Like the mysterious alchemical formula chanted on their song "Koeeoaddi There," The Incredible String Band held a certain elemental mystique, composed of equal parts magic and imagination.
Such notables as John Lennon, Steve Winwood, and Bob Dylan have confessed admiration for them. In a recent interview, the former Led Zepster-person Robert Plant cited the String Band's 1968 album The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter as one of his top ten favorite recordings of all time. "Some of the greatest times I've had was at a String Band show, just being carried away by the whole experience," asserts the singer they call Percey.
With its two principal songwriters Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, the ISB's heyday was the 1967-72 period, when their albums were navigated by producer Joe Boyd and their live shows mixed mime, improvisational theatre, and rambling compositions played on an increasing number of ethnically exotic instruments in front of devoted audiences of chemically-fueled fans.
But before the haze-daze of psychedelia, before the wondrous adventures of Hirem Pawnitof, Cousin Caterpillar, Big Ted, The Little Cloud, Black Jack Davey, Malcolm, Rose, or even Liccy, there was the more humble...
In 1962 the folk scene up in Scotland's capital city of Edinburgh was just beginning to blossom. Audiences at the few small folk clubs were treated to music by such young "unknowns" as John Renbourn, Ralph McTell, Archie Fisher, and Bert Jansch. That year Decca Records recorded their first volume of the best of the Edinburgh Folk Festival. Among all the traditional tunes and occasional Guthrie-styled nasal drone was one track with "a funky little minstrel-type instrumental" called "Jazz Bo's Holiday" by two young lads known as Clive and Robin. Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson would soon expand their duo into a trio called Clive's Incredible String Band. Mike Heron was "discovered" one fabled Tuesday night when Clive and Robin were playing at a club called Bridges. Palmer talked Mike into joining the band after hearing his guitar playing and songwriting.
Saved from his intended profession of being a chartered accountant, Heron, along with Palmer and Williamson, went on to start Glasgow's first all-night club called Clive's Incredible Folk Club in a room over a shoe shop in Sauchiehall Street. In a 1986 interview Heron reminisces, "...it lasted for nine months before the police busted it. Nine months, I must say, in which we saw some fantastic musicians pass through."
Williamson also remembers, "We played from 11:00 on Saturday night to 7:00 Sunday morning. That was what you might call my baptism of fire."
It was at this time that producer Joe Boyd saw them at the club and signed them to his embryonic Witchseason Productions and Elektra Records.
The 1966 album, simply titled The Incredible String Band, was the first glimpse of the brilliance that was to follow. Present were the playful and childly innocent compositions of Mike, such as "When the Music Starts to Play," the much-covered "Everything's Fine Right Now," and the first of his many love songs to nature and small animals, "The Tree."
Robin demonstrated his already well developed sense of wordsmithing and his keen eye for the surreal. "October Song" was cited by Bob Dylan in an issue of Sing Out of the time as one of his favorite songs that year. "Womankind" is a beautiful song of earthly erotic love. Clive Palmer's presence, however, is strangely minimal. He contributes only one original song and a traditional banjo tune.
Once the first album was completed, the group decided to enter into a curiously early retirement phase. Robin recounts, "Right after the first album, Clive and I decided that this was the pinnacle of achievement -- we better cut out of the music business entirely. So Clive went to Afghanistan and I went to Morocco, intending to stay awhile. I wanted to learn Moroccan flute playing and other things of that nature."
With Heron left in Scotland to get his rock 'n' roll ya-ya's out with such bands as Rock Bottom and the Deadbeats, six months passed before "financial difficulties" caused Robin to return to Britain early. He and Mike reformed the band as a duo and went into the studio to record their second album. Also appearing were Robin's girlfriend Licorice (known by her mom as Christina McKenzie) and guests Pentangle-person Danny Thompson on bass and pianist John Hopkins of U.F.O. and I.T. fame.
In 1967 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion was released. With its day-glo, cosmic flow, Simon and Marijke cover, together with flower-powered surreal lyrics, it captured the more innocent side of the early British psychedelic movement. Once again Mike was falling in love with "Little Clouds" and obtaining enlightenment from furry critters in "The Hedgehog Song."
Robin contributed his Zimmerman-inspired "Way Back in the 1960s," as well as his wonderful mix of Greek myth and Alice in Wonderland in the frankly weird "Madhatter's Song."
Also present is what might be Robin's most covered song, "First Girl I Loved." Judy Collins sang it as "First Boy I Loved" in 1969, and it most recently appears on the Elektra tribute Rubaiyat sung by Jackson Browne. Also present for the first time was the use of the then-fashionable sitar, as well as hand drums, jew's harp, and gimbri (a kind of mournful Arab fiddle).
Robin: "One of the things I felt I added was the notion that one could make music on a variety of different instruments. One didn't have to be a tremendous technical virtuoso to play. I think that sort of inspired the amateurism thing we used to do in the '60s -- getting up, doing things unrehearsed, playing instruments we couldn't really play -- had a kind of Zen to it, like naivest painting."
This astute realization whispered by Licorice was on their 1968 release The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. Considered by many as the String Band's finest hour, it reached number 5 in all the British pop charts. It also marked the inclusion of Mike's lady, Rose Simpson. After it, the band began to tour regularly, including their first American tour.
Mike described the album's concept as such (remember is was 1968): "The hangman is the past 20 years of our lives and the beautiful daughter is now."
With its opener, "Koeeoaddi There" (the title picked at random by throwing dice) and the elemental chant -- "Earth, Water, Fire, and Air" in the middle -- the album's semi-psychedelic, semi-mythological tone was set. "The whole song was a dream from start to finish," recounts Robin. "A dream I had put to music, so it has the same logic that a dream has, which is not much logic. There are bits and pieces about early memories in Edinburgh and so forth, but it's a collage song with bits of this dream, bits of early childhood."
And if you answer the riddle?
"If you answer the riddle you'll never begin, there is no answer to the riddle. I consider that life is pretty much an unanswerable riddle... I think that's its magic."
Heron's "A Very Cellular Song" mixes the traditional "We Bid You Goodnight," with its slightly foreboding line, "B's for the beast at the ending of the wood/You know he ate all the children when they wouldn't be good," with his gentler song of love from a single-celled organism's perspective:
When I need a friend I just give a wrinkle
split right down the middle
and pretty soon there's too of me
both as handsome as can be.
The whole album works really well on a childlike level -- so much so that Robin revived two of his compositions from Hangman, "Witches Hat" and "Watersong," to use on his 1987 children's album. The original "Watersong" featured Dolly Collins on flute organ. Both Robin and Mike had played on Dolly's sister Shirley's Power of True Love's Knot on the Williamson-composed "God Dog." "Waltz of the New Moon" drew heavily on the Celtic-inspired musings found in Robert Graves' White Goddess.
In the spring of 1968 they recorded their first double album, Wee Tam and the Big Huge (later sold as two separate albums in the States). Of its title, Robin explained, "We knew somebody called Wee Tam in Edinburgh. It seemed it was a good idea, like one person looking up at the stars -- Wee Tam and the Big Huge."
The album included some of their best performances to date, like Williamson's epic mythological piece "Maya" and the enigmatic "Iron Stone," and Heron could be counted on to add his gleeful tales of "Puppies" and "Cousin Caterpillar." It also seems he moved from amoebas to a song of one "Douglas Traherne Harding," a bloke with no head, one eye, a body filled with light and, oh yes, he lives in the basement.
The "Yellow Snake" also combined a rather classic and timeless guitar and sitar sound together with its tantric imagery. This was the first album without any guest musicians and the foursome contributing an impressive double set of tunes.
1969 brought the ISB a set at the Woodstock festival and a moving away from drugs, a leaning toward Scientology, and an appropriately titled album, Changing Horses.
Somewhat less focused than their previous albums, it featured the inclusion of electric instruments. Still, it contained some great tunes, including "Big Ted" (about a pig who broke into their farmhouse and devoured half of their record collection), "White Bird," "Dust be Diamonds" (the only Heron-Williamson collaboration), and the lovely "Creation," which had piano played by Ivan Pawle of the ISB spin-off band Dr. Strangely Strange.
I Looked Up, released in 1970, was also less than brilliant, but still featured the fiddle-fueled hoedown "Black Jack Davey" and a revamped "The Letter" with Fairport Convention's Dave Mattacks on drums.
Later that year saw the opening of the ISB's "Surreal Parable in Song and Dance" known as U. Conceived with the dance/mime troupe Stone Monkey (which included Williamson's future first wife, Janet Shankman). It played 10 days in London and New York and received generally good reviews, though the "dancing" was universally condemned ("sad groping and vacuous hand waving" -- I.T. magazine). It was definitely the most adventurous and cohesive live show the band performed and it included some of their best material. A highlight was Mike's delightful song of the highwayman, "Hirem Pawnitof," who obtains enlightenment after getting struck on the head by a pieman's tray. "The Rainbow" is one of Mike's more poetic pieces, despite its staggering 15 1/2-minute length. Future String Band member and Stone Monkey "actor," Malcolm LeMaistre, is present for the first time. Also good for an occasional listen is Janet Shankman's excruciating camp vocal on "Bad Sadie Lee."
It is Robin who really shines on this album, contributing the whimsical observations of "Puppet Song" ("Now you may observe if you walk into a wall you get a certain sensation of reality"), the beautifully poetic "Queen of Love," and the powerful "Invocation:"
...I make a pact with you
you who are the liquidness of the waters
and the spark of the flame
I call upon you
you who make fertile the soft earth
and guard the growth of growing things
I make peace with you...
In 1971 Rose Simpson quit the band and Malcolm LeMaistre became a full-time member. It also marked Mike's first solo album, Smiling Men With Bad Reputations. Featuring members of Fairport, including Richard Thompson of lead guitar, and the Velvet Underground's John Cale, Mike called it "a rock 'n' roll holiday" for him.
Elektra released a "best of" album called Relics, a carefully chosen selection from the first three albums as the band moved to the Island label.
Titled from Robin's "Head" poem, Be Glad for Song Has No Ending was the soundtrack for their John Marshall-directed film. The instrumental side of the album serves as the background music for the mime "fable" part of the movie, filmed on location in Wales and called "The Pirate and the Crystal Ball."
The rest of the film is a semi-documentary of the band at the time and includes them performing "All Writ Down" and "Mercy I Cry City," and Robin reading "The Head." It also includes great footage of a very straight Newsweek reporter trying to interview a decidedly weird ISB answering his questions with such thought provoking quotes as "the opposite is true."
Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air was also released in 1971. It featured a re-working of "Tree" from the first album as well as the obviously more electric "Painted Chariot," which featured Gerry Conway on drums. Licorice sings the delightfully high-voiced and decidedly naive "Cosmic Boy." Robin's contributions included the pastel colored "Darling Belle" and a set of jigs.
By this time the band was starting to stray from being a cohesive group and becoming a group of individuals playing on each other's songs.
Robin released his first solo album (really solo -- he played practically all the instruments, except for a little help from wife Janet and Stan Lee on bass). Myrrh, released in 1972, featured "Strings in the Earth and Air," a song also performed by Dr. Strangely Strange and one of his first original fairy stories, "The Dancing of the Lord of Weir."
At this point Licorice left the band and Gerald Dott was added. Earthspan was still rockier and less creative. It did feature Malcolm's fine "My Father Was a Lighthouse Keeper" and the rather strange "Antoine." But even the re-working of "Black Jack Davey" couldn't save a rather bland album.
The worst was yet to come, as demonstrated by the dismal 1973 release, No Ruinous Feud. The only truly dispensable ISB album, it featured the band backed on one track by a reggae band called Greyhound -- nuff said!
In 1974 Dott left and the band toured as a six-piece which included Heron, Williamson, LeMaistre, Stan Lee, Jack Ingram, and rock guitarist Graham Forbes. This lineup recorded Hard Rope and Silken Twine, perhaps their best album since Liquid Acrobat. It is more strongly rock 'n' roll with Heron in the forefront and penning some very good songs -- "Maker of Islands" and "Dreams of No Return" (with Danny Thompson on string bass).
Robin is mostly absent except for contributing some backing instrumentation and one solo track, recorded live at the Rainbow Theatre.
The Incredible String Band officially broke up in October, 1974. The only "official" live recording of the time appeared on the Scientology album May 9 Concert: A Tribute to L. Ron Hubbard. Recorded at the Rainbow Theatre with Chick Corea, Woody Woodmansey, and Mark Gordon, it features yet another version of "Black Jack Davey" and also "Circus Girl." The end of the recording finds the whole group doing a strangely rock 'n' roll version of "The Long Time Sunshine" part of Heron's "Cellular Song" with Chick Corea jamming on synthesizer.
Concerning the ISB's demise, the principles had this to say... First Mike:
"Well, the final tour for us ended in America, New York in fact. Robin just decided to leave. At that point it was stretching his... I mean if you've seen what he's doing now, you can probably imagine how painful it was to be involved in that era.
"...The band was gradually becoming more of a rock band, so he was put in a position where he couldn't continue without compromising himself and we agreed that neither of us would use the name. The Incredible String Band wasn't me or him, it was a chemistry and to continue without either of us would have been really dishonest, so we agreed to dump it."
Robin adds: "Basically Mike and I were very different characters and I think we both, in some ways, reverted to type. He went back to doing what he likes best and so did I. It was actually a quite amicable ending, we remained friends."
The band was definitely a product of their times and are best remembered by the brilliance they showed during the mid- to late-seventies. Those albums remain as fresh and entertaining glimpses into a more innocent and perhaps more magical time.
Mike Heron went on to form the rock band Mike Heron's Reputation with ISB member Malcolm LeMaistre. They cut several albums and toured extensively until 1977. Since then he has worked with composer/programmer Tony Cox on an abortive "robot music" project. He had released one self-titled album on Casablanca Records, who in untimely fashion went bankrupt right afterwards. The last few years has seen him starting to tour again in the U.K. and he has released three volumes of rare and new recordings called The Glen Row Tapes. He has provided music for Bonnie Tyler and three tracks on a soon to be released Manfred Mann album incorporating world music and African choirs.
Malcolm LeMaistre has continued his working association with Heron, who lives nearby. He has worked on a series of alternative theatre and cabaret pieces, often performing for or with children. He produced and acted in his very successful "Revenge of the Toy Boy" with a group of children at one of the Edinburgh Festivals.
Clive Palmer went on to work with guitarist Wizz Jones and form a jug band in Wales with Mike Bennett. This was followed by C.O.B. (Clive's Original Band) with Bennett and John Bidwell. He had occasionally opened for Robin Williamson and his Merry Band in Britain. In 1987 he recorded a cassette of jazz standards and Yiddish folk tunes with the Charlie Cool Quartet.
Rose Simpson married Steve Verge in 1971, lived in the U.S. for part of the '70s, and now lives in Cardiff, Wales.
Little is known about Licorice (Christina McKenzie), other than assorted rumors. She moved to Los Angeles in the '70s. She has reportedly worked as a waitress and coatroom attendant. She appeared briefly on Williamson's first Merry Band album Journey Edge (1977). In a 1989 issue of Q magazine "a former String Band associate" reports she was behaving oddly and was "last seen setting out on a journey across the Arizona desert."
Robin Williamson has been anything but idle. He has written several books and contributed music to Wales' Moving Being production of The Mabinogion and the soundtrack to the film Willow. He cut three albums with his Merry Band and has released no less than 20 solo recordings since 1981. He has been so busy, in fact, that he will be the subject of an extensive article next issue, which will cover his activities since the String Band daze.
Thankfully, in this age of '60s bands making generally ill-advised comeback albums, there are no plans afoot for a reunion or tour. In their wake The Incredible String Band has left a legion of still devoted fans, including Los Lobos (see article this issue). There have been rumors of an ISB tribute album with some mention made a year ago by Robyn Hitchcock, who said it was a Joe Boyd project. Hangman's Beautiful Daughter is now available on CD from Carthage/Hannibal Records, and Island plans several CD/cassette reissues in the U.K. in March (Liquid Acrobat, Earthspan, and Hard Rope) with a new "best of" compilation in the works. Negotiations are continuing for release of the rest of the ISB back catalog and Mike Heron's solo albums on CD. Stay tuned.
Here are some very rare ISB goodies you might find in your local second-hand shop.
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