The self-titled debut of the Incredible String Band was not my first encounter with the boys, as they were then. I’d been working my way backwards through their catalog from my first hearing of their fifth, Changing Horses. I loved the hippie psychedelia, the strange instruments, the melodies that sounded like nothing I’d heard before. All I knew about their first outing was that it was described as more oriented towards traditional Scottish ballads; that news came from a reviewer of The 5000 Spirits and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. Not having heard the first album herself, she suggested that there had been a comparable level of musical growth between each of the first three and left it at that.
It took me many months to track down a copy the The Incredible String Band and I had plenty of time on the ride home from the far-away shopping mall where I finally did find it to pore over the album’s liner notes. These consisted of short annotations by Mike Heron of each of the tracks, which underscored the fact that shortly after the recording was competed Robin Williamson had fled to Morocco and Clive Palmer split for Afghanistan (never to return to the recording studio with Mike and Robin). But Mike’s notes for the very first song, “Maybe Someday,” were nonetheless promising.
Don’t worry, she come along. Intelligent, beautiful, understanding—you’ll probably be dead by then, but she’ll arrive, and if she pays any attention to this track she’ll be Bulgarian, Indian, Scottish and schizoid.
That sounded more than intriguing. And when I got home and dropped the needle onto side one and Robin’s fiddle blazed out of the speakers—sounding Bulgarian, Indian, Scottish, and schizoid—I was happy to believe that this wasn’t going to be just an album of traditional folk songs. That said, some of my early favorites were exactly the traditional instrumentals, Robin and Clive duetting on “Schaeffer’s Jig,” Robin’s solo “Whistle Tune,” and Clive’s banjo bonanza “Niggertown.”
Other songs that pleased me easy and early were Robin’s “Dandelion Blues” (per Mike’s notes, “Nothing to do with flowers and it isn’t a blues”) and “Smoke Shovelling Song.” The latter details the travails of living through an Edinburgh winter in a folksy, funny story about how
Last winter blew so cold, no lies That my fire smoke would rise Soon as the smoke tried to depart It’d be froze up harder than a landlord’s heart
But in other ways, the album proved to be a disappointment, given my experience of the subsequent four recordings. The instrumentation is pretty standard folk stuff: guitars, banjo, fiddle, whistle, mandolin, and the odd kazoo. Many of the songs are solo performances by Mike or Robin accompanying themselves on guitar. The magical instrumentation of later albums, with sitars and finger cymbals, ouds and sarangis, not to mention the floating, thin harmonies of Robin’s girlfriend with the exotic name of Licorice, was entirely absent from The Incredible String Band.
And then there was the matter of the lyrics. You have to remember that I was first listening to this album in early 1970, not yet coming down off the general hippie high of the previous three years, a high that their later albums had only reinforced. Here were no waltzing Chinese emperors, no mysterious pronouncements that “three is a green crown,” no visions of yellow snakes stretched sleeping on the sand, no log cabin home in the sky.
Instead, and for the only time until the band turned seriously electric (as opposed to eclectic), the songs lived in a world that was sometimes depressingly like high school. Although Robin could sing sweetly of his love for “Womankind” (“My soul swims naked in her streams / And in her meadows lies to dream”) he got down and dirty just as easily (“Love’s magic song moans through her loins”). Mike could be funny, but he wasn’t at all ethereal. While hoping the “maybe someday, she will come along,” he discards one woman after another with an almost wanton sneer.
Mother tried the very best that she could do It was no good, the one she chose Did not like the way her teeth grew
Years later when I learned that one almost never saw Licorice smile because she was self-conscious about a missing front tooth, I was struck anew by the cruelty of this verse. Robin could be equally as coarse in his humor. Here’s the last verse from “Dandelion Blues”:
Now, if your man gets busted and you hope to go his bail,
Suppose you cannot borrow money, you may go to borrow the mail,
Yes, if your man gets busted and you hope to go his fine,
You may laze along to the judge’s house, sweet woman, and set it on the line.
Of course, looking back after forty years I can see that the fault lay not with two young men in their prime, but with a pimply, priggish teenager who was hoping to escape from the confusions of adolescent sexuality leavened by Irish Catholic guilt and homoerotic desire into a world where ethereal statements of love and beauty supplanted the miserable business of lust. And I also realize that there was a good, healthy lustiness in many of the String Band’s ethereal moments anyway.
I also realize that although the arrangements were much simpler on this debut recording, there’s much of the characteristic String Band sensibility embodied in them. The way that Robin’s accompaniment to Mike’s “When the Music Starts to Play” alternates between harmony vocals and tin whistle anticipates his tripartite vocal/whistle/harmonica hat trick on “Mercy I Cry City.” “Good as Gone,” Robin’s prelude to his departure for Morocco, isn’t all that far, in structure and tone, from “Job’s Tears,” even if it lacks the sweetness of Licorice.
And the boys never abandoned this moment in their career completely either. Mike’s song about childhood’s safe havens, “The Tree,” would pop up again years later on Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air. The album’s closer, “Everything’s Fine Right Now,” was staple in live performance right up through their 21st century reunions. Even Clive’s “Empty Pocket Blues” woulds survive his departure, turning up in a 1970 recording from John Peel’s Top Gear that was eventually released in 2007 on the double album of live recordings, Across the Airwaves, Clive’s rumbling baritone replaced with an eerie duet by Licorice and Rose.
One final word, about the album covers. The photos on the front of the sleeve were different in the British and American releases, as was often the case in the 60s. But somehow, as different as they are, they both capture essential elements of what the String Band was, and would become. The British version (right) shows the lads clutching old, odd (incredible) string instruments, looking like the folkies with a bent for the outrageous that they would soon turn out to be. The American version (top) makes them look hipper and more conventionally British (to American eyes), posed on an overturned derelict double-decker London bus (with a poster for the 1962 proto-swinging London film The L-Shaped Room). The faux-psychedelic lettering on the American version is awful, but Clive does look like a Scottish folk impresario, Mike affects the style of the mod-rocker he always was, and Robin’s beard, which would vanish in a year or two, gives him a decidedly Celtic air.
I dwell on these photographs simply because, in their staginess, they stand out as exceptionally mundane: in this respect they, too, show how different the debut is from all that would follow. With The 5000 Spirits, the ISB would embark on a series of album covers that to my mind represent some of the finest evocations of a band’s image in the history of late twentieth century popular music. The Celtic psychedelia of The 5000 Spirits and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, the flower power of Wee Tam and The Big Huge and Changing Horses, the theatricality of U and the romanticism of Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air are beautifully captured on their covers. The Incredible String Band, in more ways than one, is the record of a group of individuals setting out on the road, taking the first steps on an incredible journey.