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Customer Review

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.
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