Wednesday, 23 July 2014



Ken Russell’s 1988 movie explodes Bram Stoker’s 
‘THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM’ into gore, splatter, 
nudity, sensationalism, and massive phallic allusions. 
Dublin-born Stoker also created one of the twentieth-century’s 
most persistent mythologies in his earlier novel ‘DRACULA’
In this exploration Andrew Darlington suggests that both 
works were born out of Stoker’s perverse and repressed 
sexual problems – and that this time Ken Russell’s 
visual overkill has perhaps got it more to rights!

 ‘…an affair of ghastly mystery which has no bottom and no end – 
 with forces of the most unnerving kind, which had their origins 
 in an age when the world was different from the world which 
 we know. We are going back to the origin of superstition – 
 to an age when dragons tore each other in their slime. 
We must fear nothing – no conclusion, however 
 improbable, almost impossible it may be…’ 
 (Bram Stoker, ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’, 1911) 

Ken Russell’s ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’ (1988) is a movie, DVD, download. It is gore, splatter, nudity, sensationalism, and massive phallic allusion. All the things Russell is most reviled for camping into absurdity. Yet perhaps this time he’s got it more to rights. The screenplay is drawn from Bram Stoker’s last novel of the weird, written the year before his death, and fourteen years after he’d published his most enduring fantasy – ‘Dracula’ (1897). And it’s these two novels in particular that Stoker’s biographer (and great-nephew) Daniel Farson singles out as evidence of a twisted sexual symbolism wriggling through his work, fetishisms of which Stoker himself was unaware.

The writer’s wife – Florence, was frigid. And he died of Locomotor Ataxia, one of the tertiary stages of syphilis. To Farson, these facts suggest a haunting guilt complex derived from pathologically suppressed desires, an attraction/repulsion duality in Stoker’s attitudes to his own natural, but frustrated libidinous urges. A disturbing inner conflict charged with perverted erotic potential, all wrapped up in a swirling cloak of suffocating Victorian morality…

Draw your own conclusions.

The theory is reinforced by the disclosure that Stoker was an ardent advocate of press censorship, externalising his own struggle to screw down those instincts within himself he found ‘both thrilling and repulsive’. He wrote revealingly (in ‘The Nineteenth Century’ magazine, 1908) that ‘the only emotions which in the long run harm, are those arising from sex impulses.’ Therefore, it could be argued that the porn-lite content that Ken Russell explodes into visually garish flash-frames is merely a libidinous content which Stoker himself circles warily, but is nevertheless there, investing the prose with its intense subliminal lure, its forbiddingly dark undercurrents. But if the worm of the title is a huge white rippling amputated penis of primal power, and if vampirism in an exercise in S/M sado-erotic power-play, then the writing itself seldom admits to more than veiled suggestions.

Lady Arabella of Diana’s Grove, asquat the bottomless shaft of the worm is ‘clad in some kind of soft white stuff, which clung close to her form, showing to the full every movement of her sinuous figure.’ Hardly torrid stuff. Yet shrieking for its expression. So that when Lady Arabella – who is herself the shape-changing worm, muses ‘she must lure him to the White Worm’s hole’ there’s perhaps more than just an unconscious Freudian double entendre there? Even Freud himself concurs, opining that a ‘morbid dream always signifies repressed desire.’

The duality is more vividly displayed in ‘Dracula’ when Stoker’s protagonist, Jonathan Harker, is assailed by three female vampires, and he experiences ‘some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips… there was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive.’ Compare that passage to one from ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’ in which Arabella ‘tore off her clothes with feverish fingers and in full enjoyment of her natural freedom, stretching her slim figure in animal delight. Then she lay down on the sofa – to await her victim.’ In both cases the male target of female sexuality is not lover – but victim! The image of woman is as a strange and terrible predator, and to submit to the desires they enflame is to invite destruction. Sex is deadlier than AIDS.

Just as he drew on earlier sources for Dracula, Stoker was also using an already familiar theme when he created ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’. In the novel he charts its derivation, ‘in the dawn of the language, the word ‘worm’ had a somewhat different meaning from that in use today. It was an adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Wyrm’ meaning a dragon or snake; or from the Gothic ‘Waurms’, a serpent; or the Icelandic ‘Ormur’, or the German ‘wurm’…’ He goes on to quote Indian legend. While other references can be traced back through Oroubus, the Lambton worm, the Spindleston Hough and Whitby worms, and forward to Robert E Howard’s powerful antediluvian fantasy “The Valley Of The Worm” (in ‘Weird Tales’, February 1934). Hence Stoker worked within, and contributed to, myth-symbols of the universal shared unconscious. And if his sexual hang-ups give these Jungian archetypes their power, then the success of those images must relate to the kinks in us all…

Bram Stoker

Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker was born on 8 November 1847 in Clontarf, north of Dublin Bay, the third of a brood of seven children sired by a low-paid government clerk. He was a sickly kid who conquered his early weakness to become a flamboyant red-bearded giant of a man, a fine all-round athlete who poet Walt Whitman was moved to describe as ‘a breath of good healthy breezy sea air.’ He graduated from Dublin University and drifted, for want of a clear alternative, into his father’s lifestyle. He rose to the post of Registrar of Petty Sessions in the Chief Secretary’s Office in the Dublin Castle civil service, where he was restless and bored, expending his voracious energies into spare-time projects. He became unpaid theatre critic, and edited a new Dublin newspaper. He also served a literary apprenticeship by churning out a series of pulp ‘cliff-hangers’. His release from frustrating government service didn’t come until 1878. In that year he married Florence Balcombe – whose previous admirers had included Oscar Wilde, and simultaneously he quit job, pension – and the dreary Dublin of George Bernard Shaw and Wilde for the wider horizons of London.

He joined tragedian Henry Irving – the Larry Olivier of his day, as the actor-manager’s deputy, business and touring manager. Their unique association lasted until the actor’s death in 1905, a period retrospected by Stoker’s worms-eye view ‘Reminiscences Of Henry Irving’ (1906). Despite the birth of one son (Noel), sexual relations with Florence didn’t survive far into a marriage that rapidly devolved into a mere formal domestic arrangement. Stoker’s passions were instead entirely devoted to promoting a client he saw through the eyes of near hero-worship. He even confessed to becoming hysterically overcome by the intensity of Irving’s rendition of Thomas Hood’s tragic poem “The Dream Of Eugene Aram”, and he jealously guarded the exclusivity of their relationship. Yet through the Pop star period of Irving’s peak years (with the legendary Ellen Terry) at the Lyceum Theatre, the genial Stoker – who managed productions and international tours, also found time to produce eleven novels! His themes spread across a wide spectrum, from children’s stories and highly sentimental romances to the archetypal Gothic horror classics he’s remembered for – if only through Late Night TV Horror reruns.

‘Dracula’ appeared in 1897, Irving disloyally trashing the novel as simply ‘dreadful’. Stoker claimed he wrote it after an indigestion overdose from eating a surfeit of crab. Others have interpreted it as a novel about the fear of syphilis. Once bitten – forever smitten! It’s also about sexual dominance and submission. ‘A summary of the book’ declared ‘The Bookman’ ‘would shock and disgust.’ ‘It is horrid and creepy to the last degree’ agreed ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’. Whatever – it hit a vein in the dark side of the collective psyche that’s been transfused into the mainstream of twentieth-century mythology.

Stoker would have been familiar with pre-existing vampire lore, perhaps even connecting it to the Irish blood-sucking demon known in Gaelic as ‘Dearg-dul’ or ‘Dragdul’. And he’d have read vampirism’s literary antecedents, in particular “The Vampyre” (1819), a short story concerning the menacing Lord Ruthven. Originally the tale was attributed to Lord Byron, a view later revised. It’s now thought to be based on Byron’s foppishly enigmatic persona, but written by his friend and ‘personal physician’ Dr John Polidori. Polidori hatched the idea at the famous ghost-story session of 1816 at Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva. An event later to be filmed in full gore, splatter, nudity and sensationalism by Ken Russell as ‘Gothic’ (1986), with a cast of Percy Bysshe Shelley (played by Julian Sands), Mary ‘Shelley’ Wollstencraft (Natasha Richardson, writing her ‘Frankenstein’), Byron (Gabriel Byrne), Polidori (Timothy Spall) and Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr).

Yet there are other literary bloodlines. Stoker probably leeched from an 1847 book ‘Varney The Vampyre’ by Thomas Presket Prest, and Sheridan Le Fanu’s sensual female vampire tale “Carmilla” included in the 1872 collection ‘In A Glass Darkly’. The earlier historical roots of the vampire myth to Prince Vlad Tepes ‘the Impaler’, have been widely documented to death – or undeath, elsewhere, and don’t need re-animation here. What Stoker adds to all this is the compulsive power of obsession, the dark lure of psychosexual fetishism.

After Irving’s death Stoker fought against illness brought on by years of overwork in the theatre, complicated by worries generated by the actor’s financial decline. He didn’t live to see ‘Dracula’s block-busting worldwide book sales in its later years, nor its spectacular progress as a stage play – touring to full houses through the 1920’s with a fanged Hamilton Deane in the title role, or its phenomenal impact as a movie series. And ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’ from 1911, unlike its hypnotic and tightly-plotted predecessor, is a stilted, disjointed, poorly-constructed long drag of prose which arch-fantasist HP Lovecraft dismissed as ‘so bad that many have mistaken it for a burlesque.’

The plot turns on ludicrously wild conclusions drawn from slender to non-existent evidence. And even the crude characterisation is marred by class and vilely offensive racial overtones. The camp titillation of Dracula’s aristo mystique is devolved to the malevolent brooding of the ‘cruel, selfish, saturnine’ Edgar Caswell (who becomes Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton in the film), while his African man-servant Oolanga is vilified as an ‘unreformed unsoftened savage,’ a ‘lost devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp.’ The relentlessly bleak setting is Castra Regis in Mercia. ‘The history of the Castle has no beginning so far as we know. The furthest records or surmises or inferences simply accept it as existing.’ A location not too dissimilar to his more atmospheric description of Dracula’s lair, ‘a vast ruined castle from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.’

The novel plot meanders aimlessly through bird-scaring kites, a snake-killing mongoose, another mongoose (in this way I avoid the necessity of finding the plural for mongoose!), psychic battles of will, a bound chest that once belonged to proto-hypnotist Mesmer… and, of course, the monstrous worm – a unique synthesis of the irrepressible power of the rampant male organ, and a woman of terrifyingly destructive sexuality contained in one single nightmare image. Russell’s screenplay tightens the narrative. Peter Capaldi is Angus Flint, an archaeologist who first excavates the skull of a monstrous worm. Amanda Donohoe becomes Lady Sylvia Marsh of the stately Temple House, sited above caverns in which the supposedly-extinct worm still lurks. And Catherine Oxenberg who is the lovely Eve Trent, kidnapped to be its sacrificial victim.

The marked decline in prose style has been mischievously attributed to Stoker’s use of unacknowledged ghost-writers, to publisher tampering, or just to his collapsing health. He died in London, aged 64 – in 1912. His death certificate tactfully cites the cause as ‘exhaustion’. He never visited the Romanian province of Transylvania, and as far as can be ascertained he remains dead, yet his best work largely stays in print, and his short stories continued to be run in horror pulps – his “The Secret Of Growing Gold” appearing in ‘Famous Fantastic Mysteries’ magazine as late as 1946. His literary powers were limited and remain unrecognised beyond footnotes on the Gothic sub-genre. His genius – if genius in was, lies in his ability to project single images of obsessive compulsion that translate ideally into more visual media.

Bram Stoker in 'Famous Fantastic Mysteries' August 1946

The first Dracula movie came just ten years after Stoker’s death. FW Murnau’s 1922 expressionist gem was retitled ‘Nosferatu’ to sidestep copyright – unsuccessfully, as the widowed Florence Stoker sued, and won! A decade after that, Bela Lugosi took the role to Hollywood – ‘Dracula’ was released by Universal on St Valentine’s Day 1931. Christopher Lee came onto the mist-shrouded cloak-flapping set as late as 1958, cast against Peter Cushing’s ‘Van Helsing’) for Hammer. There are now over two-hundred Dracula films from at least ten countries, and related commercial spin-offs that include comic-spoof send-ups, Porn versions, tourist package trips to the Carpathians… and designer ice-pops.

Vampirism itself has been given a scientific justification in the SF setting of Richard Matheson’s exquisitely chilling ‘I Am Legend’ (1954), filmed three times – first as ‘The Last Man On Earth’ (1964) with Vincent Price, then as ‘The Omega Man’ (1971) with Charlton Heston, and finally as ‘I Am Legend’ (2007) with Will Smith. The ‘Science Of Draculogy’ has been further updated through a series of revisionist vampire fiction from Stephen King (‘Salem’s Lot’, 1975), Ann Rice (‘Interview With A Vampire’, 1976), Chelsea Quinn Yarbo (the ‘Count Saint-Germain’ novel-cycle, from 1978), George RR Martin (‘Fevre Dream’, 1982), Brian Stableford (his alternate history vampire world ‘Empire Of Fear’, 1988), and the teen-franchise ignited by Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ novel-series, from 2005).

But there have been other Stoker movie-isations preceding Ken Russell’s splatter ‘n’ gore foray. ‘The Awakening’ (1980) by Robert Solo again stars Charlton Heston in an involved plot featuring Egyptologist Matthew Corbeck who tinkers with the Mummy of the evil incestuous Queen Kara (played by Susannah York), who is subsequently reincarnated as Corbeck’s daughter. It’s based on Stoker’s 1902 ‘The Jewel Of The Seven Stars’

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ notwithstanding, only the works of equally quirky and equally sexually screwed-up Edgar Allen Poe can have generated such a vast movie legacy. Bram Stoker was never a ‘respectable’ author, always an ‘outsider’ excluded from the literary establishment, but the subsequent video and DVD release of Ken Russell’s brash and flawed movie carries his perverse imaginings over into the 1990’s and beyond. Something few of his more ‘respectable’ literary contemporaries can claim.

‘…let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been. 
 In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, 
 in France, in India, even in the Chersonese; and in China, 
 so far from us in all ways, there even is he, 
and the peoples fear him at this day…’ 
(‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker)


‘DRACULA’ (1897)
‘MISS BETTY’ (1898)
‘THE GATES OF LIFE’ (aka ‘The Man’) (1905)


‘UNDER THE SUNSET’ (1881), eight fairy-tales for children
‘THE BRAM STOKER BEDSIDE COMPANION’ (Taplinger Pub Co, 1973) ten stories including “Dracula’s Guest”, extracted from an unpublished chapter from the ‘Dracula’ novel


‘THE MAN WHO WROTE DRACULA: A BIOGRAPHY OF BRAM STOKER’ by Daniel Farson (Michael Joseph, 1975)
‘THE ESSENTIAL DRACULA’ fully illustrated and annotated edition by Raymond T McNally and Radu Florescu (Mayflower, 1980 USA)

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Retro Music - 'BOBBY VEE: Bouncy Bouncy'


To Jerry Lee Lewis he was one of the three ‘Bobbys’ 
who blanded-out Rock ‘n’ Roll. But no love was 
ever as single-mindedly pure as Bobby Vee’s. 
Are there mitigating circumstances…? 
Buddy Holly & The Crickets maybe…?

ANDREW DARLINGTON weighs the evidence… 

Jerry Lee Lewis knew who was responsible for the bland wave of pretty-boys taking over the late-1950’s music scene in the wake of the demise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He blamed what he called ‘the Bobbys’. That is – Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell… and Bobby Vee. All sweetly romantic soft-Pop singers with the kind of photogenic looks that gifted them fan-mag celebrity without really trying. And yes, you don’t argue with the ‘Killer’. But as with every generalisation, there’s space for mitigating circumstances.

The decline of that first insurrectionary roar of Rock ‘n’ Roll was due to a number of factors. Payola was one, which destroyed the career of Rock’s greatest propagandist, Alan Freed. Elvis was off answering his country’s call, doing G.I. duty. Little Richard had thrown his bling off Sydney bridge and found god. Chuck Berry was in jail for trafficking underage girls across State lines. Jerry Lee himself was under a virtual media ban following revelations about his bigamous marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin. And Buddy Holly was dead.

Yet it was Buddy Holly’s death that kick-started Bobby Vee. A connection he followed through his career. When I saw Bobby Vee at the Wakefield ‘Rooftop Gardens’, in 1989, he was fronting the Crickets. He did the obligatory medley of his own hits, but the evening was very much a tribute to Buddy. The admiration was obviously sincere. Bobby himself was self-effacing and humorously not-too serious about his own back-catalogue. I had not gone expecting to like him. I came away with a grudging respect.

According to Phil Hardy and Dave Laing’s ‘The Encyclopedia Of Rock’ (Panther, 1976), Bobby Vee was both the ‘luckiest and prettiest of a generation of American ‘college boy’ soloists’ who occupied the upper reaches of early-sixties chartdom. Born Robert Thomas Velline in Fargo, North Dakota, on 30 April 1943, his entry into fame came when he and elder brother Bill formed a group called the Shadows who, wearing matching sweaters, deputised for Buddy Holly at ‘The Armory’, Moorhead, Minnesota on 3 February 1959 immediately following that fatal plane-crash en route to the ‘Winter Dance Party’ show there. Bright-eyed baby-faced Bobby took vocals only because he knew the lyrics to their limited six-song set. It worked sufficiently well for the group to self-finance and cut four songs for the local Soma label as a result, 1 July 1959. One of them – Bobby’s own song “Suzie Baby”, stood out and was picked up for local radio-play.

Listen now. It’s easy to see how it drew attention, sung with wistful Holleyesque vocal mannerisms, its eerily thin production, sharp guitar lines over ‘Peggy Sue’ pulse, combine to give it a raw echoey edge. So when producer Tommy ‘Snuff’ Garrett heard the disc, he whisked the group away to Liberty Records, where the track was given national release. And the seventeen-year-old ‘Vee’, as he’d been redubbed, was groomed for solo stardom. Although born in Dallas, Garrett had operated as a radio DJ for KDUB in Lubbock where he first encountered and supported Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Later he did production work for formerly hit-less Johnny Burnette, gifting him the million-selling “Dreamin’”. With experience honing his instinct, he sensed the potential of what he’d found.

Many other artists started out using the Holly template. Tommy Roe’s first signature hit – “Sheila”, is a virtual retread of “Peggy Sue”. Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs had a series of American hit singles styled the Holly way. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones recorded Buddy Holly songs. Joe Meek used his often-inept artists as vehicles to reflect his own Holly-obsession. While Adam Faith adopted his quirky vocal phrasing by imitating Buddy. And it was with a 1:39-minute US cover of Adam’s “What Do You Want” – a UK no.1 in December 1959, that Garrett launched his new signing, exactly replicating the stinging John Barry pizzicato-string arrangement. Although it failed, his revival of the Clovers “Devil Or Angel” charted – a sweet dual-track ballad counterpointed by cooing doo-wop bass-voice, it reached no.6 and became his first certified million-seller. Retaining the Holly influence by stretch-distorting the lyric with a hic-cup ‘will you ever be my-ey-ey-ey-ine?’ The Vee career was off and running, under Garrett’s masterful supervision.

Bobby Vee’s Wikipedia page devotes a disproportionate amount of space to the story that a young Bob Dylan – under the guise of Elston Gunn, briefly played keyboards in Vee’s touring back-up group. Dylan, no stranger to self-mythologising, confirms that this unlikely liaison happened, in his ‘Chronicles, Volume 1’ (2004), but at the time Dylan was a skinny unknown scuffing for whatever work he could score, while Vee was approaching chart stardom. Dylan recalled to ‘New Musical Express’ how ‘I played piano when I was seventeen. I played piano for this Rock ‘n’ Roll singer. His name is Bobby Vee and he’s a big star now, I guess. That was in Fargo, North Dakota. Then we went all around the Midwest. Went to Wisconsin, Iowa, toured around there and then I left, I was with him for about, uh, every night – just about every night, for about a month or two. And then as soon as I left him he got another recording label and then I saw his picture in big picture-magazines and that kind of stuff not too long after that. So that was sort of a disappointment…’ (2 July 1977).

After four American releases, the inanely catchy “Rubber Ball” took off on both sides of the Atlantic in 1960, the girlie-chanting ‘bouncy-bouncy bouncy-bouncy’ becoming annoyingly inescapable. In the UK it found itself involved in a fiercely-contested chart-battle with a rival cover version by Marty Wilde. Taking advantage of his established popularity amplified by access to local TV, Marty charted first at no.26 (21 January 1961), Bobby effortlessly vaulting him by entering higher at no.13 the following week. Then they were closing to 8 and 9 with Bobby ahead, until Vee hit a high of no.3 – beneath Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, as Marty fell away.

I’d just turned thirteen, and my loyalties were divided. Marty Wilde was a familiar hit-making Rocker, and surely it was the patriotic thing to support the British version? Such things still mattered in 1961. But although Bobby’s was the original, both were highly-disposable play-Pop anyway. Fifties novelty-fluff not only bright and bouncy, but bouncy-bouncy. More bounce to the ounce than a female beach volleyball team! Eventually I decided, as Bobby Vee hadn’t actually written the thing (Elvis-writer Aaron Schroeder, with ‘Anne Orlowski’ (Gene Pitney) were responsible), it was merely two equal interpretations of the same song which should stand or fall on their own merits. And in retrospect, both artists seem mildly amused by their relative success with “Rubber Ball”. In Wakefield Bobby explains in an incredulous anecdote how his version had later been adapted into a TV-ad, exclaiming ‘WHAT?... my BOUNCY BOUNCY!!!’ Marty Wilde, performing in Skegness, was equally dismissive, telling how his version of the song was being used by the troops in Afghanistan – played loud as a weapon to terrify the Taliban!

Over the next three years Vee extolled the pleasure and heartache of chaste polite romance in a series of slick custom-made hits that continued with “More Than I Can Say” – opening ‘whoa-whoa-yea-yea’, and written by Crickets Jerry Allison and Sonny Curtis (who also drums on the session). It earned him high-profile TV-slots on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ as well as the ‘Perry Como Show’, Dick Clark, Dinah Shaw and the ‘Saturday Prom’ shows. But it was the lushly-orchestrated beat-ballad “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, with its part-spoken ‘my tears are falling’ lead-in, which first took him to no.1. In the ‘New Musical Express’ it even nudged Elvis’ “His Latest Flame” aside to take top slot on 2 December 1961.

For the studio recordings, Garrett assembled the cream of LA session-players, guitarists Tommy Allsup, jazzer Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts, plus Earl Palmer (drums), Bob Florence (piano) and Clifford Hils (string bass). And it established all the ingredients his image would be constructed from. It was inoffensive to a frequently cringe-worthy degree, but as a Teen Idol singing star, to be offered pure Pop gold in the form of the latest Jerry Goffin-Carole King composition is a gift too wondrous to miss. Who would pass it up? Who can blame him? And for the writing team who’d already created “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, was “Take Good Care Of My Baby” shamelessly contrived to the market-requirements of the time – rhyming ‘and if you should discover, that you don’t really lover-her’? Was it sincerely written as the expression of genuine emotions, or just another made-to-measure product expertly crafted by the Brill Building hit machine? Whatever, its rainbow soda-Pop harmonies have adorned just about every sixties nostalgia CD-compilation ever pressed, from ‘Dreamboats And Petticoats’ to the ‘Heartbeat’ TV spin-off.

Once the winning formula was in place, the team went on feeding him further hits, built around the same template – “How Many Tears”, “Sharing You” and the clip-clop effects of “Walking With My Angel”, plus the self-sacrificing “Run To Him” and “A Forever Kind Of Love” by Goffin with Jerry Keller. Access to such superior material was an essential advantage. Cute melodies wrapped in heart-melting sweeps of plinking strings, sweet ‘n’ true vocals, with golden-voiced girls chiming in their vocal embroidery at strategic points. For “Sharing You” there’s a neat lyrical turn-around in the final verse, bringing it to a close with songwriterly precision. Although he’s sharing her love, in that last verse he pledges she’ll never have to share his. Then – in “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”, although her lies will be caught out by the voyeuristic watchers of the title, in the closer, so will his own lies also be found out.

The exception to his meek nice-guy persona is John D Loudermilk’s song “Stayin’ In” in which ‘I punched my buddy in the nose after lunch’ because ‘he was sayin’ things that were not true about her.’ Now the Dean’s given him detention, while the buddy is out making time with the girl whose dubious honour he’d tried to defend. Due to its perceived juvenile delinquency, American radio was wary of playing the record. It’s sales suffered accordingly. Lessons were learned.

Comfortably targeting white middle-class teen-females, Bobby Vee 45rpm discs epitomised the artless sterility of early-sixties Pop, as lambasted by Jerry Lee’s derision. He was the perfect parentally-approved dream-boyfriend. He’d never pressure you into inappropriate heavy-petting. He’d respect your emotional responses with an almost impossible sensitivity. Even when you ditch him for the rebel in leathers he’ll tearfully wish you well, and keep on loving you. His was the song on the car radio that accompanied every teenage back-seat snog. No love was ever as single-mindedly pure as Bobby Vee’s. In all the ‘Romance-in-picture’ comic-strip weekly magazines such as ‘Mirabelle’, ‘Valentine’ and ‘Roxy’, he was the dishy cover-star of choice. His dreamy fresh-faced pin-up smile adorned the walls wherever factory-girls worked the assembly lines or packing departments. Guys, in general, were less suckered by it all. Bobby was never cool.

Bobby’s records appeared on the London-American label in Britain, where his considerable popularity was nurtured by frequent touring. In 1962 he was here with the Crickets to promote their album together, ‘Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets’ (1962, Liberty) containing “Peggy Sue” and “Well… All Right” plus the Jerry Allison-Sonny Curtis original “When You’re In Love” alongside authentic-sounding takes on other Rock ‘n’ Roll hits, hinting to doubters that his talents had aspects and dimensions deeper than the fan-mags allowed. Here was something guys could respect too. He followed it with ‘I Remember Buddy Holly’ (1963, Liberty) with “Heartbeat”, “Maybe Baby” and “True Love Ways” which largely succeed in being respectful while adding his own flavour to the mix. Even ‘Melody Maker’ concedes that he ‘had, if anyone did, the firmest claim to Holly’s crown’ (March 1974).

There were also guest spots on BBC radio’s Sunday mid-morning Light Programme ‘Easy Beat’, recorded in front of a live studio audience, and TV shows – such as Saturday evening’s ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ (from the 5 January 1963), and in British films. He cameo’s in two big-screen Pop cash-ins, ‘Play It Cool’ (1962) directed by Michael Winner starring Billy Fury and Helen Shapiro (he sings “At A Time Like This”, from the pen of Norrie Paramor and Norman Newell). And ‘Just For Fun’ (1963) concocted by exploitation-supremo Milton Subotsky. Between songs from Freddy Cannon, Joe Brown, the Crickets and Johnny Tillotson, there’s a glimpse of a plot involving kids getting the vote, but you could easily miss it. Bobby sings yet another massive anthemic hit “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” on screen. It became another much-anthologised title, but wait… deconstruct beneath its lushly romantic sheen and there’s a creepy lyrical ‘Every Breath You Take’ subtext about ‘if you put me down for another, I’ll know, believe me, I’ll know’. It was to be his last major UK hit, peaking at no.3 in February 1963, significantly just a rung below the Beatles “Please Please Me”.

To the New Wave of Beat Groups headed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the sweet saccharine blandness of 1960-Pop was very much what they were reacting against. For John Lennon, ‘Run for your life,’ move aside wimp, there’s a new definition of masculinity in town. And Bobby Vee was the old order’s biggest Brylcreem-sculpted bequiffed symbol. Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney retained a precarious popularity, but Bobby Vee, as its most visibly audible face, took the biggest fall. For Lennon, there was no ‘taking good care of my Baby’, instead it was ‘You Can’t Do That’ because ‘catch you with another man, it’s the end, little girl’. But let us not forget that at their first, failed Decca audition of January 1962, the Beatles performed their own, not very convincing version of “Take Good Care Of My Baby”. Sometimes these things come back to haunt even the greatest iconoclasts.

I remember Bobby’s 1964 single “Hickory, Dick And Doc” being played on TV’s Saturday-night ‘Juke Box Jury’ show, it was a minor American hit that peaked at no.52 on the ‘Billboard’ Hot Hundred. In itself it wasn’t a particularly bad record, but in amongst the Beat Boom guitar-storm it seemed vulnerable and totally out-of-time. It got predictably slaughtered by the panel, and overlooked by record-buyers. Overnight he’d gone from Bobby Tomorrow to Bobby Yesterday. He continued to record, even combing his quiff forward into a fringe, but he was fighting a losing battle. The Bubble-Pop “Come Back When You Grow Up” was a solitary triumph when it peaked at no.3 in America in 1967, despite being starved of UK airtime and passing virtually unnoticed here. A tender ‘Lolita’ anticipation of Union Gap’s “Young Girl” about a wide-eyed innocent girl ‘still living in a paper-doll world’, it’s more wistfully considerate than it is suspect. Bobby is still the nice guy. The following year a strange medley of “My Girl/Hey Girl” kept things simmering at no.35.

By 1972 he was living in a luxurious Bel Air estate bankrolled by his teenage vinyl fortune, with his wife and four kids – three boys and a new baby girl. And when he did return to the studio it was under his birth-name, Robert Thomas Velline, to record an LP ‘Nothin’ Like A Sunny Day’ (1972, United Artists) that includes seven of his own compositions, plus a dull new arrangement of “Take Good Care Of My Baby”. Like Neil Sedaka recasting his own “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”, or Ricky Nelson metamorphosing into the Stone Canyon Band, this was intended to cross-over to a more adult-orientated market. Pared back to a country-rock small-group setting with pedal-steel guitar a-slippin’ and a-slidin’. It was critically respected, but commercial response was slight, leaving such future creative ventures open to question. By May 1976 he was bearded, and playing the London ‘Speakeasy’, reliving the hits of his heyday, while inserting new material almost apologetically. Although new records still appeared, there was to be no second chapter to his career. Instead, there was a legacy of hits enough to justify the Golden Oldie tours and Greatest Hits compilations through into the next millennium…

I saw Bobby Vee at the Wakefield ‘Rooftop Gardens’ in 1989. He was fronting the Crickets. I had not gone expecting to like him. I came away with a grudging respect.


September 1959 – “Suzie Baby” c/w “Flyin’ High” (US, Soma 1110, then Liberty 55208) reaches Billboard no.77. ‘B’-side is a group instrumental

April 1960 – “What Do You Want” c/w “My Love Loves Me” (US, Liberty 55234) reaches Billboard no.93

May 1960 – “One Last Kiss” c/w “Laurie” (US, Liberty 55251) reaches Billboard no.112

9 May 1960 – “Devil Or Angel” c/w “Since I Met You Baby” (US, Liberty 55270) reaches Billboard no.6. ‘B’-side, a revival of an Ivory Joe Hunter song, also reaches no.81

1960 – ‘BOBBY VEE SINGS YOUR FAVOURITES’ (Liberty LRP3165) includes “Devil Or Angel”, “Mr Blue”, “Just A Dream”, “Since I Met You Baby”, “It’s All In The Game”, “You Send Me”, “Young Love”, “My Prayer, Sincerely”, “Gone”, “I’m Sorry”, Everyday”

19 January 1961 – “Rubber Ball” c/w “Everyday” (London HLG9255) reaches no.4. US, Liberty 55287, reaches no.6. ‘B’-side is the Buddy Holly song

March 1961 – ‘BOBBY VEE’ (Liberty LRP3181) includes “One Last Kiss”, “Rubber Ball”, “Stayin’ In”, “More Than I Can Say”, “Mr Sandman” and “Poetry In Motion”. Reaches Billboard no.18

13 April 1961 – “More Than I Can Say” c/w “Stayin’ In” (London HLG9316) reaches no.4. In the US “Stayin’ In” Liberty 55296, written by John D Loudermilk, reaches no.33, “More Than I Can Say” reaches no.61

3 August 1961 – “How Many Tears” c/w “Baby Face” (London HLG9389) reaches no.10. US, Liberty 55325, reaches no.63, “Baby Face” reaches no.119

1961 – ‘BOBBY VEE WITH STRINGS AND THINGS’ (Liberty LRP3186) includes “How Many Tears”, “Baby Face” etc

26 October 1961 – “Take Good Care Of My Baby” c/w “Bashful Bob” (London HLG9438) reaches no.3 (Record Retailer), joint no.1 (NME). US, Liberty 55354, reaches no.1

21 December 1961 – “Run To Him” c/w “Walkin’ With My Angel” (London HLG9470) reaches no.6. US, Liberty 55388, reaches no.2, ‘B’-side reaches no.53. In the UK this was first issued on London, then Liberty

8 March 1962 – “Please Don’t Ask About Barbara” c/w “I Can’t Say Goodbye” (Liberty LIB55419) reaches no.29. US, Liberty 55419 reaches no.15, ‘B’-side reaches no.92

24 February 1962 – ‘TAKE GOOD CARE OF MY BABY’ (London HAG2428) includes “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, “Run To Him”, “Walkin’ With My Angel”. Reaches no.7. US Liberty LRP3211

31 March 1962 – ‘HITS OF THE ROCKIN’ FIFTIES’ (London HAG2406) reaches no.20. Issued in the US October 1961 (Liberty LRP3205) with a Rhythm side and a Ballad side. A review says ‘‘Lollipop’ and ‘School Days’ are two musts in this go-go-go Liberty LP’, while his voice is always better-suited to beat-ballads than it is to out-and-out rockers such as ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’. Issued as a two-for-one CD with ‘Strings And Things’ by Beat Goes On BGOCD444

7 June 1962 – “Sharing You” c/w “In My Baby’s Eyes” (Liberty LIB55451) reaches no.10. US, Liberty 55451 reaches no.15

15 September 1962 – “Punish Her” c/w “Someday (When I’m Gone From You)” (US, Liberty 55479) reaches Billboard no.20, ‘B’-side reaches no.99. Not issued as a single in the UK

27 September 1962 – “A Forever Kind Of Love” c/w “Remember Me, Huh?” (Liberty LIB10046) reaches no.13. Recorded in the UK with Norrie Paramor, with the Johnny Mann singers on the ‘B’-side

27 October 1962 – ‘BOBBY VEE MEETS THE CRICKETS’ (Liberty LBY1086) reaches no.2. US, Liberty LRP3228. Includes “Peggy Sue”, “Bo Diddley”, “Someday (When I’m Gone From You)”, “Well… All Right”, “I Gotta Know”, “Lookin’ For Love”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “When You’re In Love”, “Lucille”, “The Girl Of My Best Friend”, “Little Queenie”, “The Girl Can’t Help It”

12 January 1963 – ‘A BOBBY VEE RECORDING SESSION’ (Liberty LBY1084) reaches no.10, US July 1962 (Liberty LRP3232) includes “Please Don’t Ask About Barbara”, “I Can’t Say Goodbye”, “Sharing You” etc

December 1962 – ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM BOBBY VEE’ (US, Liberty3267)

7 February 1963 – “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” c/w “Anonymous Phone Call” (Liberty LIB10069) reaches no.3. US, Liberty 55521 reaches no.3 

4 April 1963 – “Charms” c/w “Bobby Tomorrow” (US, Liberty 55530) reaches Billboard no.13

20 April 1963 – ‘BOBBY VEE’s GOLDEN GREATS’ (Liberty LBY1112) reaches no.10. US, November 1962 (Liberty LRP3245) includes “Suzie Baby”, “Punish Her” etc

20 June 1963 – “Bobby Tomorrow” c/w “Charms” (UK, Liberty LIB55530) reaches no.21

June 1963 – ‘BOBBY VEE MEETS THE VENTURES’ (US, Liberty 3289) includes “Wild Night”, “What Else Is New”, “Walk Right Back”, “This Is Where Friendship Ends”, “Pretty Girls Everywhere”, “Linda Lu”, “If I’m Right Or Wrong”, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”, “Honeycomb”, “Goodnight Irene”, “Caravan”, “Candy Man”

20 July 1963 – “Be True To Yourself” c/w “A Letter From Betty” (US, Liberty 55581) reaches Billboard no.34

1963 – ‘I REMEMBER BUDDY HOLLY’ (US, Liberty LRP3336) includes “That’ll Be The Day”, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, “Peggy Sue”, “True Love Ways”, “It’s So Easy”, “Heartbeat”, “Oh Boy”, “Raining In My Heart”, “Think It Over”, “Maybe Baby”, “Early In The Morning”, “Buddy’s Song”. Reissued on Sunset budget price label as ‘A Tribute To Buddy Holly’ in May 1978. Then as expanded-CD EMI7960572 with ten previously unissued tracks, including material cut at Norman Petty’s Clovis studio, plus a late version of “Well… All Right”, Vee’s final Liberty recording. Informative liner notes by Bob Celi

5 October 1963 – ‘THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES’ (Liberty LIB1139), includes “Go Away Little Girl”, “It Might As Well Rain Until September”, “If She Were My Girl” and “It Couldn’t Happen To A Nicer Guy”. Reaches no.15. US, April 1963 Liberty LRP3285

December 1963 – “Yesterday And You (Armen’s Theme)” c/w “Never Love A Robin” (US, Liberty 55636) reaches Billboard no.55

January 1964 – “Stranger In Your Arms” c/w “1963” (US, Liberty 55654) reaches Billboard no.83

February 1964 – “I’ll Make You Mine” c/w “She’s Sorry” (US, Liberty 55670) reaches Billboard no.52

June 1964 – ‘BOBBY VEE SINGS THE NEW SOUND FROM ENGLAND’ (US, Liberty LRP3352) includes “I’ll Make You Mine”, “Don’t You Believe Them”, “She Loves You”, “I’ll String Along With You”, “Ginger”, “Any Other Girl”, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”, “Suspicion”, “From Me To You”, “You Can’t Lie To A Liar”, “Take A Walk Johnny”. Also the Mersey-style “She’s Sorry”, which he promotes in the UK when it’s issued as a single follow-up to the failed “Hickory Dick And Doc”

May 1964 – “Hickory, Dick And Doc” c/w “I Wish You Were Mine Again” (US, Liberty 55700) reaches Billboard no.63

September 1964 – “Where Is She” c/w “How To Make A Farewell” (US, Liberty 55726) reaches Billboard no.120

December 1965 – “Every Little Bit Hurts” c/w “Pretend You Don’t See Her” (US, Liberty 55751) reaches Billboard no.84

February1965 – “Cross My Heart” c/w “This Is The End” (US, Liberty 55761) reaches Billboard no.99. His final single with Snuff Garrett

May 1965 – “Keep On Trying” c/w “You Won’t Forget Me” (US, Liberty 55790) reaches Billboard no.85. Produced in the UK by George Martin

September 1965 – “Run Like The Devil” c/w “Take A Look Around Me” (US, Liberty 55828) reaches Billboard no.124

November 1965 – “The Story Of My Life” c/w “High Coin” (US, Liberty 55843)

1965 – ‘LIVE! ON TOUR’ (US, Liberty LRP3393) includes a medley of “Take Good Care Of My Baby” and “Run To Him”, plus “Sea Cruise”, “Things”, “It’ll Be Me” and “Every Day I Have To Cry”

February 1966 – “A Girl I Used To Know” c/w “Gone” (US, Liberty 55854) reaches Billboard no.133

July 1966 – “Look At Me Girl” c/w “Save A Love” (US, Liberty 55877) reaches Billboard no.52. Billed as Bobby Vee and The Strangers

July 1966 – ‘LOOK AT ME GIRL’ (Liberty LRP3480, UK LBY1341) ‘NME’ says ‘young veteran Bobby Vee has got himself an American group, the Strangers, which sounds like many British groups do, and used to, sound. Although he gets plenty of vocal support, Bobby proves he’s still a very good soloist, as in such tracks as ‘Sunny’ which builds up well, ‘Sweet Pea’, and the beaty ‘Lil Red Riding Hood’, also includes “Turn-Down Day”, “Summer In The City”, “That’s All In The Past”, plus both sides of the May single “Like You’ve Never Known Before” c/w “Growing Pains” (Liberty 10272) which ‘NME’ says ‘all right – in fact his best in a while. But it’s not too clear-cut and lacks real punch. Sorry, Bob!’

November 1966 – “Here Today” c/w “Before You Go” (US, Liberty 55921) US only single of Brian Wilson’s ‘Pet Sounds’ track

12 August 1967 – “Come Back When You Grow Up” c/w “That’s All In The Past” (later pressings ‘B’-side “Swahili Serenade”) Bobby Vee with the Strangers (US, Liberty55964) reaches Billboard no.3. Produced by Dallas Smith

October 1967 – ‘COME BACK WHEN YOU GROW UP’ (US, Liberty LRP3534) with Robert Velline originals “You’re A Big Girl Now” and “I May Be Back”, plus “A Rose Grew In The Ashes” and “You Can Count On Me

16 December 1967 – “Beautiful People” c/w “I May Be Gone” Bobby Vee with the Strangers (US, Liberty 56009) reaches Billboard no.37. A cover of a song by Kenny O’Dell, ‘NME’ says ‘almost vintage Vee – could click, a bit square maybe, but in with definite chances of a chart return for the nice-guy’

February 1968 – “Maybe Just Today” c/w “You’re A Big Girl Now” (US, Liberty 56014) reaches Billboard no.46

April 1968 – ‘JUST TODAY’ (US, Liberty LRP3554) includes “Beautiful People”, “Maybe Just Today”, “My Girl/Hey Girl” etc

18 May 1968 – “My Girl/Hey Girl” (Medley)” c/w “Just Keep It Up (And See What Happens)” (US, Liberty 56033) reaches Billboard no.35. A fusion of Smokey Robinson with Goffin-King

August 1968 – “Do What You Gotta Do” c/w “Thank You” (US, Liberty 56057) reaches Billboard no.83. Revival of Four Tops hit

December 1968 – “(I’m Into Lookin’ For) Someone To Love Me” c/w “Thank You” (US, Liberty 56080) reaches Billboard no.98

August 1969 – “Let’s Call It A Day Girl” c/w “I’m Gonna Make It Up To You” (US, Liberty 56124) reaches Billboard no.92 Recorded in the UK

1969 – ‘GATES, GRILLS AND RAILINGS’ (US, Liberty LST7612) includes “(I’m Into Lookin’ For) Someone To Love Me” etc. Reissued as a two-for-one CD with ‘Nothin’ Like A Sunny Day’ as BGOCD707

February 1970 – “In And Out Of Love” c/w “Electric Trains And You” (US, Liberty 56149) reaches Billboard no.111

June 1970 – “Woman In My Life” c/w “Obligations’ (Liberty LBF 15370), written by Mike D’Abo with Tony Macaulay, arranged by Al Capps and produced by Snuff Garrett. ‘NME’ says ‘there’s a strong hookline, pretty harmonies throughout, and a pleasant gentle feel’

November 1970 – “Sweet Sweetheart” c/w “Rock And Roll Music And You” (US, Liberty 56208) reaches Billboard no.88. Liberty Records becomes United Artists

1972 – ‘NOTHIN’ LIKE A SUNNY DAY’ as by Robert Thomas Velline (US, United Artists UAS5656) includes “Every Opportunity”, “Captain On The Line”, “Halfway Down The Road”, “Hayes”, “My God And I” (written by John Buck Wilkin), “Going Nowhere”, “Home” (co-written with John Durill), “Here She Comes Again”, “It’s All The Same” plus “Take Good Care Of My Baby (New Version)”

1973 – ‘THE VERY BEST OF BOBBY VEE’ (UK, Sunset SLS50271) Budget label twelve-track compilation

1979 – “Tremble On” c/w “Always Be Each Other’s Best Friend” US, Cognito C010)

19 April 1980 – ‘THE BOBBY VEE SINGLES ALBUM’ (United Artists UAG30253) reaches no.5

April 1991 – ‘BOBBY VEE: THE EP COLLECTION’ (See For Miles SEECD297), with “Bo Diddley”, “Peggy Sue” and “Do You Wanna Dance”, John Bauldie reviews it for ‘Q’ ‘Bobby, alas, was never much of a rocker, but his balladry was always as immaculate as his Brylcreemed quiff’

2008 – ‘THE VERY BEST OF BOBBY VEE’ (EMI, CD) twenty-seven tracks

Monday, 30 June 2014

Poem: "Under Two Moons"


cornering the night TOO FAST 
thru the crash-barrier
4 wheels to the wind

constellations spray like shingle

read this comic-book once
where a man takes a cab
that’s REALLY a disguised
space-craft piloted by a
green Martian
hunting experimental humans,
central-locking slams down caging him
& they launch from the highest loop
of the cloverleaf like a sudden red
insect soaring against the moon’s disc,
the dupe scrabbling at the glass
as the M-way shrinks to a relief map
& continents recede beneath him,
the blackness of deep space
folding in around them as they
motor to the vivisection labs
of Mars Central…

for one long second it’s like
I too have made it up thru
the stratos-fear…

then the windshield shatters

and worlds

Published in:
‘THE MENTOR no.62’ (January 1989 - Australia)
‘AH POOK IS HERE no.3’ (August 1994 - UK)
and the collection:
‘EUROSHIMA MON AMOUR’ Hilltop Press (UK-Oct 2000)

Sunday, 29 June 2014



The Incredible String Band are – occasionally, back together again. 
Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, the first Celtic World Music 
 cum Hippie Psychedelic Phantasmogoria Minstrels re-unite 
 for new concerts, new CD’s, and a new Millennium. 
Andrew Darlington is there to find out why…

“I wear my body like a caravan, 
gipsy rover in a magic land…” 
                   (‘Ducks On A Pond’) 

Let’s imagine it’s the 15th July 1975. A Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft are launched from their respective continents within hours of each other. Two days later they dock and crew-members shake hands in space watched by a world-linked TV audience. Together, American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut look down on the breath-catching swirl of planet beneath them. First they look for their own cities of origin. Their nations. Then they see only Earth. ‘Stargazing at Earth’ sings Mike Heron, ‘what could divide us?’ The song is “Tom And Alexi”. The third one he does this night as part of his temporary quirky quartet, The Incredible Acoustic Band. And here, at Leeds’ ‘Duchess of York’, there’s inevitable elements of the cosmic. After all, Mike was one half of Folk-edelia’s most esoterically revered icons of oddity, two partners-in-rhyme called The Incredible String Band.

Neil Spencer defined the duo as ‘the apotheosis of mystical faerie-folke’, but they wound up getting classified as Folk only because a more adequate genre had yet to be devised. Peel back ‘5000 Spirits And The Layers Of The Onion’ and the Mike Heron you’re seeing this night is no more out of time than any other contemporary Crusty New-Agers. And tonight, shouts for sixties album tracks get an amused ‘you overestimate my memory.’ The old songs remain unsung. Mike Heron is all sharp-nosed grin and ears protruding through hazy fringes of hair. Coils of cloud dance in the spotlight beams. Is that dry ice or dope smoke? – and who cares? ‘We start slow and get better’ says Mike Heron in face-splitting smiles, ‘it takes a little longer as you keep getting a little older…’

‘WAY BACK IN THE 1960’s’ 
 “Peacocks talking of the colour grey…” 

“The First Girl I Loved”... is a song provoking images of heady erotic fumblings to the pubescent proto-hip of 1967, sung in a voice of such eerie strangeness it’s almost surreal. ‘...I never slept with you, but we must have made love a thousand times. We were just young, didn’t have no place to go.’ Visions to enflame the imagination. Celtic angel-headed hipsters, hair of golden flax, in heaving al fresco sex-bouts with darkly haunting pre-Raphaelite girls of lascivious spirit, loving free out among ‘the wide hills and beside many a long water’ clear across Scotland.

A masterpiece, some might claim to be long-neglected… until it came back again. This time on CD, and in new, previously unreleased forms, freshly ‘unearthed’. ‘...When we went down to London after the first album – no, it was actually after ‘Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’” Mike Heron explains to me enthusiastically, but none too sure of his historical accuracy. ‘No, it might have been... or... I’m not sure exactly when it was. But we went into the ‘Sound Techniques’ studio in Chelsea. And the resulting tapes are just us, as we’re coming down with the songs we’ve just written, recording them in the studio for consideration by the producer (Joe Boyd), and for the other members of the band. It’s just like ‘here’s a song I wrote’, and then singing it. And Robin does a spine-shivering “First Girl I Loved”, just weeks after he’d written it. Y’know, it’s totally uncontrived, it hasn’t had time to get contrived or have any arrangements done to it. And it’s a brilliant ‘take’. It comes pure, it’s just completely beautiful. It has Danny Thompson’s bass-playing – which is lovely, but I think for that kind of song it’s amazing to hear it with that purity. These are the things I’m listening to now. The tracks that ‘escaped’. I didn’t even know they existed until now. And they’ve been knocking my socks off!’ (the fourteen tracks were issued as ‘The Chelsea Sessions: 1967’ in 1997 as Pig’s Whisker PWMD5022).

For the sake of historical accuracy those late-discovered tapes must be dated after the first LP – ‘The Incredible String Band’ (Elektra EUK254, June 1966), but just prior to the second – ‘5000 Spirits Or Layers Of The Onion’ (Elektra EUK257, July 1967), psychedelia’s most collectible artefact, navigating a strange cosmos of soundscapes, and dressed in its rainbow-stunning sleeve-art from Simon & Marijke (The Beatles’ ‘Fool’). The Incredible String Band were then a duo from Glasgow. Robin Williamson, tall, blonde and bearded. And Mike Heron, a Pict to Robin’s Celt, darkly energetic, a Rocker at heart, a songwriter by vocation. The third album – ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’ (Elektra EUK258, March 1968), reached no.5 in April 1968, the hugest of seven chart albums that took the Incred’s through into the cult deep-seventies. Albums only available again as the subject of an ambitious re-issue programme. ‘It is odd’ Heron agrees. ‘Y’know, tracks like “Puppies” (on ‘Wee Tam And The Big Huge’, Elektra EKL4036/37, October 1968)… on CD! It’s amazing!’ He chuckles at the sheer absurdity of the concept. ‘It’s odd, ha-ha-ha, very nice though. I’m rather enjoying it.’

In a set of well-outré ‘Select Elektra’ liner notes John Peel once praised their music for providing us ‘with jewellery to scatter in our minds’. Poet Jeff Nuttall acclaimed ‘the Incredible String Band, operating between Folk and Psychedelic Pop, have probably reached the highest level yet achieved by contemporary popular music’ (in ‘Bomb Culture’, Paladin, 1970). A shared mind-set that betrays their appeal. Odd. ‘We were an early source of World Music’ Heron tells me. ‘The Grand Old Men of World Music.’ Folk, but not quite Folk. Psychedelic, but not quite psychedelic either. Celtic, ‘yes, and everything else.’ A bewitched cauldron made of wood and wire, stirring in a phantasmagoria of incidents, ingredients, instruments and inflections. Totally uncategorisable and unlike anything else that existed at the time. Or since.

It’s possible to draw some vague comparisons with the original elfin cosmic-bop of Tyrannosaurus Rex, or the gilded jewelled imagery of Donovan’s ‘A Gift From A Flower To The Garden’ (December 1967). And listen to Syd Barrett’s “Chapter 24” on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ (August 1967). But even these analogies are inadequate, imprecise. Truth to tell there was nothing quite like them. Nothing before. And nothing since. The ISB retain that uniqueness into the early 2000’s. ‘A great thing that’s crept in is the kind of Andy Kershaw Show and similar things that give access to World Music. That’s really why we started in the first place. If that programme had been around then, and if there’d been that interest in, and availability of World Music, we might not have existed. That’s the kind of music we liked. So we played the kind of music we wanted to hear. Hence the Incredible String Band were playing early World Music!’

Mekon Jon Langford once told me that, by definition, any musician living in the world would qualify as playing ‘World Music’ – we all live in the same world.

‘No, sorry’ Mike grins darkly, mischievously. ‘I got a thing from the Musicians Union, and they’ve decided on a definition of World Music. A definition that specifies exactly. They set up a department especially for it. I was thinking of applying for the job actually!’ A sly and devious laugh. ‘But the definition of World Music they’re working with is any music that comes from outside the European Conservatoire kind-of Classical tradition, or the American Rock Music thing. It still seems to be a very loose definition. But certainly by that definition we would qualify…’

Elsewhere, Robin expands ‘we were doing an innocent and naïve version of World Music. It was a case of fools rushing in. Jack Kerouac was the main influence for the writing styles…’

“Birds are arrows of the wise…” 

It had all begun way further back in the 1960’s. Poet Mike Horovitz once commented that The Incredible String Band ‘play mechanic to the… inventors of audibly supersonic spacecraft,’ with ‘the ballads and fairy tales and satires (that)… often reflect virtues picked up from the ‘straight poets’, (‘Children Of Albion’, Penguin 1969 anthology – “Afterwords”). Robin Williamson confirms this in a later interview connecting the Beat poets to Walt Whitman, ‘yeah, and Walt Whitman had a lot to do with William Blake. The visionary, inspired voice is an ancient Celtic idea, going back to bards and druids. The notion was to draw on the inspiration of the universe’ (‘Metro’ 7 February 2005), ‘setting their feet where the sand is untrodden’, asking ‘grant me the tongue that all the earth doth sing.’

And it’s sometime during that autumn 1965 when dark-haired ex-cost accountant Mike Heron first dents the Robin-and-Clive country duo – with the result that Celtic golden-haired Robin on scratchy violin, and banjoist Clive Palmer thus find themselves expanded to a trio. Billy Connelly has been known to regale with entertaining anecdotes about Clive Palmer’s eccentric personal hygiene habits, drawing on their days together on the same Folk circuit. But soon they’re extending their repertoire accordingly to accommodate Heron’s bass guitar and oddities, while beginning to experiment with jug-band and blues music. A strange combination to play in Scottish Folk Clubs.

By the following spring Mike and Robin were writing songs both separately and together, while the group were playing Glasgow’s ‘Sauchiehall Street Incredible Folk Club’ where they encounter Joe Boyd, an itinerant American later to form Osiris Ltd, Witchseason Management, and work with Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and John Martyn. But now, in his incarnation as A&R scout for Jac Holzman’s Elektra label he seizes Mike, Robin and Clive, records them, and the result becomes the June 1966 ‘The Incredible String Band’ album.

It’s an eclectic collection of original songs, traditional violin bits and jaggedy banjo, dour humour and twinkling guitars, elided with a wanton irreverence for the rulebook. Opening with Robin’s scratchy fiddle on Heron’s “Maybe Someday” (‘with my arms around my music…’), leading into Robin’s poetic “October Song” in which fallen leaves ‘know the art of dying’. The alternating credits continue – Robin’s penny-whistle on Mike’s “When The Music Starts To Play” (‘all my life, and it’s been a short one…’) and Robin’s anatomical-paean to “Womankind” – his meandering focus already fully-formed, Clive’s banjo jig and Robin’s Indian Whistle tune. In marketing terms, it’s a PR nightmare, a bizarre manifestation apparently doomed to instant obscurity, even though it makes both ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Observer’ Top Five list of Folk Albums of the year.

In the junkyard cover photo Robin sits centre beneath a torn poster for the 1962 Leslie Caron kitchen-sink movie ‘The L-Shaped Room’, Mike leaning in fur coat to the right, while Clive – in peaked cap and neat tie, to the left on the shot, further destabilises events by quitting to hit the Afghan trail on what will become the time-honoured hippie trek, and he’d been the band’s focal point – both Robin and Mike know Clive better than they know each other! When he re-emerged in 1969, it would be under the guise of the Famous Jug Band. And eventually he would re-join the Incred’s, but only for its new-century reformations. Meanwhile, Robin goes to Morocco where he starves for a few months. And Mike plays liquid solo sets in northern England Folk Clubs.

So – without Clive, they reunite and tour as a duo, managed by Boyd, with ‘5000 Spirits And Layers Of The Onion’ coming soon after. There’s an assured confidence-growth immediately apparent in its all-original song-mix fusing new stoned imaginings, harmonica and guitar with voices unwinding like electroencephalogram printouts. Again the writing credits alternate, as melodies flash and sparkle like fish in the river, from Mike’s “Chinese White” into Robin’s “No Sleep Blues” (‘I mixed stones and water, just to see what it would do. And the water it got stoney, and the stones got watery too. So I mixed my feet with water just to see what could be seen, and the water it got dirty, and the feet they got quite clean…’). Self-indulgent, downright strange, but when it’s right, it can be eerily affecting. There are eastern cadences to Robin’s weird vocal meanderings of erotic regret on the enticing “First Girl I Loved”, while Mike contributes an equal stone-classic in the tunefully singable “Painting Box” (‘And somewhere in my mind there is a painting box, I have every colour there it’s true. Just lately when I look inside my painting box, I seem to pick the colours of you’).

Within its Mad Hatter’s Box of mayhem there’s mandolin, bowed gimbri (a three-stringed Algerian instrument), the obligatory 1967 Soma sitar, plus session contributions from Pentangle’s Danny Thompson, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins of Britain’s first underground organ ‘It (International Times)’, plus harmonies and finger-cymbals from Licorice. The album, wrapping its arms around a rainbow of what remains the definitive UK psychedelic sleeve-art, closes on a post-apocalyptical sci-fi note with the Cold War angst and flip dark humour of “Way Back In The 1960’s”. Robin imagines looking back from his ninety-first birthday to the time before England ‘went missing’ in World War Three and they’d moved to ‘Paraguayee’. He recalls when he used to do gigs, before making his first million. In those days there was another fellow singing too – Bob Dylan, and he was quite good.

Well, no first million, but the set caught quiet subterranean fire that then erupts into an ensorcelled chart album the following year with ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’. It opens with “Koeeoaddi There” a wondrous ‘Earth Water Fire And Air’ game of stinging sitar, click-clack sounds, playground rhymes, riddles and childhood memory-glimpses, leading into “The Minotaur’s Song” with its answering Monty Python chorus repeating puns ‘predicta-bull’ and ‘reasona-bull’, to end in mocking applause. “Mercy I Cry City” conversationally addresses the urban sprawl direct, chiding the flashing neon light with ‘only the sun knows how to be quietly bright,’ edged with jaggedy Dylan-harmonica, while the Robert E Howard imaginings of “Swift As The Wind” delineate the daydream-edge of fantasias.

Robin’s entrancing “Witches Hat” – later collected onto ‘Mojo’ magazine’s ‘Acid Drops, Spacedust And Flying Saucers’ 4-CD box-set of ‘Psychedelic Confectionery’, moves through structured lyric-sections, the Brothers Grimm by way of Edward Lear, ‘if I was a witches hat, sitting on her head like a paraffin stove, I’d fly away and be a bat, cross the air I would roam, stepping like a tight-rope walker, putting one foot after another, wearing black cherries for rings.’ Heron contributes “A Very Cellular Song” (thirteen-minutes made up of individual song-cells), while Robin’s wicca-wise “Three Is A Green Crown” is a song to sing as the Wicker Man burns. The hallucinatory music is exactly complementary. For time-fix is vital. And to journalist Jon Savage that is ‘a tableau frozen in time, 1968 via 1492’!

If – as the agit-prop guru’s claim, ‘revolution is the festival of the oppressed’, then this was festival. With daffodils between its toes and music as its pulse, setting its feet where the sand is untrodden. Visual art, event-posters, poetry, strange chemicals, magazine lay-out, radical politics and publishing are all part of its flux. The underground press plugs itself into the vast starry firmament with ‘It’ pages charting the voyage from Blake’s Albion into the mystic via ley-lines all the way through impish whimsy to lost Atlantis and Lemuria. Myth and magic, from sacred to crackpot, dreams in its eyes as real as your next sacramental toke. The next mad-vibe poem… the next vinyl record. Truths to make you high.

And what the ISB is part of cannot be seen as separate from it. They are the Pied Pipers of Never-Never-Land. Tribal performance, improvisation, incantation, William Morris, Merlin, Tolkien, Allen Ginsberg, Mervyn Peake, Dylan (Bob and Thomas), Lewis Carroll, CND, Gaia, sensimilla, Cecil Sharpe, Aubrey Beardsley, Woody Guthrie, Ravi Shankar… and more. Strange tunings, strange tunes. Smudged at the edges. Deliberately. From a lost arcadia of ‘quiet places where the moss grows green, the trees whisper, and coloured shells jangle together.’ Yet it is the (im)precise nexus at which they all meet. ‘The sense of visionary-inspired voice is a very ancient Celtic idea, going back to bards and druids and so on’ confides Robin (to ‘Songbook’ no.6). ‘The notion was you could draw on the inspiration of the universe and come up with something that was sort of prophetic, not necessarily about the future, but to reveal something different about the present.’

“Wizard of changes 
teach me the lesson of flowing” 
                     (“The Water Song”) 

Using the album-by-album method as diary-entries, as chapter-headings in their story, is the least effective way to understand it. You have to participate. For it is less product, more process. More fluid than set. Situations evolve. To stay the same is not – in itself, to remain unchanged, but is to lose a spontaneity, a sense of what is transient. The ISB changes. It can happen no other way. The ‘scattered brightness’ of each moment has to be invented anew. Some may dislike what results, or miss elements of what has been shed along the way. But here-and-now – what once existed, is no more, except in fragmentary glimpses, so album-by-album is the only way left. It’s the only portal through which we can access it.

So, the double-set ‘Wee Tam And The Big Huge’ comes next, retreating from the charts into a mythic tangle of Celtic twilight. Mike and Robin are now augmented by Rose Simpson and Christina ‘Licorice’ McKechnie – the same ‘Likky’ who had dubbed a mean finger-cymbal onto “Painting Box” and been secreted furtively into the ‘Hangman’s’ sleeve-art. They are non-musicians, as Robin comments ‘I regard atmosphere as superior to technique’ – a contention that “Log Cabin Home In The Sky”, with scratchy fiddle’s ushering Bob Wills country ‘Ole Opry into the repertoire, written by Mike for Rose, seems to prove. Robin answers by quoting Hank Williams’ ‘Ain’t Got No Home In The World Anymore’ in “Ducks On The Pond”. The gently hypnotic “Air”, with its ambient-flow piping and part-submerged voices, is later used by the Hungarian-born American film producer Milos Forman to soundtrack a sequence for his ‘Taking Off’ (1971) movie, one in which a group of GI’s get stoned for the first time.

The Incred’s also venture into visual electro-media by way of a guest-spot on the ‘Julie Felix TV Show’, even though a subsequent disagreement with producer Stanley Dorfman results in a virtual future screen-time ban. Yet by this time it doesn’t really matter. The band are cult. An idiosyncratic group indefinably somewhere out beyond the edges of Rock, out of Folk, arty effete, surreal, occasionally twee… sometimes even silly, yet capable of teetering on the brink of chilling beauty, built around instrumental dexterity on a multitude of instruments, welded together by meandering vocals that often sound off-key, cracked, off-kilter, yet on examination, aren’t.

‘Changing Horses’ (Elektra EKS74057, November 1969), lists credits for White Bird and Creation, and sees the four drawn into still-tighter group formation, less divided by the perceptible dichotomy that delineates Robin’s wistfully humorous journeys into universal mythology via a more Ewan MacColl foundation, from Mike’s ballsier songs – he confesses an appreciation of Fats Domino. And while Heron is writing songs like the mildly ecological “Puppies”, he’s briefly discovering Scientology – the cult founded by SF-writer L Ron Hubbard, and discarding more material stimulants. ‘As a survivor of the drug scene’ he admits, ‘I just woke up one day realising that I was spending huge amounts of money and smoking ever-huger amounts of dope – and just getting a headache!’ There had always been a theist spirituality there, from Lord Krishna and Merlin to ‘lovely Jesus nailed to a tree’, enfolding Christian mythology as just another skein of luminous imagery, Robin even-handedly taking both sides of the creation debate on one album – Darwinism’s vaudeville “Evolution Rag”, and the Biblical reggae of “Adam And Eve” (on ‘Liquid Acrobat…’).

April 1970 saw the release of ‘I Looked Up’ (Elektra EKS 2469 002) including Heron’s “The Letter” and his “Black Jack Davy” which features Fairport’ Dave Mattocks on drums. They’d already performed “The Letter” and “This Moment” during their brief Woodstock set, on the festival’s second day (Saturday, 16 August 1969) crammed between Keef Hartley and Canned Heat. Now the album coincides with the ISB’s re-emergence from months of Scottish seclusion in the Glen Row rural commune of Peebles to present the outgrowth and reflection of that communal life-style in the ‘U’ project, a haphazard ‘surreal parable in song and dance’ with Malcolm Le Maistre’s Stone Monkey Dance Company. Like all Incredible’s ventures the ‘theatrical presentation/ ballet’ is odd and oddly engaging, home-spun, blurry-edged and friendly. A bafflingly enjoyable pantomime. Heron’s contributions run to piano, organ, mandolin and sitar, incidental music for dance – like “Partial Belated Overture”, writing and playing the nine-minute sitar work-out “El Wool Suite”, plus songs “Light In Time Of Darkness/ Glad To See You”, “Hiram Pawnitof”, “Bridge Theme/ Song” and the 15.22-minute “Rainbow” – all published through ‘Warlock Music Ltd’.

 Heron relates how ‘we decided upon all the people we’d like to work with – dancers, set designers and so on, and we went up to live in a row of cottages in Scotland around Christmas. We all sat round and just talked, first of all to get the story-line, which had to be something that would inspire the dancers to dance, and give us the inspiration to write the songs. After a while the whole thing just started to emerge.’ ‘U’ played London’s ‘Roundhouse’ – then the two Fillmore’s, four days in New York and three at the LA Auditorium, just before the Who’s ‘Tommy’ opened there, plus a couple of days in Boston and one in Cincinnati. Although the obscure mystic mime, theatrics and strange music of the Scottish hippies doesn’t exactly open up the San Andreas fault – it is unique, and the double-album reminder remains intriguing. ‘U’ (Elektra 2665-5001, October 1970) was produced by Joe Boyd through Witchseason Productions, with John Wood engineering. The gatefold sleeve, designed by ‘Graphreaks’ portraying scenes from the ‘pantomime’ plus a scattering of delightfully primitivist paintings.

As the venture proves – the Incredible String Band is not just a band, but a permanent interaction of friends, with shows occasionally performed in the round, sat cross-legged on rugs, playing acoustic instruments the audience are invited to share. Hence, when Rose leaves while they’re on America’s West Coast, to gravitate to Wales with her children, and Mike cuts a solo album in January 1971, it’s not exactly break-up, more a continuity of diversification. For the sessions that eventually result in Mike’s ‘Smiling Men With Bad Reputations’ (Island ILPS9146, April 1971) set are Keith Moon, Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane, Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway, Tony Cox plays VC3 moog, Jimmy Page’s quicksilver guitar ignites “Lady Wonder” (a track relegated to ‘B’-side status, added to the album only on the eventual CD), and even the presence of John Cale. ‘He told me I put too many chords in the song and made me play it through as far as I could go without changing chord’ says Mike. And although the album stays within the Incredible’s context (“Spirit Beautiful” droning in on sitar and chants reassuringly familiar to ISB devotees) – as the title suggests, it’s already predating the style adopted by Heron for his soon-come Reputation line-up.

While the Incredible String Band’s output continues. The group jump labels from Elektra to follow Joe Boyd into ‘Be Glad, For The Song Has No Ending’ (Island ILPS 9140, December 1970), the scrappy soundtrack of a whimsical self-indulgent group-movie directed by Peter Neal centring ‘Magical Mystery Tour’-style on performance, interviews, and costume sequences with Mike and Robin, Rose and Likky. It features Mike’s “All Writ Down”, released through the new label hook-up, while Elektra reprises their fruitful but lapsed association with a ‘Greatest Hits’ titled ‘Relics of...’ (Elektra 7E-2004, March 1971), gathering “Painting Box”, “First Girl I Loved”, “A Very Cellular Song”, “Air”, “Log Cabin In The Sky” and others across four rich sides. At this time Boyd, who’d been a continuous influence on the band, returned to America.

By October the more electric ‘Liquid Acrobat As Regards The Air’ (ILPS 9172, October 1971) – a one-off production credited to the group with American bassist Stanley Schnier, was in the shops to coincide with the opening dates of a tour commencing at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. Now there’s glockenspiel, bazouki, oud, kazoo and spoons, while Fairport Folk-Rock drummer Gerry Conway guests. Robin’s 10:53-minute “Darling Belle” is an ambitious theatrical three-way vocal story-telling dialogue, with First World War Ivor Novello quotes, and overlaid spoken-word passages. Then Likki sings Heron’s words in her high clear child-like voice, Mike himself contributes the amped-up “Painted Chariot”, then revisits his own “Tree” from their debut album, for no obvious purpose. So, more Prog-mainstream, while retaining a mix of charming naivety and tweeness, plus jigs and reels. It became their final chart album, managing a single appearance at no.46.

Throughout this period, that Stone Monkey refugee – Malcolm Le Maistre, an Englishman who’d segued into the band’s periphery in New York following his involvement with David Bowie’s Exploding Galaxy, was making occasional bass guitar, keyboard and mandolin contributions, adding his strangely-enunciated ventures into French chanson. To some, an interloper from another non-Folk continuum, now his presence is more conspicuous, and during the tie-in tour he’s assimilated as a full group member, using his theatrical abilities for the ‘Poetry Play no.1’ which Mike narrates and the group acts out. Le Maistre will subsequently reappear, performing a similar function with Reputation, joining Heron for vocals on “Down On My Knees After Memphis” dressed in a sailor suit, and doing ‘Gene Kelly’ dance routines. While the temporary addition of Stan ‘Lee’ Schnier on bass and bearded drummer Jack Ingram is – according to ‘Melody Maker’, ‘promoting their roadies into a rhythm section.’

Forced by default to fill the vacuum left by Joe Boyd’s exit, Heron emerges to provide direction as the dominant personality. Making the October 1972 ‘Earthspan’ (Island ILPS 9211) set – produced by Robin and Mike, an odd transitional artefact. Heron contributes their second take on the raggle-taggle gypsy-O “Black Jack David”, Likky – who contributes lyrics to “Sunday Song”, and high vocals to Robin’s “Banks Of Sweet Italy”, was about to quit, replaced for a year by Gerard Dott, who in turn will be replaced by 23-year-old ex-Powerhouse musician Graham Forbes from Glasgow. These changes in direction are becoming increasingly apparent, and can largely be laid at Mike’s feet. He’s guiding the band towards the more orthodox Rockist orientation from which Reputation will emerge. But there are more albums and changes to come.

With a line-up of Heron, Williamson, Le Maistre, and Gerard Dott, Mike produces ‘No Ruinous Feud’ (Island ILPS/ZC1/Y81 9229, February 1973), the cover split four ways into David Bailey ‘Rock band’ head-and-shoulder shots. And predictably, it becomes their most Rock-angled set, made up of distinct singles-length cuts. There’s a two-minute Dolly Parton cover (“My Blue Tears”) and even a reggae track – Duke Reid’s “Second Fiddle”, with the backing-participation of Greyhound (who’d recently scored a chart hit with “Black And White”). Scientology – with its emphasis on relationships, is also acknowledged as a force behind the String Band’s gradual transmutations, for by this time its medieval minstrelsy, the crescent moons, stars, the ‘angel-headed hipster’ look has been ditched in favour of trad-Rock leathers. Heron even abandoned his six-string acoustic wire-strung guitar (custom-built for him by John Bailey) to stalk the electrified stage like the Gene Vincent he’d already admitted a secret affection for.

Of course, this album-by-album as chapter-heading diary-entries method, is the least effective way to tell the tale. Yet there’s one more album to go, their twelfth, ‘Hard Rope And Silken Twine’ (Island ILPS 9270, March 1974). Again Mike takes producer-credits, featuring his wonderful “Maker Of Islands” balanced by Robin’s sitar-driven “Dreams Of No Return”. But the focus is Mike’ ambitious 19:23-minute song-cycle “Ithkos” across the full vinyl second side, an episodic patchy pseudo-Grecian mythological epic jangling around Moon-Maidens and Sybarites. The Incredible String Band could logically go no further… and they don’t try. By their split in that misty twisty October 1974 day they’d left an excess of wealth in their Dayglo wake – including compilations and solo spin-offs, having expanded to a travelling ramshackle minstrelsy five-piece with an extended family of wives, children and pets, a pantomime of Art-Theatre, Mime, poems and whimsy, with an increasingly electric back-beat. But even the times themselves were becoming harder, nastier, less sympathetic to hippy-dippy whimsy. And in all, it’s an organic end to a unique band.

The implosion and eventual re-emergence as ‘Mike Heron’s Reputation’ must be seen as an organic outgrowth of that once-Incredible organism. But Robin’s “Dear Old Battlefield” is a song about the karmic-cycle of reincarnation, ‘death is unreal, the way I feel, there’s more to be revealed,’ in which ‘lovers and friends meet again and again.’ And since that time a steady re-issue programme from Electra and Sequel has provided an interim crash-course in Incredible-ology. ‘I like all the albums for different reasons’ Mike admits to me. ‘The songs are mostly pretty relevant to me. Although I can’t really relate to the performance, the performance sounds like a different person. Like a l-o-n-g time ago. But I can relate very much to nearly all the songs…’

If this piece underplays Robin Williamson’s role within the group, this is largely because it was Mike I talked to. And due to my attempts to isolate and chart Mike Heron and the roots of Reputation. In truth, the evolution is natural, and largely amiable. Robin even cameos on “Evie”.

‘Me, I clearly state, I’m just an accident of fate / I’m the guy whose lost the way / lost the way to Easy Street…’ For a decade Mike Heron had been one half of an obscure mythology. Where to go next? Immediately after the dissolution of the idiosyncratic Incredible String Band and its initial reformation beneath Heron’s ‘Reputation’ masthead, he began going out on the road looking for Easy Street in his own right for the first time. His band had become more Rock than previous efforts – the stage punctuated by incisive keyboard drabblings, littered with guitar-work and occasional sax, with Heron acting out his previously submerged ‘Rock Star’ fantasies. Yet all the while, predictably, the battered lethargic ennui of the Incred’s is still there lurking behind the amps, its visual oddities occasionally emerging through Malcolm Le Maistre’s out-of-Rock-mainstream camp dance routines around “Only A Street-Lamp”. And again as they’re performing the then as-yet-unrecorded “Draw Back The Veil” with its long rambling déjà vu ‘Tubular Bells’ introduction on Radio One’s ‘In Concert’.

This is the Reputation line-up that played the Rainbow’s Final Gig first half of March 1975, to a good reception. An odd and chaotic act that went on to tour the UK downbill of the elegantly-wasted Andy Fraser Band. Under the Peter Bowyer Promotions banner it’s a package that plays London, Leicester, Bristol, Leeds and as far north as Edinburgh and Glasgow – where the whole mythology began. To tie in with the tour there’s even a March single – “Evie”, featuring cameo vocals from Melanie Safka, taken from the April album ‘Mike Heron’s Reputation’ (Neighborhood NBH80637, 1975). Reputation came together at London’s Olympic Studios during November 1974, with Malcolm Le Maistre, John Gilston and Graham Forbes plundered from the now-shattered Incredibles, plus David Barker from Magna Carta, Mike Tomich from If, plus Peter Gibbons and Phil Symes. From these sessions – under the production eye of Melanie’s husband Peter Schekerak, come the eleven Heron songs that make up the album. As well as the already-mentioned tracks there’s “Without Love”, “Born To Be Gone”, and my favourite cut – “Easy Street”, building from its slow blues opening through the up-tempo Rock section with girl-chorus and superb sax solo, on side one. Plus “Angels In Disguise”, “Wine Of His Song”, “Meanwhile In The Rain”, “One Of The Finest” and “Singing The Dolphin Through”.

It’s a fine – if occasionally flawed set, the message between the lines ‘don’t try living on Easy Street if you can, where the cold winds don’t blow’ – like Dylan sings it and Mike Heron lives it, ‘beauty walks a razor’s edge, some day I’ll make it mine…’ Here, there are also fine guest sessions from Tim Hinkley (on “Down On My Knees After Memphis”), Richard and Linda Thompson (on “Memphis” and “Residential Boys” respectively), and Roxy’s Eddie Jobson on violin (“Residential Boy”). But – just for a moment, imagine it’s the 15th July 1975. As all this is happening, Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft are launched from their respective continents within hours of each other…

Later there will be other ventures. Including Mike’s Incredible Acoustic Band during the 1990’s. Until the first of a series of ISB reunion projects featuring various constellations of cohorts, Robin, Mike… and Clive. But then again, with such a genealogy the tale could hardly fail to be intriguing…

“We are the table-cloth, and also the table, 
also the fable, of the dancing leaves…” 

Performing your own songs, says Mike Heron, is like ‘smelling your own sweat.’ They’re that personal, but never so indulgent they fail to tell an absorbing tale. At the Leeds ‘Duchess of York’ he does “Blackfoot Side” to tom-tom drumming – a song derived from the Sioux Indian lore of ‘Black Elk Speaks’. He does “Gaughan In The South Seas”, drawing on a book he read as a kid – Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon And Sixpence’, but magicks them both into hypnotic webs of intrigue. ‘I chat about the songs to draw people in, it doesn’t suit me just to stand up and yell songs at people’ he explains. Both songs are from his then-current CD ‘The Glen Row Tapes’ (issued by Fast Forward, 1988). He plays a fluid and breathy harmonica, sings for Jack Kerouac, and does “1968” with percussionist Dave Haswell switching to ‘hippie’ tabla percussion. How he tells it, it was the last Incred’s song he wrote, eventually issued as part of the ‘On Air’ CD of time-lost BBC session recordings (Band of Joy/Strange Fruit label, 1991). And it’s a quintessential song of wistful regret and eclipsed innocence – ‘you played your strings like they led to the truth, sang your words like clear spring light, let’s do it one more time, and we’ll keep the fire going, bright sunshine in darkest night…’

The Incredible String Band were an intrepid courting of toxic myth and ganja-stained death out-leaping the limits of shock with insidiously weird seductions of sound. This night the high-flying Heron creates a more homely kind of Beat fun. But a wealth of fun nevertheless.

When the Incredible Strings originally dis-Banded Robin Williamson retreated back into a mythic weirdness of bizarre beauty. Robin’s extensive solo catalogue, beginning with ‘Myrrh’ (Island, HELP 2, 1972, BGO CD reissue), which includes the wondrous “The Dancing Of The Lord Of Weir” and his take on Dr Strangely Strange’s “Strings In The Earth And Air”, cut just before his first sojourn to Los Angeles, and his tunefully accessible ‘Merry Band’ album ‘Journey’s Edge’ (Edsel, 1977) – including “Mythic Times” and strange “Rap City Rhapsody”. Much later ‘Songs For Children Of All Ages’ (1987, Flying Fish) revisits “Witches Hat” and “The Water Song”. He lived and toured in the States for twenty years – in the 1970’s with the Merry Band, and in the 1980’s with ‘the story-telling revival’. He looks backwards through his fictionalised autobiography song-cycle ‘Mirrorman’s Sequence 1961-1966’ (2CD Pig’s Whisker Music, 1997) – portraying Heron as ‘Pike’ and Palmer as ‘Clamber’, and books ‘The Glory Trap’ (a Detective novel with Dan Sherman, 1981), and his ‘Selected Writings 1980-‘83’ (poetry, Pigs Whisker Press, 1984). Plus his fine experimental recordings for ECM, the first a setting of Dylan Thomas (‘The Seed-At-Zero’, 2000), the second – ‘Skirting The River Road’ (ECM, 2003), made up of jazz-Celtic Bardic settings of poems by William Blake, Walt Whitman and Henry Vaughan.

Now, as well as his sporadic involvement in Incredible String Band reunions, there’s also his occasional performing partnership with John Renbourn (‘Wheel Of Fortune’, 1995), wife Bina, and Clive Palmer (‘At The Pure Fountain’, 1999). Clive, also back in the ISB fold with Mike Heron and multi-instrumentalists Fluff and Lawson Dando, find extra-curricula time to record his solo-with-banjo album ‘All Roads Lead To Land’ (2005) for the Unique Gravity label (reissued on Communion). Robin guests. While Mike Heron, looking much the same, re-concentrates on his first love, song-writing. His post-Incredible’s (but still incredible) solo albums also become part of the CD re-issue project. ‘My ‘Smiling Men With Bad Reputations’ has always been a bit collectible’ he agrees. ‘But that’s really because of the people who play on it. For me particularly it was one of the first albums of that type, one with ‘guest artists’ on each track, Richard Thompson, John Cale, Dave Mattacks, Dudo Pukwana (who arranges brass for “Call Me Diamond”), and everybody. That aspect of it was very much Joe Boyd’s idea. But a great idea.’

The next Heron album ‘Diamond Of Dreams’ (Bronze, 1977, reissued on Sequel), includes Mike’s “Don’t Kill It Carol”, a song written as ‘therapy’ after a relationship break-up. It was covered by, and became a big European hit single for Manfred Mann’s Earthband (a UK no.45 in July 1979), and the first of a number of collaborations. ‘Yes, he’s done a few. He’s done “Singing The Dolphin Through” (on Mann’s 1976 LP ‘Roaring Silence’, Bronze Records), “Don’t Kill It Carol” (on 1979’s ‘Angel Station’, Bronze), and “Stranded In Iowa” (a Heron/Mann co-composition on 1980’s Bronze-label ‘Chance’). There’s also one called “Marathon (Sikelele I)” which we worked on together. It’s on an album called ‘Manfred Mann: Plains Music’ (Kaz Records, 1991), and it got to no.1 in the African album charts, a lovely record. A bit like Paul Simon’s ‘Gracelands’ using a lot of black African musicians. A bit like the Paul Simon thing except it’s largely instrumental, with mine as one of its only two songs. Manfred is South African by birth. He’s a South African white jazzer. So he’s got people like Barbara Thompson on sax too, and it was a great record.’

While “First Girl I Loved” was being covered by Jackson Browne and Judy Collins, Heron songs were being done by as widely disparate people as Bonnie Tyler and Frankie Miller, while his “Worlds They Rise And Fall” is used on the soundtrack of two movies – Scottish director Gillies MacKinnon’s ‘Hideous Kinky’ (1998) and ‘Jersey Girl’ (2004) with Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. ‘My first motivation was to write songs for other people to do. That’s the first thing I really fancied doing, to bring this song into being where there was nothing there before. It’s a great thing, and it takes it one step further if somebody else then says ‘ah, this thing exists, this is something I can interpret in my own way.’ It makes it that bit more ‘real’. And by that time you can be selfish and think that you’ve created something from nothing. That still remains a really valuable thing for me. I still find that process exciting. It still has that feeling.’

Another product of the separation years was a foray into electronic ‘Robot Music’ with Tony Cox, renewing a lapsed association from the ‘...Bad Reputations’ album. ‘He wanted a human real-sounding voice against his computerised style. A bit like a variation on the Pet Shop Boys.’ But it sounded ‘terrible. I enjoyed doing it. It just didn’t work for my songs. For me, the best person at doing that humanised electronic music is Stevie Winwood, programmed – but very real. With him, it comes from real soul.’

Stevie Winwood, alongside Elton John – is also there on ‘Smiling Men With Bad Reputations’. ‘It’s true that for a long time I’ve been more concerned with my own music. Then I had to step back to look at the String Band in perspective. And it was ridiculous that for a long time there was nothing by the String Band on CD. And more than that, in America the albums were no longer even available on scratchy old vinyl. But, as I’ve had to listen to them, I’ve re-discovered some amazing stuff. And not necessarily the obvious things. Some of them are a bit out of that period, of their time. But “The Tree”, “Blues For The Muse”, ‘Wee Tam And The Big Huge’, and “First Girl I Loved” – there’s something Robin captures there that still really appeals to me. The other things I’m listening to now are the tracks that ‘escaped’. Because we unearthed all the original album tapes with the out-takes, and there’s the BBC Radio One session archive stuff too. Some of the material that came out on the ‘On Air’ CD. And it’s that stuff that still really knocks my socks off...!’

Student Hipsters and aspiring Acid-Head poets used to write long pretentiously arty letters to each other, signing off cosmically with another Incredible String Band album title. One that’s suddenly perfectly appropriate again for the re-united Mike Heron and Robin Williamson... BE GLAD, FOR THE SONG HAS NO ENDING

“May the long time sun shine upon you
all love surround you
and the pure light within you
guide you all the way on” 
                 (“A Very Cellular Song”)

An early version of the centre section published in:
‘MOTH no.4’ (UK – February 1977)