I want you to know, we just had to grow

We’re currently tightly clasped to the fleshy bosom of the Welsh countryside, taking a summer sabbatical – walking, chatting, quaffing cider (and a liberal selection from the Roger Stirling book of ill-advised cocktails) and generally getting our shit together in the country. I’m reminded of last summer when we did pretty much the same thing (without the Gibsons) and I spent the week listening to Dr Strangely Strange (you can recap here). Well this year, here we are again, same remote cottage, same liberal intentions, but now I find myself a year on and venturing still further afield on the CD player – pretty much cutting myself adrift to be honest.

As I become more and more of a middle-aged eccentric I find myself listening to the Byrds and the Kinks less, and embracing stranger and more colourful things. If, as Mark Twain once said, a gentleman is someone who can play the Incredible String Band (but doesn’t) I’m finding myself less and less inclined to describe myself as such.

In short, I’m listening to the String Band again and, fuck it, I think I’m a fan.

The Incredible String Band

In the Strangely Strange post, I talked about shelling out a whole £4.99 (outrageous!) on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and the ensuing hysterical drive to convince myself that it wasn’t the stupidest record I’d ever heard. (Not entirely successful, it bears repeating…).

Having seen Joe Boyd talking about ISB at Green Man one year, though, and his going on to say that of all the artists he was involved with at the time (google the list, it’s impressive), the String Band were the ones he felt were the most talented and were going to make it biggest, well… it went some way towards rehabilitating Mike Heron and Robin Williamson.

(Robin Hitchcock’s accompanying version of “Chinese White” was also instrumental).

I’ve revisited them a whole bunch more in recent years, in particular the two records they released before HBD, the second of which (5000 Spirits or the Layers of an Onion – I know…) I’ve spent much of this last week imbibing, before being whisked away to the Welsh hills. A brief look through various reviews of all of their albums reveals that the String Band reputation still rests upon the third and fourth records, so I’ve obviously got some work to do. For the moment, however, I’ll stick with 5000 Spirits, (maybe next year’s getting-it-together-in-the-country post…)

Originally an Edinburgh threesome with Clive Palmer departing for Afghanistan after the eponymous first record, the remaining duo went on something of a hiatus as Williamson too took off for North Africa (Heron was apparently unaware of his plans until they walked out of the final recording sessions). Fortunately for fans of daft, fey folk, he returned a year later, arms laden with exotic stringed devices and a head full of Arabic chord changes, and reconnected with Heron.

Most of this I’m relaying from the first half of a book I’ve just finished called “You Know What You Could Be” jointly written by Mike Heron and a bloke called Andrew Greig, which is a lovely book. (The second half, written by Greig, tells of a young devotee of the String Band whose own band didn’t quite make it, although along the way they met Williamson and Heron; were bought breakfast by Joe Boyd and drank with Dr Strangely Strange. It’s a great read…)

The new duo’s second record is a more ambitious affair than the first. To be honest, “ambitious” is something of an understatement – “eccentric”, “weird” or even (a personal favourite) “bat-shit crazy” would be better. Williamson was keen to dip into his satchel of stringed things, incorporating Moroccan gimbris, Indian sitars, Arabic ouds and adapted mandolins into a bag of already idiosyncratic songs. The distinctive drone that opens first track “Chinese White”, for instance, is a bowed gimbri – a sound most record-buying Brits of the time would have been unfamiliar with and must have given it a genuinely strange timbre which endures even in these days of post-modern deviation. Heron had not been idle in the months that passed either, contributing some of the stronger, more focused efforts on the record – “Chinese White”, “Hedgehog Song” and “Painting Box” are all his.

I’m a great one for exotica, as you’ll have guessed by now, but I gather one of the String Band’s genuine achievements was to have gained something of a mastery over these odd things and used them to convey a woody legitimacy to their weirdness. In an age of hippies shamelessly dressing up their pop songs with sitars and Indian sounds, the String Band could actually play and when in doubt brought in others who could. (The “Soma” credited on the liner notes of 5000 Spirits was actually professor of South Asian music, Nazir Jairazbhoy. The ubiquitous Danny Thompson was another contributor.)

I guess the thing you have to get over to really enjoy this record is the inherent silliness of much of it – the lyrics are sometimes ridiculous, the vocals often innovative (alright, stupid), and let’s be honest their look has not aged that well, has it?

Here’s a clip of Williamson and Heron pretty much nailing all of the above on the Julie Felix show in 1968, playing “The Half-Remarkable Question” (no sniggering at the back) and “Painting Box”

 

If you managed all ten minutes of the video, you’ll have seen both the “stoned” and the “immaculate” of the String Band, by turns faintly ridiculous then elegantly brilliant, the daftness and the deftness of it all.

I’m a bit of a fool for the compulsive eclecticism and oddness of the String Band, but I also love the way the pair of them simply cannot help themselves, decorating their songs with more and more elaborate musical swirls, even to the point of an ill-advised obscuring of their original (often very simple) idea.

At my most florid, I like to think of the Incredible String Band as having something of the medieval acolyte about them – countless hours spent illuminating holy texts with impressive and at times reckless embellishments that few will ever see or appreciate. (But if Williamson and Heron have taught me anything, it’s that some ideas are best not actually expressed, or at least privately, after a couple of drinks…)

I do have a Lucky Seven collection of must have ISB recordings to enjoy, but being out in the wilds, this will have to wait… Enjoy the YouTube clips in the meantime…

Try it, play it secretly, pour yourself a drink (or whatever) and embrace a little daft/deft eccentricity. God knows we deserve it at times.

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