In December 1968 Ed Ochs of Billboard wrote “The Incredible String Band have the lock and key to a very special musical experience” and of late Bob Young of Uncut scribed, “Modern ears frequently can’t get past the more frivolous side of The Incredible String Band: the Gilbert & Sullivan silliness of “Minotaur Song”, or the fuzzy-felt folk of “Painting Box”. Which is a shame, because if you listen beyond the mimsy and screen out the velvet loon pants, you find a group whose trial-and-error traversal of world religions and alternative spirituality are conducted with such poetic fervour, it makes the music of most other late 60s mystics sound spiritually malnourished”.
In the early 60’s the Edinburgh folk scene was very underground and very hip and centred on a Thursday night run at The Crown Bar in Lothian Street by Archie Fisher and Jill Doyle. Disillusioned by the constrictions of traditional folk, Bert Jansch and the acoustic duo of Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer started their own night on a Tuesday to accommodate blues and contemporary folk. Later in 1965 a scout for Elektra Records Joe Boyd signed the duo for an album and auditioned a young Dylan inspired Mike Heron to thicken up the sound.
After moving to Glasgow, which was more Beatnik and Blues orientated, Palmer set up his own night, “Clive’s Incredible Folk Club”, on the fourth floor of a building in Sauchiehall Street and it was during this time the name Incredible String Band was born. Boyd, now head of Elektra’s UK office, returned to see them perform in Glasgow and was enthralled so he beat off the competition of Transatlantic Records to sign the band again. Mike Heron recounted to Missoula Independent, “There was room for nearly any performer who happened to drop by and plenty of room for experimentation and branching out. We had the whole night to fill so the String Band would do two sets, and then Clive, Robin and I did sets individually. John Martin was very much a part of that scene, and so was Bert.” To Rock’s Backpages Heron had a different take on the time, “”It was really indicative of where Robin was at that time,” Heron remembers, “We opened a club in Glasgow and called it Clive’s Incredible Folk Club. All the gangs used to come and fight amongst themselves while the bouncers there carried swords down their trouser legs. We were the resident group and would usually sit there terrified – we were somewhat paranoid and really doping it up to some degree in those days. It wasn’t the ideal aesthetic environment for us – tender souls that we were at that point.”
The début record simply entitled The Incredible String Band was recorded at the Sound Techniques studio in London in May of 1966, becoming Melody Makers “Folk Album of the Year”. “October Song” was commended by Bob Dylan in a “Sing Out Magazine” interview, “The Beatles are British I suppose,” said Bob Dylan in the first of his two post-accident interviews, “but you can’t say they’ve carried on with their poetic legacy, whereas the Incredible String Band who wrote this ‘October Song…’ that was quite good.” Despite the critical success, Palmer and Williamson decided things weren’t progressing fast enough so Clive took off to travel the hippie trail through Afghanistan and India and Robin shipped to Morocco with his girlfriend Licorice McKechnie, while Heron remained in Edinburgh, effectively breaking up the band.
Robin returned from Morocco in 1967 laden with Arabic instruments and influences, reunited with Heron and after moving to London and under their now manager Joe Boyd’s guidance, they started establishing themselves on the London and international folk scene, including gaining a slot at the Newport Folk Festival, where they shared a stage with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Much has been written about the hippie credentials of ISB but on moving south, Heron told Steve Turner of Beat Instrumental, in March 1971, “I chucked up accountancy half to be a musician and half to be a beatnik”, suggesting the counterbalance of Williamson’s role in the duo…..”there was very little ‘head’ music for people to dig except for Ravi Shankar and some kind of really good country sounds. So we really got to love Eastern and Indian music.”
Their second album, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, was released in July 1967, and the duo were supplemented by Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on double bass and Licorice on vocals and percussion. Uncut’s review of the re-issue highlighted the roots of ISB well, “Heron and Williamson boldly going where folk had ne’er trod, adding exotic global-village instruments (sitar, oud, tamboura et al) to the Highland foundations and treating tradition with irreverent psychedelic whimsy”. The combination of Heron’s contemporary vibe and Williamson’s traditional and world music influences made for a tense but creative partnership, Melody Maker, asserting, “Their songs, backed by guitars, sitars, gimbri, drums, rattles, and battery-driven mini-organ, range from the beautiful to the bizarre and from weird to whimsical. Yet they are all impressive individually in one way or another and the Incredibles are two of the most original and exciting songwriters on any scene.” Boyd wrote, “Mike and Robin were Clive’s friends rather than each other’s. Without him as a buffer, they developed a robust dislike for one another. Fortunately, the quality and quantity of their songwriting was roughly equal. Neither would agree to the inclusion of a new song by the other unless he could impose himself on it by arranging the instruments and working out all the harmonies.” Asked to explain their music Heron said, “If the songs could be explained, they wouldn’t be songs,” shrugs Robin. “They mean something different to everybody.”
A productive 1968 saw the release of two acclaimed albums, “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” and the double LP “Wee Tam and the Big Huge”. Aided by direct support from Clive Selwood who was Elektra’s General Manager and subsequently John Peel’s manager, Hangman’s reached the top 5 in the UK album charts soon after its release in March 1968 and was nominated for a Grammy in the US. A long time fan of ISB, Peel’s biography tells of how he had played both sides of Hangman on his Radio London show the week it was released and he then continued to play the band throughout the years on his fêted BBC show and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin alleged his group found their way by “playing Hangman’s and following the instructions”.
Robert Shelton NY Times 28 Nov 1968 wrote, “This is the freest of innovative groups offering few signposts to the labyrinth path of gentle sounds” and Time Magazine 13 Dec 1968 lauded, “Their terrain is the fresh green landscape of ancient pastoral, replete with sombre mountains, gloomy caves, anthropomorphic rivers. They sing not of ordinary men, but of lovers, amoebae, angels, village rustics, swans, emperors, unicorns. And their music is an eerie compound of British and U.S. folk traditions, Indian ragas, rock, calypso, blues, even nursery songs”. As experimental and un-commercial the Incredible String Band seemed to be, in the 1960’s they were the fifth best selling album act in Britain, after The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Cream with Hangman’s selling 800000 copies to date in the UK alone. With their renown growing the band consequently spent much of 1969 and beyond touring in the USA and the UK, culminating in a farcical and disheartening Woodstock appearance;
Joe Boyd: … “We were booked to go on Friday night. We had a perfect slot – we were after Joan Baez, 10.30 in the evening – but they didn’t have a proper stage roof, and it started to rain. At that time the ISB had started very actively with amps, so they had a pick-up on the sitar, pick up on the gimbri etc. and the electric bass. Of course you couldn’t play in the rain with all these electric instruments – so we were struck. I said “just go on with your acoustic instruments and play” and they said “we can’t, wait ’til it’s stopped raining”….”What happened then was I said, “you don’t know what’s going to happen – you may never get on stage” but they wanted to wait for the rain to stop and so someone else went on – Melanie – who triumphed in that slot and wrote “Candles in the Rain” about that exact moment! … We ended up going on the following afternoon after Canned Heat in the baking sun. People were ready for something heavy and loud and they came on and just – died!” … It was Joe Boyd’s Greatest Mistake. If I could do it all over again I would put them on in the rain. They would have triumphed like Melanie. They would have been in the movie, and everyone who was in the movie had a huge break. Who know what would have happened….” (beGlad Winter 1994).
The incredible story of The Incredible String Band continues next time…