The Incredible String Band - Biography
By J Poet
The Incredible String Band is unique in the annals of folk/pop music, a chaotic amalgamation of folk, singer/songwriter, Celtic, psychedelia, blues, rock and world music, before the last term was coined. Their songs were free flowing, linear suites with radical changes of tune, time, and timbre, full of mythological, biological and wildly poetic images all dancing together in a dizzying free for all. Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and other heavies all claimed then as influences and praised their talents as musicians and songwriters. Rabidly anti-commercial, their albums grew more ambitious and distinctive as their career progressed, but they still managed to find a large audience who stayed with them to the end. They released 13 albums in their nine-year history. In 1997 they reformed for what was to be a two-concert tour and they’ve been playing sporadic gigs ever since, mostly concentrating on material from their first five albums.
The Incredible String Band was formed the mid 60s when Clive Palmer, a bluegrass loving banjo player from Glasgow enlisted Robin Williamson (guitar, vocals) and Mike Heron (guitar, vocals) for a bluegrass trio. Palmer was running The Incredible Folk Club, hence the band’s name, although the soon lived up to it with their seeming ability to play and stringed instrument extant. Heron had rock band experience and Williamson and Palmer had played as both a bluegrass and Scottish folk duo. Joe Boyd, who was opening the British office of Elektra Records, saw them and asked for a demo tape. He hated the bluegrass stuff, but liked their original tunes, and signed them on condition that they write more songs. The Incredible String Band (1966 Elektra, 1994 Rykodisc/Hannibal, 1993 WEA UK) was a good album, but its combination of American and Celtic influenced songs had no hint of what was to come. On its release Palmer left the band to travel to Afghanistan and Williamson spent several months studying music in Morocco. Not the best career plan.
Williamson and Heron tentatively started working on the second album. Both had known Palmer, but not each other, so things were tense at first, but the music soon took over. The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers of the Onion (1966 Elektra, 1994 Rykodisc/Hannibal, 1992 WEA UK) featured Williamson playing some of the instruments he brought back from Morocco and may be the first psychedelic folk album. Ouds, sitars and the band’s surrealistic lyrics blew minds and the cover art, designed by The Fool, who painted the murals on the Beatles Apple building, was mind-boggling. Their live gigs, featuring the two members playing, ahem, musical instruments as they switched from sitars to gimbri to organ, got rave reviews. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1966 Elektra, 1994 Rykodisc/Hannibal, 1994 WEA UK) made the ISB pop stars for a few months. It reached #5 on the British charts and Mike Heron’s “Very Cellular Song” became a hit despite its 12 minute 55 second length. The songs were now free flowing, psychedelic suites full of wide eyed innocence and surreal humor. In 1966 only The Beatles, Cream and The Rolling Stones sold more albums in the UK.
Wee Tam and The Big Huge (1968 Elektra, 1994 Rykodisc/Hannibal, 1993 WEA UK) was a double album in the UK, but released as two single albums in the US. In 1969 they appeared at Woodstock, wrote a score for the dance troupe Stone Monkey’s multimedia show called U, expanded the band by adding their girlfriends Rose Simpson and Licorice McKenzie who were also multi-instrumental aces and released Changing Horses (1969 Elektra, 1994 Rykodisc/Hannibal, 1993 WEA UK). They started moving toward a more amplified folk/rock sound. The press also began to criticize the same eclectic approach that made the ISB unique. I Looked Up (1966 Elektra, 1994 Rykodisc/Hannibal, 2002 WEA UK) got less than stellar reviews, and is the last album of the band’s glory days, six extended songs that flashed back to their Celtic and folk roots. The band finally released the music they composed for U in 1970, on a two record set (1994 Rykodisc/Hannibal, 2002 WEA UK), but it lacked cohesion and is not on a par with their best work although it has its moments.
In 1971 Rose Simpson left the band and they underwent a major personnel shift as they moved to Island Records. Heron put out a solo rock’nroll album Smiling Men With Bad Reputations (1971 Elektra UK, 2004 Fledgling) with guest shots by Pete Townshend, John Cale, Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood and Keith Moon. Williamson put out his own solo effort Myrrh (1972 Island UK, 1992 ED) which got good reviews while the ISB, with its expanded lineup, put out four albums for Island - Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air (1971 Island), Earthspan (1972 Island,) No Ruinous Feud (1973 Island), and Hard Rope and Silken Twine (1973 Island.) they’re all mixed efforts with the exception of Hard Rope and Silken Twine which is basically a Heron folk rock album as Williamson only contributed backing instrumentation and one song. The band’s rock direction bothered Williamson and the duo called it quits, agreeing to never resurrect The Incredible String Band name for future solo projects.
Heron had a rock band called Mike Heron’s Reputation for a while and began writing more mainstream rock sings for artists like Bonnie Tyler and Manfred Mann. Williamson has released 20 solo albums of Celtic flavored music and now lives in Los Angeles. In 1997 they reformed for what was to be a two-concert tour and they’ve been playing sporadic gigs ever since, mostly concentrating on material from their first five albums. They headlined Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival in 2000. Williamson left again soon after and Clive Palmer returned and that band is still on the road.