HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Incredible String Band

Tue, 1st January 2008

I returned with a brightly-painted bag, which was made out of a goat – and in it were all sorts of flutes and drums and a gimbri.”

Post-Pepper, London may have been swinging, but in the suburbs bordering Edinburgh, the evenings were silent. As Mr and Mrs Heron were getting ready for bed, their son Mike removed a tab of acid from an envelope and waited to see what might happen. In the centre of town, this sort of activity was commonplace. Robin Williamson – Heron’s accomplice in the Incredible String Band – lived in a squat where the humdrum routines of post-war life had long been left behind. However, there was little about what Heron calls “the sad suburban houses” of Portobello, to suggest that – behind red-brick terraces – hallucinogenic epiphanies were taking place.

Mike Heron knelt on the floor in the corridor by his parent’s bedroom and listened to the radio. And then? Well, what happened next is a matter of public record. The centrepiece of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, A Very Cellular Song chronicles the dramatic undulations of Heron’s twelve hour trip in sublime detail. The warm waltz-time oscillations of the small organ that Heron kept upstairs – that’s where he knelt to tap out a tune as, in the background, Radio 4 play piped out of a transistor. “See the line, ‘Oh mother, what shall I do?’ That came from there. All sorts of things were feeding in, like, ‘Lay down my dear sister” – that was from Music of the Bahamas by the Pindar Family.”

As the sun started to rise and Heron gradually returned to his natural state, 5am ruminations such as, “Amoebas are very small,” gave way to a sense of beatific resolution. You can hear that, too, on the song’s coda adapted from a Sikh spiritual: “May the long time sun shine upon you/All love surround you/And the pure light within you/Guide you all the way on.” Then, Mike Heron padded downstairs and ate the breakfast his mother had cooked for him. “My parents had probably realised [what happened] as they listened to things unfold. But nothing was mentioned.”

To borrow from another Incredible String Band song, back in the 1960s, you really did made your own amusements. By the time The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’s appeared, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron had become dab hands at making their own entertainment. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1966 may have seemed, to the outside world like the beginning of something. But to Williamson, Heron and short-lived member Clive Palmer, it was the culmination of two years spent playing music with like-minded beatniks in Edinburgh’s bohemian scene. Williamson and Heron barely knew each other when they gravitated towards Palmer’s Incredible Folk Club, a weekly night accessed only going up a lift to the fourth floor of a building in Sauchiehall St. “It was one of those wee silly lifts you don’t see any more,” recalled Edinburgh contemporary Billy Connolly, a regular to the club, “There’s only four people at a time, so it would take all night to get everybody up there.”

You wouldn’t call it commercial, but somehow they inked a record deal. Though he had never produced an album at that point, Joe Boyd – a young American emissary keen to make his mark as Elektra records’ first UK-based talent scout – convinced the musicians on stage at the Incredible Folk Club that he could steer them to enormous success.

Incredible String Band emerged to positive reviews, but Palmer didn’t stick around to read them. He packed the tent which – erected in the front room of his Edinburgh squat – had acted as his living space, and headed to Afghanistan. On leaving, he told his colleagues not to wait for his return. After some thought, Williamson decided that he too would retire from the music business. His reasons? “Well, let me see now,” he says, between sips of coffee in a North London café, “I wanted to buy an Arabic flute. And a lute as well.” So, off he went to Morocco. For want of a better idea, a solo Heron hit the folk club trail. End of story.

At least it would have been, had Williamson not run out of money a few months into his adventure. “I returned with a beautiful brightly-painted bag, which was made out of a goat – and in it were all sorts of flutes and drums and a gimbri. I stumbled back to Edinburgh and said to Mike, “Well, what do you reckon about some of this stuff? And we began to make this sort of stream of consciousness music that went through all sorts of styles.” Released in 1967, the resulting album The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion represented a colossal leap. With Williamson’s goat of many colours, the Incredible String Band set about their business with fearless abandon. And out there, countless young minds looking to a new generation of musical expeditionaries for inspiration, sat up and listened. “Forget the clichés about psychedelic and hallucinogenic vagueness,” wrote Archbishop Of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, 35 years later, “This was work of extraordinary emotional clarity and metaphorical rigour.”

At the eye of this lysergic folk storm, Williamson and Heron remember not stopping to consider their rapidly expanding success. In the year that The Beatles made Sgt Pepper, Paul McCartney hailed The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion as a comparable achievement. Mick Jagger must have agreed because he tried and failed to poach the String Band for his label. But if songs like My Name Is Death and The Eyes Of Fate sketched out their intentions, the events of 1968 constituted a full-on aesthetic assault, compressing more activity in a year than some bands manage in entire careers.

In April, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter commenced the first of its 21 weeks in the chart, peaking at number five. By contrast, 1968’s other seminal stoner album Astral Weeks – released eight months later – failed to trouble the charts at all. In return for their 30 shillings, ISB disciples would have wasted no time in replicating the conditions in which A Very Cellular Song was written, before immersing themselves in acid-folk fantasias like The Water Song and Koeeoaddi There – songs which saw their creators meshing the temple-throbbing drone of the psych-geist to the primordial modal hum from which all music was evolved.

A week previously at the Royal Festival Hall, fans got a chance to see the band’s expanded line-up for the first time. Formerly Bert Jansch’s girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie had accompanied Williamson in Morocco. Heron doesn’t remember exactly when she joined the group – although Boyd remembers Heron hurriedly teaching his own girlfriend Rose Simpson bass guitar, so that she could join the group in time for the next album.

Adrian Whittaker, editor of beGlad – An Incredible String Band Compendium remembers borrowing the newly-released Hangman’s Beautiful Daughters from Blackheath library and “being seduced by this thing… Four or five of us fifth formers having devotional evenings around a turntable, burning incense and just listening, imagining that the people making this music lived communally, with their girlfriends. I remember thinking that this was what I wanted to aspire to.”

In reality, three hundred miles separated Heron and Williamson. While Heron continued to live in Edinburgh with Rose, Williamson and Licorice – together with assorted friends from a London mime and dance group called Exploding Galaxy – commenced a three day odyssey to a cottage in Penwern, in mid-Wales. “It was a house which had remained uninhabited since 1928. There was just one lightbulb and the toilet was outside. If you wanted to go in the night, you had to carry a torch and kick the sheep out when you got there.”

By all accounts, it took the locals some time to get used to Penwern’s new inhabitants. “I remember going into Newport to open a bank account with a £50 cheque,” says Williamson, “and they were contemplating calling the police because they didn’t think I could have that much money. How could somebody that looks like that have a £50 cheque? There was a lot of that sort of thing. One time, the police came to visit…” Williamson slips into a Welsh accent, “… ‘We hear, down in the village, that you boys have been practicing witchcraft.’ Lots of that sort of thing.”

Was Heron not tempted to drop out with Williamson? Beyond entertaining the notion on Mercy I Cry City, apparently not. “He wanted a commune life,” says Heron, who stayed with Rose in Edinburgh, “but I didn’t fancy living in a farmhouse and fighting over the kitchen, that kind of thing. They were into macrobiotics and chocolate was banned. They would live on brown rice, which was where the song Big Ted [from 1969’s Changing Horses] comes in. They had their whole winter’s supply of rice stored, and the pig got in and ate it all.”

Far from acting as a deterrent, the Incredible String Band’s Blakean reconfiguration of acoustic music seemed doubly exotic to American ears. The compounded sense of cultural removal, however, didn’t always play out to their advantage. Arriving at their hotel for a show in Dallas, Williamson espied a swimming pool, he went into a nearby shop and bought what he thought were trunks. “A policeman walked over and told me to get out,” he remembers, “Apparently, what I had purchased was a pair of swimming trunk liners, which were entirely transparent in the water. It only got better when the Dallas Chief Of Police turned up and revealed that his son was a fan.”

In the wake of the Monterey Pop Festival the previous year, Los Angeles was becoming the epicentre of the music industry. It seemed logical for the String Band to play there. No sooner did they arrive, however, than Williamson once again found himself attracting the attention of the police. “He was walking down the street without any shoes or money,” remembers Heron. “It turns out that you’re not allowed to do that, so they jailed him. We kind of had to rescue him.” Nevertheless, this increased level of attention – of all sorts – seemed to reflect the fortuitous timing of their arrival.

From a fourth-floor sweatbox to billboards on Sunset Strip in just over two years, The Incredible String Band were, albeit briefly, rock stars – albeit rock stars who stopped short of playing actual rock music. To the policemen who seemed to take regular exception to their appearance, they were hippies. Heron points to a mutual respect between American and British musicians in the counterculture – “and yet,” he adds, “the music was very different.” It was a difference embodied at the Fillmore West shows which saw them co-headlining with Country Joe & The Fish. American longhairs had something far more palpable to rail against. “Conscription and what came with it was an absolute reality for Americans,” says Heron, “and the music had a more combative edge as a result.” In the Incredible String Band’s resolutely metaphysical world, new songs like The Half-Remarkable Question and Air were increasingly beginning to seem like neo-Dadaist declarations in a world defined by the cold war and the nuclear threat. “That’s it,” says Heron, “We didn’t have the Government telling you that you had to go out and die.”

“In a way, it made people playful,” says Williamson, “You knew that something was about to happen and the reaction was sort of the opposite of angst.” In Penwern, this attitude pervaded every waking hour. Director Peter Neal discovered as much when he arrived there to make Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending – a proposed BBC documentary about the group. Reflecting Williamson’s increasing interest in multi-media presentations, assorted String Band musicians and associates – Boyd being among them – staged a self-devised fable entitled The Pirate And The Crystal Ball for Neal’s camera. The plot revolved around a pirate who attempts to hijack destiny by stealing a crystal ball from the three fates. Happy with the fable’s conclusion, the group duly marched off in search of a meal – only to discover that no restaurant was willing to accommodate them in their costumes.

Somewhere amid all this, enough material for a double album accumulated. Released as two single albums in America and one double in Britain, Wee Tam & The Big Huge cemented their status as the band by which the countercultural credentials of any young head could be measured. One such head at the time, Billy Connolly, remembered hearing these songs for the first time, in particular, Williamson’s opening shot, Job’s Tears: “There’s something extraordinary when you’re from my background about listening to these lyrics about people being stabbed with a sword of willow, and Robin’s singing then was just to die for, from incredible depths to incredible heights. He always had a lovely sense of comedy, you know: ‘I hear my mother calling and I must be on my way’.”

Perhaps more than any of Williamson’s other songs, it’s the The Iron Stone that sees the scope of its creator’s vision matched by its mesmerizing execution – a wonder-drunk freak folk liturgy which achieves vertical take-off when sitar and guitar cut loose from the low lugubrious pulse of the gimbri. As if counteracting the sprawling nature of Williamson’s efforts, Heron turned in some of his most memorable compositions: You Get Brighter, Greatest Friend and, in particular, the Scottish Appalachia of Log Cabin Home In The Sky. If the Caledonian excursions on The White Stripes’ Icky Thump are anything to go by, it would seem that Wee Tam & The Big Huge has notched up several miles on Jack White’s turntable.

Wee Tam & The Big Huge appeared in October. November was spent on the road once again. Three nights at the Fillmore East in New York had sold out; so, closer to home, had The Royal Albert Hall. Williamson remembers Licorice turning up to the latter show with a box of puppies she had just acquired. No-one remembers what happened to them after that. Happy times? Joe Boyd isn’t sure. “Given what happened to them by the end of the year, you can’t help but wonder if there was a sort of a submerged anxiety awaiting resolution.” The Incredible String Band may have been souls adrift, awaiting a mooring – as one Williamson lyric put it, “What is it that we are part of/What is it that we are?” – but Heron points out that they were far from alone in this respect. “Every album that anyone put out had that questing sort of thing about it. But we were happy.”

However happy (or otherwise) the four String Band members were at this point, it seems that there was room for improvement – and their producer was the unwitting catalyst of that change. After the third Fillmore East show, Boyd says he had to catch a flight to Los Angeles, which left him just enough time to leave his charges at a vegetarian restaurant called The Paradox. On arriving at The Paradox, Boyd apparently realised that the mâitre’d there was an old friend of his from Cambridge, David Simons, who seemed more thrusting and together than he had ever been when the two had been friends years previously. The reason Simons had turned his life around so dramatically? Scientology. “I kind of set up their conversion,” smiles Boyd ruefully, “I left the restaurant and, basically, let David get on with it.”

Neither Williamson or Heron will do much to dispute the notion that, after that evening, Incredible String Band never reached the giddy creative heights that they sustained throughout 1968. Nevertheless, Heron maintains that Boyd’s version of events serves the story better than it does the facts. “Rose and I were back in London,” he contends, “I got this self-analysis book – kind of a lifestyle improvement book. I mean, we were reading all sorts of spiritual tomes at this point – Indian and Chinese philosophy and Buddhism. It all seemed to tie in. So, we made this decision to get involved – and then Robin and Licorice returned from New York and he was like, ‘Oh, you’ll never guess what we’ve been doing.’”

When the subject of Scientology is raised with Williamson, he borders on taciturn. “Joe’s surmises are Joe’s surmises, you know? I haven’t much to say about that really,” he says. If the Incredible String Band really did suddenly believe that human beings are unwitting vessels for the souls of ancient Thetans, it wasn’t immediately obvious on their first post-conversion album Changing Horses. If you look closely on the sleeve photo of The Big Huge – taken in Frank Zappa’s garden – you’ll notice how dilated Heron’s pupils are. On Changing Horses, the foursome look clean-cut by comparison.

Though no longer involved with Scientology (neither is Williamson), Heron’s view is that something had to give. “We really couldn’t go on doing these mind-expanding drugs forever. Also the comedowns were getting less and less pleasant every time.” They had stumbled on commercial success making some of the strangest music of their career, so it made a peculiar sort of sense the Incredible String Band should have dissolved after putting out 1973’s emphatically pedestrian Hard Rock & Silken Twine. Their final recorded output comprised three reworkings of old songs on an L. Ron Hubbard tribute album.

As with any artist who has ever sought to capture the essence of the times in which they had come of age, it was difficult to imagine an era in which Incredible String Band’s music might one day flourish again. But as generic indie music has found itself being co-opted into the mainstream, countless other bands have sprung up to fill the void with a new kind of outsider music. And, to anyone who owns those early String Band albums, much of it will seem awfully familiar. It’s inconceivable that the likes of Espers, Six Organs Of Admittance, Tunng and Joanna Newsom don’t have at least one Incredible String Band album in their collections. In ISB fanzine beGlad, one contributor pays tribute to a late-60s oeuvre “rich exultant Earth-scenes of hazard-free spiritual abundance.” It occurs to you that such a phrase could have just as easily been invented for 21st century freak-folk icon Devendra Banhart.

Heron remembers, “There was no sense of an album-tour-album-tour division like you get with bands these days. What you did away from your music was reflected in your music. In fact, you were never really away from your music. That’s how we made three albums in a year. That’s gone now, hasn’t it?” Speaking from the same Edinburgh house where he wrote many of his best songs, Heron now spends much of his time helping look after his 95 year-old mother and occasionally takes to the road with his guitar, sometimes accompanied by his daughter. He seems utterly content with his lot. Long since separated from him, Rose Simpson went on to become Lady Mayoress of Aberystwyth. Licorice McKechnie, sadly, is no longer thought to be alive. She was last heard from, when her sister received a letter from her in 1990, postmarked Sacramento.

As for Williamson – who now tours mostly as part of a duo with his wife Bina – he will tell you that looking back holds little fascination for him. But politely insist and his eyes will twinkle as he recalls the bigger picture. “Do you know,” he confides, “I honestly believed that the world was about to come to a crossroads, where money, war and society were all about to be forever altered. In the face of that absolute inevitability, the most logical thing seemed to sing.” He puts his coffee cup on the table and ambles over to a small stage where his Celtic harp sits.

“After all that time,” he smiles, “I’ve yet to come up with a better idea.”