From One Big River to Another: Local Musicians Muse on Life, Death and Rebirth (?) on the Tees and Tyne

By Peter Coates

I’ve just revisited an e-mail that Jill Payne sent the project team a few days before we met up in Newcastle earlier this year. She reminded us that Chris Rea’s song ‘Steel River’ echoes the sentiments of Jimmy Nail’s lament to the working Tyne, ‘Big River’. (I remember seeing Rea in concert in Newcastle City Hall circa. 1974, when he was the support act for Lindisfarne at one of their famous Christmas concerts.) In fact, Rea anticipated Nail’s emotional mood by a decade: whereas ‘Big River’ was released in 1995, ‘Steel River was the opening track on the 1985 album, ‘Shamrock Diaries’ (though its best-known track is arguably the second, ‘Stainsby Girls’).

Rea hails from Middlesbrough and his river is the Tees, but the scenario and message are identical – a stark and painful contrast between the thriving industry on its banks in the 1960s, when Rea was growing up there, and the late 1980s, when a post-industrial river was clean enough for salmon to return but meaningless to those who once worked in the steel mills (the industrial and chemical sector whose thirst for water lay behind the decision to dam the North branch of the Tyne in 1974, but which was largely moribund by the time Kielder reservoir and dam were opened by the Queen in 1982). Here’s the third and final verse of ‘Steel River’ that Jill pasted into her e-mail.

They say that salmon swim in steel river
They say it’s good to see them back again
I know it hurts to see what really happened
I know one salmon ain’t no good to them
They were born and raised to serve their steel mother
It was all they taught and all they ever knew
And they believed that she would keep their children
Even though not a single word was true
Say goodbye steel river.

‘Pure magic’, reads one of the comments that accompanies the version of ‘Steel River’ posted on YouTube, ‘makes me proud to come from Teesside…listening to this takes me back to the days when we were a thriving industry, the world needed Middlesbrough’s steel to exist’. ‘This song says it all’, comments another viewer (62,136 views to date): ‘it tears my heart out’. ‘It is physically impossible for anyone born in these environs not to cry when local boy Chris Rea’s paean to this lost world…strikes up on the jukebox or radio’, reflects Daniel Gray (Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels Through England’s Football Provinces [Bloomsbury,2013, 18).

Most of the other comments strike more or less the same note. But there’s one that’s a bit different, a bit less lachrymose, and a bit more hopeful: ‘This [song] is an inspiration for every Briton who can recall that the country was once great. Let’s get back to making lots of stuff out of steel – but perhaps we can clean it up just a tad better than before. Salmon is still compatible with steel-making’.

River Tees

River Tees looking towards Middlesbrough. Source: Wikimedia Commons


  • Leona Skelton

    These lyrics certainly chime with those of Jimmy Nail in ‘Big River’. Taken alone, one would assume that Chris Rea is no fan of a clean river, as he laments heavy industry and the big booming riparian companies which provided stable employment for so many who called the banks of the Tees and the Tyne home. However, read the lyrics of another song by Chris Rea, ‘The Road to Hell (Part II)’:

    Well I’m standing by the river
    But the water doesn’t flow
    It boils with every poison you can think of
    And I’m underneath the streetlight
    But the light of joy I know
    Scared beyond belief way down in the shadows
    And the perverted fear of violence
    Chokes the smile on every face
    And common sense is ringing out the bell
    This ain’t no technological breakdown
    Oh no, this is the road to hell

    Here, he is deploring the technological nightmare of the M25, which is supposed to mark progress, but only causes frustration and pollution: a ‘road to hell’. Would it be a step too far to say that his use of the metaphor of a river whose stagnant water bubbles with poison, is perhaps his way of expressing his disdain for polluted, manmade landscapes and systems? Perhaps he actually longs for the natural, non-bubbling version of the Tyne and Tees before (or indeed after) industrialisation? Or perhaps, in the same vein as one of the comments Peter quoted, he wants employment and a clean Tees.

    I’m sure there are many out there far more qualified to provide analysis than me, not least Chris Rea himself. Perhaps one of Chris Rea’s biggest fans could shed some light on these seemingly divergent lyrics: Jill Payne, for example.

  • Paul Warde

    I’ve been wondering after this if any of the ‘river music’ of the United Kingdom is not associated with industry? I can think of songs about the Tyne, Tees, Mersey, Clyde, Lagan: all industrial port cities, in fact. Is this what it takes to burst into a song? And ‘Old father Thames’ songs are essentially about London. (I expect there is the odd inland variant: there must be a song about the Don) – but does anyone know of songs about the Derwent(s), Trent(s), Avon(s), Wensum, Tamar, Wye, Nene, Ouse(s), Tay, Severn?

  • Erin Gill

    I really like the final comment you quote from. The Industrial Revolution was built on technologies that sacrificed environmental health for economic growth, but that two don’t have to remain in opposition forever. Human ingenuity can deliver both at the same time. Rivers can be places of work as well as environments clean enough to be home to healthy fish stocks, otters, birds, etc.

  • Peter Coates

    Did you know that ‘Steel River’ was deployed for party political purposes in the 2010 general election? Rea granted use of concert footage to Conservative candidate John Walsh as a way of drawing attention to the mothballing of the Corus steelworks at Redcar (close to the mouth of the Tees) in February 2010, with the loss of 1600 jobs. Walsh, a BAFTA-nominated filmmaker and life-long Labour voter, who came third in 2010 to the Labour incumbent, Sir Stuart Bell, is perhaps best known for his award-winning post-election documentary about his maverick effort to unseat Middlesbrough’s incumbent, ‘Tory Boy: The Movie’ (2011) – in which Rea featured briefly.

    I would also like to note that Rea’s local fluvial environment is now quintessentially southern English: a pastoral stretch of the Thames, which flows through the village of Cookham, Berkshire, where he has lived since the late 1980s.

    (‘Driving home for Christmas’? Not on the M25.)

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