The Incredible String Band, from inside and out

Finally I unsheathed my pen and stabbed out “It’s 1957 and I’m standing in the corner of the vast playground of George Heriot’s school in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle.”

Andrew Greig Once in a while it feels necessary to go back the past, to find whatever it was that you left back there, sensing it was something you could do with now. High on enthusiasm and aspiration but lacking in talent and experience, Fate & ferret never actually made any of our four albums. That changed everything. Andrew then told me he was keen to write a story based around himself as a young admirer of the Incredible String Band. Having written some overlong songs with ease in the past I now had difficulty trying to expand my ideas into prose. We would construct as he put it “two separate memoirs but in tandem”. Over time, I got the message. Pleasurable as they were, I had to admit that my once burning musical ambition had stalled and sparked out. Jon went on to make the generous decision to accept my initial excuses and allowed me to continue snail-like. To have lived again in 1967-70, with all our youthful daftness, boundless trust and innocent pretentiousness, as we surfed the only optimistic decade of my lifetime, secured by the welfare state that surrounded us, unremarked-on as the air – yes, it has helped. Songwriting was a skill I’d developed over the years through early tentative inky scratches on half-filled notebooks and discarded pieces of paper; sometimes taking months, sometimes arriving fully formed but often abandoned. I would write the story of The Incredible String Band; its formation and the willing abandonment of my accountancy career. You Know What You Could Be was published by riverrun on April 6th I hadn’t kept photographs or written diaries so didn’t have these useful reminders of the past to hand. December 1967, at our school folk club, I heard three classmates sing Mike Heron’s Chinese White, and felt like Yuri Gagarin, weightless in space

December 1967, at our school folk club, amid hearty Scottish songs and solemn protest songs, I heard three classmates sing Mike Heron’s Chinese White, and felt like Yuri Gagarin, weightless in space. Most astonishing and liberating of all, the Incredible String Band came from Edinburgh, not Liverpool, London or America. Luckily two of my friends, Atty Watson and Ian Ferguson, came along with their photographic memories, and slowly I realised there was more filed away in my brain than I had initially thought and the stories began to unfold. Through Andrew I met the editor Jon Riley who, having encouraged me on this new path, discovered that deadlines had no place in my new creative process. But as I left school the BBC paid me five guineas for a couple of poems. We got talking again, and this led to joint gigs, where I did my poetry set and he did his songs with the “chamber version” of the Trembling Bells. Having written some overlong songs with ease in the past I now had difficulty trying to expand my ideas into prose

Unfortunately the difficulties surrounding this project soon became obvious: I couldn’t type, was computer illiterate and couldn’t remember anything. Our ambition was to make great albums, live joyfully, and avoid having a Proper Job. It was nothing like the Beat music I loved, nor earnest folk, not even like Bob Dylan. So it was possible to be cutting edge and Scottish! I would revisit the beatnik characters I was hanging out with and the general atmosphere around the emergence of the Edinburgh folk scene in the mid 1960s. Would you sing the last verse so I can do my yowling?”

Of course I could, for those songs had never left me, never will. And there was Mike Heron singing Air. Sometimes I would wake in the morning remembering the past with a clarity that had been absent for years, or a song on the radio would stop me in my tracks. We wrote songs, dressed up, and in back-country Fife invented our version of psychedelia while we lived at home and sat our Highers. Not having a Proper Job turned out to be hard work, but living by writing has been a version of the life I dreamed of then. We went backstage and met them (no security or PRs), and began sending our tapes, silly stories, drawings, poems and photos to them and their producer Joe Boyd. It was then that an idea I’d had for some time was rekindled. It was playful, joyous, quirky – world music 20 years in advance. Now, however, trying to develop my prose became a different and challenging task. We formed Fate & ferret (it was daft, it had an ampersand). He proposed a combined book in which our contributions would be a totally separate pieces of writing but might cover similar ground. I found it unsatisfactory as I discovered that the pulse of my writing was at odds with the rhythm of my speech. I wanted to think, construct and write my own story in my own way. I had also sorely underestimated the amount of time needed to research where I was and what was happening to me over 50 years ago. Andrew suggested that I talked while he recorded my conversations and that he would then transcribe the outcome. It has been strange and wonderful to play with one of the principal inspirations of my youth, and to evolve this book together, with its two very different yet mirroring memoirs. Though much has changed, is changing, I feel reconnected to my heart’s core, and ready to go on. “Can you play banjo on Greatest Friend and Log Cabin Home? The calamities and theoretical pastoral idyll that followed when the string band moved to the country in 1969 would all unfold beneath my steady hand. Mike Heron A couple of years ago I looked up and realised that my musical output had dwindled and now consisted mainly of performances of Incredible String Band material with the Glasgow band Trembling Bells and my daughter Georgia. The essence of a successful song called out for a compact form of composition. I had met the writer Andrew Greig socially and he expressed interest in my planned writing project. Forty years later, I was asked to play banjo with Dr Strangely Strange at the relaunch of their album Heavy Petting.