My life in music: off the beaten track with Tyrannosaurus Rex and The Incredible String Band

Continuing my life in music …

Until I got my guitar, I’d drifted away from rock towards listening to classical and film music. As a young teenager rediscovering pop music via my guitar, at first I followed fairly conventional bands: I loved Simon and Garfunkel. I loved Cat Stevens. I enjoyed, but didn’t really love, Neil Young, CSNY and James Taylor. Anyone with an acoustic guitar basically. The first deviation was when my friend Guy played me Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Unicorn.

Tyrannosaurus Rex – the lizard on the wallCover of Unicorn by Tyrannosaurus Rex

I’d long been puzzled about the huge graffiti along Ayr beach promenade wall – “Tyrannosaurus Rex” – why would someone go to the trouble of painting the name of a dinosaur on the wall 200 feet long? It’s a band, he explained to me. This was the same Guy who’d introduced me to Lord of the Rings (then an obscure and unloved hardback trilogy in the library), and he proposed Marc Bolan as the missing link between rock and Tolkien. I listened through the strange, slurred, bleating vocals and heard, not rock, but old-time melodies reminiscent of the music-hall and minstrel songs my gran used to sing me, something sweetly nostalgic. As with every music I fell for in those days I wanted my friends and even my parents to hear it – surely they’d love it too. Well, reader, they didn’t. For the first time I found myself a fan of outsider music. And I kind of liked it.

The String Band – first contact

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter album sleeveThe Incredible String Band were beckoning to me long before I heard them. I saw their album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter in the shops and was intrigued as much by the winter blue sky of the cover as by the strangely-clad duo on the front. I was intrigued by the name and questions like ‘What kind of band has only two people?’ At the school folk club, which met after hours on Tuesday afternoons – you could sit on the desks and socialise with girls, as well as learning some great songs – two of the older boys, about to leave school, used to sing You Get Brighter and Hedgehog’s Song, and said they were by the Incredible String Band. I thought maybe I would like them, but at that time an album was something I would have to save for weeks to buy, so I wasn’t ready to buy something I wouldn’t be sure of. I stuck to my Simon and Garfunkel and Moody Blues.

I discovered that a friend’s big brother owned another Incredible String Band album, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. We put it on, but it was strange and disturbing. Off-kilter vocals, abrupt changes of style. I couldn’t figure it out at all, and didn’t enjoy it.It made Tyrannosaurus Rex sound accessible.

I Looked Up

Maybe a year later, I borrowed The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter from the ever-reliable Guy, my guide to unexplored music. On first listen I was again repulsed. Robin Williamson seemed wilfully discordant and Mike Heron like a drunken shouting folk singer. But my friend told me to give it a few tries and I did. The second try did it. First I was seduced by the comedy of the Minotaur’s Song then by the shrill fantasy of Swift As the Wind. By the time I returned it to him two days later I was hooked.

t that time, aged 16 and forbidden from going to Glasgow on my own, I had no prospect of seeing the String Band. But the two sixth-year boys who’d played the tunes at the school folk club had gone on to form a would-be Incredibles called the Barrow Band. They’d recruited a singer and writer every bit as mystical as Robin Williamson. I saw them perform at a village hall in Alloway, where this mysterious singer Robert Miller (Millar?) stunned the hushed hall, intoning ‘In the silence of this hall I raise my lips to sing, the simple truth that one is all and one is everything.’ This chimed with the mystical and spiritual literature I was beginning to devour now. It felt like the nearest I’d come to seeing my new heroes. Soon afterwards the Barrow Band went their separate ways. One of them, James Hutcheson, would later become a graphic designer, and design record art for the String Band and Mike Heron. At the Ayr Folk Club, a cosy Sunday night was blasted by the high energy vocals and percussion of the Natural Acoustic Band, who also moved in the String Band’s circuit.

The Jim Sprigott Occult Quart

What was it about them? There was the exotic instrumentation – sitar, shanai, gimbri – then the flamboyant clothes, the poetry in another league of literary skill from Marc Bolan’s more playful meanderings. But there was also the humour, a very Scottish humour, bold moves like deflating the profundity of the 15-minute cosmic chant Creation with a final chorus of kazoo and washboard. When I finally got to see them at Glasgow City Hall, the humour was as much in evidence as the mysticism.

Norman aged 18The peak of my fandom came when I celebrated my 18th birthday backstage with the Band after a Kelvin Hall gig, with a kiss on the cheek from backing singer and hippy goddess Licorice. There was a sense of community at their gigs that nobody else had. You could always go backstage, you could always talk to them. In one way they were like esoteric gods but in another way like your friends who’d got to run riot in a musical instrument shop.

All Too Much for Me

They were divisive, no doubt about that. Friends either loved them as I did or couldn’t stand them. I learned this when I brought Robin Williamson’s solo album Myrrh round to a prospective girlfriend’s house one afternoon. I wasn’t asked back.

So what kind of music do you play?

I was starting to write songs but there was little direct Incredibles influence. When I tried to write in their patchwork style it was laughably false, but what I did take from them was a disregard of genre. This too contrasted with many of my friends who would tend to stick to one genre, mostly the new acoustic orthodoxy coming out of California. My friends and I, however, would gleefully swing from folk to 1920s Vaudeville to country, reggae and rock just as the String Band would do, in their case all within a five minute song.

This genre-hopping has been a bit of a problem throughout my career – ‘What kind of music do you play?’ invites a response like ‘country’ ‘rock’ ‘industrial death metal with dub’. So for my lack of success on American FM radio, I can blame the Incredible String Band!

Other posts about the String Band

 

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