Clive Palmer: Virtuoso banjo-player who as a founder-member of the Incredible String Band helped pioneer psychedelic folk


Martin Val Baker
Tuesday 02 December 2014 18:50

One important strand of the British music scene in the 1960s was the folk revival that helped revolutionise popular music. One of its most influential exponents was The Incredible String Band, who left a marker for others to follow. John Lennon and Bob Dylan, to name two, were fans.

A founder member was the virtuoso banjo player, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Clive Palmer. Born in Edmonton, north London in 1943, he took an early interest in the banjo, receiving lessons in the classical style from the virtuoso Alfred Lloyd, a former partner of the legendary player Joe Morley. In 1961 Palmer met the guitarist Wizz Jones and they began to play traditional folk in London clubs in the company of such performers as John Baldry, Rod Stewart and Davey Graham.

In late 1962 or early 1963 he moved to Scotland, where another centre of creativity had emerged, and soon he and two young Scots, Bert Jansch and Robin Williamson, opened a folk club in Edinburgh. After Jansch left for London, the other two worked as a duo, then, when Williamson went to Morocco, Palmer opened Clive's Incredible Folk Club in Glasgow, with another Edinburgh musician, Mike Heron.

The American record producer Joe Boyd was taken to the club, in Sauchiehall Street, but found that it had been closed as a fire hazard. But when Williamson returned from Morocoo, the trio became the Incredible String Band, named in honour of the closed-down club, and soon impressed Boyd, who had already seen Williamson and Palmer play together. "Robin seemed graceful and relaxed," he recalled in his autobiography White Bicycles, while Palmer "had a limp and seemed old beyond his years."

The resulting eponymous LP, released on Elektra in 1966, was recorded in seven hours – all first takes. It was voted Folk Album of the Year in a Melody Maker poll – but shortly after it was released Palmer – "a true rebel who didn't care a fig for my ambitions," noted Boyd – left the band to travel overland to Afghanistan, and then to India, where he played on national television. He later said that "the time was right for a change" and that he saw his epic trip as a voyage of discovery.

Returning to England in 1968, Palmer followed a friend's recommendation and moved to Cornwall. At this time Henry "The Jug" Bartlett, was running the legendary Folk Cottage club in the village of Mitchell which featured a nest of talented performers including Ralph McTell, "Whispering" Mick Bennett and local guitarists John Bidwell, Pete Berryman and Tim Wellard. Soon, along with singer Jill Johnson, they formed the Famous Jug Band, touring extensively. Their first album was recorded in 1969, dominated by Johnson's haunting voice, and featuring Palmer's classic song "A Leaf Must Fall".

His next group, the Stockroom Five – with Bidwell and Wellard, and Mick Bennett on washboard – was a good-time band playing the foot-stomping music of the American country star Uncle Dave Macon, then in 1970 Palmer and Bidwell were joined by Demelza Val Baker on tablas in the Temple Creatures. Heavily Indian-influenced, they played an eclectic collection of instruments including balalaika, dulcitar and Indian hand organ.

They moved to London in 1972 but split up soon afterwards, reforming as Clive's Original Band, or C.O.B. They seem destined for success, with rave reviews of two fine albums of innovative material, Spirit of Love (1971) and Moyshe McStiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart (1972) but after a nationwide tour supporting Pentangle they went their separate ways. Palmer went back to Cornwall, where he formed a partnership with the poet Bob Devereux, and in 1978 they were joined by Wellard, and Dick Reynolds on keyboards, to form Rhombus, who had a brief but memorable career including a concert with Robin Williamson's Merry Band at St Ives.

Palmer later lived in Brittany, and in Cornwall, and returned to recording in the 1990s, reuniting with Williamson and touring with Heron and Williamson in the reformed ISB. A solo album, All Roads Lead To Land, came out in 2004.

In recent years he played the occasional solo gig and appeared with a five-piece band, while working as an instrument maker (Northumbrian and Cornish bagpipes and stringed instruments). He never resented the greater financial success of many of his contemporaries, feeling that his freedom was preferable to the nomadic life of the professional musician. He felt that opportunities for creative acoustic music to be economically viable will only return when a new generation reactions against the electronic manipulations so prevalent today.

He noted: "Without the patronage of disinterested sponsors, music has to be commercial to survive and as long as art and creativity are measured by financial rewards a really creative scene is unlikely – though in the end the public is the final judge." The legendary folk singer Shirley Collins paid tribute to Palmer, saying, "How many artists can boast a finer acid folk legacy than the Incredible String Band and C.O.B.?"

Clive Palmer, musician: born London 14 May 1943; died Penzance 23 November 2014.

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