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!

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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!

Mike Heron: Smiling Men

Mike Heron: Smiling Men with Bad Reputations cover

Step this way – How Mike Heron opened the door for me

This review of Mike Heron’s Smiling Men with Bad Reputations was previously published in the Incredible String Band fanzine Be Glad.

Try this!

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.

Folkie shutdown

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.

Blank to the funk

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.

El Pea

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 Jude workout 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.

Track by track

Call Me Diamond

Dudu Pukwana album sleeve.In which I am introduced to R&B

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 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

In which I am introduced to Richard Thompson

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 Fall, 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

In which I am introduced to John Cale

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

In which I am introduced to string arrangements

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

In which I become a John Cale fan

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 


If this article chimes with you, you might like more of my String Band-related stuff:


Spirit Beautiful

In which I indulge my interest in Indian rhythms

(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

In which I really get the ‘Oo for the first time

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

In which I hear an electric guitar that sounds like an electric guitar, and appreciate screenplay-songs

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

In which I am left puzzled and frustrated

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

Mike opened the doors

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. (Robin Williamson – the Explorer Bard) 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: