The Incredible String Band was best-known as the vehicle for the otherworldly talents of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. However, two other members, Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, were vital to the communal spirit and D.I.Y. ethic of the group, whose legacy has grown over the ensuing decades. Exiting the band in 1971, Simpson left music altogether, moving to Wales, earning a doctorate and teaching at university. Half a century later, she has published Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band, a heartfelt remembrance of those hippie, utopian days. Richie Unterberger spoke at length with her for PKM.
By: Richie Unterberger
When Rose Simpson joined the Incredible String Band in 1968, she had no professional experience as a musician. She hadn’t even followed folk or rock music closely before starting a relationship a few months earlier with Mike Heron, who with Robin Williamson formed the singing-songwriting duo at the Incredible String Band’s core. The group’s third album had just made the UK Top Five and the band had just completed their first tour of the U.S. In retrospect, adding Simpson and another semipro musician—Williamson’s girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie—to the lineup at such a critical juncture seems, well, incredible.
But as Simpson writes in her new memoir, at the time it seemed a natural evolution of a special group whose music was an outgrowth of their very lifestyle.
“When Licorice decided she wanted to be a stage performer as well as a disembodied voice, my presence redressed the balance,” Simpson notes in Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band. “There were no discussions or arguments, decisions or arrangements made between the four of us—none that I know of, anyway, or that [producer] Joe Boyd remembers. There were no rehearsals, either, beyond the usual casual playing together in the latest rented flats Joe had found us.”
From around mid-1968 to the end of 1970, Simpson performed and recorded with the Incredible String Band as bassist and occasional singer, as well as (like McKechnie) filling in on various instruments as the occasion warranted. The ISB’s idiosyncratic blend of traditional folk with psychedelic whimsy and various strains of world music could only win them a cult following in the U.S., even as subsequent albums nibbled at the lower end of the British charts. It wasn’t for want of trying. Simpson’s stint in the band saw them issue four albums, two of them double LPs. They also gained a slot at Woodstock, even if relatively few remember they played a set at the most famous rock festival of all.
As productive as the foursome were with the Simpson-McKechnie lineup, and as idyllic as their music and romances could be, it was in some ways a volatile period for the Incredible String Band. After the band embraced Scientology, producer Boyd grew less and less impressed with their music. The group tried to stage an ambitious multimedia show, U, that cost them a great deal of money and lost the respect of critics who viewed the show as something of a shambles. Simpson left the ISB at the beginning of 1971 after the others, as she writes, made “it clear that I must join them in their commitment…I walked out of all of it, on my home…on my future with ISB and on my friendships of the moment.”
Simpson never returned to the ISB or indeed the music world. Nor had she dwelled much upon her time with the group for almost half a century before writing her new book. Yet while her preface acknowledges she doesn’t intend to force “reminiscences into a straitjacket of dates and facts,” there are a lot of details about ISB tours, songs, and recording sessions. Crucially, these are balanced by plenty of personal perspectives on the band’s personalities and creativity.
“We were sure that our spiritual and aesthetic path to peace and freedom was better than political solutions,” she affirms in one passage. “Licorice and I knew very well about Women’s Lib, and we were neither of us the protected daughters of aristocratic families, like so many of the pretty girls around us. Our survival technique, to our separate homes, had been to live the words and music of ISB’s songs.”
In November 2020, Simpson spoke to me in depth about her book and the ISB, shortly before the publication of Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band by Strange Attractor Press.
Meeting the Incredible String Band
As a York University student in late 1967, Rose Simpson hadn’t even read the music press or attended a pop concert, and was far more interested in mountaineering than folk songs. Nonetheless, over the next few months she abandoned university life for a romance with Mike Heron, moving in with him in the home he’d just bought in Scotland. She also soon grasped the essence of the Williamson-Heron partnership that powered the Incredible String Band’s wavering, oft-droning, off-kilter take on British folk. Performed on an astonishing assortment of instruments both common and exotic, it also took in elements of Indian, North African, and other world music, long before that term passed into everyday usage. (Clive Palmer had been a third member of the group on their 1966 debut, to which he contributed just one original composition and one arrangement of a traditional folk piece, before the band shrank to a duo.)
Rose agrees, and elaborates at length in her book, that Williamson tended toward the more cosmic and esoteric, while Heron was more earthy and direct, though there was some overlap in their approaches. Robin was perhaps the more renowned songwriter of the pair, as he composed their most popular song, “First Girl I Loved” (brought to a bigger audience when fellow Elektra Records star Judy Collins covered it as “First Boy I Loved”) and “Way Back in the 1960s.” Yet though they were different as musicians and people, their complementary blend brought the music to places they couldn’t have separately reached.
“It’s so easy to seize on the obvious differences and deny the similarities,” she feels. “Mike [Heron] was more straightforward and earthy on the surface, but now I see that he was much more deeply concerned with a spiritual life of some sort than I ever really paid attention to back then. We were all much more vulnerable and delicate than we admitted and all very good at hiding it, even from each other.
“So the earthiness of Mike and the heavenliness of Robin [Williamson] were only part of the story, and I do try to suggest in the memoir that there was much more to both of them than that. I’m only sorry that I also took us at face value often and didn’t always look deeper. But then we were a touring band with a hard schedule, and survival was all we could manage sometimes.
“Because of that ‘overlap,’ I think that they could make the music together and spark off each other in a very wonderful way, musically and generally. I often think of the Noah and the Dove sketch,” a spoken piece performed in concert in colorful costumes, but not included on their records (though footage of a live rendition can be seen in the film Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending). Continue reading