on 8 December 2003
It has taken many years but the world now has its first definitive book about one of the most influential groups of the 1960s, the Incredible String Band. Sounding quite different to anybody else, you either got it or you didn't. But the Beatles, Stones and Led Zeppelin all worshipped at the court of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron and their influence is clearly audible in such great works as Led Zeppelin IV.
Over the last decade there has been a tremendous upsurge in interest in the Incredible String Band to the extent that the original line-up even reformed and toured for a couple of years. there is one reason that underlies this renewed interest, the fanzine beGlad. Started by Andy Roberts in the early 1990s, beGlad provided a forum for Incredible String Band fanzines with interviews and features. As such it started to bring people together.
By the mid-1990s, there had been a String Band Convention in Leeds with Mike, Robin and Malcolm LeMasitre all playing, albeit separately. In 1997, Mike and Robin played together for the first time since 1974. Clive and Malcolm also appeared on the same bill in Camden. At the end of 1999, Robin, Clive and Mike, the original Incredible String Band, were on stage together. Without beGlad magazine this would probably not have happened. beGlad brought many new fans to the band and they are the ones still going to see the current line-up or solo concerts by Robin Williamson.
Shortly after the Leeds Convention, Andy Roberts stopped editing beGlad. However, the song did not end as the magazine was taken over by Raymond Greenoaken and Adrian Whittaker. They built on Andy's start and turned beGlad into an A4 glossy magazine. However, number 20 was the final issue as Raymond and Adrian have other interests that require their time.
But the story does not end here. The wealth of information contained in beGlad has enabled editor Adrian Whittaker to compile it into a book. Despite the fact that much of the material was already written, this was still a mammoth task to take a series of disparate articles and to turn them into a book the details the career of the Incredible String Band until their 1974 split. This is more or less in chronological order with biographical features interspersed with highly detailed and analytical album reviews. There are also features on aspects of the Incredible String Band's lives such as the role of scientology, the numerous different instruments that they played live and on record and interviews with those whose own lives encountered those of the String Band. These include Billy Connolly who was a regular at the early gigs at Clive's Incredible Folk Club in Glasgow in the mid-1960s and appeared on the bill at the 1999 concert in Edinburgh where Mike, Robin and Clive were reunited. The circle was indeed unbroken.
The book is not just for the die-hard Stringhead. Of course, the enthusiastic String Band fans will find plenty of material for consideration. The album reviews, for example, are frequently highly analytical and detailed but the complexity of some of the String Band's material, musically and lyrically, demand a detailed investigation. But even the casual fan or even those less acquainted with the String Band will find their story very intriguing, entertaining and moving and easy to read.
Adrian Whittaker has clearly succeeded in evolving from a series of articles by different writers, written over a decade to a clear and concise history of the Incredible String Band. While it has been left as articles, partly as a credit to the original writers, it reads smoothly with no disturbing transition from one writer to another. Whittaker has also updated and corrected, where necessary. In addition, there is an extensive glossary of instruments used, detailed discography as well as a quiz and crossword.
This is far more than a tribute to the most idiosyncratic British band of the late 1960s and early 1970s but it is also a testament to the hard work and dedication of those who created and built beGlad into the excellent fanzine that it was. A second volume of additional material is alluded to and there must be considerable content about the solo careers of Mike, Robin, Clive and Malcolm as well as other "occasional" members of the band. This is, of course, another major project.
on 14 November 2003
beGLAD was an Incredible String Band fanzine which ran for ten years from 1992 to 2002, and this book is a compilation of various articles, interviews and reviews which originally appeared there, collated by the magazine’s co-editor Adrian Whittaker. Arranged in roughly chronological order, it charts the band’s career from their early beginnings as part of the Scottish folk scene in the early to mid sixties, through their heyday when they recorded classic albums like 5000 Spirits, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and Wee Tam and The Big Huge, the move away from their trademark acoustic arrangements towards a fuller rock sound, and finally their split in 1974. Along the way it covers such topics as their drugs usage, their growing involvement with L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement, and the sometimes frosty relationship between the two frontmen, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron.
The book triumphs in a number of ways. The writers between them had access to virtually all of the members of the band, as well as a wide assortment of other people who were involved with them at the time and who were happy to interviewed. This helps give it an air of authority which one wouldn’t usually expect from a book compiled from a fan magazine. The foreword is provided by no lesser person than the Archbishop of Canterbury who declares that he was himself a fan (although one wonders what he might have made of their Scientology associations!)
The writing itself is also of a consistently high quality. A number of different writers (including RockSIG’s very own Mike Swann and Jon Riley) have contributed reviews and reminiscences and the prose is generally of a standard every bit as high as that which one sees in the professional music press. Whether this is due to shrewd sub-editing by the beGLAD team or that the nature of the ISB’s music tended to attract those from the more literate end of music fandom is not clear but the results are very impressive.
The presentation is excellent throughout, with a generous assortment of black and white photos and even a few cartoons breaking up the text nicely. It is a book which can just as easily be dipped into randomly as read from cover to cover.
Although there is a very interesting “where are they now?” appendix, the tale as told here ends with the band’s acrimonious split in 1974. This is wise, as although the subsequent solo careers of the main players and the turn of the century reunion may themselves make an interesting book at some stage, to have included them here would have made it overlong and detracted from the very strongly conveyed sense of era that shines through its pages.
So are there any reservations at all? Yes, a few actually.
Firstly, there are a number of typos scattered throughout the book, which is a shame given the previously noted high standard of presentation generally. The caption to a photograph of the band on page 13 lists Mike Heron as “Mike Hreon”, to give one of the more obvious examples.
There is also the question of critical impartiality which will always rear its ugly head in any book which has been written by fans for fans, especially where the co-operation of the principals has been so important to its completion, and although beGLAD is not slavishly devotional, one gets the impression that an unusual sort of gentleman’s agreement has been reached between the editors and the band members. (This was equally the case during the lifetime of the fanzine.)
Basically, one seems to be allowed to criticise certain things – the links with Scientology (which have long been severed by Williamson and Heron), the penultimate No Ruinous Feud album (which nobody appears to have much fondness for), and the Woodstock debacle for example – whereas other elements of the band’s history appear to have developed something of a “sacred cow” status.
Perhaps the oddest of these is beGLAD’s treatment of Heron and Williamson’s decision to add their then girlfriends Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie to the band in 1969, as it could quite easily be argued that with their off-key vocals and, (let’s be polite here), limited instrumental prowess they detracted from rather than added to the ISB sound. This writer would contend that having one Linda McCartney in a band could be considered unfortunate but having two was downright careless; however, nowhere in beGLAD are “the girls” spoken of in anything but the most glowing terms.
There is also just a small feeling that its quirky, anecdotal, and not-quite-chronological nature means that it isn’t quite the definitive introduction for somebody with a passing interest in the ISB that it might have been. The rather perfunctory discography – at just one page long it is less than a quarter of the length of the detailed issue by issue analysis of the beGLAD fanzine itself – further reinforces the suspicion that this is a book primarily intended for the convert rather than the casual observer.
Those minor quibbles notwithstanding, it is still recommended. It succeeds in capturing the essence of a truly unique band and the spirit of the times they inhabited. We may never see their like again and beGLAD is a fitting tribute.
on 2 April 2014
Be glad you purchased this . If ever you wanted to know anything or everything about this wonderful band of musos then this is the book for you . Packed with interesting notes and anecdotes from all over the place and backed up by the musicians themselves. A mighty tome , and one of the best music related books I have read in a long time . No lightweight this, just informative and very readable . Not the sort of book to just sit down to and read though all in one sitting ...there's far to much information input for that. Take it an albums worth at a time , then go listen to the album is the best way I found ....a whole new insight into a very different band. Brilliant!
It's a wonderful thing to discover a band like the Incredible String Band - can there ever be another? - in 2014. There is comparatively little information out there despite the fact that they endured for nine years and despite the clear influence they had on many major talents both during their existence and after their break up. This, in some ways, is a very positive thing; it means the newcomer to ISB can listen entirely without prejudice and hear only the music - an experience that's rare nowadays. So you listen. And listen. Until the layers of the onion gradually reveal themselves and this great and original music has become more accessible to you, until you've got into the groove in fact.
I was a small child when ISB formed and a young teenager when they disbanded. I've been interested in popular music and extremely keen on reading stuff about it for decades and yet until now I'd seen very few references to ISB - which astonishes me. It is as though they have receded like some enchanted island into a very dense mist. That a band so influential and so significant is now positioned so far below the radar is interesting of itself. Why? I ask this - I don't know the answer. Maybe longstanding fans may have a few ideas. As a longstanding fan of that other integrity-filled, influential yet oft overlooked band Durutti Column, do I even need to bother asking?
For decades, I've been a massive Bowie fan. I may or may not have read years ago about Bowie's early, fleeting dealings with ISB; had I been sufficiently tantalised then, I might have discovered them sooner. Now, certainly, I reckon I can hear their influence in early Bowie and particularly in one very major aspect. Listen to Bolan from this kind of period and it's a little 'difficult', obviously dated and above all - even I who keep a little Marc in my heart must concede it - kind of fey at times. Whereas Bowie, arch re-maker and re-modeller that he is, makes essentially hippy themes sound so UN-fey. There's a dynamism, a power - but a power for the good. Guess what? ISB are not fey either, in spite of some of their themes.
To top it all - and this helps for me given the way I've come to rock n'roll, not being a bloke, and its many and diverse tributaries - ISB even has a most attractive frontman in the form of Mike Heron. Or two if you count Robin who's supposed to be better looking anyway. How do I know that? Well, I've been dipping into Be Glad. Thing is, I was eager for more information and afraid it would be a long and hard search until I came across this compendium. It satisfies a need in me to know more about this remarkable, interesting and exceptionally good band. It is very much a book for dipping into - but this does not make it slight or poorly written.
I would love to see Be Glad - the fanzine from whence the articles derive that make up this book - resurrected. After all, if I've just discovered ISB, all the time new people will be discovering them at new points in time. As the author reflects in Be Glad, it would be good if someone were to use the material as the basis for a definitive biography of the band but the resurrection of the fanzine would be even better. Often this kind of thing is best left in the past but in the case of Be Glad, it post-dated the demise of the band anyway. So why not?
If you've come late to the party too, I'd say listen to the music first. Listen well. Let it seep into your soul. When or if you want to know more about the people who created it, their lives and how they interacted with their most interesting times, turn to Be Glad: An Incredible String Band Compendium. It's a great book, very wide-ranging and knowledgeable and the contributors' love for the band just shines through. Any great book can make your brain bound off in lots of other directions. Be Glad is not some turgid piece of sycophantic nonsense - at best, like the music which is its focus, it will make you think and dream. Only a very special band can trip words written about it into this kind of territory. And how many bands do you know who've received the endorsement of a former Archbishop of Canterbury?