The Sheet Music of the Incredible String Band
by Martin Williams (email@example.com)
You've got the LP, you've got the CD, you've read the lyrics - but you may not have seen the
sheet music. I've seen very little in print about the sheet music of the ISB; this article tries to rectify that.
It is worth remembering that in the 'old days' sheet music WAS pop music. The hits of the first half of this
century and before were paper hits: sheet music is what sold, titles being popularised by live musical
hall performances. Commercial recordings gradually replaced sheet music in popularity with the
first "top ten" disk sales being published in the early 'fifties. However, Tin Pan Ally was notoriously
conservative and sheet music sales were a significant element of pop music into the 60's. The
prime example of this is with Beatles sheet music; album tracks were individually printed and sold, each
with unique artwork (a best-seller waiting to be compiled, there) certainly up to and including
Revolver in 1966.
The String Band were never in that category, nor indeed of that era; nevertheless, two volumes of
sheet music were published, in 1969 and 1973 respectively. They are of interest to fans not only for
their music (if you play) but also for their photographs, interviews and musical analysis.
The first volume, simply titled 'The Incredible String Band' has the Hangman's Beautiful Daughter pictures
on the front and back cover. It contains all the songs from that album and from 5000 Spirits, and
most from the first album, plus a few from Wee Tam and Big Huge. Omitted from the first album are
the two "trad" titles, Schaeffer's Jig and Niggertown, Palmer's one and only ISB title Empty
Pocket Blues, Robin's Womankind and Mike's Can't Keep Me Here. Included from WT/BH are
Cousin Caterpillar, The Greatest Friend and You Get Brighter.
Photographically, we have a range of material, nine in all, only one of which I've seen elsewhere. Four
appear to be 'out-takes' from the HBD cover sessions, including one very '67-looking cross-legged
candle-gazing specimen! Robin is sporting a beard and moustache on these. Another four appear
to be from the sessions that were used on the Wee Tam/Big Huge covers (one is the shot used for
the single album release of Big Huge). The shot printed on page 5 is clearly reversed - or else Robin
sometimes played his guitar left-handed! The final shot shows Robin attempting to conduct a group of
musicians, in what appears to be a recording studio. Can't place this one at all. In fact, the only
instrument visible is a whistle, so maybe they were singers.
The volume also contains an introductory history of the Band, personal descriptions of themselves by
Robin and Mike (reproduced in their own handwriting - interesting!), and an extensive account
of the music itself, written by Happy Traum who had the unenviable task of trying to transcribe the
likes of A Very Cellular Song onto sheet music!
The quality of the musical transcription is first rate, vastly above the norm for popular music.
Play it like it says and it sounds like what the ISB played. This may seem unsurprising,
but to anyone familiar with sheet music it will be astonishing! Happy Traum has included sung
melody, guitar chords and tuning (most of the songs make use of weird guitar tunings, so
the chord shapes, which are given, are totally strange), picking patterns and where
appropriate, keyboard parts. Such an accurate transcription could only have been possible, I
imagine, by close co-operation between the ISB and Happy Traum.
The personal sheets are interesting, in a 60's sort of way: Robin says of his favourite things "Music is
prayer, everything else is interesting in an infinite sort of way", whereas Mike cites "melons, turkish
delight, Salvador Dali, ivy, ferns, the things that happen behind any pair of eyes" - and then disowns
his list in favour of everything generally!
A few technical details. All the songs (even the Wee Tam ones) are copyright 1967 Paradox Music.
The book was produced, curiously, in the States by Music Sales Corporation, and distributed
in the UK by their British branch. The ISBN is 0-8256-6009-2, and it cost a heart-breaking £1.25!
Four years later, a second volume, with the cunning title "The Incredible String Band - A Second
Songbook" appeared, also distributed by Music Sales. The copyright this time lies with Warlock
Music, it was edited by Deepdown Productions with photography by Mitch Walker (who worked with
the ISB from Myrrh through to the "Art Direction and Caligraphy" on Heron's first post-ISB album. No
ISBN is stated.
The contrast with the earlier book could hardly be greater. The songs are presented in a more
'standard' fashion: melody line, lyrics, treble and bass piano part, standard guitar chords. And this reflects
the change in their music - less folk guitar, more scored. No credit is given as to who transcribed
the music, but it is flawlessly accurate.
The choice of songs is interesting, given the date. Five albums are represented: the two solo efforts,
Liquid Acrobat, Earthspan and No Ruinous Feud. (Thus, tragically, we have no music published
whatsoever from Changing Horses, I Looked Up, Be Glad, U, or Hard Rope, and precious little from
Wee Tam/Big Huge.) The track listings are as follows:
Smiling Men: Flowers of the Forest, Feast of Stephen
Liquid Acrobat: Painted Chariot, Evolution Rag, Cosmic Boy, Red Hair, Worlds They Rise and Fall,
Adam and Eve, Dear Old Battlefield
Myrrh: I See Us All Get Home, Rends-Moi Demain
Earthspan: Moon Hang Low, Seagull, Sailor and the Dancer, The Actor, Restless Night, Antoine
No Ruinous Feud: All tracks except the cover versions
26 tracks in all, and a snip at £2.25. This volume was clearly produced in the UK (perhaps that's why it
doesn't have an ISBN!)
The photography is superb, featuring solo shots of Robin, Mike and an amazingly airborne Malcolm on
the front cover. The back cover locates the period definitively: five colour photos featuring Gerard,
Robin, Mike plus an unknown (to me), Mike Stan and Gerard, and finally a wistful Malcolm. The interior
artwork is as good. Page five is again given over to Robin, this time a shamelessly romantic pointillist
rendition of a portrait photograph. Quite unlike anything else I've ever seen of the ISB. Ignoring a
perversely ancient duo photo from their Glasgow days, the rest of the photos preface the five albums
represented and are intelligently drawn from publicity shots of the time. My favourites are the
roguish foursome introducing Liquid Acrobat (frankly, vastly superior to anything on that album's
cover), and the splendid shot of Malcolm sledging in the snow (at Glenrow?) at the beginning of
the Earthspan section.
The volume also contains an interesting interview, conducted on the 24th June 1973, with Robin and
Mike (who thus still appeared to represent the band). It should be reproduced in full somewhere, but
for now, I'll finish as they did, with their parting comments:
Mike: In the future there will be change. Progress and change. At the moment we are at a moving point, not
still at all.
Robin: That's right. It's very true that we are in the middle of a lot of changes, and the group will be
Mike: In one way 'No Ruinous Feud' was the end of a cycle. And at this point now we're far enough ahead
from the end of that cycle to be writing in the middle of another one. It's a very fruitful time right
now. It's going to be really exciting to see what shoots on."
Back to the ISB pictures