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U 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 full."

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 ignored.

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 Absorption

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 possible."

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 endearment."

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 band?

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 life."

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.

U 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."

U 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 mood."

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 Ruinous Feud.

"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?"

Acknowledgements

  • Bill Allison's pioneering String Bandalogical work
  • Swing 51, interview with R.W., August 1979
  • Article by Neil Parry in Record Collector
  • Musin' Music, 1987,
  • Interviews with Mike and Robin
  • Folk Roots, September 1987, interview with Mike
  • Article on Joe Boyd in Record Collector
  • Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971 by Jonathon Green, 1988

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