The Incredible String Band was best-known as the vehicle for the otherworldly talents of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. However, two other members, Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, were vital to the communal spirit and D.I.Y. ethic of the group, whose legacy has grown over the ensuing decades. Exiting the band in 1971, Simpson left music altogether, moving to Wales, earning a doctorate and teaching at university. Half a century later, she has published Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band, a heartfelt remembrance of those hippie, utopian days. Richie Unterberger spoke at length with her for PKM.
When Rose Simpson joined the Incredible String Band in 1968, she had no professional experience as a musician. She hadn’t even followed folk or rock music closely before starting a relationship a few months earlier with Mike Heron, who with Robin Williamson formed the singing-songwriting duo at the Incredible String Band’s core. The group’s third album had just made the UK Top Five and the band had just completed their first tour of the U.S. In retrospect, adding Simpson and another semipro musician—Williamson’s girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie—to the lineup at such a critical juncture seems, well, incredible.
But as Simpson writes in her new memoir, at the time it seemed a natural evolution of a special group whose music was an outgrowth of their very lifestyle.
“When Licorice decided she wanted to be a stage performer as well as a disembodied voice, my presence redressed the balance,” Simpson notes in Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band. “There were no discussions or arguments, decisions or arrangements made between the four of us—none that I know of, anyway, or that [producer] Joe Boyd remembers. There were no rehearsals, either, beyond the usual casual playing together in the latest rented flats Joe had found us.”
From around mid-1968 to the end of 1970, Simpson performed and recorded with the Incredible String Band as bassist and occasional singer, as well as (like McKechnie) filling in on various instruments as the occasion warranted. The ISB’s idiosyncratic blend of traditional folk with psychedelic whimsy and various strains of world music could only win them a cult following in the U.S., even as subsequent albums nibbled at the lower end of the British charts. It wasn’t for want of trying. Simpson’s stint in the band saw them issue four albums, two of them double LPs. They also gained a slot at Woodstock, even if relatively few remember they played a set at the most famous rock festival of all.
As productive as the foursome were with the Simpson-McKechnie lineup, and as idyllic as their music and romances could be, it was in some ways a volatile period for the Incredible String Band. After the band embraced Scientology, producer Boyd grew less and less impressed with their music. The group tried to stage an ambitious multimedia show, U, that cost them a great deal of money and lost the respect of critics who viewed the show as something of a shambles. Simpson left the ISB at the beginning of 1971 after the others, as she writes, made “it clear that I must join them in their commitment…I walked out of all of it, on my home…on my future with ISB and on my friendships of the moment.”
Simpson never returned to the ISB or indeed the music world. Nor had she dwelled much upon her time with the group for almost half a century before writing her new book. Yet while her preface acknowledges she doesn’t intend to force “reminiscences into a straitjacket of dates and facts,” there are a lot of details about ISB tours, songs, and recording sessions. Crucially, these are balanced by plenty of personal perspectives on the band’s personalities and creativity.
“We were sure that our spiritual and aesthetic path to peace and freedom was better than political solutions,” she affirms in one passage. “Licorice and I knew very well about Women’s Lib, and we were neither of us the protected daughters of aristocratic families, like so many of the pretty girls around us. Our survival technique, to our separate homes, had been to live the words and music of ISB’s songs.”
In November 2020, Simpson spoke to me in depth about her book and the ISB, shortly before the publication of Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band by Strange Attractor Press.
Meeting the Incredible String Band
As a York University student in late 1967, Rose Simpson hadn’t even read the music press or attended a pop concert, and was far more interested in mountaineering than folk songs. Nonetheless, over the next few months she abandoned university life for a romance with Mike Heron, moving in with him in the home he’d just bought in Scotland. She also soon grasped the essence of the Williamson-Heron partnership that powered the Incredible String Band’s wavering, oft-droning, off-kilter take on British folk. Performed on an astonishing assortment of instruments both common and exotic, it also took in elements of Indian, North African, and other world music, long before that term passed into everyday usage. (Clive Palmer had been a third member of the group on their 1966 debut, to which he contributed just one original composition and one arrangement of a traditional folk piece, before the band shrank to a duo.)
Rose agrees, and elaborates at length in her book, that Williamson tended toward the more cosmic and esoteric, while Heron was more earthy and direct, though there was some overlap in their approaches. Robin was perhaps the more renowned songwriter of the pair, as he composed their most popular song, “First Girl I Loved” (brought to a bigger audience when fellow Elektra Records star Judy Collins covered it as “First Boy I Loved”) and “Way Back in the 1960s.” Yet though they were different as musicians and people, their complementary blend brought the music to places they couldn’t have separately reached.
“It’s so easy to seize on the obvious differences and deny the similarities,” she feels. “Mike [Heron] was more straightforward and earthy on the surface, but now I see that he was much more deeply concerned with a spiritual life of some sort than I ever really paid attention to back then. We were all much more vulnerable and delicate than we admitted and all very good at hiding it, even from each other.
“So the earthiness of Mike and the heavenliness of Robin [Williamson] were only part of the story, and I do try to suggest in the memoir that there was much more to both of them than that. I’m only sorry that I also took us at face value often and didn’t always look deeper. But then we were a touring band with a hard schedule, and survival was all we could manage sometimes.
“Because of that ‘overlap,’ I think that they could make the music together and spark off each other in a very wonderful way, musically and generally. I often think of the Noah and the Dove sketch,” a spoken piece performed in concert in colorful costumes, but not included on their records (though footage of a live rendition can be seen in the film Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending).
“Noah and Dove” sketch – from Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending, begins at 1-minute mark:
It “was so odd and so funny. I can hear their voices and see in my mind how they were together. Nobody but the two of them could have done that, and it showed the interchange of thoughts and emotions almost better than some song, where sheer musicianship can win the day.
“Neither of them have been able to achieve the same level of communication with lots of people since. I do think it was the combination of their particular and individual skills, the shared backgrounds, cultures, interests, strong passions which also clashed sometimes that made the music. I just wanted to convey more of the complexity of both of them, to fill them in as real people, not just the basis on which to build fantasies. I think that making them more real and recognizable as ‘someone like me’ also stresses how rare and amazing were the creative forces which made that music that flowed from both of them.”
Joining the Incredible String Band
With their second album, 1967’s The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, the Incredible String Band made an impact on the British music scene that could have been bigger than its relatively modest peak of #25 in the UK charts. Williamson and their producer, Joe Boyd, even thought the ISB influenced the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request; although that might seem like a stretch, you can hear echoes of the Incredibles’ court jester acid-folk in that LP’s strangest tracks, like “Gomper” and “Sing This All Together (See What Happens).” Simpson writes that the Stones even wanted to sign Mike and Robin to their label in 1967, though that never came to pass, as the Stones’ planned Mother Earth imprint never got off the ground.
With 1968’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, the ISB got as overground as they’d ever get. The album peaked at #5 in their native country, though the music was as weirdly wobbly as ever. In the U.S., it wasn’t the same story, the LP rising only as high as #161 in Billboard—the highest position any of their albums would reach.
Making them more real and recognizable as ‘someone like me’ also stresses how rare and amazing were the creative forces which made that music that flowed from both of them.”
Simpson can be seen on the iconic cover photo of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, where she, Heron, Williamson, McKechnie, and friends look like hippie minstrels from the Middle Ages. As she eased into this countercultural community, she didn’t yet have a musical role in the ISB. But she’d drifted into one by the time she and Licorice played on “The Iron Stone,” recorded for their Wee Tam and the Big Huge double LP in August 1968.
“The Iron Stone” – Incredible String Band, live in 1968:
Looking back, is it surprising how informally the new lineup came together? “No it doesn’t surprise me, probably because I’m still the same person,” she responds. “It is inconceivable now, of course, in a music business which, like most other institutions, has become hyper-professionalized. It was unusual then, but it still seems natural to me. We just lived our lives and since Mike and Robin lived music, so did we.
“Of course, we weren’t very good at it, but that wasn’t as important as the being there. We weren’t ‘a group expanding a lineup’; we were four people who lived in a way that people liked to watch and we were willing to put on stages. Part of that, for Mike and Robin, was writing songs and playing them to people. Just lucky that it was a lot of people who kept turning up, mostly. Evolution of the band followed our personal evolutions. We never separated out life into work and play until it was forced upon us.”
“Everything’s Fine Right Now” – Incredible String Band, on the German TV show Beat Club, 1970:
In part because of their inexperience, and in part because they were Heron and Williamson’s girlfriends (though these relationships were fairly open), some critics have seen Simpson and McKechnie’s contributions as ornamental. It should be considered, however, that the Incredible String Band had a more fluid structure than the average group of the time – certainly more so than the average group that had some chart success and were able to tour internationally, as the ISB did. In ISB, could some musicians be less experienced or less involved in the songwriting/instrumentation/singing, but still be full members important to the group’s total impact?
Simpson writes that the Stones even wanted to sign Mike and Robin to their label in 1967, though that never came to pass, as the Stones’ planned Mother Earth imprint never got off the ground
“Maybe there was a difference between the Band and the Music,” Rose muses. “You could say, in what I assume is still modern-speak, that we were a Lifestyle Band, insofar as we showed how it was to live a certain kind of life, then usually called hippie. The lyrics told about that, but the recorded music of Robin and Mike (filtered through Joe Boyd) was sophisticated and professional, as well as spontaneous and childlike fun.”
As she elaborates, band membership can entail more than playing music, at least as ISB worked. “When you think what roles are considered necessary now to keep a band together and on the road, and compare that with us four (with a couple of roadies at best and a Joe or equivalent who dropped in for short periods), then you can see what gaps had to be filled on a daily basis. We did that amongst ourselves. If M&R were the main musical input, we all had to work together to do the rest or leave it undone. We got ourselves onto trains, carried what we needed most, found food, answered phones and wrote letters, or not, as the case may be. Technical help for performances we did have, roadies who drove and moved heavy stuff, office girls somewhere behind Joe, when he was there (often not there). But so much of the daily work of keeping things together was just us.
“Imagine how that would have been for M&R, also expected to play gigs, write the music and do the recording, with no other support,” she continues. “At the time, as above, it was just the life we led and I didn’t define it. The Band was us all, we weren’t part of some external commercial entity. We didn’t try to define roles or jobs, that was not part of the utopian vision.”
“You could say, in what I assume is still modern-speak, that we were a Lifestyle Band, insofar as we showed how it was to live a certain kind of life, then usually called hippie. The lyrics told about that, but the recorded music of Robin and Mike (filtered through Joe Boyd) was sophisticated and professional, as well as spontaneous and childlike fun.”
Unusually for the era, and indeed to some degree today, Mike and Robin did not make them feel less important to the group’s operation because they were women, or only aboard because they were girlfriends. “I don’t remember either M or R ever making Lic and I feel incompetent or less important than they were to the band life. We knew others did that, but M&R never did. I was very aware of it for myself, but I trusted M&R to make the judgements they thought right for their music, and I accepted happily whatever they decided to do. Sometimes, e.g. U, that wasn’t quite so convincing. But still I hoped for the best, and tried to enjoy it. I did enjoy it most of the time.”
It is refreshing to find that, unlike many and perhaps most men in the music world—especially in the less enlightened late 1960s—“M&R were unusual in not expecting Lic and I to behave according to female stereotypes. That always confirmed to me that they really did believe in higher spiritual values of equality rather than just paying lip-service to a sociopolitical definition, as many more politically inclined men did. It’s quite true Lic and I were only there because it fitted in with the way they lived, and that was the point. We were performers because the stage was just an extension of the life we led, a way of inviting other people we didn’t know into that life.”
The Incredible String Band On Film
As Rose and Licorice settled into the band, they took part in an ISB film of sorts that ranks as one of the strangest rockumentaries of its time —in a time that saw no shortage of odd films flitting between fantasy and reality. Intended for but never broadcast on the BBC, it abruptly cuts between fragmentary scenes of the band in concert, on the road, home interviews, and shots of the musicians grooving in the countryside and shopping for instruments. Titled Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending, it had a low-profile independent cinema release, though it’s been much more widely seen after its appearance on DVD.
Lengthy inscrutable myth-like sequences of a pirate wandering Wales—with Simpson and McKechnie playing hippie muses of sorts, complete with distorted ritual-chant-infused soundtrack—take up the last twenty minutes or so of the film. These muddy the focus of a movie that’s not quite a straight ISB documentary, and certainly not close to a coherent story. It has its value for scenes of the band in action on stage, especially as there’s not much vintage footage of the Incredible String Band. But the rest falls far short of compelling viewing, even if it does reflect the colorfully spontaneous lifestyle of the band during the time they lived with others in a communal home in rural Wales.
As I put it to Rose, it seems like the project was never too fully thought out, building a momentum of its own even though it was apparent it wasn’t going to live up to hopes and expectations. “I do agree, but I think the film can be viewed as a statement of the time, and I think that’s what the filmmaker, Peter Neal, was doing,” is her take. “He let us run, because that was how we were at the time, and it was an authentic statement, albeit of chaos. It was also a statement about the nature of ISB, with everyone doing their own thing, which occasionally came together.” Neal, incidentally, had directed a short documentary on Jimi Hendrix titled Experience, and would later direct the Yes concert documentary Yessongs.
“I guess you could say that music was the only framework that ever held us together properly,” adds Simpson. “Once we stepped beyond the music, then it could only be a short while before the divergence of characters pulled whatever it was apart. Mike always thought that we should stick to music, but he was also willing to give Robin’s ideas a try and do his best.” As he and the rest of ISB would do with U in 1970, without project oversight from a figure like Peter Neal.
While it’s a shame there’s not much more Incredible String Band from this era on film, as Rose points out, “Maybe it wouldn’t have been too great anyway, irritating when we took hours to tune and wandered about onstage and Robin chatted away to the audience, or Lic and I were too obviously incompetent rather than charming. Performances were much more lived events, to-ing and fro-ing with the audience as part of it. Film would need to catch that too—the whole atmosphere of the performance space.”
Performances were much more lived events, to-ing and fro-ing with the audience as part of it.
At Woodstock and Touring the US
Had things gone differently, the Incredible String Band could have been seen in one of the most famous rockumentaries of all. In August 1969, they played the Woodstock festival (“An Aquarian Exposition”), though relatively few people remember they were on the bill, as they’re not in the Woodstock movie or included on the initial two Woodstock albums. Their perfectly adequate, if perfunctory, half-hour set is on the 38-CD fiftieth anniversary Woodstock box. It didn’t satisfy the band, or wholly satisfy the audience, for reasons that weren’t apparent to the several hundred thousand-strong crowd at the time.
Simpson devotes an entire detailed chapter to Woodstock in her book, recounting how they decided not to play their scheduled slot on the first night. As the skies threatened rain, they feared amplification couldn’t be safely used and their exotic-for-rock instruments couldn’t be properly tuned. They did play the following day. But with little sense of the momentousness of the event amidst its disorganized chaos, they were eager to finish up and get on the helicopter to their next gig—that very evening, in fact, at a folk festival near New York City—as soon as possible. “Out there was a whole world of hippies, waiting for a rock band,” Rose writes. “If they were bored with the songs, so was I.”
As Simpson tells me, “I definitely think it would have been better to play on the previous night, even if it had only been M&R doing early stuff, e.g. from Hangman. They had always managed to hold audiences with that music, and Lic and I were more or less incidental to it. We could have been mainly decorative on that occasion, and I think we’d all have risen to the challenge if we’d known what it was. Obviously, we couldn’t know that.
“The question as to whether the instruments could have been played or tuned in those conditions is a different one, but Robin could always make music out of anything. So, with goodwill, he would have done it, and Mike would have supported him with whatever could be played. We would have forgotten all the discomfort and got high on the idea of it, and, I think, would have taken the audience with us, because we would have met them on their own ground that evening.
With little sense of the momentousness of the event amidst its disorganized chaos, they were eager to finish up and get on the helicopter to their next gig—that very evening, in fact, at a folk festival near New York City—as soon as possible. “Out there was a whole world of hippies, waiting for a rock band,” Rose writes. “If they were bored with the songs, so was I.”
“But nobody could have told us, or anyone else, how important it was going to be. We were all tired and discouraged and miserable and cross, as was Joe [Boyd], so it isn’t surprising that we all just gave up and didn’t try.” They don’t even appear on three subsequent expanded video releases of Woodstock, though a mere thirty-second fragment of their nine-minute version of “When You Find Out Who You Are” has unofficially circulated.
Simpson even got access to some backstage tapes from Woodstock that confirmed Williamson was willing to play an acoustic set on the first night, though Heron said nothing. After Boyd asked whether Rose and Licorice should play, Joe “[swung] the balance” in deciding to delay until the next day, as Simpson writes, “recognizing that we girls were by then central to the ISB performance.” Remarks on her access to these tapes as she researched the book, Rose said, “I was absolutely astonished and could hardly believe it. I was just very lucky that the work was going on [for the fiftieth anniversary box] and I asked the right people the right questions at the right time. Sometimes that sort of luck strikes and someone you hardly know puts themselves out to help in amazing ways.”
Although ISB’s Woodstock experience was disappointing, it wasn’t typical of their reception in the United States. Despite their lack of hit records, they toured the US half a dozen times while Simpson was in the band. Their cult following in the country wasn’t huge, but it was avid, especially at New York’s Fillmore East and San Francisco’s Fillmore West. In fact, they played the Fillmore East no less than eight times during this period, including four straight nights when they presented their U multimedia show in April 1970.
Their cult following in the country wasn’t huge, but it was avid, especially at New York’s Fillmore East and San Francisco’s Fillmore West. In fact, they played the Fillmore East no less than eight times
As to why they didn’t catch on more widely, Rose speculates, “Maybe we were just too English and niche, and the only U.S. audiences who were open enough to other ways of living to appreciate what we were all about were the hippies. They collected around NY and SF. We were never going to alter to suit the audiences, so we had to find the ones who could appreciate our particular version of an alternative culture.
“With some small audiences, who were happy to have a good time with any music, genuine folk culture then, we got on fine. With those who wanted U.S. folk or professional folk, we didn’t have either the ability or the inclination to suit their expectations. M&R always played what they wanted, not what the audience asked for. As a pair, they weren’t motivated by wanting to be pop stars. Lic and I wouldn’t have fitted into that either, so we were no help in making them more acceptable to the wider pop audience.”
Going Electric – Or Not
Although many ‘60s folk musicians went electric, and fellow Witchseason clients Fairport Convention in particular had substantial success with fully electric folk-rock, ISB never went too far down that route. Does she think that might have held them back from greater commercial impact?
“I can’t imagine Robin on wailing guitar with Mike on bass, no matter who they had roped in to play the other things,” she believes. “When I knew them, electric instruments were not quite a joke but certainly a game, not an entirely serious part of the music, even for Mike until quite late. He did like them, but Robin was always more playful about their use, almost parodying rock ways and lives. Folk music was more part of a whole vision of how the world ran than simply a specific area of music that could be played one way or another. Then there was the whole culture and aesthetic of world music, the music of other folk cultures that interested them both, more than rock, I think.
“Their pleasure in all the different instruments was also, I think, that it brought a greater understanding of the people and the lives that had made the instruments and the music they played. They were both more interested in all of that on a deep, personal level, than they were in the mechanics of making a success within the established music industry. If someone else could have done it for them, and maybe that was Joe [Boyd], protecting them and mitigating all the pressures, then I’m sure they’d have been delighted. But they never did what they were told by anyone. So it was probably impossible to achieve a commercial success, which does demand compliance on many levels with popular taste and attitudes.”
Some of the success they did enjoy—as well as their relatively strong presence on the U.S. concert circuit—could be attributed to Joe Boyd. As head of Witchseason Productions, he managed and produced a stunning roster of top British folk-rockers, including ISB, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and John and Beverley Martyn. Simpson sees Boyd’s greatest pluses as “real love and understanding of music, fine ear, vast knowledge, able to meet musicians on their own ground without falling under their spell, feeling for the spirit of the times, flexibility but determination to achieve his own vision and toughness to do so.
“Joe and his production team were so interested and enthusiastic about their artists and always eager to hear new stuff. Joe was delighted if someone was popular and made money, but it wasn’t his primary motivation any more than ours, so there was no pressure to repeat a successful formula. His own wide musical interests encouraged those of his artists, and he chose people to work with who shared his own laid-back attitudes and diverse interests.”
In the Studio
The Incredible String Band have an image as spaced-out hippies with some listeners, but from Rose’s extensive chapter on the recording sessions she participated in and observed, it’s evident a lot of serious thought and effort went into their work in the studio. That’s especially true of the records they did with Boyd at London’s Sound Techniques studio, with John Wood engineering. “Whether we were gloomy, stoned, squabbling or excited and wildly in love, here we would be sheltered and encouraged,” she writes. “It felt like home.”
What were the most crucial ways the records differed from the performances? “Well, you didn’t have to listen to the tuning, and you did get the best version we could manage,” Simpson explains to me. “There was time to experiment and replay, and even accept the occasional advice or criticism, from each other or Joe or John Wood. Often, we were less tired and more willing to relax and spend time on getting the track as close to the imagined version as could be.
“It was a closed, tight circle of people all working towards a single end, not a huge and diverse crowd all looking for entertainment, so much easier to concentrate and, in my case, play it right. For M&R they had no distractions from the music itself and so could put all their skill, thought, and creative effort into that. Also Joe was there and could help things along, musically and socially, so that helped get the best result from both of them.”
The band also needed to be flexible with their roles, Rose admitting in the book that when she played fiddle on “Black Jack Davy,” “I was surprised and not best pleased when Licorice laid claim to bass…but we couldn’t be exclusive with instruments.”
Simpson also acknowledges in the chapter on their studio work that “left to my own devices, my bass lines were at best basic… Understandably, Joe was less tolerant of [me and McKechnie] than of Mike and Robin, and less concerned to hide his feelings. One standing discomfort was the lack of a good drummer and bass player to lay down confident, certain rhythms rooting everything above them. Neither Lic nor I achieved this, and at the time there was no electronic way to compensate.
“Many times Joe suggested that in the studio Mike and Robin should play all the parts themselves or get session musicians. The recordings would then be stronger and more effective than anything relying on Lic’s efforts or my own. But Robin and Mike would not accept his judgement. They always insisted that records should be as near as possible to the genuine and authentic sound fans heard when they came to see us. Joe did his best, but was often dissatisfied.”
As Rose also writes that “a change of personnel for recording would not have offended me. Joe could have arranged a compromise,” I ask if she thinks it might have been advisable to use some outside musicians for certain occasions. Musicians from the Witchseason roster often helped out on each others’ records, and members of Fairport Convention, for instance, probably could have devised sympathetic embellishments for certain tracks.
“Many times Joe suggested that in the studio Mike and Robin should play all the parts themselves or get session musicians. The recordings would then be stronger and more effective than anything relying on Lic’s efforts or my own. But Robin and Mike would not accept his judgement. They always insisted that records should be as near as possible to the genuine and authentic sound fans heard when they came to see us.
“I think again this is a clear proof of how committed M&R were to the whole idea of an alternative to the commercial music culture,” is her view. “Of course, it would have been better to use other musicians sometimes, from a professional music point of view, but then it wouldn’t have been the authentic ISB that the people saw when they went to a performance. Part of that was the mistakes we made, the feeling people had that we were like them at home, not perfect, just doing the best we could and enjoying it. What we recorded was what we were, not what we thought others would like or approve of. We knew very well what we were doing and, if we didn’t, Joe told us and M&R made clear choices of how they wanted to be recorded. Joe couldn’t override their decisions once their minds were set on a thing.”
While her vocal contributions were mostly limited to joining in on choruses, she does take a solo vocal on U’s “Walking Along with You.” If her singing’s a little shaky, it’s quite winsome, and the track makes for one of the better selections on that album, with a more accessible melancholic tune and lyric than much of the material on that double LP. Was she reluctant to sing that in the studio and onstage, as she seldom took the vocal spotlight?
“Walking Along With You” – Incredible String Band, Rose Simpson on vocals:
“Absolutely, I was reluctant,” she says. “I was no singer and didn’t particularly want to try it on my own, but then Mike wrote the song so I did it. I always knew I could rely on the others and the mixing board to make the best of it, and it was just another thing that had to be done. I never protested and wasn’t nervous, funnily enough, perhaps because I saw it as almost a joke-song in the ISB context, particularly doing it as a song and dance thing in U. Now I’m really pleased because it doesn’t sound too bad, and it looked great on the U film that Adrian Whittaker managed to revive on DVD. Once it was performed onstage, then it had to be recorded, so I had no special thoughts about that either.”
That DVD, incidentally, hasn’t yet been released. John “Hoppy” Hopkins, a crucial figure in the late-‘60s London underground as co-founder of the International Times paper and the UFO rock club (among numerous other ventures), filmed U “in 1969 on very primitive video, then in its early days. A few years ago, Adrian found a reel of tape in a studio which was ISB, but it looked odd and wouldn’t play. Taking advice, he found that this was the original U video. There were only two machines in UK that could play it, one in a museum. He managed to raise the money to transfer the original to DVD, and they sorted out the soundtrack with its failures of sync.” So far, however, there’s been just “one showing at a cinema in London in 2018.”
One of the best places to hear Simpson and McKechnie’s vocals is not on their studio records, but on a 1970 BBC performance of “Empty Pocket Blues.”
“Empty Pocket Blues” – Incredible String Band, 1970, Beat Club, German TV:
Now available on the compilation Across the Airwaves: BBC Radio Recordings 1969-1974, it’s quite different from the version on ISB’s first album, when the pair weren’t in the group. Indeed, neither Williamson nor Heron even wrote the song, which was the sole composition by original third member Clive Palmer to feature on that debut. Remarked legendary BBC DJ John Peel after he’d aired the performance, “Harness those voices properly and you could cut steel with them.”
An Incredible Discography
Although it’s not often remarked upon, ISB were astonishingly prolific in the two-and-a-half years or so Simpson was in the group. Besides the four albums (two of them doubles), there was a soundtrack LP for the Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending film. Now there are about a half dozen discs of other ISB late-‘60s/early-‘70s recordings from BBC sessions, studio outtakes, and live performances, which include some songs that didn’t make the original studio LPs. It amazes me that, despite modest chart performance, ISB had the freedom to put out so much material. But it doesn’t amaze Rose.
“I keep using the same words: we lived the music and didn’t do very much else apart from music,” she reiterates. “M&R were always playing and writing and wanting audiences to hear the music, so they recorded and we were with them. They made the demands to record, not Joe, he just kept up, whenever it fitted in with the rest of his work. It’s difficult to tell it different because you are coming from the professional music world view of it, and I from the totally unprofessional lived experience side.
“They didn’t see it as a privilege of freedom, just a fair demand on Joe and the record company that they would get to record whatever they wanted to and at the time they felt appropriate. All credit to Joe that he could get along with that and manage to juggle all the elements that made it happen. I don’t remember anyone ever commenting on how much we produced, how many gigs we played [which were quite numerous, as listed in the book’s appendix], how many records. It was just assumed to be a normal state of that life and, even when we were exhausted and stressed out, I never heard anyone complain about doing a gig or making a record.”
Near the end of her time with ISB, Mike Heron also found time to make his debut solo album, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. Recorded at the end of 1970 and released a few months later, this gave him the opportunity to explore at least slightly more of a rock direction, with backup from an all-star roster that included Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Stevie Winwood, Elton John, Ronnie Lane, and John Cale. Folk-rockers from Fairport Convention and Fotheringay also helped out, and Simpson observed sessions, as well as playing a bit of bass.
“Warm Heart Pastry” – Mike Heron, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations (Pete Townshend-guitar, Keith Moon-drums):
For those looking for little known stories of rock star excess, her memories of Keith Moon’s contribution [to Smiling Men with Bad Reputations] will be a highlight. “From my dark corner, I saw him staggering through the doorway, seemingly hardly able to walk,” she writes. “Pete Townshend and a roadie collected him, one at each elbow, and virtually carried and dragged him in the direction of the drum kit, already set up for him. He was dropped down on the drum stool, swaying slightly and looking bemused. The drumsticks were put in his hand and the track was played through his headphones. It was like turning on a switch. He was totally there, instantly, playing with a mastery and energy that looked entirely normal. The track stopped, he slumped back into semi-consciousness, muscles slackened and eyes hazy again. He was hauled off as he had arrived, but Mike had the track and the prestige of it.”
Pete Townshend and a roadie collected him, one at each elbow, and virtually carried and dragged him in the direction of the drum kit, already set up for him. He was dropped down on the drum stool, swaying slightly and looking bemused. The drumsticks were put in his hand and the track was played through his headphones. It was like turning on a switch. He was totally there, instantly, playing with a mastery and energy that looked entirely normal.
More than Williamson, Heron was inclined toward rock. He’d even played in an Edinburgh rock group, the Abstracts, before ISB formed. “I used to think he could have made it as a rock star, and I think he would very much have liked to do that in some ways,” Simpson says. “Now, I think that if he could have maintained that life, he would have achieved it. Enough influential people knew and liked him as a person and a musician to have been sympathetic and helped if he had demanded to go that way.
“But then, Mike didn’t make those demands, wasn’t forceful and proactive in the ways that would have been necessary. Maybe he just didn’t want it enough, or felt he couldn’t do it alone and never found the right people to work with. I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t willing to live that sort of life when it came to the point that it was possible. Maybe he was just too nice and sweet-natured to be a rock god.”
Scientology and the ISB
The main reason Simpson wouldn’t be in ISB much longer was because of the band’s immersion, starting at the end of the 1960s, in Scientology. Rose never fully committed to Scientology, and though awareness of the band’s membership wasn’t known to all of their fans at the time or since, it had a definite effect on their career and music.
“Membership of the cult suggested greater harmony between us, but also dissolved our commitment to the music,” she writes. “Writing, playing, and performing were now the source of necessary income, and no longer the spiritual or creative center of Mike and Robin’s lives.”
Was this among the most difficult part of her history to remember and write about, especially as it changed the way ISB operated in crucial respects?
“It was definitely the most difficult part to write, partly because it still makes me unhappy and uncomfortable, and partly because at that point I started to distance myself, emotionally and intellectually, from all that part of ISB life. And that meant from the other three themselves because, as I keep saying, it was a way of life rather than a job, and if they were committed to something and I wasn’t, then it split us up on serious levels. There was also less to remember because our lives together were fragmenting and I didn’t spend so much time with them as before.”
Did she stay as long as she did because the stability of the group might have been more important to her, at least for that brief time, than risking the problems and break that might have occurred earlier had she not had anything to do with Scientology? “I wouldn’t have left ISB if I could have stayed with them and not be forced to be a Scientologist. I could cope happily enough with all the other vagaries of relationships and all the other experiments with beliefs. It was interesting and exciting to come across all the new ideas. I never thought of ‘the stability of the group,’ it was just being together with people I enjoyed to live with and each accepting the oddness of the others.
“I knew from the start that we all had to go along in roughly the same directions of belief, but until that point there was a wide road to walk along. With Scientology it suddenly became the straight and narrow path, and I couldn’t bear it. I can imagine Mike and Robin might have kept going together, gradually following separate paths more and more, but that’s all fantasy.
“Who knows what would have happened without Scientology? I do know that I wouldn’t have become so alienated from them had it not been for their involvement with a cult which excluded all who didn’t believe and obey, marginalizing and finally excluding them as evil influences.”
Boyd’s been forthright in his opinion that ISB’s music declined after they became Scientologists, dimming his enthusiasm for working with the band. “ISB’s output lost its inventiveness, its charm and the wild beauty of its melodies,” he wrote in a 1997 article for the Guardian. “They were more efficient in the studio, but there were fewer moments of surprise and inspiration. Songs began to sound much the same.”
Many fans haven’t been aware that some of the songs were specifically Scientology-inspired, as detailed in Simpson’s book. Does she think she and Joe might have a different perspective on whether the music declined, being on the inside and seeing changes that wouldn’t have been obvious to the public?
“I do think that as they were forced into the Scientology straitjacket, it would have been impossible to work in the same free-flowing, entirely spontaneous way,” she says. “If you have to be in the office at 9am dressed tidily for a course, you can’t stay up all night to watch the dawn or listen to music stoned out of your mind, or listen to the trees as your friends and equals. You can’t look at Indian miniatures or Tantric art and see your own beliefs in them, because your beliefs exclude all those images and call them false gods. Your mind shrinks and your emotions atrophy, and that can’t be helpful for any creative artist.
“Okay, you still have your skills and techniques. But so much else is lost and the decline, I think, is inevitable. But that’s only my idea, and I’m very prejudiced in this area of judgement. It was not my choice, and I stuck with it as long as I could because I liked that life along with them.”
U, and Leaving the Incredible String Band
Boyd’s bond with the band also weakened when they collaborated with performance ensemble Stone Monkey in a rather haphazard multimedia theatrical production, U. Although the double album of the same name recorded in conjunction with the production was actually a quite diverse and at times impressive set, the show was poorly reviewed. U was scaled back, and then discontinued altogether after the group ran out of funds to keep staging it.
“I can only hear it still as part of a production I didn’t enjoy and which I felt had too many faults to last beyond the short time of its performances,” Simpson told me for my story on Witchseason that appeared last year on this site. “I can see there are some good tracks and that it is eclectic, but many of them are contrived repetitive, derivative, pastiches of earlier ISB and just don’t have that ‘straight from the heart’ genuineness and originality that I value in Mike and Robin’s music. The whole social experience of the collaboration with Stone Monkey did, I think, undermine ISB’s tenuous unity, and the influences of Scientology are only too obvious in the production itself and some of the tracks.
“Witchseason was not enthusiastic about it. Like me, they generally regarded it as an unwelcome diversion from what made ISB powerful. The delight in the amateur and unschooled, which was good and important in the context of Heron and Williamson’s musical talents, didn’t work on that scale of production. Williamson would probably not have accepted any sort of Director but now even Stone Monkey people recognize how much one was needed.
BBC2 (Scotland) documentary Retying the Knot:
“Williamson’s stronger personality carried the day despite others’ doubts, but there was no unity of intent and therefore some lack of commitment from many of us involved. We made no attempt to plan the project, and only perfunctory rehearsals for performances or music. All was ad hoc and still feels scrappy and insecure to me. What could be charming in the spontaneity of performance was irritating on that scale, and just confusing and strange for many audiences who expected an ISB concert.”
In our more recent interview, she points out that Stone Monkey’s presence was a kind of extension of how ISB evolved according to how they lived their lives and the friends with whom they lived. Earlier that had come into play, of course, when she and Licorice joined Williamson and Heron. “When Stone Monkey, who were equally lacking in professional talent, came along, M&R invited them onstage too, not just their original girlfriends. Professionalism was actively rejected. That’s what folk culture is: of the folk, the amateurs, the people who live the lives they sing and play. It is rooted in the very earth of the land, growing from it as the plants grow, sung along with work and festivals, midsummer and midwinter, not performed for money at organized events.
“Obviously we weren’t genuine folk culture in that sense. But we were hoping to reflect that in some way rather than the commercial folk, beautifully sung by lovely voices and highly produced and presented. Only consider what a motley crew we always were, not a new garment between us. And as for designers and hairdressers, we’d have no time for them, nor they for us.”
Professionalism was actively rejected. That’s what folk culture is: of the folk, the amateurs, the people who live the lives they sing and play. It is rooted in the very earth of the land, growing from it as the plants grow, sung along with work and festivals, midsummer and midwinter, not performed for money at organized events.
U had a longer-range effect than simply draining the band’s and, to some degree, Witchseason’s resources. “The saga of U helped me decide what to do next,” stated Boyd in his Guardian article. “I sold my production company and moved away from London.” Around the end of 1970, he went back to his native U.S. to work for Warner Brothers in Los Angeles.
After Boyd’s departure, added Simpson in my Witchseason piece, the way ISB operated was “totally different. His substitutes got personally involved with Mike or Robin, took sides, were unable to maintain necessary detachment, could not manage them as Joe could when necessary, and didn’t have the experience of bands, the knowledge, personal charisma and negotiating power that keeps a band comparatively happy and healthy and together. The touring and performance structure was OK, publishing rights absolutely chaotic, but then that had always got problematic. And maybe, with Scientology in the ascendant, even Joe couldn’t have managed ISB for their advantage. He remained record producer while I was with them, but lost that intimate knowledge of the band’s personalities which had enabled him to bring the best out in both H & W [Heron and Williamson].”
Rose would leave ISB at almost the same time Boyd left London. After returning to Scotland with the other members for Christmas, as she remembers in her book, “I couldn’t start another New Year as part of the band. I walked out on all of it…There were no discussions, no notifications of intent.”
Now that her book’s out, I ask if ISB’s music would have evolved differently if not for Scientology. “I think it would have gone differently, but I don’t quite know how. Perhaps they would both have found other people to work with, and may or may not have decided to retain their ISB working together arrangement. Once Scientology was there then they were more or less forced to stay together, both because they couldn’t justify disagreements between themselves and also needed the money.”
Another difficult hindsight question: would she likely have left ISB around that time anyway, with other changes in the group’s business and personal affairs? “I definitely wouldn’t have left them. I wasn’t dying to have a child [she gave birth to a daughter in October 1971] and any lover could either have towed along with the band or been there at the end of tours. It just all became impossible because of Scientology and its exclusivity and demand for total commitment. I got on fine with Susie [Watson-Taylor, who’d marry Heron] and Janet [Shankman, who’d marry Williamson] and, although I preferred Joe to be around, I could cope happily enough without him being there. No, it was the tensions between us four, and they were mostly because of Scientology.”
After Simpson began a new life outside of the music world, the Incredible String Band continued for about three years with Williamson, Heron, and various other musicians, McKechnie leaving in 1972. Like Heron, Williamson released his first solo LP (1972’s Myrrh) while he was still in the band, going on to issue literally dozens of albums over the next forty years. The less prolific Heron also has a solo career stretching to the present day, with more than half a dozen albums to his credit.
McKechnie not only left the music business, but has left no traces of her continuing existence in the past few decades. Moving to California a few years after leaving ISB, definitive details as to her whereabouts haven’t been traced since around the mid-1980s. No other musician of comparable status from the time she was in the Incredible String Band has so thoroughly disappeared, leading to unconfirmed rumors of her post-‘80s life and, possibly, death.
Like other ISB survivors, Rose has often been asked if she knows what happened to Licorice. “None of us have chosen lives of financial success, and I don’t think Lic would either,” she tells me. “So she would probably have been willing enough to collect any royalties owed to her. As far as I know, she hasn’t done that. So she is either not alive or not part of any society that relies on money, so removed from mainstream life then.
“I doubt if she would have chosen, as she got older like me, to entirely cut herself off from sister and family. Even if she chose that as a young woman, age makes these things seem more precious and I think she would at least have been in contact. When I last heard, a year or two ago, she was still unknown to them. I know people claim to know her and I have even been sent a supposed photo, but I can’t say I recognized her. But then that’s also possible after so many years and perhaps changes. I really can’t be sure.”
No other musician of comparable status from the time she was in the Incredible String Band has so thoroughly disappeared, leading to unconfirmed rumors of her post-‘80s life and, possibly, death.
Simpson devotes an entire chapter to McKechnie, who seemed to remain an enigma to her and even those who knew Licorice fairly well. Was it hard to summarize her character and contributions to ISB for that reason? Or could that have been key to her value to the band and appeal to audiences?
“I guess, because she was so mysterious, fans could hang their fantasies on her without being disappointed,” Simpson observes. “Her looks, her ways were so different even from most girls at the time that she fitted well into fairy stories. I don’t think she would ever want to be summarized, and it would be unfair to tell what she contributed to Robin’s work because I don’t know. I guess she was an enormous influence on him and his work. They still seemed together even when he was with other people. That meant her influence on the whole group of us was enormous, through Robin, even before she was overtly demanding a direct influence.
“I always have the feeling that there were many different Licorices, as there have now been many different Roses, and we just accepted the one she presented at any given time. Robin must have understood more than anyone, but she claimed her distance from all of us. And then without her voice, ISB wouldn’t have been the same. She was essential to Robin, which means to Mike too, when I met them, and she stayed that way. I can’t imagine anyone who could have been to ISB what Licorice was, and so she must have played a huge part in creating its very nature.”
As Rose writes, “I felt that much of the time she expressed her imaginative inner life through her outward appearance, her costumes a better indication of her intentions and ideas than anything she said. She wrote notes for herself, but never explained whether they were songs, poems, stories or a diary. What remains as marks of her presence are her songs, the photographed images and the clothes she wears in them.”
Writing the Book
Rose Simpson had little to do with the Incredible String Band in the last half century, building a life far outside the music business. In the mid-1990s she became Lady Mayoress of the Welsh town of Aberystwyth. Earning a PhD in German literature, she also lectured at the town’s university. What made her decide to write an account of her time in the Incredible String Band?
“It was mainly that Mike Heron told me he was writing the second part of his and that it would start with the period ‘When I met Rose,’” she says. (Heron covered the history of the Incredible String Band through the time of their first album in the first half of the book You Know What You Could Be, the second half of which has memories of the ‘60s from then-teenage musician and Incredible String Band fan Andrew Greig.) “That felt uncomfortable, and the discomfort increased with time. We had looked together at gig lists and talked to Joe Boyd, but it was clear to me that his story and his view of those years was quite different from mine. The whole tone of the writing would be different, never mind the incidents told.
“At my age you do review your life and coming to terms with it isn’t always easy and joyful, although often it is. The only way I could reconcile myself to my life being part of someone else’s written story was to try to write it down for myself, so that anyone who read the one version could also read mine. So I did.”
What did she want to cover that hadn’t been discussed in other books or publications? “Nobody but me could say how it felt to live those years in my shoes. There were a lot of hippie girls full of ideals and intentions to realize them, but mostly we now just see the pretty faces, semi-nude bodies, and clouds of hash. Some of us did live in the shadow of brilliant men, but nevertheless our lives were important to us and often interesting to others, then and now. We were not encouraged to talk or write for ourselves in those days.
“Many of the men who surrounded us took on that expectation from their fathers, without even being aware of it, and many of the girls didn’t contest it. We were told we were goddesses or earth mothers or faery sprites. That was a whole lot better than being ‘Mother’ or ‘Wife,’ both of which seemed to equate with general household drudge. We were happy enough to carry on and not worry about it. There seemed to be more worthwhile things to concern ourselves with and certainly ones that were far more fun than arguing about semantics. So that’s what I wanted to write, how it felt from inside my head and my body, not how others saw me or thought about my life.”
There were a lot of hippie girls full of ideals and intentions to realize them, but mostly we now just see the pretty faces, semi-nude bodies, and clouds of hash. Some of us did live in the shadow of brilliant men, but nevertheless our lives were important to us and often interesting to others, then and now.
Unlike a good number of musical memoirs, Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band focuses on what fans really want to know, both about the band’s career and her own perception of it. Did she have this in mind when writing and structuring her memoir? “Definitely. It was in some ways a dialogue with unseen fans. But I also wanted the above concern with how I lived it myself to fit in with their memories or records of the band. My monologue, just written for me, wouldn’t be very interesting if it didn’t also tie into the lives of others. I guess I look back on the band life as an exceptional period, not just the life I have always led, and so it’s almost as if I share the interests of the fans and focus on the same questions.
“I also asked myself how I got on with Licorice as part of that recurring list of questions from fans. I remember her so clearly and I’m now beginning to mourn her loss in my life. Not because I think she’s necessarily dead, but because she became dead to me at some point, and I chose to block that out rather than work through regrets or loss. Mike and Robin have been around and I’ve been aware of them or seen them, very rarely. But there isn’t that same sense of a lost person, just a lost life together.
“As I returned to thinking about that life again, I had to work out how all the snapshot memories were related to each other, and that meant defining some external time framework of when and where. The chronology was difficult sometimes. It still is because the more vivid memories, where I can feel and hear it all, obviously last longer than the times when I was bored or stoned or sleepy and couldn’t be bothered to notice much. Luckily the highlights for me also tend to be the highlights for fans, so it works, I think.
“Writing the book has changed things, as has listening to the music. I feel I’ve been given all those years back again, the good times and the loveliness of sharing dreams with wonderful people. I guess I’d purposely remembered more of the difficult times in order not to feel the losses. I had to live through that in writing, and finally looking at the photos [quite a few, some color, are in the book] and hearing the music. It’s inevitable not to feel sad, a bit, when you’re old and you think how bright and beautiful and hopeful it all seemed when you were young.
“But then how lucky I was to have that time, and the music makes me very happy because I relive it. It’s so close, as if we’re together again and all the tiny phrasings and gestures and smiles are part of the music. Sounds a bit soppy and romantic, women’s magazine stuff, but that’s all part of how it was, as well as the grittier realities. I now see leaving the band as a sort of ‘cold turkey,’ a necessary and painful stage in getting rid of a way of life I liked too much, but had to leave for my own health and sanity. It has taken a while to get over it.”
The Incredible String Band’s Legacy
The ISB’s influence has been greater than record sales might indicate. Even while they were active, there were a good number of other folk or folk-rock acts from Britain and Ireland who emulated ISB to some extent, Dr. Strangely Strange being one of the better known. In a way, Simpson’s book testifies to ISB’s influence in its stories of the sheer number of fellow musicians they ran across in their travels, from fellow Witchseason clients like Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan to less expected figures like the Doors, Van Dyke Parks, Nico, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Robert Plant admired ISB, and echoes might be heard in some of Led Zeppelin’s folkier outings.
We might have been very superficial in our understandings and very naïve in many ways. But that’s better than loaded with cynicism and bitterness all the time.
Why might ISB’s influence have been greater among musicians than it was with the general public? “Possibly because, as musicians, they could pick up on the creative strength of the music and weren’t hung up on the style and manner of the performances. They could understand what we were all about, as manifestations of an alternative approach to popular culture, even if they didn’t want to do that themselves. They approached the music for itself and the ideas behind it with some sympathy and were interested to pick them up as influences.
“Let’s face it, they were culturally and musically sophisticated, even if they didn’t analyze themselves as such. They heard all the music, visited all the places, saw all the other bands, and talked with all the people who were the movers and shakers of the music world. So inevitably, they could appreciate a much wider range of music than most of their audiences.”
Fellow musicians aren’t the only fans of ISB, of course. They maintain a strong cult following today in the UK, U.S., and elsewhere. To what does she attribute the continuing interest in the Incredible String Band?
“The music is often great, the lyrics appeal to people, voicing what they live now as then,” she summarizes. “But I think also people pick up on the authenticity, the fact that we were not performing dolls run by some record company. We made all our mistakes, musical and lived, just like everybody does, and were very obviously far from perfect. But we did love each other in our ways and we did believe in the good in people, for lots of the time anyway. We did also love the natural world and tried to work out answers to all the questions that preoccupy everyone at some time or another. M&R wrote songs about it and when we sang them we meant it.
“Okay, we might have been very superficial in our understandings and very naïve in many ways. But that’s better than loaded with cynicism and bitterness all the time. We did aim to be good, in big things at least, and wanted other people to be happy as we were. All these things were part of the lives we put onstage and the records that captured the music. Maybe, on some level, that’s why people still remember it all with pleasure and others hear it new again. I hope so anyway.”