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Off the Beaten Tracks – Incredibles but true

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THIS week, our time-travelling Ford Anglia coughs its way into Edinburgh, late 1965. Multi-instrumentalist Robin Williamson and banjo player Clive Palmer, both 22, had spent two years as a duo playing traditional folk tunes in clubs and felt they needed to develop their sound by taking on a rhythm guitarist. They auditioned a local chap, 23-year-old Mike Heron, and he got the job. The Incredible String Band was born.

The following year, talent scout Joe Boyd was appointed head of Elektra Records’ London office and one of his first actions was to sign up the quirky band he had seen in action during a Scottish trip. That May, they arrived at Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea to record their eponymous first album with Boyd as producer. It was done and dusted in a single afternoon.

Although Heron had been with the band for only a few months, the record belongs to him and Williamson with Palmer very much on the sidelines. Only three tracks feature all three musicians. Palmer is credited with playing guitar, banjo and kazoo, Heron guitar and Williamson guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and tin whistle.

One of Williamson’s solo efforts, October Song, won the band friends in high places. None other than Bob Dylan said it was one of his favourite tracks of the time, describing it as ‘quite good’. Praise indeed. Robin also supplies another highlight, the mournful Good As Gone, while he provides winsome mandolin on Heron’s How Happy I Am. The LP was heavily influenced by Dylan and Donovan, which is probably why it was named Folk Album of the Year in a Melody Maker readers’ poll.

Shortly after its release, the trio parted company. Palmer, a Londoner, hit the hippie trail to India and Afghanistan while Williamson left for Morocco with his girlfriend Licorice McKechnie, leaving his fellow Scot Heron in Edinburgh where he teamed up with a group named Rock Bottom and the Deadbeats. Having run out of dosh, Robin came back laden with exotic North African instruments and he and Mike decided to resume the ISB as a duo although they refused to collaborate in songwriting.

In his fascinating memoir White Bicycles – Making Music in the 1960s, Joe Boyd writes that without Palmer acting as a buffer between them, Williamson and Heron ‘developed a robust dislike for one another’. He adds: ‘Fortunately, the quality and quantity of their songwriting was roughly equal. Neither would agree to the inclusion of a new song by the other unless he could impose himself on it by arranging the instruments and working out all the harmonies.’

July 1967 saw the release of The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, on which the two men were joined by ace bass player Danny Thompson, pianist John Hopkins, Licorice McKechnie on vocals and percussion, and Nazir Jairazbhoy on sitar and tanpura.

The presence of the latter, along with Robin’s imported instruments including oud, gimbri and flute, gave the album an Indian sound which was a big hit with musicians including Paul McCartney, who named it his album of the year, and David Bowie, who said it was one of his 25 all-time favourites. Standout tracks include Heron’s The Hedgehog Song and Williamson’s First Girl I Loved, covered the following year by Judy Collins with a change of gender in the title.

The ISB’s big breakthrough came with 1968’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, a huge improvement on its predecessors with a much fuller sound and a multiplicity of exotic instruments. Williamson provides vocals, guitar, gimbri, pan pipe, piano, penny whistle, percussion, jaw harp, water harp, harmonica, mandolin, chanahai and oud. Heron is on vocals, sitar, hammered dulcimer, harpsichord, Hammond organ and guitar.

Centrepiece of the album is Heron’s A Very Cellular Song, a 13-minute suite which includes a spiritual from the Bahamas, I Bid You Goodnight, and a piece about amoebas. Strangest cut is the Monty Pythonesque The Minotaur’s Song, whose backing vocals are supplied by Fairporters Richard Thompson and Judy Dyble.

Heavily championed by the BBC DJ John Peel, Hangman’s was a big success, reaching No 5 in the UK album charts and turning the ISB into a live act who could fill major venues. This time its celebrity endorsement came from Robert Plant, who said Led Zeppelin had learned their craft from it.

Before 1968 was over came the next album, a double titled Wee Tam and the Big Huge. By this time the band comprised Williamson, Heron, Licorice, and Mike’s girlfriend Rose Simpson. For me, the record really gets going on Side Two with Heron’s love song You Get Brighter, followed by Williamson’s The Half-Remarkable Question, driven by Mike’s brilliant sitar. I’ve always been a sucker for the sitar in rock and folk music, ever since Traffic released Paper Sun. Next comes the gentle Air, then a whimsical nine-minute interlude, Ducks on a Pond. 

Williamson provides the lion’s share of the songs on the second disc, which begins with another nine-minuter, Maya. Again this is lifted by Heron’s sitar, as is The Iron Stone. Mike is in full Dylan mode for Greatest Friend, then we have Williamson’s Lordly Nightshade, with lovely piano and penny whistle. Rose supplies percussion on her boyfriend’s Cousin Caterpillar. The joys of multi-tracking give us some fine ensemble playing on Douglas Traherne Harding while the final track, The Circle is Unbroken, features whistle and Irish harp and is no relation to the US hymn of similar name.

Based at a farmhouse commune in Pembrokeshire, the ISB toured Britain and the US extensively. It was after playing at the Fillmore East in New York that they were introduced to the cult of Scientology, a turning point which many fans felt marked the beginning of a deterioration in their work. In August 1969 the band won a place on the bill at the Woodstock Festival. They were supposed to appear on Friday the 15th, when most of the folk and acoustic acts were featured, but refused to play in the rain and their slot was taken by Melanie. The next day, which featured mainly hard rock acts, they appeared between the Keef Hartley Band and Canned Heat – and went down like a lead balloon. Their performance failed to make the cut for the Woodstock movie or albums.

That November they released Changing Horses, which reflects their new beliefs and is noted mainly for White Bird, a Heron song stretching beyond the 14-minute mark, and Williamson’s 16-minute epic Creation. It is also remarkable for Dust Be Diamonds, the first songwriting collaboration between the two men with music by Heron and lyrics by Williamson.

The following year saw the release of I Looked Up, a collection of six songs. Two of them, Pictures in a Mirror and When You Find Out Who You Are, are Williamson compositions each clocking in at almost 11 minutes. The remaining four, all by Heron, include the love songs This Moment and Fair As You, plus The Letter, on which Fairport Convention’s drummer Dave Mattacks makes a guest appearance.

So that’s the first half of the Incredibles’ story. More in a couple of weeks, including the mysterious disappearance of Licorice.

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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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