Island Samplers – more than your money’s worth in old pence

Island sampler You Can All Join In front cover

In the early 1970s, inspired by the success of CBS’s The Rock Machine and The Rock Machine Turns You On, many record companies started putting out budget-price samplers. Island Records made some of the most popular samplers, and the Island samplers are still regarded with affection and listened to today. Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Cat Stevens and King Crimson all gained some of their early following from these collections. This is their story.

Cheap as chips

At the cusp of the 60s and 70s, albums were still quite an expensive item at around £2 (The equivalent would be £21 today; for context, the average weekly wage was around £32, a pint cost 20p and a new car £600!) These budget samplers would come in around at the pre-decimal equivalent of 70p (£8 today!) and were good for the labels, the artists and the punters. For many, this is how they were introduced to their favourite bands and albums. Would you pay £21 for a new album unheard?

 

You Can All Join In (1969)

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When Island released its first sampler, the Island ‘family’ was small enough and obscure enough to be gathered together in a park of a morning for the cover photo, taken by designer Cally for Hipgnosis, ‘bleary eyed after a party’. Standing shivering in greatcoats are the likes of Richard Thompson, Stevie Winwood, Sandy Denny, and all the members of Jethro Tull, Traffic and Free.

(Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can_All_Join_In for a who’s who of the cover)

For some of the bands, this was lift-off. Jethro Tull, Traffic, Fairport Convention and Free all gained a huge new audience. Some of the other bands, like Art and Tramline, disappeared.

SIDE ONE
1. Jethro Tull – A Song For Jeffrey
2. Spooky Tooth – Sunshine Help Me
3. Free – I’m A Mover
4. Art – What’s That Sound
5. Tramline – Pearly Queen
6. Traffic – You Can All Join In

SIDE TWO
7. Fairport Convention – Meet on the Ledge
8. Nirvana (not THAT Nirvana!) – Rainbow Chaser
9. John Martyn – Dusty
10. Clouds – I’ll Go Girl
11. Spencer Davis Group – Somebody Help Me
12. Wynder K. Frog – Gasoline Alley

… and You Can All Join In is one of those seamless compilations that simply cannot be improved upon. A dozen tracks highlight the best — and that is the best — of Island’s recent and forthcoming output, from much-anticipated debut albums by Jethro Tull, Free, and Spooky Tooth to the sophomore effort by Fairport Convention. There’s also a healthy taste of the label’s most-successful-so-far signing, Traffic, as a leaf from Steve Winwood’s back pages — the Spencer Davis Group’s “Somebody Helps Me” joins Tramline’s cover of “Pearly Queen” and Traffic’s own “You Can All Join In” (yes, indeed, this collection’s title track). (http://www.allmusic.com)

The compilation reached the top 20 in June 1969. Such is its place in music history that this cheap, almost throwaway compilation was reissued on CD during the early 90s rush to the shiny disk, even beating some of the albums it referenced. The CD combined it with Nice Enough To Eat, and is now attracting high second-hand prices.

Nice Enough To Eat (1969)

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Encouraged by the success of You Can All Join In, a followup Island sampler appeared later the same year (1969) featuring many of the same bands. Jethro Tull, Fairport, Free, Spooky Tooth and Traffic got a further boost, and this time they were joined by such rising stars as Mott The Hoople, King Crimson, Quintessence, Nick Drake and Dr Strangely Strange. This lineup has proved to be more enduring over the ensuing decades, with only Heavy Jelly lost to us.

The collection may have been a bit less cohesive and more demanding than its predessor, lurching from Nick Drake’s tender Time Has Told Me to the iron crunch of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, gentling down to Quintessence and the Strangelies. Allmusic.com describes it as ‘slightly incoherent’.

Mike Sida’s cover spelled the band names in alphabet biscuits on the front, and featured biscuits accompanied by various pills and capsules on the back.

SIDE ONE

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1. Fairport Convention – Cajun Woman
2. Mott The Hoople – At The Crossroads
3. Spooky Tooth – Better By You, Better Than Me
4. Jethro Tull – We Used To Know
5. Free – Woman
6. Heavy Jelly – I Keep Singing That Same Old Song

SIDE TWO
7. Blodwyn Pig – Sing Me A Song That I Know
8. Traffic – Forty Thousand Headmen
9. Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me
10. King Crimson – 21st Century Schizoid Man
11. Quintessence – Gungamai
12. Dr. Strangely Strange – Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal

Bumpers (1970)

The next Island sampler was a double album, released in 1970. There were variations in the designs and track listings released in Europe and Australia, which Wikipedia puts down to a rushed release. It cost the equivalent of £1.50. Bumpers were a kind of sports shoe fashionable at the time, and the cover was designer Tony Wright’s artwork, put into context by Mike Sida (who, inexplicably, put the shoes on the feet of an Aztec figure on the back).

In the track listing we can see some follow-through of the acts that were now the flagbearers for Island – Tull, Crimson, Fairport – as well as newer acts like Cat Stevens and Fotheringay, the band formed by Sandy Denny on leaving Fairport. Jimmy Cliff was there representing Island’s Jamaican past, as this music began to go mainstream in the UK.

SIDE ONE
Traffic – Every Mother’s Son
Bronco – Love
Spooky Tooth – I Am The Walrus
Quintessence – Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Gauranga

SIDE TWO
Mott The Hoople – Thunderbuck Ram
Jethro Tull – Nothing To Say
Jimmy Cliff – Going Back West
Blodwyn Pig – Send Your Son To Die
Dave Mason – Little Woman

SIDE THREE
John and Beverley Martyn – Go Out And Get It
King Crimson – Cadence And Cascade
If – Reaching Out On All Sides
Free – Oh I Wept
Nick Drake – Hazy Jane

SIDE FOUR
Fairport Convention – Walk Awhile
Cat Stevens – Maybe You’re Right
Renaissance – Island
Fotheringay – The Sea
Clouds – Take Me To Your Leader

El Pea 1971

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The last in the series of classic Island samplers was this double album released in 1971, the title an obvious pun on ‘LP’. The design – by Douglas Maxwell Ltd – was unusual – a cardboard gatefold sleeve in which the two albums were presented in transparent plastic pages. The inner sleeve had drawings of the artists by Alan Cracknell.

El Pea had a leaning towards acoustic and folky songs.  Some of the hungover urchins who had appeared two years ago on the front of You Can All Join In were now stars, and could be used to attract listeners to Island’s newer signings like Amazing Blondel, Tir Na Nog and the Incredible String Band, who had just come to them from Elektra. Notable surprises were the String Band’s Mike Heron showing off his rock chops with John Cale, and McDonald and Giles  and Emerson Lake and Palmer, two off-shoots from King Crimson.

SIDE 1
1. Traffic – Empty Pages
2. Sandy Denny – Late November
3. Alan Bown – Thru The Night
4. Heads Hand & Feat – Song For Suzie
5. Fairport Convention – Lord Marlborough

SIDE 2
6. Jethro Tull – Mother Goose
7. Quintessence – Dive Deep
8. Amazing Blondel – Spring Season
9. McDonald & Giles – Extract from Tomorrow’s People: The Children Of Today
10. Tir Na Nog – Our Love Will Not DecaY
11. Mountain Side 3 – Don’t Look Around

SIDE 3
12. Free – Highway Song
13. Incredible String Band – Waiting For You
14. Cat Stevens – Wild World
15. Bronco – Sudden Street
16. Mike Heron – Feast Of Stephen

SIDE 4
17. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Knife Edge
18. Nick Drake – Northern Sky (listed on the sleeve as One Of These Things First, a different track from his album)
19. Mott The Hoople – Original Mixed-Up Kid
20. Jimmy Cliff – Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving
21. Mick Abrahams – Greyhound Bus

I don’t think El Pea was ever released on CD but it’s been shared on YouTube here

The appeal of the samplers was clear. Punters got a chance to hear some of the best new music at a heavily discounted price, whilst the record company got to promote music that did not readily lend itself to radio or TV airplay. Some of the compilations were classic recordings in their own right, and Island Records probably came out with the classiest. (Nic Oatridge)

Other labels samplers

Island sampler artists I’ve written about

 

A Norman Lamont sampler!

If you’ve made it this far you might want to try this:

Mike Heron for beginners: 3 albums and 5 tracks

Mike Heron

I’ve written a lot here about the Incredible String Band, including fairly detailed posts about Robin Williamson and about Mike Heron’s Smiling Men album. Here I’ll take a look at a few Mike Heron destinations to which you might choose to trust me to guide you. Like his bandmate Robin Williamson, his unpolished voice can be a barrier for some people, but get past that and there’s a wealth of great music to be appreciated.

They were rarely anything less than brave, inspired, and profoundly weird. (Andrew Gaerig)

Three albums

The Incredible String Band: The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968)

Cover of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter album
Widely regarded as the Incredible String Band’s masterpiece, their third album is dominated by Robin Williamson, featuring only three Heron songs alongside seven of Williamson’s. But it’s Heron’s A Very Cellular Song that most captures the spirit of the band and, some would say, the times.

“Weaving between styles as divergent as Bahamian funerary music, East Indian incantation and ancient Celtic mysticism, A Very Cellular Song represents a high point in the band’s creativity and surely influenced a host of others including Led Zeppelin, the Who and Lou Reed. Handclaps, kazoo, harpsichord and pipes intermingle and morph into each other. If this sounds like dissonance and chaos, it is. However, it holds together and in the end conveys a powerful range of human emotion through pain and joy and back again.” (Dan Lander in Music is Rapid Transportation – not sure about Lou Reed but hey. The influence on Robert Plant is well documented and evident throughout his career.)

The Incredible String Band: Wee Tam and the Big Huge (1968)

Cover of Wee Tam and the Big Huge showing Mike Heron and Robin WilliamsonReleased in 1968 as both a double  and two single albums, this is regarded as highly as Hangman’s, but it’s a very different album: less experimental, less multi-tracked, more pastoral and folky. Of all their albums it offers the widest Williamson/Heron contrast, with Williamson taking songs for long poetic meanders through clouds of myth and childhood. Heron’s songs – Puppies, Log Cabin Home In The Sky, You Get Brighter, Air, The Greatest Friend, Cousin Caterpillar, and Douglas Traherne Harding – are rooted in folk guitar and simple chords, and the imagery of earth, home and nature. They exude happiness and warmth. It was of this album that a friend of mine said Williamson was the balloon rising into the clouds, and Heron the string keeping it attached to the earth.

Mike Heron: Smiling Men with Bad Reputations (1970)

 

This was Mike Heron’s first solo album. A shock for the String Band’s folkie/hippie audience, it saw Heron unleashed as a rock singer, but only on a few tracks. Others wouldn’t have been out of place at that point in the Incredible String Band’s career. The rock tracks are the best, however. It was one of the great 60s guest star albums. Feast of Stephen has a sumptuous John Cale arrangement.  Warm Heart Pastry sees Pete Townshend and Keith Moon (credited as ‘Tommy and the Bijoux’, with Ronnie Lane on bass) having the most fun they’d ever had outside the tensions of The Who. Some of Townshend’s best guitar ever.  My full review here.

 

 

Five tracks

Mike Heron after the Incredible String Band

cover of album Mike Heron's ReputationAfter the breakup of the String Band, Mike attempted a mainstream rock band, Mike Heron’s Reputation, which produced two albums. The first was built on his tracks from the album the String Band were working on when they split, augmented by session players. It’s very light and accessible, inspired by Buddy Holly in particular. The followup, Diamond of Dreams, got mired down in over-fussy prog arrangements.

After another album  in 1979, Mike Heron, failed, he went into a long period of withdrawal from the music business, writing for other artists and aiming for publishing success. Only one of these – a weird 1979 Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cover of Don’t Kill It Carol from Diamond of Dreams – was anything like a hit.

In the early 1990s he put together a small band of excellent musicians who lived near him in the Scottish Borders as Mike Heron’s Incredible Acoustic Band. There were no traces of psychedelia or musical exotica here, only concise, well-arranged songs drawn from the news, history and literature. This band took part in the first reunion with Robin Williamson in 1997, and produced a good album Where the Mystics Swim, but were later dropped in favour of the reformed original lineup of the Incredible String Band with Williamson and Clive Palmer. When that broke up, Heron kept a low profile, but a 2009 tribute concert to the String Band brought him together with upcoming folk-rock band Trembling Bells, with whom he has continued to collaborate and tour. They are joined by his daughter Georgia Seddon, a skilled multi-instrumentalist, singer and arranger.

I stumbled on this recent track of Mike revisiting a couple of his songs with Trembling Bells but can’t find any more about whether it was part of an album.

 

Other people’s selections

 

Mike Heron miscellany

Echo Coming Back  A compilation from several albums Heron released after the Incredible String Band – in other words, most of his career. They range from the mainstream country-rock of ‘Mike Heron’s Reputation’, through the home-produced demos on the Glen Row Tapes to his short-lived but excellent Incredible Acoustic Band of the 1990s

Where the Mystics Swim, the Incredible Acoustic Band’s album, released then re-released a few years later in new packaging, seems to be a rarity, commanding high prices.

Conflict of Emotions is a collection of home recordings and intimate solo tracks, meant as demos, showing the range of Heron’s songwriting.

You Know What You Could Be is Mike’s well-received account of his dual life in 1960s Edinburgh as a trainee accountant and would-be beatnik. It’s credited to Mike Heron and Andrew Greig but Greig isn’t a ghost writer. Just over half the book is Greig’s account of his would-be Incredibles clone band from Fife trying to get a foothold in the late 60s music scene. Both sections are a pleasure to read and the consensus from reviewers was that another Mike Heron autobiography would be very welcome. When I met him at a book signing he said he’d already started.

 

 

 

My Mike Heron covers

Over to you

OK this is my highly subjective take – if you were trying to introduce a friend to this music what would you choose? Add it to the comments below!

Witchseason & Joe Boyd

Joe Boyd

Witchseason logoThis little logo appeared on the sleeve of so many of the albums I listened to from the end of the sixties and the early 70s that it was a kind of quality assurance stamp. Mostly on Island but some on Elektra. This was the symbol of Witchseason Productions, and of Joe Boyd and it played a huge role in the career and development of many artists who are still loved today.

Joe Boyd

By the time Joe Boyd, born in Massachusetts but raised in New Jersey, settled in London in 1966 he had already established his place in music history. He had promoted tours by leading blues artists in the US and in Europe, bringing new audiences to the likes of Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Initially dismissing Bob Dylan as a flash in the pan, he wandered into a room at a New York party where Dylan was playing the unrecorded ‘Hard Rain’ to friends and was smitten. Becoming a pillar of the folk scene, he embraced Dylan’s rebellious nature and was on the mixing desk when Dylan shocked the audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by playing his first electric set.

In his fascinating autobiography White Bicycles, his first impressions of Britain are striking:

Shuttling back and forth between Britain and America in the sixties provided endless opportunities for comparison and contrast. For a start, the British didn’t seem to own anything. The most poverty-stricken folk singer in Cambridge (Massachusetts) or Greenwich Village had at least a record player and a refrigerator and many drove cars. In England, pilgrimages would be made with a newly purchased LP to the flat of someone with the means to play it. Milk bottles on the window ledge brought hurriedly inside on winter mornings were a reminder that kitchen appliances –and central heating –were rare luxuries

When I started meeting musicians, I noticed other differences between the cultures. Some British art students would form a group, then learn how to play their instruments well enough to perform the songs written by the group’s strongest personality. The results might be technically unsophisticated but were often more original than those of their American counterparts, who were too close to our musical forms to do much more than accurately re-create them. Dylan, always the exception, was almost British in his unconcern with vocal grace or instrumental fluency.
Joe Boyd, White Bicycles

Witchseason

In both America and the UK, the hip music scene was closely interwoven with what was called the Underground – venues, magazines, demonstrations, festivals and, above all, tribal identification. The clothes, the hair and the albums you carried under your arm advertised you as not part of the mainstream. In the US it was more serious and political – after all, they were at war and males in the Underground were resisting being drafted into the army and sent to Viet Nam. In Britain, it was lighter in tone and more about culture. Boyd notes how young men with long hair, earrings and Afghan coats would be standing in the pub sharing pints with their ‘straight’ fathers – something very rare in the polarised US.

Boyd quickly established himself as a father of the Underground scene in London, setting up the venue UFO where the cool bands could play to stoned and tripping audiences. While he partook in all the hedonism available, he was organised, efficient and had an American work ethic. He produced Pink Floyd’s first single Arnold Layne, and narrowly missed signing them and The Move to his new management and production company. It wasn’t long before he found his first rising stars, the Incredible String Band, in Glasgow.

I had been stumped for a name when Donovan released a song called ‘Season Of The Witch’: Beatniks out to make it rich Must be the season of the witch.”
Joe Boyd, White Bicycles

Although the String Band were on Elektra, who supported Boyd’s ambitions, he found his spiritual home with Chris Blackwell, who was turning Island Records from a West Indian calypso and reggae label into a home for the more experimental side of British music.

Joe Boyd with Incredible String Band
Boyd (left) with Rose Simpson, Mike Heron and Licorice McKechnie of the ISB, and tour manager Walter Gundy

Soon he had an impressive roster of performers – The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, John and Beverley Martin, Dr Strangely Strange – all earning around £20 a week (£240ish today). Of these, it was Nick Drake who most inspired him, and on whose behalf he worked hardest. Boyd was a champion of artists who seemed to have – indeed who had – little commercial potential. Nick Drake’s albums were an opportunity for him to take the raw material of a brilliant but shy songwriter and package it in imaginative arrangements. They made little impact at the time outside the small London folk-rock scene but the Nick Drake legend has grown steadily and endured till a tribute concert by well known artists can fill a hall.

John Wood

Island and Boyd were two corners of the Witchseason triangle. The third was studio engineer John Wood, who not only captured the Witchseason artists at their peak but managed the studio experience in a way that challenged them and brought the best out of them.

“In a way I would say that there were three stages to the process. The first stage concerned the relationship with the artist about the music — what were we really doing here? — which was my job. Then came the actual recording, in which John took a stronger role than I did, in terms of the process — we’ll have the guitars here and the drums here, that was all John. And then once the sound was all set up, I got involved again, saying ‘Let’s do it again a little faster,’ or ‘Let’s do it again a little slower,’ or ‘I don’t like the way you’re singing it.’
(Joe Boyd interview)

What was Witchseason really like?

Andrew Greig by Billy Fox
Andrew Greig by Billy Fox

I used to see the Witchseason logo on Fairport and String Band albums and wonder what Witchseason actually was – I imagined a three or four storey white building on a dignified London street, like the Beatles’ Apple, which I’d seen on Let It Be. Andrew Greig, a String Band fan from Fife, took the same curiosity all the way to London, and turned up on Witchseason’s 83 Charlotte Street doorstep to plug his own psychedelic folk band Fate and Ferret. Here are his first impressions and his fleeting encounter with Nick Drake.

The Witchseason office was not notably psychedelic, just a desk and a phone, and a dark-haired young woman sitting behind it. A few assorted seats, a couple of framed posters, others just pinned to the wall. Boxes, papers and some loose records. It did not look like the epicentre of hip London: the ISB and Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd and the UFO Club.

‘We’re Fate and ferret from Pittenweem. We’ve brought our tape for Joe.’
‘You can leave it with me.’

We waited. A tall man in a dark jacket appeared silently from the street, glanced at us once – something vivid in that look – then studied the floor.

‘Just go in, Nick – Joe’s expecting you.’

The long black hair and averted face nodded and shuffled through to the inner sanctum. George and I looked at each other, shrugged. Five minutes later he emerged, raised his head fractionally to glance at us, then scuttled out.
(Andrew Greig and Mike Heron You Know What You Could Be)

 

Stories My Killer Told Me coverIf you like the artists I’m writing about here, you might enjoy a free download of quirky story-songs Stories My Killer Told Meget it here!

 

 

 

The End

As his artists grew in stature and confidence, Joe’s nurturing care was increasingly questioned.

The Incredible String Band’s devotion to Scientology and refusal to listen to my advice, coupled with my arguments with Sandy, the growing recalcitrance of Fairport and Nick’s simple concept for his next album all combined to make me feel that everyone might be happier with me out of the way.

Certainly my involvement with Witchseason artists was intense. Everything was based on the assumption that there would be success – when it became clear that it was headed for more hard slog and meagre rewards, the Witchseason business model fell apart. In retrospect, I might have considered selling to Island but staying on as producer etc. But I was too burnt out to see that clearly and was intrigued by the possibilities of learning about the film business.
(Joe Boyd interview)

In 1970 Boyd returned to the States, where he established the Hannibal label and added to his list of achievements the soundtracks of A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance, and worked with R.E.M., the McGarrigles and 10,000 Maniacs while continuing to work with Richard Thompson and becoming a champion of East European music.  Living in London again now, and looking half his age, he continues to speak, write, produce and organise concerts, notably celebrations of Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention.

 Joe Boyd productions for Witchseason

( This is only the 1967 – 1971 fraction of his massive list of credits!)

1967

The Power of the True Love Knot (Shirley Collins)
The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (The Incredible String Band)
Rags Reels and Airs (Dave Swarbrick, Martin Carthy & Diz Disley)
“Arnold Layne” / “Candy and a Currant Bun” (single by Pink Floyd)
“Granny Takes a Trip” (single by The Purple Gang – see ‘Further reading’ section)
“She’s Gone”, “I Should’ve Known” recordings for projected single by Soft Machine, June, Sound Techniques, London released on Triple Echo, 1977, Turns On Volume 1 (Voiceprint 2001 CD)

1968

Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (Pink Floyd tracks)
Very Urgent (Chris McGregor)
“If I Had a Ribbon Bow” / “If (Stomp)” (single by Fairport Convention)
“If (Stomp)” / “Chelsea Morning” (single by Fairport Convention)
Fairport Convention (Fairport Convention)
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (The Incredible String Band)
Wee Tam and the Big Huge (The Incredible String Band)
Kalpana – instrumental and dance music of India (various artists)

1969

What We Did On Our Holidays (Fairport Convention)
“Si Tu Dois Partir” / “Genesis Hall” (single by Fairport Convention)
Unhalfbricking (Fairport Convention)
Five Leaves Left (Nick Drake)
Liege & Lief (Fairport Convention)
Kip of the Serenes (Dr. Strangely Strange)
“Big Ted” / “All Writ Down” (single by The Incredible String Band)
Changing Horses (The Incredible String Band)

1970

Desertshore (Nico)
Just Another Diamond Day (Vashti Bunyan)
Stormbringer! (John and Beverley Martyn)
U (Incredible String Band)
Full House (Fairport Convention)
Fotheringay (Fotheringay)
I Looked Up (The Incredible String Band)
Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending (The Incredible String Band)
Pottery Pie (Geoff and Maria Muldaur)
Brotherhood of Breath (Brotherhood of Breath)

1971

Bryter Layter (Nick Drake)
Smiling Men with Bad Reputations (Mike Heron)
Call Me Diamond / Lady Wonder (single by Mike Heron)
The Road to Ruin (John and Beverley Martyn)
Heavy Petting (Dr. Strangely Strange)

Find out more about Joe Boyd and Witchseason

White Bicyles

Boyd’s vivid and amiable autobiography.

You Know What You Could Be

A fan’s-eye glimpse of Witchseason and the world they, their musicians and their audience lived in.

Joe Boyd Interviews

 

Stories My Killer Told Me coverIf you like the artists I’m writing about here, you might enjoy a free download of quirky story-songs Stories My Killer Told Meget it here!

 

 

 

 

[catposts name=”inspirations”]

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