When I was 15, my parents gave me a reel to reel tape recorder. It was brilliant. For the first time I could record music from the radio. Not only that, I could spend hours cataloguing everything that I had on tape. I had some amazing stuff. For example, an interview with Lou Reed where he talked in detail about every song on The Velvet Underground’s third record. Also, a great interview with Jackson Browne talking about his first record. This tape recorder allowed me to record “Down By The Borderline” by Tim Buckley, the best song on the second best record of all time (“Starsailor”). To add to the wonder and mystery of this tape recorder, when it got hot the speed would vary. This meant that when listening to a recording, I would sometimes have to wait an hour to let it cool down. It also meant that sometimes I would record something wonderful only for it to be unlistenable on playback because the machine had been hot when recording. I later moved on to a cassette recorder which made excellent recordings in the right channel and hissy recordings in the left channel. Oh well. They don’t make ’em like that any more. Thank goodness.
I never really got an opportunity to listen to much of The Incredible String Band. Years after their heyday, Rob gave me recordings of “Wee Tam” and “The Big Huge” which was a double record which you could buy as single records. To this day, “Wee Tam” remains my second favourite Incredible String Band album. But my favourite is this because in 1971 I made a recording on my (literally) cool reel to reel tape recorder of an “In Concert” session where the first 8 songs on this CD were performed. I played it quite a lot and came to love it. Some time after I went to Royal Holloway in 1972, the reel to reel recorder finally stopped and my recording got lost. Last year I found a second hand copy of this concert on Ebay and I was reunited with these magnificent performances. There seem to be a number of different CDs out there which contain these songs. There are cheaper and more comprehensive compilations but these first 8 songs are the ones I put on that lovely tape recorder.
“Bright Morning Stars” opens the set and is sung acapella by all four members of the band: Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, Malcolm Le Maister and Licorice McKechnie. It’s a great first song “Bright morning stars are rising. Day is breaking in my soul” and then straight into “Worlds They Rise And Fall” without a break. The performances are full of heartfelt emotion. You might argue that the vocals are not pure, the playing is not always in tune or played perfectly but there is no denying the powerful impact of listening to this wonderfully eccentric group. I would be more than happy to engage anyone in a discussion about the long line of British eccentrics in music and I would include Robin Williamson, Vivian Stanshall, Kate Bush and Ivor Cutler in this list.
“Spirit Beautiful” is the third song and Christine ‘Licorice’ McKechnie delivers some great harmony. Wikipedia reports that her whereabouts have been publicly unknown since 1987, when she was last seen hitch-hiking across the Arizona desert. At the end of the song the tempo increases to a ridiculously fast speed and repeats and repeats and repeats before it stops abruptly and messily.
“This song we’re going to do now is actually called “Willow Pattern” and you’ve probably all seen willow pattern plates. Well this is a song we made up to tell the story of willow pattern plates. It’s kind of an English-Chinese song.” This has to be the most ridiculous and funny song you could possibly hear. I guess a lot of people will hate it but it always makes me laugh as well as appreciating its beauty. An instrumental passage starts with a very screechy violin and some incomprehensible lyrics before the chorus. The only way I can describe the chorus is imagine a Scottish man and woman doing a terrible impersonation of a Chinese man making sounds like “Hor hyow. Hor hyow. Hor hyow. Hor”. After two verses the music slows and more screechy violin and flute plays before leading into a different melody sung by Licorice. Her voice is so high pitched, it’s hard to believe this was sung live and not speeded up in a studio. Then another stop and this: “Her father the emperor has denied their right to marry!” Then imagine an absurd impersonation of people talking Chinese as the whole group chants “Nyaaaah!” The audience is either so embarrassed or impressed that spontaneous laughter erupts. “The lovers seek to escape along their secret way over the willow bridge. Hyyyyy-yow! Hyyy-yow? A spy has betrayed them. They are pursued by the Palace guard. Hyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Harrrrr-i-yow!! Before their cruel spears can pierce their innocent flesh”. A flute starts playing, a violin plays and then Licorice and Robin Williamson sing in wonderful harmony.” Yes, I know this looks crazy. I love it.
“Turquoise Blue” follows and it is much more conventional. It’s utterly beautiful although not necessarily very tuneful. Track 6 is an instrumental called “Whistle Tune” and it’s delightful.
“Darling Belle” is one of my favourite all time songs by anybody and I much prefer this live version to the one that appeared on their 1971 record “Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air”. Robin Williamson introduces it by saying that he had a dream where he was witness to a conversation. It’s a majestic song and tells the story of a young man who went to school, fell in love and was killed in the First World War. It’s in several musically diverse sections. In the second verse, his father comes home and says “James I suppose would be in school?” James replies “I was. I was. Learning to spell and laughing at loud smells, avoiding the rod of the cod faced master”. He has already met his lover to be. Her father asks “Belle, did you meet him at the ball? 18 years old, tall soldier now.” In a much quieter passage, she recalls him “kissing me, you lifted my skirt under the willow tree.” This leads into a jauntier section before ‘James’ sings “Keep The Home Fires Burning” with Mike Heron and Robin Williamson harmonising as only they can. ‘Belle’ sings “Did I see you march to the train?’ ‘James’ replies “My two day bride. Can you feel me in your memory? How could I write my words would seem sad.” And then spoken “We regret to inform you” as a harmonica plays “Keep The Home Fires Burning” slowly and sadly. ‘James’ has died. ‘Belle’ and the ghost of ‘James’ sing “meet me by gaslight in dark dawn on Waterloo bridge we will walk arm in arm…when we are dead”. A church organ plays as Robin, Mike and Licorice take it in turns to speak “Now she sits in her brothers widows house/Her skin like a lizard/Her aura like a daffodil” before the deeply emotional denouement “She stares into the embers and remembers.”
49 years later, I stare into this screen and remember with tears in my eyes.