MUSIC THAT MATTERS TO ME; the Incredible String Band by Dave Espin
A STRANGE THOUGHT JUST CROSSED MY MIND by Dave Espin
When Norm asked me to put together some personal reminiscences of a band we both admire greatly, I agreed with trepidation. Partly because I didn’t want to let him down and partly because I hadn’t done anything like this before but mainly because the band in question is hard to define.
Music is multifaceted. I know it leaves some people completely cold; they just don’t get it – but for others it is everything, it consumes every emotion. It’s important to me but is not all-consuming. On a scale of 1-10 (indifferent to all-consuming), I would rate myself at around 7 or 8. I remember thinking, when I was about 18, if I were to lose one of my senses, I hoped it wouldn’t be my hearing. If given the choice, I would rather surrender a leg than my hearing, simply because it would deprive me of listening to music.
It’s quite difficult to define my musical taste and I have about 20,000 songs on my MP3 player and they span a wide range of genres. Norm is a poet and hears the music but wants to know what the songs mean; he studies the lyrics and becomes excited when a songwriter delivers a clever line. I am virtually the opposite; I can sing all the words to a song but generally don’t care, or try to understand, what they mean – with the occasional exception. There one or two songwriters whose music and words come together in perfect symmetry for me. They are usually storytellers who, in the main, choose subjects other than simply love and relationships. I’m thinking here of Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull), Al Stewart and Bob Dylan but there are others.
No, for me, I listen to the musical composition and enjoy differing arrangements, instrumentation, song development, syncopation, time signatures (for example, when Jethro Tull’s record label, Chrysalis, asked Ian Anderson to write a hit record in 1969, I don’t think they expected a flute-based piece in the unusual 5/4 time, but Living In The Past still spent 14 weeks in the UK charts and reached a high of no.3! For those who understand me, there’s one song Tull play which has alternating bars of 7/8 and 9/8 time).
However, this article is NOT going to delve into the possible complexities of music because, like driving a car, anyone can enjoy it without all that technical stuff – and I don’t do that myself, I just like music that has a lot of variation that I can sink my ears into!!
I don’t like pretentious reviews so I will do my best to keep this simple. The best put-down I have ever heard was by Benjamin Disraeli, who described his rival William Gladstone, as “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity.” Whilst preparing for this article, I found some astonishing verbiage being used to define our chosen artists:
Independent, 11 August 2000:
“bucolic whimsy and metaphysical ruminations” “mythopoeic language and presented with a musical ecumenism”
The Guardian, 25 September 2003:
“versatility in musical idiom” and “the contrapuntal intricacies”
Critics seem to want to show off their own abilities rather than those of the artists (does he mean me? Editor) or do they use this language in everyday conversations with their friends? Maybe someone had been looking out for songs that are mythopoeic, with contrapuntal intricacies, in which case, they’d have found it at last. My question is, “Yes, that’s all very well, but did you like it? If so, tell me why?”
So Norm and I come together in our love for this band from two different directions. I principally like the tunes and he likes the words, which is often the case with friends and their choices. We don’t agree on many things but we know what we like. The fact that the subject of this piece is so utterly unique makes it all the more remarkable that they had, and still have, such a massive and loyal following, but are largely unknown to the wider public is quite amazing…
Music may be described as noises of differing pitch, made to a rhythm in the form of a melody; the Oxford English Dictionary defines a song as ‘a short poem or other set of words set to music or meant to be sung’ – so there’s plenty of scope.
I know what I don’t like as well, and there’s plenty of it. Actually, there’re quite a lot that I don’t like; jazz tops the list, but I’m not a fan of country & western (sorry, Norm), drum & bass or rap either.
Everyone is different and it’s good that we have the variety and diversity of musical and other artistic types. Of the many art forms, only music really moves me.
Before I reveal who Norm asked me to write a little about, please allow me to provide some context.
This is really a love story that, fifty years on, holds as strong today as ever. I fell in love with the music of this unique band when I sixteen-going-on-seventeen, and I can’t imagine my life without it. I turn cold if I contemplate how things would have been so different if I hadn’t happened to see the television show ‘Once More With Felix’ in early 1968, but more of that a little later.
So how were my personal musical preferences actually shaped? How far have they developed over the years or have I been stuck in a musical time warp? Well… yes and no, I’d say.
Like anything that has substance and deep meaning, the more I learn, the more I discover there is to learn. I continue to hear exciting music from new artists, but there are a handful of artists who I first heard as a young man, that I return to time and again, like the aforementioned Jethro Tull. Despite some chart success in the early seventies, they’ve never sought to be in the ‘mainstream’ but instead have preferred to explore different styles of progressive, folk and historical rock and I’ve have enjoyed that journey with them.
I was fortunate that my teen years coincided with the swinging sixties, the golden age. British bands took the world by storm. There was an energy to life and we became aware that we were witnessing the beginning of a new age, a period of massive change.
However, I was raised in the forgotten Roman City of Lincoln, parts of which still look the same today as they did 300 years ago! Lincoln is the only place in the world that houses original copies of both the 1215 Magna Carta (one of just four surviving copies) and the 1217 Charter of the Forest (one of only two) – in the Castle – who knew? I bet many current residents of the city don’t know it even now! The cathedral is one of the world’s finest buildings, but remains one of this country’s best kept secrets (yet the American film producer, Ron Howard, chose to film large sections of The Da Vinci Code in an around it).
This anonymity meant that the Lincoln I grew up in was a very remote outpost on the road to nowhere. The ancient Romans linked it with London and Edinburgh (via Ermine Street) and Bath (via the Fosse Way) but our modern road builders seem to have purposely avoided it. Until a university campus was built in the early 90s, it was a decaying backwater that was largely ignored by touring bands. This meant that, in my day, we had to rely on TV and radio for our entertainment (which anyone of a certain age, will know was extremely limited!)
By age 16¾ I was in the sixth form at a school just outside Lincoln. The Beatles were at their peak, having inspired an entire generation with their music and their fashions. The crooners and balladeers of the 40s and 50s were gone. Bands now wrote their own songs and played guitars with amplifiers!
Luckily, we had pocket-sized transistor radios and had a never-ending diet of fantastic 2½ minute-songs thanks to pirate radio stations. The Rolling Stones, Kinks, Who, Manfred Mann, Status Quo, Merseybeats and Freddie and the Dreamers exploded over the airwaves – and who could forget Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich? Pick of the Pops on Sunday afternoons and Top of the Pops on Thursday evenings! Juke Box Jury at teatime on Saturdays, plus Ready Steady Go! – hosted by Lincoln’s own Keith Fordyce (we didn’t have too many famous folk from Lincolnshire after Lord Tennyson and Sir Isaac Newton – until Margaret Thatcher of course).
Could pop music get any better than this? Well no, actually… future generations will claim their era was best but, for overall impact combined with the quality of the songs, the 60s easily tops the lot. Yeah, the New Romantics were OK and I didn’t dislike Punk, but come on… we had Herman’s Hermits, the Hollies, the Searchers, the Tremeloes, Cat Stevens, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Zombies, the Equals, Marmalade, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, and literally dozens more!
But, let’s just wind back a little to my pre-teen years. My mum wanted me to learn to play the piano. Every Saturday morning for a year or two, I reluctantly went to see Mrs Arden, who got me practicing finger scales and playing twee pieces such as Greensleeves for Beginners. It never captured my imagination; I wanted to be outside playing football in the street with my mates.
However, a musical seed or two must have been sown inside my head because, at age 15, I chose classical music as one of my GCE ‘O’ Level options. It was the first time our school had ever run this two-year examination course and I was one of just nine pupils who elected to take it.
I may have given up playing the piano but I could read music and the classes were a pleasant diversion from the traditional (and for me, boring) subjects such as English, Science, Geography and History that we were obliged to study.
With the exception of music, my only other interest was Maths, so I was especially happy that one of the three composers, whose lives and music we were to study in detail, was Johann Sebastian Bach. Much of his work feels mathematical in structure to me. The others, by way of contrast, were Edward Elgar and Robert Schumann.
In addition to learning music theory and the instruments of the orchestra, the curriculum required us to study one major work from each of the chosen composers; these were The Italian Concerto (Bach), Enigma Variations (Elgar) and the song cycle Dichterliebe (Schumann).
It was a complete contrast to the pop music I listened to at home, but it was fun to go on school trips to the Royal Festival Hall (London) and to actually see the different musicians in the orchestra and zone in on the many individual instruments during different passages.
I couldn’t afford to buy singles or long-playing vinyl records in my early-mid teens, but I saved up enough cash by doing a paper round to buy a reel-to-reel tape recorder. My dad and I went into town on the morning of the 1966 FA Cup Final (Everton 3; Sheffield Wednesday 2) and I purchased an Ultra 4-track stereo tape recorder. With this I could record all the songs I liked off the radio and I listened to everything I possibly could. Being a 4-track unit, I could record songs in 2-track mode and replay them backwards. Two tracks I particularly liked giving this treatment were The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and the Kinks’ Autumn Almanac.
We had a music-sharing culture at school so, when anyone brought in a new LP, we would play it in the sixth-form common room and, those of us with tape recorders who liked it enough would take it home to make a copy.
My interest for British pop extended to include some of the better American attempts to match what was happening on this side of the pond. Motown was exciting and I enjoyed a lot of West Coast music (such as the Beach Boys, Harper’s Bizarre, Association, Love). What a time to be alive! And there will never be another quite like it.
We listen to music differently these days. If you bought an album (a long-player, or LP), you would usually listen to it all the way through, in the order the tracks had been recorded. By doing this, I found that some songs were slow-burners. They may not have fired my interest immediately but, with regular plays, would grow on me. Where that happened, I usually went looking for more.
If I hadn’t taped literally hundreds (probably thousands) of songs, I wouldn’t have anything like as broad a taste in music. Virtually all my favourites have since been released on CD (or released online), so I’ve actually purchased all the music that used to thrill me and have ultimately paid back the artists whose music I ‘pirated’ in my youth.
Nowadays, most music is streamed and many people buy just a single song or possibly two, rather than the whole album. Also, in ‘shuffle’ mode, listeners don’t usually immerse themselves in one artist’s sound and style in the same way that we used to do. Some will argue this provides greater diversity, but I disagree. I freely acknowledge that there are arguably more artists creating a wider range of innovative music today than in the 60s and 70s, but do they get similar (universal) exposure?
In the 60s, traditional radio and TV producers were taken totally by surprise by the pop music boom. By and large, they didn’t understand it, so they had a tendency to play anything and everything, because it seemed like the sort of thing the young people liked. This gave pioneers like John Peel the opportunity to introduce new bands (such as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Tull) to a wider audience than they might receive today.
Spring 1968 – the discovery
My above-mentioned 50-year love affair begins – and can be traced back to an extremely unlikely source.
Sitting in their lounge with my girlfriend’s family one evening in the Spring of ‘68, we watched the BBC Twoshow Once More with Felix. American-born, British-based folk singer Julie Felix had risen to fame in 1966 as the resident singer on the BBC’s The Frost Report and was given her own prime-time series in December 1967.
One of her guests that evening was Shirley Abicair who, in the mid-to late 1950s, had presented Children’s Hour and, as we only had the one TV channel (BBC), every child in Britain knew this Australian singer / presenter, not least because she played a zither (a stringed instrument that’s a bit like a harp crossed with a guitar but with 30 to 40 strings). However by ’68, she’d disappeared from our screens.
It was quite a surprise that she’d been invited on the show, but she sang a pretty little song about a hedgehog which I hadn’t heard before.
Something about the song, its rhythm and lyrics, piqued my interest, “…Oh, you know all the words, and you sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song, she sang…” and I wanted to know where it came from. But, without anything like Google back then, I simply forgot about it – until about a month later…
One day, my good friend, Simon Gray, brought in an album into school that I’d seen in the record racks but didn’t know anything about. It had a particularly distinctive, unusual (for the day) and striking psychedelic sleeve cover. Several people had borrowed but no-one was really raving about it after their initial hearing, so I was slow to ask to borrow it. I remember Simon was somewhat reticent to let me take it. He knew I’d studied classical music and may have thought I wouldn’t like it.
Fortunately, he relented and I took home The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion by the Incredible String Band, featuring multi-instrumentalists and song writers, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron.
On the 8-mile bus journey home that afternoon, I examined the iconic sleeve and became excited to see a song on side two called The Hedgehog Song. It couldn’t be, could it? I’d never heard of a song about a hedgehog before. What were the chances?
As soon as I got home, I put the LP on the record player (a Dansette, of course) and lowered the needle onto Track Two of Side Two and… behold! It was the same song! 3 minutes and 25 seconds of pure joy!! I replayed it several times before I set up my tape recorder to copy the whole album. Because I liked it so much, I started the recording with The Hedgehog Song, then copied the whole album in its entirety before finishing with The Hedgehog Song again.
What a good job I did! This wasn’t like any music I’d heard before. It was a million miles from Bach, Elgar or Cliff Richard! There weren’t any 2-minute pop tunes. To my ‘traditionally trained’ ears, much of it sounded discordant and the voices sounded like wailing Banshees.
However, I still really liked The Hedgehog Song and thanks to my brilliant foresight in recording it before the rest of the album, the tape always started with the song I’d heard Shirley Abicair sing just a few weeks earlier. With the exception of The Hedgehog Song, the sounds jarred against everything I had experienced and felt (and enjoyed) about music.
Having started the tape, I’d let it run into the rest of the album and I gradually became familiar with, then attracted by, the other songs that had initially been so alien to me; plus there were two extra copies of the song about a funny little Hedgehog that comes running up to me, and it starts up to sing me this song.
Gradually though, I became accustomed to the strange sounds from unusual instruments I’d never heard before. For instance, the second track on my tape (track one of the album) was another Mike Heron song, Chinese White which has a powerful violin accompaniment that took some getting used to.
Before long, the ever-changing melodies, unusual time signatures and songs that didn’t rhyme or have a regular meter began to make sense. These magicians had somehow moulded all of these disparate elements so cleverly. What I initially found to grate on my ears actually worked! Very well!
At first, I found Mike’s songs (like Painting Box, Little Cloud, You Know What You Could Be) more accessible than Robin Williamson’s. Before long though, I grew to appreciate and enjoy the entire album, particularly Robin’s First Girl I Loved by which is fantastic.
Two female vocalists, Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson (Robin’s and Mike’s girlfriends) provided traditional bass guitar and organ, but their most significant impact was their high-pitched, almost childlike, backing vocals. Could it have been a coincidence that, after John Lennon and Paul McCartney saw the String Band at the Albert Hall, Yoko Ono was invited to sing on the Beatles’ The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill some eight months later?
Where could I find more of this magical and mysterious music?
Fortunately, the Mike and Robin were prolific songwriters and ISB routinely released two albums a year. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was released in March 1968, just as I was discovering the band.
Some notable references:
Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin told a music magazine that, “Some of the best times I’ve ever had was being backstage at a String Band concert” and named Nightfall from Hangman’s amongst his top 10 favourite songs.
He has subsequently admitted that he and Jimmy Page bought a copy of that album and “simply followed the instructions,” saying, “The one thing we always wanted to do in Led Zeppelin was to finish off the show with the String Band’s A Very Cellular Song.”
Paul McCartney declared it to be one of the records of the year and Mick Jagger asked them to sign them to his new record label – and there’s more than a passing nod on the psychedelic cover and songs of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request album to The 5,000 Spirits (I believe the 5000 Spirits sleeve was created by a couple of designers from The Beatles’ Apple Corp – for which they clearly used more of the colours in their Painting Box).
Cream’s lyric-writer Pete Brown said, when he heard Hangman’s, “That’s what the Rolling Stones have been trying to do.” (Melody Maker, 16 March 1968).
For good measure, Bob Dylan apparently said he thought Robin’s October Song was ‘quite good’ (he’s always had a way with words; it’s easy to see why he won the Nobel Prize!)
In November 1967, when the Beatles released the 2-LP set White Album, the String Band released their own double album, Wee Tam and The Big Huge. And what masterpieces they both were and still are!!
By now, I was well-attuned to the wailing voice of Robin Williamson and I loved his songs, particularly, Job’s Tears; The Half-Remarkable Question; Maya; Ducks On A Pond; and The Circle is Unbroken. Of course, Mike gave us some special tracks too: Log Cabin Home In The Sky; Cousin Caterpillar and Air to name but three.
7th October 1970 – My first live String Band concert
Since big acts didn’t visit Lincoln, I had to travel some 50+ miles to Sheffield City Hall to see my favourite band with my girlfriend (later my wife) although I can’t claim that she was as excited as me.
Mike, Robin, Licorice and Rose opened the show with a song they performed a capella which I thought was extremely impressive. Obviously they must have warmed-up offstage, but it was still amazingly brave to begin a concert like this. I didn’t know the song and I’m still not sure what it was. It wasn’t Sleepers Awake! from the 1969 Changing Horses album. Their only other a capella song I’m aware of is Bright Morning Stars (from Across The Airwaves: BBC Radio Recordings 1969-1974, released in 2007).
Sadly, with the passage of time and a fading memory, I can’t say whether or not that was the opener from 1970. If not, then I feel robbed, because there’s an ISB song I haven’t got!! I know, I call myself a fan…
Around this time, I bought their first album which had been released in 1966. It was imaginatively titled The Incredible String Band. There was a third band member, banjo-player Clive Palmer, who contributed a banjo solo plus the song Empty Pocket Blues. To this day, this is one of my all-time favourites albums and it provides so much quality music. Among them is the first song Robin ever wrote October Song in 1965, which has become an absolute classic for fans. My favourite song is Robin’s Womankind but I remember singing the comical Smoke Shovelling Song quite a lot in those days (although my rendition would clear a burning building faster than any fire alarm!)
The only time I have seen another band attempt an ISB song live was in Lincoln Cathedral in 1972. The main act was the Scunthorpe medieval-rock(?) trio Amazing Blondel whose best-known song is Celestial Light which was written for Lincoln Cathedral. They were supported by a sadly now unknown folk duo, who did their best to sing Robin Williamson’s October Song and in so doing, proved what a remarkable (and difficult to perform) song it is.
Considering how long bands take to make albums nowadays, it’s amazing to learn they completed this their first album in just a day and a half (for which producer Joe Boyd paid them £50 each)! They recorded the U double album (1971) in 48 hours too.
However, soon after the recording Clive upped sticks and travelled overland to Afghanistan and India and never appeared on any su
24th July 1971 – A concert of ‘Contemporary and Traditional Folk Music’
Having bemoaned that big acts never came to Lincoln, this was to change when a concert of ‘Contemporary and Traditional Folk Music’ was staged at Tupholme, near Bardney (a small village about 13 miles to the east of Lincoln). This was just 9 miles from my home!! Something like 60,000 people arrived from all over the UK and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. For £2 per ticket, we sat in a field in the summer sunshine and marvelled that such an impressive cast of world famous musicians had pitched up in our backyard.
Ralph McTell was on stage as my fiancée and I walked through the gates just after noon. He wanted to know if we’d seen the old man outside the Seaman’s Mission and wanted to take us by the hand and lead us through the streets of London? Yes please!
I wasn’t a folk music aficionado and only went to see my favourite band, but the rest of the stellar cast (Buffy Sainte Marie, Dion, Tim Hardin, Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy, Sandy Denny, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, The Byrds and James Taylor) showed me what I had been missing. I had already heard some stuff from Pentangle and Steeleye Span who, like ISB and Fairport Convention, were blazing a trail for UK contemporary folk. The Byrds were famous of course, and broke ‘the rules’ by playing electric guitars. Topping the bill was James Taylor, who sent us all home happy to know that we had a friend.
Somehow we had managed to join up with one of our friends, Phil Hollis* and his mate Andy – how did we do that in a field containing tens of thousands of people without mobile phones?
*After most of my school friends had gone off to universities, I didn’t know and couldn’t persuade anyone to become a fan of the Incredibles (none of my work colleagues had heard of them but Phil was a big fan of Melanie Safka, which nearly counts – and we drove to Manchester the following year to see one of her rare UK concerts).
I vaguely knew Andy, because he was a goalkeeper (of sorts) for a team in the same Sunday League (7th) division as me – I think I’d scored against him in every game we played. However, it transpired that not only had he heard of the String Band but he’d bought one of their singles (Painting Box c/w No Sleep Blues)… Mate!!
Just before 5 in the afternoon, Andy and I made our way through the crowds ,who were chillin’ on grass, to get nearer to the stage to better see our heroes. I hadn’t realised just how big the String Band was, so I was totally unprepared for the response they were to receive. I still remember the introducer’s exact words, “For those of you who have come here today to see the Incredible String Band, here they are,” at which point around 30,000 people jumped to their feet and cheered wildly and enthusiastically. It was the first standing ovation of the day and the loudest, which only the closing appearances by James Taylor and, possibly, The Byrds came anywhere near to equalling.
The String Band opened with Robin’s Dear Old Battlefield followed by Mike’s You Get Brighter. Then Robin regaled us with a tale about Ted… they’d lived together for a time at a cottage in Wales, where the local farmer kept pigs. Ted was described as a huge boar, with testicles the size of footballs, who became the inspiration for their next song, Big Ted. They finished their set with two more songs from Robin, The Circle Is Unbroken and Adam And Eve, after which Andy and I made our way back to our original place near the edge of the crowd (close to the primitive toilets).
28th September 1971 – my next ISB concert
Three months later, Lyn and I were to see the String Band again – this time in Liverpool. I persuaded some relatives from the Wirral to put us up for a week in September and we made the 145 mile journey to Wallasey on my Lambretta.
During that week, we saw American band Seatrain perform the final concert of their European tour at the Liverpool Stadium. They were totally overwhelmed by the reception to their performance. Supposedly on the bill to support Traffic, they so completely outperformed the chart-toppers that the UK headliners were booed off!
A few days later, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall was the venue for the ISB concert. Robin announced they had only just flown in from America and were so jet-lagged, they hadn’t even had time for a sound-check. This meant there was delays between songs whilst they tuned their instruments. Overall, it wasn’t an especially impressive performance. I didn’t know this at the time but, in retrospect, this may have been evidence of the growing tensions between Robin and Mike.
Rose had left the band earlier in the year, to be replaced on bass guitar and vocals by Malcolm Le Maistre, from the Stone Monkey dance troupe. At first, I felt he had been recruited to add come theatrical elements to the act and I viewed him essentially as a dancer who could sing, rather than a musician. However, to his immense credit, he adapted quickly and composed some truly excellent songs (my favourite being Sailor and the Dancer from Earthspan).
Mike performed a new song, accompanied by a bass player, whom Mike introduced as Stan Lee, the band’s roadie (actual name, Stan Schnier). That song has never been released on disc (yet)!
During 1971, ISB released the U double album and Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air, both of which include some classic String Band music. U was created to be part of a theatrical performance, including dance, but not being a dance fan, it was the music that I absolutely loved. It encapsulated everything ISB represented. There were surprises, innovations, humour and fantastic songs. Robin’s Queen of Love is as good as anything he has written, and Mike’s 15-minute Rainbow is epic. I’ve read that Robot Blues inspired Matt Groening (The Simpsons) to create the animated sitcom, Futurama but that may just be fake news.
Red Hair (from Liquid Acrobat) is one of my all-time favourite songs and I still find it amazing that Mike could devise a verse devoid of rhyme but to do it so naturally, ‘He could look through all of his books and not find a line that would do, to tell of changes she had made in him just by being there.’
Output dwindled to just a single studio album per year, with Earthspan (1972), No Ruinous Feud, Island (1973) and, finally, Hard Rope and Silken Twine (1974). The songs were more rock-based and where the song-writing on albums up to this time had been fairly evenly shared between Mike and Robin, these albums had more material from Mike. The magic was beginning to lose some of its shine, although it retained its air of uniqueness.
On Earthspan, two songs in particular stand out: Antoine and Seagull; the album also displayed the quality of Malcolm’s writing, with the three songs: My Father Was a Lighthouse Keeper, The Actor and Sailor and the Dancer. Whilst I didn’t know of the friction between the two principals, was Robin starting to fall out of love with the whole project and the direction Mike was taking it?
No Ruinous Feud was the first album to disappoint me slightly. It was the first release first album after the departure of Licorice, who was replaced by Gerard Dott, an Edinburgh-based jazz musician. There are a few nuggets worthy of mention, not least another composition from Malcolm, At the Lighthouse Dance.
There were so many line-up changes from one album to the next during this period. Musically, they were almost unrecognisable as a folk-based group and were turning into a rock band. I was more than happy to ride along on their journey of development. They could hardly have been described as mainstream although I know that many die-hard folkies thought of it more as mutation.
I think I only saw the String Band play live once more, at Sheffield City Hall, before they split in 1974. It did come as a shock to me and I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to hear any new ISB music. However, I had a good body of material to keep me happy, which it certainly has done over the years.
Robin and Mike each released solo projects. I thought Mike’s first two albums were excellent, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations (1971) and Mike Heron’s Reputation (1975). They were rock-based and Smiling Men featured an amazing collection of backing musicians, which illustrates the respect in which he was held in ‘the business’; they included: John Cale (Bass, Guitar, Vocals, Harmonium, Piano, Viola), Gerry Conway (Drums), Dr. Strangely Strange (Backing Vocals), Ronnie Lane (Bass), Malcolm Le Maistre (Clarinet), Dave Mattacks (Drums), Keith Moon (Drums), Simon Nicol, (Guitar), Dave Pegg (Bass), Rose Simpson (Bass), Richard Thompson (Guitar), Pete Townshend (Guitar).
19th August 2000 – concert at Bloomsbury Theatre, London
I was travelling home by train, from a business meeting in London in October 1997, when I happened to glance across the aisle and saw a guy a couple of rows ahead reading a music paper. As he turned the pages, I noticed an article about half-way down the page headed something like, ‘Robin and Mike roll back the years.’ What??!! Robin and Mike? Who else could it be?
As soon as the chap put the paper down, I dived out of my seat and asked him if I could have a quick look, please? Amazing! They’d recently performed together in a concert on 4th October at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. They hadn’t performed as the ISB but, who cares? Mmmm, could they be reforming, I wondered?
After this, I kept my eye open for any news of a possible repeat performance and was rewarded when I discovered they were to perform at the Bloomsbury Theatre again in 2000. I was quick off the mark and instantly booked my ticket. I got a second row seat and I then bought a British Rail Saturday Saver ticket (or whatever it was called) which included one night in a hotel. I found one on the list that was within walking distance of the theatre and I was all set.
The band was a little rusty and perhaps a little under-rehearsed but no-one cared, the audience were in raptures. Robin and Mike were joined onstage by Clive Palmer, Lawson Dando and Bina Williamson (Robin’s wife) and they treated us to a range of music that literally nobody else could provide. Robin displayed his versatility by playing what appeared to be quite a complex harp tune. After they performed Air (from Wee Tam), Robin commented that it was, in his opinion, one of the best songs Mike had ever written, which I felt was little patronising – what about all the others? And would they have been as successful individually as they had been together? I rather think not.
22nd December 2002 – the Archbishop of Canterbury
A newspaper sub-headline caught my eye. It announced that Dr Rowan Williams, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, had chosen an obscure song about a Hedgehog amongst his eight pieces of music for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme, with which he had fallen in love during his university days. Naturally, I had to tune. Whilst his other selections predictably included solemn, classical pieces from Bach, Mozart and Vaughn Williams, he explained that he’d found that the String Band’s poetry and musical intricacies resonated with him in a way that others didn’t. He later wrote the Foreword for the 2003 BeGlad Anthology (which mapped the career of the band between 1965 – 1974) in which he said, “For those of us who fell in love with the ISB, there was a feeling of breathing the air of a very expansive imagination indeed.”
27th September 2003 – concert at the Lowry Theatre, Salford Quay
Mike kept performing the old songs for a little longer, but with Robin no longer wanting to be involved ISB reformed and changed the name slightly to incrediblestringband2003, which comprised Mike Heron, Clive Palmer, Lawson Dando and Fluff (Claire) Smith and occasional guests.
Norm had not followed the band quite as closely as I had over the years but he took little persuasion to join me at this concert. We stopped for a pizza in an Italian restaurant opposite the theatre and, about 20 minutes before the concert was about to begin, Mike Heron walked in! He was presumably booking a table after the concert ended but it was a little surprising to see him doing this himself! Doesn’t he have a gofer? Shouldn’t he be psyching himself up for the imminent concert? Apparently not.
Actually, I thought this relaxed attitude came across in the performance (not in a bad way). It was as if some friends had come together to reminisce and play some songs for other friends who felt privileged to be there. We were transported back thirty-five years or so, and whatever aches and pains we had each acquired in those years fell away for the next two hours.
I was pleased to see that the show was being filmed – if only there was more good quality material available from the band’s early days. There’re quite a few YouTube videos on the ‘net, including one from 1968 when the band guested on Once More with Felix (a few short weeks after Shirley Abicair) to nicely complete the circle. A DVD and double CD were subsequently released under the title, Everything’s Fine.
Mike recounted one tale of his ‘wild’ younger days in the sixties when he ‘experimented’ with drugs. He told us that he ‘dropped some acid’ one lunchtime and went back to work in the afternoon in the accountant’s office where he worked! I can’t imagine how he made any accounts balance that day!
18th October 2003 – recording at Real World Studios, Box, Wiltshire
I’d been on the subscriber list for Robin’s Pig’s Whisker record label for a couple of years, when I received notification in early 2003 of a ‘live’ album to be recorded in front of a small and very limited audience in Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in Wiltshire.
For just £65, lucky ticket-holders could see the incrediblestringband2003 perform ‘as live’ as they put down the tracks for an album of classic ISB songs. The aim was to stay as faithful as possible to the original recordings but they would, naturally, be different. As an added bonus, as if anyone needed further encouragement, attendees would receive a Special Edition of the CD with their name printed on the sleeve.
My cheque was despatched post haste, and I awaited in hope and anticipation to hear if I would be one of just 108 fortunate people who would attend this unique event. Wow! Fingers crossed, toes crossed, legs crossed, eyes crossed, everything was crossed…
I have no idea how many application were sent in, but I was one of the lucky ones. On the day (a Saturday), I rose early and drove our pretty clapped-out Vauxhall Astra the 175 miles to Box, near Chippenham. Fortunately, the traffic was light, so I arrived safely and was one of the first five people to pull into the grounds of Peter Gabriel’s home, on which a recording studio and been built on the side.
Consequently, I was one of the first through the door when it opened, and I selfishly grabbed a seat in the middle of the front row, next to the centre aisle. A raised stage (about two feet high) was so close, I could lean forward and touch it (it was just too far to rest my legs on, but that would have been disrespectful anyway). Directly in front of me was Mike; Lawson Dando was just to my right; Clive was on the left of the stage; Fluff was between him and Mike.
We were given instructions to remain quiet during the recordings and to suppress any coughs or sneezes to the end – or else! In addition, we were asked to restrain our enthusiasm and not to applaud immediately at the end of a song because they wanted to have a ‘clean’ master copy on which to work. One of the band would signal after about ten seconds when we could clap, so the applause would be recorded separately and the engineers could add it later. No problem. Anything you say. How happy I am to be here. Thank you.
Inevitably, when told not to cough or sneeze during a pressured situation, the urge to do so becomes unbearable and urgent. I’m sure everyone held their breath for the first recording. The band were extremely relaxed considering they were making an album (I’m not sure the engineers were quite so laid back though. After all, they have reputations to uphold). If the band wanted to engender an atmosphere of a live performance, they also aimed for perfection and were almost faultless.
On one occasion, after they just completed a section of A Very Cellular Song*, Lawson ran to the record decks at the back of the room, saying he wasn’t happy with a something (as if anyone else spotted it). The track was called up onscreen to find the error in a particularly intricate keyboard passage, then he went back to the stage and replayed about two seconds from the middle of the song. The engineer signalled he’d got it and everyone moved on. Easy peasy… if you’re Lawson Dando!
*A Very Cellular Song is essentially a number of different songs ‘stitched’ together (hence the name, I guess) and they were each recorded separately (and not necessarily in order).
A very nice buffet lunch was provided, with a glass of wine, during which we were able to mingle and chat with the band.
It was explained to us that some tracks had been laid down (or part-recorded) the day before, but there were minor elements that needed tidying up or extra instrumentation added.
We saw at close hand how talented both Lawson and Fluff were as they played different instruments and contributed to the vocals. Clive’s banjo was much in evidence and he led the vocals on Empty Pocket Blues and Robin’s Ducks On A Pond.
Mike or Lawson would call out what they would play next. If they weren’t going to play the whole song in one take (such as Cellular Song, they would state where the next natural break would be (based on the time signature, change of instruments or some other time), either by saying, ‘from the part where the cello comes in’ or using the lyric.
One of these break points came in Cellular Song between the verse ending, ‘…And who would hide behind your chair and steal your crystallized ginger? and the next which begins, ‘Nebulous nearnesses cry to me…’
Therefore Mike announced the next piece would be the section up to ‘Nebulous nearnesses’. They subsequently recorded the section beginning with ‘Nebulous nearnesses’ and ending with ‘There’s absolutely no strife, living the timeless life’ (i.e. just before ‘Black hair, brown hair feather and scale…’)
Nebulous Nearnesses was called out so many times, that it became the name of the completed album.
Throughout the session, there was a strange-looking object at the back of the stage in the shape of a head, made of black foam, on a stick! What voodoo was this? We eventually found out when it was brought to the front of the stage and all the musicians (including a couple of guests) stood around it to sing the ending of Cellular Song, which is from the Bahamian folk song “Bid You Goodnight.” OK then, it wasn’t a head on a stick, but an omni-directional microphone on a stand. The things you learn…
I would love to do this again but don’t expect it will ever happen. Great credit has to be given to the sound engineers to allow a bunch of old fogies to invade their precious studio and potentially interfere with their efforts for perfect sound reproduction, which must be hard enough as it is. I don’t think anyone coughed on the recordings but, if they did, no doubt those guys heard it and obliterate any such extraneous noises.
A few months later, my Special Edition CD arrived – with my name on the sleeve – and it contained a bonus track, Maker of Islands, which is not on the general release.
20th April 2004 – concert at the Central Station, Wrexham
Norm and I took in another concert by incrediblestringband2003, this time in Wrexham, during their UK tour following the release of Nebulous Nearnesses. They mainly covered the songs from the album and I could think back to my special day when I saw them making it.
The band continued to tour with different line-ups until 2006 when they disbanded forever.
19th Jul 2009 – concert at the Barbican, London
Producer Joe Boyd has done a good job in recent years of keeping alive much of the music from artists he discovered and promoted back in the sixties. I went with my daughter, Lisa, to Birmingham Symphony Hall on 14th May 2016 to see Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake (where the ISB got a mention).
In 2008, he put on two concerts at the Barbican. On Saturday (18th) An All Star Fairport Convention, followed the following night by Very Cellular Songs: The Music of the Incredible String Band. On this occasion, I drove to London with Adam (my only son who would come with me!!) – he was mightily impressed with the venue, if not the music!
Many of the same guest artists performed at both concerts, most notably Richard Thompson. As had happened with the 2003 incarnation of the band, Robin Williamson refused to appear “because he doesn’t want to look back.”
Amongst Thompson’s contributions, he performed Robin’s October Song, and was joined by his daughter Kami for Painting Box. In addition to Mike and Clive Palmer, we saw Danny Thompson, Robyn Hitchcock, Alasdair Roberts, Trembling Bells, Green Gartside (of Scritti Politti), Dr Strangely Strange & more.
The highlight for me was Cold February by Trembling Bells, with drummer Alex Neilson taking lead vocals. It’s a pity they never recorded this version (there’s a YouTube clip of them performing the song with Lavinia Blackwall on lead vocals but, sadly, it doesn’t come near to the version at the Barbican)
- Billy Connolly was a big String Band fan from their earliest days in the folk clubs of Glasgow, when he described them as “hairy, exotic and interesting!” I recall him singing Mike’s Log Cabin Home In The Sky during his 1996 World Tour Of Australia series, where he sang live in the outback and played an autoharp
- In March 2018, I was speaking with a client (for whom I was helping to arrange some legal documents) and we needed to send some paperwork to his son who lives in Milngavie (pronounced ‘Mul-guye’) which is in East Dunbartonshire, north of Glasgow. I said to him that I had heard of the town because my favourite band had lived there for several years. He asked who that was, and when I said, the Incredible String Band, he told me he had played on stage with them back in the sixties!!
- I don’t know of any link with the String Band and Scottish indie band Travis, but the latter released an album in 2001 named The Invisible Band, for which the album cover is very similar to that of ISB’s Changing Horses. Coincidence?
- Robin Williamson played a number of concerts with John Renbourn (formerly of Pentangle) in the nineties and they released an album, Wheel Of Fortune in 1995. In a song introduction, Renbourn said they’d discussed how best to describe their collaboration and had come up with ‘The Impenetrable String Tangle’
- Quote from Robin Williamson, “You just tried to make sense of things, y’know?” Williamson says of those songs (ISB). “I did a few sessions with Van Morrison, whom I would describe as not a naturally calm individual, but who writes music about calmness and peace; so maybe people write things that they need in their lives. What I needed in my life was some degree of insight, so I tried to write songs about what my quest for understanding was. It was very important to me at the time and still is.” (Independent, 11 August 2000)
There has quite simply never been anyone like the Incredible String Band before or since. They made ‘World Music’ long before the term was coined. The instruments they are credited as using include:
Robin Williamson: guitars, sitar, oud, flute, gimbri, sarangi, chahanai, whistle, bass, violin, piano, organ, percussion
Mike Heron: guitar, sitar, organ, dulcimer, harpsichord, recorder, harmonica, percussion
Andrew Darlington described them as totally uncategorisable and I can’t disagree.
The number of world-famous artists who have been mesmerised by them is ‘incredible’, yet Joe Boyd says they enjoy the “highest ratio of past success to current anonymity”.
Others have called them otherworldly, twee, whimsical, intense, mystical and mythical, folk moving to rock.
I find it difficult to describe them to someone new because they are truly unique, and that is an extremely rare thing to find in a world of music.
I just know that I feel very smug knowing that I was in on it when I could so easily have missed them altogether. “I know all the words and you sung all the notes, but I never quite learned the song!” Thanks, Shirley.
Dave’s Desert Island Discs*
*For those unfamiliar with it, Desert Island Discs has been running in BBC Radio since 1942. Each week a celebrity, referred to as a ‘castaway’, nominates eight records, a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were obliged to live on a desert island
If it was good enough for the Arch of Cant, it’s good enough for me (but will it be good enough for Norm Warwick?)… I guess that choosing just 8 discs to take to a desert island would be nigh on impossible for any music lover. I already have close to 20,000 songs on my MP3 player so I probably need to cheat a little. If I can assume that the island technology still uses vinyl discs, there are 2 sides aren’t there?
So, if I can imagine that I can choose eight different artists, I could image that they each released a single with an A and B side that perfectly matches my choice. That gives me two songs per artist, which I could just about tolerate. That in itself, helps reduce the total from which I might select, because there are hundreds of artists from whom I would be tempted to include ‘one song for life’. Even then, there are dozens I might have picked two from, for example, Beatles, David Bowie, Donovan, Nick Drake, Genesis (and/or Phil Collins / Peter Gabriel), Elton John, Kinks, Love, Cat Stevens, Who, et al.
On another day, I may make different choices, but these are some of my most favourite artists and songs of all time. Between them they have produced well over a thousand songs, so even this set is a massive compromise, but I submit it for the approval or otherwise of our author:
|Artist||First Pick (A Side)||Additional Pick (B Side)|
|Incredible String Band||Womankind||Red Hair|
|Jethro Tull||Wond’ring Aloud||Baker Street Muse|
|Sandy Denny||Fotheringay (Fairport Convention)||Late November|
|Kate Bush||The Kick Inside||Cloudbusting (Live Hammersmith Apollo)|
|Steve Harley &Cockney Rebel||Sebastian||The Best Years of Our Lives|
|John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett||Josephine||Geneva|
|Al Stewart||Clifton In The Rain||Soho (Needless To Say)|
|Bob Dylan||Hurricane||Tangled Up In Blue|
A Strange Thought Just Crossed My Mind is the opening line from the song, Good As Gone (Williamson)
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