Woodstock Performers: The Incredible String Band

Updated on April 27, 2019
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2018 are stuck in her head.

The Incredible String Band onstage at Woodstock
The Incredible String Band onstage at Woodstock | Source

This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing on Day 2, before The Incredible String Band (ISB), was another band that hailed from the UK, the Keef Hartley Band. Following ISB, the rock program that was to be Day 2 would get back on track with Canned Heat.

The Incredible String Band had existed in one form or another since 1963, and they had already released four relatively successful albums by the time of their appearance at Woodstock. The problem was they ended up performing on the wrong day. They were originally slated to appear on Day 1, which featured the folk and acoustic acts. They had refused to play in the rain on Friday, so it was their misfortune to be scheduled to appear on Saturday, sandwiched between Keef Hartley and Canned Heat.

The Incredible String Band

Originally formed as a duo in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1965, Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer added rhythm guitarist Mike Heron to their lineup in the fall of that year, and The Incredible String Band was born. Palmer had cut his teeth busking on the streets of Paris and Williamson was part of the local beatnik scene. Heron, on the other hand, was still living with his parents, who wanted him to become a chartered accountant.

"ISB," as their fans came to know them, had first caught the attention of a record scout in 1965. Joe Boyd had relocated from the US to establish a UK office for Elektra Records, and in 1966 he signed them to a record deal. At the time, they were the house band in an all-night folk club on Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, where they had developed quite a following for their innovative musical compositions. With a small advance in their pockets to cover travel costs, the trio headed to London, where they recorded their first album "The Incredible String Band," at the Sound Techniques studio in May 1966. It actually won "Folk Album of the Year" in Melody Maker's annual poll, an unheard of achievement for a debut album. The band broke up soon after when Palmer quit, and after a brief hiatus, Williamson and Heron reformed the group as a duo once again.

In November of 1966, the duo began a tour of the United Kingdom, opening for folkies like Judy Collins and Tom Paxton. Originally a fairly standard folk outfit, they began experimenting with and incorporating new instruments into their compositions, including sitar and Middle eastern percussion and string instruments. By 1967, they were performing regularly in London folk clubs, and Boyd, who was eager to promote this very talented duo, booked them to appear at 1967's Newport Folk festival. They appeared on the closing day of the festival, sharing the stage with folk luminaries like Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. That same month, they released their sophomore effort, "The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion," which featured Danny Thompson of the band Pentangle on double bass and Williamson's girlfriend Licorice McKechnie on vocals. That album quickly hit the number 25 spot on the UK charts, and gained an underground following in the US.

The year 1968 was a big one for the band, with the release of two albums and a return trip to the US. "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter " was released in March and quickly rose to the number five spot on UK album charts and made the #161 position on the US Billboard LP chart. It was ISB's first album to feature multi-track recording and significant overdubbing of vocals and instrumental tracks. They soon embarked on another UK tour in support of the album, appearing in such large and storied venues as London's Royal Festival Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. They also paid another visit to the US, where they appeared at both the Fillmore East and Fillmore West.

In November 1968, they released "Wee Tam and the Big Huge" as a double-LP in the UK, with Heron's girlfriend Rose Simpson joining the lineup, where she played violin and percussion and helped out on vocals. ISB just didn't have the following in the US that it had always enjoyed in the UK, so Elektra in the US decided to release the double-LP as two individual records. With its heavy use of eastern instruments and its underlying message promoting harmony, splitting the double album into two single albums negatively impacted the overall concept and hurt US sales.

You that create the diversity of the forms

open to my words

you that divide and multiply it

hear my sounds

I make yield league to you

ancient associates

and fellow wanderers

— The Incredible String Band

The Incredible String Band Performing "The Letter" at Woodstock

The Incredible String Band's Woodstock

When the time came for ISB to take the stage at Woodstock, the crowd was ready for a night of hard rock, not psychedelic folk.

The band began their 6:00 p.m. set with "Invocation;" a finer piece of spoken-word hippie prose has probably never existed. They followed this up with five songs, none of which came from any of the albums they had released to-date. So, even folks who had heard ISB on vinyl or during one of their previous US tours were unfamiliar with the songs in the 30-minute set. ISB's albums, which often contained lush overdubbing and numerous instruments, fell flat onstage, as there were only four band members to fill in all of the musical bits.

Reaction from the crowd was politely restrained, to say the least. If they had played on Friday night, they would undoubtedly have received a much warmer response, and likely would also have been included in the 1970 Woodstock film.

"Everyone had been dropping assorted drugs. They wanted things like Canned Heat. They didn't want plinky, British, thoughtful music. It was too floaty. It wasn't really what was required."

— Mike Heron, BBC interview April 2017

Life After Woodstock

Things just seemed to go downhill for ISB after Woodstock. The group had been living on a commune in Wales and by late 1969 they had relocated to Scotland. Both couples in the band had broken up, and tensions between Williamson and Heron were increasing. The two had never really been close; they had always had sort of a tit-for-tat relationship, and even their songwriting had never been a collaborative effort. In November of 1969, they released their fourth album "Changing Horses," which did respectably well in the UK but was viewed by the band as being a failure in the important US market.

Three more albums followed for Elektra, and when their long-time manager Joe Boyd returned home to the US, the group signed on with Island Records. Five albums followed on Island, and only the second of that bunch, 1971's "Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air," even appeared on the UK or US charts. The album marked a real departure for the band as well, in that it was almost all electric as opposed to acoustic. But it was also the one that made more money than any of the others.

Creative differences between Williamson and Heron, and the departure of Licorice and Rose in 1972, were just the beginning. The band saw a revolving door of members and Williamson and Heron finally broke up the band in 1974 so they could pursue solo careers. They got back together again in 1997, this time as a trio with their old mate Clive Palmer, until disbanding again in 2003. There have been a few concert appearances since then, but none have featured Williamson and Heron together.

Five Musical Facts

  1. Their refusal to play in the rain the previous day resulted in ISB not being featured in the 1970 Woodstock film. The crazy thing was, they were even at the site on the Friday night, having shared a helicopter ride there with Ravi Shankar. If it was electric shock due to the rain that they were worried about, they could easily have done an acoustic set.
  2. The "Woodstock Diaries" contains one-minute of their song "When You Find Out Who You Are." The most you will find from ISB's set is on Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm, an excellent box set that has at least one song from almost every artist in their order of appearance. "The Letter" and "When You Find Out Who You Are" are both here, though "The Letter" has been heavily edited.
  3. Their second album "The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion," which came out in 1967, was cited much later by David Bowie as one of the best albums ever.
  4. Beatle Paul McCartney gave 5000 Spirits the title of “my favorite album of 1967.”
  5. In 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams—who had previously chosen "The Hedgehog's Song" when he appeared on Desert Island Discs—wrote the foreword for a full-length book about the band, describing them as "holy."

© 2019 Kaili Bisson

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 months ago from Canada

      Hi Pamela,

      You are in good company, as the Archbishop of Canterbury liked them too :-)

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I think their refusing to play in the rin was a big mistake. I like their unique music.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 months ago from Canada

      Hi Flourish,

      Some of the artists were worried about the electric instruments and microphones potentially leading to shock (or worse) with all the rain. But, ISB could have done an acoustic set on the Friday night...Ravi did, Melanie did, Joan did. I read an interview with one of the guys, and the explanation provided was just odd, something about it not being gentlemanly to leave the girls out, or words to that effect...I didn't get it.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      5 months ago from USA

      Refusing to play in the rain ... sometimes you just need to go along to get along. This is one example.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, spinditty.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://spinditty.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)