book cover

book coverMuse, Odalisque, Handmaiden – A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band by Rose Simpson

Heavily illustrated in BW & 16 colour pages, with many never-seen-before images from the author’s personal archive.

Published by Strange Attractor Press – out now

Before we start, a couple of things to deal with – first, the “O word” in the title. I thought it was some kind of ornate exotic statue, but no, the word has a similar meaning to “concubine” – “A woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife … “(OED). This very careful choice of words gives an indication of where the book and author are coming from and should skewer any fears that it’s going to be a wide-eyed uncritical eulogy to the Sixties.

And of course, anyone following LTW’s punk and post-punk remit might wonder wtf the Incredible String Band – surely the epitome of the soppy, whimsical end of the hippie scene? – are doing here. The group made their name on the strength of their stunningly original early albums’ blend of folk, blues, world music and anything else that helped the sound, all viewed through a kaleidoscopic psychedelic lens. Originally started by Robin Williamson and Mike Heron in the mid-’60s, they soon mutated from trad folk to writing their own material and exploring different musical styles and instruments. Mike Heron was explicit in stating that taking LSD was the key element, in opening up his creativity and leading to a very ’60’s spiritual mash-up of the I Ching, Zen Buddhism, meditation, gurus and ashrams. Add a few more elements like living in a commune and making their own clothes and you’ll see we aren’t talking about Emerson Lake and Palmer here. Far out as it all was, it also translated into big selling albums like The 5000 Spirits, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and Wee Tam and the Big Huge. In addition, they toured and sold out gigs all over the world, particularly in the US, where they were revered as the embodiment of the Counter Culture.

Rose Simpson had been a student at York University and also a keen mountaineer. One Scottish trip led to a chance meeting and coming together with Mike Heron, and she never went back. Soon Robin Williamson’s partner, the ethereal and rather mysterious Licorice, became involved in the group’s stage show as well – although, in the spirit of the times, both relationships were decidedly open, which the author addresses in an unsentimental matter-of-fact style. It’s a theme that runs throughout the book and demonstrates Rose Simpson’s skill in writing clearly thought out prose, examining complex issues without being judgmental and showing sensitive insight into changing times and personal growth.

Along the way there are many fascinating stories and characters who drift in and out of the narrative or make fleeting appearances before drifting off in suitably enigmatic ’60s style. Thus we meet Vashti Bunyan passing through in her caravan, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Dave Mattacks from Fairport Convention, even Crosby Stills and Nash (which included an affair with the Cros), along with regular stays at the Chelsea Hotel.

There are frequent references to Joe Boyd, a Zelig like figure in the early days of the London underground scene (starting the legendary UFO club with John Hopkins and overseeing much of the classic pink label era at Island Records). Boyd’s book White Bicycles is a fascinating account of the early days of the scene in its own right, but it’s interesting to read a more nuanced account from Rose Simpson. Unlike many ‘heads’ at the time, Boyd was very driven, energetic and ambitious. She felt that his initial passion for the group – and her in particular – fluctuated once he signed the more marketable (in theory) Nick Drake and then moved on to Elektra Records in the US. He was also a key player in their involvement in the Woodstock Festival. It could or should have been a real breakthrough moment. She describes the utter chaos wrought by the weather and the vastly underestimated crowd. The group arrived to find a half-built stage, lights and PA towers teetering perilously in the unrelenting wind and rain. Soon bad drugs (the infamous Brown Acid) are added to the mix. Much against Joe Boyd’s wishes they refused to play, eventually returning to a sun-baked crowd who wanted to party and boogie. Even then Robin Williamson and Mike Heron were intent on playing new material and largely ignored the audience wanting to hear some old favourites. She reflects ruefully how groups like the Who, Santana and Ten Years After turbo-charged their careers, especially in the US, after their involvement in the film.

From then on the story changes as the group undergo a drastic change with their discovery of Scientology. According to Rose, it was initially Mike Heron whose curiosity was piqued when given a leaflet while the group were staying in a hotel near the ‘org’s’ Tottenham Court Rd HQ. I remember at the time the very straight, harmless-looking chaps with clipboards who’d prowl the West End, as numerous as the Hare Krishnas. All very harmless and low key initially – come to a meeting, have a chat, take this away to read. Given their earlier pick’n’mix psychedelic spirituality, it’s amazing how quickly the group succumbed. Apart from Rose Simpson, that is. Initial open-minded curiosity soon made her question every aspect of L Ron Hubbard’s organisation, the pseudo sci-fi parables, the emphasis on material success in the mainstream world and most of all, the treadmill of having to pay for one course after another in order to achieve the next level. For a group of people whose early motivation was finding a way of escaping the whole materialistic 9-5 working to pay for a mortgage and 2.1 kids way of life, this was a big change and would eventually lead to her departure.

The crucial fact in this new direction was in Robin and Mike deciding that from now on their songs had to carry the Scientology message, whether this was what the audience wanted or not. Once the songs became subservient to the ideology, most of the spark went out of their music, it was certainly enough to end my interest in them almost overnight and things only got worse. Robin Williamson had always wanted the group to be more of a multimedia event than just playing their songs on stage like everyone else. Nothing wrong with that either, there were plenty of people then looking to extend beyond the standard gig experience, and lots of talk of ‘Rock Theatre’ from Bowie, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, but his fixation with dance/mime troupe Stone Monkey was a disaster for the group, who ploughed on despite a disastrous (but amusingly recounted) joint venture in a tumbledown Welsh farmhouse.

Incredible String BandIt all came together in the form of ‘U’, which was meant to be Robin Williamson’s grand vision of music, dance, film, lights and drama fusion – and of course an accompanying double album. All this led to increasing disenchantment for Rose Simpson. By now she was playing bass on stage, as part of her and Licorice becoming more involved in the music. Incredibly, neither of the women were ever contracted as group members in their own right, with all monies paid to the menfolk to dispense with as they wished. Exposing the way this kind of chauvinism co-existed with all the psychedelic/spiritual far outness is one of the strongest aspects of the book.

She recounts how she started to enjoy kicking against the group’s Scientology party line, developing a taste for black leather and some wild times away from the others. In the end, she decides she’s had enough and leaves the row of Highland cottages where the group lived with the Stone Monkey entourage. I’m sure the resemblance to cult survivors’ testimony is intentional. A brief coda describes her initial difficulties in adjusting to ‘normal life’ before raising her family and a stint as Mayor of Aberystwyth.

I hope I’ve made a case for this book being a really well written and sharply observed account of a woman’s experience of the music business and the counterculture, for good and bad, showing along the way that it isn’t always the ‘straights’ who have rigid sexist attitudes and that for many spiritual adventurers the old attitudes were never that far away. In addition, the book is beautifully produced and bursting with photos and illustrations.

More about the book and to buy here:

Words by Den Browne, you can read more reviews on his author profile here:

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I’m 69 years old and have been passionate about music since the mid-60’s when my Dansette and pirate radio saved me from a life of light entertainment boredom. My Dad warned me that it wouldn’t be too long till I grew out of “all this pop nonsense”. It hasn’t happened yet though. LTW reviews editor Melanie Smith and I met via a review I’d done of Nina Antonia’s Peter Perrett biography, “The One and Only” many years ago. (still possibly my favourite music book). I worked with Mel on the Mudkiss online ‘zine for several years, providing some great opportunities, meeting legends like Vic Godard and JC Carroll. I’ve also read some of my stories on Resonancefm and Radio Joy, and plan a radio/slight return in the near future. I’m involved in doing Deviation Street ‘zine/project with Brian Robert Gibson (www.deviationstreetmagazine.com). My main areas of interest are punk/post-punk and “outsider art” in general. It’d take too long to list all the music I love, and anyway it changes along the way, but I’d own up to a definite late 60s/70’s bias, whether we’re talking roots reggae, “conscious” soul, punk, post punk, “Nuggets” era garage, Steely Dan, Bowie, Velvet Underground, Dylan, classic Stax/Tamla/Atlantic soul - and the odd random obsession like the Triffids. As a reviewer, I much prefer to emphasize the positive rather than put the boot in – though sometimes the temptation’s too much – if one person discovers something they love that way, it’s “job done” for me.

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