Story of the Incredible String Band
The short biography taken from
Making Time. A longer version will be added in due course.
One of the more unusual groups to
come out of Britain in the 1960s, the Incredible String Band were
highly influential in their day with the likes of Robert Plant and
the Rolling Stones citing them as references. The String Band is
one of those groups that are very difficult to categorise,
sometimes described as psychedelic folk music, they were certainly
an early exponent of World Music in the UK.
The group came together in the
mid-1960s. Clive and Robin had been playing together at Clive's
Incredible Folk Club, a small folk club in Saucihall Street in
Glasgow. They built up quite a following including Billy Connolly
and Mike Heron, who later joined on guitar. They were a trio when
Joe Boyd visited the club having heard about the band. He signed
them to Elektra and they completed their first album, The
Incredible String Band released in 1966. This showcased the
fine writing talents of the three members and already showed, to a
small extent, that they were moving beyond the usual folk style.
Robin's October Song from this album has become a classic
and is highly rated by Bob Dylan.
Keen to capitalise on their success
the band split up! Robin went to Morocco while Clive disappeared
to Afganistan for some time. However, Mike and Robin teamed
up again and from then on they formed the core of the Incredible
String Band. The second album was a major turning point and ranks
as a classic today. 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion
was released in 1967 and captured the spirit of the year, albeit
in a very different way to much of what was around at the time.
The sleeve was eye-catching, designed by The Fool who had painted
the murals for the Apple boutique. the album established the
String Band amongst the underground and brought world music to a
"more mainstream" audience, if that is not a
contradiction. During his travels Robin had picked up numerous
instruments including a stringed instrument called a gimbri. Mike
had learned sitar amongst other things. 5000 Spirits is
almost exotic with its blend of unusual instruments alongside some
highly creative lyrics and Mike and Robin's distinctive vocal
The biggest-selling album, reaching
number five in the UK, was The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter.
This moved on from the previous album and contained a varied mix
of folky songs. Mike Heron's A Very Cellular Song was much
longer than anything else and wove together different sounds while
telling a tale of amoebae.
Next up was a double album Wee
Tam & The Big Huge (note that this was reissued on CD with
the UK edition two single albums). By this stage Mike and Robin
had been joined by their girlfriends Rose Simpson and Licorice (Likky)
McKechnie. It is widely argued that this was the peak of the
String Band's creativity and they sparked intermittently after
this. Mike and Robin became involved in scientology and this may
have had the effect of removing the critical element necessary to
create the outstanding music that they were known for. Quite
simply, they found it more difficult to criticise each other's
work. Nevertheless, their output was still prolific.
Be Glad for the Song has No
Ending was released as an album but there was also a film that
is now available on video and DVD. In 1969, the String Band played
Woodstock although it is said to be one of their poorest
performances. They did not appear in the original film of the
event but a short section of When You Find Out Who You survives
on the DVD Woodstock Diaries.
Towards the end of the decade they
produced U. This was more than an LP; it was a multimedia
experience encompassing dance and mime and premiered at London's
Roundhouse. The band produced a few more albums in the early 1970s
although none matched the quality of the earlier work. By 1974,
both Rose and Likky had left and number of other musicians had
been drafted in. Malcolm LeMaistre had from the dance troupe Stone
Monkey and contributed some songs including the final single At
The Lighthouse Dance. The band moved towards more of a rock
sound and this may have served to isolate Williamson who was more
of a folk purist. the final shows were played in 1974.
Robin Williamson has remained a
prolific writer and recording artist, first with the Merry Band
and then solo. Mike formed Heron and has made occasional albums
but has been generally quieter. Clive Palmer formed Clive's
Original Band (COB) and the Famous Jug Band. In 1997, Robin and
Mike got together for two concerts to dispel the myth that they
were not on speaking terms. This was followed by a full reunion of
the original three members in 1999 (with Robin's wife Bina and
Lawson Dando). This line-up has now been playing together
regularly around the UK since then.