John Leckie’s Classic Album Review

The Incredible String Band : 1000 Spirits or The Layers of The Onion 1967


The Incredible String Band are a bit like Marmite…you love them or hate them. How can you be into Stockhausen and Hendrix and be a String Band freak? Many of my friends were (and still are!) This is the cover to their second album called 1000 Spirits or The Layers of The Onion and was designed by The Fool who decorated The Beatles Apple shop, painted John Lennon’s Rolls Royce, Eric Clapton’s guitars and even made an album produced by George. Along with Nigel Weymouth and Haphash and The Coloured Coat they were the top psychedelic designers in ’67.

I don’t think this is their best album… I’d go for Wee Tam and The Big Huge but many prefer The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.

The band started at Clive’s Incredible Folk Club in Glasgow. Clive Palmer was a revered beatnik banjo player and a librarian of all things sacred and weird about music yet he had a simplicity and innocence that was the heart of Incredible String Band music. After the first album he cleared off to Afghanistan and left Robin Williamson (a UK national treasure..?) and Mike Heron (a soul man…) to continue. 

They were discovered by the great Joe Boyd who was the A&R, manager and producer of all their records. They recorded at Sound Techniques for Electra and, later, Island Records. Joe took them to Woodstock Festival in 1969 and they should have been on the main stage at peak headline time on the Friday. The rain came down and they wouldn’t go on stage so they left it until the next night. Unfortunately for them, that was when the rock bands were on and they just flopped and were edited out of the film. 

But they were beyond hipness and adored by everyone from The Beatles to Zeppelin. The Stones wanted them on their label and Pet Shop Boys say they love them. In 1968, they were the hippest hippies going! They looked beautiful. The band at their best were two girls and two blokes and we all wanted to be like them with our girlfriends. Rose was sort of with Mike and she played bass and keyboards. Licorice was kind of with Robin and played and sang in a silly high voice which just fitted the songs. The gigs were happy, improvised affairs and they always felt like your friends. They toured the world and spread peace and love wherever they went.

The music and songs were always full of surprises. With twists and turns in the story telling and instrumentation, each had a riddle to be answered and a trip to be savoured.

Whether the song was written by Robin or Mike, the lyrics had a deep meaning and spoke of fantasy, other realms, ancient Druid ways, harmony and a balance and a natural life which we were all into. But they could rock out too: Mike Heron did a solo album called Smiling Men With Bad Reputations with The Who backing him and other tracks with Jimmy Page, John Cale, Ronnie Lane and Richard Thompson. They made a film called Be Glad and a big theatre thing called U but by that time in 1971 they got dancers in and more blokes. The girls left and they replaced the hashish with Scientology and it just fizzled. But for those few years at the end of 60s, we loved them…and still do. I know all the words !

Listen to: A Very Cellular Song, Douglas Traherne Hardy, Maya, The Iron Stone, First Girl I Loved and The Half Remarkable Question. 

John Leckie

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