Incredible String Band reissues

The UK record company Fledg’ling has just reissued the first four albums by the Incredible String Band. Formed in Scotland, the Incredible String Band made a big impact on me when I first saw them at the Jacquard Folk Club in Norwich way back in February 1967. At that time they were a duo comprising Mike Heron and Robin Williamson – third member Clive Palmer having already left after the release of their debut album. In those days there was no swanky hotel for musicians to stay in after the gig. Folk club guests on the UK circuit sometimes had to make do with whatever accommodation they were offered after the performance. On this particular night both Heron and Williamson ended up sleeping in my sister’s bed. She was no longer living at home, I should add, and so the two Incredibles slept together in what had become our family’s spare bedroom. My mother was pressed into service the next morning with a request to iron Robin Williamson’s crumpled trousers.

But to return to the music, the Incredible String Band were open to all kinds of influences and I’m sure if they had known about the Okinawan sanshin they might very well have attempted to include it in their own music. As well as acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, piano and harpsichord,  some of these early albums also featured oud, gimbri, sitar, finger cymbals, water harp, pan pipe, and the chahanai (and I’m still not sure what that is). Embracing all kinds of hippy mysticism and exotica, they seemed to have run out of fresh ideas by the time of their split in 1974. By the end of that decade the Incredible String Band must have seemed like a relic frozen in time.

The original cover of the 3rd album The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter

However, with the arrival of the term ‘world music’ towards the end of the century it’s possible with hindsight to see they may actually have been ahead of their time. They would surely be regarded as important British ambassadors on the world music scene nowadays. Listening to this music again it stands up very well with its mixture of styles and influences and the innovative writing of both Heron and Williamson. Their second album The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion was a great leap forward and one that must have been taking shape at the time I saw them in Norwich, for the album was released just a few months later, in July 1967. It opens with the remarkable and unusual ‘Chinese White’ and includes Heron’s beautifully melodic ‘Painting Box’ and Williamson’s poignant  ‘First Girl I Loved’.

The following year saw the release of their most experimental – and probably best album – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which included the 13 minute ‘A Very Cellular Song’ one of Heron’s finest achievements. Later the same year came the double album Wee Tam & The Big Huge which embraces an even wider range of lyrical and musical influences from East and West. Their reputation rests on these three albums, as their later work, though occasionally rewarding, could also at times border on the tedious and self-indulgent. But for this short period of time, throughout 1967 and 1968, the Incredible String Band produced a formidable body of work, and I find myself listening again to these albums with renewed excitement more than 40 years later.

More information on the new reissues by Fledg’ling can be found at  www.thebeesknees.com

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