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Smiling Men available again

Memories of Heron

Huge Thomas remembers a great band

In 1975 I became a student at St. Andrews University on the windswept east coast of Scotland. Free at last from the shackles of a sheltered childhood in a rural (ugh) village called West Linton in Peeblesshire (where? – exactly), I went really rather wild. I squandered my grant on playing pinball and table football, eating pizzas, going to the cinema twice a week, drinking fizzy lager from plastic glasses and sometimes staying up till gone midnight. Mad times.

Another of the formative events awaiting me was what was to be my first-ever live rock gig. This must have been autumn/winter ’75, and if memory serves me correctly the bill topper was one Bryn Haworth and band. A Welshman who’s since gone on to the religious rock circuit, he had a catchy turntable hit at that time called Give All You’ve Got to Give. On this tour he was accompanied by an all-star backing group including a former Them guitarist and a funky bassist ex of Traffic.

Before they took the stage though we had a warm-up act in the persons of a band called Heron.

I had no knowledge whatever of Mike Heron at this time, although when I heard he had been in the Incredible String Band this did ring a few bells. Hipper kids back in our sixth-year common room had often talked about the ISB. Chance meetings – probably much exaggerated - with members of Led Zeppelin in the nearby Innerleithen area (presumably occasioned by collaborative visits to the locally based ISB members) had been recounted.

By this time the ISB was long gone though. Heron took the stage a full-fledged rock band with Mike every inch the confident front man. Seeing him nowadays, hiding shyly behind his music stand with the reformed ISB, it might be hard to picture him in this role. But believe me, he was every inch the consummate rock front man.

The band with him were also dynamite, with ex-If jazz-rocker Mike Tomich on bass, bearded guitarist Frank Usher (still about I believe, playing recently with Fish out of Marillion I’ve heard), the late John Gilston on drums, and one Malcolm LeMaistre on vocals and (ulp) dancing.

Heron took the St. Andrews audience by storm that night; so much so that they were soon back topping the bill at their own show.

LeMaistre was a quirkily entertaining member of the band, doing his dancing-performance with the more theatrical numbers like Nijinsky (about the dancer) and a song called (I think) Lamplight that utilised an on-stage lamppost prop. I also recall a number that culminated in a custard pie being catapulted into his face . . .

He also did some dryly amusing little between-song chats: “Good evening,” he’d deadpan before commencing some mock-interesting anecdote while the others were re-tuning behind him. One story was of how they had spotted and rescued a tangled bird on the way to the gig that day: particularly intriguing in that the bird was . . . a heron.

I’ve since come across LeMaistre mentioned in the media when a theatre he ran in Innerleithen was looking like having to shut down because only about three people a night were coming to the performances. No surprise to me that: Innerleithen was a tough mill village and the kids who came from there to Peebles High were mainly psychos and hoodlums.

I’ve also found a ‘90s solo LP by LeMaistre, so I guess he’s still about too.

I looked for Heron records of course and managed via mail order to find a copy of the already obscure then Mike Heron solo LP Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. This turned out to be disappointingly folksy for the 1975 me, apart from the track Warm Heart Pastry featuring the Who. The Mike Heron’s Reputation album was more like it though, with tracks including my stage favourite Residential Boy: “We weren’t ready for the country . . .”

It was the 90s before I got my own copy of Diamond of Dreams (on CD). Included are great tracks like usual set-opener Draw Back the Veil, although I’m not sure the album quite captures the magic of the band’s live quality.

On their third visit to St. Andrews it was the Christmas ball and the band were introduced by then-rector Frank Muir of Call My Bluff fame. I recall his introduction exactly: “And now . . . Hewon!”

I went to the ball even though I’d never been out with a girl and had no one to take (I was a late bloomer OK?).

The band unveiled a new member that night in front of the dickey-bowed audience in keyboardist Dave Sams. He filled out the sound wonderfully and added a whole new dimension to Hewon’s – er sorry, Heron’s – sound.

They went down a storm again, probably the best reception any pre-punk band with the possible exception of Neil Innes & Fatso got at St. Andrews while I was there.

Around that time, Heron appeared on a Radio 1 In Concert session split with the Lew Lewis Band, with whom they were touring Europe at the time. I probably still have the ancient cassette somewhere.

Mike Heron’s songs were getting recorded by the likes of Manfred Man’s Earth Band (Don’t Kill it Carol) and Bonnie Tyler (Baby Good Night). It looked to me like Heron were gonna make it real big for a while there, but then all of a sudden it was 1976 and New Rose came out and that was it . . .

Too bad: they were an excellent band and they gave me my baptism in great live rock music at a time when – or at least so the conventional wisdom has it – rock was in the doldrums.

And I still have the records . . . and my collection of Heron posters and Diamond of Dreams LP covers torn off the student union’s display boards after the gigs.

I can still picture Mike on stage, saying: “Come on – it deserves a bigger cheer than that!” when that custard pie hit Malcolm in the face, and Mike talking about staying back at his mother’s house on the Scottish leg of the tour and “slopping out of the house after a high tea”. Mad times indeed.

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