Guide to British Music of the 1960s

December 2002

CD Review

The Incredible String Band- 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion

 

Without a doubt this is one of the Incredible String Band's best albums and shows how they moved away from the pure folk roots towards a more psychedelic sound. The starting point is the awesome cover that was created by the Fool. The Dutch pair were also responsible for the mural on the outside wall of the Beatles' Apple boutique. 

Inside, 5000 Spirits is full of whimsical delights. It was produced by Robin Williamson and Mike Heron once they had returned from travels. Robin himself had managed to pick up a variety of different instruments in Morocco and they all seem to get in there somewhere. Clive Palmer who had started the String Band with Robin had gone off to Afghanistan and did not rejoin the others. 5000 Spirits was quite unlike anything else that was around at the time. Anyone expecting something like Disraeli Gears or Odessey & Oracle would have been surprised by what the String Band was offering. The fusion of folk, blues, psychedelia and, certainly what we now call World Music, gave 5000 Spirits a unique sound that has guaranteed a place in music history. 

The tracks are more or less equally divided between Mike Heron and Robin Williamson compositions. The different sounds of their two voices is one of the factors that makes the sound of 5000 Spirits very rich indeed. Mike Heron's Chinese White is one of the slower tracks but it starts the album with Williamson's scraping violin sound. No Sleep Blues and Painting Box are more upbeat. The latter was released as a single. Painting Box was the first time Licorice McKechnie (Likky) was heard on record. This track demonstrates perfectly the mélange of instruments that Heron and Williamson has created. Mike's sitar can be heard behind the guitar. The sitar can also be heard on No Sleep Blues

The blues continue with the Mad Hatter's Song. Another Williamson track, it shows how he developed complex stories that wound around the music with ever-changing styles.

Little Cloud is one of Mike Heron's more whimsical songs with catchy guitar backing. The Eyes of Fate is one of the tracks that take a few listens. Robin Williamson's voice takes some getting used to. However, The Eyes of Fate is also a more complex song with chanting, changes of pace and minimal guitar backing.

Blues for the Muse is another up-tempo track from Williamson. This features Mike Heron's excellent mouth organ playing. Heron's The Hedgehog's Song shows his love of animal songs (later to be explored further with amoeba!).

Robin Williamson's First Girl I Loved is one the the ISB's classic tracks and still sounds great today. The track was covered by Judy Collins. This is a Robin Williamson solo performance. The String Band were not really known for recording love songs but this has to be one of the best ever. 

You Know What You Could Be starts in a somber mood but then becomes more cheerful with Mike Heron's uplifting lyrics and the interplay of guitars. My Name is Death returns to a somber mood. Gently Tender features another mix of instruments. Mike Heron provides the vocals while Robin Williamson seems to play everything else. 

The final track, Way Back in the 1960s, looks back on the sixties from 1967 giving it a rather different feel. A name-check for Bob Dylan may be a nod of an influence and if Dylan did influence the String Band, as he surely did, this is one of the tracks where it is most obvious. However, they were certainly not Dylan copyists; String Band influences came from everywhere and it all gets in there somewhere. 

This is a CD that surprises with every track and, even with many listens, continues to astonish with its varied textures and vocal and musical gymnastics. It is an ideal introduction to the Incredible String Band but may need a few listens for those who expect something more mainstream. By String Band standards this was mainstream!

Release Date: 1967 (CD release 1992)

Elektra / WEA

Essential Tracks:

  • First Girl I Loved
  • Way Back in the 1960s
  • Painting Box

Track Listing:

  1. Chinese White
  2. No Sleep Blues
  3. Painting Box
  4. The Mad Hatter's Song
  5. Little Cloud
  6. The Eyes of Fate
  7. Blues for the Muse
  8. The Hedgehog's Song
  9. First Girl I Loved
  10. You Know What You Could Be
  11. My Name is Death
  12. Gently Tender
  13. Way Back in the 1960s

 

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