Wednesday, September 26, 2012
The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion - The Incredible String Band
The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion
The Incredible String Band
I have been reading "Electric Eden," Rob Young's excellent survey of the English folk scene in the 1960s and 70s (actually he goes all the way back to the early 20th Century and Cecil Sharp.) The ISB figure very prominently in his history which prompted me to give this a spin. I was a big fan of the ISB from my teens into my twenties when I had a healthy appetite for hippie bullshit and when it comes to hippie bullshit nobody can sling it as well as these guys. These guys were the real deal, they make the Grateful Dead look like corporate bankers. They embraced communal living, anti-materialism, psychedelia, magic and getting back to nature and turned it into art. Even if I didn't like the band, I probably would have bought this album anyway simply for its wonderful title and amazing cover, one of the great psychedelic covers of all time. It was designed by Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger, who will be familiar to Beatlemaniacs for their association with Apple under the name The Fool. I had this record on display in my room for many years. On this album the ISB is just Robin Williamson and Mike Heron playing an assortment of instruments supported by future Pentangler Danny Thompson on bass and future ISB member Licorice providing background vocals. The album begins with Heron's "Chinese White" which sounds like a drug reference (it actually refers to a shade of paint) but if there is any drug involved in this song it is acid not heroin. The lyrics are trippy but with all the references to hugging rainbows and magic Christmas trees there is a strong back to nature element to the song as well. The music sounds very Middle Eastern courtesy of Williamson's bowed gimbri and the vocals are all over the place. It is an extraordinary song, it almost sounds like they are making it up as they go along. It establishes the exotic nature of the ISB at their best. In contrast Williamson's "No Sleep Blues" is more like a conventional folk song with some Eastern touches in its string sound courtesy of a sitar. It is about insomnia with vivid references to the hovel he was living in, but there are also various fanciful elements as well including lines like "the size of the future declared itself no part, aloof like a Sultan in the autumn of your heart." The sitar is also evident on Heron's "Painting Box" which is a love song, albeit one with talking fishes and baby raindrops. There is a nice flute solo from Williamson and Licorice's back-up vocal enlivens the song. Williamson's "The Mad Hatter's Song" seems to me to be one of those gotta-get-back-to-the-country type songs so popular with hippie rockers delivered in the ISB's usual inimitable manner, a torrent of weird and obscure imagery. It is another droning, unstructured song with lots of twists and turns. It mixes honky tonk piano and sitar, these guys are nothing if not eclectic. It is one of my favorite songs on the record. Nobody was making songs like this in 1967 (or any other year probably,) it is truly magical. Heron makes friends with a talking cloud in "Little Cloud" which has an escapist theme. The song is a sprightly folk song with prominent percussion driving it along. Williamson closes out side one with "Eyes of Fate" which I think is about perception or as he puts it "you see what you see, you see seldom what is." The music on this song is much starker, just guitars playing flamenco style riffs and the chanting in the background vocal sounds almost medieval. In contrast to the sunny, exotic disposition of most of this album, this song is dark and moody befitting it's more serious and gloomy lyrics. Williamson opens side two with "Blues for the Muse" which is about the importance of playing guitar in his life and the need to make the most of your life before its inevitable termination. The song sounds sort of like a blues particularly with Heron's harmonica dominating the sound, but it is hardly the sort of blues you are going to hear on a Muddy Waters album. On the folk-style "The Hedgehog's Song" Heron sings about his inability to commit to a steady relationship with a woman because of a song that a hedgehog sings to him. No really that's what it is about, whenever he is about to tie the knot, the hedgehog's song stops him. A truly goofy song that Heron sings tongue-in-cheek. Williamson's "First Girl I Loved" is the most conventional song on the record as he reminisces about a teenage love affair that continues to haunt him long after it has ended. Musically it is anything but conventional as the tune shifts around restlessly and Williamson singing all around the scattershot melody. Heron's "You Know What You Could Be" is another song about illusion and perceiving the truth. It is an energetic folk song with the boys playing up a storm particularly in the Middle Eastern style instrumental passage at the end. In Williamson's "My Name Is Death" a woman unsuccessfully attempts to bribe death for a few more years of life. In keeping with the somber theme of the song, the music has a very spare arrangement, just Williamson and his guitar. He sounds like a troubadour from centuries past. The album returns to an upbeat tone with Heron's "Gently Tender" which is another oddball lovesong that relies heavily on nature imagery. The song is percussion driven with a rich instrumental palette led by Willliamson's flute playing. The album ends with Williamson's "Way Back In the 1960s" which is set in about 2034 after World War III and Williamson has become a millionaire and moved to Paraguay. He reminisces to his grandchildren about the days in the 1960s when people ate real food, made their own amusements and listened to Bob Dylan. Given the ISB's obsession with getting back to the simpler ways of the past, it figures that their sci-fi song would be looking back at the good old days of the 1960s. It is a rollicking tune with a bluesy flavor, another one of my favorite songs on the album. I suppose you could say that the themes of this album are pretty dated, kids nowadays embrace technology rather than nature and the simple lives of our ancestors. Being an old dude with a fondness for hippies, I'm more sympathetic to the ISB's vision than most people I suppose, but even I don't listen to them all that much anymore. Still when I'm in the right mood, I can spin this record and still feel the magic. Recommended to Donovan fans who like "Atlantis" better than "Mellow Yellow."
Post Script: In the movie "Pirate Radio" one of the DJs on the sinking radio ship attempts to save his precious copy of this album from the rising water. Another DJ pulls him from the water, grabs the album, pronounces it to be lousy and tosses it in the ocean. Hilarious. This pretty much sums up why that is such a crappy movie. That plus the boatload of vinyl they sacrificed to make this idiotic film, which pains me even more than the time I wasted watching it.