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HomeNewsOff the Beaten Tracks – Incredibles but true, Part Two

Off the Beaten Tracks – Incredibles but true, Part Two

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AT the end of Part One, we left the Incredible String Band in 1970 having released their sixth album I Looked Up. At the same time as this was recorded, multi-instrumentalist Robin Williamson was preoccupied with U, a three-hour stage production which combined the band’s music with performances by the dance troupe Stone Monkey. This ran for ten nights at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, North London, plus six less than successful nights at the Fillmore West in San Francisco which cleaned the group out financially. They then spent two days in an SF studio turning the material into a double album, which was released in October 1970.

U, recorded in two days, begins promisingly with the instrumental El Wool Suite, which combines Mike Heron’s sitar with Williamson’s flute and gimbri, and Rose Simpson’s tabla and guitar. It develops into possibly the weirdest of all ISB albums, and that’s saying something. Highlights for me include Heron’s Light in Time of Darkness, Williamson’s guitar instrumental Astral Plane Theme and the 15-minute closing track, Rainbow

U was the last Incredibles album on Elektra. They moved over to the Island label for 1971’s Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending. This is based on a documentary about the band shot at their commune a couple of years earlier, plus odd tracks recorded for Wee Tam that failed to make the final cut. Joe Boyd, producing the ISB for the final time, described the album as ‘a kind of clear-out-the-cupboard thing’. Side two is a nine-part, 26-minute collage of instrumental clips from the film.

Later that year came Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air, for which the group were minus Rose Simpson, who left with the intention of becoming a sound engineer but started a family instead. She was replaced by Malcolm Le Maistre, who had been the leader of the Stone Monkey dance outfit. The sound is far more electric than on previous albums and drummer Gerry Conway appears on several tracks, signifying a rockier shift as typified by the song Painted Chariot. My favourite selections are both by Heron – Worlds They Rise and Fall and Red Hair. 

The prolific Mike also found time that year to make a solo album, Smiling Men With Bad Reputations, which featured rock guests including Richard Thompson, John Cale, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon and Ronnie Lane. Although Heron is clearly intent here on developing a more commercial career, my favourite track has always been Brindaban, which harks back to early ISB.

The always fractious relationships between the band members saw Licorice depart after the 1972 album Earthspan. No Ruinous Feud, released in 1973, ventured into reggae and even pop beats. After 1974’s Hard Rope and Silken Twine’s attempts at prog rock failed to convince the record-buying public, Island pulled the plug on the ISB and, with the animosity between Heron and Williamson still festering, by the end of that year they broke up.

In 1997 BBC Scotland broadcast a documentary about the Incredibles. You can watch the first part of it here. 

Also, while researching this piece I had a chat with our friend Andy Marshall and, prompted partly by my column two years ago about a favourite record shop, he sent me these fascinating reminiscences.

I first heard of the ISB from being a Led Zeppelin nut. LZ introduced me to so much good music from the 60s, in the songs that influenced them; songs they covered, songs they played on as session musicians and notoriously the songs they ripped off. In an early interview about the conception of Led Zeppelin, either Page or Plant said that the band could have become either a heavy outfit or a hippy-dippy ISB trip (can’t find the quote, sorry).

So, with the name ISB in the back of my mind, I found one of their LPs in the 78 Shop. This was a Stockport institution in the 1970s and 80s. It was an unusual shop that specialised in 78rpm records, and was run by two old, very reserved and scholarly chaps who looked like university dons. At the front were a few racks of second-hand rock LPs, and these were the most popular goods in the shop – the place never seemed to sell any 78s! 

The LP was The 5,000 Spirits or The Layers Of The Onion. I was immediately captivated by the multi-coloured, far-out cover, the ultimate in hippie art (by 60s artists The Fool). The 78 Shop stored the discs of these LPS separately from the displayed covers, and when you took a chosen cover to the counter one of the dons would bring you the disc and solemnly show you each side of it, to which you would ritually nod in acknowledgement of its good condition.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book etc etc but 5,000 Spirits turned out to be brilliant. One of the greatest records of the 1960s, cover and all. The ISB were a rare thing in that they were hippies who did not take themselves seriously. Well, not at first. All the songs are full of fun and silliness. One of my favourite lyrics from it is:

I mixed stones and water just to see what it would do,

And the water it got stony and the stones got watery too.

Heavy stuff, man. I tried to find out more about the group and found that their most popular LP was The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and so I sought this out, again procuring my copy from the 78 Shop. What a disappointment – I did not like this LP. Chronologically it is the next one after 5,000 Spirits and so I was expecting more of the same, but no, this was quite a different kettle of fish. I couldn’t get to like it no matter how much I listened to it. Many years later I came to love it though, and can see its appeal. It has a great and classic LP cover also. Some call it ‘woodland folk’.

It was many years later that I caught up with the rest of the ISB’s albums. They made a lot. The LPs after Hangman’s are rather bitty for my taste, none of them good all the way through but there are many great songs to be found. 5,000 Spirits is the quintessential ISB for me. Not keen on the Malcolm Le Maistre ones. Over the years I have acquired all their stuff, as well as a lot of Robin Williamson’s solo LPs. The very first ISB album is a revelation, being very different from the second and third. It is more of a traditional British folk record of the 60s, with only slight traces of their fun and humour appearing. It’s an interesting record, but not a particularly outstanding one, although it contains what I think is one of their greatest songs, Everything’s Fine Right Now. Also good is Maybe Some Day, which was covered by fellow Scot Alex Harvey.

What a fun group! These are some good clips:

Flower child Licorice is a complete enigma and I love this short clip of her from Woodstock. The ISB obviously weren’t suited to Woodstock, seeming too delicate for it all. She has a missing front tooth, years before The Pogues!

I’ve often wondered if the Incredible String Band were mates with their countryman Alex Harvey, who later formed his own Sensational Band.  

Another favourite clip, one of the great songs from 5,000 Spirits: 

I’ve not seen Mike Heron in concert but I have been to many Robin Williamson gigs. He is very entertaining with much magical and mystical storytelling. Lately he appears with his wife Bina, who plays primitive instruments from exotic lands such as Mongolia.

Thanks for the memories, Andy.

Some 47 years after the ISB fell apart, Robin and Mike are still with us, as is Rose Simpson, who in 1994 became Lady Mayoress of Aberystwyth. The fate of Licorice McKechnie is a mystery. She was last seen hitchhiking across the Arizona Desert in 1987 and her family have never heard from her since. In 2019 there were unconfirmed reports on Facebook that she was living in California, and I have always fondly hoped that she was holed up somewhere with Bertie Bassett, but Rose has admitted: ‘There’s a possibility she may be dead.’In an interview with Mojo magazine last month, to coincide with the release of her memoir Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band, Rose said of Licorice: ‘She was amazing, a total enigma to me. I never had a discussion with her in my life and we were virtually living together for three years.’

PS: The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, wrote a foreword to the 2003 book Be Glad, An Incredible String Band Compendium. Previously he had chosen The Hedgehog’s Song as one of his Desert Island Discs. I am not sure if Old Beardie’s patronage counts as a blessing or a curse.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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