Faber & Faber £12.99 (664pp). £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Electric Eden, By Rob Young
Friday 05 August 2011
Those who experienced the musical annus mirabilis of 1967 will recall the brief flowering of the Incredible String Band, a group that influenced both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Paul McCartney chose their waxing 5,000 Spirits as his most treasured LP of 1967. Anyone too young or too old to turn on to the Summer of Love may be mystified by the appeal of this record. Though described by Young as "an infinitely more intimate and disorienting happening" than Sergeant Pepper, non-believers are liable to view it as self-indulgent caterwauling.
The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention's 1969 classic Liege and Lief lie at the heart of Rob Young's epic exploration of a potent strand of British culture. Stemming from figures as diverse as Blake, Lewis Carroll, William Morris, Housman, Delius and Vaughan Williams, it produced the acoustic folk of Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy and Shirley Collins and was subsequently electrified by Pentangle, Traffic, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Kate Bush. It is hard to define the common ground of such an eclectic bunch but you can see what Young has in mind. The genre tends to be mystic, rural, nostalgic and romantic, but the main element binding participants together is a distinctly British accent.
A former editor of The Wire magazine, Young explores the major works of "Britain's visionary music" in detail. He notes the "slippery, mercurial rhythm" of "Tam Lin", the long, strange ballad on Liege and Lief about a woman clutching her fairy lover as a witch successively transforms him into "a succession of fierce beasts". Young explains the posthumous popularity of Nick Drake with Blakean ardour: "If we all abandoned the calendar of industry, fashion and routine, slowed down to the mystical time... we might yet be granted a glimpse of Paradise."
This was not always granted to the music's exponents. Both Drake and Sandy Denny had sad, untimely deaths. The four members of the Incredible String Band variously became Scientologists, a Californian dropout and the mayor of Aberystwyth.
Young omits a few artists of the era who could be described as British visionaries. John Lennon's transporting nonsense I am the Walrus should be here. But these are small quibbles. Like the music it describes, this enthralling work merits the over-used adjective "magical".
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