The Incredible String Band
The Incredible String Band
The Incredible String Band was one of the most engaging groups to emerge from the esoteric 1960s. Comprising the duo of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, its sound was haunting Celtic folk melodies augmented by a variety of Middle Eastern and Asian instruments. In The British Invasion, Nicholas Schaffner describes them so, “Take two exceptionally talented purveyors of traditional music from Scotland, immerse them in an underground cauldron of occult secrets, Eastern spells, and LSD in Swinging Sixties London, and you have an approximation of what The Incredible String Band were about.”
Mike Heron was a member of several rock bands in England in the early 1960s, while Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer played as a bluegrass and Scottish folk duo. Heron was asked to join as rhythm guitarist, and the trio began playing as The Incredible String Band. The band was spotted at a club by Joe Boyd, who was opening a British wing of Elektra Records. The trio gave Boyd a demo tape of mostly American bluegrass standards with a few original songs at the end. Boyd
Members include Mike Heron (born December 12, 1942, Glasgow, Scotland), vocals, guitar, sitar, organ, dulcimer, harpsichord, recorder, harmonica, percussion; Robin Williamson (born November 24, 1943, Glasgow, Scotland), vocals, guitars, sitar, oud, flute, gimbri, sarangi, chahanai, whistle, bass, violin, piano, organ, percussion. Other members include Gerald Dott, (joined, 1972), clarinet, sax; Graham Forbes, (joined, 1974), guitar; Jack Ingram, (joined, 1973), drums; Stan Lee, (joined, 1973), drums; Malcolm LeMaistre (joined, 1970), bass, vocals; Christina “Licorice” McKenzie, (joined, 1967, left, 1970), violin, keyboards; Clive Palmer, (joined, 1965, left, 1966) vocals, guitar, banjo; Rose Simpson, (joined, 1968, left, 1970), bass, percussion.
Formed in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1965; recorded first album Incredible String Band for Elektra, 1966; appeared at Newport Folk Festival, 1967; appeared at Woodstock Festival, 1969; recorded Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending for Island, 1970; appeared in film Rehearsal, 1974; disbanded, 1974.
recalled to Melody Maker, “[The original songs] blew up my mind. Immediately I forgot about bluegrass and started planning an album of original material.”
The Incredible String Band, released in 1966, featured mostly original numbers enthusiastically played in American and Celtic folk styles. Following the album’s release, Williamson spent several months studying music in Morocco, and Palmer left the band to travel to Afghanistan. For the String Band’s second album, The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers of the Onion, exotic touches such as the Middle Eastern oud or Indian sitars and tambouras began to permeate the Incredibles’ sound. The band’s lyrics also became more whimsical; highlights include Williamson’s tale of insomnia, “No Sleep Blues,” and Heron’s amorous “Painting Box.”
The press raved about The Incredible String Band. A Melody Maker review of a live performance in 1967 stated, “Their songs, backed by guitars, sitars, gimbri, drums, rattles, and battery-driven mini-organ, range from the beautiful to the bizarre and from weird to whimsical. Yet they are all impressive individually in one way or another and the Incredibles are two of the most original and exciting songwriters on any scene.”
The 1968 album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was Incredible String Band’s brief flirtation with stardom. Although the music was less commercial than its predecessor, it reached the top ten in the British album charts and was also the group’s highest Billboard chart placing in America. The songs became less structured, as the opening “Koeeoaddi There,” which changed tempo frequently as it cascaded joyously with sitars and jaw harp. The album’s centerpiece, “A Very Cellular Song,” was a suite of short pieces sewn together with the folk song “Bid You Goodnight.”
For Wee Tam and The Big Huge, The Incredible String Band was augmented by Williamson and Heron’s girlfriends Licorice McKenzie and Rose Simpson. The group also began to electrically amplify its instruments. This expanded lineup performed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, but due to circumstances was not one of the band’s most memorable performances. The Incredibles’ slot was originally to be Friday night after Joan Baez, however, due to heavy rain, the band opted not to perform. Manager Joe Boyd recalls on the String Band web site, “I [told them], ‘you don’t know what’s going to happen - you may never get on stage’ but they wanted to wait for the rain to stop and so someone else went on - Melanie - who triumphed in that slot and wrote ’Candles In The Rain’ about that exact moment!… It sort of haunted me, that moment because I should have pushed - just dragged them to the stage and said ’for get the amps, just play acoustically.’… We ended up going on the following afternoon after Canned Heat in the baking sun. People were ready for something heavy and loud and they came on and just-died.”
At the turn of the seventies, The Incredible String Band began to lose some of its momentum. The album Changing Horses was not as engaging as the band’s previous collections, and the group’s eclecticism became a liability rather than an asset. A 1971 concert review in Melody Maker stated that, “Curiously, although Mike Heron and Robin Williamson have been together with various satellites since before the days of [British psychedelic club] the U.F.O., when they first really made their name, the moods and form of their music, far from coalescing and solidifying, have fragmented and become even more diverse…. They have always been a band eager to draw on all sources, but this eclecticism, I think, is being taken too far.”
Joined by bassist and pantomimist Malcolm LeMaistre in 1971, The Incredible String Band’s project entitled U was a well-received stage show that did not translate as easily to record. The band made the transition to electric rock ’n roll in 1972. Mike Heron explained the change in sound to Melody Maker, “[When the band first started], we couldn’t have a big orchestra… so the way to do it was to colour a song… we learned to play a basic amount of a certain instrument to give the colour of that instrument to a song. Now what we tend to do is use slightly more conventional instruments and try to get the music, since we’re slightly more technically advanced now than nine years ago…. We don’t use quite so many weird instruments now.”
In 1974, following the album Hard Rope And Silken Twine, The Incredible String Band disbanded. Both founding members had prolific solo careers; Heron’s took him in a rock direction, while Williamson explored his Celtic roots. For several years the band was seen as a dated anachronism. Recently, with the resurgence in interest the psychedelic 1960s as well as “world” music, The Incredible String Band’s music has been rediscovered by new audiences won over by its mystical charm.
The Incredible String Band, Elektra, 1966, reissued Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1995.
The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers of The Onion, Elektra, 1967, reissued Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1995.
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Elektra, 1968, reissued Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1995.
Wee Tarn and The Big Huge, Elektra, 1969, reissued Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1995.
Changing Horses, Elektra, 1969, reissued Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1995.
I Looked Up, Elektra, 1970, reissued Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1995.
Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending, Island, 1970.
U, Elektra, 1971.
Relics of The Incredible String Band, Elektra, 1971.
Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air, Island, 1971.
Earth Span, Island, 1972, reissued Edsel, 1991.
No Ruinous Feud, Island, 1973, reissued Edsel, 1991.
Hard Rope and Silken Twine, Island, 1974.
Seasons They Change, The Best of The Incredible String Band (ree. 1970-74), Island, 1976.
Live In Concert (rec. 1971), Windsong, 1991.
Hardy, Phil & Dave Laing, The Faber Companion To 20th Century Popular Music, Faber & Faber, 1990.
Joynson, Vernon, A Tapestry of Delights: The Comprehensive Guide To British Music of the Beat, R&B, Psychedelic, and Progressive Eras 1963-1976, Borderline, 1995.
Schaffner, Nicholas, The British /was/on, McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Billboard, December 14, 1967; May 10, 1969.
BMI, October, 1968.
Melody Maker, June 24, 1967; August 29, 1967; September 30, 1967; May 1, 1971; November 25, 1972; June 15, 1974
Sing Out!, Volume 18, 1969.
Stereo Review, June, 1969; December, 1972.
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