The Incredible String Band were formed in 1965 when Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer, who had been playing as a duo around the Scottish folk club scene, were joined by Mike Heron. The ISB became resident performers at Clive(Palmer)'s Incredible Folk Club in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, were signed by Elektra Records' Joe Boyd, recorded an eponymous album consisting mostly of original songs by Heron and Williamson, and then broke up. Later in 1966 Heron and Williamson re-united and began to perform under the ISB name, with Joe Boyd as manager and producer. In July 1967 they released The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, the LP which made their name with a wider public and caused some critics to compare them to the Beatles.
In 1968 further acclaim followed with the albums The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (their biggest commercial success) and Wee Tam and the Big Huge. The ISB were now highly regarded by critics and audiences both in Britain and the USA, although their highly original form of acoustic music was far from the rock mainstream. They were the only British "underground" group to win a sizeable following in the US, and toured widely, performing in concert halls and open-air festivals, notably Woodstock in 1969 - although this is not remembered as one of their finest performances (and consequently was left out of the film made of the event). This phase of their career ended in 1970, with the "surreal pantomime in song and dance", U, which received a negative critical response and was the first significant setback they had experienced.
Then, at the end of 1970, Joe Boyd decided to cease managing the ISB and the other artists in his Witchseason Productions stable. He returned to the USA and the ISB moved from Elektra to Island, where they gradually moved from their earlier folk-based style to a more conventional rock group line-up, issuing five albums, as well as solo albums from both Heron and Williamson, before breaking up in 1974. Due to their exuberant live performances the ISB retained a loyal following during this period, but they were no longer highly regarded by critics and their records did not sell as well as their Elektra work.
After 1974 both Williamson and Heron pursued solo careers. Robin Williamson moved to California and formed the Merry Band, with a more traditional, "Celtic" style than the ISB. When they split up, he continued as a prolific solo performer, releasing many albums of traditional songs and stories as well as new material. Heron moved into rock music, with his bands Mike Heron's Reputation and Heron, became active as a songwriter for other artists and released occasional solo albums.
The ISB were out of fashion and the band members out of the public eye for much of the 1980s. A revival of interest in their work in the 1990s led to Williamson and Heron agreeing to get back together for two concerts in 1997. The positive response to these prompted a full-scale reunion of the original trio of Williamson, Heron and Palmer in 1999. They performed together for four years, playing mostly material from the early albums and not adding much to the existing ISB canon, before Williamson, eager to return to his own projects, left in 2003. An ISB led by Heron continued to tour and record but finally split up in 2006.
Links to Peel
The lifespan of the "original" ISB, from 1966-1974, coincides with the rise and fall of the hippy movement with which they, and Peel, were frequently identified. (In his 1974 end-of-year review in The Listener he expressed regret that they had broken up.) They rank among the artists who have done the most sessions for his shows, although after 1970 he seldom played tracks from their later LPs for Island Records. However, in the mid-70s Mike Heron's bands Reputation and Heron both did sessions for Peel's shows and JP also played tracks from the first two albums by Robin Williamson's Merry Band (Journey's Edge and American Stonehenge).
The first ISB record Peel played on his Perfumed Garden show on Radio London was "Chinese White", issued by Elektra in June 1967 as one side of a limited-issue single serving as a taster for the forthcoming LP. He was impressed enough by the album (The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion) to play all of side one on one night (18 July 1967) and all of side two the following night (19 July 1967). From then on the LP was a regular feature of the PG playlist, and the ISB were among his favourite artists.
The Night Ride programmes were originally intended to focus on acoustic music, in contrast to the pop and rock orientation of Top Gear. The ISB, by early 1968 the leading figures in the "folk avant-garde" as it was then known, were therefore a natural choice as session guests for the first Peel Night Ride on 6 March. This was just before the release of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, about which Peel enthused in his International Times column. Their first Night Ride session was the only one ever to be repeated on a later edition of the programme.
During his Radio London and early BBC career Peel favoured many acoustic and folk-based artists, from Donovan, Pentangle and Leonard Cohen to his own discoveries Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bridget St. John and Principal Edwards Magic Theatre. (Because the early ISB were an acoustic duo they were sometimes confused with the pre-electric Tyrannosaurus Rex.) However few of these would appear in his playlists in later years, and none were invited to do sessions - whereas the ISB did a Peel session in 2000. On the show of 10 October 2000 JP mentions attending a concert at the Royal Festival Hall at which the ISB had played, alongside The Delgados and Clearlake - "a stupendous night for all".
In the book Be Glad: An Incredible String Band Compendium, a piece describing the search for the then long lost ISB film Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending states: The negatives had then passed in turn to a film archive near Heathrow Airport, which is where I finally found them; the Be Glad reels had only just been identified and catalogued. There was one extra tin marked 'Prologue', which raised hopes that we'd found the long-rumoured out-take of 'A Very Cellular Song'; when we ran through it at Peter's Screen Ventures, it turned out to be nothing more exciting than a couple of minutes of John Peel 'explaining' the ISB appeal!
Festive Fifty Entries
12 sessions for Peel, the band also recorded a number of other BBC Radio One sessions for Stuart Henry, Pete Drummond and Bob Harris' shows. A selection of ISB session material from 1969 to 1974 is available on the 2 CD set Across The Airwaves on Hux Records (HUX087). A previous, now deleted CD, 'On Air' on Band Of Joy (BOJCD004) includes a slightly different selection of session tracks.
1. Recorded: 1967-10-10. First broadcast: 15 October 1967.
- Painting Box / Mercy I Cry City / Chinese White / Nightfall
This early Top Gear programme was actually hosted by Pete Drummond and Tommy Vance rather than John Peel, although it is likely that producer Bernie Andrews booked the ISB on Peel's recommendation.
- You Get Brighter / All Too Much For Me / Ducks On A Pond / I Bid You Goodnight / Won't You Come See Me
3. Recorded: 1969-02-05. Broadcast: 05 March 1969.
- All Writ Down / Dust Be Diamonds / Theta / Fine Fingered Hands
This complete session is available on the 2 CD set Across The Airwaves on Hux Records (HUX087), although Fine Fingered Hands is taken from an off air source as it no longer exists in the BBC archives.
- The Letter / This Moment (also repeated on 27 December 1969) / Gather Round / Waiting For You / Black Jack Davy
- Won't You Come See Me / Empty Pocket Blues / Flowers Of The Forest / Beautiful Stranger / Dark-Eyed Lady
According to both of Ken Garner's books ('In Session Tonight' and 'The Peel Sessions: A Story Of Teenage Dreams And One Man's Love Of New Music') Dark Eyed Lady was added when the session was repeated on 03 October 1970. However, the memories of members of the ISB Yahoo Group suggest it was part of the original broadcast on 25 July 1970. Empty Pocket Blues, Beautiful Stranger and Won't You Come See Me are available on the 2 CD set Across The Airwaves on Hux Records (HUX087), although Empty Pocket Blues is an off-air recording as it no longer exists in the BBC archives.
- Everything's Fine Right Now / Long Long Road / The Circle Is Unbroken / Raga Puti Raga
Long Long Road is available on the 2 CD set Across The Airwaves on Hux Records (HUX087).
- You Get Brighter / Jigs (The Bird That Lives On Rain / Yellow Flames Of Whin / Jenny In The Mosshouse / Drunken Black Winter) / How We Danced The Lord Of Weir /The Actor
- Oh Did I Love A Dream / Restless Night / Down Before Cathay / Secret Temple
Secret Temple was not broadcast at the time but was included on a BBC Transcription Disc LP, 'Top Of The Pops No. 836' (catalogue number 130057, expiry date 30.3.73), for overseas radio station use. This LP includes introductions by DJ Alan Black, and as well as Secret Temple features an edited version of Restless Night and additional tracks by the Hollies, Argent, Olivia Newton John and Deep Purple. Secret Temple is available on the 2 CD set Across The Airwaves on Hux Records (HUX087).
- Black Jack David / Rends-Moi Demain / Oh Did I Love A Dream / Hangman's Medley (Witches Hat / Koeeoaddi There / A Very Cellular Song)
This complete session was available on the deleted CD On Air on Band Of Joy (BOJCD004). All but Black Jack David are available on the 2 CD set Across The Airwaves on Hux Records (HUX087).
- Raga Tune / At The Lighthouse Dance / Saturday Maybe / Maker Of Islands
- Dreams Of No Return / Black Jack David / Jane / Dear Old Battlefield
All but Black Jack David are available on the 2 CD set Across The Airwaves on Hux Records (HUX087).
12. Recorded: 2000-08-01. First broadcast: 23 November 2000. Never repeated.
- Maker Of Islands / October Song / You Know What You Could Be / Waltz Of The New Moon / Big City Blues
This wasn't a traditional session per se but a rough mix of songs recorded at the band's reunion concerts at London's Bloomsbury Theatre on the 17th and 18th of August 2000. Remixed versions of these, along with other songs from the two shows were included on the CD Bloomsbury 2000 on Pigs Whisker Music (PWMD5024).
- Bright Morning Stars
- Worlds They Rise And Fall
- Jigs - Sunday Is My Wedding Day/Drops Of Whiskey/Grumbling Old Men/Eyes Like Leaves
- Spirit Beautiful
- Willow Pattern
- Cosmic Boy
- Turquoise Blue
- Whistle Tune
- Darling Belle
- Adam And Eve
- You've Been A Friend To Me
Most of this live set is available on the 2 CD set Across The Airwaves on Hux Records (HUX087), previously available on the 'BBC Radio One Live In Concert' CD on Windsong (WINCD 029). The Jigs, Cosmic Boy, Adam And Eve and Peel's between song introductions are missing from both releases. The band recorded two further 'In Concert' shows, from the Paris Theatre on 23 November 1972 (broadcast 9 December 1972) and from the Golders Green Hippodrome on 17 May 1974 (broadcast 1 June 1974), though these were introduced by Pete Drummond rather than Peel. Tracks from the 1972 set are also included on both the 'Across The Airwaves' and 'BBC Radio One Live In Concert' CDs, whilst tracks from the final 1974 set are included on both 'Across The Airwaves' and the deleted 'On Air' CD on Band Of Joy (BOJCD004).
Other Shows Played
The listing below has been compiled only from the database of this site and from Lorcan's Tracklistings Archive and is incomplete, due especially to the relatively rarity of show tracklistings from the late 60s and early 70s, when the band were at their peak and doing regular sessions for Peel.
- 18 July 1967: (Side 1, 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, Elektra Records) JP: And we have a brand-new LP that I got today in the mail, and it is by the Incredible String Band... And this new LP has got a glorious cover, fantastic, by Simon [Posthuma] and Marijke [Koger], however it’s pronounced, which is very well worth getting just for the cover, actually. And we’ll be listening to six of the tracks from it tonight and the other six tomorrow night – well, actually, seven on the second side.
- Chinese White
- No Sleep Blues
- Painting Box
- The Mad Hatter's Song
- Little Cloud
- The Eyes of Fate
- 19 July 1967 (Side 2, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion)
- Blues for the Muse - Peel, " From the LP The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion...A very good title...it has some significance that has eluded me"
- The Hedgehog's Song- song dedicated by JP to his friend, the club DJ Jeff Dexter, " a very good person, actually..."
- First Girl I Loved - track has been edited on available recording; JP's praise for the song leads him into a dreamy personal reminiscence of his own first love, but he gets embarrassed and moves quickly on to the next track
- You Know What You Could Be
- My Name Is Death
- Gently Tender
- Way Back in the 1960s
- 22 July 1967: The Mad Hatter's Song (LP: The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion) Elektra
- 06 August 1967: Little Cloud (LP: The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion) Elektra
- 14 August 1967 (last night of Perfumed Garden): The Mad Hatter's Song (LP - The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion) Elektra
- 03 November 1968: Cousin Caterpillar (LP - Wee Tam and the Big Huge) Elektra
- 24 November 1968: The Yellow Snake (LPs: Wee Tam and the Big Huge) Elektra
- 18 October 1969: Big Ted (single)
- 25 October 1969: Big Ted (single)
- 08 November 1969: Big Ted (single)
- 22 November 1969: Sleepers, Awake (LP – Changing Horses) Elektra
- 20 December 1969: Dust Be Diamonds (LP - Changing Horses) Elektra
- 27 December 1969: This Moment (session track repeated on end-of year "special" Top Gear)
- 18 April 1970: This Moment (single)
- 23 May 1970: This Moment (LP – I Looked Up) Elektra
- 06 June 1970: Black Jack Davy (LP - I Looked Up) Elektra
- 31 October 1970: The Puppet Song (LP – U) Elektra
- 15 December 1976: Puppies (LPs: Seasons They Change) Island (JP: "it makes an old hippie like myself feel very nostalgic indeed...")
- 17 July 1982 (Peel's Pleasures): The Half-Remarkable Question (LP-Wee Tam And The Big Huge) (Elektra)
- 08 December 1990: Worlds They Rise and Fall (LP - Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air) Island
- 18 June 1994: When The Music Starts To Play (CD - The Hannibal Sampler) Hannibal
- 23 June 1998: Mercy I Cry City (LP - The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter) Elektra
- 01 July 1998 (BFBS): 'Swift As The Wind (LP-The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter)' (Elektra)
- 22 July 1998: Greatest Friend (LP - Wee Tam & The Big Huge) Elektra
- 15 September 1998: Swift As The Wind (LP - The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter) Elektra
- 08 October 1998: unknown
- 12 August 1999: You Get Brighter (LP - Wee Tam & The Big Huge) Elektra
- 18 April 2000: Worlds They Rise and Fall (LP - Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air) Island
- Radio Radio: You Get Brighter (JP's introduction to session track from first Night Ride followed by opening verse of LP version)