The Incredible String Band was a seminal UK Folk group whose main mark on pop music was made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but they have been active of late, among other activities touring and recording film soundtracks (such as the soundtrack to Hideous Kinky in 1999.)
They have been cited as an influence by John Lennon, Steve Winwood and Bob Dylan, and Robert Plant was quoted as saying he would have rather played with them than with Led Zeppelin. They are also a strong influence on David Tibet / Current 93.
The band is known for beautiful vocals and harmonisation as well as (as implied by their name) use of stringed instruments from around the world. Their lyrics often relate to magic and mysticism, with allusions to English paganism, but they somehow manage to come across as earnest where lesser groups sound cheesy. An example is the following lyric from "Invocation" off their album "U" from 1970:
I make a pact with you
you who are the liquidness of the waters
and the spark of the flame
I call upon you
you who make fertile the soft earth
and guard the growth of growing things
I make peace with you
The group's live performances combined their music with mime
, harkening back to older traditions of English folk performance.
A proto-Incredible recording was made by Decca Records at the Edinburgh Folk Festival in 1962 on its Best of The Edinburgh Folk Festival: "Jazz Bo's Holiday" by a duo known as Clive and Robin. Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson then recruited Mike Heron (who had planned to become a chartered accountant!) to form a trio called Clive's Incredible String Band, house band of Clive's Incredible Folk Club in Glasgow, Scotland. Of these days, Robin recalls: "We played from 11:00 on Saturday night to 7:00 Sunday morning. That was what you might call my baptism of fire."
In 1965 the band was signed to Witchseason Records by its owner Joe Boyd, who was also head of Elektra Records Europe.
In 1966 they released their eponymous The Incredible String Band LP. After the album's release, they disbanded. Robin travelled to Morocco with the intention of studying flute, Clive to Afghanistan. Six months later Robin wound up returning to the UK, and reformed the Incredible String Band as a duo with Mike Heron. They soon went back into the studio to record their second album.
5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion was released in 1967. Along with Robin and Mike were guests Danny Thompson (of the Pentangles), John Hopkins (U.F.O.) and Robin's girlfriend Licorice (AKA Christina McKenzie). The album was in line with the current psychedelic fashion with songs like "The Mad Hatter's Song", a melange of Alice in Wonderland and Greek Mythology. Also on the album was a song by Robin called "First Girl I Loved" which was covered by Judy Collins in 1969 as "First Boy I Loved."
In 1968, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter was released. Heron, Williamson, and Licorice were joined by Mike's girlfriend Rose Simpson, making the group a foursome. Mike described the concept of the album as follows: "The hangman is the past 20 years of our lives and the beautiful daughter is now." The album reached number 5 on the British pop charts.
1968 saw the release of ISB's first double album, Wee Tam and the Big Huge, which was released in the U.S. as two LPs. No guest musicians appear on the album. It is one of their more critically-acclaimed releases, with a much more even, unified feel than many of their others.
In 1969 they released Changing Horses, appropriately titled as it is on this album that they first move into using electric instruments.
In the same year, the band appeared at Woodstock. Originally scheduled for a prime evening slot, they refused to go on as rain was leaking through the minimal tarpaulin stage cover and they were concerned about the possibility of electrocution. That night they slept poorly in a damp tent and their performance the next day was less than stellar. Joe Boyd on the subject:
It was Joe Boyd's Greatest Mistake. If I could do it all over again I would put them on in the rain. They would have triumphed like Melanie. They would have been in the movie, and everyone who was in the movie had a huge break. Who knows what would have happened....
Mike Heron had this to say about their performance:
It was incredibly high, right up on this scaffolding, and three out of four of us had vertigo. Little flimsy dresses on the girls, acoustic guitars out of tune, the drums still damp, up this bloody tower, like playing off the Forth Bridge to these seas of people cooking beans in the mud. Oh it was impossible. We were terrible.
I Looked Up was released in 1970, featuring Dave Mattacks (of Fairport Convention) playing drums on "The Letter."
Later in 1970, ISB put on a stage presentation called U along with dance troupe Stone Monkey. The music was well-received though the critics were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of the dancing/mime. ISB released a double album of the music. Sometime during this period, the band was becoming involved in Scientology. Later, Mike Heron was to disavow his involvement, though he did credit the religion with getting his personal life together. Though he claimed that Scientology taught the group to communicate their message more clearly, critics and fans didn't seem to find this to be the case on U; while the songs are interesting and enjoyable, their "message" is anything but clear.
Rose Simpson quit the group in 1971, and Malcolm LeMaistre (formerly a member of the Stone Monkey dance troupe) joined. Mike Heron released his first solo album, Smiling Men With Bad Reputations, accompanied by the Velvet Underground's John Cale as well as members of Fairport Convention. Also in 1971, Elektra put out the best-of album Relics, with selections from the first three albums. It was Elektra's farewell to the band, as they were moving to Island Records.
Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending was the title both of the Incredible String Band movie, directed by John Marshall, and the soundtrack album. Both were released in 1971. The movie features live footage of the group as well as off-the-wall interviews with confused reporters.
Also in 1971, the release of Liquid Acrobat Regards the Air.
In 1972, Robin released his first solo album, Myrrh. Licorice left the ISB and Gerald Dott joined. Earthspan was perhaps their least interesting release to date, with a less experimental, more standard rock and roll sound.
In 1973 they put out what many critics hail as their worst ever, No Ruinous Feud, featuring support on one track by a reggae group called Greyhound.
In 1974, Gerald Dott left the band, and new members were added. They toured with the following six-piece line-up: Mike Heron, Robin Williamson, Malcolm LeMaistre, Stan Lee, Jack Ingram, and Graham Forbes. They put out the album Hard Rope and Silken Twine before finally breaking up in October, 1974. A live recording was made of the group before they broke up at the Rainbow Theatre, appearing on the Scientology album May 9 Concert: A Tribute to L. Ron Hubbard. Numerous other musicians played with ISB on this recording, notably jazz pianist Chick Corea on synthesizer.
The Incredible String Band Discography:
: The Incredible String Band
: 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion
: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
: Wee Tam & the Big Huge
(released in USA as two separate albums)
: Changing Horses
: I Looked Up
: Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending
: Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air
: No Ruinous Feud
: Hard Rope and Silken Twine
: Seasons They Change
: On Air
: BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert
: The Chelsea Sessions 1967
: First Girl I Loved
(live from 1972)
: Robin Williamson & Mike Heron- Live at Bloomsbury 1997
For the moment, I’m neglecting the recent history of the re-formed Incredible String Band, though I do plan to return to update this writeup at some point. I also would like to do a little more research into their involvement with Scientology.