The Incredible String Band began playing folk songs in an Edinburgh pub and within six years they were among the stars of – at the time – the biggest rock festival in the world, having already made an impact on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and shared management and record labels with rock legends Pink Floyd, the Doors and Love.
In 1963, singer and guitarist Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer, a banjo player with a jazz background who had recently arrived from London, formed a duo and established a residency in the Crown Bar in Lothian Street, at the heart of Edinburgh’s university area. Their repertoire consisted of traditional Scottish songs flavoured by their interest in bluegrass, jug band, Bulgarian and Moroccan music and caught the attention of Decca Records, who included the duo on an album recorded at the Edinburgh Festival that year.
This was the sound that Joe Boyd heard on his first trip to Scotland. A well-connected American whose experience included working as production manager at Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric in 1965, Boyd was immediately struck by Williamson’s star potential. By 1966 Boyd was working for Elektra Records and returned to Scotland, where he found Williamson and Palmer teamed up with a guitarist from a local rock band, Mike Heron.
The trio had developed a following through Palmer’s founding of an all-night club on the fourth floor of a building in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and taking their name from the club, they were now the Incredible String Band. Williamson and Heron were also now songwriters whose originality astounded Boyd. He signed them to Elektra, going against instructions and adding £50 to the advance to beat a rival bid from Transatlantic Records.
So began an adventure that saw them record the first Incredible String Band album in May 1966 and promptly split up before Williamson returned from a trip to Morocco with a collection of exotic instruments including a gimbri. He and Heron reconvened for a tour with Tom Paxton and Judy Collins and a second album, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, which became a classic of its time along with its successor, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.
With Boyd as their manager they moved in heady circles. Judy Collins recorded Williamson’s The First Girl I Loved. They played concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London and Fillmores East and West in the U.S. and appeared at Newport Folk Festival and, later, Woodstock. As part of the UFO scene in London they rubbed shoulders with Pink Floyd and came to the attention of Paul McCartney and Robert Plant. Through Boyd they were also able to take advantage of new recording techniques to create the blueprint for psychedelic folk as well as incorporate what would become known as world music influences.
As Williamson’s ideas grew to include poetry, sketches and dancing in their concerts, the line-up expanded. Then, after moving to Island Records, where they recorded some of their most ambitious work including Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air, Williamson and Heron parted ways in 1974.
Williamson became a genuine Celtic bard, playing harp, singing and telling stories, and recorded a series of albums on the prestigious ECM label. Heron’s songwriting has found favour with musicians ranging from Chemikal Underground to Manfred Mann and as occasional reunions and celebrations such as Edinburgh International Festival’s 2017 presentation Very Cellular Songs illustrate, ISB remain an inspiration for an army of nu-folk artists.