Incredible String Band’s rise from Edinburgh pubs to Woodstock

From left, Clive Palmer, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson put on a street performance back in the early years of the Incredible String Band
From left, Clive Palmer, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson put on a street performance back in the early years of the Incredible String Band
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Formed in a smoky Edinburgh pub at the height of the Swinging Sixties, they were to become one of Scotland’s most groundbreaking and successful musical acts.

The unique psychedelic sound of the Incredible String Band inspired the likes of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin.

And their unique mix of folk, pop, blues, rock and world music, still revered by critics for being way ahead of its time, won millions of fans around the world as 13 albums were produced in the space of nine years. When they split up in 1974 there would be a 23-year hiatus before they performed under the ISB banner again.

Now, half a century after its formation, the memoirs of Mike Heron, one of the founders of the group which emerged from the melting pot of Edinburgh’s folk scene in 1965, are set to shed new light on the celebrated group.

He has joined forces with author Andrew Greig to tell the story of the early days of the band, who famously played Woodstock along with The Who, and Jimi Hendrix.

The book, You Know What You Could Be, recounts Heron rebelling against his strict private school upbringing at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, where his father was a teacher, to pursue a passion for music.

The Ramjets, which Heron formed with schoolmates Alan Coventry and Atty Watson, made their debut in the school playground performing Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be The Day.

By the time he formed his next band, Rock Bottom and the Deadbeats, he was subscribing to an American folk audio-tape service, which introduced him to the sounds of Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family.

He writes: “Here I am living with my parents in a stifling, middle-class part of Edinburgh and every month an alien and strangely stamped package travels halfway round the world to clunk through the letterbox. I grab it and rush to the Grundig: cowboys, dusty vistas, secret pickings and tunings, coyotes, yodelling hobos, shady groves and, above all, weirdness. I want in.”

However, Heron’s parents had other ideas and, dismayed at his lack of interest in lessons, found him a job as a trainee accountant. But Heron, who has been drawn into the 1960s drug culture prevalent on the Edinburgh folk scene was thrown out of his home when he announced he had quit.

But his life was transformed within a year after Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer, two regular performers at The Crown bar, on Lothian Street, asked him to audition for a new trio they were forming to play a mix of “British folk, bluegrass, Edwardian banjo, old-timey Americana, jug band music and vaudeville.”

Writing about their early gigs, Heron says: “Here we were in the middle of the folk revival, preaching to the converted, and I loved it.”

When Palmer moved to Glasgow and set up an all-night folk club in a disused office on Sauchiehall Street in 1966, word began to spread about the new Incredible String Band. It was closed by the police by the time Elektra Records talent scout Joe Boyd turned up to see them, but he managed to track them down and persuaded them to record an album in London over a weekend. Heron writes: “The whole process was, for me, revelatory.”

The trio broke up shortly after recording the album when Palmer left Scotland for Afghanistan and India, and Williamson set off for Morocco. But when the latter returned he and Heron started playing together again.

Their best-known albums produced over the next few years included The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion, and Wee Tam And The Big Huge. After dwindling album sales, Williamson and Heron finally disbanded the group in 1974, although a series of ISB comeback concerts were staged in the late-1990s and early-2000s.