The Incredible String Band

The Incredible String Band was a Scottish folk-rock band from Edinburgh that released six studio albums and a live double-LP between 1966 and 1970 on Elektra, followed by five further albums between 1971 and 1974 on Island Records.

Members: Robin Williamson (guitar, violin, whistle, mandolin, gimbri, flute, oud, percussion, pan pipe, piano, shenai, [water] harp, bass, sarangi, bouzouki, suona, harpsichord, kazoo, organ, Jew’s harp, Irish harp, washboard, [Chinese] banjo, sundri, conch, cello, oboe, bass recorder, banjo, hardanger fiddle, viola, vocals, 1965-2003), Mike Heron (guitar, sitar, organ, harmonica, hammer dulcimer, harpsichord, washboard, percussion, piano, vibraphone, mandolin, bass, harmonium, flute, accordion, vocals), Clive Palmer (banjo, vocals, 1965-66, 1999-2006), Christina “Licorice” McKechnie (vocals, organ, percussion, guitar, kazoo, bass, hammer dulcimer, spoons, drums, harmonium, pipe organ, bodhrán, autoharp, 1968-72), Rose Simpson (bass, violin, percussion, tabla, vocals, 1968-71), Malcolm Le Maistre (bass, keyboards, harpsichord, percussion, kazoo, swanee whistle, mandolin, whistle, tenor recorder, bouzouki, glockenspiel, clarinet, church organ, guitar, harmonium, vocals, 1971-74), Gerard Dott (clarinet, saxophone, keyboards, vibraphone 1972-73), Stan Schnier [aka Stan Lee] (bass, 1972-74), Jack Ingram (drums, 1972-74), Graham Forbes (guitar, 1973-74), John Gilston (drums, 1974)


Background

The Incredible String Band had its roots in a musical partnership between singing acoustic musicians Robin Williamson (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) and Clive Palmer (banjo).

Williamson (b. 1943, Fairmilehead) first performed in various jazz bands on the Edinburgh club circuit. By 1961, he turned to folk music and roomed with guitarist Bert Jansch (later Pentangle). They performed as a duo in Edinburgh and London.

In 1963, Williamson befriended Palmer (b. 1943, Edmonton, North London — d. 2014), who started on the late-’50s Soho jazz scene and busked in Paris circa 1960 with folkster Wizz Jones. Williamson and Palmer played trad and bluegrass on the Edinburgh folk circuit, including the Crown Bar run by Archie Fisher.

In August 1965, they impressed American talent scout Joe Boyd, who was setting up a UK office for Elektra Records. Wanting a fuller sound, they held auditions for a third member. They hired guitarist–singer Mike Heron (b. 1942, Edinburgh), formerly of local R&B–beatsters The Saracens.

In early 1966, Palmer opened the Incredible Folk Club, an all-night haunt on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. As the house band, they courted interest from the folk-specialty label Transatlantic. Boyd outbid that label and signed the trio to Elektra.


The Incredible String Band

The Incredible String Band released their self-titled debut album in September 1966 on Elektra. Side One features three songs apiece by Mike Heron (tracks 1, 3, 6) and Robin Williamson (2, 5, 8). Side Two features four Heron songs (9, 12, 14, 16), two Williamson numbers (11, 13), and one submission (“Empty Pocket Blues”) by Clive Palmer.

1. “Maybe Someday” (2:20)
2. “October Song” (4:09)
3. “When the Music Starts to Play” (2:43)
4. “Schaeffer’s Jig” (0:58) trad interlude.
5. “Womankind” (3:45)
6. “The Tree” (2:55)
7. “Whistle Tune” (1:02) traditional arranged by Williamson.
8. “Dandelion Blues” (3:02)

9. “How Happy I Am” (2:20)
10. “Empty Pocket Blues” (4:47)
11. “Smoke Shovelling Song” (3:47)
12. “Can’t Keep Me Here” (2:14)
13. “Good as Gone” (3:30)
14. “Footsteps of the Heron” (3:14)
15. “Niggertown” (2:09) traditional arranged by Palmer.
16. “Everything’s Fine Right Now” (2:12)

Recorded 22 May 1966
Studio Sound Techniques, Chelsea, London
Producer Joe Boyd


The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion

The Incredible String Band released their second album, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, in July 1967 on Elektra. Side One features three songs each by Mike Heron (tracks 1, 3, 5) and Robin Williamson, who wrote the odd-numbered entries on Side Two, which has three Heron numbers (8, 10, 12).

1. “Chinese White” (3:40)
2. “No Sleep Blues” (3:53)
3. “Painting Box” (4:04)
4. “The Mad Hatter’s Song” (5:40)
5. “Little Cloud” (4:05)
6. “The Eyes of Fate” (4:02)

7. “Blues for the Muse” (2:49)
8. “The Hedgehog’s Song” (3:30)
9. “First Girl I Loved” (4:55)
10. “You Know What You Could Be” (2:46)
11. “My Name Is Death” (2:46)
12. “Gently Tender” (4:49)
13. “Way Back in the 1960s” (3:11)

Studio Sound Techniques, Chelsea, London
Producer Joe Boyd

Robin Williamson – vocals, guitar, mandolin, oud, bowed and bass gimbri, flute, percussion (drums, rattles) sitar
Mike Heron – vocals, guitar, harmonica

Licorice McKechnie – vocals, percussion
Danny Thompson – double bass
John Hopkins – piano
Nazir Jairazbhoy (credited as Soma) – sitar, tanpura

UK Albums Chart 25


The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter

The Incredible String Band released their third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, in March 1968 on Elektra. Robin Williamson wrote the opener “Koeeoaddi There” and four short shongs, plus the lengthy Side Two numbers “Waltz of the New Moon” and “Three Is a Green Crown.” Mike Heron submitted “Mercy I Cry City,” “Swift As the Wind,” and “A Very Cellular Song,” a thirteen-minute piece.

1. “Koeeoaddi There” (4:49)
2. “The Minotaur’s Song” (3:22)
3. “Witches Hat” (2:33)
4. “A Very Cellular Song” (13:09)

5. “Mercy I Cry City” (2:46)
6. “Waltz of the New Moon” (5:10)
7. “The Water Song” (2:50)
8. “Three Is a Green Crown” (7:46)
9. “Swift As the Wind” (4:53)
10. “Nightfall” (2:33)

Recorded December 1967
Studio Sound Techniques, London

Robin Williamson – lead vocals (on Williamson’s compositions), guitar, gimbri, penny whistle, percussion, pan pipe, piano, oud, mandolin, jaw harp, chahanai, water harp, harmonica
Mike Heron – lead vocals (on Heron’s compositions), sitar, Hammond organ, guitar, hammered dulcimer, harpsichord
Dolly Collins – flute organ, piano
David Snell – harp
Licorice McKechnie – vocals, finger cymbals
Richard Thompson – vocals on “The Minotaur’s Song” (uncredited)
Judy Dyble – vocals on “The Minotaur’s Song” (uncredited)

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter reached No. 5 on the UK Albums Chart.


Wee Tam & The Big Huge

The Incredible String Band released their fourth album, Wee Tam & The Big Huge, in November 1968 on Elektra. It’s a double album (86:48) with eighteen songs: eight by Mike Heron and the rest by Robin Williamson.

Record One (Wee Tam) contains three Heron numbers on Side One (“Puppies,” “Beyond the See,” “Log Cabin Home in the Sky”) and two on Side Two (“You Get Brighter,” “Air”). Record Two (The Big Huge) is all Williamson apart from “Greatest Friend,” “Cousin Caterpillar,” and “Douglas Traherne Harding.”

Disc one (Wee Tam)
1. “Job’s Tears” (6:40)
2. “Puppies” (5:30)
3. “Beyond the See” (2:16)
4. “The Yellow Snake” (2:04)
5. “Log Cabin Home in the Sky” (4:00)

6. “You Get Brighter” (5:44)
7. “The Half-Remarkable Question” (5:01)
8. “Air” (3:12)
9. “Ducks on a Pond” (9:17)

Disc two (The Big Huge)
1. “Maya” (9:24)
2. “Greatest Friend” (3:30)
3. “The Son of Noah’s Brother” (0:16)
4. “Lordly Nightshade” (5:13)
5. “The Mountain of God” (1:51)

6. “Cousin Caterpillar” (5:15)
7. “The Iron Stone” (6:33)
8. “Douglas Traherne Harding” (6:15)
9. “The Circle Is Unbroken” (4:47)

Recorded April–August 1968
Studio Sound Techniques, Chelsea, London

Robin Williamson – lead vocals (1, 4, 7, 9, 10, 12-14, 16, 18), guitar (1, 2, 4, 7, 9-13, 16), bass guitar (2, 3, 10, 15), guimbri (2, 3), percussion (2, 7, 9, 17), sarangi (4), violin (5, 17), harpsichord (6), piano (9, 13), Hammond organ (14), flute (8), kazoo (9), whistle (3, 13, 17, 18), harmonica (11), Irish harp (18), drums (13), backing vocals
Mike Heron – lead vocals (2, 5, 6, 8, 11, 15, 17), guitar (2, 5, 6, 8, 15, 17), sitar (2, 4, 7, 10, 16), bass guitar (2), organ (3, 8, 12, 18), harpsichord (3), washboard (5), percussion (9, 13), harmonica (9), backing vocals
Rose Simpson – violin (5), percussion (10, 15, 16), backing vocals
Licorice McKechnie – percussion (10, 16), Irish harp (16), backing vocals


Changing Horses

The Incredible String Band released their fifth album, Changing Horses, in November 1969 on Elektra. Robin Williamson wrote two conventional-length pieces (“Big Ted,” “Mr. and Mrs.”) and the sixteen-minute “Creation.” Mike Heron wrote “Sleepers, Awake!” and the fourteen-plus-minute “White Bird.” Side One ends with “Dust Be Diamonds,” a rare co-write with Robin’s lyrics set to Mike’s music.

1. “Big Ted” (4:21)
2. “White Bird” (14:46)
3. “Dust Be Diamonds” (6:14)

4. “Sleepers, Awake!” (3:44)
5. “Mr. and Mrs.” (4:54)
6. “Creation” (16:04)

Recorded Summer 1969
Studio Sound Techniques, Chelsea, London, Elektra Records Studios, New York City, NY

Robin Williamson — lead vocals (1, 3-6), acoustic guitar (5, 6), piano (1), flute (2), sarangi (2), chinese banjo (2), electric guitar (3), Hammond organ (3), gimbri (6), violin (6), percussion (1, 2, 3, 5), backing vocals (2)
Mike Heron — lead vocals (2, 4), acoustic guitar (2, 3), electric guitar (1, 5), piano (1), vibraphone (3), sitar (6), mandolin (6), percussion (5, 6), backing vocals (1, 5, 6)
Licorice McKechnie — lead vocals (4), Hammond organ (2, 3, 5), kazoo (3, 6), guitar (1), percussion (6), backing vocals (1, 2, 5, 6)
Rose Simpson — lead vocals (4), bass guitar (1-3, 5, 6), percussion (6), backing vocals (1, 2, 5, 6)

Walter Gundy — harmonica (1)
Ivan Pawle — Hammond organ and piano (6) (appears courtesy of Dr. Strangely Strange)


I Looked Up

The Incredible String Band released their sixth album, I Looked Up, in April 1970 on Elektra. It features four songs in the three-to-six-minute range credited to Mike Heron and two ten-plus-minute excursions by Robin Williamson.

1. “Black Jack Davy” (3:59) is a re-write of the traditional Anglo–Scottish border ballad “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy.”
2. “The Letter” (3:08)
3. “Pictures in a Mirror” (10:43)
4. “This Moment” (6:07)
5. “When You Find Out Who You Are” (10:58)
6. “Fair As You” (6:27)

Robin Williamson – vocals, guitar, flute, gimbri, violin
Mike Heron – vocals, guitar, harp, organ, piano, violin, horn
Licorice McKechnie – vocals, percussion, drums, dulcimer, keyboards
Rose Simpson – vocals, bass guitar, violin, percussion
Dave Mattacks – drums
John Gimbri – flute


U

The Incredible String Band released their seventh album, U, in October 1970 on Elektra. It’s a two-record set (107:07 duration) with eighteen songs. Each record opens with an eight-plus-minute excursion (“El Wool Suite,” “Bridge Song”) by Mike Heron, who wrote all the originals on Side Two and the near-sixteen-minute closing epic “Rainbow.” Robin Williamson composed the remaining contents apart from one song each by Janet Shankman (“Bad Sadie Lee”) and Licorice McKechnie (“I Know You”).

1. “El Wool Suite” (8:31)
2. “The Juggler’s Song” (3:13)
3. “Time” (3:58)
4. “Bad Sadie Lee” (3:49)
5. “Queen of Love” (8:37)
6. “Partial Belated Overture” (2:56)
7. “Light in Time of Darkness/Glad to See You” (10:16)
8. “Walking Along With You” (3:59)
9. “Hirem Pawnitof/Fairies’ Hornpipe” (6:20) is a trad medley arranged by Heron.
10. “Bridge Theme” (2:18)

1. “Bridge Song” (8:49)
2. “Astral Plane Theme” (4:52)
3. “Invocation” (4:49)
4. “Robot Blues” (4:09)
5. “Puppet Song” (6:16)
6. “Cutting The Strings” (5:10)
7. “I Know You” (3:24)
8. “Rainbow” (15:41)

Recorded May 1970


Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending

The Incredible String Band released their eighth album, Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending, in March 1971 on Island. It is the soundtrack to a namesake film.

50:19

1. “Come With Me” Robin Williamson (3:51)
2. “All Writ Down” Mike Heron (4:24)
3. “Veshengro” Williamson (5:03)
4. “See All the People” Heron (3:38)
5. “Waiting for You” Williamson (6:42)

6. “The Song Has No Ending” (Parts 1 to 9) Heron, Williamson (26:41)

Recorded July 1968 – April 1969, Sound Techniques, Chelsea, London

Robin Williamson – bass, claves, fiddle, finger cymbals, gimbri, guitar, keyboard, mandolin, piano, sarangui, shakers, violin, vocals
Mike Heron – bass, chimes, glockenspiel, guitar, harp, horn, keyboard, organ, sitar, vocals
Licorice McKechnie – backing vocals, keyboard, violin
Rose Simpson – backing vocals, bass, percussion


Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air

The Incredible String Band released their ninth album, Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air, in October 1971 on Island.

All tracks are written by Robin Williamson except as noted

1. “Talking Of The End” (5:30)
2. “Dear Old Battlefield” (3:05)
3. “Cosmic Boy” Mike Heron, Licorice McKechnie (3:49)
4. “Worlds They Rise and Fall” Heron (3:23)
5. “Evolution Rag” (4:42)
6. “Painted Chariot” Heron (3:42)
7. “Adam and Eve” (2:31)
8. “Red Hair” Heron (2:05)
9. “Here Till Here is There” (3:04)
10. “Tree” Heron (2:58)
11. “Jigs: Eyes Like Leaves / Sunday Is My Wedding Day / Drops Of Whiskey / Grumbling Old Men” Traditional, arr. Williamson (2:41)
12. “Darling Belle” (10:59)

Recorded August 1971
Sound Techniques, London…Island, London
Producer Stanley Schnier

Mike Heron – lead vocals (4, 6, 8, 10); guitars (2, 4, 6, 8); bass guitar (4, 11, 12); sitar (1); organ (1, 5, 11); piano (3, 4, 8, 10, 12); harmonium (4, 8); electric piano (7); flute (9); backing vocals (1, 4, 7-8, 10, 12)
Malcolm Le Maistre – harpsichord (1); percussion (1, 5); bass guitar (2); kazoo (5); whistle (5, 7, 11); mandolin (6, 11); tenor recorder (9); bouzouki (10); glockenspiel (12), harmonica (12), organ (12), clarinet (12); backing vocals (1, 5-7, 12)
Licorice McKechnie – lead vocals (3, 9, 12); organ (1, 2, 6, 8); harmonium (1), percussion (1, 7, 10-11); bass guitar (5); kazoo (5); autoharp (11); bironne (11); backing vocals (1-3, 6, 7, 9-10, 12)
Robin Williamson – lead vocals (1-2, 5, 7, 9, 12); oud (1), violin (1, 4), whistle (1), cymbal (1); guitars (2, 7, 12); cello (4, 8); oboe (4, 6, 12); mandolin (5 ,10); kazoo (5); bass guitar (6); percussion (7); bass recorder (9); fiddle (11); flute (12); banjo (12); string arrangements (12); backing vocals (2, 5, 6, 9-10, 12)

Gerry Conway, drums (2, 6, 7)
Stan Lee, pedal steel guitar (1); bass guitar (7)


Earthspan

The Incredible String Band released their tenth album, Earthspan, in November 1972 on Island.

1. “My Father Was a Lighthouse Keeper” Malcolm Le Maistre (4:21)
2. “Antoine” Mike Heron (3:53)
3. “Restless Night” Robin Williamson (3:30)
4. “Sunday Song” Licorice McKechnie, Heron (8:28)
5. “Black Jack David” traditional (2:38)
6. “Banks of Sweet Italy” Williamson (3:01)
7. “The Actor” Le Maistre, Williamson (3:49)
8. “Moon Hang Low” Williamson (3:22)
9. “Sailor and the Dancer” Le Maistre (2:34)
10. “Seagull” Heron (6:02)

Recorded March – August 1972
Producer Robin Williamson, Mike Heron

Mike Heron, Robin Williamson, Licorice McKechnie, and Malcolm Le Maistre. 


No Ruinous Feud

The Incredible String Band released their eleventh album, No Ruinous Feud, in March 1973 on Island.

1. “Explorer” Mike Heron (3:28)
2. “Down Before Cathay” Malcolm Le Maistre (4:16)
3. “Saturday Maybe” Robin Williamson (2:45)
4. “Jigs” Traditional, arr. Williamson (2:50)
5. “Old Buccaneer” Williamson (3:23)
6. “At The Lighthouse Dance” Le Maistre (3:30)
7. “Second Fiddle” (cover of Tommy McCook & The Supersonics, 1968) Duke Reid (2:23)
8. “Circus Girl” Williamson (2:30)
9. “Turquoise Blue” Heron (3:59)
10. “My Blue Tears” (cover of Dolly Parton, 1971) Dolly Parton (2:00)
11. “Weather The Storm” Williamson (3:02)
12. “Little Girl” Heron (4:21)

Recorded January 1973
Producer Roger Mayer, Mike Heron


Hard Rope & Silken Twine

The Incredible String Band released their twelfth album, Hard Rope & Silken Twine, in March 1974 on Island.

1. “Maker of Islands” Mike Heron (6:01)
2. “Cold February” Robin Williamson (5:46)
3. “Glancing Love” Malcolm Le Maistre, Mike Garson (4:00)
4. “Dreams of No Return” Williamson (5:20)
5. “Dumb Kate” Heron (3:21)
6. “Ithkos” Heron (19:23)

Producer Mike Heron


Discography:

  • The Incredible String Band (1966)
  • The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967)
  • The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968)
  • Wee Tam & The Big Huge (1968)
  • Changing Horses (1969)
  • I Looked Up (1970)
  • U (1970)
  • Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending (1971)
  • Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air (1972)
  • Earthspan (1972)
  • No Ruinous Feud (1973)
  • Hard Rope & Silken Twine (1974)
  • On Air [archival] (1991)
  • The Chelsea Sessions 1967 [archival] (1997)

Sources:

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