INCREDIBLE STRING BAND- I LOOKED UP AND U.

INCREDIBLE STRING BAND- I LOOKED UP AND U.

For nine years and twelve albums, the Incredible String Band were pioneers within the somewhat staid folk scene. The Incredible String Band’s music was very different to what had gone before. It’s best described as a progressive and psychedelic style of folk music. This is apparent on U and I Looked Up, which were recently rereleased by BGO Records. These two albums show why the Incredible String Band’s music found favour not just in their native Scotland, but much further afield.

By 1969, the Incredible String Band had played the biggest venues in Britain and America. This included London’s Royal Albert Hall, the Filmore East in New York and the Filmore West in San Francisco. The Incredible String Band were one of the biggest and most successful folk bands per se. That’s why they were booked to play at Woodstock in 1969.

Rain delayed the Incredible String Band’s performance at Woodstock. They were due to play at 10.50 pm on Friday 15th August 1969. This was when all the other folk acts were due to play. The Incredible String Band were due to follow Ravi Shankar. However, as Ravi Shankar played, the heavens opened. This presented a problem for the Incredible String Band. They refused to go on. Realising that the Incredible String Band were one of the biggest folk bands of the day, their performance was rescheduled. Melanie was called in as a last-minute replacement for the Incredible String Band. 

Between 6.00-6.30pm on Saturday 15th August 1969, the Incredible String Band took to the stage. They followed the Keef Hartley. From the moment the Incredible String Band took to the stage, they played a starring role in the Woodstock Festival. They had the audience in the palm of their hands. For the Incredible String Band, this was a long way from their early days in playing at Archie Fisher’s folk club in the Crown Bar, Edinburgh.

In fact, only six years had passed since Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer first played together. This was at the Crown Bar, Edinburgh, in 1963. Archie Fisher hosted the folk night where two years later, in 1965, Joe Boyd, who was then working as an A&R man for Elektra Records first saw the Incredible String Band. Joe Boyd would later, play an important part in the Incredible String Band story. Before that, two became three.

Later in 1965, Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer decided that the Incredible String Band should become a trio. They wanted someone to fill out their sound. This third man should play rhythm guitar. Enter Mike Heron. It was then that the band donned the moniker Incredible String Band. A year later, Joe Boyd reentered the Incredible String Band’s world.

By 1966, the Incredible String Band were the house band at Clive’s Incredible Folk Club. It was based on the fourth floor of a building on Sauchiehall Street, in Glasgow, Scotland’s musical capital. One night, Joe Boyd made his way to Clive’s Incredible Folk Club. He was a man with a mission. Joe was determined to sign the Incredible String Band. Elektra Records wanted to sign them. They were, after all, predominately, a folk label. However, another label were interested in the Incredible String Band, Transatlantic Records. However, Joe Boyd managed to sign the Incredible String Band and took them into the studio in May 1966.

The Incredible String Band.

To record their eponymous debut album, Joe Boyd took the Incredible String Band into the Sound Techniques’ studio in London. Joe Boyd would produce The Incredible String Band. It features a total of sixteen songs. They were a mixture of original and traditional songs. On these songs, the Incredible String Band deployed an eclectic selection of instruments. Guitars, fiddles, a mandolin, kazoo, violin and tin whistle featured on The Incredible String Band, which was completed in June 1966.

On its release, on 20th July 1966, The Incredible String Band was well received by critics. It was a much more traditional album than later Incredible String Band albums. The psychedelic imagery wasn’t present. That was still to come. In 1966, the Incredible String Band were still a traditional folk group and a popular one at that.

The Incredible String Band reached number thirty-four in the UK charts. It spent three weeks in the charts. For a debut album, by a group who had just signed to their label, this was good going. However, things went awry.

After recording The Incredible String Band, the band split-up. Clive Palmer decided to head off on the hippie trail to Afghanistan and India. Robin Williamson and his girlfriend also caught the travel bug. They headed to Morocco. Only Mike Heron remained in Edinburgh. He hooked up with Rock Bottom and The Deadbeats. With the Incredible String Band looking like history, this was his latest band. However, that wasn’t the case. The Incredible String Band reformed.

Robin Williamson returned from Morocco. He had run out of money. However, he brought back an eclectic selection of musical Moroccan instruments. They would feature on later Incredible String Band albums. 

Clive and Robin decided that the Incredible String Band should reform, but as a duo. This was essentially the Incredible String Band Mk. II. They made their debut on a tour in November 1966, where they supported Judy Collins and Tom Paxton. After the tour, the Incredible String Band had an award to collect. 

Their debut album The Incredible String Band won the Folk Album Of The Year in Melody Maker’s 1966 annual poll. The Incredible String Band was well regarded among their musical peers. Bob Dylan referred to October Song as one of his favourite songs of the mid-sixties in an interview in Sing Out magazine. With the Incredible String Band reforming, this was spurred them on to greater heights. 

61uJO9Y0FdL._SX425_

511mfHky7UL

The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion.

Buoyed by winning the Folk Album Of The Year Award, and the praise of Bob Dylan ringing in their ears, the Incredible String Band set about writing and recording their sophomore album. Unlike many bands, the Incredible String Band didn’t write together. When they were apart, that is when they wrote their new songs. This was the case with their sophomore album The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. Clive and Robin contributed seven songs each. They became The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion.

Reduced to a duo, the Incredible String Band brought onboard a number of guest musicians. This included Pentangle double bassist Danny Thompson, pianist Jon Hopkins and Soma, who played sitar and tamboura. Licorice McKechnie, Robin William’s girlfriend contributed percussion and added vocals. Joe Boyd produced The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. It was completed early in 1967. When it was released, it marked a change in the Incredible String Band’s sound.

The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion was the start of the Incredible String Band’s psychedelic folk era. However, mostly, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion drew upon traditional British folk music. What was apparent was that Robin and Mike had matured and evolved as musicians. They had honed their sound. It was also apparent that they were talented multi-instrumentalists. Almost seamlessly, they switched between instruments. What also shawn through was that Robin and Mike were talented songwriters. Their songs were cerebral and full of imagery and mystery. There was also a psychedelic hue. This fusion of the traditional and psychedelic, found favour among critics and music lovers.

When The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion was released in July 1967, it seemed to typify the underlying counter-culture. It struck a nerve with critics and music lovers. Critics hailed The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion as an eclectic and innovative album. The Incredible String Band had picked up where the left with their eponymous debut album.

With its eclectic, genre-melting style The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion appealed to a broad spectrum of people. It reached number twenty-five in the UK charts, where it spent five weeks. Gradually, the Incredible String Band’s popularity was growing. It seemed as if  the Incredible String Band were on the verge of greatness.

61+l9VhxJhL

 

61k6qLDOa1L

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.

They were. 1968 was the biggest year of the Incredible String Band’s nascent career. They released two albums. The first of these was The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.

For The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Robin wrote seven songs and Mike three songs. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter wasn’t a sprawling album. Their two previous albums featured sixteen and fourteen songs. This time, only ten songs featured. They marked a coming of age for Robin Williamson and Mike Heron.

With Joe Boyd producing The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, the Incredible String Band entered the studio in December 1967. Robin and Mike played most of the instruments. They were joined by Licorice McKechnie, who was with the Incredible String Band until 1972. Other musicians were drafted in on an ad hoc basis. This included Fairport Convention’s Judy Dyble and Richard Thompson, who played piano on The Minotaur’s Song. During the recording sessions, the Incredible String Band made use of the new multi-track tape recorders. They were able to layer instruments on top of each other. For the Incredible String Band, this was a departure from their “usual sound.” It worked though, and played its part in what was the Incredible String Band’s Magnus Opus.

Released in March 1968, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter represented, promoted and epitomised the hippie ideal. This included Eastern mysticism, communal living and rational pantheism. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was a cerebral and beautiful album. It featured songs that were dreamy, ethereal, cerebral and surreal. The Minotaur’s Song is essentially a parodic song, influenced by the British musical hall. It’s sung from the Minotaur’s perspective. Very different is the thirteen minute epic, A Very Cellular Song. It’s a reflective, thoughtful song that poses a series of big questions on life, love, and amoebas. Throughout The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, the Incredible String Band fuse musical genres. Mostly though, their unique brand of progressive, psychedelic folk shines through. It found an audience on both sides of the Atlantic.

Released to widespread critical acclaim, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter reached number five in the UK, where it spent twenty-one weeks in the charts. This was the Incredible String Band’s most successful UK album. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter became the Incredible String Band’s first album to chart in the US. It reached number 161 in the US Billboard 200. Having spent nine weeks in the US Billboard 200, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter the Incredible String Band was nominated for a Grammy Award. It seemed  the Incredible String Band were going places.

51xVLr5aGuL

61mNR15KjDL

Wee Tam and The Big Huge.

Having just released the most successful album of their career, the Incredible String Band were one of the most successful British groups. They were capable of filling the biggest venues. This wasn’t just in the UK. Over the Atlantic, the Incredible String Band were equally popular. This included the Filmore East in New York and the Filmore West in San Francisco. Their third album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was a game-changer. It broke the Incredible String Band in America. Later, in 1968, they tried to do the same with Wee Tam and The Big Huge.

Wee Tam and The Big Huge was without doubt, the most ambitious album of the Incredible String Band’s career. It was released as a double album in the UK and as two individual albums, Wee Tam and The Big Huge, in the US. This meant that Robin and Mike had been busy. They had written eighteen tracks. Robin penned ten and Mike eight. When they recorded Wee Tam and The Big Huge, it would be with their usual eclectic selection of instruments and their two girlfriends.

Joe Boyd, who had produced the Incredible String Band’s three previous albums would produce Wee Tam and The Big Huge. Joe decided that the Incredible String Band should be recorded as a group, rather than overdubbing parts later. Given time was short, for the Incredible String Band this seemed a risky decision. It could’ve backfired. However, Joe wanted to capture the essence of the Incredible String Band live.

Given the variety of instruments Robin and Mike played, some overdubbing was necessary. Unlike previous albums, no guest artists featured. Only Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson, Robin and Mike’s respective girlfriends featured on Wee Tam and The Big Huge. They played their part on what was the Incredible String Band’s most electric album, Wee Tam and The Big Huge.

November 1968 saw the release of Wee Tam and The Big Huge. It was the followup to The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. This was a hard act to follow. The Incredible String Band realised this. So rather than make The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter Mk. II, Wee Tam and The Big Huge was a very different album. Eclectic describes Wee Tam and The Big Huge. It’s an album of disparate influences. Similarly, a verity of different instruments were used. Even the arrangement differ. Themes included mythology, religion, awareness and identity. Critics appreciated this change of direction from the Incredible String Band. It was an ambitious release. However, it didn’t fare well commercially.

When it was released in the UK in November 1968 as a double album, Wee Tam and The Big Huge failed to chart. Four months later, Wee Tam and The Big Huge were released as separate albums in March 1969. Wee Tam reahed number 174 in the US Billboard 200 and The Big Huge stalled at just number 180 in the US Billboard 200. After spending just just three weeks in the charts, both albums disappeared. Despite their lack of commercial success, Wee Tam and The Big Huge are seen as one of the best albums the Incredible String Band released. After Wee Tam and The Big Huge, the Incredible String Band wouldn’t release another album until November 1969.

In 1969, the Incredible String Band hit the road. They embarked upon a gruelling tour. During this period, the Incredible String Band were living communally in a farmhouse in Newport, Pembrokeshire. It was during this time, that The Incredible String Band were interested in mixed media. This was something that would later influence their music. However, in 1969, touring was what kept them busy. 

The most high profile date the Incredible String Band played was at Woodstock. The Incredible String Band were one of the biggest and most successful folk bands in the world. That’s why they were booked to play at Woodstock in 1969.

Rain delayed the Incredible String Band’s performance at Woodstock. They were due to play at 10.50 pm on Friday 15th August 1969. This was when all the other folk acts were due to play. The Incredible String Band were due to follow Ravi Shankar. However, as Ravi Shankar played, the heavens opened. This presented a problem for the Incredible String Band. So they refused to go on. Realising that the Incredible String Band were one of the biggest folk bands of the day, their performance was rescheduled. Melanie was called in as a last-minute replacement for the Incredible String Band. 

Between 6.00-6.30pm on Saturday 15th August 1969, the Incredible String Band took to the stage. They followed the Keef Hartley. From the moment the Incredible String Band took to the stage, they played a starring role in the Woodstock Festival. They had the audience in the palm of their hands. Following their appearance at the Woodstock Festival, the Incredible String Band kept on touring. 

Over the Labor Day Weekend, the Texas International Pop Festival was held at the Dallas International Motor Speedway. The Incredible String Band played on 30th August 1969. Their performance didn’t match their appearance at Woodstock. This was disappointing. So was their next album Changing Horses.

51fNNuQEggL

61VhoyI6JyL

Changing Horses.

By November1969, things were changing for the Incredible String Band. Robin and Mike had split from their girlfriends. As a result, they moved from Newport to Innerleithen. That became the Incredible String Band’s new headquarters. Another change, was that the Incredible String Band had embraced the Church Of Scientology. They had been “believers” since 1968, but their “beliefs” never affected their music. Until Changing Horses.

As recording got underway, Joe Boyd produced Changing Horses. Robin and Mike unleash their eclectic array of instruments. He must have noticed a change in the Incredible String Band. 

Converting to the Church Of Scientology meant that Robin and Mike had given up drugs. They allude to this in White Bird, one of two tracks Mike penned. The other four tracks were written by Robin. In total, Changing Horses lasts just fifty minutes. Of those fifty minutes, two songs White Bird and Creation make up thirty of the fifty minutes.

On its release in November 1969, Changing Horses was perceived as a disappointing album. It was very different to their previous albums. Changing Horses didn’t come close to previous Incredible String Band albums. Nowadays, it would be described as for completists only. Ironically, it fared better commercially than Wee Tam and The Big Huge.

On its release, Changing Horses reached number thirty in the UK. However, after a week, Changing Horses disappeared from the charts. Over the Atlantic, Changing Horses trotted to number 166 in the US Billboard 200. Three weeks later, it disappeared from the charts. If ever there was a missed opportunity, Changing Horses was it.

Having triumphed at Woodstock, the Incredible String Band should have headed straight into the recording studio. They had released two critically acclaimed albums and been one of the stars of Woodstock. The Incredible String Band were on their way to becoming musical royalty. Even if Changing Horses was recorded, they could have put it on hold. It was obvious it wasn’t going to capture the record public’s imagination. Their new found religion had gotten in the way of transforming the Incredible String Band’s fortunes. Not only that, they had released the most disappointing album of their career. Surely, things could only get better?

61hk1ozejqL

51DQ8JbvRNL

I Looked Up.

Five months after Changing Horses, the Incredible String Band returned in April 1970, with I Looked Up. A lot had happened since Changing Horses. Robin and Mike’s relationships were over. They had also moved back to Scotland. Then there was the forthcoming stage show U. It was an ambitious project. Time was short. However, Elektra needed a new Incredible String Band album. 

Somehow, Robin and Mike found time to write I Looked Up. Just like its predecessor, Changing Horses, I Looked Up featured just six songs. Robin wrote Pictures in a Mirror and When You Find Out Who You Are. Mike penned Black Jack Davy, The Letter, This Moment and Fair As You. These songs became I Looked Up.

With time short, the Incredible String Band were forced to work quick. Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson were still members of the band. They may no longer be couples, but they were part of the band’s sound and previous success. So was Joe Boyd. He was by then, one the most successful producers. His job was to guide the Incredible String Band and get their career back on track. This meant no Changing Horses II.

Unlike their earlier albums, I Looked Up, like its predecessor Changing Horses, featured two lengthy songs. They were the Robin Williamson Pictures in a Mirror and When You Find Out Who You Are. They were nearly eleven minutes long. This Moment and Fair As You clocked in at six minutes. This was very different from the Incredible String Band’s earlier albums. However, would it mark a return to form from Incredible String Band?

When critics heard I Looked Up, they realised it was a vast improvement on Changing Horse. It was a return to form from the Incredible String Band. However, to some extent, I Looked Up divided opinion. Critics realised I Looked Up was good, but how did it compare with previous albums?

With four longer songs on I Looked Up, it was always inevitable that the Incredible String Band would accused of veering towards self-indulgent. Another criticism was I Looked Up was an unfocused album. However, apart from their eponymous debut album, the Incredible String Band’s album had always veered towards eclectic. That was the case with I Looked Up. The Incredible String Band were always determined to keep listeners on their toes.

That is the case from the get-go. I Looked Up begins with the traditional English folk of Black Jack Davey. This gives way to the uptempo electric folk of The Letter. It’s reminiscent of Fairport Convention. That isn’t surprising with Dave Mattacks, Fairport Convention’s drummer featuring on The Letter. Pictures In A Mirror is a mixture of folk, theatre and drama. An eleven minute gothic epic, the Incredible String Band become minstrels, as the retell the story of Lord Randall. Next up is This Moment, the highpoint of I Looked Up. It’s beautiful, heartfelt ballad. 

When You Find Out Who You Are is another epic. A meandering track, it finds the Incredible String Band in a reflective mood. This isn’t surprising given their conversion to Scientology. However, there’s an element of theatre and drama present, during what’s best referred to as a reflective epic. Closing I Looked Up was Fair As You. Beautiful, understated and with a pastoral sound, the Incredible String Band scale the heights of earlier albums. However, despite a return to form from the Incredible String Band, I Looked Up fared better in Britain in America.

On May 5th 1970, the Incredible String Band released I Looked Up. It reached number thirty in the UK, where it spent four weeks. Two months later, on 25th July 1970, I Looked Up was released in America and stalled at 196 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Two weeks later, I Looked Up disappeared from the US Billboard 200 charts. For the Incredible String Band, I Looked Up’s failure in America was a disappointing. After all, a year earlier, they had taken Woodstock by storm. At least though, they had made amends for the disappointing Changing Horses.

51XuzhRV93L

R-2086594-1283446527

U.

Just like 1968, which was the most successful year of the Incredible String Band’s career, they released two albums in 1970. It was a case of needs must.

U was a mixed media show that the Incredible String Band unveiled in 1970. The world wasn’t ready for U, and its combination of pantomime-like dancing and music. Unsurprisingly, U wasn’t a commercial success.  For the Incredible String Band, this was a disaster. U’s commercial failure meant the Incredible String Band had lost a substantial sum of money. Considering their last couple of albums hadn’t been particularly successful, the Incredible String Band had to do something to recoup their losses. Joe Boyd, producer and the Incredible String Band’s sometime manager decided it was time to record another album.

Just like I Looked Up, the Incredible String Band didn’t have much time for the recording of U. Joe Boyd booked two days studio time. For the next forty-eight hours, the Incredible String Band worked almost non-stop. Very occasionally, they stopped to eat and sleep. Mostly, the Incredible String Band recorded. By the end of the two day sessions, the Incredible String Band had recorded eighteen songs. This was enough for a double album, which became U.

When Joe Boyd brought U together, it was a remarkable fusion of musical styles and influences. Everything from psychedelic and progressive folk sat side-by-side with traditional folk, blues, balladry, country, music hall, world music and rock. An exotic pot pourri, where the Incredible String Band push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, beyond, U featured a band with their backs to the walls.

This seemed to focus the Incredible String Band’s attention. They desperately needed U to sell well. They lost a lot of money on I Looked Up. This was money they couldn’t afford to loose. Losing this money concentrated the mind. The Incredible String Band were focused on producing the best album they could. Ironically, it was deliciously unfocused and eclectic. Robin and Mike’s music veered between bawdy, beautiful, cerebral, witty, lush and innovative.

U featured a variety of delights. This includes the instrumentals Partial Belated Overtime and Bridge Theme. Astral Plane Theme features what can only be described as a guitar masterclass. Robot Blues then showcases some vintage barrelhouse piano. Light in Time of Darkness is without doubt, the highlight in beauty and balladry. It’s without doubt, the best track on U. Coming close is Rainbow, a fifteen minute Magnus Opus, where the Incredible String Band dawn the role of medieval minstrels. That closes U, which sees the Incredible String Band crowned comeback Kings.

It was a case of needs must. Having lost money on the stage-show U, needed to recoup their losses. When U was released to widespread critical acclaim in late 1970, it reached number thirty-four in the UK. In America, U reached just number 183 in the US Billboard 200 charts. U failed to fulfil its potential. This wasn’t unusual.

The Incredible String Band first six albums never sold in huge amounts in America. History repeated itself with U, the Incredible String Band’s seventh album. America didn’t seem to “get” the Incredible String Band. That’s not unusual. 

Many successful British artists failed to enjoy the same success in America. This was the case with other folk artists. Nick Drake, John Martyn and Fairport Convention never enjoyed the same commercial success in America. With the Incredible String Band, they looked as if they were destined for greatness.

After taking Woodstock by storm, the Incredible String Band looked like becoming one of Britain’s most successful musical exports. Changing Horses was the wrong album at the wrong time. Why someone, somewhere at Elektra never realised this, seems strange. Ironically, Changing Horse followed what are regarded as the Incredible String Band’s two finest albums 1968s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Wee Tam and the Big Huge. These two critically acclaimed album should have transformed the Incredible String Band’s career. Then came Changing Horses. 

Things improved with I Looked Up. It made amends for Changing Horses and got the Incredible String Band’s career back on track. While I Looked Up was a good album, U surpasses it. It was as if the Incredible String Band were determined to reach the heights of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Wee Tam and the Big Huge. They came close. 

Looking back, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was the finest album the Incredible String Band released. Many people perceive Wee Tam and the Big Huge as coming a close second. However, U vies with Wee Tam and the Big Huge for second place. Deliciously eclectic and unfocused, U finds the Incredible String Band scaling the heights of their earlier career. Sadly, U wasn’t a high commercial success. 

For far too long, U has been an underrated album. Hopefully, not any more. Just like I Looked Up, U has been remastered and rereleased by BGO Records. Forty-four years after its release, a new generation have the opportunity to discover one of the hidden gems in the Incredible String Band’s back-catalogue. Along with The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Wee Tam and the Big Huge, I Looked Up and U are the highlights of the Incredible String Band’s twelve album discography. 

R-2597242-1330325129

R-2597242-1330325137

1 Comment

    Trackbacks

    1. The Incredible String Band | scotbeat

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    %d bloggers like this: