First-stringers 

Back in time with psych-folk legends the Incredible String Band

There is a tendency in journalism, Mike Heron agrees, to lump similar bands together in the same scene simply because members knew each other in passing, or got started around the same time, or simply lived within five kilometers of each other. All the same, Heron insists that there was a real sense of togetherness in and between the outposts of the UK folk scene of the early-to-mid ’60s. In Edinburgh, it included Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer, whom Heron would eventually join to form the Incredible String Band, and the scene initially revolved around folk vanguard Bert Jansch.

When Jansch hitched to London around 1965, Incredible String Band members took up the flag for his Tuesday night folk club at the Crown Bar with a new all-comers event in Glasgow: Clive’s Incredible Folk Club. There was room for nearly any performer who happened to drop by, says Heron, and plenty of room for experimentation and branching out.

“We had the whole night to fill,” Heron recalls, “so the String Band would do two sets, and then Clive, Robin and I did sets individually. John Martin was very much a part of that scene, and so was Bert.”

It was during one of these all-night folk-ins that the three-piece version of the Incredible String Band came to the attention of Joe Boyd, an American producer and London club owner who doubled as a talent scout for New York-based Elektra Records.

“He’d heard about Clive and Robin the year before,” says Heron. “They were doing just a duo at that time, playing Gypsy versions of old British folk material, rough versions of traditional songs. He was already interested in signing them to Elektra, but when he found them they had become three—I had joined them and we were off in a different direction.”

Boyd signed the trio anyway, and the Incredible String Band’s eponymous debut LP was released in 1966. Critics raved about the record, though band members had their initial misgivings about its commercial prospects.

“We were making jug band music,” Heron explains, “and of course Elektra weren’t very interested in that. They were the label with the Doors and Love and Bread and Carly Simon—very much a songwriter’s label, if you like. The reason they signed us, I think, was probably because of [opening track] ‘October Song.’ ’Cause that’s a really good song, and Jac [Holzman, Elektra founder and CEO] always had an ear for good songs, so we were nudged in the direction of writing original material. Robin and I were happy about that because we were doing it anyway. Clive, though, was more into reviving the old jug bands, so he left after the first album and went to [Afghanistan and] India. Later on he did become interested in writing songs and made a few albums, which are now quite collectible. But at the time he wasn’t, so he left.”

Bandmate Robin Williamson also took some time off after the band’s debut recording. His exotic destination of choice was Morocco, where he intended to study music, but the musical instruments he encountered there gave him other ideas.

“Robin came back with a load of instruments and was keen to start again, so he got in touch with me. Joe Boyd put us in the studio together and we played each other the songs we’d done in the interim. We brought in our girlfriends and started to go in a world-music direction.

“We were also very influenced by the whole psychedelic scene,” Heron continues, “because Joe Boyd was the kingpin of it. He was right in the center of the whole thing. We were kind of pulled into it—catapulted into the middle of that scene.”

The retooled band became a fixture at the UFO, Boyd’s legendary London club, bemused participants in psychedelic carnivals featuring live performances, simultaneously projected films by Kenneth Anger, and above all the massive cross-pollination of musical styles. During their UFO tenure, Incredible String Band members rubbed elbows with everybody from Jeff Lynne (future mastermind of the Electric Light Orchestra) and Monty Python co-conspirators the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band to the pint-sized dynamo who would eventually trade his kaffiyeh for skintight gold lame at the helm of T. Rex. Heron recalls that when the Incredible String Band mounted its production of U—an ambitious pageant of music, dance and theater—at the London Roundhouse, UFO acquaintance Marc Bolan attended the performances every night.

“We loved it,” Heron says of the group’s stint in the musical hothouse of swinging London. “We laughed it off. And we were influenced by everything that was going on around us. I think everyone was. It was one of those times when the barriers were down and everyone was interested in what other people were doing. People were very open-minded.”

U later toured the United States, marking one of the Incredible String Band’s last stateside jaunts before breaking up in 1974. The group’s highest profile American performance, however—by 1974, five years behind them—had been a nonevent. Woodstock, Heron agrees, was hardly a smashing success for the group. The band declined to perform on Friday night due to heavy rain, opting for a slot the next afternoon. Sandwiched between Creedence Clearwater Revival and Canned Heat on Saturday, they were treated to a less than rousing reception.

“Joe Boyd has a theory,” Heron says, “that the people who went on while it was raining became famous—Melanie and Richie Havens and all that. His thing is that, on Friday, people were just pleased to be there. The heavier drugs hadn’t kicked in yet. By the time everyone had spent a day eating beans in the mud, they were more into listening to Canned Heat—which, I must say, was a band I enjoyed, too. But people were really roughing it—it was very pioneer-like. To have this flimsy String Band up there doing their thing, well…”

Aside from the peevishness of the crowd, Heron insists that the group chose the wrong songs for the performance. Even while ostensibly touring to support a new record, he explains, the Incredible String Band always drew heavily on new, obscure and otherwise unrecorded material; in retrospect, Heron thinks they should have stuck to stronger tunes. A recently discovered “proper film” of the band’s Woodstock set, he says, has at least convinced him that the performance wasn’t as bad as he and his fellow band members remembered. At the very least, Heron muses, it was an interesting experience.

“We were helicoptered in with Ravi Shankar, in one of these military helicopters with no side. I was absolutely terrified. There’s actually footage of us coming out of the helicopter, and I look very white. It was one of the high points of terror in my life, and I had to share it with Ravi Shankar.”

Joe Boyd, according to Mike Heron, has a lot of theories about the band. He’s suggested that Palmer’s departure after the first album left remaining members Williamson and Mike to soldier on somewhat alone in each other’s company. He’s also ventured that Heron and Williamson didn’t like each other very much. Both claims are untrue, says Heron—although he does affirm a third assertion: that girlfriends Rose Simpson and Licorice “Likky” McKenzie were brought aboard as a kind of checks-and-balances system once the band departed in its more psychedelic direction.

“Joe is very fond of nailing theories,” Heron laughs, “and they’re usually wrong. He’s always saying that the reason Robin and I produced great music was because we bounced off each other, didn’t like each other. Which is complete rubbish. I would write a song and bring it to Robin, and he would suggest all the things he could do on it. And he would do it, too, the other way round. That’s why I eventually took up the sitar. I wanted to add color to things he brought in. I got as far as I could on it, and then when the band broke up I sold it the next day. The whole point of it was to illustrate Robin’s stuff. I didn’t use it to write stuff myself. So the whole theory that Robin and I wrote well together because we didn’t like each other is rubbish, really.”

The almost-original Incredible String Band—Mike Heron, Clive Palmer and Lawson Dando—will perform Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the Crystal Theatre with special guest Joanna Newsom. Tickets are $12/advance (available at Ear Candy), $13/door. Doors open at 8:30 PM. Show starts at 9.

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