Step this way – How Mike Heron opened the door for me
A review of Mike Heron’s Smiling Men with Bad Reputations previously published in the Incredible String Band fanzine Be Glad.
Sometime around 1971 I wrote to Mike Heron and asked him, among other things, about the title and sleeve design of Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. The title, he said, came from Timothy Leary’s version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the sleeve was ‘a Vogue-ish interpretation of the title’. However, in the time-honoured Be Glad tradition of reading ludicrous significance into every chance noodling of the ISB, that sleeve has a personal significance for me, as Mike, in presbyterian black, offers a pineapple, that exotic Liberace of the greengrocer’s world, to an equally ripe-looking multinational crew of gatecrashers at a nativity play. Before this album, my musical world was similarly dour, even allowing for the influence of the String Band.
I was approaching music from folk clubs, with a smattering of the cosmic from the Moody Blues, Tyrannosaurus Rex and King Crimson, but I knew nothing of the wider world of music. Despite my friends’ promptings I couldn’t find anything to get excited about in Cream, the Who, Led Zep or anything ‘heavy’ as they used to call it. I was deeply suspicious of Marc Bolan’s sudden interest in electric guitar, and the short writeup I saw in Disc about Mike’s forthcoming album with a range of international rock musicians wasn’t calculated to make a dent on my worthy world. But when I finally bought it, it opened more doors for me than anything I’d heard before or would hear again. It was my favourite album for years, probably still is, and was definitely one of the most formative musical experiences I ever had. But that was to come.
Initially, I’d heard it a few times without even recognising it. In my world there was no place at all for any kind of black music – soul, funk, Motown – all the glorious stuff that was going on in the late sixties and early seventies went right past me. Although I might tap a foot to whatever Motown singles were in the charts, and even nod sagely when my bassplaying friends pointed out that the bass playing was brilliant, it just wasn’t serious music in the sense that progressive rock or folk-rock (or even Donovan!) were music. How could it be when they did those ridiculous dances on TOTP and wore those daft outfits? Like a cleaner at an orgy, I was blank to the funk. So one afternoon I was listening to John Peel and heard that storm of brass and congas groove into Call Me Diamond; I thought ‘jazz’ and just mentally tuned out, as I did to much of Peel’s playlist. Only this time, I happened to tune back in after the song as he was announcing who it was – surely some mistake here? For a moment I wished for a rewind button, but soon thought better of it and marked this down as an aberration I probably wouldn’t buy.
My next exposure to it came months later with a sampler for Island Records called El Pea – a beautiful production in the days when album sleeves were approached with a kind of verve and freedom that few have managed with CD jewel cases. I bought this for the String Band’s Waiting for You, but enjoyed a few other things on it (the only thing I remember being Quintessence, and even that might be wrong). An abridged Feast of Stephen was on that sampler, and although I found it pleasant in a bland sort of way, I had to listen through it many times when I was listening to other tracks on that side. (It was a lot more effort to lift the needle from a record to skip tracks you didn’t immediately like, so the ‘growers’ usually got a chance in those pre-home taping and pre-CD-fast forward days.) It seemed a funny one – you could never quite figure out what it was as a song – no chorus, no repeated sections, no rhyme, then that odd kind of Hey Judeworkout at the end with its strange jerk of timing. I don’t know how many weeks or months I listened to it in this non-comprehending way until one day, like Hirem Pawnitoff, I suddenly saw the point! That was when it became the album I asked for, and received, for my birthday (probably my 17th). Thus began my musical education. In the year that followed I listened to this album as intensely as only a teenager with about ten albums in his possession can. Probably every track in turn became my favourite track, and I learned – probably exactly as Mike was learning from John Cale at the time – how a rock song can be arranged. In some people’s minds this was the ‘rock’ intrusion that led eventually to the Ruinous Feud and the end of the String Band, but for me each song was an opening to a new world of instrumentation, feel and to new heroes.
Call Me Diamond
This was probably the first time any of us had ever heard Mike or Robin sound ‘professional’ – hence my not even noticing it on the radio. A seamless rhythm section with bubbling congas and the first brass arrangement I’d ever really listened to. Mike sounds like he’s having the time of his life singing it, and for my money it’s probably his best-ever recorded vocal. As I’ll have to note later I think Mike’s voice was always at its best when he was shouting, whether on his own songs or as backing vocal to Robin. He seems to hold the pitch better and have a purity of tone that he loses when trying to be ‘intimate’ on the quieter songs. This was one of the tracks that attracted most interest from the music writers, many of whom made comparisons with Van Morrison, comparisons which, I imagine, must have given Mike confidence to contemplate a career away from shadow of Robin’s artistic stature, in a field in which Robin couldn’t or wouldn’t want to compete. As for me, of course, it was years yet before I even heard Van Morrison, and when I did I couldn’t relate the barking bullfrog I heard there to the joyous outpouring of Call Me Diamond. My favourite shower song, this! Call Me Diamond on Amazon
Flowers of the Forest
Like Feast of Stephen, this was a grower, a song that meandered through structure and mood like a forest stream, although it does have that little chorus to return to as a reference point. I watched Mike play it on stage with Stan Lee on bass, following Mike with the fierce concentration of someone who isn’t sure where the song’s going either. It wasn’t till I got the sheet music that I was able to follow, and to appreciate the novelty of, the chords. As an arrangement on record, though, it’s a beaut. The classic Mike Heron guitar scrub (also heard at the start of orlds They Rise and FallW, and later on Memphis on Reputation) is supported by fluid and sensitive bass and drums, and exquisite Richard Thompson guitar. Again, my first hearing of Mr Thompson (I don’t know why, but Fairport never really interested me before), and it was the first spoke in my wheel as an up-and-coming guitarist who had always thought that no matter how strange a piece of guitar sounds, if you play along enough times, you’ll gradually work out how it’s done. Hah! Nearly thirty years later, I’m no nearer than I was the day I first heard it to finding even one of Thompson’s phrases on this song. I can’t even figure out whether he’s playing open chords with a capo. What on earth is the man doing, save creating the nearest thing music has ever produced to a prickly bramble bush? Flowers Of The Forest
Eroticism cleaves to music in a uniquely sticky way in a teenager’s life, and this song with its wonderfully crafted poetry contrasting the snowy street with the warm and quiet bedroom, was the soundtrack of a million fantasies. Especially as the warm harmonium rises and spreads around the line about ‘take your clothes off’. Ooo-er Mrs! This was the first track to sound like it could be a String Band track, although Robin would probably have asserted himself more on the backing than John Cale; it even had a little mistake in the guitar arpeggio left in like a String Band track! Like tracks for artists as far apart as Nico and Nick Drake, it showed off John Cale’s ability to choose exactly the right instruments and the in right quantity to catch the essence of a song. I even love the way it begins to fade out just as it finishes – it somehow adds to the satisfaction at the end of the song. Audrey
Gerard who? I think this was Mike’s first recorded string arrangement, with the rather skimpy thanks to Gerard Dott for his ‘technical assistance’ (but it was my ideas, right?), and again it drew my attention in a studied way to something I’d often heard but taken for granted – string arrangements. The next to grab my attention was Diamond Meadows on T Rex’s self-titled album! Like so many times before, I feel it’s a song where Mike’s singing doesn’t quite do the song justice. I know many feel his inaccuracy is endearing, or just part of the ISB charm, or whatever; but more and more when I listen to the old stuff with 90’s ears, I think what a shame – how good it could have been if he or his producers had taken a bit more care. It’s not as if Mike was a bad singer – the live shows I remember and the many live tapes I’ve heard have hardly any flat or clumsy singing – it’s just that he seemed to be willing to accept a take that another producer wouldn’t have accepted at all. 60’s spirit or surrounded by yes-men? Who knows? For me, Brindaban points the way to the imaginative and exciting string arrangements Mike would score on later albums. The lyric celebrates Krishna and the Gopi milkmaids by the town of Vrindavan in Hindu legend, although when I ‘looked through all of my books’ I didn’t find Malati, Mahdava or what on earth the first or the fifth were – things with kokilas in, I expect! Brindaban
Feast of Stephen
Oh yes, Feast of Stephen. My favourite Mike song and arguably his finest recorded moment alongside Cellular Song. A perfect match of song, writer and arranger, as Cale subtly builds up a Spector wall of resonance and magnificence around Mike’s evocative and mysterious story. Every time I listen to this recording I notice something new, whether it’s the guitar slashes at “Don’t know her name”, the delicious staggered drum roll towards the end, or Cale’s screams and roars (or is it Mike?) on the fadeout. For someone who’d never really listened to rock drums (sad, eh?) every repetition of the fa la refrain was introduced by a new, different little fill – what an education! One of the live highlights of seeing the band in 1972 was an everyone-on-stage-now version of Feast with, of all people, Robin savaging the drumkit with all the manic glee of Keith Moon and none of the skill! The song wears equally well its new, quieter, incarnation with Dave Haswell and his gongs and bullroarers. And for a thoroughly challenging cover of this song, get Adrian Whittaker, Deena Omar and me round a piano with a few bottles – or maybe not! Finally, this was the track that sent me to Paris 1919 and the discovery of the rest of John Cale’s heroic repertoire. Feast Of Stephen Feast Of Stephen – Mike with Trembling Bells
(Ah, remember when albums came in decent 20-minute chunks and you had to decide whether or not to listen to the other side? Am I the only one who finds most CDs go on too long? Am I really as decrepit as I feel writing this?) Well, the Beatles had started their most famous side two with an Indian drone, so why not Mike? Now for me, Within You Without You was the standout track of Sgt Pepper, and likewise this was the first Smiling Men track I fell in love with, and it was a love I was able to sustain for years because of the complexity and subtlety of the tabla rhythms, always full of surprise and mischief. Just try finger-rapping a couple of jam jars along to it and you’ll see what I mean. I remembered hearing the song first on a String Band radio show and liking its ‘community singing’ feel, but this arrangement, wisely using ‘real’ musicians rather than band members and friends, makes much more than the sum of the parts. When I chose it for my cover on a tribute album (having decided I’d inflict more damage than credit to any of the other songs on this album or any of Robin’s), I was able to lift every snippet of melody I needed from somewhere in this glorious arrangement. Spirit Beautiful (Mike’s version) Spirit Beautiful (my version)
Warm Heart Pastry
Here was another part of my musical education – the one that showed me what rock guitar, bass and drums were all about. I’m sure there are proper Who tracks that capture the essence of the Who as perfectly as this, but I’ve not heard many. And I prefer Heron’s voice to Daltrey’s. I remember someone – I think it was Peel – reading out ‘Hey, I’m a hungry man and you know I ain’t talking bout grits – look at you, you got a sour lemon stuck where a smile oughta fit’ and saying it’s not exactly what you expect from the Incredible String Band, is it? And just at the end, as Keith Moon tries to rein in his mad muse for a finish, Cale comes in with his funereal viola and, no doubt, a funereal twinkle in his eye. Imagine if they had got this on Top of the Pops! Sho’ nuff’r’am! Warm Heart Pastry
This was one where the words were more interesting to me than the music. After all, it mentioned breasts. No, it was another lovely little movie-in-song like Feast of Stephen, a shipwrecked sailor or lost soldier gradually coming round from his fever to the ministrations of a native beauty. The stop-and-start drum rolls became a distraction after a while, but I loved the tinny guitar, delighted for once to hear a guitar on record that sounded like they did when you just plugged them in in real life. Beautiful Stranger
No Turning Back
I seem to remember some story of this being for a film, but I don’t remember the details. For me, it’s the weakest point of the album, mainly because of some frankly awful singing. Again, it’s so frustrating because it he sings most of it so well, the guitar playing is innovative and interesting and the lyric is mysterious but feeds you just enough to be intriguing. Has he just died next to his lover and started speculating about his next life? If only I could reincarnate as Joe Boyd and frog-march Mr Heron back into the vocal booth to drop in some overdubs for this song! No Turning Back
So that’s Smiling Men. Now I’m second to none in my admiration for Robin Williamson as a poet, composer, singer and cultural force. But if I could only take one Incredible item to the proverbial desert island with me it would be this one, which gave me so much pleasure and so much inspiration when I most needed it. Thanks Mike!
© Norman Lamont 1997
If this article chimes with you, you might like more of my String Band-related stuff:
- I Remember It All From Before – two String Band medleys
- The Ocean That Only Begins (e-book) The Incredible String Band for Newcomers
- My best mysterious psych-folk tracks
Free to download - Stories My Killer Told Me: Five surreal story-songs from my Edinburgh Fringe show.
- I Am Not The One For You
- The Ever Open Door
- New Eyes
- A Forest Trail in Autumn
- The Portobello Slam
Just let me send you an occasional email!