If you were to join me for one of my summer-evening, music listening sessions on the back deck, there are some musicians you are likely to hear: in decreasing order of probability, Van Morrison, Little Feat, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Elvis Costello …
But, occasionally, I get a wild hair, and somebody else gets dialed up on the iPod. The other night, that wild hair was, “I’d like to hear the Incredible String Band.”
Some of my four or five readers may ask themselves, “Who the heck are they?” Or “What the heck is that?” The answers are, “Hard to explain.” But I will try.
I have one ISB album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter — like much of my 33 1/3 vinyl library, a purchase inspired by listening to Radio Free Madison, WIBA-FM’s “underground” station back in the late 1960s. I’m sure that it was one of a couple cuts from that LP that motivated me to buy it: “Koeeoaddi There” or “A Very Cellular Song.”
Backing up, just who, and what, was the Incredible String Band? They are described as psychedelic folk rock, which is an 1960s rock genre modified with a later-’60s adjective, and something that many rock and roll fans didn’t know was a thing. They originated in 1966 in Edinburgh, Scotland, folk clubs as a duo, Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer; they were discovered by Joe Boyd, an American music producer who has worked with a number of well-known acts, ranging from 10,000 Maniacs to Pink Floyd.
Palmer and Williamson advertised for a third member, and Michael Heron won the audition. Palmer went off in search of himself in Southwest Asia — a thing back then — and Heron and Williamson began the duo that would constitute ISB for the next eight years, with add-on musicians, including both artists’ girlfriends-to-be. Their duo act was not a marriage made in heaven, but their antipathy towards each other fed creativity.
The original trio recorded the Band’s first, self-titled album. The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion followed the following year, with the LP in my collection next, in 1968. Nine more albums — 10, if you include the fact that their November 1968 double album, Wee Tam and the Big Huge, was put out in the U.S. as separate disks — were released between then and 1974.
At that time, Heron and Williamson’s creative differences, and decreasing commercial and critical success, resulted in the band’s dissolution. They did reunite in 1997, and toured until 2003.
Which answered a question that popped into my head listening to them last week: Could these guys be out there on the Geezer Circuit (as I like to call it). Couldn’t see them playing the casinos in their 70s, but I guess they did try to recreate the magic in their 50s, anyway.
What attracted me about The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter? Mostly the lyrics, as is often the case with artists that I like. Heron and Williamson were not a songwriting team, penning their compositions separately, in the case of THBD the latter credited with the majority of the tracks. Accordingly, the themes and song structures are all over the map, but are uniformly extraordinary.
Not that I like them all, which is one reasons that I listen to the LP only occasionally. “The Minotaur’s Song,” the second cut on the album, kind of stops you before barely have gotten started — a repetitive, simplistic lyric, told from the point of view of the mythological beast. The next-to-last track, “Swift As the Wind,” is disturbing — an oddly-structured narration of a child’s nightmare.
But “Koeeoaddi There” — the LP’s first track — is charming. And not just because of the verse that starts, “Mrs. Thomson gave me a bear.” At almost five minutes in length, the lyric meanders from its opening, “The natural cards revolve ever changing” to the reprise of a sort-of chorus: “Earth, water, fire and air/Met together in a garden fair,/Put in a basket bound with skin./If you answer this riddle,/If you answer this riddle,/You'll never begin.”
“A Very Cellular Song” is a 13-minute epic, weaving together a Bahamian spiritual, East Indian and Celtic mysticism with Heron’s closing benediction, “May the long time sun shine upon you,/All love surround you,/And the pure light within you/Guide you all the way on.” In between, a section about one of the simplest form of life begins with an eerie comment by band member, and Heron’s sometime girlfriend, the delightfully named Licorice McKechnie: “Amoebas are very small.” The instrumentation is also all over the map, including flute organ, harpsichord, jew’s harp, kazoo and oud, the last of those a Middle Eastern/North African lute.
And, truth be told, one of the charms of the album — as was the case with many LPs of the 1960s and ’70s — is the cover artwork. Heron and Williamson appear on the front looking like a couple free lance goatherds; on the back, they are joined by Licorice, Williamson’s then girlfriend, friends and children of friends, and a dog.
On the album cover, Licorice looks a lot like my girlfriend at the time I bought the album. And she’s mentioned in a delightful verse of “Koeeoaddi There”: “But me and licorice saw the last of them one misty, twisty day,/Across the mournful morning moor, motoring away.”
THBD was critically considered to be the highpoint of the Incredible String Band’s creative efforts. It was commercially successful in the United Kingdom, although much less so in the U.S. It was nominated for a Grammy in the folk music category.
ISB did have some influence on other artists. Bob Dylan said a song from their first album, “October Song,” was one of his favorites; Paul McCartney said the same of that first, self-titled LP. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin said THBD heavily influenced that band’s first LP.
Makes me think I should add to my collection of Incredible String Band, at least their earlier albums.