SHINE ON YOU CRAZY
DIAMOND (OF DREAMS)
The Incredible String Band are – occasionally, back together again.
Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, the first Celtic World Music
cum Hippie Psychedelic Phantasmogoria Minstrels re-unite
for new concerts, new CD’s, and a new Millennium.
Andrew Darlington is there to find out why…
“I wear my body like a caravan,
gipsy rover in a magic land…”
(‘Ducks On A Pond’)
Let’s imagine it’s the 15th July 1975. A Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft are launched from their respective continents within hours of each other. Two days later they dock and crew-members shake hands in space watched by a world-linked TV audience. Together, American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut look down on the breath-catching swirl of planet beneath them. First they look for their own cities of origin. Their nations. Then they see only Earth. ‘Stargazing at Earth’ sings Mike Heron, ‘what could divide us?’ The song is “Tom And Alexi”. The third one he does this night as part of his temporary quirky quartet, The Incredible Acoustic Band. And here, at Leeds’ ‘Duchess of York’, there’s inevitable elements of the cosmic. After all, Mike was one half of Folk-edelia’s most esoterically revered icons of oddity, two partners-in-rhyme called The Incredible String Band.
Neil Spencer defined the duo as ‘the apotheosis of mystical faerie-folke’, but they wound up getting classified as Folk only because a more adequate genre had yet to be devised. Peel back ‘5000 Spirits And The Layers Of The Onion’ and the Mike Heron you’re seeing this night is no more out of time than any other contemporary Crusty New-Agers. And tonight, shouts for sixties album tracks get an amused ‘you overestimate my memory.’ The old songs remain unsung. Mike Heron is all sharp-nosed grin and ears protruding through hazy fringes of hair. Coils of cloud dance in the spotlight beams. Is that dry ice or dope smoke? – and who cares? ‘We start slow and get better’ says Mike Heron in face-splitting smiles, ‘it takes a little longer as you keep getting a little older…’
‘WAY BACK IN THE 1960’s’
“Peacocks talking of the colour grey…”
“The First Girl I Loved”... is a song provoking images of heady erotic fumblings to the pubescent proto-hip of 1967, sung in a voice of such eerie strangeness it’s almost surreal. ‘...I never slept with you, but we must have made love a thousand times. We were just young, didn’t have no place to go.’ Visions to enflame the imagination. Celtic angel-headed hipsters, hair of golden flax, in heaving al fresco sex-bouts with darkly haunting pre-Raphaelite girls of lascivious spirit, loving free out among ‘the wide hills and beside many a long water’ clear across Scotland.
A masterpiece, some might claim to be long-neglected… until it came back again. This time on CD, and in new, previously unreleased forms, freshly ‘unearthed’. ‘...When we went down to London after the first album – no, it was actually after ‘Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’” Mike Heron explains to me enthusiastically, but none too sure of his historical accuracy. ‘No, it might have been... or... I’m not sure exactly when it was. But we went into the ‘Sound Techniques’ studio in Chelsea. And the resulting tapes are just us, as we’re coming down with the songs we’ve just written, recording them in the studio for consideration by the producer (Joe Boyd), and for the other members of the band. It’s just like ‘here’s a song I wrote’, and then singing it. And Robin does a spine-shivering “First Girl I Loved”, just weeks after he’d written it. Y’know, it’s totally uncontrived, it hasn’t had time to get contrived or have any arrangements done to it. And it’s a brilliant ‘take’. It comes pure, it’s just completely beautiful. It has Danny Thompson’s bass-playing – which is lovely, but I think for that kind of song it’s amazing to hear it with that purity. These are the things I’m listening to now. The tracks that ‘escaped’. I didn’t even know they existed until now. And they’ve been knocking my socks off!’ (the fourteen tracks were issued as ‘The Chelsea Sessions: 1967’ in 1997 as Pig’s Whisker PWMD5022).
For the sake of historical accuracy those late-discovered tapes must be dated after the first LP – ‘The Incredible String Band’ (Elektra EUK254, June 1966), but just prior to the second – ‘5000 Spirits Or Layers Of The Onion’ (Elektra EUK257, July 1967), psychedelia’s most collectible artefact, navigating a strange cosmos of soundscapes, and dressed in its rainbow-stunning sleeve-art from Simon & Marijke (The Beatles’ ‘Fool’). The Incredible String Band were then a duo from Glasgow. Robin Williamson, tall, blonde and bearded. And Mike Heron, a Pict to Robin’s Celt, darkly energetic, a Rocker at heart, a songwriter by vocation. The third album – ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’ (Elektra EUK258, March 1968), reached no.5 in April 1968, the hugest of seven chart albums that took the Incred’s through into the cult deep-seventies. Albums only available again as the subject of an ambitious re-issue programme. ‘It is odd’ Heron agrees. ‘Y’know, tracks like “Puppies” (on ‘Wee Tam And The Big Huge’, Elektra EKL4036/37, October 1968)… on CD! It’s amazing!’ He chuckles at the sheer absurdity of the concept. ‘It’s odd, ha-ha-ha, very nice though. I’m rather enjoying it.’
In a set of well-outré ‘Select Elektra’ liner notes John Peel once praised their music for providing us ‘with jewellery to scatter in our minds’. Poet Jeff Nuttall acclaimed ‘the Incredible String Band, operating between Folk and Psychedelic Pop, have probably reached the highest level yet achieved by contemporary popular music’ (in ‘Bomb Culture’, Paladin, 1970). A shared mind-set that betrays their appeal. Odd. ‘We were an early source of World Music’ Heron tells me. ‘The Grand Old Men of World Music.’ Folk, but not quite Folk. Psychedelic, but not quite psychedelic either. Celtic, ‘yes, and everything else.’ A bewitched cauldron made of wood and wire, stirring in a phantasmagoria of incidents, ingredients, instruments and inflections. Totally uncategorisable and unlike anything else that existed at the time. Or since.
It’s possible to draw some vague comparisons with the original elfin cosmic-bop of Tyrannosaurus Rex, or the gilded jewelled imagery of Donovan’s ‘A Gift From A Flower To The Garden’ (December 1967). And listen to Syd Barrett’s “Chapter 24” on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ (August 1967). But even these analogies are inadequate, imprecise. Truth to tell there was nothing quite like them. Nothing before. And nothing since. The ISB retain that uniqueness into the early 2000’s. ‘A great thing that’s crept in is the kind of Andy Kershaw Show and similar things that give access to World Music. That’s really why we started in the first place. If that programme had been around then, and if there’d been that interest in, and availability of World Music, we might not have existed. That’s the kind of music we liked. So we played the kind of music we wanted to hear. Hence the Incredible String Band were playing early World Music!’
Mekon Jon Langford once told me that, by definition, any musician living in the world would qualify as playing ‘World Music’ – we all live in the same world.
‘No, sorry’ Mike grins darkly, mischievously. ‘I got a thing from the Musicians Union, and they’ve decided on a definition of World Music. A definition that specifies exactly. They set up a department especially for it. I was thinking of applying for the job actually!’ A sly and devious laugh. ‘But the definition of World Music they’re working with is any music that comes from outside the European Conservatoire kind-of Classical tradition, or the American Rock Music thing. It still seems to be a very loose definition. But certainly by that definition we would qualify…’
Elsewhere, Robin expands ‘we were doing an innocent and naïve version of World Music. It was a case of fools rushing in. Jack Kerouac was the main influence for the writing styles…’
‘FOOTSTEPS OF THE HERON…’
“Birds are arrows of the wise…”
It had all begun way further back in the 1960’s. Poet Mike Horovitz once commented that The Incredible String Band ‘play mechanic to the… inventors of audibly supersonic spacecraft,’ with ‘the ballads and fairy tales and satires (that)… often reflect virtues picked up from the ‘straight poets’, (‘Children Of Albion’, Penguin 1969 anthology – “Afterwords”). Robin Williamson confirms this in a later interview connecting the Beat poets to Walt Whitman, ‘yeah, and Walt Whitman had a lot to do with William Blake. The visionary, inspired voice is an ancient Celtic idea, going back to bards and druids. The notion was to draw on the inspiration of the universe’ (‘Metro’ 7 February 2005), ‘setting their feet where the sand is untrodden’, asking ‘grant me the tongue that all the earth doth sing.’
And it’s sometime during that autumn 1965 when dark-haired ex-cost accountant Mike Heron first dents the Robin-and-Clive country duo – with the result that Celtic golden-haired Robin on scratchy violin, and banjoist Clive Palmer thus find themselves expanded to a trio. Billy Connelly has been known to regale with entertaining anecdotes about Clive Palmer’s eccentric personal hygiene habits, drawing on their days together on the same Folk circuit. But soon they’re extending their repertoire accordingly to accommodate Heron’s bass guitar and oddities, while beginning to experiment with jug-band and blues music. A strange combination to play in Scottish Folk Clubs.
By the following spring Mike and Robin were writing songs both separately and together, while the group were playing Glasgow’s ‘Sauchiehall Street Incredible Folk Club’ where they encounter Joe Boyd, an itinerant American later to form Osiris Ltd, Witchseason Management, and work with Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and John Martyn. But now, in his incarnation as A&R scout for Jac Holzman’s Elektra label he seizes Mike, Robin and Clive, records them, and the result becomes the June 1966 ‘The Incredible String Band’ album.
It’s an eclectic collection of original songs, traditional violin bits and jaggedy banjo, dour humour and twinkling guitars, elided with a wanton irreverence for the rulebook. Opening with Robin’s scratchy fiddle on Heron’s “Maybe Someday” (‘with my arms around my music…’), leading into Robin’s poetic “October Song” in which fallen leaves ‘know the art of dying’. The alternating credits continue – Robin’s penny-whistle on Mike’s “When The Music Starts To Play” (‘all my life, and it’s been a short one…’) and Robin’s anatomical-paean to “Womankind” – his meandering focus already fully-formed, Clive’s banjo jig and Robin’s Indian Whistle tune. In marketing terms, it’s a PR nightmare, a bizarre manifestation apparently doomed to instant obscurity, even though it makes both ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Observer’ Top Five list of Folk Albums of the year.
In the junkyard cover photo Robin sits centre beneath a torn poster for the 1962 Leslie Caron kitchen-sink movie ‘The L-Shaped Room’, Mike leaning in fur coat to the right, while Clive – in peaked cap and neat tie, to the left on the shot, further destabilises events by quitting to hit the Afghan trail on what will become the time-honoured hippie trek, and he’d been the band’s focal point – both Robin and Mike know Clive better than they know each other! When he re-emerged in 1969, it would be under the guise of the Famous Jug Band. And eventually he would re-join the Incred’s, but only for its new-century reformations. Meanwhile, Robin goes to Morocco where he starves for a few months. And Mike plays liquid solo sets in northern England Folk Clubs.
So – without Clive, they reunite and tour as a duo, managed by Boyd, with ‘5000 Spirits And Layers Of The Onion’ coming soon after. There’s an assured confidence-growth immediately apparent in its all-original song-mix fusing new stoned imaginings, harmonica and guitar with voices unwinding like electroencephalogram printouts. Again the writing credits alternate, as melodies flash and sparkle like fish in the river, from Mike’s “Chinese White” into Robin’s “No Sleep Blues” (‘I mixed stones and water, just to see what it would do. And the water it got stoney, and the stones got watery too. So I mixed my feet with water just to see what could be seen, and the water it got dirty, and the feet they got quite clean…’). Self-indulgent, downright strange, but when it’s right, it can be eerily affecting. There are eastern cadences to Robin’s weird vocal meanderings of erotic regret on the enticing “First Girl I Loved”, while Mike contributes an equal stone-classic in the tunefully singable “Painting Box” (‘And somewhere in my mind there is a painting box, I have every colour there it’s true. Just lately when I look inside my painting box, I seem to pick the colours of you’).
Within its Mad Hatter’s Box of mayhem there’s mandolin, bowed gimbri (a three-stringed Algerian instrument), the obligatory 1967 Soma sitar, plus session contributions from Pentangle’s Danny Thompson, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins of Britain’s first underground organ ‘It (International Times)’, plus harmonies and finger-cymbals from Licorice. The album, wrapping its arms around a rainbow of what remains the definitive UK psychedelic sleeve-art, closes on a post-apocalyptical sci-fi note with the Cold War angst and flip dark humour of “Way Back In The 1960’s”. Robin imagines looking back from his ninety-first birthday to the time before England ‘went missing’ in World War Three and they’d moved to ‘Paraguayee’. He recalls when he used to do gigs, before making his first million. In those days there was another fellow singing too – Bob Dylan, and he was quite good.
Well, no first million, but the set caught quiet subterranean fire that then erupts into an ensorcelled chart album the following year with ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’. It opens with “Koeeoaddi There” a wondrous ‘Earth Water Fire And Air’ game of stinging sitar, click-clack sounds, playground rhymes, riddles and childhood memory-glimpses, leading into “The Minotaur’s Song” with its answering Monty Python chorus repeating puns ‘predicta-bull’ and ‘reasona-bull’, to end in mocking applause. “Mercy I Cry City” conversationally addresses the urban sprawl direct, chiding the flashing neon light with ‘only the sun knows how to be quietly bright,’ edged with jaggedy Dylan-harmonica, while the Robert E Howard imaginings of “Swift As The Wind” delineate the daydream-edge of fantasias.
Robin’s entrancing “Witches Hat” – later collected onto ‘Mojo’ magazine’s ‘Acid Drops, Spacedust And Flying Saucers’ 4-CD box-set of ‘Psychedelic Confectionery’, moves through structured lyric-sections, the Brothers Grimm by way of Edward Lear, ‘if I was a witches hat, sitting on her head like a paraffin stove, I’d fly away and be a bat, cross the air I would roam, stepping like a tight-rope walker, putting one foot after another, wearing black cherries for rings.’ Heron contributes “A Very Cellular Song” (thirteen-minutes made up of individual song-cells), while Robin’s wicca-wise “Three Is A Green Crown” is a song to sing as the Wicker Man burns. The hallucinatory music is exactly complementary. For time-fix is vital. And to journalist Jon Savage that is ‘a tableau frozen in time, 1968 via 1492’!
If – as the agit-prop guru’s claim, ‘revolution is the festival of the oppressed’, then this was festival. With daffodils between its toes and music as its pulse, setting its feet where the sand is untrodden. Visual art, event-posters, poetry, strange chemicals, magazine lay-out, radical politics and publishing are all part of its flux. The underground press plugs itself into the vast starry firmament with ‘It’ pages charting the voyage from Blake’s Albion into the mystic via ley-lines all the way through impish whimsy to lost Atlantis and Lemuria. Myth and magic, from sacred to crackpot, dreams in its eyes as real as your next sacramental toke. The next mad-vibe poem… the next vinyl record. Truths to make you high.
And what the ISB is part of cannot be seen as separate from it. They are the Pied Pipers of Never-Never-Land. Tribal performance, improvisation, incantation, William Morris, Merlin, Tolkien, Allen Ginsberg, Mervyn Peake, Dylan (Bob and Thomas), Lewis Carroll, CND, Gaia, sensimilla, Cecil Sharpe, Aubrey Beardsley, Woody Guthrie, Ravi Shankar… and more. Strange tunings, strange tunes. Smudged at the edges. Deliberately. From a lost arcadia of ‘quiet places where the moss grows green, the trees whisper, and coloured shells jangle together.’ Yet it is the (im)precise nexus at which they all meet. ‘The sense of visionary-inspired voice is a very ancient Celtic idea, going back to bards and druids and so on’ confides Robin (to ‘Songbook’ no.6). ‘The notion was you could draw on the inspiration of the universe and come up with something that was sort of prophetic, not necessarily about the future, but to reveal something different about the present.’
‘GRANT ME THE TONGUE
THAT ALL THE EARTH DOTH SING’
“Wizard of changes
teach me the lesson of flowing”
(“The Water Song”)
Using the album-by-album method as diary-entries, as chapter-headings in their story, is the least effective way to understand it. You have to participate. For it is less product, more process. More fluid than set. Situations evolve. To stay the same is not – in itself, to remain unchanged, but is to lose a spontaneity, a sense of what is transient. The ISB changes. It can happen no other way. The ‘scattered brightness’ of each moment has to be invented anew. Some may dislike what results, or miss elements of what has been shed along the way. But here-and-now – what once existed, is no more, except in fragmentary glimpses, so album-by-album is the only way left. It’s the only portal through which we can access it.
So, the double-set ‘Wee Tam And The Big Huge’ comes next, retreating from the charts into a mythic tangle of Celtic twilight. Mike and Robin are now augmented by Rose Simpson and Christina ‘Licorice’ McKechnie – the same ‘Likky’ who had dubbed a mean finger-cymbal onto “Painting Box” and been secreted furtively into the ‘Hangman’s’ sleeve-art. They are non-musicians, as Robin comments ‘I regard atmosphere as superior to technique’ – a contention that “Log Cabin Home In The Sky”, with scratchy fiddle’s ushering Bob Wills country ‘Ole Opry into the repertoire, written by Mike for Rose, seems to prove. Robin answers by quoting Hank Williams’ ‘Ain’t Got No Home In The World Anymore’ in “Ducks On The Pond”. The gently hypnotic “Air”, with its ambient-flow piping and part-submerged voices, is later used by the Hungarian-born American film producer Milos Forman to soundtrack a sequence for his ‘Taking Off’ (1971) movie, one in which a group of GI’s get stoned for the first time.
The Incred’s also venture into visual electro-media by way of a guest-spot on the ‘Julie Felix TV Show’, even though a subsequent disagreement with producer Stanley Dorfman results in a virtual future screen-time ban. Yet by this time it doesn’t really matter. The band are cult. An idiosyncratic group indefinably somewhere out beyond the edges of Rock, out of Folk, arty effete, surreal, occasionally twee… sometimes even silly, yet capable of teetering on the brink of chilling beauty, built around instrumental dexterity on a multitude of instruments, welded together by meandering vocals that often sound off-key, cracked, off-kilter, yet on examination, aren’t.
‘Changing Horses’ (Elektra EKS74057, November 1969), lists credits for White Bird and Creation, and sees the four drawn into still-tighter group formation, less divided by the perceptible dichotomy that delineates Robin’s wistfully humorous journeys into universal mythology via a more Ewan MacColl foundation, from Mike’s ballsier songs – he confesses an appreciation of Fats Domino. And while Heron is writing songs like the mildly ecological “Puppies”, he’s briefly discovering Scientology – the cult founded by SF-writer L Ron Hubbard, and discarding more material stimulants. ‘As a survivor of the drug scene’ he admits, ‘I just woke up one day realising that I was spending huge amounts of money and smoking ever-huger amounts of dope – and just getting a headache!’ There had always been a theist spirituality there, from Lord Krishna and Merlin to ‘lovely Jesus nailed to a tree’, enfolding Christian mythology as just another skein of luminous imagery, Robin even-handedly taking both sides of the creation debate on one album – Darwinism’s vaudeville “Evolution Rag”, and the Biblical reggae of “Adam And Eve” (on ‘Liquid Acrobat…’).
April 1970 saw the release of ‘I Looked Up’ (Elektra EKS 2469 002) including Heron’s “The Letter” and his “Black Jack Davy” which features Fairport’ Dave Mattocks on drums. They’d already performed “The Letter” and “This Moment” during their brief Woodstock set, on the festival’s second day (Saturday, 16 August 1969) crammed between Keef Hartley and Canned Heat. Now the album coincides with the ISB’s re-emergence from months of Scottish seclusion in the Glen Row rural commune of Peebles to present the outgrowth and reflection of that communal life-style in the ‘U’ project, a haphazard ‘surreal parable in song and dance’ with Malcolm Le Maistre’s Stone Monkey Dance Company. Like all Incredible’s ventures the ‘theatrical presentation/ ballet’ is odd and oddly engaging, home-spun, blurry-edged and friendly. A bafflingly enjoyable pantomime. Heron’s contributions run to piano, organ, mandolin and sitar, incidental music for dance – like “Partial Belated Overture”, writing and playing the nine-minute sitar work-out “El Wool Suite”, plus songs “Light In Time Of Darkness/ Glad To See You”, “Hiram Pawnitof”, “Bridge Theme/ Song” and the 15.22-minute “Rainbow” – all published through ‘Warlock Music Ltd’.
Heron relates how ‘we decided upon all the people we’d like to work with – dancers, set designers and so on, and we went up to live in a row of cottages in Scotland around Christmas. We all sat round and just talked, first of all to get the story-line, which had to be something that would inspire the dancers to dance, and give us the inspiration to write the songs. After a while the whole thing just started to emerge.’ ‘U’ played London’s ‘Roundhouse’ – then the two Fillmore’s, four days in New York and three at the LA Auditorium, just before the Who’s ‘Tommy’ opened there, plus a couple of days in Boston and one in Cincinnati. Although the obscure mystic mime, theatrics and strange music of the Scottish hippies doesn’t exactly open up the San Andreas fault – it is unique, and the double-album reminder remains intriguing. ‘U’ (Elektra 2665-5001, October 1970) was produced by Joe Boyd through Witchseason Productions, with John Wood engineering. The gatefold sleeve, designed by ‘Graphreaks’ portraying scenes from the ‘pantomime’ plus a scattering of delightfully primitivist paintings.
As the venture proves – the Incredible String Band is not just a band, but a permanent interaction of friends, with shows occasionally performed in the round, sat cross-legged on rugs, playing acoustic instruments the audience are invited to share. Hence, when Rose leaves while they’re on America’s West Coast, to gravitate to Wales with her children, and Mike cuts a solo album in January 1971, it’s not exactly break-up, more a continuity of diversification. For the sessions that eventually result in Mike’s ‘Smiling Men With Bad Reputations’ (Island ILPS9146, April 1971) set are Keith Moon, Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane, Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway, Tony Cox plays VC3 moog, Jimmy Page’s quicksilver guitar ignites “Lady Wonder” (a track relegated to ‘B’-side status, added to the album only on the eventual CD), and even the presence of John Cale. ‘He told me I put too many chords in the song and made me play it through as far as I could go without changing chord’ says Mike. And although the album stays within the Incredible’s context (“Spirit Beautiful” droning in on sitar and chants reassuringly familiar to ISB devotees) – as the title suggests, it’s already predating the style adopted by Heron for his soon-come Reputation line-up.
While the Incredible String Band’s output continues. The group jump labels from Elektra to follow Joe Boyd into ‘Be Glad, For The Song Has No Ending’ (Island ILPS 9140, December 1970), the scrappy soundtrack of a whimsical self-indulgent group-movie directed by Peter Neal centring ‘Magical Mystery Tour’-style on performance, interviews, and costume sequences with Mike and Robin, Rose and Likky. It features Mike’s “All Writ Down”, released through the new label hook-up, while Elektra reprises their fruitful but lapsed association with a ‘Greatest Hits’ titled ‘Relics of...’ (Elektra 7E-2004, March 1971), gathering “Painting Box”, “First Girl I Loved”, “A Very Cellular Song”, “Air”, “Log Cabin In The Sky” and others across four rich sides. At this time Boyd, who’d been a continuous influence on the band, returned to America.
By October the more electric ‘Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air’ (ILPS 9172, October 1971) – a one-off production credited to the group with American bassist Stanley Schnier, was in the shops to coincide with the opening dates of a tour commencing at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. Now there’s glockenspiel, bazouki, oud, kazoo and spoons, while Fairport Folk-Rock drummer Gerry Conway guests. Robin’s 10:53-minute “Darling Belle” is an ambitious theatrical three-way vocal story-telling dialogue, with First World War Ivor Novello quotes, and overlaid spoken-word passages. Then Likki sings Heron’s words in her high clear child-like voice, Mike himself contributes the amped-up “Painted Chariot”, then revisits his own “Tree” from their debut album, for no obvious purpose. So, more Prog-mainstream, while retaining a mix of charming naivety and tweeness, plus jigs and reels. It became their final chart album, managing a single appearance at no.46.
Throughout this period, that Stone Monkey refugee – Malcolm Le Maistre, an Englishman who’d segued into the band’s periphery in New York following his involvement with David Bowie’s Exploding Galaxy, was making occasional bass guitar, keyboard and mandolin contributions, adding his strangely-enunciated ventures into French chanson. To some, an interloper from another non-Folk continuum, now his presence is more conspicuous, and during the tie-in tour he’s assimilated as a full group member, using his theatrical abilities for the ‘Poetry Play no.1’ which Mike narrates and the group acts out. Le Maistre will subsequently reappear, performing a similar function with Reputation, joining Heron for vocals on “Down On My Knees After Memphis” dressed in a sailor suit, and doing ‘Gene Kelly’ dance routines. While the temporary addition of Stan ‘Lee’ Schnier on bass and bearded drummer Jack Ingram is – according to ‘Melody Maker’, ‘promoting their roadies into a rhythm section.’
Forced by default to fill the vacuum left by Joe Boyd’s exit, Heron emerges to provide direction as the dominant personality. Making the October 1972 ‘Earthspan’ (Island ILPS 9211) set – produced by Robin and Mike, an odd transitional artefact. Heron contributes their second take on the raggle-taggle gypsy-O “Black Jack David”, Likky – who contributes lyrics to “Sunday Song”, and high vocals to Robin’s “Banks Of Sweet Italy”, was about to quit, replaced for a year by Gerard Dott, who in turn will be replaced by 23-year-old ex-Powerhouse musician Graham Forbes from Glasgow. These changes in direction are becoming increasingly apparent, and can largely be laid at Mike’s feet. He’s guiding the band towards the more orthodox Rockist orientation from which Reputation will emerge. But there are more albums and changes to come.
With a line-up of Heron, Williamson, Le Maistre, and Gerard Dott, Mike produces ‘No Ruinous Feud’ (Island ILPS/ZC1/Y81 9229, February 1973), the cover split four ways into David Bailey ‘Rock band’ head-and-shoulder shots. And predictably, it becomes their most Rock-angled set, made up of distinct singles-length cuts. There’s a two-minute Dolly Parton cover (“My Blue Tears”) and even a reggae track – Duke Reid’s “Second Fiddle”, with the backing-participation of Greyhound (who’d recently scored a chart hit with “Black And White”). Scientology – with its emphasis on relationships, is also acknowledged as a force behind the String Band’s gradual transmutations, for by this time its medieval minstrelsy, the crescent moons, stars, the ‘angel-headed hipster’ look has been ditched in favour of trad-Rock leathers. Heron even abandoned his six-string acoustic wire-strung guitar (custom-built for him by John Bailey) to stalk the electrified stage like the Gene Vincent he’d already admitted a secret affection for.
Of course, this album-by-album as chapter-heading diary-entries method, is the least effective way to tell the tale. Yet there’s one more album to go, their twelfth, ‘Hard Rope And Silken Twine’ (Island ILPS 9270, March 1974). Again Mike takes producer-credits, featuring his wonderful “Maker Of Islands” balanced by Robin’s sitar-driven “Dreams Of No Return”. But the focus is Mike’ ambitious 19:23-minute song-cycle “Ithkos” across the full vinyl second side, an episodic patchy pseudo-Grecian mythological epic jangling around Moon-Maidens and Sybarites. The Incredible String Band could logically go no further… and they don’t try. By their split in that misty twisty October 1974 day they’d left an excess of wealth in their Dayglo wake – including compilations and solo spin-offs, having expanded to a travelling ramshackle minstrelsy five-piece with an extended family of wives, children and pets, a pantomime of Art-Theatre, Mime, poems and whimsy, with an increasingly electric back-beat. But even the times themselves were becoming harder, nastier, less sympathetic to hippy-dippy whimsy. And in all, it’s an organic end to a unique band.
The implosion and eventual re-emergence as ‘Mike Heron’s Reputation’ must be seen as an organic outgrowth of that once-Incredible organism. But Robin’s “Dear Old Battlefield” is a song about the karmic-cycle of reincarnation, ‘death is unreal, the way I feel, there’s more to be revealed,’ in which ‘lovers and friends meet again and again.’ And since that time a steady re-issue programme from Electra and Sequel has provided an interim crash-course in Incredible-ology. ‘I like all the albums for different reasons’ Mike admits to me. ‘The songs are mostly pretty relevant to me. Although I can’t really relate to the performance, the performance sounds like a different person. Like a l-o-n-g time ago. But I can relate very much to nearly all the songs…’
If this piece underplays Robin Williamson’s role within the group, this is largely because it was Mike I talked to. And due to my attempts to isolate and chart Mike Heron and the roots of Reputation. In truth, the evolution is natural, and largely amiable. Robin even cameos on “Evie”.
‘Me, I clearly state, I’m just an accident of fate / I’m the guy whose lost the way / lost the way to Easy Street…’ For a decade Mike Heron had been one half of an obscure mythology. Where to go next? Immediately after the dissolution of the idiosyncratic Incredible String Band and its initial reformation beneath Heron’s ‘Reputation’ masthead, he began going out on the road looking for Easy Street in his own right for the first time. His band had become more Rock than previous efforts – the stage punctuated by incisive keyboard drabblings, littered with guitar-work and occasional sax, with Heron acting out his previously submerged ‘Rock Star’ fantasies. Yet all the while, predictably, the battered lethargic ennui of the Incred’s is still there lurking behind the amps, its visual oddities occasionally emerging through Malcolm Le Maistre’s out-of-Rock-mainstream camp dance routines around “Only A Street-Lamp”. And again as they’re performing the then as-yet-unrecorded “Draw Back The Veil” with its long rambling déjà vu ‘Tubular Bells’ introduction on Radio One’s ‘In Concert’.
This is the Reputation line-up that played the Rainbow’s Final Gig first half of March 1975, to a good reception. An odd and chaotic act that went on to tour the UK downbill of the elegantly-wasted Andy Fraser Band. Under the Peter Bowyer Promotions banner it’s a package that plays London, Leicester, Bristol, Leeds and as far north as Edinburgh and Glasgow – where the whole mythology began. To tie in with the tour there’s even a March single – “Evie”, featuring cameo vocals from Melanie Safka, taken from the April album ‘Mike Heron’s Reputation’ (Neighborhood NBH80637, 1975). Reputation came together at London’s Olympic Studios during November 1974, with Malcolm Le Maistre, John Gilston and Graham Forbes plundered from the now-shattered Incredibles, plus David Barker from Magna Carta, Mike Tomich from If, plus Peter Gibbons and Phil Symes. From these sessions – under the production eye of Melanie’s husband Peter Schekerak, come the eleven Heron songs that make up the album. As well as the already-mentioned tracks there’s “Without Love”, “Born To Be Gone”, and my favourite cut – “Easy Street”, building from its slow blues opening through the up-tempo Rock section with girl-chorus and superb sax solo, on side one. Plus “Angels In Disguise”, “Wine Of His Song”, “Meanwhile In The Rain”, “One Of The Finest” and “Singing The Dolphin Through”.
It’s a fine – if occasionally flawed set, the message between the lines ‘don’t try living on Easy Street if you can, where the cold winds don’t blow’ – like Dylan sings it and Mike Heron lives it, ‘beauty walks a razor’s edge, some day I’ll make it mine…’ Here, there are also fine guest sessions from Tim Hinkley (on “Down On My Knees After Memphis”), Richard and Linda Thompson (on “Memphis” and “Residential Boys” respectively), and Roxy’s Eddie Jobson on violin (“Residential Boy”). But – just for a moment, imagine it’s the 15th July 1975. As all this is happening, Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft are launched from their respective continents within hours of each other…
Later there will be other ventures. Including Mike’s Incredible Acoustic Band during the 1990’s. Until the first of a series of ISB reunion projects featuring various constellations of cohorts, Robin, Mike… and Clive. But then again, with such a genealogy the tale could hardly fail to be intriguing…
“We are the table-cloth, and also the table,
also the fable, of the dancing leaves…”
Performing your own songs, says Mike Heron, is like ‘smelling your own sweat.’ They’re that personal, but never so indulgent they fail to tell an absorbing tale. At the Leeds ‘Duchess of York’ he does “Blackfoot Side” to tom-tom drumming – a song derived from the Sioux Indian lore of ‘Black Elk Speaks’. He does “Gaughan In The South Seas”, drawing on a book he read as a kid – Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon And Sixpence’, but magicks them both into hypnotic webs of intrigue. ‘I chat about the songs to draw people in, it doesn’t suit me just to stand up and yell songs at people’ he explains. Both songs are from his then-current CD ‘The Glen Row Tapes’ (issued by Fast Forward, 1988). He plays a fluid and breathy harmonica, sings for Jack Kerouac, and does “1968” with percussionist Dave Haswell switching to ‘hippie’ tabla percussion. How he tells it, it was the last Incred’s song he wrote, eventually issued as part of the ‘On Air’ CD of time-lost BBC session recordings (Band of Joy/Strange Fruit label, 1991). And it’s a quintessential song of wistful regret and eclipsed innocence – ‘you played your strings like they led to the truth, sang your words like clear spring light, let’s do it one more time, and we’ll keep the fire going, bright sunshine in darkest night…’
The Incredible String Band were an intrepid courting of toxic myth and ganja-stained death out-leaping the limits of shock with insidiously weird seductions of sound. This night the high-flying Heron creates a more homely kind of Beat fun. But a wealth of fun nevertheless.
When the Incredible Strings originally dis-Banded Robin Williamson retreated back into a mythic weirdness of bizarre beauty. Robin’s extensive solo catalogue, beginning with ‘Myrrh’ (Island, HELP 2, 1972, BGO CD reissue), which includes the wondrous “The Dancing Of The Lord Of Weir” and his take on Dr Strangely Strange’s “Strings In The Earth And Air”, cut just before his first sojourn to Los Angeles, and his tunefully accessible ‘Merry Band’ album ‘Journey’s Edge’ (Edsel, 1977) – including “Mythic Times” and strange “Rap City Rhapsody”. Much later ‘Songs For Children Of All Ages’ (1987, Flying Fish) revisits “Witches Hat” and “The Water Song”. He lived and toured in the States for twenty years – in the 1970’s with the Merry Band, and in the 1980’s with ‘the story-telling revival’. He looks backwards through his fictionalised autobiography song-cycle ‘Mirrorman’s Sequence 1961-1966’ (2CD Pig’s Whisker Music, 1997) – portraying Heron as ‘Pike’ and Palmer as ‘Clamber’, and books ‘The Glory Trap’ (a Detective novel with Dan Sherman, 1981), and his ‘Selected Writings 1980-‘83’ (poetry, Pigs Whisker Press, 1984). Plus his fine experimental recordings for ECM, the first a setting of Dylan Thomas (‘The Seed-At-Zero’, 2000), the second – ‘Skirting The River Road’ (ECM, 2003), made up of jazz-Celtic Bardic settings of poems by William Blake, Walt Whitman and Henry Vaughan.
Now, as well as his sporadic involvement in Incredible String Band reunions, there’s also his occasional performing partnership with John Renbourn (‘Wheel Of Fortune’, 1995), wife Bina, and Clive Palmer (‘At The Pure Fountain’, 1999). Clive, also back in the ISB fold with Mike Heron and multi-instrumentalists Fluff and Lawson Dando, find extra-curricula time to record his solo-with-banjo album ‘All Roads Lead To Land’ (2005) for the Unique Gravity label (reissued on Communion). Robin guests. While Mike Heron, looking much the same, re-concentrates on his first love, song-writing. His post-Incredible’s (but still incredible) solo albums also become part of the CD re-issue project. ‘My ‘Smiling Men With Bad Reputations’ has always been a bit collectible’ he agrees. ‘But that’s really because of the people who play on it. For me particularly it was one of the first albums of that type, one with ‘guest artists’ on each track, Richard Thompson, John Cale, Dave Mattacks, Dudo Pukwana (who arranges brass for “Call Me Diamond”), and everybody. That aspect of it was very much Joe Boyd’s idea. But a great idea.’
The next Heron album ‘Diamond Of Dreams’ (Bronze, 1977, reissued on Sequel), includes Mike’s “Don’t Kill It Carol”, a song written as ‘therapy’ after a relationship break-up. It was covered by, and became a big European hit single for Manfred Mann’s Earthband (a UK no.45 in July 1979), and the first of a number of collaborations. ‘Yes, he’s done a few. He’s done “Singing The Dolphin Through” (on Mann’s 1976 LP ‘Roaring Silence’, Bronze Records), “Don’t Kill It Carol” (on 1979’s ‘Angel Station’, Bronze), and “Stranded In Iowa” (a Heron/Mann co-composition on 1980’s Bronze-label ‘Chance’). There’s also one called “Marathon (Sikelele I)” which we worked on together. It’s on an album called ‘Manfred Mann: Plains Music’ (Kaz Records, 1991), and it got to no.1 in the African album charts, a lovely record. A bit like Paul Simon’s ‘Gracelands’ using a lot of black African musicians. A bit like the Paul Simon thing except it’s largely instrumental, with mine as one of its only two songs. Manfred is South African by birth. He’s a South African white jazzer. So he’s got people like Barbara Thompson on sax too, and it was a great record.’
While “First Girl I Loved” was being covered by Jackson Browne and Judy Collins, Heron songs were being done by as widely disparate people as Bonnie Tyler and Frankie Miller, while his “Worlds They Rise And Fall” is used on the soundtrack of two movies – Scottish director Gillies MacKinnon’s ‘Hideous Kinky’ (1998) and ‘Jersey Girl’ (2004) with Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. ‘My first motivation was to write songs for other people to do. That’s the first thing I really fancied doing, to bring this song into being where there was nothing there before. It’s a great thing, and it takes it one step further if somebody else then says ‘ah, this thing exists, this is something I can interpret in my own way.’ It makes it that bit more ‘real’. And by that time you can be selfish and think that you’ve created something from nothing. That still remains a really valuable thing for me. I still find that process exciting. It still has that feeling.’
Another product of the separation years was a foray into electronic ‘Robot Music’ with Tony Cox, renewing a lapsed association from the ‘...Bad Reputations’ album. ‘He wanted a human real-sounding voice against his computerised style. A bit like a variation on the Pet Shop Boys.’ But it sounded ‘terrible. I enjoyed doing it. It just didn’t work for my songs. For me, the best person at doing that humanised electronic music is Stevie Winwood, programmed – but very real. With him, it comes from real soul.’
Stevie Winwood, alongside Elton John – is also there on ‘Smiling Men With Bad Reputations’. ‘It’s true that for a long time I’ve been more concerned with my own music. Then I had to step back to look at the String Band in perspective. And it was ridiculous that for a long time there was nothing by the String Band on CD. And more than that, in America the albums were no longer even available on scratchy old vinyl. But, as I’ve had to listen to them, I’ve re-discovered some amazing stuff. And not necessarily the obvious things. Some of them are a bit out of that period, of their time. But “The Tree”, “Blues For The Muse”, ‘Wee Tam And The Big Huge’, and “First Girl I Loved” – there’s something Robin captures there that still really appeals to me. The other things I’m listening to now are the tracks that ‘escaped’. Because we unearthed all the original album tapes with the out-takes, and there’s the BBC Radio One session archive stuff too. Some of the material that came out on the ‘On Air’ CD. And it’s that stuff that still really knocks my socks off...!’
Student Hipsters and aspiring Acid-Head poets used to write long pretentiously arty letters to each other, signing off cosmically with another Incredible String Band album title. One that’s suddenly perfectly appropriate again for the re-united Mike Heron and Robin Williamson... BE GLAD, FOR THE SONG HAS NO ENDING…
‘THE CIRCLE IS UNBROKEN’
“May the long time sun shine upon you
all love surround you
and the pure light within you
guide you all the way on”
(“A Very Cellular Song”)
An early version of the centre section published in:
‘MOTH no.4’ (UK – February 1977)