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The Incredible String Band

From: Edinburgh, Scotland

The Incredible String Band (ISB) was a psychedelic folk group formed in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1965. The band built a considerable following, especially with the British counter-culture before finally calling it quits in 1974. The members of the group are considered musical pioneers in psych-folk and, by integrating a very wide variety of traditional music forms and instruments, in the development of world music.

In 1963, acoustic musicians Robin Williamson (mult-instrumentalist including guitar, bass, woodwinds, keyboards, vocals) and Clive Palmer (banjo, vocals) began performing together as a traditional folk duo in Edinburgh, particularly at a club ran by Archie Fisher in the Crown Bar, which also regularly featured Bert Jansch of future Pentangle fame. It was there that they were discovered in August, 1965 by Joe Boyd, then working as a talent scout for the influential folk-based label Elektra Records. Later in the year, the duo decided to fill out their sound by adding a third member, initially to play rhythm guitar. After an audition, local rock musician Mike Heron (multi-instrumentalist including guitar, sitar, keyboards, percussion, vocals) won the slot and the trio christened themselves the Incredible String Band. Early in 1966, Palmer began running an all-night folk venue named Clive's Incredible Folk Club in Glasgow where ISB became the house band. When Boyd was promoted to head of Elektra's London office, he signed ISB up for a debut album, beating off a rival bid from Transatlantic Records.

They recorded their first, self-titled LP at the Sound Techniques studio in London in May, 1966. It was released in both the U.K. and U.S. and consists mostly of self-penned material in solo, duo and trio formats, showcasing their ability to play on a large variety of non-conventional instruments. It won the title of "Folk Album of the Year" in Melody Maker's annual poll, and in a 1968 Sing Out! Magazine interview, Bob Dylan praised the album's 'October Song' as one of his favorite tunes of that period.

The trio surprisingly broke up after recording their debut album when Palmer left via the hippie trail for Afghanistan and India, and Williamson and his girlfriend Licorice McKechnie went to Morocco with no firm plans to return. Heron stayed in Edinburgh, playing with a band called Rock Bottom & the Deadbeats; however, when Williamson returned after running out of money, laden with Moroccan instruments, he and Heron decided to reform the band as a duo.

In November, 1966 Heron and Williamson embarked on a short U.K. tour, supporting Tom Paxton and Judy Collins. In early 1967, they performed regularly at various London clubs, including Les Cousins. Joe Boyd became the group's manager as well as producer, and secured a place for them at the Newport Folk Festival, on a bill with Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

The duo was always credited as separate writers, maintaining their individual creative identities, rather than working as a writing partnership. Boyd wrote: "Mike and Robin were Clive's friends rather than each other's. Without him as a buffer, they developed a robust dislike for one another. 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."

In July, 1967 they released their second LP titled ‘The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion’, accompanied by Pentangle's Danny Thompson on double bass and new members Christina "Licorice" McKechnie (mult-instrumentalist including keyboards, percussion, drums, vocals) and Rose Simpson (bass, violin, percussion, tabla, vocals). The album demonstrated considerable musical development and a more unified ISB sound. It also displayed their abilities as multi-instrumentalists and singer-songwriters, and earned them much wider acclaim. Enthusiastic reviews in the music press were accompanied by high profile appearances at venues such as London's UFO (co-owned by Boyd), the Speakeasy, and Queen Elizabeth Hall. They also gained exposure on Radio London's John Peel's Perfumed Garden radio show, and later on BBC's Top Gear, which made them favorites with an emerging U.K. underground audience. The record shot to #1 on the U.K. folk charts, and was named by Paul McCartney of The Beatles as one of his favorite records of that year.

1968 saw the band reach an apex with the release of their two most-celebrated albums, 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter' and the double LP 'Wee Tam And The Big Huge'. "Hangman's" reached the top 5 in the U.K. album charts soon after its release in March, 1968 and was nominated for a Grammy Award in the U.S. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin said his group found their way by playing "Hangman's" and following the instructions. A departure from the band's previous albums, the set relied heavily on a more layered production, with imaginative use of the then new multi-track recording techniques. The record featured a series of vividly dreamlike Williamson songs, such as 'The Minotaur's Song', a surreal music-hall parody told from the point of view of the mythical beast. Williamson and Heron in this album had added their girlfriends, Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson to the band to contribute additional vocals and a variety of instruments, including organ, guitar and percussion. Despite their initially rudimentary skills, Simpson swiftly became a proficient bass guitarist, and some of McKechnie's songs were recorded by the band.

By early 1968, the group was capable of filling major venues in the U.K. They left behind their folk club origins and embarked on a nationwide tour, including a critically acclaimed appearance at the London Royal Festival Hall. Later in the year they performed at Royal Albert Hall, at open-air festivals, and in the U.S. at the prestigious Fillmore auditoriums in San Francisco and New York City. After their appearance at the Fillmore East in New York, they were introduced to the practice of Scientology by David Simons (aka "Rex Rakish", once of Jim Kweskin's Jug Band). Joe Boyd, in his book "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s", describes how he was inadvertently responsible for their "conversion" when he introduced the band to Simons who, having become a Scientologist, persuaded them to enroll in his absence. The band's support for Scientology over the next few years was controversial among some fans and seemed to coincide with what many saw as the beginning of a decline in the quality of their work. In an interview with Oz Magazine in 1969, the band spoke enthusiastically of their involvement with it, although the question of its effect on their later albums has provoked much discussion ever since.

Their third LP ('Wee Tam And The Big Huge') was issued in late 1968 and is considered to be musically less experimental and lush than "Hangman's", but conceptually even more avant-garde, a full-on engagement with the themes of mythology, religion, awareness and identity. Williamson's otherworldly songs and vision dominate the album, though Heron's more grounded tracks are also among his very best, and the contrast between the two perspectives gives the record its uniquely dynamic interplay between a sensual experience of life and a quest for metaphysical meaning. The record was released as a double album and also simultaneously as two separate LPs - a strategy which lessened its impact on the charts, but it is invariably the favorite album in polls among hard-core ISB fans.

The band toured extensively for much of 1969 in both the U.K. and U.S. In August of that year they played Woodstock later than planned, having refused to perform in the pouring rain on the opening evening. As a result, ISB wasn't included in the iconic movie documenting the festival; their performance was re-scheduled, and they did not go down well with the crowd which was used to the more hard-hitting psychedelic rock of bands such as Canned Heat who had preceded them earlier that day. In November, 1969 they released the LP 'Changing Horses', which was generally seen as a disappointment when compared to their earlier works. By late '69, they had also established a communal base at Glen Row near Innerleithen.

In April, 1970, ISB released their fifth LP titled 'I Looked Up', and by now their performances were more theatrical than those of most of their contemporaries. In addition to the spectacle of their exotic instruments and colorful stage costumes, their concerts sometimes featured poems, surreal sketches and dancers, all in the homegrown, non-showbiz style characteristic of the hippy era. Later in the year, Williamson (with little input from Heron) attempted to fuse the music with his theatrical fantasies in a quixotic multi-media spectacular at London's Roundhouse, naming it simply "U", which he envisaged as "a surreal parable in dance and song". It combined the band's music with dancing by the Stone Monkey troupe with the letter U representing a transition from a high level of spiritual awareness to a low, then returning to a final peak of awareness and communication. Although ambitious, its reception was mixed, with some harsh reviews from critics who had in some cases acclaimed their earlier work. It fared little better in New York City, a planned U.S. tour of "U" having to be cancelled after a few performances at the Fillmore East, with Joe Boyd describing the show as "a disaster".

In 1970, Boyd, whose skillful handling of the band had contributed to much their international success, stopped managing them and returned to the U.S. The group then left Elektra and signed with Island Records, for whom they recorded another five LPs. The first was a soundtrack to the film 'Be Glad...', and this was followed by the eclectic 'Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air', which was received quite well.

The band continued to tour and record throughout the early 1970s. Simpson left in 1971, and was replaced by Malcolm LeMaistre (multi-instruumentalist include bass, keyboards, percussion, vocals) formerly of the Stone Monkey troupe. Heron took time out to record a well-received solo album ('Smiling Men With Bad Reputations') which, in contrast to the ISB's self-contained productions, featured a host of session guests, including Pete Townshend and Keith Mon of Who, Ronnie Lane (of Small Faces fame), John Cale (of Velvet Underground fame) and Richard Thompson (of Fairport Convention fame). The following year, McKechnie left and was replaced by Gerard Dott (clarinet, saxophone, keyboards, vibraphone), an Edinburgh jazz musician and friend of both Heron and Williamson who had contributed to "Smiling Men". Williamson also recorded a solo album ('Myrrh'), which featured some of his most extraordinary vocal performances.

The group's changing line-up, adding Stan Schnier (aka "Stan Lee") on bass, Jack Ingram on drums, and Graham Forbes on electric guitar, reflected moves toward a more conventional amplified rock group. Their final albums for Island were received disappointingly, and the label dropped them in 1974. By then, disagreements between Williamson and Heron about musical policy had become unbearable, prompting their split up in October 1974.

Original LPs/EPs

The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion

Original LP/EP Label: Elektra EUK/EUKS 257

Released: July, 1967

Songs from this album played on TWOS:

  • Chinese White
  • Gently Tender
  • Way Back In The 1960s

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter

Original LP/EP Label: Elektra EUK/EUKS 258

Released: March, 1968

Songs from this album played on TWOS:

  • The Minotaur's Song
  • Waltz Of The New Moon