Still away with the fairies

The fey and gentle Incredible String Band epitomised the hippie ideals of the Sixties and pioneered the eclectic use of world music. How much have they changed in the quarter-century since they last played together?
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Way back in the 1960s, The Incredible String Band recorded a song called "Way Back in the 1960s". A droll, tongue-in-cheek number, it featured an old-codger-of-the-future's wistful rem- iniscence of his halcyon youth, couched in timeless old-codger argot - "You made your own amusements then," etc - and culminating in the ironic chorus, "Hey, you young people/ Well, I just do not know/ And I can't even understand you/ When you try to talk slow."

Way back in the 1960s, The Incredible String Band recorded a song called "Way Back in the 1960s". A droll, tongue-in-cheek number, it featured an old-codger-of-the-future's wistful rem- iniscence of his halcyon youth, couched in timeless old-codger argot - "You made your own amusements then," etc - and culminating in the ironic chorus, "Hey, you young people/ Well, I just do not know/ And I can't even understand you/ When you try to talk slow."

A rare, if mild, outbreak of satire amid the bucolic whimsy and metaphysical ruminations that constituted most of the group's output, it provided a suitably deft flourish with which to conclude their classic 1967 album The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, which came swathed in a garish psychedelic cover every bit as extravagant as its title.

A third of a century later - and a quarter-century after their eventual, acrimonious split - the band's core duo of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron are together again, rehearsing with Robin's wife, Bina, the pianist Lawson Dando and the original ISB member Clive Palmer for a series of comeback concerts in London and Edinburgh and at Cropredy Festival this week.

Although several old Incredible String Band favourites such as "Ducks on a Pond" and "Painting Box" are scheduled for the upcoming shows, there are no plans to revive "Way Back in the 1960s". "No, I don't think we're going to do that one," smiles Williamson, the author of the song. "That was done as a joke at the time, whereas now it would have different connotations."

Indeed, younger audiences could well be forgiven for missing the song's ironies, were it performed by a posse of whiskery fiftysomethings, rather than the youthful hippies they once were. Back in the Sixties, the ISB's communal lifestyle - with their girlfriends Rose and Licorice, a gaggle of kids, some friends, a dog named Leaf and a dance troupe called Stone Monkey all crammed into a rural cottage or two - was the prototype for the back-to-the-land hippie movement.

The recently reissued documentary film The Incredible String Band - Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending offers a tantalising 50-minute snapshot of the group at their most whimsical. Do they, I wonder, recognise their younger selves when they watch it?

"That's a big question," Williamson admits, "and I suppose the honest truth is that you're not the same person 30 years later - your priorities have changed, and every cell in your body has been replaced. I think of my past self as a kind of ancestor." He's right in more than one sense: the String Band are in effect the ancestors of the crusties and ravers of the Glastonbury generation.

Their rise to counter-cultural notoriety began in the early Sixties, when Mike Heron joined Williamson and Palmer's folk duo, Robin & Clive, the trio taking their new name from the latter's Incredible Folk Club, a Saturday night shebeen that Williamson characterises as akin to Dante's Inferno, thanks to its mix of earnest folkies, neophyte pot-heads and Glaswegian gangsters there for the after-hours bevvy. "There would a weapons check at the door," he recalls. "People would go out with swords and lead pipes and have to leave them at the door as they came in."

"Folk clubs then weren't like folk clubs now," Heron adds, clearly a master of understatement. "They were for writing songs and having people listen to them, because before The Beatles, people didn't listen to club music - you went along to dance. It wasn't until the Dylan thing came along that people started to listen to lyrics."

Signed to Elektra records in 1966, the String Band recorded their eponymous début, huddled round a single microphone in a small studio in Chelsea, and immediately disbanded. "I thought it was the pinnacle of achievement," Williamson chuckles. "We had 50 quid - that was good enough, I thought. So I went to Morocco, determined to live like a king - on 50 quid! Which I did.

"I'd bought a small room in Edinburgh for about £100, and from the rent from that - a few shillings a week - I moved to Morocco, intending to study the Arabic flute and never return to Britain. But they changed the law after about six months, and I couldn't get any more money sent to my poste restante in Fez, so I ended up being repatriated."

Returning with a bagful of exotic Moroccan instruments, he found Mike and started up again in a more world music direction. Their second album, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, was a quantum leap forward from their début. The songs on it reflected their growing interest in questions of faith, fate, philosophy and theology, expressed in vivid mythopoeic language and presented with a musical ecumenism that linked Celtic/druidic folk airs with American hill-country fiddle music, Christian hymnal and more exotic Indian and Moorish modes.

It was the kind of eclectic, pan-cultural crossover that is increasingly commonplace in today's Womad-ised world, but was undertaken then with a blithe disregard for the "purity" of the original forms. Williamson, for instance, chose to play the gimbri - a Berber lute designed to be plucked - with a bow, while Heron took up the sitar simply to embellish his partner's songs. "I didn't know anything about the theory of music," Williamson admits. "My approach was: did it make an interesting shape on the guitar neck? I'd fret the triangle shape, or the flat shape with one finger on top, then retune all the strings and see what came out."

As the hippie movement took off, in 1967, The Incredible String Band suddenly and inexplicably found themselves the acme of hip. Their third album, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, was a top five hit, an unprecedented achievement for a folk record. They tried not to let the success go to their heads. "My attitude was that it was an illusion and wasn't going to last," Williamson says, "so there was no point in taking it too seriously. I didn't realise there was a chance of making a lot of money at it."

Others did, of course, and before long the merry little band found themselves under pressure to adapt to changing times, playing second on the bill to Three Dog Night in some vast American stadium, gamely trying to project their winsome acoustic whimsy to crowds hell-bent on beer and boogie. Alas, you cannot turn a gimbri up to 11, and for a band who strove to break down the barrier between artist and audience, it was the beginning of the end.

After a few vain attempts to incorporate electric guitars into their sound, by the mid-Seventies they had gone their separate ways - Heron to a short-lived solo career; Williamson to Hollywood, initially to become a writer, though somewhere along the way he managed to release upward of 30 more albums.

Williamson's most recent album, The Seed-At-Zero, is released on the chamber-jazz label ECM later this month. Consisting mostly of his improvised settings of Dylan Thomas poems, accompanied by Williamson's mandolin, harp and guitar, it's a raw but rewarding, verbally dense record on which the themes of death and rebirth, the cyclical nature of being and the vivid apprehension of nature extend the pantheistic inquiries of earlier songs such as "The Half-Remarkable Question", "Three Is a Green Crown" and "Koeeaddi There".

"You just tried to make sense of things, y'know?" Williamson says of those songs. "I did a few sessions with Van Morrison, whom I would describe as not a naturally calm individual, but who writes music about calmness and peace; so maybe people write things that they need in their lives. What I needed in my life was some degree of insight, so I tried to write songs about what my quest for understanding was. It was very important to me at the time and still is.

"I still think of myself as some sort of a druid - a British Hindu - because I believe that the Great Creator is permanently present in the wonders of creation. That's enough of a religion for me: just the wonder of being alive."

The Incredible String Band appears at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, on 17 and 18 August, and at The Fling, Edinburgh, on 20 August. Robin Williamson's 'The Seed-At-Zero' will be available from 29 August on ECM Records