TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 September 2013
If I`d thought it through, and if I`d heard the last three LPs in this treasure trove of ISB booty more recently, I would have bought only their first two albums, as that is where you`ll find the very best of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron (with Clive Palmer on the self-titled debut).
That first record heralded the arrival on the scene of something so fresh, vital and witty - not quite folk, not really pop - that, if you weren`t around in those heady days in the late sixties, it`s difficult to describe the unique spell the ISB wove.
I love the first two LPs, so many really good songs, catchy as the Beatles or the latest Donovan hit (oh, he was worth a listen once!) with Robin & Mike showing what truly fine musicians they were, and remain.
Highlights on their debut are Clive`s mournful Empty Pocket Blues, Robin`s lovely October Song, and Mike`s warm and wonderful Everything`s Fine Right Now - why wasn`t it released as a single? Could have been a big hit: the ISB in the charts! (Mind you, it might surprise some to learn that some of their LPs did indeed make the Top 20.)
Their masterpiece, in my view, is the second album. By this time Clive had departed for more modest musical shores, leaving the Heron & the Robin to twitter and chirp together - and solo - on a set of songs so strong and coherently compiled that they never quite equalled it on any of their later records.
5000 Spirits opens with one of Mike`s best songs, Chinese White, then we get a blinder from Robin with No Sleep Blues (another possible hit that never was!) and then the beautiful Painting Box from Mike:
When the morning of your eyes
Comes waking through my shadows
Leaving just a trace of twilight sleep
This is also the LP on which you`ll find Mike`s amusingly daft but unforgettable Hedgehog`s Song, and fey but fun Little Cloud, alongside Robin`s suitably bonkers Mad Hatter`s Song, and one of his loveliest creations of those years, First Girl I Loved, later covered (with a lyrical sex-change) by Judy Collins. Hearing Robin sing this again after so long - reader, I actually wept. Nostalgia, poignancy, lost love, age...
All the songs on 5000 Spirits go to make up one of the finest LPs of the period, as inventive, and as influential, as the contamporaneous Sgt Pepper.
I shan`t detain you much longer, as I find the ISB`s move into more esoteric, exotic, too-often twee, musically meandering songs on their following two albums (Wee Tam & the Big Huge originally being a magnificent fold-out double LP) a little hard to take now.
There are excellent things on `Hangman` such as Witches Hat and Mercy I Cry City, but all the songs succumb too much to the idiosyncrasies of both Robin and Mike`s growing preference for wandering vocals and random rambling. Harsh? All I can say is, listen for yourself. I loved and still love the ISB, but one`s critical faculties tend to sharpen over the years, and I simply don`t find much of the music on the later albums stands up to too much scrutiny. There are of course one or two gems on Wee Tam/Big Huge, for example Robin`s superb closing song The Circle is Unbroken, but they`re too few and far between.
Mike, with some success, went on to make his own records (and proved to be a lovely, friendly guy when I met him after a reformed-ISB-without-Robin concert ten years ago) while Robin went from strength to strength, both with his Merry Band (their records are quite wonderful) and on numerous solo albums, becoming an authentic contemporary bard and storyteller (even my mum liked him).
Their `ladies` (as we would faux-gallantly say back then) Rose and Licorice stayed with the band for further LPs, then Rose, unlikely as it may sound, turned up as Mayoress of Aberystwyth, with Licorice disappearing into the sunset, never - so we`re told - to be heard of again.
This slimline box of wonders is of course a blazing bargain, which happily I highly recommend to all, while my regretful qualifications remain.
I`ll sing you this October song
for there is no song before it...