The Incredible String Band, "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter"
To glimpse the enduring possibilities which some people uncovered in the 1960s you could do worse than listen to the first three or four Incredible String Band records. The group merged folk traditions, personal memories, future hopes, and East/West philosophy with an amazing innocence, sincerity, and flow. The Hangman‚Äôs Beautiful Daughter makes clear some key recording principles: have something worth saying, use your own voice, and get an engineer or producer who can properly document your expression.
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter was produced by Joe Boyd and engineered by John Wood at Sound Techniques studio. Boyd‚Äôs fantastic autobiography White Bicycles reveals a host of tales to thrill the most ardent music snob and puts the ISB in proper context. Boyd was UK tour manager for Muddy Waters, he plugged Dylan in at Newport, recorded Pink Floyd‚Äôs first single, and ran the UFO club in London. The ISB were Boyd's first signing to the Elektra label and the Rolling Stones tried to steal them away. He booked them into huge venues and considered them peers of Cohen and Mitchell. As he says, originally "they performed Scots traditional music as if it had taken a journey to the Appalachians and back via Morocco and Bulgaria." But before the second record, The 5000 Spirits or The Layers Of The Onion, founder member Clive Palmer split for India (people didn't leave in the 1960s they split) and apparently exposed the fact that Williamson and Heron didn‚Äôt actually get along so well without his friendship buffer. Certainly there is a useful tension in the music and if it emanates from that dynamic well the result is never dull and holds up in the harsh glare on the early 21st century.
Heron and Williamson are good songwriters and confident performers. They weave traces of childhood, drone, a cappella, Eastern tonal traditions, innocence, fantasy, romance, myth and spirituality. The music does not sound overcrowded or forced, though, since Wood and Boyd were the perfect partners to ensure it got the clarity and space it deserved and because the ISB never forced anything. Boyd details both the way that groups tended to record back then and the way in which engineer John Wood worked. If something didn‚Äôt sound right in 1968, the engineer would get up and go into the studio and either replace or reposition the microphone, or move the musician to another part of the studio (which had three differing ceiling levels and thus three different acoustics) searching for the sweet spot for each sound. At that time, groups would attempt to capture some of the excitement of live performance by recording as much as they could in one go. That said, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter was one of the first records to be made using the new 24 track recording technology. This allowed for overdubbing and detailed separation of instruments and voices. Williamson likens the process to painting, with the ability to change structures and color.¬†The end result isn't at all overdone and has a weird power. Listening in my car one morning made me jump as I was convinced someone spoke from the back seat!
The opening piece "Koeeoaddi There" speeds up and slows down according it's own flow and fluctuates between a child's perspective, nonsensical rhymes, and the lyric "earth water fire and air, met together in a garden fair, put in a basket bound with skin, if you answer this riddle you'll never begin." The long "A Very Cellular Song" contains fragments of "Bid You Goodnight" by The Pindar Family which they learned from Joseph Spence. "The Minotaur's Song" starts as if channeling Gilbert and Sullivan and has a call and response style ("Ican't dream well because of my horns/He can't dream well because of his horns") which seems to predict Monty Python's "Lumberjack Song" song.
But with the ISB it's almost pointless to pick out favorite tracks. They adhered to the mantra of channeling flow and¬†following a muse while hoping not to ruin the inspiration by doing too much. Some people may find them irritating hippies but I regard them as liquid acrobats, folk magicians, poets, and innocent romantics. I listen to the low notes and allow the rest to float over. Somewhat like listening to dub or swimming in that trying too hard (to understand the lyrics or follow the tune) may impede enjoyment or progress.¬†Boyd feels that the brilliant Heron/Williamson duo was the group's peak, but later records are worth hearing, especially Wee Tam and The Big Huge and Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air. Oh, forget that, they are all good. Even Earthspan has some great moments such as the gloriously compressed "Banks of Sweet Italy."
The girlfriends-in-the-band era of Licorice and Rose changed things (even as it retained the approach of playing any instrument regardless of formal skill and training) as did the journey into and (for some of the group) out of Scientology. Licorice seems to have disappeaered somewhere in California but she did garner a mention in Elmore Leonard's Freaky Deaky. Rose returned to the UK and in the 1990s was Lady Mayoress of the Welsh town of Aberystwyth‚Äîsurely a more bizarre gig than her time in the ISB. There have also been reunions and gigs with assorted members as well as tribute records. Williamson continues recording and touring and the last recording of his I heard, Skirting The River Road, was a surprisingly good interpretation of the poems of Blake, Whitman, and Vaughan along with some of his own.
ISB never made a truly bad record but this re-master of their third album is arguably their best. They linger in semi-obscurity despite some initial commercial success and praise from Lennon, McCartney, and Robert Plant. Incredibly, Joe Boyd tells how Caetano Veloso claims to have been inspired by the ISB and how Silvio Rodriguez decided to become a songwriter while recovering from a gunshot wound and listening to a bootleg copy of 5000 Spirits.