“OK, here’s the album with the trippiest cover. Colour’s all over the place on this one, a real eye dazzler. Probably executed by the art group known as “The Fool.” Pretty much locked into a time capsule for many years - it’s uplifting to find that this strange assortment of Middle Eastern and Celtic folk-mystic stuff stands up remarkably well now. A summer-festival “must” in the 60s, myself and T. Rexer Marc Bolan both being huge fans” - David Bowie, speaking about the 5000 Spirits album to Vanity Fair magazine, November 2003.
“The Incredible String Band were an inspiration and a sign." - Robert Plant, writing in a Led Zeppelin tour programme, 1979.
“It was part of a very happy time. Mick (Jagger) and I liked them very much. That was the first time I’d ever heard anybody sound like that. It was a charming, charming time. I felt they’d made that record just for me” - Marianne Faithfull, speaking in the 1997 documentary Retying the Knot.
"Way back in the 1960s I tried to figure out whether these acoustic Scots were magic or bullshit and concluded that they were both" - Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981).
David Bowie loved their deliciously weird and winsome music. Bob Dylan singled out “October Song” from their debut album for special praise. In the film Let It Be John Lennon punningly refers to them as “the Incredible String Vest”. Paul McCartney declared their second LP his favourite record of 1967. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Syd Barrett, Marc Bolan and Donovan were fans of their intoxicating melange of Indian music, Celtic folk and acid rock. The Observer newspaper, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, once declared them “Better than the Beatles”.
They were possibly the best-loved and most influential psychedelic folk group of the 60s and yet it’s probably true to say most people have never heard of them or their music. They were the Incredible String Band.
2021 marks the start of my eighth decade as a record collector. I was given my first long player as a Christmas gift in 1959 (it was Cliff Sings, the second album by Cliff Richard, I’m not ashamed to say) and I’ve amassed (and parted with) many thousands of records in the years since then. I’ve never been much of an impulse buyer, though, rarely acquiring new music without having at least some idea who the artist is or what the record sounds like. In fact, as far as I recall, I’ve only ever secured two albums purely on the basis of their sleeve artwork alone and with absolutely no knowledge of the music or musicians within. One was Freak Out, the debut album by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and the other was The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion by the Incredible String Band.
I picked up these records within months of each other in mid-1967 and, I think you’ll agree, both were wise, if not life-changing acquisitions, informing so much of the music I would listen to in the decades ahead. Despite being wildly dissimilar in approach and content, both tapped into the 60s zeitgeist perfectly, their attention-grabbing sleeves impossible to ignore. But while the Mothers’ artwork is unsettling and not a little sinister (Zappa’s intention, no doubt), the ISB sleeve couldn’t be brighter and more uplifting. The front cover depicts a multi-coloured hermaphrodite, juxtaposing both light and darkness, its audacious use of primary colours and spiritual imagery equally puzzling and delightful.
Like many a casual browser before me, the thought occurred: if the sleeve is this amazing, then how good must the music be? As you’ve probably guessed by now, I simply adore this record and here’s the story of how I first discovered it.
We need to backtrack a little at this point. In 1967 I was working for a music publisher in Old Compton Street in the heart of Soho. Just a few yards away around the corner in Dean Street were the offices of Elektra Records (they had recently relocated from nearby Poland Street). As befitting a small independent record label their premises were chic yet modest, occupying part of a converted Georgian townhouse with a small reception area leading to offices on the ground floor and a mailroom in the basement. At street level was a tall, narrow window which was used to display new record releases.
Part of my job at that time involved pounding the streets of central London every day as a messenger boy, delivering and collecting sheet music and related paraphernalia to and from the many record companies and publishers in the West End. After a while I got to know the backroom boys at Elektra quite well. They were down to earth, elderly fellows in brown warehouse coats who didn’t know (or care) too much about modern music, certainly not some of the left-field material Elektra was releasing at that time. But, if you asked politely and showed enough interest (and believe me, I was very good at both), they could always be persuaded to part with copies of the latest records. These were often US promo singles by Elektra artists such as the Doors and Love, many of which hadn’t yet been released in the UK. For example, one day in early 1968 I was handed a white label US single of The Doors’ “Unknown Soldier”, almost six months before it appeared in Britain. “This looks like it might right be up your street, son” said one old bloke, tapping the side of his nose. Free records were an important perk of the job.
Turning the record over, I saw the back cover was just as colourful and delightful as the front. Amid more intricate, brightly decorated artwork was an enigmatic picture of the two men responsible for the music, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. Heron’s dark, finely chiseled features were in stark contrast with Williamson’s blonde hair and straggly folk singer’s beard. It may have been just a trick of the camera, but I was also convinced Robin was wearing a crown, not of thorns, but possibly of ivy.
It later became common knowledge, at least by those who cared about such things, that the 5000 Spirits sleeve was the work of Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger, a Dutch art and fashion collective known as The Fool. The pair quickly became the darlings of the London pop art scene, painting the giant mural on the outside of the Beatles’ Apple boutique in Baker Street and working their magic on John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls-Royce, Eric Clapton’s famous Gibson SG “Fool” guitar and several other important mid 60s artifacts. In a year of classic record covers, 5000 Spirits was definitely right up there with Sgt Pepper and Cream’s Disraeli Gears as one of the three most distinctive and memorable LP sleeves of 1967.
Then there was that delightfully boastful name: The Incredible String Band. In Britain most people (including, as it turned out, the ISB themselves), were blissfully unaware that in its original US terminology a “string band” meant old-time country barn dance music or possibly a jazz ensemble. Without listening to a single note I could tell this album sounded nothing like that. As hubristic monikers go the name was simply perfect. It summoned up vivid images of sorcerers, poets and ancient story tellers and captured the prevailing psychedelic mood in the same way Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had done just weeks before. Together with the retina-searing artwork it was an intoxicating combination.
As for the music, even on my cheap Dansette mono record player it sounded like nothing I had heard before, but it was better than I could have possibly hoped for. Directly from the opening notes of “Chinese White”, the first track on side one, the scene is set for the delights to come. It starts with the steady heartbeat pulse of a fingerpicked acoustic guitar which is then joined by the ethereal drone of a bowed gimbri, a North African stringed instrument. The pair lock together in a discordant, somewhat wonky coupling creating another, entirely different, sound. And then Mike Heron’s doleful vocals arrive and instantly we know this is going to be a very strange trip indeed.
“The bent twig of darkness,
Grows the petals of the morning,
Shows to them the birds singing,
Just behind the dawning”
There are many things I could say about music on the second Incredible String Band LP. I could tell you that of the 13 tracks, at least 11 have glorious, unforgettable melodies which have endured, undimmed, to this day. When was the last time you heard an album with a strike rate as high as that?
I could also say that the instrumentation, the very sound of the music, is captivating, unique and magical. Guitars, fiddles, mandolins and Arab flutes jostle for position with gimbri, sitar, oud and other exotica. Several have tried, but none have matched the ISB’s ramshackle yet captivating blend of cosmic folk and psychedelic whimsy with added middle eastern overtones. And then there are the vocals. On the early records Robin and Mike’s distinctive voices sounded quite unlike each other, yet their exaggerated enunciation, elongated vowels and nasal delivery made them both sound a little like Bob Dylan circa 1966, at least on first hearing.
Danny Thompson, string bassist with the newly formed Pentangle, guested on seven tracks and Robin’s girlfriend Christina “Licorice” McKechnie (later to become a full-time ISB member) added high vocals and finger cymbals to three. John “Hoppy” Hopkins, London scene maker and Joe Boyd’s partner in the UFO Club, played piano on “The Mad Hatter’s Song”, while the mysteriously named “Soma” was credited with sitar and tambura on the same track. His real name turned out to be Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy and while the ISB album seems to be his only major appearance on record, “Soma” later became a professor of South Asian folk and classical music at UCLA. His Wikipedia entry makes fascinating reading.
The songs on 5000 Spirits were commercial and tuneful enough to spawn several cover versions. Judy Collins, Wizz Jones, Jackson Browne and Don Partridge are just a few who have recorded perhaps the strongest and best-known song on the album, Robin’s “First Girl I Loved”, while “Chinese White”, “The Hedgehog’s Song”, “Painting Box” and “No Sleep Blues”, great songs all, have been recorded or performed live by artists as diverse as Julie Felix, Marianne Faithfull, Robyn Hitchcock, Wild Willy Barrett, Evergreen Blueshoes and Tir Na Nog.
After 5000 Spirits I was totally hooked and became a lifelong ISB devotee, picking up their self-titled debut record and then going on to buy each new album as it was released. I also saw them in concert at every opportunity, at least during their peak Elektra years (1967-70). The switch to Island records in 1971, the split with producer Joe Boyd (the man who signed them to Elektra), several confusing line-up changes and their embracing of Scientology brought a gradual decline in the music and the law of diminishing returns kicked in, until the group eventually called it a day at the end of 1974.
Solo careers followed; Williamson’s somewhat more productive and varied than Heron’s. A reunion of the three original musicians took place around the turn of the millennium to mixed critical reaction and the pair haven’t worked together since the early 2000s. Original member Clive Palmer sadly died in 2014.
But, during their late 60s heyday the music made by the Incredible String Band was enchanting, idiosyncratic and thrilling in equal measure. So, as we reach the 50th anniversary of their final Elektra album U, let’s rate every original album (plus a couple of essential compilations) by the acid folk pioneers.
14. No Ruinous Feud (1973)
In which the ISB became an accidental rock band. The soft-focus sleeve photos (by David Bailey, no less) show the group looking clean cut and presentably handsome. What a transformation from the beatnik folk image on the cover of their debut album with Clive Palmer. No Ruinous Feud even contained a Dolly Parton song “My Blue Tears” which is an indication of how far they’d come since 1966.
Highlight: Little Girl
13. Earthspan (1972)
This is a hard listen in places, but persistence is rewarded with “My Father Was A Lighthouse Keeper” and “Sunday Song”, the latter as strange and wonderful as almost anything in their entire catalogue. An underrated record, despite the melancholic mood.
The album features two well-known guest drummers. Fairport Convention’s Dave Mattacks plays on three tracks, while Brian “Blinky” Davison from Keith Emerson’s band the Nice appears on “Sunday Song”, his name cruelly (yet somehow inevitably) misspelled “Davidson” in the sleeve credits.
Highlight: Sunday Song
12. Hard Rope & Silken Twine (1974)
The twelfth and final ISB album saw the group expanded to a six-piece with Stan Schnier (aka "Stan Lee") (bass), Jack Ingram (drums) and Graham Forbes (guitar) added to the core line-up of Mike, Robin and Malcolm LeMaistre. Sales were disappointing and Island dropped the band, after which they folded at the end of 1974.
Highlight: Dreams Of No Return
11. Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending (1971)
Consisting of songs recorded during the Wee Tam and the Big Huge sessions and material from the eponymous documentary film by director Peter Neal (Yessongs, Glastonbury Fayre etc), this was the first ISB album for Island and their last to be produced by Joe Boyd.
Highlight: All Writ Down
10. Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air (1971)
Could there be a more apposite Incredible String Band album title than this? Perhaps because it was the biggest seller of their late period, Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air is the only full ISB Island album currently available on Spotify (excluding compilations). It was also their final record to trouble the album charts, reaching #46 in the UK and #189 in the US. As the Island albums go this is not half bad, with several highlights and some unexpectedly fierce electric lead guitar from Mike Heron. Drummer Gerry Conway (Fotheringay and Fairport Convention) guests on three tracks.
In 2001 the Liquid Acrobat track “Here Till Here Is There” gave its name to a 16 track CD compilation of ISB Island material.
Highlight: Words They Rise And Fall
9. Relics of The Incredible String Band (1971)
Released in 1971 following the move from Elektra to Island, the first ISB compilation was narrow in scope but ridiculously high in quality. Even though the compilers had seven Elektra albums to work with the 13 tracks on Relics were drawn from the band’s first three LPs only, including a generous seven cuts from 5000 Spirits alone.
The US edition of Relics was another matter entirely. A double album with a different sleeve design, it contained 19 tracks lifted from six Elektra albums.
Highlights: Chinese White (UK) and Koeeoaddi There (US)
8. Seasons They Change (1976)
This career-spanning double set is essential for two reasons: not only does it combine selections from both the Elektra and Island eras (17 tracks from nine albums) but also features the unreleased track “Queen Juanita And Her Fisherman Lover” recorded in early 1970 during the I Looked Up sessions.
Fun fact: the sleeve notes were written by Vivien Goldman, rock journalist and erstwhile member of the “Money” hitmakers the Flying Lizards.
Highlights: Blues For The Muse
7. I Looked Up (1970)
By late 1969 the ISB had established a communal base at Glen Row near Innerleithen on the Scottish Borders and I Looked Up appeared early in the new decade. The album was not critically well received, but it did contain the truly excellent “Black Jack Davy” and “This Moment” which were released as both sides of an Elektra single in April 1970. Listen out for the wonderful high harmonies and Robin’s jubilant final whoop at 3:43 on “Black Jack Davy”. This track was re-recorded (as “Black Jack David”) for the Earthspan album in 1972 and that version was also released as an Island single.
The UK and US versions of I Looked Up used different sleeve designs.
Highlight: Black Jack Davy and/or This Moment
6. U (1970)
Laying claim to the shortest album title in history, their seventh record arrived in October 1970 and some say this is the point where the ISB finally jumped the shark. The band had jointly embraced Scientology the previous year and their material was becoming stranger and more disjointed, not to say less melodic.
The sleeve notes described U as "A surreal parable in song and dance" and most of the material on the double album was taken from the ramshackle mixed-media stage production of the same name which saw the ISB backed by the dance troupe the Stone Monkey. They performed the album at the Roundhouse in London before touring it around the US. Audiences seemed to like it, but the show received a mauling from the critics.
The entire episode was viewed as an expensive folly at the time which mystified much of their fan base. It also led to the departure of long-time producer and mentor Joe Boyd less than a year later.
U did creep into the UK top 40 album chart, however, and half a century on, if still not exactly toe-tappingly hummable, some of the material has aged gracefully.
Highlight: El Wool Suite
5. Changing Horses (1969)
The ISB now included Robin and Mike’s girlfriends “Licorice” McKechnie and Rose Simpson as full-time band members and the four are pictured on the front cover looking like a blissed-out, psychedelic Abba.
Two lengthy tracks “White Bird” and “Creation”, running out at 15 minutes apiece, form the cornerstone of Changing Horses, yet it’s the infuriatingly catchy “Big Ted” I always return to.
In 1994 Rose Simpson took on the honorary role of Lady Mayoress of Aberystwyth in Wales. Her first book Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl's Life in the Incredible String Band will be published in early 2021.
Highlight: Big Ted
Surrounded by an array of exotic instruments and all manner of musical bric-a-brac, the trio were pictured on the sleeve of their debut LP looking like a bunch of gypsy beatniks. To complete the picture Clive Palmer wore an oversized PVC coat (apparently designed for farmyard veterinary use!) while Robin Williamson sported a cheesecloth smock.
Years later I discovered the cover photo was taken by Joe Boyd in the basement of Moores Early Music Centre in Soho. This was a disappointment as I had fondly imagined the ISB actually lived like this, surrounded by guitars and assorted detritus.
The US sleeve used an entirely different cover photo, showing the band in what looked like a graveyard for London buses, perched in the overturned, rotting carcass of a red AEC Routemaster double decker. A faded film poster on the rear of the bus advertised the 1962 kitchen sink drama The L-Shaped Room directed by Brian Forbes.
Voted Melody Maker’s folk album of the year for 1966, The Incredible String Band featured the classics “Maybe Someday” and “October Song” which would be covered by many other artists. The LP enjoyed a brief flirtation with the UK charts two years later in July 1968 when it reached #34, presumably picking up sales on the back of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and 5000 Spirits.
By comparison with later ISB albums, this debut record was a much more accessible, straight-forward affair, although just quirky enough to set it apart from almost every other folk release of the time. It was well received, but as we would soon discover, the ISB were only just warming up.
Highlight: October Song
It’s accepted wisdom among ISB fans and 60s psych aficionados alike that the group’s third album is their crowning achievement and a quintessential exemplar of hippy culture to boot. It’s certainly their most celebrated and successful record, reaching #5 in the UK charts in April 1968 and propelling the group out of the folk world into the realm of underground rock. Although I could never be parted from my copy of Hangman, it's not the first ISB record I reach for. The songs veer from fantastic (“A Very Cellular Song” and “Koeeoeddi There”) to unfocussed and overblown (“Three Is A Green Crown” and “Swift As The Wind”).
The UK sleeve design showing Mike and Robin resplendent in their capes against a blue sky background was flipped on US pressings in favour of the classic hippy family gathering photo featuring the band surrounded by girlfriends, kids and dogs.
Highlight: A Very Cellular Song
2. Wee Tam and the Big Huge (1968)
I saw the ISB in concert several times, but a particular show on October 19, 1969 at Sheffield City Hall was especially memorable, for all the wrong reasons. This was two months after their Woodstock appearance, Wee Tam and the Big Huge was their current album and Changing Horses only a month away from release, so they were at the absolute peak of their powers. The concert was enjoyable - ISB shows were always enjoyable, even if the sterile, 2,000 seat City Hall was not really suited to their gentle pastoral whimsy. But it was after the show, as the audience was leaving, when the fireworks really began. A number of skinheads had gathered outside the City Hall intent on confronting the long-haired ISB fans in their kaftans and velvet and satin finery. Chanting “Kill the hippies” the bovver boys chased the concert goers through Sheffield city centre and we witnessed several ugly scuffles.
It sounds like a scene from A Clockwork Orange, but it really did happen and highlighted the schism between the various youth sub-culture factions at that time, at least in the provinces. It’s hard to believe now, but even in the early 70s there were places outside of London where long hair on a man could still earn you a beating.
In the late sixties double albums were expensive, often retailing at literally twice the price of a single LP, making them unaffordable for many record buyers. Around 1968 Polydor (one of the main offenders in the LP price wars) came up with the bright idea of splitting some of their expensive doubles and selling them individually in order to soften the financial blow. Even though the truncated versions sometimes had new and interesting artwork, it was a flawed artistic and commercial concept which didn’t catch on, for obvious reasons.
But, for a brief period, we saw big-name two-album sets such as Tommy, Electric Ladyland and Wheels of Fire sold separately as parts 1 and 2. Epic records had done a similar thing a year earlier with Donovan’s A Gift From A Flower To A Garden box set, but only in the US. Surprisingly, considering no one seriously expected it to set the charts alight, Wee Tam and the Big Huge also received the same treatment (Elektra was part of the UK Polydor stable until 1971). But while the ISB’s fourth album was available as both a double album or two single LPs in Britain, it was sold only as the individual titles Wee Tam OR The Big Huge in the US. This decision killed the album’s sales in America where both LPs barely scraped into the Billboard top 200.
Highlight: You Get Brighter - Wee Tam. Cousin Caterpillar - Big Huge
1. The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967)
It’s a threadbare cliché, but if I had to run into a burning building to rescue just one LP from my collection then The 5000 Spirits would be on the shortlist. In fact, something very similar to this unlikely scenario really happened in the 2009 Richard Curtis film The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio). In the closing scene of this, let’s be honest, stinker of a movie, we saw the unkempt, bearded DJ Bob Silver (as played by Ralph Brown in the style of John Peel or Bob Harris), dive into the ocean to salvage his record collection from the sinking ship. After what seemed like an age underwater he surfaced, triumphantly clutching just one record.
The LP was, you’ve guessed it, a soggy (and therefore presumably ruined) copy of The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. We’ll draw a discreet veil over the fact that the movie was set in 1966, the year before 5000 Spirits was released (chronological errors of this sort pepper the movie) but, hey, it was an Incredible String Band LP, front and centre in a major film. That’s not something you’ll see every day.
If Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is the Sgt Pepper of folk rock, then there’s a strong possibility that 5000 Spirits could be the Revolver of acid folk. No less importantly, 53 years ago it was also the first Elektra LP by any artist to enter the UK top 30 album chart. I like to think that 53 years from now people will still be enjoying this record just as much. And rightly so.
Highlight: First Girl I Loved