"Amoebas are very small."
When I was in Sixth Form, one day I played a track off an Incredible String Band LP to my friend Tony Cutler. He and I had a friendship somewhat loosely based on the fact we were both 18 year old poets better than T. S. Eliot. I had a poem in the school magazine, and I suspect he had as well. Quite a few people did. Anyway, when he heard the record he laughed because he thought it was so awful.
Those days, on Sunday afternoons I’d listen with almost religious intensity to John Peel’s “Top Gear” on Radio One, and my early record collection was based pretty much on what I heard there and fell in love with. Not Canned Heat. It was mostly Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Fairports, and The Incredible String Band.
There was nothing ever occurred in my previous life to prepare me for The Incredible String Band. I’d not heard anyone sing like that, play what at the time seemed weird and wonderful instruments like that, or sing songs with words like
not with the lips of skin nor yet with the lips of dark snow
but let the white dove sing
of the body of life of the lover whose love is complete
hold hands out to greet ah let not the swan be brought low
Yes. Quite. But I loved them, and I still have my original vinyl copies of “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” and the double LP with gatefold sleeve “Wee Tam & The Big Huge”. If I lose them I lose a part of my life.
I somewhat studiously avoided the band’s work prior to “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter”, which I always believed to be more conventionally folkie than these somewhat stranger, later hippier records. The band was bigger then, too. By the time I caught up Clive Palmer was gone and it was just Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. I had a later LP – “White Horse” it may have been called – but some of the magic was missing off that, and I kind of stuck with what I already knew. They had by that time added their girlfriends to the line up but they didn’t add a hell of a lot, to be honest, apart from some vocal harmonies and rather erratic musical abilities. I saw them play live with this later line-up and it was a bit of a shambles, as I recall, but still happily hippy. And after 30 years those LPs are still magical, and not really hippy at all, although they may not be (let’s be honest: certainly won’t be) to everyone’s taste. They are, actually, much more rooted in the conventionally folkie than I realised thirty years ago, but nobody else sounds like them. They are wonderful records.
You can read the official Incredible String Band history here, and there are a couple of good downloads there, too. (And before you say it -- I agree: the photo on their Home Page isn’t the most promising. Try and ignore it. Mike Heron still looks okay, though.)
The Incredibles broke up sometime or other. I didn’t care too much because I had the LPs I needed to have and they always sounded the same. Over 30 years I’d go perhaps several years never hearing them, then one day I’d be struck by a certain – what was it? What is it? Well, whatever it was and is, every now and then my head reminds me I need to listen to The Incredible String Band, so I do. And they never disappoint me. They always remind me of something I never want to forget. I’m not sure it has a name.
Four or five years ago, when I was living in Southwell, Robin Williamson turned up at The Cross Keys in Upton, about two miles from my house, doing his solo folkie/storyteller act. He was good and entertaining, but he wasn’t incredible. And earlier this year, I think it was, the re-formed ISB played Nottingham (without Williamson, I think – in other words, it was Mike Heron back with Clive Palmer, and some others) but I thought the ticket price was way too high and I gave it a miss. They came back last night – evidently determined I should see them one more time before we all die. And because the website promised they would be playing something like a greatest hits set and in particular the stunning 13-minute “A Very Cellular Song” I went along. I didn’t bother to ask anyone if they wanted to go with me; not only did I already know the answer, it kind of felt right to go to this one alone. Nobody in my life has ever shared my love for those records, so going to see them on my own seemed kind of apt. Don’t tell me it’s kind of sad. I have friends.
Anyway, I can’t work out if it was any good or not. Quite a few people turned up at The Rescue Rooms – a bizarre mix of a few young hippies, some indie types, and a lot of older people. A lot of the older men looked as if they might have been out all day fishing. Or perhaps they were teachers. The Band are not, I think, the greatest of musicians. Some of the show was jolly folk, and passable. I had a pretty good spot near the front at the side, but after a couple of songs I realised I couldn’t put up with the Band singing in front of me, and a couple of old blokes singing along behind me. I was impressed they knew all the words, but I hadn’t gone along to hear a couple of strangers sing those songs. So I moved, and the evening got better. But then the girl in the band (whose name is Fluff, apparently) managed to destroy Robin Williamson’s “The Water Song”, and I’m not sure she can be forgiven. But Mike Heron was on good form, and the rarely-performed “Douglas Traherne Harding” was wonderful. (It’s one of the downloads on their site, by the way.) They saved the remarkable “A Very Cellular Song” for last, and though they abandoned some of its quietness, and went at it a bit fast, it was still damn fine, and worth being there for. I mean, it’s the song that includes the line “Amoebas are very small.” I can’t begin to say how much influence it’s had on my life.