Perfect Sound Forever

The Early Years of the Incredible String Band

ISB- First Album

by Matthew Martens (Sept. 1997)

"There is something occult and mysterious and unexplained about the Incredible String Band," mused Lilian Roxon way back in the Counterculture's famous long ago, "as if it were conjured out of nowhere with a magic spell, and perhaps it was." Words of a similar cadence might well be uttered by many of us about the year these ones were written: 1969. Oh sure, the Sixties' hippie axis has been the subject of ridicule and scorn for well over two score years by now, and few of us -- however in thrall to the Dream of those days -- fail to wince at some of the period's "excesses," whether chemical, sartorial, political or otherwise. Yeah, they were goofy times. But they had their glories, and they were of a sort utterly removed not only from the sensiblities of today's mainstream culture, but from the artificially jaundiced pop-nihilism and easy irony of the current underground scene, such as it is (and I *am* fond of some of its aspects, so don't mark me as a grumpy nostalgiast, OK? Thanks kindly).

The Incredible String Band continue to stand as the ultimate symbol of all that was good and right and beautiful about the worldwide youth ContraCultura of the late Sixties and early Seventies. I think I can just go ahead and state that baldly, and it looks like I've gone and done it. Robin Williamson and Mike Heron -- the band's two core members through its entire existence, which spanned from 1965 to 1974 -- had, as they say, their fingers on the pulse of the times. With their eponymous debut, released in 1966, and featuring for the only time the contributions of a third multi-instrumentalist, Clive Palmer, ISB synthesized a number of the concerns and passions of the burgeoning post-Beat, wayward-folkie milieu, which, despite the ocean (and a great deal of land as well) between them, seems to have been not all that different in Edinburgh than it was in San Fransisco, and which was snowballing into the hippie gargantua with alarming speed. But even this early in the game, the Incredibles were a bit out on the fringe; legions would traipse out there to meet up with them in the years to come.

5000 Spirits

Musically and lyrically, what lay at the heart of the first two ISB records -- the magisterially titled The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion came out in 1967 -- was what seemed to be a casually weird and strangely lovely variation upon two distinct traditions. These were American folk music as distilled by Guthrie, Seeger, and, especially, Dylan whose cryptic and quite possibly profound poesie of the mid-'60s was a pronounced influence on Williamson and the trickster-storyteller heritage the pair inherited from the myriad bards and minstrels scattered across Scottish history. Conspicuously absent from the ISB concoctions of these and subsequent years is an active engagement with goings on in the political sphere. Their allegiances at this time were to a whimsical and romantic brand of mystical adventurism, the goal of which was to trasmute the stuff of everyday experience into a breezily exotic ether, leaving its breathers in a state of occasionally wistful cheerfullness.

The next few records would each be more ambitious than the last and not just musically. There was a rather feverish striving for spiritual grandeur -- which in retrospect might be seen as a prelude to the band's eventual embrace of Scientology -- took hold especially of Williamson, whose songs' lyrics (I'm thinking particularly of the quasi-liturgical bliss-blitz of "Maya," from The Big Huge) sought to encompass the world and everything in it, even as the shiver of his voice seemed to blanch it all into the silent nothingness of white space. But on these first two records, ISB captured the spirit of innocence AND knowingness that so characterized the moment just before the Hippie achieved critical mass and things became very serious indeed. Already they were fooling around with the diverse instrumentation -- mandolin, sitar, banjo, whistle, kazoo, fiddle -- and cross-cultural miscegenation for which they would become renowned, but it was all happening a couple of notches lower on the intensity scale, and in support of substantially more prosaic lyrical concerns than those they'd graduate to by the time 1968 rolled around. The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter emerged as the most durable foundation yet for what would become a new musical category with international currency -- acid-folk. Or cosmic-folk. Or what have you.

Hangman's Beautiful Daughter

A poignant period, then, 1965 through 1967. For lots of reasons, of course, but not least because it represented the all-too-brief springtime for the late Twentieth Century's take on the holy fool, code named Hippie. And yes, it is my contention that you will find no more compact yet comprehensive an argument for not blithely dismissing the whole sordidly florid little episode than the records of the Incredible String Band, which are not hard to find at all on CD. I plan to write more about them at a later date, but for now it's worth keeping in mind that, as the liner notes to their debut album attest, "Everywhere they go, they leave bits of themselves lying about all over the place, and if you didn't look at them very closely, you might quite easily think they were songs."

And if you need them to be more, they surely will be.