How the Capital rocked the Swinging Sixties

Mike Heron - Incredible String Band. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Mike Heron - Incredible String Band. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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A YOUTHFUL 74-year-old, Portobello’s Mike Heron, founding member of one of the most influential bands of the 1960s, is as enthusiastic today about his music as he was as a teenager back in the 60s, when fate would conspire to bring him together with Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer at The Crown Bar on Lothian Street.

That meeting saw the birth of The Incredible String Band, whose inventive psychedelic folk would go on to influence many musical greats, including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and David Bowie.

The Incredible String Band at the Woodstock Festival. Picture: Contributed

The Incredible String Band at the Woodstock Festival. Picture: Contributed

Before that timely coming together, however, Heron recalls he was no stranger to the Capital’s live music scene, having played in numerous bands, including The Ramjets, his first band formed with school pal Atty Watson.

“I met Atty when I was 15 in the playground of George Heriot’s,” he recalls.

“The Ramjets was the first band we were in together, but we were in a whole bunch of them.

“They were rock bands, although back then they would have been called beat bands.”

Incredible String Band. Picture: Contributed

Incredible String Band. Picture: Contributed

Leaving school, the pair soon found themselves caught up in the Capital’s fledgling pub and club music scene.

“I was also in a band called The Saracens. Atty wasn’t in that one, but we both ended up in a band called Rock Bottom and the Dead Beats, a cave-man version of the Rolling Stones,” he laughs.

Thinking back, he reflects: “In those days, you went to church hall dances to meet girls, and to clubs to see bands.

“We went to dances in the local church hall at Trinity and at Leith Town Hall; basically, it all started with Scout dances in church halls, the guys who organised these would book the hall and do a night for everyone.”

A commercial circuit quickly evolved and a “fair number of local bands sprung up,” says Heron, recalling, “we had a whole bunch of competitors.” One, he remembers, was called The Avengers.

“On the radio when I was growing up you had the likes of Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, and all that kind of thing, all this exciting American music that suddenly came in,” he continues.

“But that meant nobody cared if you wrote your own songs, all they wanted you to do was Buddy Holly and all the covers. The closer you did them to the way they knew the song, then the more they danced. Otherwise they left.”

Frustrated by this, and already a budding songwriter, Heron found himself drawn to the folk scene.

“I found myself getting more into folk music because on that scene people would listen to the songs I wrote.

“I’d know from their reaction whether or not I had written decent ones. That’s what drew me to it.”

By now working as a “reluctant accountant” and following a tip-off from staff at Gordon Simpson’s music shop on Stafford Street, Heron and Atty paid their first visit to The Crown Bar where in 1966, The Incredible String Band would be formed.

“The folk scene in Edinburgh was split into two at that time; there were the guys with a finger in their ear, pipe, and cardigan, and there were ‘the smokers’. Most of ‘the smokers’ were of the beatnik ilk.

“The Crown Bar, which doesn’t exist anymore, was in Lothian Street, parallel with Chambers Street, near the original Khushi’s.

“On a Tuesday night there was a folk club run by Archie Fisher, who had originally run The Howff, opposite St Giles’.

“Carrying on from The Howff, which closed in ’61, Archie had started doing Tuesday nights at The Crown and already had Robin and Clive playing there. When Atty and I went along for the first time, Clive Palmer had just recently arrived in Edinburgh.

“He was living in Society Buildings at the top of Chambers Street. They don’t exist anymore either.

“He was staying with a whole bunch of beatniks; this rich guy, who had been educated at Gordonstoun, had been given money by his parents to buy a whole floor in Society Buildings and used to let people just arrive with their rucksacks and sleep there.

“When Clive got there, somebody said, ‘Oh, you must go to The Crown Bar’. He went, and there somebody asked him to play the banjo. He was playing when Atty and I walked in that first time.”

Recalling his first impressions, the singer/songwriter says: “The club was held in a back function room, people paid 2/- at the little desk as they went in, and as you played they would get up to go to the bar for a pint. It was always packed, so the pub liked it.”

At the time, Williamson and Palmer had already been playing The Crown for about a year as Robin & Clive.

“It was going really well but wasn’t expanding,” explains Heron. “They were both multi-instrumentalists and decided it would be great if they had someone else to play guitar, a guy who was primarily a strummer.

“They already knew me from being in their Tuesday night audience and when Owen Hand, who was part of the team there, heard they were going to hold auditions, he mentioned it to me. So I auditioned.

“We tried it out, played together as a trio but we weren’t yet The Incredible String Band. That came later, when we thought, ‘This is going really well, we’d better think of a name’.

“I was still in my apprenticeship so it was Robin and Clive who came up with the name.”

As the decade unfolded, so Edinburgh’s live music scene changed beyond all recognition says Heron.

“In the early 60s, it was a restrained scene. Very traditional, but that soon began to change.”

He explains: “Before the folk invasion around ’62, everything only came to life during the Festival, so you looked forward to that, when the city was flooded with people playing in all sorts of venues.

“I remember the blues people from the Greenwich Village scene even came over for the Festival.

“You had the cream of live music coming to the Capital. A lot of them thought it was such a great place that they would just stay... until winter arrived and they were all freezing.

“Then Archie did an all-night folk club in Glasgow. With a guaranteed audience, everyone wanted to play there, especially as it paid really well.

“That rubbed off The Crown and soon folk became really, really cool.

“Everyone wanted to go to a folk club to meet cool, folky women like Joan Baez... so the scene developed.

“The Traverse played a part in that too. They had their own folk group in residence, Bread, Love, and Dreams.”

And so, as the “folk invasion” became an all-year thing, the city’s live music scene thrived.

“It really opened up about 1966 because by then the beatniks had had an effect and folk was bleeding over into the hippy thing with the slightly more druggy, smokey music taking a hold,” he says.

So, 50 years on, does he miss Edinburgh’s ever-changing music scene of the psychedelic 60s?

He thinks for a minute and says, “Missing the Edinburgh scene of the Sixties... is like missing the Sixties really.”

Mike Heron with Andrew Greig, co-author of You Know What You Could Be, Heron’s autobiography, will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 18 August, in a session chaired by Joe Boyd.

You Know What You Could Be, by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig is published by Riverrun in hardback, priced £20

The Music of the Incredible Band: Very Cellular Songs, Playhouse, Greenside Place, 17 August, 8pm, £20-£35, 0131-473 2000