The Incredible String Band

The Incredible String Band: Original Album Series (Rhino)

March 2013

Can it really be 45 years since I first heard ‘A Very Cellular Song’ and ‘Job’s Tears’ – songs that I must have listened to at least once a month every since, always finding more in them? The Incredible String Band was perhaps the most innovative group to appear in the sixties, and they still sound intriguing and challenging. If they’re new to you, be warned that you have to forget everything you have understood about how popular music is supposed to sound and what it is supposed to talk about. Categorised as ‘psychedelic folk’, the ISB effectively instigated what we now call world music: as such, they did not try and turn Indian, East European, Arabic or Celtic sounds into three-minute hit wonders, but rather allowed their influences lots of room to breathe while they drew on them at daringly experimental length. Similarly, for their lyrics they drew on what we now call world religion: references abound to Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist sources, to Christian mysticism and to the ideas of such gurus of their day as Alan Watts and Krishnamurti.

The first album, simply called The Incredible String Band (1966), and featuring Robin Williamson, Mike Heron and Clive Palmer, sounds pretty conventional: staple folk fare. But already the lyrics are getting very interesting indeed. My favourite is Williamson’s ‘October Song’. I love the serenity of this verse: ‘The fallen leaves that jewel the ground / They know the art of dying / And leave with joy their glad gold hearts / In the scarlet shadows lying.’ But I also like the audacity of this: ‘For rulers like to lay down laws / And rebels like to break them / And the poor priests like to walk in chains / And God likes to forsake them.’ As throughout Williamson’s work, the influence of William Blake is felt in those lines.

The second album, the one that for many characterised the ‘summer of love’ of 1967, is called The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion; it is with this that the ‘hippie’ reputation began to grow. Clive Palmer having departed, Williamson and Heron introduced a whole range of new, mainly foreign, instruments, and began to explore the realms of mysticism. Heron invited us to ‘Listen to the song of life’ which ‘gurgles through the timeless glade / In quartertones of lightning’, adding that ‘Its rainbow’s end won’t hold you’. But such cheery speculation was tempered by Williamson’s dark riddling: ‘I am the question that cannot be answered / I am the lover that cannot be lost / Yet small are the gifts of my servant the soldier / For time is my offspring, pray, what is my name?’ The answer – which human beings find it so hard to accept, unlike those graceful leaves mentioned above – is, of course, death. If this was hippie music, it was rather more than a drug-fuelled diversion. However we judge the ISB, it is a very hard phenomenon to pin down.

The third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) is so diverse musically and lyrically that it’s hard to recall that it is the creation of two young Scottish folksingers. Instruments played include guitar, gimbri, whistle, pan pipe, piano, oud, mandolin, sitar, organ, dulcimer, harpsichord and harp. And the words that accompany the weird & wonderful sounds are unforgettable. Here’s a distillation of the story of Eden from the Book of Genesis in terms of the Buddhist teaching of the illusory nature of the ego: ‘Earth water fire and air / Met together in a garden fair / Put in a basket bound with skin / If you answer this riddle / You’ll never begin.’ More playful paradox is offered in another song, which asks us to travel imaginatively to ‘Where the flowers are free and the fishes ask / Ah, what can water be?’

This box set gives us five albums in all, but I should point out that the final two were originally issued, in the same year as Daughter, under the quirky title of Wee Tam and the Big Huge. (I understand that this makes perfect sense if you come from Scotland!) Two examples of ‘incredible’ songs might be given by way of conclusion. Heron’s ‘Douglas Traherne Harding’ is a meditation on nature and spirit, drawing on the teachings of Jesus (‘If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light’) and on the work of two neglected mystics: Thomas Traherne (‘You’ll never enjoy the world aright … till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars’) and Douglas Harding (author of On Having No Head, an account of how he woke up to the beauty of creation and found he had lost his sense of self). In Williamson’s ‘The Circle Is Unbroken’, his riposte to that old, other-worldly hymn ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’, he declares that ‘Seasons they change but with gaze unchanging’, and offers the following invitation: ‘Come let us build the ship of the future / In an ancient pattern that journeys far / Come let us set sail for the always island / Through seas of leaving to the summer stars.’ Four-and-a-half decades on, that still sounds good to me!

Laurence Coupe