Album Review of:
‘ON AIR’ by
THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND
(Band of Joy BOJ CD 004, October 1991)
Being in the retro market, to misquote Eugene McCarthy, ‘is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and stupid enough to think it’s important.’ But suspending cynicism, a rare Martian orchid of congratulation must go to ‘Band of Joy’ for this exercise in retro audio archaeology. ‘On Air’ rescues twelve never-before-released ‘original BBC recordings’ by Folkadelia’s most endearingly eccentric minstrels. “Dreams Of No Return” drones in on rippling tripping webs of sitar so tactile it makes your teeth itch in their sockets, and ushers in a slew of songs as enticingly bizarre as dreams embedded in unicorn skulls.
The ‘Increds’ – as devotees tend to call them, began as the Celtic Folk duo Robin Williamson and Mike Heron (in league with Clive Palmer for their debut album), expanding their minds, their repertoires and their personnel from late Sixties underground mystique into a rag-bag of mid-Seventies progressive art cultdom. These radio broadcasts, salvaged from John Peel’s ‘Top Gear’ archives, are undated. Although there were thirteen such sessions from 1967, where the group could have slotted easily and seamlessly alongside Marc Bolan’s original Tyrannosaurus Rex. These tracks, however, are from later in the tale, some time around 1972-to-1974. The songs themselves can be more accurately carbon-dated to albums – hence the enchantingly mystical medley of “Witches Hat”, “A Very Cellular Song” and “Koeedaddi There” are from ‘Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’ (March 1968) and hence look back to earlier days. Just as the scratchy fiddles of the “Log Cabin Home In The Sky” hoe-down are from ‘Wee Tam’ (October 1968) and Williamson’s intense meditations on the cyclic nature of mortality “Dear Old Battlefield” is from 1971’s ‘Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air’ (October 1971) and their origins – if not the performances, can be time-fixed accordingly.
Contrasts and comparisons with the song’s vinyl incarnations can also be helpful. The BBC session productions – probably by Jeff Griffin, are largely simple and uncluttered. The ideal setting for Incredible songs, and one that showcases the full weird interpretive power of their individual voices, which can be awesome. Joe Boyd’s more ambitious mixes spun out for album consumption could occasionally lose that purity, although the version here of “Cold Days” is actually fuller than the original on the twelfth and final album ‘Hard Rope And Silken Twine’ (1974), where it was subject to Mike’s own relative under-production. Also, as the Band expanded, taking on Rose Simpson, Licorice McKechnie and various rhythm elements, that initial identity tended to get further diluted. Here it’s all focussed, as it should be, on Mike and Robin, even when they’re working with material by later addition Malcolm ‘Dancing Fool’ Le Maistre (who contributes two songs – the haunting and meandering “Oh Did I Love A Dream” and “Sailor And The Dancer”). For those same reasons of acoustic clarity these archive radio recordings have also dated less than you’d expect. “Dear Old Battlefield” stands direct comparison with more recent Folk deviates like, say – The Men They Couldn’t Hang. Retro perhaps, but suspend cynicism. Heron and Williamson remain Incredible by name, incredible by nature…
‘The Incredible String Band: On Air’ subtitled ‘Original BBC Recordings’, includes “Dreams Of No Return” (Williamson, from album ‘Hard Rope And Silken Twine’, 1974), “Jane” (Heron, included on Mike Heron’s 1998 solo album ‘Conflict Of Emotions’), “Oh Did I Love A Dream” (Le Maistre), “Black Jack Davy” (Heron, from album ‘I Looked Up’, 1970 but following a later version from ‘Earthspan’), “Rends-Moi Demain” (a group version of Williamson’s 1972 ‘Myrrh’ solo track, but sung by Malcolm Le Maistre), “Little Girl” (Heron, from album ‘No Ruinous Feud’, 1973), “Sailor And The Dancer” (Le Maistre, from album ‘Earthspan’, 1972), “1968” (Heron, included on Mike Heron’s 1996 solo album ‘Where Mystics Swim’), “Log Cabin In The Sky” (Heron), “Dear Old Battlefield” (Williamson), “Cold Days Of February” (Williamson, from ‘Hard Rope And Silken Twine’ album), “Witches Hat” (Williamson) / Koeeoaadi There (Williamson) / A Very Cellular Song (Heron) Medley”. Album reissued in 1997 as Strange Fruit 034, then in 2001 as Celebration CELCD 088.
A second album collection, ‘The Incredible String Band: BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert’, recorded at the Paris Theatre, London in 1971 and 1972, was issued 1992 by Windsong International WINCD 029, reissued in 1997 by Strange Fruit SFRCD033 and in 2000 by Celebration CELCD047