deeply personal. “It was surprisingly easy,” Spawton nods. “I think I’ve kind of hidden; because we got known for storytelling songs, you end up almost adopting a mask. It just didn’t feel honest to do that this time.”

It’s impossible to listen to The Likes of Us without thinking of one man: David Longdon, the charismatic frontman whose presence, flute stylings and Peter Gabriel-rivalling voice were integral to Big Big Train’s sound. Everything changed on November 20, 2021. At the time the band were riding higher than ever. Welcome To The Planet was ready for release. Longdon had almost completed a solo album. He was in love and engaged. That day, in an accident that continues to shake all who hear about it, he fell down the stairs at home.

He died the next day in hospital.

“The thing with David was, he would always be there for me,” Spawton says today. “Whenever we had a bad time in the band, or something went wrong, he would have an arm around my shoulder. He was a very caring human being.”

I think it will be a right record for the moment that we are living, and for what happened

Alberto Bravin

For all the changes in personnel, The Likes Of Us breathes with the spirit of Longdon, and of other trials the band have faced; the ripples of a globally challenging period; the unforgiving death of Spawton’s stepfather, as the album came together, bringing him back to his Midlands home and the memories there (captured in 17-minute epic Beneath The Masts); Bravin’s severe experience of depression, around 2018, and the saving presence of his wife and daughter (Love Is The Light).

“I am really proud of the record,” says Bravin. “I think it will be a right record for the moment that we are living, and for what happened. We tried to do our best to just carry on with the Big Big Train music. For me, as a fan, to have the privilege to sing those songs, and to write new material for the band... it is an incredible thing.”

Bravin lives in a small coastal city called Trieste, next to Italy’s border with Slovenia. The Bora wind blows here with a vengeance, swooping on through the Adriatic region. The white turrets of Miramare Castle look down on the Gulf of Trieste. It was in this environment that The Likes Of Us came to life. “And Trieste, it is also the city of coffee,” the ex-PFM singer/keyboardist’s deep Italian tone breaks into a high, cartoonish little laugh. “Illy coffee, it’s from Trieste! I think Greg or Nick D’Virgilio asked me, ‘Do you know if there is a coffee place near the studio?’ And I said, ‘You have no idea...’”

Bespectacled and smiley, Bravin is a sweet guy with a few twists. There’s a trace of Steve Hogarth in his clear yet warm, emotive baritone. He giggles easily. In the same breath he’ll enthuse about Dream Theater, The Beatles, Dimmu Borgir and Nat King Cole. It’s easy to picture him gelling with the eclectic Big Big Train family. “The great thing about this band is there’s absolutely no ego whatsoever,” he enthuses. “I remember the guy that runs the studio here in Italy, after the recording I went there just to thank him, and he said he was blown away by the vibe in the studio.”

For 10 days in May 2023, the seven core members – Bravin, Spawton, D’Virgilio, guitarists Dave Foster and Rikard Sjöblom, keyboardist Oskar Holldorff, violinist Clare Lindley – plus longstanding engineer Rob Aubrey stayed in Trieste to record the main tracks. Ideas were bounced around in the studio and over dinners together, looking out at the sea, getting to know each other.

I hate shallow lyrics. I think one of the things with the greatest prog bands is that there’s depth in the music and words

Gregory Spawton

As Bravin explains, there’s nothing on the record that can’t be replicated live, without backing tracks. It all reflects a level of teamwork that few bands really nail. “I can feel it through the album,” he says, “you can feel that we are there, together, and there is some vibe that you can hear. There were no big overdubs involved, and there’s stuff that just happened in the studio, and we just left it there.”

Accordingly, for all the emotional weight involved, it’s also an energised, vibrant affair. There are Beach Boys-style harmonies in Skates On; Anthony Phillips shades across the prettily melancholy Bookmarks; stirring brass lines on Light Left In The Day that turn into bouncy keyboard wizardry; and the violin-meets-guitar rock explosion of Oblivion. And in Miramare they’ve created a 10-minute ode to Trieste’s castle, which Bravin grew up seeing on school trips. In a nod to his more typical, history-based writing mode, Spawton ploughed through four huge books on the subject.

“I found a really obscure one published in 1950 or something,” he says, “you need to just get yourself into that world. I hate shallow lyrics. I think one of the things with the greatest prog bands is that there’s depth in the music and words. One of my heroes is Peter Hammill; he could write great melodies but also really deep lyrics.”

Nevertheless, he admits that the real test of this new iteration of the band came outside the studio. The first gig with Bravin, Holldorff, Lindley and Foster was a “warm-up” in the English town of Eastleigh, for a small crowd of hardcore fans. For Bravin the pressure was immense. There had been some resistance to his inclusion on the grounds that he wasn’t English. He was anxious to prove himself, not as a Longdon copycat but as a new voice, honouring the past and spearheading their future. In the end, he needn’t have worried. “When I finished the gig, I stepped off the stage and just fell on the floor,” he laughs. “After that it just got better and better.”

As touring went on the group grew closer. Spawton and Bravin, realising they were both early risers, went for walks to museums, galleries and coffee shops together. After gigs they all convened on the tour bus for drinks and karaoke renditions of Bee Gees and AC/DC classics – their bookish bass player included.

It’s not like we carried a big bruise on our hearts… but that made us think about the not-cool kids – not with the ‘in’ crowd

Gregory Spawton

“The few people that have an impression of me is of some guy that reads books all the time, and plays bass occasionally,” Spawton mutters with a sly grin. “But when I’ve had a few beers, sometimes the inner Barry Gibb comes out...”

Still, it’s taken time to reach this blissful state. He tells us it wasn’t until last year’s tour that he felt certain they’d been right to carry on. Longdon’s fiancée, Sarah, played a huge part, reminding him that David always said if anything happened to him, they should carry the band on. “Of course that’s just talk over a beer; you never think that’s going to happen in real life.” He shakes his head. “But she reminded me.”

Miles from Trieste, The Likes Of Us finds another foothold in Sutton Coldfield, where Spawton grew up. Two enormous radio masts loomed over the landscape. Everything in his young life happened under those masts: family events, arguments with friends, his first kiss. During the making of the album, while his beloved stepfather was dying (following complications of a metastasized melanoma), the masts acquired a new poignancy as he drove up to see him in hospital. It fuelled the album’s masterpiece, Beneath The Masts: 17 minutes, packed with the breadth of human experience, memory and mortality, the band in full flight.

“It was the guide-wires that hit home for me,” Spawton says, “they’re incredible structures, but they’re tethered. And that felt like a metaphor for me, for losing my inner bearings, my roots to the Midlands.” Those roots bonded him and Longdon, both of them Midlands grammar school boys who couldn’t swim. This being the 70s and 80s, such pupils were “chucked in the shallow end.” Years later they toyed with an idea for a project called ‘Shallowenders’. For Spawton, a “weedy, arty kid” in school, it harks back to the vocabulary of school sports team selections, the ‘extras’ that nobody picked. Such terms weave into album closer Last Eleven, where they take on a wider significance.

“It’s not like we carried this as a big bruise on our hearts or anything,” he says. “It made us laugh that we were both shallowenders, but that made us think about the not-cool kids – the people that are not with the ‘in’ crowd.”

Bravin can relate. In school he was an oddball who inhaled his parents’ Beatles records, later delving into progressive rock, Norwegian black metal and Frank Sinatra. “I was the weird metal guy,” he says. “It really resonates with me. So does the title The Likes Of Us. I think everyone can relate.”

It genuinely was three middle-aged men with tears running down our cheeks, trying to be all manly... I hope that’s in the songs

Gregory Spawton

Indeed, for all its clever composition, the album’s real strength lies in its humanity. Its ability to give a buoyant voice to the world’s ‘extras.’ To face raw feelings like grief with hope as well as honesty. “Quite often I would wake up in the middle of the night, and he’d be kind of with me,” Spawton remembers, of the initial period after Longdon’s death. “I’d get very upset because I was on my own... I mean, everyone’s on their own in the middle of the night, aren’t they?”

Over time, though, he’s come to think more of the moments they had together. The positive experiences. His friend’s smile. Lows and highs felt by the whole group as they made this music together. “I know everyone goes, ‘we pour our hearts into these things,’” Spawton says, “but it genuinely was three middle-aged men sat there with tears running down our cheeks, trying to be all manly... I hope that’s gone into the songs.”

It’s all there. The pains of recent years and others reaching further back. The lights that make it worth carrying on. It’s a record for Big Big Train. For the likes of us. For the memory of David Longdon. For anyone who’s ever felt left behind.

As Bravin sings in Love Is The Light: ‘This is not the end.’

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.