In which we decide not only to do a cover version but to write an extra verse and get the original artist to approve it.
Something to Be Glad about
In 1994 the editors of the tentatively launched Incredible String Band fanzine Be Glad realised they had tapped into an expectant and enthusiastic audience. Articles flooded in and the paper quality went from rough typed copy to a glossy magazine. A small fan convention in Hebden Bridge would lead to a larger one in Leeds where both Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, then estranged, played on separate nights. The ice was thawing.
The tribute album
The next venture was a tribute album, and in issue 4 of the fanzine, in 1995, readers were invited to write and record a track, to be released on cassette – for that was what was standard and affordable in those days!
I wanted to do something for it and I had the luxury of being a member of a band, Hungry Ghosts, and having a friend, Dave Watson, with a home studio.
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What is Painted Chariot about?
I’d always been intrigued by Mike Heron’s song Painted Chariot, from the album Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air. I developed the notion that it was a veiled expression of Mike’s doubts about Scientology.
It sat on the same album as Robin’s Dear Old Battlefield, where he describes Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard as ‘the magic man who finally helped me out of the wood’, so there were clearly no shared misgivings.
The original version
But that album came out at a time when, as a teenager, I’d just flirted with, and then run a mile from, that organisation, and at the time, that was the gloss I had put on Mike Heron’s lyrics:
It was only a painted chariot
But it took you so far into the rain
And the coachman slapped his fist
On the chariot in the mist
Saying ‘Look here sonny, can’t you see it’s real as pain
See this fine chariot, won’t you ride it?
I’m the coachman, won’t you trust me to guide it?’
And it’s only a painted chariot
Only a painted chariot
Then you got high, deep sigh, wonder why, much more, where’s the door?
Hear the old prayers, find the wise players
I thought Mike was saying he was beginning to see through Hubbard’s huckster show and was maybe losing faith. I linked the line ‘Then you got high …’ to their practice of rushing people who’d just had a cathartic experience on one course to immediately sign up for the next one. Of course you could interpret ‘find the wise players’ as just the opposite. Heron wasn’t saying anything public at the time – being critical of the organisation was a dangerous thing to do, especially if you were still in it. But I wondered …
How to do a cover version
My choice to do the song was also musical – I liked the guitar and rimshot intro and the stadium-rock chorus. The fade-out was also uncharacteristically raw rock for the Incredible String Band. The kind of thing Mike was into and Robin went along with (for a while) for the sake of cohesion .
I started mapping it out, and wondering how to avoid just doing a copy of the original, which would inevitably be weaker. I decided to play the intro on keyboards and keep the familiar guitar arpeggio for later. But whenever I played it like that, it seemed to really want to go into another verse. There wasn’t one and I was a bit flummoxed. One day I found myself making up verse 2.
It was only a painted chariot
But it took you so deep into the woods
And coachman whipped his steeds
In his delusion and his greed
Saying ‘Hang on sonny, this is all for your own good.’
So many riders followed after
I thought there must be something in his crazy laughter
Can I do this?
Then the call came to get it recorded, with a deadline to submit it for the cassette. I was in a bit of a quandary. I didn’t think I could just put it out there. Mike might take offence, might even see it as a breach of copyright. I didn’t know the man at all, and didn’t know what his attitude to such things might be.
I thought there might be outrage from String Band purists – “Who does he think he is?”. At the same time, artistically it seemed to be the right thing to do.
Somehow I managed to obtain Mike’s address from someone at the fanzine and sent him a letter (this was the early 1990s!) with the new verse and my rationale, saying if he didn’t want it I’d drop the idea immediately. A couple of weeks later came a letter from the Borders, brief and to the point: “Dear Norman, Fine by me, Mike”
Building the track
So we had two verses and two runs through the chorus. I now had to work out what to do with the ‘Hear the old prayers’ bit. With my confidence to change the original boosted I decided to drop ‘Find the wise players’, because it didn’t fit my interpretation of the other lyrics.
I’d been learning how to use MIDI on the computer and had some experimental grooves that were pretty atonal, inspired by some passages from a Shawn Phillips album Collaboration from 1971. (Shawn Phillips – now that’s a whole other blog post one day!) I wondered if I could use that and bring in the other members of my band, singer Tricia Thom and violinist Stephen Malloch to sing and play over it.
I then worried it would just be an extended jam, and people would lose interest. The String Band’s Painted Chariot also ended in a jam but they had the good grace to fade it out before it overstayed its welcome. That’s when I happened on the idea of including lines from different String Band songs that could support the idea of doubt, an emotion rarely touched on in the String Band canon.
In retrospect it was a bit arrogant and overdone in the final version. But I was new to recording and excited by the possibilities of being in a studio with a producer who could create the sounds I heard in my head. Dave Watson was going to be my George Martin. He was able to build on my basic MIDI structure, play the keyboards better, and record and mix the vocals. Stephen, a classical violinist, took to the improvisation with glee. I think we completed the recording in two evenings. Tricia lent some wordless vocal improv to the end, and harmonies to the chorus.
The cassette went out to the ISB fan base in 1996 as The Hangman’s Beautiful Granddaughter. There were some great covers on it, the highlight for me being Kate Green’s direct and emotional reading of The Circle Is Unbroken. Folk Roots magazine was generally positive about the album, but said ‘black marks to those who’ve seen this as an opportunity to go for broke and exposure.’ If that was aimed at Chariot, I can’t say I blame them. A few other reviewers said this cover version seemed to improve on the original.
Later Mike quit Scientology and was critical of the organisation. I never did find out whether that song represented his doubts about it. While still with the band, he had put out songs like Seagull and 1968 which also seemed to express doubt and uncertainty, I thought I may have been onto something now I think but it was probably all my projection.
Painted Chariot by Hungry Ghosts
Listening back to it now I hear a lot of rather dated MIDI, but also a quite satisfying arrangement and performance. Yes it is way too long and indulgent but nonetheless I like it enough to put it up here and see what you make of it.
- Norman Lamont, voice, guitar, bass
- Dave Watson – funk guitar
- Tricia Thom – voice
- Stephen Malloch – violin