Painted Chariot – an Incredible String Band cover by Hungry Ghosts

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.

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

Hungry Ghosts - Stephen Malloch, Tricia Thom, Norman LamontSo 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 reception

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.

Looking back

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

COB – Moyshe McStiff & the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart

Sleeve of Moyshe McStiff album

In 1972 Clive Palmer, who had left the Incredible String Band in 1967 because he wasn’t taken with their enthusiasm for world mythology, weirdness and ethnic instruments, released a classic of album of mythology, weirdness and ethnic instruments under the unforgettable title of Moyshe McStiff And The Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart.

Clive Palmer

Moyshe is a small but fascinating episode in the Clive Palmer story – a pattern of starting bands, getting a little success and walking away. He’s most famous for co-founding the Incredible String Band with Robin Williamson, at Clive’s Incredible Folk Club in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow.

An aficionado of ragtime and early 20th century music-hall, Clive never really seemed to belong to any era, whether it was the beatniks or the hippies. Even in 1966, living in a tent pegged down in an Edinburgh flat, he seemed old, or maybe ageless. In the space of 1966-67 he’d recorded the first Incredible String Band album (on which he hardly played at all), left them, travelled through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, returned home, spent time in Barlinnie Prison on remand for possession, and declined to join his former bandmates in their rise to psychedelic fame.

After working with Hamish Imlach and Wizz Jones, his next recording band, in 1968 was the Famous Jug Band (no name-relation to the Incredible String Band, of course!) – then moved to Cornwall where there was a thriving folk scene.

What’s a jug band?

The term comes from the 1910s and 1920s in the southern states of the USA where bands would play home-made instruments. By buzzing his lips into a glass or earthenware jug, one player in each band would fulfil the function of the bassist, providing rhythm and a bassline, copying the tuba’s role in the brass bands of the day. This rough, egalitarian approach to music found its way through the blues into skiffle in the 1950s and from there into rock’n’roll.

Typically for Clive, the Famous Jug Band didn’t restrict themselves to jug band music. Their most celebrated song, A Leaf Must Fall, is a beautiful folk ballad covered by many singers (including me on All The Time In Heaven).

COB

Using up band names like Rizla papers, Clive performed in many lineups -Stockroom Five, Temple Creatures (named after cult prostitutes in the ancient Middle East) and finally, on returning to London, Clive’s Original Band, or COB, with Mick Bennett and John Bidwell.

In 1971 CBS had become interested in what looked like an up-and-coming new genre, progressive folk. They invited some of their more successful artists to produce an album for another artist. Ralph McTell, then a leading light in the folk/acoustic world, was a friend of Clive’s from the Cornwall music scene, and produced the first album by COB, Spirit of Love.

Clive wasn’t that keen on the name, which was suggested by manager Jo Lustig to somehow echo Clive’s history with the more famous Incredible String Band, according to Grahame Hood:

“It suggested that this was the band I had before the one I was in before the one I was in … it sounded a bit stupid to me, but I sort of went along with it because it was nice to make a record.”

Typically for Clive, Spirit of Love sounds like it was dredged up from some misty historical world that you can’t quite place. It’s not fey, English garden stuff; the voices are weary and travel-worn and several of the songs are based on chants that sound like they could continue forever. Spirit of Love didn’t sell particularly well but was acclaimed by folk and even rock critics, and led to a healthy gigging schedule and gave them the scope to spend more time planning and recording a followup. They added a percussionist, Genevieve Val Baker, who brought her sister Demelza, also a percussionist, and recruited Danny Thompson, double-bassist to the stars, for the recording sessions.

Moyshe goes forth

The result was the extraordinary Moyshe McStiff And The Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart. The title, the cover art, and the song lyrics all allude to the same three themes: Jewish history and symbolism (Mick and Clive), Catholicism (John Bidwell) and Celtic myth and culture (Clive). The songs originated from one or other of the three singers, but were shaped by them all and credited to them all.

Biblical references abound.

After 1m 20 of musical scene-setting, The Lion Of Judah opens the album with rock song chords and casbah instrumentation.

Solomon’s Song begins with lines drawn from the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon (which Joni Mitchell also adapted many years later):

I am comely because I am black
As the tents of Kedar, as Solomon’s veil

I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley
As a rose among thorns, so is my beloved

In the 1980s I met John Bidwell in a folk club in Manchester and he said he’d try to remember a song from the album; he then produced a note-perfect version of his tricky 11/8 ballad Eleven Willows.

But among the welter of imagery and exotic textures there’s a gem of simplicity, Pretty Kerry, a sad tale of doomed love sung over a simple banjo arpeggio.

I found some irony in the fact that Clive Palmer never rejoined the Incredible String Band because he didn’t like the direction Robin and Mike were steering it in, towards ethnic instruments and world-music colours, yet in Moyshe McStiff he and his band produced what I think is a masterpiece of the genre, one I’ve often chosen to listen to over the Incredibles. The instrumentation is striking – harmonium, Danny Thompson’s powerful string bass, balalaika, hand drums and the dulcitar – a dulcimer quickly hand-made from sheets of pine wood by Clive and John. They used a sitar-style bridge where the strings pass over a flat piece of bone, gradually deepening the holes in the bridge until they got the sitar buzz they were looking for. It’s used to beautiful effect on Let It Be You.

Clive moves on again

Sadly Moyshe was never that well received in the all-powerful music press. A tour supporting Pentangle was a lucrative but difficult experience as the members of Pentangle were at each other’s throats, splitting at the end of the tour. Radio having lost interest in COB, they persevered for a while with a well-attended residency in a Putney pub, but split in 1973. Clive Palmer gave up being a professional musician and having trained for a year in building instruments, moved back to his beloved Cornwall with his new wife. He continued to play in loosely formed local bands but his public profile was lower than low.

In the 1990s, the revival of interest in the Incredible String Band led by the fanzine Be Glad cast its glow over Clive, as it had over Dr Strangely Strange. Firstly Robin Williamson and Mike Heron shared a stage, then Robin and Clive undertook an album and tour together, then they shared a gig (but separate sets) with Mike, then finally in 2000 a short Incredible String Band tour, featuring Mike, Robin, Clive, Robin’s wife Bina and multi-instrumentalist Lawson Dando, was announced. This new version lasted a couple of years with sporadic gigs, until Robin and Bina pulled out in 2003. They added more musicians to compensate but whatever it was, it wasn’t the Incredible String Band and they called it a day in 2006. The reunion did boost interest in Clive’s work, from Elton John to Devendra Banhart, and enabled him to make more albums.

Clive Palmer died in 2014 at the age of 71.

Want to know more about Clive Palmer?

For this article I’ve drawn heavily on Grahame Hood’s Empty Pocket Blues, the lovingly researched and definitive work on Clive and the musical scenes he moved through. It’s a fascinating life story.  (Affiliate link)

In the late 80s I was looking to clear out some vinyl albums, and discovered that Moyshe was a rarity. I sold it to a collector for £80, about £150 in today’s money.  Do I regret it? A bit.

Clive Palmer talks about his life (2010 interview)

 

Anyone got news of Mick Bennett or John Bidwell?

Please share in the comments below.

Dr Strangely Strange – psychedelic lounge band

Dr Strangely Strange were an Irish psychedelic folk band between 1968 and 1971. They were friends of, and appealed to fans of, the Incredible String Band. But they approached their songs with more of a laugh. Let me introduce the Doctor …

“The psychedelic lounge band with whom I made four albums” Tim Goulding

Cover of the Island sample Nice Enough To Eat
The Island sample Nice Enough To Eat

Nice Enough to Eat

Most people who knew Dr Strangely Strange in the 1970s heard them for the first time on the Island Records sampler Nice Enough To Eat. Sampler records were fashionable at the time, led by CBS’s The Rock Machine series: a label would pick a track from each of their top flight artists and mix them with some up-and-coming, and put it out at a budget price. In Nice Enough To Eat, the big hitters were Fairport Convention, Free, King Crimson and Jethro Tull. The up-and-coming included Mott The Hoople, Quintessence and, tucked away at the end, a song called Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal by Dr Strangely Strange.

It was an intriguing oddity, full of lyrical non-sequiturs, odd changes and a feeling that it was thrown together by a bunch of friends having a jam and a few joints. Which it may well have been.

Friends greet you on the way saying
There you go (another voice then chips in ‘There you go’)
You may wonder where you’re supposed to be going
I have often thought
Of the youngest daughter
And the joyous overflowing.

You may wonder …

With no internet to research bands on, we had to wait until one of the music papers wrote about them to discover they were Irish (although the singer on that featured song was the English member, Ivan Pawle) and friends of the Incredible String Band. They’d been recommended to Joe Boyd of Witchseason Productions, the String Band’s manager, by Robin Williamson. Boyd saw them as ‘ISB Junior’ but thought it would be good to have another acoustic, hippy band on his roster.

The Orphanages, Lynott and Moore

The Dr Strangely Strange that Joe Boyd saw supporting Skid Row in Dublin (a rock band with Gary Moore on lead guitar and Phil Lynott on vocal) wasn’t the lineup that would eventually record their album. It featured Ivan and Tim Booth, but Tim Goulding, a classically trained pianist, only joined soon afterwards, making up what would become the core Strangelies trio. They, along with Moore and Lynott were part of a Dublin hippy scene revolving around two communal houses called the Orphanages, referenced in the Strangelies’ A Tale of Two Orphanages and a later Thin Lizzy title Shades of a Blue Orphanage.

Patrick Pearse comes squinting through 1916

Pawle, Goulding and Booth had distinctive voices, like Heron and Williamson in the String Band, but their songwriting styles were much closer to each other than the String Band’s two were. Over a few days recording in London Joe Boyd coaxed a set of songs from them, Kip of the Serenes, that were more casual and humorous than the String Band, but still melodically strong and poetic. The songs and the cover art by Tim Booth contain many references to Irish history and culture, none more so than the epic finale Donnybrook Fair which pulls in historical figures such as Henry Gratton and Patrick Pearse, mythical ones like Deirdre of the Sorrows and contemporaries like the Mighty Avon Showband. Like the String Band’s own 15m poetic epic Creation, which Ivan was contributing to at the same time, it ends not with a dramatic crescendo but in gentle comedy, with hymns sung first to a traditional dance tune, Waxie’s Dargle, then to a wheezing harmonium.

Because of the Witchseason connection and their friendship with the String Band, comparisons were inevitable. They answered them once: “We’re similar I suppose but where the String Band are brilliant musicians, we’re a gang of absolute duffers.” Not true.

PR photo for Heavy Petting
PR photo for Heavy Petting http://www.irishshowbands.net/bgstrangely.htm

Heavy Petting 1970

The inclusion of Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal on Nice Enough To Eat led to good sales for Kip and lots of touring dates (carting their harmonium around in a pig trailer), but little disposable income. They decided the next album, for 1970, would aim for a bit more commercial success. To an extent following the lead of the String Band, who were beginning to appreciate the value of bass and drums underpinning the songs, in the interests of becoming more accessible to more listeners. TWith a solid rhythm track throughout, the new album Heavy Petting was more polished but still very Strangely. The standout track, Sign On My Mind, featured an exquisite guitar solo from their old friend Gary Moore.

Heavy Petting caused as much interest for its sleeve design as its music. Boyd moved them away from Island to Vertigo, a new imprint of Phillips aimed at the growing prog market. Vertigo’s albums all had a swirling spiral label on the disc, designed to be hypnotic when spinning on a turntable. The sleeve itself, by Roger Dean, was an elaborate sculpted cardboard foldout.

The Strangelies break up

Despite good reviews, John Peel support and a full calendar of college gigs, the Strangelies never broke through to the point where they could make a reasonable living. Tim Goulding decided to concentrate on his painting and left the band. Ivan Pawle declined an offer to join the Incredible String Band to replace Rose Simpson, and joined the folk band run by Gaye and Terry Woods, along with Tim Booth. This lasted less than a year, after which Pawle and Booth returned to Ireland.

I was the Doctors’ companion

What’s my personal connection with Dr Strangely Strange? I never saw them in their heyday and never thought I would.

After that they played occasionally in pubs and folk clubs, reuniting occasionally, and even recording a third album Alternative Medicine in 1997. The revival of interest in the Incredible String Band during the 90s and 2000s spread to the Strangelies, who performed at a 1994 fan convention (where I got to jam with them in the evening session), and more prominently at London’s Barbican at a 2009 String Band tribute concert organised by Boyd. Their later gigs were, as expected, endearingly ramshackle, with fourth member Joe Thoma providing the musical backbone.

During one of their occasional London pub gigs their fame and charisma rubbed off on me as I had the privilege of giving my rolled-up coat to Tim Goulding to compensate for a too-low piano stool. How special that was – almost on a stardust level with the time I tripped over a drunken Mick Avory after a Kinks gig in Edinburgh!

Dr Strangely Strange in Walthamstow, London in 2009
Dr Strangely Strange in Walthamstow, London in 2009

Due to loving research and attention by curator Adrian Whittaker and Hux Records, their albums have been restored and re-released with additional tracks, and a new album Halcyon Days was made of up unreleased material from 1969 and 1970.

What will you get from the Strangelies?

It’s all in that one song, Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal. If you like the charm and randomness of that, there are treasures in store. Start with Kip of the Serenes. In particular Ship of Fools, Donnybrook Fair and Strings In The Earth And Air, an amalgam of two poems by James Joyce to a beautiful flowing chord sequence, covered by Robin Williamson and by the reformed Incredible String Band of 2002.

 

3-part documentary by Conor Heffernan

A Strangely Strange playlist

My Strangeliest song

Go exploring

Robin Williamson – the explorer bard

Robin Williamson playing harp

In a recent video I covered Robin Williamson’s Zoo Blues. In case anyone came away with the idea that Williamson just wrote funny skits, here’s a bit more about the man behind the Incredible String Band.

Where did that come from?

Robin Williamson seemed to burst fully-formed onto the Edinburgh folk scene in the early 60s. Most artists have an ‘imitative’ first period until they find their voice. Williamson’s may have been in the years he sang traditional Scottish, Irish, traveller and bluegrass, but judging by reports he was instantly acclaimed as a unique voice even then. But when you look at what he claims was his first self-penned song October Song you wonder where that came from. (”I’ll sing you this October Song, there is no song before it.”) It is probably his most popular song even now, although he rarely sings it. Soon after, this song from a little-known Edinburgh singer was much covered and attracted praise from Bob Dylan (”quite good” was praise from Bob Dylan).

Good As Gone

The very early Incredible String Band (l-r Clive Palmer, Mike Heron, Robin Williamson)
The very early Incredible String Band (l-r Clive Palmer, Mike Heron, Robin Williamson)

Not only that, but he had quit the music scene completely after the recording of the Incredible String Band’s first album, going off to Morocco with his girlfriend intent on studying Arabic flute and smoking large amounts of weed. That might have been the end of his story, but it wasn’t long before he returned with a bagful of Moroccan instruments and the Incredible String Band as we known it – him and Mike Heron and a stageful of exotic instruments – really got going.

The Incredible String Bard

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, including Mike’s, that Robin was the driving force. He would coax all sorts of sounds out of all sorts of instruments whether he could ‘play’ them or not – always in search of what hadn’t been heard before. He introduced what I called the ‘patchwork song’ – different melodies, keys and genres for every verse, sometimes every line. He tested the limits of his voice – keening, wailing, growling, sighing. Karl Dallas of the Melody Maker said he followed conventional scales ‘like birds follow traffic lanes’.

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter album sleeveMike’s undoubted talent flourished as a response to the challenge of keeping up with Robin. At the same time Mike provided a more accessible way into the String Band world. One friend described it as Robin being the balloon rising into the sky, Mike the string that that kept it within our reach.

Gradually he emerged, and probably saw himself, as more of a poet than a band member. When the String Band, under Mike’s growing dominance, became too mainstream, the tension between his muse and the day job got too much and he left acrimoniously, not for the last time.

Looked like a god

He was a hugely charismatic individual during the 1960s, tall, blonde and other-worldly, striding through Glasgow and Edinburgh in robes and cloaks. Billy Connolly, Bruce Findlay, music manager and entrepreneur and Rose Simpson, String Band bassist, all described him as looking ‘like a god’.

The String Band at Woodstock.
The String Band at Woodstock.

For fans, while you could imagine having a chat with Mike Heron about your favourite bands, or guitar strings or radio programmes, you felt that if you met Robin you’d have to be ready to discuss the beauty of that tree outside the window, or Rumi’s poetry, or Robert Graves’ White Goddess.

The first time I met him after a String Band gig, I was tongue-tied by the direct gaze of those blue eyes, despite his being to all intents friendly and welcoming. It was an image he liked to puncture, with toilet jokes and Oor Wullie sketches onstage, but it stuck for the lifetime of the band at least.

Becoming the bard

After a period living in Los Angeles and touring with his Merry Band, a Celtic-classical mix, he returned to the UK and settled in Wales, where he still lives. He took up the Bardic role seriously, delving into Celtic storytelling, mythology and playing the harp. He published several books of poetry, stories and tunes for fiddle and penny whistle.  While in California, he even co-authored a thriller set in Morocco under the name Sherman Williamson.

For a while he seemed to be able to balance the depth and history of Celtic myth and spirituality with his own involvement in Scientology, but over the years the Hubbardisms fell away to nothing, leaving Williamson’s philosophy elusively centred on ‘the sheer unspeakable strangeness of being here at all’.

He toured constantly, on his own and with his second wife Bina, accompanying his songs and rambling stories on harp and open-tuned guitar.  Although his posters would have the tagline ‘formerly of the Incredible String Band’ he had a disregard, even a disdain, for revisiting his past, which persists to this day.

Robin and Bina Williamson
Robin and Bina Williamson (The Woodstock Whisperer site)

He changed a lot over the years. The exotic dress gave way to jeans and t-shirt, he put on weight and his voice became deep, hoarse and gruff, although always adventurous. When I met him again after a gig, the talk was not of Robert Graves but of Arts Council grants. He would politely steer away from any discussion of the past.

No Ruinous Feud?

The Incredible String Band reunion of the early 2000s was a blip in this. At first it was a friendly but half-hearted affair, until Robin decided it would work – then rehearsals happened and a series of enjoyable concerts resulted. Equally suddenly, old tensions re-emerged and he left again. While there were many factors in this split, you got the feeling he wouldn’t have been able to sustain the nostalgia for long. Mike and Clive recruited other musicians and tried to maintain the band for a while, but without Robin it wasn’t the Incredible String Band. Since the reunion, Robin has been dismissive of any tributes or retrospectives.

Still pushing

In recent years Robin continues to push ahead, with a series of albums using free-jazz musicians on a mix of his own songs, traditional songs and covers ranging from Dylan to Motorhead. With weight loss, his face once again resembles the wide-eyed aesthete of the 60s, but with years of often hard experience etched into the lines. He plays intimate folk club gigs and more spiritual-bardic performances with Bina, always entertaining and always surprising. He seems like a man comfortable in his own skin and in command of a huge range of music and poetry from which to draw the right words and the right tone for every moment of a performance.

Perhaps a genius, certainly an innovator and a visionary.

What I learned from Robin Williamson

I can’t say you’ll find any obvious or stylistic resemblance in my music. You may find some trace of Mike Heron in what I do, but not Robin. Whenever I’ve tried to write a patchwork song as he would, it’s been lame and I’ve stopped it. But he’s inspired me in a few ways:

  • Don’t worry about your own genre or style: if the song feels country play country, if it feels jazzy play jazzy – give the song the genre it wants and don’t worry that it makes you country or jazz or whatever, it’s about the song.  My albums have followed that line, perhaps to their commercial disadvantage, but I’m happy with them.
  • A bit of humour can open people to whatever else you do. The String Band would always put something fun, even slapstick, into the set, around the third or fourth song. It would disarm the audience, getting them with you in a way that being worthy wouldn’t. That would then make them more receptive to what came next
  • The pin-drop moment – I’ve probably only reached that once or twice in my career, but when you finish a song and there’s a stunned silence because something emotionally true has been delivered straight to the hearts of the audience. I saw it the first time I saw the String Band, when Williamson delivered the hymn-like The Circle Is Unbroken, standing like a thin white stalagmite in the spotlight, and it’s stayed with me as the goal to strive for in any performance.

A Robin Williamson playlist

More about Robin Williamson

Related articles on this site

What about you?

This is a personal view and a personal selection of tracks.  Do you agree? What would you have chosen? Any other good resources for people interested in Robin?

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

Cover of Unicorn by Tyrannosaurus Rex

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

 

Mike Heron: Smiling Men

Mike Heron: Smiling Men with Bad Reputations cover

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.

Smiling Men with Bad Reputations coverSometime 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

Dudu Pukwana album sleeve.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

Richard Thompson, early 1970sLike 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

Audrey

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

Brindaban

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

John Cale, 1971.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 

Spirit Beautiful

(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

Beautiful Stranger

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: