Shindig Shindig Shindig
Shindig
Home
Subscribe
Back issues
Books
Stockists
Archive
Contact
Links
Newsletter
 
 

 
 

UK 1960s

WAY BACK IN THE 1960s
THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND’s ground-breaking first four albums finally get the deluxe reissue treatment.
By RICHARD ALLEN.

THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND
The Incredible String Band
The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter
Wee Tam and The Big Huge
All Fledg’ling CDs
www.thebeesknees.com
Whilst I can’t remember the ’60s, I wasn’t there. Indeed, I wasn’t even born. But that didn’t put me off. When seeking out anything with a multi-coloured psychedelic cover to add to the music library of a then multi-coloured psychedelic lifestyle I stumbled one day, at the dawn of the ’80s, across The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion by The Incredible String Band, housed in what was possibly the most mind blowing album sleeve I’d ever seen.
It’s very hard to objectively review albums by a band that informed your youth and it’s even harder to choose a favourite from these four reissues by The Incredible String Band, a strange ensemble who became a part of the soundtrack to my life, maybe even influencing it. Whilst that statement might sound like so much hippy drivel, what other band can claim a similarly bold introduction to their biography by long time ISB fan the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams? I rest my cosmic case.
It’s a common truth that many believe The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is The Incredible String Band’s finest hour, much like the equally strong view that The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request isn’t a very good album. I hate to go against the received wisdom but I disagree with both the former, and the latter. The world Before 5000 Spirits… was almost certainly a different world to the one that followed and the album is quite simply the Sergeant Pepper of folk, released bang slap in the middle of The Summer Of Love in July 1967. Fully informed by psychedelia, it broke down musical barriers that many didn’t even realise existed or indeed realised needed breaking down.
At the time I first heard 5000 Spirits I had no idea who the band were and, expecting an aural assault of wah-wah, phasing and swirling electric acid mayhem, was completely confused as the rasping eerie sounds of opener ‘Chinese White’ came drifting out of my speakers like incense smoke. The sound of a peasant scraping a one string gourd? Surely some mistake. But then as the record revealed its ever evolving depths this strange folk approximation of psychedelia – complex and convoluted lyrics, bewildering array of multi-national acoustic instrumentation, otherworldly, fantastical and poetic imagery – had me completely in its thrall. Robin Williamson’s mysterious, nasal thin vocals, Mike Heron’s soft harmonies and a selection of songs that covered every subject from love, death, indecipherable spiritual wisdom or utter nonsense (you choose) through to the loss of youth. Everything about the record set the blueprint for every acid freak-folk ensemble since.
But this odd mixture isn’t some mere exercise in weird for weirdness’ sake. The Incredibles always had something deep to say, even if it wasn’t always apparent. Nobody can deny the powerful poetic beauty of ‘The Eyes Of Fate’ or the equally insightful ‘My Name Is Death’ – songs that somehow hark back to the kind of timeless primal truths lurking in traditional folk song. A mixture of acoustic guitar blues, folk, and exotic world music soaked in lyrical mythology, the album orbits for a few moments popular culture and reveals the beautiful ‘Painting Box’ – a song that deftly merges a charming love song with psychedelic folk pop – whilst the lengthy epic sitar laden ‘Mad Hatter’s Song’ is the kind of surreal acid trip that could only have been born in the ’60s. ‘First Girl I Loved’ is the most widely covered song on the album – a notable version being the jazzy West Coast rock incarnation by Judy Collins – and the song’s insightful lyrics, about the lost love of youth, grow ever more melancholic with age. The twee strangeness of ‘Little Cloud’ and ‘The Hedgehogs’ Song’ (what IS that about?) are offset by the hallucinogenic love ballad ‘Gently Tender’ and the witty and intelligent blues folk of ‘No Sleep Blues’ and ‘Way Back In The 1960s’. The simple diversity and range of material both texturally, lyrically and melodically make this short day-glo adventure into acoustic folk psychedelia one of the finest moments of ’60s British music.
Thirty years since I heard it and over 40 years since it was released, 5000 Spirits – along with three other ISB albums – get the reissues they deserve. The band’s self-titled ’66 debut (when they were a trio with COB founder Clive Palmer) leans slightly towards more traditional material with some instrumental tracks but ‘Maybe Someday’, ‘October Song’ and the bizarre ‘Smoke Shovelling Song’ point towards the band’s subsequent musical direction. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Wee Tam And The Big Huge both date from ’68 and feature future full-time members and then girlfriends Christina ‘Liquorice’ McKechnie and Rose Simpson. These albums, beautifully experimental and always commercially reckless, feature classics such as ‘Witches Hat’ and ‘A Very Cellular Song’ moving into more esoteric territory with ‘The Half Remarkable Question’, ‘You Get Brighter’, ‘Air’ ‘Cousin Caterpillar’, ‘Maya’ and ‘The Iron Stone’, to aficionados of The ISB the finest claret but to the casual listener frustratingly obtuse or annoyingly overlong. Beyond this point you certainly need to speak the language to enjoy The ISB universe.
These reissues are tastefully packaged and include reminiscences from Clive, Robin and Mike whilst original producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood have gone back to the master tapes to produce the best possible sound quality. You can hear the difference, particularly after the unforgivable mastering mistakes made by WEA. I just wish the sleeves were bigger. It’s not quite the same staring at that mind blowing 5000 Spirits sleeve when it’s only 12 centimetres square.

 

GEORGIE FAME
Mod Classics 1964-1966
BGP CD
www.acerecords.com
Like fellow white soul boy, Reggie King of The Action, Georgie Fame had a unique way of interpreting obscure (at the time) US soul and R&B, adding a suave jazzy vibe with those silk cut vocals and pounding Hammond. Who’d have thought a boy from Lancashire dare outdo Brother Ray?
Mod Classics 1964-1966 features choice material from his first three studio long players (sadly long out of print) alongside a couple of songs from his live ’64 set, Rhythm And Blues At The Flamingo, a handful of 45s and a cover of Earl Van Dyke’s ‘Soul Stomp’ previously available only on a limited Japanese reissue.
His career took a few odd turns from ‘67 onwards but these tailor-made cuts, like the latin-tinged groove ‘El Bandido’ and the swinging ‘Monkeying Around’, still sound great on the floor at Mod clubs.
Essential fodder for those who still long for the kind of world described by Tom Wolfe in his Noonday Underground essay.
Paul Ritchie

THE HOLLIES
Midas Touch
EMI 2-CD
Career-spanning 48-track anthology of the Manchester pop gods’ finest – from frenetic R&B-flavoured 1963 debut ‘Ain’t That Just Like Me’ to a respectable live version of ’72 single ‘The Baby’ recorded last year – and stopping at all points in between.
Rarities ‘Man With No Expression’ and ‘Schoolgirl’ rub shoulders with surprise album tracks ‘Butterfly’, ‘I’ve Got A Way Of My Own’ and ‘Rain On The Window’. And there are the hits. Bleedin’ loads of ‘em, accounting for some of the best pop music ever recorded in this writer’s humble opinion: ‘I Can’t Let Go’, ‘On A Carousel’, ‘I’m Alive’, ‘Carrie Anne’, ‘Yes I Will’… the list goes on and on.
The remastering is sparkling (‘King Midas In Reverse’ particularly benefits here) but the non-chronological sequencing can be jarring, with over-produced ’80s outings like ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Soldier’s Song’ feeling like unwelcome gate-crashers and stemming the flow of an otherwise near-perfect river of songs and singing.
Andy Morten

SKIP BIFFERTY
Skip Bifferty
Grapefruit CD
www.cherryred.co.uk
If you’re a Shindig! reader and you don’t already own this, see me in my study after double French. The sole 1968 album by Skip Bifferty, too-short-lived angels of the North East, is a cornerstone of UK psychedelia: so definitive an artefact that the psych dictionary falls open at this page.
Capable of out-creating The Creation (‘Planting Bad Seeds’, ‘Money Man’) out-pacing Traffic (‘Time Track’, ‘Prince Germany The First’) and extending the focal length of Kaleidoscope (‘Gas Board Under Dog’, ‘Jeremy Carabine’), this extraordinary group majored in a paisley-shirted brand of rushing mod pop smudged with impressionistic flecks of backward guitar and ferociously compressed piano. Next to Art/Spooky Tooth vocalist Mike Harrison, Skip Bifferty’s Graham Bell was Steve Winwood’s most credible rival.
Just because fate overlooked them doesn’t mean we have to. This reissue, drawn from the RCA masters, gifts us with nine bonus tracks including both sides of their three towering singles and previously unreleased early demos ‘Skizoid Revolution’ and ‘Jesus Smith (The Other Side Of)’.
Marco Rossi

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Looking Towards The Sky: Progressive, Psychedelic & Folk Rock From The Ember Vaults
Fantastic Voyage CD
www.futurenoisemusic.com
Following three volumes of ’60s beat and pop outings, the exhaustive excavation of Ember’s vaults continues apace with the first of two compilations focusing on the heavier end of the decade and the early part of the next.
It’s an uneven affair populated by bit part players like The Dorians and 9:30 Fly; an occasionally inspired but often insipid world of recycled boogie riffage and limp instrumental “work outs”. Thank God then for Blonde On Blonde who blow the roof off with the outstanding (and surprisingly modern sounding) ‘Heart Without A Home’, and Paddy Maguire whose ‘Doin’ The Best I Can’ comes on like a folk-rock Andwella’s Dream.
Best of the bunch for this writer is The Knocker Jungle’s Tyrannosaurus Rex/ISB-flavoured reading of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Don’t Know Why’, produced by Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks and boasting a lead vocal that veers between grade-A Lord Snooty whimsy and a growling Roy Harper. It shouldn’t work but it does.
Andy Morten

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Rare Mod Volume 2
Acid Jazz CD/LP
www.acidjazz.co.uk
A real tapestry of delights to be found on this second volume of rare soul-tinged mod beat from young wannabes such as Essex boys The Gass Company, who give The Afex a run for their money with a snotty take on the frenzied garage anthem ‘She’s Got The Time’.
The compilation valiantly taps into the ’60s club scene beyond the big smoke including; Manchester (Richard Kent Style), Brighton (The Summer Set), Reading (The Amboy Dukes), Torquay (The Spartans) and Bournemouth (Dave Anthony’s Moods). The Nocturnes from Birmingham do a mean Booker T on the imaginatively titled ‘Hay, That’s What Horses Eat’ recalling the party vibe of ‘Bert’s Apple Crumble’ by The Quik.
A couple of bands have links to Southampton-based and Shindig! faves The Fleur De Lys, who feature here with two unreleased gems. This fine series deserves a more inspired title along the lines of sister compilations such as the influential Rubble, Nuggets and Pebbles collections.
Paul Ritchie

CLIFFORD T WARD
Path Through the Forest
Wooden Hill CD
www.tenthplanet-woodenhill.co.uk
This anthology collects together no fewer than 57 tracks recorded between 1964 and ’72 before Ward established himself as a singer songwriter of some repute through classic albums such as Home Thoughts.
And what a great collection it is, covering not just the six A and B-sides he cut with various incarnations of his mid-60s band The Secrets, but also a wealth of unreleased material and demos.
This overview provides a unique perspective of a fledgling talent trying on different styles and finding they fit like a glove. With the track listing eschewing any sense of chronology you never know what you’re going to get next – from blue-eyed soul to paisley pop to exquisite piano-led tropes on love and loss.
Of particular interest to Shindig! readers will be the inclusion of both the original and demo versions of the title track, a genuine psychedelic classic later covered by The Factory.
Gary Thorogood

The Fenmen
Sunstroke
UT CD
www.ugly-things.com
Featuring future psychedelic-era Pretty Things Jon Povey and Wally Waller, The Fenmen were daring and original; steeped in sun-kissed vocal harmonies. They were also a combo well-sussed in all things beat and rock ’n’ roll.
This superbly put together CD collects their 1965-66 discs – after ditching original singer Bern Elliott – of which the inspirational ‘Rejected’ is a long-cherished favourite. ‘Is This Your Way’, flipside of a vibrant ‘California Dreamin’, is also commanding, rendered in soul-fired style.
Additionally, there are brand new compositions recorded as The Bexley Brothers. They successfully reinterpret outstanding ’67 Pretties’ album cut ‘The Sun’ and with Povey’s ‘It’s No Disgrace’ and Waller’s ‘It Takes A Lot’ (featuring Dick Taylor on guitar) and ‘Life’s Highway’, produce remarkably poignant moments that invoke the spectre of the Pretties circa Parachute.
A vintage radio session, and a battered ’63 acetate containing wild takes of ‘Mashed Potatoes’ and ‘Do You Love Me?’ all add to the thrill.
Lenny Helsing