On the face of it, you couldn’t think of two bands more diametrically opposed than the Incredible String Band and the Velvet Underground. Yet in 1970 two of their number collaborated on an all-star album and, in particular, on one song: Feast of Stephen.
In 1970 Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band was chafing to do something different. Although the ISB had just peaked in popularity Mike tended to hang out not with folkies but with rockers like the Who and Led Zeppelin and longed to be part of that world. The ISB ethos of ‘inspired amateurism’ whereby you played an instrument for the flavour of it, not because you were particularly competent, was beginning to frustrate him, and he longed for a more mainstream, commercial sound. Joe Boyd was sympathetic to this and enabled Mike to bring in seasoned professionals – including Pete Townshend, Keith Moon and Richard Thompson – for sessions for his solo album Smiling Men with Bad Reputations .
John Cale had been dismissed from the Velvet Underground by Lou Reed in 1968. He had established a career as a producer and arranger, working with Nico and Nick Drake. It was probably the connection with Boyd via Nico and Drake that led him to get involved with Heron’s album. Despite Cale’s heroin use and Heron’s new-found Scientology drug-free existence they seemed to strike up a friendship that led to some stage appearances together and Heron still speaks of Cale as an inspiration.
Too many chords!
Cale said of the sessions: ‘I also did sessions on several albums without assuming the producer’s duties. Among these LPs is Mike Heron’s Smiling Men with Bad Reputations, which is really one of the all time great session LPs ever made … I played bass, guitar, piano, viola and harmonium and I lent some vocal assistance.’ (John Cale & Victor Bockris, What’s Welsh for Zen, 1999)
Heron has been clear about Cale’s contribution to the song – he essentially made it what it is, not only playing most of the instruments, building the arrangement but also stripping back the musical changes to make it more streamlined.
‘No, no, too many chords’, he said of the introduction, ‘Just keep on the one chord as long as you can.’ (Heron during a concert)
Feast of Stephen is one of several examples in Heron’s work at the time of what I think is called ‘writing through’ – I.e. the song doesn’t have a verse and chorus structure but moves from one stage to another in one way without overt repetition. Lyrically it seems to tell the story based on Good King Wenceslas from his viewpoint, except that it isn’t the plight of a poor man that draws him out into the snow but a call from a mysterious goddess. (What is the church’s Feast of Stephen? Find out here)
Verse by verse
The song begins with stately piano chords, joined by a simple strummed acoustic guitar for the first iteration of the opening verse, all on the one chord as Cale dictated. It is then repeated with a solid foundation of bass and drums and, this time, a tension-releasing chord change on the word ‘doors’. The second time, the metre of the sung verse seems to slightly offset from the straightforward folky way it was sung the first time.
Cale then provides a lovely bridge of four descending notes on the viola, leading into the second section, where Cale has somehow built a Phil Spector sound. When I was listening to this as a teenager I had no idea how that big sound was made, I just knew I loved it. Listening analytically now, I think it’s just a couple of slashes of acoustic guitar, maybe twelve-string, with lots of reverb applied so it sounds like it’s opened out from an intimate setting to a huge hall. These guitar chords, along with the viola, punctuate the rest of this section.
There follows a quieter interlude ‘the ladies dance so well’ – perhaps the king having doubts about what he’d leave behind – then we return to the same echoing landscape.
Herons’ voice, and his own harmonies, build this penultimate section with dramatic piano chords from Cale to the peak of ‘when the midnight skies rise’.
The song section is finished at 2m 30 but it’s still only halfway through. The long repeating outro, following the pattern set by the Beatles in Hey Jude in 1968 and copied by many less inspired records, starts here with backing vocals by session singers Sue & Sunny and Liza Strike, plus Cale, that gradually gain in prominence. It’s not the most flowing sequence, with an odd time signature change, but the hero of this section is drummer Gerry Conway who manages to make the break between each repetition something intriguing and exhilarating. Cale can be heard doing one of his trademark screams somewhere in there.
Feast of Stephen became one of Heron’s favourite pieces, performed live with the Incredible String Band (where Robin Williamson attempted to channel Gerry Conway on drums with more enthusiasm than success) and with several of his post-ISB bands. At Joe Boyd’s Barbican tribute to the ISB in 2009 the folk-rock band Trembling Bells finally gave Heron the backing he needed to restore the song to its original soaring power. They went on to tour with him and released their version with Heron in 2010.