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beGlad The Anthology

Published: October 2003.

Revised edition May 2013

Edited by Adrian Whittaker, the beGlad Anthology covers the Incredible String Band 1965-1974 through the pages of beGlad. 

This is an immense work and worthy of a place on every String Band fan's bookshelf. the book covers the history of the Incredible String Band and, in true beGlad magazine style, is highly detailed. The appendix covers areas such as the ISB's instruments, an ISB family tree, the influences of the ISB, a prize quiz, crossword as well as a detailed bibliography and discography. 

2013 Revised Edition

Original Edition

Daily Telegraph 11 October 2003

Archbishop and all that jazz

Rowan Williams has provided a welcome antidote to the staid George Carey since becoming Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year.

Even so, Spy was surprised to hear sightings of the bearded one in the 12 Bar Club on Thursday evening. He was at the Soho jazz joint for the launch of Be Glad, an anthology devoted to 1960s group the Incredible String Band.

"The Archbish was just mingling with the rest of us in his clerical garb," says one reveller.

"I was a bit surprised to see him at the 12 Bar - it's pretty down-at-heel."

Williams's love of the Incredible String Band became apparent when he went on Desert Island Discs and chose one of their ``hits'', The Hedgehog Song. He has also written the foreword to the book.

"His contribution turned out to be very erudite," says the book's editor, Adrian Whittaker.

"It was all about bardic and Celtic traditions, and quoted the band's songs."

The Guardian 25 September 2003

Band of angels

What is the job poetry is supposed to do? This may be a definition shaped by unfashionably archaic standards, but I think it's meant to do at least four things.

It should take us into the realm of myth - that is, of the stories and symbols that lie so deep you can't work out who are the authors of them, the stories that give points of reference for plotting your way in the inner and outer world. It's meant to celebrate; to clothe ordinary experience with extraordinary words so that we see the radiance in the ordinary, whether it's in landscape or in love or whatever. It's meant to satirise - to give us a sideways glance on familiar ways of talking or of behaving or exercising power, so that we're not bewitched by what looks obvious and wants us to think it's obvious. It's meant to lament, to give us ways of looking at our losses and our failures that save us from despair and apathy.

If you listen to the Incredible String Band's songs, you realise rapidly that they correspond with astonishing completeness to the requirements of poetry. Plenty of songs of that period managed the celebration or the lament, few could do the myth or the satire. Perhaps for a lot of us growing up in the late-60s and early 70s, there was a gap in the heart where this very traditional bardic, even shamanic, sense of poetry was looking for expression; and the ISB did just that. Forget the cliches about psychedelic and hallucinogenic vagueness: this was work of extraordinary emotional clarity and metaphorical rigour - an unusual combination. Lyrics stick after decades, "Every cell in my body has it all writ down"; "You know all the words and you sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song"; "The caves where sleep the stars by day".

And the literacy you might have needed to pick up all the allusions was and is intimidating - Sufism, Celtic myth, Biblical and Gnostic symbols. Combine this with a versatility in musical idiom worthy of Lennon and McCartney at their best, and you have a rare phenomenon: the contrapuntal intricacies of much of Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending, the Caribbean jog of the Hedgehog Song, the sly parodies of Bob Dylan in more than one piece.

For those of us who fell in love with the ISB, there was a feeling of breathing the air of a very expansive imagination indeed. It was all right to be enchanted - but not bewitched (see above) by colossal and antique symbols; all right at the same time to be thinking about the experiences of "ordinary" first loves and first betrayals; and all right to find the earnest nonsense of real hallucinogenic maunderings funny. There was no one quite like them; we liked to think it was a very grown-up taste, but that makes it sound too serious.

If I go back to the start, I'd have to say again that it was simply a discovery of poetry; and as such - risking the embarrassment that so regularly goes with my particular vocation - I'd also have to say that it was a discovery of the holy; not the solemn, not the saintly, but the holy, which makes you silent and sometimes makes you laugh and which, above all, makes the landscape different once and for all.
Rowan Williams, from the introduction to An Incredible String Band Compendium

  Record Collector, December 2003

This book is a digest of pieces from the beGlad fanzine. It opens unapologetically, describing the ISB as the "most multi-faceted group in British popular music", a statement that I would not contest, bar sliding in the qualification that this applied to only a few years of their life. Above all, it is the sort of book that makes you listen to their albums again, though, in their case, like the Rolling Stones, the transition of retrieval medium from vinyl to compact disc effortlessly wiped out the need to "upgrade" over half their LPs.

The ISB's Robin Williamson once piously told me that he "never approved of drugs." Around the time of their 5000 Spirits album in 1967, the Incredible String Band accompanied many a wanderer's transition from resin, seeds, stems and Merrydown to psychotropic illumination. However, the ISB's world of music hall whimsy and sweetshop wackiness never stretched the mind like the Grateful Dead's driving take on the weird (although the two co-mingled when the Dead's Scientology-beagle Tom Constanten teamed up with them glancingly on the ISB's U, a self-indulgent paradox of a farce that managed to be porously leaky and impervious to meaning at the same time.

Towards the end, the ISB just taxed the mind of all but the faithful. By their initial demise in 1974, they were a whodunit. But most of the audience, like the cast, has left before the curtain fell.

Have I given away the ending already? the most interesting parts of the book are the ones dealing with the emerging Edinburgh folk scene, the Clive Palmer years that culminated in their eponymous first album and then their disastrous partaking in Scientology. The fan worship sections preaching to the converted are hard going, but the book is full of insights that will cast light on their creative process. In that spirit, when Mike Heron talks about White Bird being from a very obscure Pakistani or Indian film it is rather like saying Frank Sinatra's greatest hits are recondite. The song alluded to was Lata Mangeshkar's breakthrough song and it literally changes the history of Bollywood film. Nick from the best.

Ken Hunt

  BBC 2 Radio Folk & Acoustic

Way back in the 1960s (cue mass String Fan vocal) The Incredible String Band enchanted a generation with their wildly arcane, literary and genre-defying Celtic/psychedelic/world music (long before the latter term was coined) and forever changed the musical landscape before the magic somehow leaked away in the harsher light of the mid-seventies.

Some two decades later, beGLAD emerged – a class-act fanzine toting articles and reminiscences, anecdotes and insights culled from some of those dedicated aficionados; people who'd felt themselves more friends than fans, such was the accessibility and open spirit of the early ISB. Lovingly tended by three co-editors during its ten-year run from 1992 to 2002, the magazine became a running archive for all things String, a repository of information, opinion and analysis from which has sprung this satisfyingly chunky tome.

In voices ranging from the academic to the demotic, beGLAD tells the Incredibles' story from 1965 to 1974, leaving the reborn 21st-century ISB for other scribes. Through chapters such as The Edinburgh Years; Woodstock and the U show; Mike, Scientology and Zen; Life at Glen Row, it draws the reader into a densely-detailed world simultaneously nostalgic and vital. Major players such as Billy Connolly, Wizz Jones, Joe Boyd and Rose Simpson contribute, each album and era is definitively discussed and along the way you'll find engrossing discourse on comparative religion, folk mythology, sacred architecture ... and that's just in a single piece by erudite beGLAD co-editor Raymond Greenoaken!

Chock-full of insider knowledge and liberally strewn with photos and illustrated ephemera, it's as comprehensive and zestful a history as any Stringhead or interested bystander could wish for. Read it cover-to-cover (the material is ranged as chronologically as such a rich subject allows) or dip into specific periods or albums as mood dictates but be warned – it's hard to put it down but also almost impossible to resist leaping up to play whichever album is currently under scrutiny! File under Essential Reading.

Mel McClellan - December 2003
  Mojo January 2004

From the makers of superior ISB-zine BeGlad (1992-2002), with a wistful forward from the Archbishop of Canterbury (yes, really).

On first appearance, a forbiddingly scattershot assemblage of essays, interviews and analyses, but in truth something of a luminous rabbit from the top hat of mystery. Fine-tuning a mostly breezy, accessible patchwork of material on one of the '60s most singular acts - who were, as one apologist concedes, purveyors of "vertiginous wordplay", "absurd optimism" and "an allusiveness worthy of TS Ellot" - Whittaker has delivered an affectionate document of his idols and their (sadly) unrepeatable era of naïveté and idealism. His approach succeeds (given the all but random career and ethos of these "laureates of the hippy dream") arguably better than a straightforward biography ever could. Even if, like this writer, you never did quite "get it", not feel you will ever have quite enough time in the world to do so, the book still fascinates (the odd post-grad album dissection aside) and delights like a lingering glimpse through the keyhole of a door in October Song. Alas, not all of us can dream the world alive.

Colin Harper

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