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’.