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The Incredible String Band’s bohemian rhapsody

Mike Heron's memoir of the hippy trend-setters shows their extraordinary influence on the 60s music scene.

The “puffed-out, muscle-bound, throbbing package of antagonistic vitality” that appeared in Mike Heron’s spartan tenement made the next day’s local press, with the headline: “Mice the size of rabbits found in East Thomas Street”. Heron’s turns of phrase and eye for detail extend beyond this infestation of rats to every aspect of Edinburgh’s mid-Sixties beatnik life, realised in delightfully beguiling sensory images.

His parents’ home is a fragrant fug of Capstan cigarettes, grilled kippers, lamb bones stewing into broth, and tripe and onions boiling beside muslin bags of fruit. He carries his guitar through the “sleety wind” of Princes Street to the “Celtic whistle tunes, banjo plonks and unfeasibly hearty singing” of folk clubs, scented with tobacco smoke, coffee, bacon, pies and beans, where he sees the musician who will launch his career, the great Clive Palmer, unforgettably clad in “a herringbone tweed waistcoat, orange-and-black kipper tie and baggy olive-green cords, his legs ending in brown moccasins that he’s obviously made himself”.

Disciples of the Incredible String Band, the group that Heron went on to co-found, generally picture them festooned with the beads, bells and psychedelic finery of the Pre-Raphaelite hippies they became in the late Sixties, but the most revealing sections of this memoir explore the era that shaped them: the windswept late Fifties through to the release of their first album in 1966. You can feel the austerity of postwar Scotland, its tough economy and granite-hard tradition, its dives filled with other folk legends in the making – John Martyn, Anne Briggs, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch – and a cocktail of folk standards, Bob Dylan protest ­ballads, bluegrass, jigs, reels, jug-band music and vaudeville. But already the old ways are melting and the landscape is starting to tilt.

Among the wine bottles and hookah pipes, there is “not a cushion unlittered by beautiful people” as a blushing Heron is ushered offstage one night to an upstairs boudoir by a moon-eyed female admirer, who reappears stark naked with two pints of beer. The Incredible String Band – Heron, Palmer and the gloriously other-worldly Robin Williamson – base themselves in an old Quaker meeting hall in Chambers Street where Palmer sleeps in a tent, its guy ropes nailed to the floorboards.

There is something charming about the music business of the time, its communications often by public phone box or telegram. A Melody Maker interview involves the band and writer staying up all night, smoking and drinking in a life-affirming celebration of the way forward. The producer Joe Boyd (who launched Nick Drake and Fairport Convention) offers the band members £50 each to sign to Elektra and they knock out their first album in a day and a half.

When Palmer leaves, the other two take a radical left turn, embarking on an unfettered adventure to liberate the creaking restraints of lyrics, song structure and musicianship. They compose ten-minute epics in four parts. They abandon conventional folk for Eastern scales and play African and Indian stringed instruments, flutes and drums (world music long before the term was established). They cook up curdled new harmonies and conjure the spirits of Lewis Carroll, Blake and Coleridge, in songs about moons, fables, mad hatters, childhood dreams and nightmares and the emperor of China wearing iron shoes.

And their impact on the musical front line was vast. Paul McCartney declared their 1968 masterpiece, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, one of the records of the year. Robert Plant told me that he and Jimmy Page bought a copy and “simply followed the instructions” (you can hear its pastoral echoes on Led Zeppelin III). Mick Jagger tried but failed to sign them to a label he was launching (both the cover and contents of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request caught the psychedelic wind of the Incredible String Band’s The 5,000 Spirits). By the time McCartney and Lennon saw them at the Albert Hall, they had invited their girlfriends to join the group – a pioneering statement at the time – playing bass guitar and organ and adding ghostly, childlike backing vocals (much like Yoko Ono’s infiltration of the Beatles on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” eight months later).

At this point, Heron hands the baton to a co-author, Andrew Greig, who recounts his own chronicle. Greig was an obsessive fan and amateur folk singer whose teenage years were spent watching the Incredible String Band and scrutinising their records. The idea is that they could examine the group’s trajectory from both the inside and out, but Greig’s contributions lack the crackle and observation of his hero’s and rarely fill in the blanks, leaving you wishing that Heron had pushed on alone (and covered other fascinating events, such as the band’s catastrophic turn at the Woodstock festival).

So we leave them – Robin in his cheesecloth smock, Mike taking so much acid that “the cat became a lute” – tantalisingly preparing for the road ahead. Heron has to write a second volume, but at least this first instalment might help secure the recognition the band so transparently deserves.

“You Know What You Could Be: Tuning In to the 1960s” by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig is published by Riverrun (384pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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