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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Incredible String Band Revisited and Reinterpreted for Today

The Incredible String Band Revisited and Reinterpreted for Today

Huge Range of World non-Western Instruments Used - Steve Evans

One of the more quirky, hard to categorise British 60s bands, ISB were influential as musicians’ musicians. Have they still got a relevant message now?

Usually defined as exponents of late 1960s ‘psychedelic folk’, The Incredible String Band (ISB) were called by Making Time, a website resource devoted to compiling an encyclopedia of 60s’ British beat music, early devotees of ‘World Music’. They were eclectic, deriving influences from many genres, cultures and sounds, fusing them with poetry as lyrics.

Robert Plant, Billy Connolly, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were among their fans, and they started as Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson playing in a Scottish folk club in Glasgow. Mike Heron joined to play guitar and record producer Joe Boyd signed them to Elektra label. In 1966 they released their first album.

Uniqueness in More than Band Name

Even then, their own writing and musical innovations were taking them out of the folk bag, and into separate travels, Williamson to Afghanistan and Heron to ‘Morocco’s soft perfumed air’ enriching their style, and 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion was released in 1967, the ‘summer of love’. Stylistically, it didn’t conform to the stereotypical hippie/drug/free-love climate of that year. It was more ‘underground’, according to Making Time.

African instruments, such as the gimbri, Indian sitars, ever more original lyrics and Palmer and Williamson’s distinctive vocal timbres, made their sound unique. John Peel gave them airtime on his late night Perfumed Garden programme on pirate Radio London. Their next album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) was their biggest selling, and included the epic 13 minute A Very Cellular Song, which wove a narrative of amoebae: ‘amoebas are very small’.

For Wee Tam & The Big Huge (also 1968) they were joined by their girlfriends, Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, and Making Time argued most critics rated this one the peak of their creativity. Later, involved in Scientology, the men lost ‘the critical element necessary to create the outstanding music that they were known for’.

Other albums followed: Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending, which was part dramatised in video (1970) as a ‘Happening’ shot in Scottish countryside that put flesh on the bones of the weirdness, obscurity and self-indulgent hippie claptrap that critics of the flower-power 60s often make. It was described as ‘a surreal pantomime in song and dance’. They played Woodstock Festival in 1969, though not to universal acclaim.

A multimedia experience at London’s Roundhouse called U and a handful more albums followed, with the girls leaving, other musicians joining and a more rock flavour coming through, which isolated Williamson. Their final shows were in 1974, and they worked separately. A reunion of the original trio in 1999 led to a career playing the nostalgia circuits for a few years.

The Legacy

The opening of Joe Boyd’s book, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, read: ‘The 60s began in the summer of 1956, ended in October of 1973 and peaked just before dawn on 1 July 1967, during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London’. In his opinion, that span of cultural creativity remains unparalleled: ‘You can still play The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and it sounds like part of contemporary culture. It resonates strongly to this day. In terms of music, at least, I don’t think there’s been an era to match it since’.

Boyd discovered ISB, recognising their individualism within their collectivism and added them to his production stable (Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, REM, 10,000 Maniacs and Billy Bragg). He was not the only aficionado to record warm thoughts beyond fond memories from the distance of time. Tim Owen analysed on Jazz Mann, 2010’s reissue of three ISB albums.

He referred to guests on the albums: ‘collectively contributing bass, piano and organ, sitar, harps, violin and percussion to an already heady brew, their presence is surely down to a presiding communal impulse’. The instinct for radical instrumentation was ‘fearlessly boundless’. Microtones were explored and varied instruments included: sitar, organ, dulcimer, harpsichord, gimbri, flute, tamboura, rattles, oud, mandolin, Jew’s harp, water harp.

The songwriting that accompanied the musical explosion marked them out with literary authority. Seen as idiosyncratic by some, merely psychedelic by others, it had a freshness that strikes today. The layering of multi-track recording became available, and they used it. It was a happy coincidence of vocal, writing, playing, innovating talents.

Deriving power from Gilbert and Sullivan (The Minotaur’s Song), American spiritual and mediaeval chant, traditional folk, non-Western cultures with a nod to contemporary rock and popular music, the albums still thrill as voyages of discovery. The urgent sense of the theatrical in their performances gave them a completeness shared by few bands.

They were one of the few British psychedelic bands to be popular Stateside. George de Stefano, writing in June 2010 on Pop Matters, recalled his visit to a gig with other stoned youngsters at the Fillmore East. ISB were two guys and two girls all dressed in ‘colorful counterculture finery’. He recalled the Cellular one about amoebas with the chorus turned into a chant and flower petals tossed at audience from the aisles.

He critiqued their exotic instrumentation, pointing out Jackson Browne and Judy Collins covered some of their songs, while First Girl I Loved, Painting Box, The Hedgehog song, showed they could turn out popular classics. Cellular, Minotaur and Keoeeoaddi There were on another plane altogether. It was their ‘creative daring and open-hearted spiritual yearning’ that stayed in the mind, too.

Their recorded works were beyond mere concept albums, as Williamson explained in 2010: ‘What I wanted to make was innocent music, straight from the well-spring of the heart. To forget all cramping skill, to play instruments one couldn’t play, link audiences and performer, jump styles and themes with the logic of dreams and visions’.

That they and the versatility of their musical prowess chimed with the zeitgeist of the 1960s is unquestionable; that they speak to today’s aging baby-boomers and their youngsters interested in those days with lessons to be learned, is debatable, but proved.

First published on Suite 101, 11 March 2011.

Image: Huge Range of World non-Western Instruments Used – Steve Evans

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