Classic Rock at The Highest Gig In Britain
Over the years we’ve been to gigs that have reached all time lows. This summer it was time to aim higher – and go to Mike Peters’ gig on top of Ben Nevis…
Words: Scott Rowley Pics: Stuart Ling (LHS) and Scott Rowley
It’s 5.30am and the Glen Nevis Visitor’s Centre is dark. A hundred-odd people are waiting beneath the trees. Our boys – two seven year olds and a nine year old – cling a little bit closer. Mike Peters stands under the lights of the visitor centre door and reads the words of legendary mountaineer George Mallory (“If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, than you won’t see why we go…”). Then he straps on an acoustic guitar and bashes out We Are The Light, the side one closer of The Alarm’s Declaration album. Few people join in: it’s too early and we’re too self-conscious. “The boys’ll think we’ve joined some kind of cult,” I joke to my wife Sarah.
In truth there’s nothing creepy or messianic about Peters (and, significantly, the song is WE Are The Light not He Is The Light or Show Me The Light). We’re not about to climb the UK’s biggest peak for the Highest Gig in Britain in search of some kind of spiritual enlightenment (“One does not climb to attain enlightenment, rather one climbs because he is enlightened,” said some clever bastard or other) but to raise money and awareness to aid the fight against cancer and to pit ourselves against the mountain – a battle of muscle versus dirt, stamina against slope, willpower against weakness. We are here to walk it like we talk it.
Peters’ cancer charity, set up after his battles with lymph cancer and leukaemia, is called Love Hope Strength. In hospital recovering from cancer treatment in 2005 he could see Mount Snowdon from his window. “When I get through this,” he told his wife Jules, “I’m going to climb that mountain.” And he did. Since then Love Hope Strength has organised walks up Kilimanjaro, Mount Fuji, Everest and many more, with Mike and his acoustic guitar heading up each one.
We’re setting off early to beat the crowds. Peak season Nevis sees the trail to the top clogged by charity walkers (and the paths are packed by the time we head down: hundreds of sweaty purple faces imploring us to tell them that they don’t have far to go) so much so that our guide asks that if we need the toilet on the mountain, to please stray from the path, find somewhere private and bury anything, y’know, substantial. If we’re not careful soon the biggest danger of climbing the mountain will be slipping on wet wipes.
We’re also setting off early because Peters has a gig to go to. After he climbs the highest mountain in Britain, plays the highest gig, and manages the knee-crushing, ankle-testing descent, he’s jumping on a plane and flying to Holland to play with Big Country. The day after that, the band are at Solfest in the Lake District. The lead singers of most bands don’t even carry their own bags.
He greets us halfway up with a hearty, “How many beers had we had when we said we’d do this?” I don’t know about him, but I’d had a few. We were backstage at the Glasgow Barrowlands. Peters and Big Country had just rocked a capacity crowd and he was telling me about the planned walk up Ben Nevis.
“I’d love to do that,” I said, “but we’ve got our holidays booked for then.” I thought for a second: “Do you think kids could do it?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, “kids do it all the time.” And he told me about how his four year old had climbed Snowdon. That did it. We’d booked a whole highland holiday around the Nevis walk: the Crieff highland games, walking in the Cairngorms, a trip to Skye (where we searched for Rebel Wood – the wood planted in memory of Joe Strummer near Orbost in the north west of the island – and found it too after what we thought was just a ten minute trip turned into a three hour hike. Think Deliverance without all that squealing and unpleasantness). Now we were here. Would our kids make it? Would they give up? Would we feel like throwing them off? Nevis is 4400ft high, after all – that’s 4400 opportunities to ask “Are we nearly there yet?”
In the end it went smoothly (though here’s a tip for other novice walkers: never say to yer kids, “Well, I can’t see it taking much longer – that looks like the top right there…” like I did. What looked like 20 minutes from the top was in fact two hours. Apparently there’s an old climbers’ saying: “It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks”).
Half way up, Mike Peters tells us about working on the new Big Country album with producer Bill Nelson and how Classic Rock played a part in bringing the two together. Nelson – a pivotal influence on former Big Country/Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson and producer of the Skids’ Day In Europa album – was a guest album reviewer in Classic Rock a few months back, reviewing a Skids singles collection and reissue of Big Country’s The Crossing.
“I read that,” says Mike Peters, “and thought, ‘I wonder if Bill would be interested in producing us?’” With typical directness and openness, Peters posted on Nelson’s web forum on March 3, directly asking if Nelson would be interested in “producing some new music with Big Country”. The two got talking and the results should be with us next year.
The top of Nevis is a different world. The stunning views disappear behind cloud. Grass and heather are replaced by boulders and shale that twists and slips beneath your feet. The world becomes desaturated. Ominous stone cairns appear in the mist to mark the disappearing path. The wind speed rises and the temperature drops. Funnels of cloud blow up through enormous gullies on both sides of the plateau. Nothing lives here: no birds, no plants, no nothing. On the bright side, at least there is one place in Scotland free from midges. (As if to seal its dream-like quality, when I look back at a picture I take at the summit – see below – Sarah appears in it twice.)
And here, with our heads in the clouds, Mike Peters climbs to the highest point and plays the Highest Gig In Britain. Full of adrenaline and boosted by the success of walk, this time the voices sing out. He dedicates the second song to Stuart Adamson and launches into In A Big Country. Around us people who’ve lost loved ones to cancer, people who are fighting cancer themselves, and people who just want to help sing along: “…Like a lover’s voice/fires the mountainside/Stay alive.” You could get misty-eyed but, really, how could you tell when there’s mist everywhere?
Our nine year old, Tom, comes to see me. “Dad, I’m bursting,” he says. “Go over there behind those rocks,” I tell him and he disappears into the mist. The Highest Pee in Britain, I make that. Where’s Norris McWhirter when you need him?