Two guitars and a whistle, basically…

 

Just come back from a very agreeable week of getting-it-together-in-the-country, ensconced in a converted barn near Abergavenny. A lovely few days of doing very little, apart from indulging ourselves to a ridiculous degree. We ate like fish, drank like students, read like kings and walked like things that walk a lot. All very restorative, I can tell you. No wifi of course, so I stocked up on podcasts and spunked away my eMusic allowance on all sorts of feckless exotica, including one particular whimsical Celtic delight.

As a callow trippy youth, I remember reading about Edinburgh’s archetypal acid-folksters the Incredible String Band and their “masterpiece” The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. Amazingly, (and presumably in error), Gloucester HMV actually stocked it – as the years have gone by and HMV has become ever more dull-witted, this has seemed more and more unlikely, but it really happened – and I spent an astronomical £4.99 on it.

I think it’d be safe to say that a naïve Doors/Hendrix/Soft Machine fan was in no way prepared for the degree of strangeness and fantastical silliness that I was to encounter from note one. It took a whole lot of frantic listening (and more than a little desperate determination) to convince myself that I’d not wasted my money and to become reconciled to the highly idiosyncratic Heron/Williamson style.

These days, I’m kind of OK with a bit of Incredible String Band, but if I could go back in time I’d probably spring in front of the aforementioned callow youth, and suggest that he might like to try a bit of Dr Strangely Strange first before going straight on to the String stuff.

Dr Strangely Strange

This over-extended and fairly tortuous analogy is my way of saying that Dublin’s Dr Strangely Strange were a bit like the Incredible String Band, less “Incredible” but still quite “Stringy”.

Formed in 1967 by guitarists Tim Booth and Ivan Pawle, and then joined by multi-instrumentalist Tim Goulding on harmonium and ping pong bats, Dr Strangely Strange became favourites of John Peel and managed to get the String Band’s producer, the great Joe Boyd, to work on their second record 1970’s Heavy Petting.

It’s a pretty varied, mainly acoustic affair with all manner of exotic instrument being trundled out – harmoniums, mandolins, dulcimers, ocarinas, banjos, a whole range of flutes and whistles, and some “distinctive” vocal stylings. The songs are charming time-pieces of gossamer-thin folksiness, touching lightly on pastoral life, requited love, church organs and wasps.

On the whole, however, the odd dash of blues (and a few bursts of electric guitar from a teenage Gary Moore) keeps the record safely on this side of the bank, and would have ensured that my younger self felt a little less adrift than the poor feller was with Hangman’s.

My favourite track is the lugubrious “Sign on my Mind” with its two distinctive extended instrumental breaks, one more pastoral with some exquisite acoustic guitar and mandolin meanderings, the other more bluesy (I think this may be where Gary Moore gets his chance…)

 

The lyrics, without scaling the fey heights of silliness that Heron and Williamson managed, are playful and mainly pretty daft – but again the use of a fair smattering of Christian images and the odd earthy metaphor ensure that the first time listener has a helpful line of breadcrumbs to follow out of the woods.

As we drove home from our brief sojourn, we came past Glanusk, the home of the ever-wonderful Green Man festival, and it struck me that obscure and largely forgotten as the Strangelies are, their legacy and that of the String Band is writ large upon the hillsides of today’s folk scene. Gorky’s fans, for example, will be familiar with many of the sounds and stylings of Booth and Pawle, and I’d be very surprised if there’s not a copy of Heavy Petting nestling coyly in Euros Childs’ record collection.

Even in the heady days of the late sixties, (and even with the patronage of Joe Boyd) success eluded the slender fingers of the band and Goulding left to enter a Buddhist monastery (as one did in those days), with Booth and Pawle struggling on for a few months before separating by 1973.

There is, however, a rather fine documentary about Dr Strangely Strange, called Strangely Strange but Oddly Normal, which is available in three parts on YouTube. Here’s the first part as a taster (although sadly it cuts out in the last couple of minutes):

 

The sound track to a wander in the Welsh hillsides…