Turn: Or I'll Teach You to Forget the Truth You Always Knew
By Paul Bryant
Explain Slowly What You Mean
Between the middle of 1968 and the
end of 1970, the peculiarity of the enterprise we call the
Incredible String Band was at its height. In 1967 the ISB was Mike
and Robin, and they were still playing folk clubs (those chummy
rooms in pubs). By April 1968, one month after the release of the
third album 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter', everything
changed. Joe Boyd, manager and producer, booked a tour of large
halls only (Royal Festival Hall, Manchester Free Trade Hall,
Birmingham Town Hall, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall). "People
thought I was crazy," said Joe, "but all the halls were
What did you get if you went to see
the ISB in this period? No concessions at all. First of all, you
got an embarrassing introduction from Robin, who would ask each
member of the audience to say hello to the person on their left (er.
. hello), and to the person on their right (er. .I know you
already!), and the person in front of you (em, heh) and the person
behind you (oh come on man!). Then you got one of the two or three
standard opening songs, usually This Moment, and that would
be the last familiar song you'd hear. So prolific were Mike and
Robin that it would be all-new material from then on, lengthy,
complicated unfamiliar music, a real demand on each audience.
"That was something we were often criticised for," said
Robin in 1979. Between each song, instead of some kind of
explanation from the composers, or at least an acknowledgement of
the audience's presence, the austere, dissonant sounds of tuning
up an entirely different set of instruments was heard for a full
three or four minutes. The audience would use these uncomfortable
periods to observe the band, to remark on their particularly
androgynous appearance, and perhaps to wonder why they were being
In fact the ISB would probably have
preferred to be somewhere else. They didn't really like playing
live. Robin (in 1969): "We don't like to work. People can
associate through our records. This is not a visual scene. We
perform infrequently because we're not into it. But everyone can't
be your friend and sit around your house listening."
There were other aspects of the
live experience during this period which deliberately ignored
convention. There were no support acts; and they did not play
encores. And now and then they would do something more like
Performance Art than music. On one occasion in 1968 I saw Robin
invite thirty persons from the audience onto the stage, giving
each one a different sized bell. After arranging these volunteers
into a ragged line, changing bells from one person to another and
so forth, he then told them to ring their bell when they were
pointed at, and then conducted them in the execution of a simple
melody which itself took about 45 seconds. They then resumed their
seats, mystified. Or again, the impressive reading of the poem The
Head (seen on the Be Glad video): another excellent
deadpan joke wherein God is progressively revealed (from behind a
descending sheet) to be a bald duck.
So the ISB were often considered to
be a little more than simply eccentric.
Steve Sparks ("rock business
executive" of the time, quoted in Days in the Life by
Jonathon Green): The Incredible String Band were crazy. Once they
were about to go on at the Royal Albert Hall and they turned round
and they said "We cannot go on, our carpet isn't here."
So I said "What?" The whole place was packed, floor to
ceiling, they're throwing flowers and cheering. And the band say,
"We can't on because our carpet isn't here." So I said
"Explain slowly what you mean." And they said
"Well, we have this Persian carpet and we can't sing unless
we sit on the Persian carpet."" So I said, "Where
is the Persian carpet?" and they said "It's back in the
office." This is already after they were due to go on and I
have to get a cab, go back to the office in Goodge Street, get the
carpet, bring it back, lay it down on stage before they'd go on.
They were nutters."
A Complete and Wholehearted
At the heart of the music of this
period were three extra-ordinary ideas, promulgated by Robin
Williamson. First was the idea that a song did not have to possess
a stylistic unity, that it could wander through various genres,
even within the span of a few lines or bars. What started as a
hymn might transmogrify into a skipping rhyme and become
eventually (after hitchhiking into Turkey and Iran) a jugband tune
or a waltz. Then there was the idea of using exotic (non-Western)
instrumentation for its own sake, as colouring. "We'd
frequently play instruments we couldn't actually play," as
Robin put it. Finally, all this was performed in the spirit of
what Robin called "a kind of inspired amateurism, rather
similar to naive art you see, with no technique". He added
(from the vantage point of 1979) "At the time I regarded
atmosphere as superior to technique so instead of trying to do
something as perfectly as possible we did it as homegrown as
All of this led Michael Watts to
write in 1972: "The ISB are a total experience, urging from
their audiences a complete and wholehearted absorption and
identification with their activities. Perhaps that explains to an
extent why along with soul freaks their followers assume the
mantle of votaries. It is very much a two-way response? But most
extraordinarily, and absolutely unlike the feelings engendered by
soul artists, a response based not on sexual hysteria but on
camaraderie and a mutual tenderness. When they are gauche, which
they frequently are, they become a subject not of derision but of
For its audience the ISB then, were
an attitude, not a recreation, a lifestyle and not a holiday,
almost a commitment. They did not sing about the dictates of
contemporary teenage peer groups. They sang about God and snails.
They were serious. They were solemn. Even their humour was solemn.
They embodied alternatives, or sought to, in music (so much less
than what you are) and in a way of life; the members of the band
did not join after auditions, as in other groups, but were
absorbed from Mike and Robin's personal lives. The first to do so,
of course, were Rose Simpson and Christina McKechnie.
Then, in 1969, even worse, came the
S word. Question: When did they get into Scientology?
Joe Boyd: "It was after 'Wee
Tam and the Big Huge I actually introduced them to someone who was
into those ideas, I'm afraid to say."
Sad Groping and Vacuous Handwaving
In fact it was May 1968, as far
back as that, after a New York show. But the ISB's acceptance of
scientology was gradual, and the1 did not even become normal
members of the Church until around October or November 1969.
How did Scientology affect the
Mike Heron: "When you ask the
question does it really affect your writing, yes it did, but in my
case it affected it mostly by clearing up the rest of my
Robin: "We began to get
interested in writing songs that would have a more direct
communication. Because it deals so much with communication and
one's ability to communicate, scientology has caused us to be more
concerned with presenting a piece of music in such a way that the
audience will get what you mean. Before that I think we tended to
play in a more introverted fashion."
The first fruit of the desire for
explicitness was U, a surreal pantomime in dance and song. U
was the ISB's Magical Mystery Tour or Renaldo and Clara,
a critical disaster and an enduring puzzle for fans. It came
precisely in the middle of the band's history, four years from its
formation and four years from its dissolution.
featured Stone Monkey, a dance troupe; which included Malcolm Le
Maistre, and with whose members Robin had been living in Wales.
Robin: "It was put together as
an outgrowth of the commune and it was more or less a vehicle for
what we were doing in our life."
consisted of songs, skits, playlets, dances, parables, tumbling
and mime and was performed at the Roundhouse in London for ten
nights in April 1970.
Robin: "It's called U
because it's U in shape. It starts off with somebody in some
ancient period of the Golden Age in the past, who survives
successive lifetimes coming down through lesser and lesser
awarenesses and finally gets back to a good state of mind again.
That is about the whole plot. Now woven around that plot are as
many little incidents, bizarre things and bits of humour as we
could wind into it. Pretty lighthearted."
Joe Boyd: I felt that U was
where the scientology had set in.
Once again, Joe's comment is
interesting. If Scientology re-oriented Mike and Robin from inward
to outward, from gnomic impenetrability to plain speaking, then
they must have been disappointed when the critical reaction was
one of universal bafflement. Melody Maker's review said,
"from the Stone Monkey's mime it was totally impossible to
follow the course of the story despite their exuberant
cavorting"; the International Times described the dancing as
"sad groping and vacuous handwaving." Rose summed up:
"The general reaction was that the music is nice but what are
those people doing hopping about?"
Mike and Robin became defensive.
Mike: "There was no leader.
Every one of us, twelve in number, was a producer and director.
This gave the impression of disorder... If anyone saw anything bad
in the performance it was because they weren't in a happy
We may say that the experience of U changed the ISB or we
may say it was the baleful influence of Scientology and its
marketing-minded emphasis on "communication", whatever
that might mean, but from 1971 to the end of the band in 1974, the
ISB gradually abandoned all those elements which made them unique
in their first years. The butterfly re-entered the cocoon to
emerge finally as a caterpillar.
At the beginning of 1971 Rose left
and Malcolm Le Maistre joined. Joe Boyd went back to America. The
ISB began to manage and produce themselves.
The new member, Malcolm, had a
specific role. He filled in the gaps between songs with words, and
he continued what was called the "pantomime element" in
the live act.
In September 1972 Licorice left.
With the later members, Gerard Dott, Graham Forbes, Stan Lee
Buttons and Jack Ingram the ISB became all male; at the same time
the exotic instruments were discarded for a more-or-less
conventional rock group line up. A 1969 reviewer could write:
"After their last London concert there were criticisms of the
apparent detachedness of the two." By 1973 this had become:
"On stage they were magnetically likeable, flashing big grins
at the audience and exuding peace and goodwill."
Crowd-pleasing became a conscious part of concerts, but to their
great credit they were always less slick and more cack-handed than
they appeared to wish (witness the role of Malcolm, which both he
and the audience seemed embarrassed by, as what was once childlike
in the ISB - Witches Hat, Big Ted, Cousin
Caterpillar became childish - Adam and Eve, El Rattot
and cues Crocodile). From 1971 encores were introduced, and jigs
were the automatic choice. The Incredible String Band were exactly
contemporary with the Hippy Dream and as the hippies of 1971-73
began to realise that their revolution of values and style of
living was losing energy, was failing, as the casualties dropped
away, as the freaks began to look for a job, the ISB turned too,
from introversion to extraversion, from LSD to LRH, from gimbri to
fiddle, from hand drums to rhythm section, from eclecticism to
variety, from inspiration to aspiration, from atmosphere to
technique, from silence to a Fan Club, from Wee Tam to No
"I would probably wince a bit
at some of the stuff on the later albums," said Mike Heron in
1987. Ten years earlier, Robin had said, "In many ways
perhaps the ISB should have ended earlier than it did". It
would be as absurd to expect or hope for the continuation of the
early Incredible String band as it would be to dismiss the later
work. But significantly, one of the very last songs the band
performed was Mike's 1968, a painful song of regret at what
had been lost along the way: "My friend, the nights are
longer Do you think we know any more?
Are we lost my friend?"
- Bill Allison's pioneering String
- Swing 51, interview with R.W.,
- Article by Neil Parry in Record
- Musin' Music, 1987,
- Interviews with Mike and Robin
- Folk Roots, September 1987,
interview with Mike
- Article on Joe Boyd in Record
- Days in the Life: Voices from the
English Underground 1961-1971 by Jonathon Green, 1988