Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band – 'I was trying to be accepted by the alien beatniks. It took a little while!'
- Stewart Smith
- 3 August 2017
We take a look at the lasting impact of Edinburgh's Incredible String Band as the International Festival and Book Festival celebrate the work of the psychedelic music pioneers
The Incredible String Band's psychedelic folk took them from London's UFO club to the Woodstock Festival, catching the ears of Paul McCartney, John Peel and Robert Plant along the way. But the influential group's roots are in the bohemian folk scene of 1960s Edinburgh and this month, the city honours the String Band's legacy with two major events.
For the International Festival, their producer and manager Joe Boyd has curated a tribute concert, featuring co-founder Mike Heron alongside guests such as Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, cult pop heroes Green Gartside and Robyn Hitchcock, and contemporary folk innovators Karine Polwart and Alasdair Roberts. And at the Book Festival, Heron and poet Andrew Greig – a major fan – will be discussing their joint memoir, You Know What You Could Be. Through the stories of a musician and a dedicated fan, the book vividly captures the optimism of the 1960s.
The book paints an evocative portrait of a Scotland going from monochrome to technicolour. The son of an Edinburgh teacher, Heron seemed destined for a respectable middle class lifestyle until he discovered rock 'n roll. After playing in a series of bands with his schoolmate Atty Watson, he gravitated towards Archie Fisher's legendary folk club at the Crown Bar in Lothian Street, where he met his future bandmates Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer. 'I was living with my parents and I idolised the beatniks, particularly Clive, Robin and Bert Jansch too, they'd been living the life for a good while, busking in Europe. Me and Atty were just pretending really.'
Heron began to make a name for himself, and before long, he had traded in his job as a trainee accountant for the bohemian life of a folk musician, moving in with his French girlfriend, Michelle. In late 1965, Palmer and Williamson invited Heron to play with them and the Incredible String Band was born. 'When they asked me to join the band I was really thrilled,' he recalls. 'I joined very much as an apprentice in my mind; I'd been admiring them for ages. I was trying to be accepted by the alien beatniks. It took a little while!'
As Heron understands it, the first part of the tribute concert will evoke this 'smoggy' world, which Joe Boyd first encountered in 1965 as a talent scout for the influential US label Elektra. 'In Joe's book [2006 memoir White Bicycles], it's really very funny, because him coming as an American, what he couldn't believe was that no one owned anything. It was pretty downtrodden, nobody had any money, but the culture was bubbling away and I think that really impressed him. I think he's going for that feel at the beginning of the concert. It's gonna be smoky beatniks rather than right into the psychedelic.'
In You Know What You Could Be, Heron's portion of the book ends with the String Band's transformation into psychedelic butterflies, as acid is dropped and Williamson returns from Morocco with a collection of exotic instruments. As co-author Greig notes, what the band were doing was an early form of world music and to him, as a schoolboy in the East Neuk of Fife, such sounds were a revelation.
'I liked folk music and I loved rock'n'roll, but I'd never heard anything like this. They were off the scale of strangeness,' he says. 'The fact that they were Scottish, and cutting edge, avant-garde, that changed everything, because the music I loved was all from Liverpool or London or California or New York. To actually have something as amazing as that … I think it was like when Alasdair Gray published Lanark; what that did for a generation of would-be novelists, [ISB's 1967 album] 5000 Spirits did for my generation of would-be creatives, who all promptly decided to start bands with odd names and wear odd costumes and write our own music, with no holds barred.'
Greig's memoir is a great testament to the power of fandom and DIY culture. He and his friend George Boyter form their own psychedelic folk group Fate & ferret, freaking out their school mates with a theatrical performance of traditional folk tune 'The Twa Corbies' involving capes, candles and a painted deer skull. Later, they travel down to London in a scampi lorry, touting their 'terrible' tapes to Joe Boyd, and meeting John Martyn and Nick Drake. Fate & ferret were never destined for success, but as the book shows, Greig and his friends had a marvellous ride.
'I wanted to write about how fandom isn't necessarily just a passive process, it can completely turn you on to a life that you want, and even give you some clues about how you might get it. And I think that's why Mike and I called the book You Know What You Could Be because the one thing these stories have in common is they're both stories about formation, about how we stumbled around, trying to become who we needed to be.'
The Music of the Incredible String Band: Very Cellular Songs, Playhouse, 17 Aug, 8pm, £20--£35.
Andrew Greig & Mike Heron: Incredible String Bands, Charlotte Square Gardens, 18 Aug, 7.15pm. £12 (£10).