By ProgBlog, Feb 8 2015 06:37PM
There’s a column in Prog magazine called Locus Focus, written by rock gazetteer David Roberts (author of Rock Atlas) which has the by-line “puts prog on the map”. The notion of highlighting a geographical location associated with some musical iconography appeals to me. I appreciate that a rock atlas is able to transcend the artificial boundaries of genre (think of The Smiths and Salford Lads Club or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street, London W1) but the idea seems somehow related to prog for reasons possibly associated with my early academic path and an insatiable appetite for poring over maps.
Yes Tor is an obvious choice for a prog-related geolocation but there are some more obscure sites that equally fit the bill. I’m sure I remember a section in Roger Dean’s Views where he was describing the inspiration for the watery world depicted inside the gatefold of Close to the Edge that included a photo of a small mountain tarn. I seem to recall that he was describing this tarn as being on the top of a mountain ridge and, for whatever reason, I associated this with the picturesque and entirely unexpected tarns on Haystacks in the western Lake District fells; sadly, I’m no longer able to refer to my copy of Views, bought on its publication in 1975, because over the next few years I removed pages to adorn my bedroom walls.
The formation of these tarns, the so-called summit tarn, Innominate Tarn and Blackbeck Tarn is a feature of the Buttermere-Ennerdale watershed as it passes the rocky protuberance of Great Round How and is restricted to a narrow ridge, craggy and precipitous on the Buttermere side. Alfred Wainwright has drawn a picture of the summit tarn, which doesn’t have a name, in his Western Fells (book seven of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells) that looks very much as I remember it from a long time ago; the problem of having made a career in London is that I don’t get to do very much Lakeland fell walking anymore. It’s rather paradoxical that the second highest of these natural water features goes under the name of Innominate Tarn and of the three, this is the most magical with an indented rocky shore and a line of tiny islets. If Haystacks didn’t inspire Dean’s Close to the Edge cover, it appears as though it may have informed the cover of Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings with the rocky ‘islands’ protruding from the water.
The first time I noticed the Locus Focus column one album immediately sprung to mind: Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. Hergest Ridge is an elongated hill running from Kington in Herefordshire to Gladestry in Powys in a roughly NE – SW orientation, traversing the border between England and Wales. The summit of the hill is on the English side and stands 426m above sea level, rising 158m above the surrounding landscape; the Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath runs along the ridge. Following the success of Tubular Bells, Oldfield retreated to The Beacon, his house on Bradnor Hill, near Kington. The area obviously inspired him; not only was his sophomore effort titled Hergest Ridge but his third album Ommadawn, recorded at The Beacon, is appended by the short song On Horseback and contains the lyric “If you feel a little glum / To Hergest Ridge you should come”.
My copy of Hergest Ridge dates from 1975 and was bought for me for some ridiculous price; either 75p or 99p by friend Bill Burford who had seen cheap copies in WH Smith in Blackpool or somewhere like that. By the mid-late 70s I’d kind of grown out of Tubular Bells and sold my copy to the sister of classmate Eamonn Quinn. I wasn’t a great fan of side two and, at the time, didn’t appreciate the value of keeping hold of vinyl or the importance and longevity of the piece. It’s strange that I kept my Hergest Ridge but I’m pleased that I did because when I listened to it recently I thought it was a lush, symphonic piece. I’ve still got my original Ommadawn and I invested in Tubular Bells and Tubular Bells II on CD. Based on a review by my brother Richard, I bought a cheap copy of Crises on CD when I was in Padova at the end of last year but I still think that Oldfield’s best album is Hergest Ridge, specifically the original mix; the 2010 edit is unbalanced to my ears as some of the sounds that contribute to the pastoral sweep are sullied by encroaching instruments brought out higher in the mix.
Whereas Tubular Bells owes a debt to the minimalists and Ommadawn, with its pipes and African drums, seems to have fully embraced world music influences, Hergest Ridge occupies more than just a place in the sonic continuum. In some respects it’s a ‘son of’ Tubular Bells and in some respects it preludes the Celtic vibe that is evident on its successor but the thematic development of Hergest Ridge is much more rewarding and continues over the two sides of the album; Tubular Bells is an album of two distinct parts, with side two coming across as a rather hurried composition and as a consequence is far less satisfying. Whole Earth band mate and composer David Bedford lent Oldfield a copy of Delius’ tone poem Brigg Fair before the recording of his first album and though Tubular Bells doesn’t really conform to the romantic symphonic style, Hergest Ridge comes much closer. Oldfield utilised the talents of Bedford to conduct a string section and choir and though it’s not evident how much Bedford was responsible for the orchestration, I can’t believe he didn’t have some influence and input. The album also features guest oboe players Lindsay Cooper and June Whiting plus trumpet from Ted Hobart. This extra instrumentation adds a distinct symphonic flavour that fits together far more seamlessly than the vertical arrangements of its predecessor and though no piece of romantic music lasts anywhere near 40 minutes, Hergest Ridge mimics the rhapsodic structure with pastoral themes, variation and development that characterise Sibelius and Vaughan Williams.
Perhaps as a result of Oldfield’s retreat from the public eye, some critics have suggested that Hergest Ridge encapsulates the mid 70s middle-class hippie vibe; the macrobiotic lifestyle, real ale and flowery names for the children, something cartoonist Posy Simmons loved to lampoon. I think that he’s crafted an album that demonstrates his care and passion for music; it may not be as groundbreaking as Tubular Bells but it’s been carefully assembled and perfectly reflects the majesty of wild, open countryside. Not bad for 75p!