Guide to British Music of the 1960s

December 2020

Book Review

Muse Odalisque Handmaiden by Rose Simpson

The Incredible String Band was one of the more unusual groups to emerge from the UK during the mid to late 1960s. Mike Heron and Robin Williamson had been playing folk clubs and formed a group with Clive Palmer (who departed on the hippie trail after the first album). Added to the base of traditional folk music were all sorts of musical instruments picked up overseas, mostly by Williamson but Mike Heron added some memorable lines on the sitar and then there was the influence of certain substances that seem prevalent in the music scene. They made a couple more innovative LPs before expanding the group. Girlfriends Licorice McKecknie and Rose Simpson started to add vocals and more instruments, initially on stage then increasingly in the studio too as they became more proficient.

Muse Odalisque Handmaiden is not a conventional autobiography but more an account of Rose's time with the Incredible String Band, not necessarily in chronological order but more arranged around themes. She met Mike Heron as they were both staying at a house favoured by folk musicians and members of the climbing fraternity. A student at York University, Rose was climbing in Scotland when she stayed at Mary's and met Mike. Rose and Likkie gradually became more integrated with the band although Mike and Robin were always the core and contributed the majority of the songwriting and the instruments. The girls learned different instruments. Rose could already play violin and Mike gave her a bass to learn (Bert Jansch's?). He showed her the lines and she followed. Rose admits that neither her nor Likkie were in the band because of their instrumental prowess but they did add to the sound with their vocals and they were able to add more instruments to a live performance.

In many ways this is a book about the hippie lifestyle of the late 1960s. The Incredible String Band was an extremely popular act with massive-selling LPs and extensive gigging. Top stars of the day including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones would turn up to see them. The stage "show" was very different to what many would have expected. An array of instruments was laid out on the stage and quite considerable time was spent finding the correct instrument as well as tuning up. There was lots of audience interaction too. The Incredible String Band tended to showcase new material rather than roll-out the best-loved tunes. While this may have suited their artistic leanings, especially Robin Williamson, it may have made it more difficult to attract a mainstream audience.

Two of the most interesting episodes described in the book are the stay at Penwern in Wales and Woodstock. The Incredible String Band decamped to Wales to live an almost commune-like existence. While this may seem like a hippie dream it was far from comfortable with squalid conditions and limited food supplies. Rose certainly did not enjoy the experience though it does add fuel to the ISB legend. Woodstock is a particularly interesting time and Rose and Likkie were two of few women who performed at Woodstock. Although the Festival may have gone down in music history, it was pretty much a disaster in terms of organisation and the rain and mud did not help things. They went on stage the day after they were due and played more new music than the "classics" that would have been more appreciated by a Festival audience. It appears to have not been an enjoyable time especially when they had to rush back for an evening gig in New York that Robin and Likkie almost did not reach in time!

The relationships between the four are very interesting too. They were four very different characters who added their own strengths to the mix. The couples became more open as time went on and they had their own cottages on Glen Row. Janet moving in with Robin next door to Likkie and Mike becoming involved with Suzie Watson-Taylor did not seem to affect the dynamics of the band although it could have done. It was a free and easy lifestyle, it appears.

Towards the end of the 1960s the couples started to drift apart. They were together 24/7 at home and on stage and they still shared the row of cottages at Glen Row near Edinburgh. This would put a strain on any relationships but on stage they remained a unit. Outside factors also impacted on the band. Scientology grabbed Likkie then Robin and Mike. Rose became involved but was the most cynical of the four and the first to pull away from the cult. However, scientology was a major influence on the band up to the time that Rose departed. The principal manifestation of this was in U. Robin, in particularly, had always been looking to move in new directions. The dance troupe Stone Monkey was involved in this. The show played several nights in London before moving to the US. However, it was not a financial success and Stone Monkey was dropped from the tour. The group became more of a backing track for the dancing rather than the "psychedelic folk" stars that they were.

Soon after this Rose walked away into a new life. There is no indication of any bad feeling here but more a natural progression. She started her new life as a mother with the ISB almost forgotten behind her.

Rose's memoirs of the Incredible String Band are a fascinating read and it is difficult to put the book down once started. She is in the unique position of being able to appraise this time from both the inside and the outside. Yes, she was a key member of the band but also on the outside looking in as the core was Robin and Mike. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Rose and Likkie made an important contribution to the overall sound of the band and the music would be poorer without their input. Rose never claims to be a talented musician and, possibly, a bit of a fish out of water in the early days but she persevered and became an accepted quarter of one of the 1960s' most innovative and influential groups.

Published: 16 November 2020

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