The minstrel thing
As the last of the great 605 groups to be reappraised, The Incredible String Band have been obscured by the attention devoted to the more familiar icons of that era. Now, with a number of their works being reissued. Mike Heron recalls the early days for Norman Chalmers.
Back together in Edinburgh last weekend. though not performing together. were Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. prime movers ofThe Incredible String Band. the band which throughout the 60s and 70s always seemed to be well out of the mainstream — positively empty-headed hippy nonsense to some. creative and imaginative music ofa revolutionary sort to others— yet enjoyed greater album success than any group apart from The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Who and Cream. Now. a large proportion of their back catalogue is starting to emerge on CD.
‘Way back in the l9blls. before. say. Sergeant Pepper. nobody listened to lyrics.‘ remembers Mike Heron. ‘But I was writing songs. I‘d been doing that since I was about twelve years old. I used to go to the Crown Bar in Edinburgh; they‘ve knocked it down now. but it was an early sort of folk club. and folk was a very broad church in those days. I went along as a fan. because I‘d discovered that outside of my area. which was pop and rock and roll. there was this music being made where people actually paid attention to the words that were being sung!‘
Amongst performers like Bert Jansch. Davey Graham and Archie Fisher was an established duo. Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer. who liked Heron‘s songs enough to ask him to join them in what was to become the Incredible String Band. From the beginning. diversity was one of their major strengths.
‘We all approached the music from completely different angles. Clive was very jug-band-oriented. Robin had this strong Celtic inﬂuence. and would change the phrasing of songs all the time. but we came up with a strong. individual sound. and pretty soon we built up a regular audience.‘
In an attempt to ‘get more ofour own scene going'. they opened Clive's Incredible Folk Club
above a shoe shop in Sauchiehall Street. a venture
which lasted only until the authorities got wind of it.
The Incredible String Band. with Mike Heron seeonolrom right (standing) and Robin Williamson second from left scale
‘We opened late and stayed open all night.‘ Heron recalls. ‘()ver many months. all the
musicians in town passed through. Amazing times.
It was a focus for an emerging consciousness. life style. whatever. Joe Boyd. who subsequently became our manager. had heard about the band and arrived from London just in time to meet an agitated I lamish Imlach coming down the street who told him to turn round. the club had been busted and was crawling with police. Joe had to go
’People were taking drugs to reveal the secret of the universe, rather than popping a few and going down the disco.’
all the way back to London without hearing us. After that (‘live went ofro India and Robin headed off to Morocco.‘
Heron went back to writing songs and playing around the clubs until Williamson returned from his wandering. Basically a duo. they wrote a lot of music and headed for a studio in Chelsea with Joe Boyd. emerging with material for the album 5000 Spirits. 'No one called it that then.‘ he says. ‘but I think of it as our world music phase. I loved that period best. At that time. there was a great movement to expansion in music. like Dylan and others. and no great distinction between the tribes.
‘There was a great sense of adventure and discovery. Like with drugs. People were taking them to reveal the secret ofthe universe. rather than popping a few and going down the disco.‘
The Incredible String Band lasted nine years. from 1965 to the autumn of 1974. when Heron and
Williamson felt the irresistible pull oftheir original
3 roots: Heron back to rock and blues. Williamson - to folk music. writing and storytelling (he was once
called ‘the closest thing to a 20th century Celtic bard you‘ll ever encounter‘) and scoring for film. television and theatre.
‘Robin always had a penchant for the kind of minstrel thing. Years later. when the band
' eventually fell to bits. that‘s what he did. The
stadium approach got us down. in the States or whatever. and Robin was very much into rolling round the country. other countries. and playing to an audience. preferably not too large an audience.
to keep the connection and energy. I‘m not like
. that. Idon't need that admiration. Ilast took a
band out in ‘86. But I‘m actually happier working i in the studio or writing songs. I was always a
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songwriter who performed. Robin was always a performer who wrote.‘
And so it goes. Robin Williamson continues to record and play concerts world-wide and Mike Heron produces a stream ofsongs from his Innerleithen home. ‘Sekelele‘. one offour ofhis songs recorded by Manfred Mann is currently top of the South African charts.
Robin Williamson plays at the Glasgow A rts Centre on Fri 25 and Sat26. Incredible String Band albums reissued on CD so far: Liquid A (‘robats As Regards The Air ( Island ). Incredible String Band on A ir.‘ Unreleased BBC recordings (Band ()f/oy). In January. E lektra release 5000 Spirits, The Hangman 's Beautiful Daughter. Wee Tam And The Big Huge. Mike Heron albums: Diamond Of Dreams (Sequel), Smiling Men ll 'it/r Bad Reputations (Island).
The List 25 October—'— 7 November I99! 27