Arms Stretched Wide

A Tribute to David Longdon of Big Big Train

by Jason Warburg


Part of the magic of music is the way it can create a profound sense of connection with someone you’ve never met.

The fact that I never met David Longdon, the late singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter for Big Big Train, was more or less a technicality born of proximity. The band is known for being accessible at gigs and if I lived less than 5000 miles from their home base in the south of England, we would likely have met years ago. As things stood, I had high hopes of seeing the band live for the first time when they made it to the West Coast of the US on their planned 2022 tour.

And now suddenly Longdon is gone, lost to an accident in the prime of his creative life at just 56, leaving behind heartbroken family members, bandmates, friends and fans.

Big Big Train had been around for some time before Longdon joined up in 2009, but his presence seemed to solidify and elevate the band almost immediately. In fact, the first thing the new lineup did together was go into the studio and record what some still consider to be their finest album, 2009’s The Underfall Yard.

Longdon brought the songs of BBT co-founder—and until then principal songwriter—Greg Spawton to life in vivid technicolor. Like a great actor, Longdon thoroughly inhabited the roles he was called on to play in Spawton’s songs while making that process of interpretation feel natural and right. And then he began to contribute songs of his own.

Longdon’s history prior to BBT included very nearly following Phil Collins as lead singer of Genesis in the ’90s, the solo album Wild River in 2004, and guest roles on albums by the likes of Martin Orford (IQ). When BBT began the search for its next singer in 2008, the band’s sound guru Rob Aubrey recommended Longdon, and a beautiful creative partnership was born.

Over the course of the four albums that followed The Underfall YardEnglish Electric Part One and Part Two, Folklore and Grimspound—Longdon’s role grew from interpreter of Spawton’s compositions to co-leader of the band as he contributed dynamic numbers such as “Judas Unrepentant” and “Wassail,” while co-writing stellar tunes like “Hedgerow” and “Swan Hunter,” and bringing to full-blooded life the group’s signature 15-minute epic “East Coast Racer.”

The latter offers one of the clear highlights of the Longdon era of BBT, as told in my review of the album. The song finds Spawton crafting a sweeping, cinematic narrative from the tale of the men who built and raced The Mallard, the purpose-designed locomotive that in 1938 set a speed record for steam engines that stands today. The widescreen epic’s opening verses set the stage beautifully, the music gathering momentum steadily until:

At the two-thirds mark, the arrangement adds yet more drive, strings and brass swelling, sweeping the song up into the sky, whereupon Longdon lets go with a ringing “She fliiiiiiiiiiiies” that sends chills up and down the spine. Every second of the nearly four-minute denouement that follows is necessary to both recover from and reinforce this remarkable moment.


As if imitating The Mallard, over the next two albums Longdon’s momentum as a songwriter accelerated. Folklore (2016) opened with his ringing anthem of the same name and closed with his sublime fable “Telling The Bees.” Grimspound (2017) then led off with the expansive 10-minute suite “Brave Captain,” which has always felt like one of Longdon’s most personal creations despite being a tribute to British World War I fighter pilot Captain Albert Ball, simply because the song was born of the moment in Longdon’s childhood when he first encountered the statue of Ball on the grounds of Nottingham Castle. He recounts the moment of his inspiration in the song’s first verse:

Well, you should have seen me
Who would believe me now?
Racing around the castle grounds
Wild imagination in full flight
My arms stretched wide
I'll be a brave captain of the skies

As the best creative partners do, over time Longdon and Spawton made each other better. They pushed one another—gently, it seems, but pushed nonetheless—resulting in one exceptional recording and performance after another. By the time Grand Tour (2019) arrived on the heels of its ebullient Longdon lead single “Alive,” the band had achieved a steady upward trajectory of awards, recognition, and sales that was set to bring them to the US for the first time in 2020. Even the loss of that tour and the departure of three band members during the first year of the pandemic hardly seemed to slow their velocity, as they used the time to record not one but two new albums, the recent Common Ground and the forthcoming Welcome To The Planet.

Tidy as that summary might feel, it barely scratches the surface of David Longdon’s achievements. What he and Spawton accomplished again and again in their songs is to make moments in history come alive by zeroing in on the emotional heart of the story they were telling. By centering their narratives in billowing emotion, they invested listeners in the story. It’s only fitting, then, that we do the same in this unfortunate moment.


“David made a huge impact on my life both musically and personally,” said Greg Spawton on Saturday. “I loved him like a brother and already feel his loss very deeply. He was a true creative visionary with extraordinary depth of talent. But above all he was a first rate and very kind man. His family, friends, Big Big Train bandmates and crew will miss him terribly.”

Reading through the hundreds of tributes posted on social media, from peers and fans alike there is a sense of shock at the abrupt end of a life whose trajectory was still climbing. “A beautiful person,” they called him, “a lovely guy… an affable, charming, friendly, humble man of great talent… a superb musician, singer, songwriter and all round brilliant human being.” As one commenter said, speaking for so many of us, “I feel as if I have lost a friend I never met.”

Still, I was holding up okay myself—stunned and sad, but chin up—until my scrolling brought me to David’s daughter Amelia’s single three-word comment: “fly high daddy.”

There is it, in black and white: the magnitude of the loss. In time these wounds will heal, and we will be left with a legacy of songs, and friendships, and love. Until then, we can only keep moving forward, day by day, arms stretched wide like a child as we try to learn to fly again.

Soar on, brave captain.


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