Ah, 1968. I remember it well… well, I recollect interviewing, if you can call it that, the Incredible String Band for our School Magazine. Not the actual School Magazine but, like, an alternative one, man. Archer was a rather pale version of Oz which all too briefly became the subversive vehicle of the Lower Sixth.
At age 15, somehow, I had pushed my way into the band’s dressing room at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on the unlikely pretext that I was press. They do start ‘em young, don’t they? I don’t remember much about the content of my article. However, I do recall falling in love with Robin Williamson’s girlfriend, the delightfully named Licorice McKechnie, despite her irregular front teeth. I also recollect taking Polaroid pictures of the her, the band’s backing singer and occasional musician. I remember how nice and gentle Williamson and fellow String Bander Mike Heron were, and how I marvelled that Rose Simpson (Heron’s girlfriend) played the bass guitar. Most vividly, I recall the enormity of meeting my heroes in the flesh.
Back to 1968. The ISB were probably my favourite band of the era. To me, Williamson and Heron were the epitome of experimentation, free spirit, weirdness, beauty and truth. Their very being, though, divided my friends, as it did the country, and it was difficult to fight off the more vocal naysayers who would compare Williamson’s voice to that of a ferret being strangled. Such jibes were sacrilegious to me and my small bunch of fellow devotees, which made it was a great boost when the coolest guy in our class, naturally with the nicest girlfriend, pronounced that he loved them too. Slowly, others came around to appreciate the band as well.
Originally a trio, the ISB were signed by legendary producer Joe Boyd. After seeing them at Clive’s Incredible Folk Club, a small venue in Glasgow’s famous Sauchiehall Street Boyd placed them on the Elektra label. The band released their seminal fourth album, Wee Tam and the Big Huge, in 1968 – yes, 50 years ago this month. A double album, no less, which was far out, as was the way the lyrics appeared unconventionally on the album covers, rather than inside. I loved the typography and how initial letters of each song lyric were illustrated in a Book of Hours style. The inside spread was occupied by two pure flower-power portraits of Williamson and Heron together.
The album title imagined a friend of the band (Wee Tam) contemplating the vastness of the universe (the Big Huge) and the work was hallmarked by a disparate array of stringed and other instruments from around the globe. The songs were written by Williamson or Heron, always individually. Both men had quite disparate styles. Heron largely embraced a warm, simplistic celebration of the natural world, while Williamson’s lyrics were full of mythical wonder, with imagery raided from paganism.
Heron’s tunes had immediacy. Williamson’s took more getting to know. Yet, their voices work so well together. Their instrumental playing is at times inspired, and the way they blend vocals and instrumentation allows two different souls to become one. As much as the playing shimmered with virtuosity, there was also a coy, amateurish side to the band, which was endearing to fans and annoying to everyone else. Their ramshackle approach, particularly on stage, was a real part of the band’s charm and what made them one man’s meat.
This was a spiritual band in more senses than one. There were two-minute songs alongside nine-minute songs, yet it was a comfortable relationship. At times the stream of consciousness mysticism might get a bit confused, only to be relieved by a nursery rhyme tune. This band can be profound and cheesy and it all works superbly. Above all, they have an innate sense of humour that ensures we do not take them too seriously. There’s night but plenty of day here too.
Wee Tam is arguably the more accessible disc with notable highlights like Heron’s rousing “Log Cabin in the Sky”, colourful and optimistic “You Get Brighter”, and the atmospheric “Air”. It’s a precursor for the brilliance of the Big Huge where Williamson’s creative touch dominates. The second disc starts with the wondrous epic “Maya”, which is sheer poetry and imagination set to vibrant music. The song ends with the sentiment that humanity creates a “troubled voyage in calm weather.” The overriding sense is that there is little wrong with the natural world and it is humankind that must find its place and learn to live in peace with the earth and its fellow occupiers.
Another peak for me, is the mystic-poetic “The Iron Stone”, a slow-burn exploration, which suddenly morphs into the hippy equivalent of rap as “love paints the cart with suns for wheels” and ends in a wonderful instrumental melange with Heron’s sitar duelling with Williamson’s guitar. It’s sheer brilliance, and you feel exhausted and exhilarated afterward. Mind you, Heron manages to outdo his band mate with weirdness on this side of the album, with the impermeable “Douglas Traherne Harding”.
The real joy of Wee Tam and the Big Huge is that it takes you to places few albums have or will. It is nature’s roller coaster ride. It’s green before its time, haunting and plaintiff, spiritual and uplifting, funny and sad, baffling and informed, and it should be in everyone’s record collection, preferably on vinyl. It is also 50 today. Happy birthday, Wee Tam – may your wondrous travels across the universe continue for the next fifty.
A version of this article first appeared on ConsequenceofSound in 2009