Rose Simpson: Life in the Incredible String Band

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.

Rose Simpson

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

Richard Thompson Announces First-Ever Memoir, ‘Beeswing,’ Out 2021

Richard Thompson "Beeswing"

Richard Thompson’s memoir, ‘Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975.,’ is out in 2021.

Richard Thompson has been one of rock’s MVPs since the mid-Sixties. He was a founding member of Fairport Convention — the band that invented the merger of rock and British folk — and his subsequent, musically timeless albums with his ex-wife Linda have long been revered: Their 1982 Shoot Out the Lights made Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. He’s also earned the respect of many of his fellow musicians; his songs have been covered by Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, Dinosaur Jr., Bob Mould, and the Pointer Sisters, among many.

Thompson has lived quite the life, and fans can read all about it next spring with the publication of Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Tracing his life from his childhood, through his Fairport days, and into his music and life with the former Linda Peters, Beeswing is, in the words of publisher Algonquin, “an intimate look at a period of great cultural tumult, chronicling the early years of one of the world’s most significant and influential guitarists and songwriters.” The memoir will be published April 6th in the U.S. (by Algonquin) and April 15th in the U.K. (by Faber Books).

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‘Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind’ Review: A Troubadour Looks Back

The singer-songwriter, now 81, is frank about his own work and refreshingly open to today’s music.

If you haven’t laid eyes on the singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in a while, you may be stunned at the beginning of this straightforward, engaging documentary about his life and work, directed by Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni. Now 81 years old, Lightfoot doesn’t resemble the curly-haired, oft-mustachioed, outdoorsy-looking troubadour of his 1970s heyday. Skinny, his clean-shaven face now long and almost gaunt, his hair straight and combed back, he looks like an aged underground rocker. Continue reading

‘Greek, without the sex’: Nick Drake and John Martyn’s folk bromance

A new book explores a musical friendship entailing joy, anger, ‘mountains of drugs’ … and tragedy. In this extract, the pair’s friends examine a complex rivalry

John Martyn and Nick Drake.
 ‘They wanted to be better than each other’ … John Martyn, left, and Nick Drake

In 1967, Robin Frederick, a singer-songwriter originally from Florida, returned to London from studying in Aix-en-Provence, where she had met a young, beautiful, meandering and tantalisingly unattainable young Englishman called Nick Drake. Frederick “spent the summer in London with John Martyn, listening to Sgt Pepper and the Incredible String Band, watching John learn to play sitar in about 10 minutes, living on toast and tea”.

She wrote the beautiful Sandy Grey about Drake, which cast him “in the role of wandering, rootless, fatherless boy”. Martyn recorded the song on his debut album, London Conversation. At the time, he didn’t know it was about Drake, or indeed even who Drake was. Perhaps he saw something of himself in it.

Introduced by their mutual friend Paul Wheeler, Martyn and Drake met for the first time in 1968, a year before the release of Drake’s debut album, Five Leaves Left. “Nick laughed a lot at John’s perceptive and witty comments,” Wheeler says. “Those were qualities which John used to win over live audiences … I think John was impressed by Nick’s ‘cool’.”

By 1969 and 1970, the social circle at the basement flat on Denning Road which Martyn shared with his wife Beverley and her young son, Wesley, was drawn largely from the Witchseason production and management company, and the Island label. It offered a familial, nurturing camaraderie. Nick Drake often dropped in; he, Martyn, and Richard Thompson would play in each other’s company, but almost always individually rather than interacting with one another. “I never remember them jamming together,” says Linda Thompson. “They were all brilliant guitarists, very different and stylised, so you couldn’t just jump in. They were careful not to tread on each other’s toes. It’s a dick thing; they all wanted to be better than each other.”

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Book review: Divine Images

JASON WHITTAKER | University of Chicago Press

Although relatively obscure during his lifetime, William Blake has become one of the most popular English artists and writers, through poems such as “The Tyger” and “Jerusalem,” and images including The Ancient of Days. Less well-known is Blake’s radical religious and political temperament and that his visionary art was created to express a personal mythology that sought to recreate an entirely new approach to philosophy and art. This book examines both Blake’s visual and poetic work over his long career, from early engravings and poems to his final illustrations, to Dante and the Book of Job. Divine Images further explores Blake’s immense popular appeal and influence after his death, offering an inspirational look at a pioneering figure.

Source: Divine Images