In 1969, a guy who sometimes goes under the Dutch name Don Van Vliet and sometimes under the gastronomic name of Captain Beefheart took blues and jazz music and said: “Let’s see what happens if we take this music and play it the wrong way.”
The result was an album that, up to this day, neatly separates the world’s musically knowledgeable population into the section which insists that music should be played right and should not be played wrong, and the section which maintains that music can be played wrong, and the more you play it wrong, the more it will seem to you to have been right in the first place. In other words, the Dutch Captain was an experienced troublemaker. That much is known.
What is known to a somewhat lesser extent is that exactly one year and a half before the trouble with the Captain, the exact same move had been performed by the Incredible String Band – only the intended target was folk music rather than the blues.
By 1968, the duo of Williamson and Heron, although still firmly rooted in traditional Anglo-Saxon musical forms, had popped in so much Eastern influence and so many tablets of acid that nothing could come out of these deranged minds if not some of the most deranged music ever captured on tape. He who thinks something like The Piper At The Gates of Dawn represents the ultimate in mid-Sixties psychedelic wackiness is bound to have another think coming.
In comparison with the ISB’s 1968 contribution to the ears of the world, Syd Barrett, with a few minor exceptions (all belonging to his solo career rather than the Floyd era) will look like Neil fuckin’ Diamond – and this considering that Williamson and Heron never intended to use even a tenth part of all the studio gadgetry that Floyd had at their disposition, achieving their goals with nothing but a bunch of traditional folk/Eastern instruments and two pairs of some of the most bizarrely tuned vocal cords to be ever jammed between the larynx and pharynx of a vocalist.
Actually, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is pretty normal… for the first fifteen seconds of its duration. The guitar strums out a fairly ordinary rhythm, and Williamson coos out what seems to be a fairly pretty folkish melody. ‘The natural cards revolve, ever changing… [click 15 seconds click] ….seeded elsewhere planted in the ga-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-rden fair… gro-o-o-o-ow tree-e-es! gro-o-o-o-ow trees!’ At this moment ‘Koeeoaddi There’ [original spelling preserved] lifts off the ground, and there’s no turning back.
At no single moment are you able to predict whatever is going to happen at the “single moment plus one” point. It’s not like the conception of verse and chorus has been completely abandoned, nor do they always turn away from the idea of repetition of instrumental and vocal themes. But repetition and choruses are treated on par with lack thereof – it doesn’t seem to matter much to these guys if they do repeat something or not, it sort of depends on the vibe they’re getting.
Likewise, there can be occasional hooks on here, in the traditional sense, that is. Sometimes. Most of the time, though, the album reads like a long, sprawling jam session, conducted by a pair of completely stoned loonies, sitting on the cold floor of the studio late at night and capturing whatever comes into their heads on tape. However, that’s also the impression one gets from the music of Beefheart, and one’s attitude towards the music often changes upon learning that it was indeed the intended impression, but in reality all of the tunes were meticulously composed and thoroughly rehearsed prior to the recording process. I certainly suspect the same style of work for the Incredible String Band.
As a result, either this music just completely evades description or you can write shitloads of formalistic musicological stuff trying to define its capacities and limitations and still be brought back full circle to where you started. Because essentially, this is some insane, chaotic shit out there. We must be thankful to the guys, though, that they are gradually welcoming us to this world – the album gets progressively weirder and whackier as things go by. On Side A, what you have to get used to is deconstruction – of everything from medieval ballads to artsy epics to traditional lullabies to Dylan-like pseudo-folk to Gilbert & Sullivan.
As long as you’re able to abide by the idea that “song structure” and “memorability” are two terms that should be kept far, far away from this review, everything is fine. However, on Side B the whacked pair brings in their large pack of Eastern influences, and screws them together with medieval and Celtic elements in a package that really threatens to explode your ears, with both Heron and Williamson reveling in dissonant singing, half-mantras, half-dying dog last howls. (‘Swift As The Wind’, in particular, was the last straw for my family, after which I had to switch to earphones – and I have to admire their tolerance on behalf of everything that came before that).
Lyrically, this stuff sometimes makes strangely more sense than I expected it to – the above-mentioned ‘Swift As The Wind’, in particular, is easy to decipher, telling the story about a child’s half-paradise, half-nightmare visions of the Divine and his parents’ scoffing him for having too much of an imagination. (Considering the imagination displayed by these guys, I’ll be darned if the song isn’t autobiographical).
‘Mercy I Cry City’ supposedly has to be taken as a lament for the urban life killing the freshness of nature – a topic reminiscent of the Kinks but dressed in words and music completely unimaginable for the non-pot-smoking Ray Davies. But in general, of course, the lyrics aren’t supposed to be given much thought, unlike the actual singing, of course.
Considering that I have already assigned the album as a whole a pretty high rating, I am now justified in retracing my steps a little and bestowing the best song title onto the album’s most “normal” number – the almost operetta-style, martial-rhythm-enhanced ‘Minotaur Song’. Sure, it’s the catchiest thing on the album, but there are reasons beyond that, too. The minotaur imagery has always fascinated me, and the duo’s take on this mythological motif is suitably weird, hilarious, and unique.
How can we, in fact, find a better description for the creature than ‘I’m the original discriminating buffalo man/And I’ll do what’s wrong as long as I can’? And it’s definitely the first time I’ve heard of a minotaur who ‘can’t dream well because of his horns’, but then again, if you think about it a long time, that does start to make a little sense, doesn’t it? Love the concept, love the song.
The album’s two lengthy, sprawling centerpieces belong respectively to Heron and Williamson and illustrate quite well the basic differences between the two. Heron, as the somewhat more ‘normal’ of the two, basically makes ‘A Very Cellular Song’ into a celebration of the abilities of traditional folk music, sewing together a series of fragments even including one which he did not write himself – ‘We Bid You Goodnight’, a short spiritual which you might be familiar with if you’ve ever attended a Grateful Dead performance or heard one of their many live albums. You never know which corner of the genre he might turn to during the next moment, of course, but, apart from maybe the ‘amoebas are very small’ section, the bits and pieces are all familiar.
Not so with Williamson. ‘Three Is A Green Crown’ pushes the envelope as far as possible. Think a ‘Within You Without You’, I suppose, only twice as long; with lyrics even more convoluted, looking like something you can either hear from the lips of a non-commercial guru or a non-recoverable schizophrenic; and with more pitch changes midway through each recited vowel than George Harrison ever had in his entire career.
This is a manner of singing that is produced by a combination of the oldest, darkest European folklore and the most exquisite Eastern vocalizing techniques – but in some ways, it is more radical than both, and really stands on the verge of being “anti-musical”. Brace yourself, then, and keep those earplugs handy – if not for yourself, then almost certainly for your neighbours. And if you have pets, think about temporarily consigning them to your best friend’s custody.
Do I really like this stuff? Is it likeable at all or do you really have to be in a very certain state of mind to like it? (Not surprisingly, the very first review of this album I’ve ever read – on Amazon.com – began with something like ‘I first heard the Incredible String Band while being with my wife on a tour of the sites with the highest registered level of paranormal activity…’). The first question is more simple to answer: no, I don’t really like it, except for a couple of the more accessible numbers, although I certainly respect the effort and think it even more worthwhile than Beefheart’s. The second, though, is a tough son of a bitch.
I can really see myself liking it – provided I take a couple dozen more listens, memorize all the lyrics, and actually start remembering which of the tracks have sitars and which ones do not. The main reason, I think, is that The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter really packs some serious emotional impact – these guys, Williamson in particular, have a vision, and they’re delightfully and sincerely praising the stuff they see, honestly hoping that the listeners will see it as well.
Upon careful consideration, however, I suppose I shall leave things as they are, for practical reasons. The person at whose side Beautiful Daughter has occupied the former place of more “accessible” music will from then on live in serious danger of seeing all the “accessible” music next to it the way we Beatles-and-R.E.M. lovers see Christina Aguilera next to our “table music”.
Such a person might end up seeing the world in different colours, wearing green-and-purple ties to work, and spending all his time bombarding movie companies with requests to release the entire Sam Fuller collection on DVD – in other words, effectively ruin what little bits of a “real life” he might still possess. So me, I prefer to continue regarding the Incredible String Band’s third album as an odd historical curiosity, useful for opening your mind but harmful for opening your heart.
That said, everybody who considers himself, to a small degree at least, interested in the impact of the Sixties, absolutely must hear this at least once.