The third album released by the Incredible String Band, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) is, by general consensus, their masterpiece. It isn’t my personal favorite; indeed it is hard for me to decide which of their albums I like best, given the metamorphic nature of the band and its music over time. But The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is without a doubt a defining moment for the String Band, one in which they broke free of convention almost completely and drew a magic circle in the sand that they dared others to cross.
Cross it they did. The album was their most commercially successful, breaking into the Top Five in Britain, nominated for a Grammy. Perhaps the most stirring testimony to its powers came from the unlikely source of Robert Plant, who claimed (in a 1997 BBC documentary about the ISB) that Led Zeppelin found their way “by playing Hangman’s and following the instructions.”
Listening to the album now, I can almost feel the String Band expanding, trying to burst the boundaries that had contained them so far. Their ambitions took a flying leap forward, and if they faltered at moments, they achieved greatness along the way.
For one thing, they abandoned the way in which they had arranged the sequence of songs on their first two albums, on which they generally just alternated a tune by Heron with one by Williamson, balancing out the contrasting styles of the two composers. This may have proved impractical on Hangman’s simply because Mike put an enormous bundle of creativity into “A Very Cellular Song,” which, at thirteen minutes, was twice as long as any song the Band had recorded to date. And so the first side of the album opened with three songs by Williamson in a row. I’m probably reading too much into it, but the arrangement of those songs has always seem to me to be very deliberate, a minor String Band Bildungsroman in three movements.
The first song, “Koeeoaddi There” (whose title Robin devised by throwing a lettered die) is a song of childhood and memory and mysticism. It sets a stage for the whole album, with Robin’s guitar given atmospheres by Mike’s sitar and organ; jew’s harp and handclaps and click-clacking percussion reinforce the sense of simple innocence and fun.
I used to sit on the garden wall
Say hello to people going by so tall
Hallo to the postman’s stubbly skin
Hallo to the baker’s stubbly grin
Mrs. Thompson gave me a bear
Brigitte and some people lived upstairs
And the chorus hints at the inexplicable mysteries that we encounter as children and maybe never fully understand:
Earth water fire and air
Met together in a garden fair
Put in a basket bound with skin
If you answer this riddle
If you answer this riddle, you’ll never begin
Next up is “The Minotaur’s Song,” a music-hall-cum-Gilbert-and-Sullivan ditty featuring a barrelhouse piano and an accompanying chorus of off-key amateurs providing backup vocals. There’s more than a whiff of juvenile testosterone (“I’ll do that’s wrong as long as I can”) that carries the sweet innocence of “Koeeaddi There” along the stumbling path of youthful bravado and hi-jinks.
The trilogy is completed by “Witches Hat,” [sic] a bit of pure Williamson magic, a classic of the rapidly maturing Incredible String Band style. Its wistful guitar and harpsichord in the opening bars invoke childhood again (“Certainly, the children have seen them…”) but now the voice is mature and the story, one feels, is being told to a child rather than by one. The evocative pennywhistle plays off Robin’s wordless vocalizing as the tune trails off with the lovely image of “wearing black cherries for rings,” evoking all sorts of magic.
And then comes Mike’s “A Very Cellular Song.” A delicate opening verse for organ and sarangi gives way to one of Mike’s magpie moments, an extended quotation from the Pinder Family’s Bahamian funeral song, “Sleep on Beloved.” As the dirge fades out, a series of verses scored for harpsichord, hand drums, whistle, kazoo, and bass offers a psychedelic phantasmagoria of crystallized ginger and riding backwards on a giraffe before the opening strains of organ and sarangi return. Licorice appears on the album for the first time singing her ghostly harmonies and at a crucial point intoning, childlike, “Amoebas are very small.” The song ends with an extended repetition, the first of many Heronesque blessings and invocations over the years to come, of the kundalini yoga prayer:
May the long time sun shine upon you
All love surround you
And the pure light within you
Guide you all the way on
Although Robin’s songs dominate the length of the album’s second side, it opens with a sparkling offering by Mike again, “Mercy I Cry City.” A dystopian vision of the tribulations of the modern metropolis, it is nevertheless as full of life as it is of grit.
Oh, send another carriage
Chugging down your chokey tube
I hope it makes you happy
‘Cause it don’t do my health much good
Your slowly killing fumes
Squeeze the lemon in my head
Make me know just what it’s like
For a sin-drenched Christian to be dead
The final moments of the song are a wonder. Robin, has alternately accompanied Mike with backing vocals, drums, a tiny bell, a harmonica and a whistle; at the very end Robin duets on harmonica and whistle, squeezing both into every breath and bar, sometimes playing both at the same time. (You can see a bit of this in a live performance captured as part of their film Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending here; the excerpts from “Mercy” start at the 8:55 mark). It’s no secret to String Band fans that Mike and Robin had no real fondness for one another and collaborated only by agreeing that each could arrange the other’s songs with his own inspirations. You may never see a finer moment of this partnership than in these few seconds of performance.
The other standout song on the album’s second side is Robin’s “The Water Song.” Usually it was Mike who composed the paeans to the unnoticed natural world around us, celebrating the sun in “You Get Brighter” and singing a love song to oxygen in “Air,” But this time it’s Robin who celebrates water, the “wizard of changes.” In the middle of the song, Robin succeeds into turning a pail of water into a musical instrument. As a teenager, I once felt asleep among the dunes on a beach and woke at dawn with the sound of the waves rolling gently to shore, and, being a teenager, I arose and responded to them singing Robin’s hymn: “God made a song when the world was new / Water’s laughter sings it true.”
The rest of side two includes signature songs of the Incredibles. Robin’s “Three is a Green Crown” is carried by an open minor-key drone through most of its seven minutes, and then suddenly bursts through to a relative major fourth in a moment of mystical revelation: “Oh Second Self / Oh gates of the soft mystery!” The boys try some very daring vocalizing to communicate the childhood distress of a boy plagued by visions of a bloody archangel in Mike’s “Swift as the Wind.” But somehow, these songs still disappoint me decades later. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter may be the purest expression of the String Band’s eclectic creativity, the duo of Mike and Robin (and a few supporting musicians) doing what had never been done before. And it may therefore deserve its place in musical history. But I can’t quite agree with the general consensus that it is their masterpiece; it stumbles too often for that. It demonstrates their potential and their uniqueness and sets them on the path to greatness, but their vision will have to wait for the next release, Wee Tam and the Big Huge, to achieve its full potential.
But I can’t leave without addressing the cover art, as I’ve done in my previous posts about the ISB and their albums. As with every LP of the day, there are two sides, front and back; as with many, the UK and US versions vary. In this case, they’re swapped. The photo at the top of this post, of Robin and Mike looking like wintry magicians, was the front cover of the UK version, but I think was better relegated to the back as in the US.
The other side (below) shows Mike and Robin (and Licorice in the lower right corner?) posed among a family-and-friends group that I remember one of the lads describing as a a cohort who lived together and frequently performed plays of their own devising, everyone dressing up appropriate to the roles assigned. (In this, it adumbrates the Strong Band’s own adventures in the section of Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending called “The Pirate and the Crystal Ball.”) It’s a colorful, motley set of costumes, given focus by the cardboard mask that Mike holds and the toy or Japanese noisemaker that Robin lofts in the center of the picture. It’s an autumnal scene, leaves curling underfoot, the branches of the trees behind them bare, everyone wrapped in shawls and capes and covered up with remarkable hats. It’s as if the String Band is saying, welcome to the world whose music you will find within.
And indeed, whenever the first autumn chill hits the air each year, I think of this portrait, and mark the change of the seasons and the passage of another year. And a few more lines from “Witches Hat” unspool in my memory and the magic and the mystery of the Incredible String Band is borne in on me once more.
Certainly the children have seen them
In quiet places where the moss grows green
Colored shells jangle together
The wind is cold, the year is old, the trees whisper together
And bent in the wind they lean
Oh, next week a monkey is coming to stay….