by Imogen Reed
Brought together in 1966, the Incredible String Band were pioneers of psychedelic folk, a strange and wonderful mix of folk and acid drenched rock music. Psychedelic folk is largely thought of as an acoustic medium - but it incorporates many of the trance atmospheres of its rock counterpart.
Incredible String Band (also abbreviated to ISB) were formed in Scotland. Bringing together the musicians Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer, they initially began in Caledonian Folk Clubs playing alongside other noted acts such as the late and very sadly missed Bert Jansch.
They became a trio, with the addition of Mike Heron and recorded their first eponymously titled album “The Incredible String Band” in the same year. The album was a showcase for the trio to demonstrate their abilities on various instruments, and showed glimpses of their inimitable psychedelic style developing.
1967 – The Year of The Onion
By 1967, Incredible String Band were back to performing as a duo (Robin Williamson and Mike Heron) and recording began on what is considered to be their greatest psychedelic work, “The 5000 Layers Of The Onion”.
The album is a melding of the duo’s experience of Indian/Arabic culture and heavily featuring a sitar player by the name of “Soma”, later to be revealed as Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy (1927-2009) who was a Professor of the Folk and Classical Music of South Asia at the University of California, Los Angeles.
It’s notable also for featuring one time Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, here on double bass duties, and also Williamson’s then girlfriend Licorice McKechnie on vocals and percussion.
Released during “The Summer of Love” a hippy festival of music, free love and drugs, the album features thirteen songs of complete intensity - starting with the chilled out vibe of “Chinese White” and ending with the rousing and stirring anthem “Way Back In The 60s” which provides a sort of skewed take on the vibe at the time.
Interestingly enough, and in a somewhat strange juxtaposition, Robin Williamson is alleged to have said he “never approved of drugs” - the likelihood of him therefore needing substance abuse programs to help himself is therefore pretty remote. In between are tracks of varying rhythm and pace (and style). There is an out and out psychedelic blues influence on “The Mad Hatter’s Song”:
With a delightful piano interlude melded together with the plaintive vocal and unusual sitar style, making for a very strange, but ultimately very listenable track.
This is also apparent on “Blues For The Muse” which combines piano, harmonica and sitar together for sublime effect - the vocal on this track is very reminiscent of early Rolling Stones, yet still retaining a Robin Williamson’s beautiful Celtic leaning.
Still within all this there are leanings towards other artists, in particular the sublime song “The First Girl I Loved”:
The vocal on this sounds distinctly Bob Dylan in style - with lyrics to match. It also has an edge of Nick Drake plaintiveness in the guitar sound which sits somewhat askew from the rest of the album but yet seems to still fit in with the overall style of the band.
One other notable song is “My Name Is Death”, again very folksy in style - a simple, paired down rendition with a very simple guitar part and complex vocal performance that almost sounds mediaeval in its core.
Commercial and Critical Acclaim
The album was indeed named by Paul McCartney as his favourite album of the year in 1967, McCartney himself was at this stage (and the rest of The Beatles) were at this time becoming more and more influenced by the sounds and culture of the Maharishi.
It also managed to top the folk chart in the same year, marking their true arrival as both folk artistes and fully fledged members of the psychedelic movement too. The band and album were also given considerable gravitas when the Radio DJ John Peel promoted it heavily on his radio show. Peel was, at the time working on Radio London - a pirate radio station.
He had his own show that went by the title of “Perfumed Garden” and on it, as became his standard method of practice, he promoted new, unusual or 'left field' artists who he felt just wouldn’t get the acclaim they deserved. Incredible String Band fitted his brief perfectly and he wasted no time in giving “The 5000 Layers Of The Onion” a good deal of airplay.
The album now …
It’s fair to say it has stood the test of time, and this is in part due to the fact than rather than being totally psychedelic in it’s composition it successfully melds other musical genres into it’s rhythms and patterns, thereby rendering it pretty much timeless.
It is obvious where its musical roots are - it’s feet are firmly planted in 1960s culture and lore; just one look at the album cover can tell you that - with its trippy multicoloured swatch of swirly design and freeform patterns.
However, there is something deeply modern about it now that genuinely wouldn’t be out of place in the current charts. Even back in the 1990s British bands like Kula Shaker were obviously heavily influenced by music such as this.
They weren’t as well known as they could have been, but this is all the more reason for fans of this genre to seek them out and give them a try. Peel back the 5000 layers of that Onion. You may well be very pleasantly surprised by what you find …