Mountains come out of the sky (originally posted 23/6/13)

By ProgBlog, Mar 25 2014 04:42PM

School inadvertently fuelled my love for all things prog. Our old fashioned wooden desks had lids so that you could leave your belongings inside, but their age was reflected by their state of disrepair. In one particular year my desk had a lid that had broken into two pieces, so I called upon my almost reasonable design skills and drew a three and a half octave keyboard on the underside of one of the halves, and drew the controls for a mini Moog synthesizer on the underside of the other piece, using photos from album sleeves (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) and music paper articles as references in order to reproduce the controls as accurately as possible. Once correctly assembled I could amuse myself recreating Rick Wakeman air-keyboard solos. On another occasion when I was in the lower sixth form I was demonstrating how Keith Emerson used to abuse his Hammond L-100 with a table roughly the same size as an organ in the school library. After rocking it gently I mimed the action of running my fingers down the entire length of a keyboard, accompanied by a sudden, rapid flick of the head. At this point my glasses flew off in an elegant arc and broke as they hit the floor, this time to the amusement of my friends and to my dismay. I never repeated that trick.

It was also rumoured that Phil Bond, the music teacher, was married to the sister of Pierre van der Linden, the drummer for Dutch prog band Focus. I’ve no idea where the rumour came from or whether it’s possible to substantiate, but I do recall him discussing popular music with the class, and he didn’t deny the rumour at the time. I recently had the opportunity to speak to Pierre van der Linden after a Focus gig at the rather cosy Beaverwood Club in Chislehurst, but it seemed such an intrusive thing to do that I didn’t ask.

I spent more time than I should have drawing small pictures of imaginary bands, Agnen and Immanent Grove, in my rough exercise book and then making up track titles and albums, even designing Roger Dean inspired covers. I also used to paint black and white pictures copied from album sleeves and music paper photos onto my school rucksack, or onto the bags of school friends. The medium of choice was Humbrol enamel paint, and at various times I had a small Rick Wakeman (hair and head) and the back cover of Ars Longa Vita Brevis on my canvas ex-Army surplus, the school bag of choice in the early 70s.

Yes’s South Side of the Sky has a special significance for me. Though it is sometimes cited as a song about a disastrous arctic voyage or Scott’s failed Antarctic expedition of 1912 in my mind it always evokes the imagery of mountain landscapes. It’s quite a heavy track, which makes it stand out from most of the material Yes were writing at the time, and the subject matter could be considered the antithesis of prog lyrics, with the protagonists perishing from exposure. The use of wind effects, fast angular guitar runs that seem almost out of control (in parts echoed by organ), the calming piano break overlain with classic Yes three-part vocal harmony and the return to the guitar driven onslaught are all elements that make it a really great Yes song.

During my teenage years I was an avid fell-walker (the Lake District was virtually on our doorstep), walking with the school rambling club or with Tony and a small group of friends. There’s nothing quite like ascending a mountain in snowy conditions, on a cold and clear day the mountain tops take on an Alpine appearance and there’s a feeling that goes beyond solitude and a quality to the light that makes walking an almost spiritual experience; on a cloudy day in near white-out conditions there’s a different feeling, that you’re almost fighting for survival. I’ve often trudged up fells singing South Side of the Sky to myself, tired, cold and waiting for a moment of respite from the wind. In December 1976 I was on a short camping trip in the north western and western fells of the Lake District with Tony and our friends. We were fairly well equipped, with tents, sleeping bags, bivouac bags, food, cooking equipment and ice axes, but we didn’t have crampons. We started off with Catbells which had been transformed from gentle stroll into strenuous ascent by knee-deep snow, along the ridge to Maiden Moor, then High Spy and to a camp at Dale Head Tarn, below the summit of Dale Head. This was a relatively short walk but the long drive up to Hawes End in winter drastically reduced the time we had for walking. Our chosen camp site would have been really picturesque had it not been for the failing light, and there wasn’t much time to appreciate our lofty pitch the following morning. We descended to Honister Pass and climbed the 350m up to the summit of Grey Knotts on the opposite side of the valley, then walked along the ridge to Brandreth and further on to Green Gable. By this time the weather had deteriorated and it was quite hard to navigate except by compass. The descent to Windy Gap was fairly straightforward, as was the 150m ascent of Great Gable, but it became increasingly obvious that we needed to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. There are two common routes from the summit to Styhead Tarn, 420m below: the Breast Route (the original tourist path with its abundant cairns, making it safe in misty weather conditions) and Aaron Slack. It was difficult to discern the cairns due to the depth of snow and somewhere we missed a turn on the path and strayed onto a scree slope obscured by snow. Though we realised we were off-route we still thought we could descend safely and make our way to the proposed overnight camp site without too much difficulty. However, Guy Wimble slipped as he turned to descend a steep section but stopped himself with his ice axe a few meters down from me. Repeating the mantra that I wouldn’t replicate his fall, I promptly slipped in exactly the same place and before I could anchor myself with my ice axe I’d gained sufficient speed to crash into him. He slid a short way before stopping himself again, but I was off balance because of my large rucksack and thrown head over heels and began careering down the slope with increasing velocity. Face down but head up for a while, I tried swinging my axe into the snow but there was no purchase because there was insufficient depth due to the angle of the slope. The axe just bounced out and was eventually torn from my hand. I remember telling myself to cover my head – there were boulders sticking out of the snow that I knew could cause serious head injury. I lost consciousness at some stage, lost my glasses and my watch and came to a stop when the pitch of the slope reduced. I tried to get up and began sliding further, though I soon came to a halt, about 120m down from the place I’d slipped. Apart from a cut to the forehead and one beneath my left eye I had no injuries. I hadn’t broken any bones and I was able to walk down the rest of the mountain, guided by Tony (because I had lost my glasses.) I was taken to hospital as a precautionary measure for overnight observation following a head injury and loss of consciousness. There’s no doubt that I was lucky to escape with such minor injuries: The previous year two good friends, both experienced walkers, had died of exposure on Sca Fell. That’s why South Side of the Sky has particular resonance.

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