Read an exclusive extract from editor-at-large Rob Young's new book published by Faber & Faber and out this week
The Incredible String Band and The
Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
Extract from Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music by Rob Young
Published by Faber And Faber, 5 August 2010.
For more information got to: http://electriceden.net
In the summer of 1967 The Incredible String Band's Robin Williamson and Mike Heron travelled to the United States to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. Passing through Elektra's New York offices on their way back, they helped themselves to as many LPs as they could carry from the famous Nonesuch International Series, which was part of Jac Holzman's record-company empire. In the wake of Alan Lomax's pioneering Columbia World Library, Nonesuch was one of the first off the block to market the indigenous music of non-Western cultures with professionalism and integrity. Their world-music releases had been available for a few years, but in 1967 producer David Lewiston and field recordist Peter K. Siegel initiated the Nonesuch Explorer Series, recordings from far-flung regions marketed at a sophisticated younger listenership assumed to possess the intelligence to join the aural dots between ancient ethnic musics, modern folk and psychedelic rock. Robin Williamson and Mike Heron walked away with albums of kabuki theatre from Japan; of Bulgarian choirs; Greek bouzoukis; an album of guitarists from the Bahamas – Brucie Green, Frederick McQueen and Joseph Spence; and one of the first widely available glimpses of Balinese gamelan, Music from the Morning of the World. Steadily imbibed along with hallucinogenics over the following autumn, this grand bazaar of non-tempered noises would play its part in steering the direction of the album The Incredible String Band created in December 1967. It's the album that remains their best known, one that took them to a high placing in the British charts: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter.
There is a story told by Thomas Butts, a friend and patron of William Blake, who visited the artist's Lambeth dwelling one day to find the front door unlocked and no one answering his knock. Passing through the empty house, Butts eventually discovered Blake and his wife Catherine sitting in a summer house in the back garden, 'freed from “those troublesome disguises” which have prevailed since the Fall'. By way of explanation, Blake told him that they were playing at being Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, reciting passages of Milton's Paradise Lost. In 1968 The Incredible String Band were playing a similar kind of game (although they kept their troublesome disguises on). 'The only way to make the world into a paradise is to behave as if it WAS paradise,' contended Williamson just after The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter came out. Now, he explains, 'I think everyone in the 1960s believed the world was about to change for the better – that was the thing about Woodstock. Everyone thought the world was about to change, right away, for the better. I think I probably seriously believed at that point that money would become obsolete, and that war was a thing of the past, and the global village would... it certainly seemed that it was going to happen, and it was a shame, but there you are.'
On the front cover of the original British edition of the LP,
Heron and Williamson are silhouetted against a crisp, ultramarine
sky: shepherds of the delectable mountains in thick woollen cloaks,
striding the snow-dusted Scottish moor with visionary radars tuned
to the ether. On the back, in the chestnut light of a Caledonian
December afternoon, the skysailors have rejoined their ragged
community for an informal portrait at the fringe of Lennox Forest.
Iain Skinner's photo, taken on Christmas Day 1967, has become one
of the iconic images of British counterculture. Licorice squats on
the right, cuddling Williamson's dog Leaf with an inscrutable,
faraway gaze. In the centre, Heron's new girlfriend Rose Simpson
peeps coyly round long black tresses (both partners would be
officially inducted into the group about a year later). Five of the
children of Mary Stewart – landlady at the Balmore house which was
The Incredible String Band's base – stare at the lens wearing a
variety of eccentric costume hats. At the back, two male friends
from Balmore, Roger Marshall and Nicky Walton, overlook the scene
like stray attendants from the fringes of a Holbein family canvas.
The two artists submerge themselves within this motley band. Heron
loiters to one side holding a curious child's monkey mask;
Williamson crouches low in the centre, brandishing a toy Chinese
red dragon. The wristwatch worn by the young girl in the foreground
is the only detail that places the scene in the twentieth century.
The photo communicates the idea that whatever the 'Incredible String Band' consisted of at that stage, it was an entity more than the sum of just two musicians: it's a nomadic family of lovers, confederates and acolytes. Using so many foreign instruments reinforced the sense of inclusivity. There was no place for the virtuoso – anyone could pick up a harmonica or a pair of finger cymbals and join in. The pair peppered Hangman's with more varied textures than on their previous album, 5000 Spirits or The Layers Of The Onion: Heron plays sitar, Hammond organ, guitar, hammered dulcimer and harpsichord; Williamson guitar, gimbri, penny whistle, percussion, pan pipes, piano, oud, mandolin, Jew's harp, shehnai, water harp and harmonica. They may have been dilettantes on many of these instruments, but Hangman's is a great deal tighter and denser-sounding than the previous release, and less sweetened with frivolity.
Most of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter has the cluttered, disjointed aura of a dream. Side one is more vaudevillian, from the mocking Gilbert and Sullivan chorus line of 'The Minotaur's Song' to the campfire spiritual sections of 'A Very Cellular Song'.
Meanwhile, after Mike Heron's rejection of urban life in 'Mercy I Cry City', the duo spend the remainder of side two meandering down a winding Lethean waterway of dream and fantasy. The genre-shifts across the whole LP, from Bahamian spiritual to Indian hymn, Elizabethan lament to acid raga, smoggy industrial blues to abstract neo-gamelan improv, act as scene changes for a living theatre peopled by an alternative Tarot deck of increasingly bizarre archetypes: the Minotaur, the Witch, the Monkey, the Emperor of China, the Wizard of Changes, the City, the Woman with a Bulldozer, the Amoeba...
The first song on the record, 'Koeeoaddi There' (its meaningless
title created by rolling a letter-covered dice), was, according to
Williamson's later recollection, 'a dream from start to finish, the
dream I had put to music, so it has the same logic that the dream
has, which is not much logic'. With no musical overture, his words
raise the curtain on a scene already teeming with movement and
growth: 'The natural cards revolve, ever changing/ Seeded
elsewhere, planted in the garden fair/ Grow trees, grow trees...
' 'Natural cards' suggests a hand shuffling the Tarot pack,
whose suits are divined according to their 'natures'. Then comes a
riddle: 'Earth, water, fire and air/ Met together in a garden
fair/ Put in a basket bound with skin...' A basket bound with
skin must be the human form, composed of the four elements, or
humours, and placed on Earth (the 'garden fair'). Then Williamson,
the impish tease, casts this red herring back into the waters:
'If you answer this riddle you'll never begin.' Much
later, pressed about these lines, he commented: 'If you answer the
riddle you'll never begin; there's no answer to the riddle... There
are bits and pieces about early memories in Edinburgh and so forth,
but it's a collage song with bits of this dream, bits of early
childhood, and it's basically the fact that I consider that life is
pretty much an unanswerable riddle, with not really much of an
answer to it some of the times. I think that's its magic.'
'Koeeoaddi There' primes listeners for the organic development of most of these songs, with startling internal changes of pace and mood, ranging from childhood memories to fairy tales and fantasies, philosophical ramblings, supernatural apparitions and Dr Seuss-style semantic conjuring tricks. Conscious use of random operations played a part too; Williamson admits that he was using chance 'all the time' during this period. The centrepiece is 'A Very Cellular Song', a thirteen-minute cluster of disparate musical molecules culminating in an amoeba's love song ( 'If I need a friend I just give a wriggle/ Split right down the middle'). Over the song's duration it splits into seven distinct segments and even ingests two other songs whole. One is 'Bid You Goodnight', a joyful Caribbean call-and-response song by The Pindar Family which itself lifts lines from the Old Testament and the Psalms. The other is 'May the Long Time Sun Shine upon You', a Sikh farewell blessing used in kundalini yoga. Here, Heron beams it out as a holistic hymn, a blissed-out cosmic canon while 'the energy projection of my cells/Wishes you well'. 'Part of “Cellular Song” was written on acid actually,' recalled Heron afterwards. 'Most of it on one trip, kind of through the night, before the dawn. It wasn't personal though. I was writing a song for the world while on acid.'
Such complete communion becomes the driving force of the second side, which travels from the 'brick and noise and rush' of a city that's 'trying to steal my soul' towards mental and spiritual renewal. In 'Waltz of the New Moon', the album moves into its lunar phase. Nature reveals itself as a crowd of deities: the new moon's sliver is perceived as the eyelid of God and the ring of Krishna; a storm breaks, the waters rise, bearing Williamson's gnomic questioning of reality: 'Ask the snail beneath the stone, ask the stone beneath the wall/ are there any stars at all?' Williamson then bids the Fire King's daughter bring water; its trickling is heard coursing into 'The Water Song', a Buddhist meditation on transformation: 'O wizard of changes, teach me the lesson of flowing.' The deluge gathers force, white-watering into the whirlpool of 'Three Is a Green Crown'. And amid this sitar/bouzouki/gimbri drone, the Hangman's daughter begins to reveal herself.
The key to the code is in the song's title, which indicates the
third card in the Tarot's Major Arcana: the Empress. 'I've always
been interested in the Tarot,' Williamson tells me, 'not as a
fortune-telling tool, but as something which tells you more about
the present. And more about yourself in the present. It's also a
wonderful book of pictures. The song is an evocation of that card.'
In the most common Tarot artwork, the so-called Rider Waite set,
the Empress is depicted wearing a crown wrapped in a green laurel
wreath, sitting on a stone seat surrounded by a field of wheat, a
green wood and a waterfall: she is, in short, Mother Nature. Her
crown is a cluster of twelve stars: the wheel of the year. In the
biblical Revelation of St John, a woman with a crown of twelve
stars is 'the Earthly Paradise': the Empress is thus associated
with the Garden of Eden. 'In another order of ideas,' adds A. E.
Waite in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, 'the card of the
Empress signifies the door or gate by which an entrance is obtained
into this life, as into the Garden of Venus; and then the way which
leads out therefrom, into that which is beyond, is the secret known
to the High Priestess... ' – a reading explicit in Williamson's
invocation in 'Three Is a Green Crown': 'Oh second self, oh
gate of the soft mystery.'
In the numerology of the Tarot, the Empress is strongly linked with the Hanged Man, the dying god who perishes at the winter solstice and is reborn with the spring. The Hanged Man is sacrificed upside down on a tree or cross of living wood: resurrection is implicit in his death. His immolation sets the eternal cycle spinning once more, ready to give birth to his beautiful offspring. Williamson's contemplation of the Empress concludes not too far from the 'Love is all and love is everywhere' of The Beatles' cosmic epic 'Tomorrow Never Knows': 'Vibrating light, forever one the sun/The book of life is open to us/ There'll be no secrets left between us.'
'Swift as the Wind' is one last aside from Mike Heron, describing the apparition of an ancient pagan warrior in his childhood bedroom, while the adults scold his fantasising brain: 'You must stop imagining all this, for your own good/ Why don't you go with the rest and play downstairs?' The disquiet is matched by a weird, arhythmic vocal delivery that Heron would repeat on later songs, as if the words are trying to punch their way out of a sack.
At the last, 'Nightfall' descends, 'washing thoughts of the day on your waters away'. Guitar, sitar and skittering mandolin eddy lightly around each other in a becalmed lagoon, as sleep, 'night's daughter', projects dreams through cinema-screen eyes, with the prospect of the blank page of dawn looming ahead. The rumbling, tumbling rickshaw of time deposits us back at the cloud-cream lapping first light of 'Chinese White' on 5000 Spirits. The hangman is hooded, his eyes deliberately blinded; his daughter is born at sunrise. Here, as the curtain falls, is the final manifestation of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter: the emergence from the murk of ignorance into a radiant rebirth of Gnostic consciousness.