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13 May 2017

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.

By Mark Ellen

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.

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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)

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This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning