The Incredible String Band were the darlings of the cognoscenti of the time. McCartney, Dylan and John Peel gave them their blessings. The U. K. listening public bought their records in droves. They were nominated for a Grammy in the United States. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is a consistently-rated five-star album and is featured on numerous best album lists. U. K. folk luminaries like Richard Thompson and Judy Dyble appeared as guest artists on the celebrated track, “The Minotaur’s Song.” Robert Plant said that this album helped Led Zeppelin find their way.
Their music has been described as free-form and experimental; a folk music that blended cultures from India to Scotland to Morocco to the Bahamas. Robin Williamson, one half of the core duo who couldn’t stand each other, likened his writing style to that of Jack Kerouac, the ultimate avant-garde sacred icon. His girlfriend’s name was Licorice, and she appears on the album and in the lyrics.
As for me, I’m a huge fan of U. K. and Irish folk music, a strong proponent of the integration of the Algerian Scale into modern western music, a devotee of Richard Thompson and a temperate fan of Ornette Coleman’s free jazz. I embarked on the experience of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter with great hope and a favorable disposition.
Isn’t that nice? Glad you think so. I have only one question.
Did they let anyone make records in the late 60’s? Wasn’t there some kind of audition or screening process in place? Were the A&R guys on strike during the last half of the decade?
I ask these questions because the only thing I find incredible about this group is that they were ever allowed in the studio in the first place. They have all the talent of third-rate buskers, the kind of street performers whose sound makes you dash to the opposite side of the street as you approach the spot from which their horrible noise emanates.
I am about to use a word I have never yet used to describe someone’s music. I have certainly panned a respectable number of albums in my brief career, but I have never used this particular epithet.
This is the most repulsive music I have ever heard. After having done the initial two times through, waves of nausea coursed through my body as I contemplated having to listen to it a third time. I started the first song, a rambling babble called “Koeeoaddi There,” and could only take thirty seconds of it before my heart started racing with animal-like fear. I had to break into my extremely modest stash and smoke the other joint that my partner’s brother sent us, having smoked the first so I could get through Electric Music for the Mind and Body.
Now, how the fuck am I supposed to get through Janis Joplin without any grass?
I have three theories for the vast difference in my view of this album and the general consensus. The first is that the listening public in the period between 1966-1969 was open to anything that sounded different, even if it was wretched. That theory has ample support, given the vast quantity of terrible albums released during that time frame. The second is the “Mull of Kintyre” theory, which states that on occasion British listening tastes will be unfathomable to Americans. The McCartney-Laine number was the first British record to sell over two million copies; most Americans have never heard of it and those who have are struck dumb by the success it enjoyed in the Mother Country. The final theory is a combination of the two: the band appealed to the alternative lifestyle/avant-garde thought leaders of the time and got a free ride on the strength of expert testimony.
All I know is that even a heavy dose of marijuana did not improve my listening experience. What follows is what I actually wrote while I listened to the album a fourth time while simultaneously pumping my bloodstream full of THC.
“Koeeoaddi There” consists of several verses that do not repeat melody or rhythm; the structure is A-B-C-D-E-C-F-D, and the structural diversity is not particularly annoying in itself. What’s annoying is Robin Williamson’s remarkable inability to hit anything approaching a solid note on any scale known to humankind. His dreadful voice oscillates like a mis-wired siren and his timbre is nasally unpleasant. The lyrics are wildly inconsistent, ranging from a nice description of a childhood scene in the middle to hash-influenced nonsense:
But me and Licorice saw the last of them one misty twisty day
Across the mournful morning, moor motoring away
Singing ladybird, ladybird what is your wish
Your wish is not granted unless it’s a fish
Your wish is not granted unless it’s a dish
A fish on a dish is that what you wish
Earth water fire and air
Met together in a garden fair
Put in a basket bound with skin
If you answer this riddle
If you answer this riddle, you’ll never begin
“The Minotaur Song” is the only track I found somewhat acceptable—especially now that the cannabis is starting to kick in. It’s a Gilbert-and-Sullivan number that is much more suited to Williamson’s floating voice, and the choral response is well-executed. There are a few bad puns and not much in the way of satiric insight. It’s followed by “Witches Hat,” where Williamson’s wandering vocal cords find no home and neither Licorice’s pedestrian harmonies or a decently-played penny whistle manage to compensate.
Take a few more hits, girl . . . the next song clocks in at 13:09.
Mike Heron’s first contribution is “A Very Cellular Song,” a suite that opens with organ and shehnai (an oboe-like instrument from Central Asia) that consists largely of verses from a Bahamanian spiritual. Heron’s attempt to sound Caribbean is . . . well, he sure as shit ain’t Harry Belafonte. That segment ends with some intensely dissonant harmonies that might have been intriguing if both voices had more discipline and executed the segment with at least a half-hearted attempt at precision. At this point, we still have ten very long minutes to go, so what the hell, let’s bring in the harpsichord! And hey, you got a kazoo in that knapsack? Once they’ve indulged those whims, we return to the organ-shehnai music for a message that is one of the purest examples of hippie tripe ever written:
Nebulous nearnesses cry to me
At this timeless moment someone dear to me
Wants me near, makes me high
I can hear vibrations fly
Through mangoes, pomegranates and planes
All the same
When it reaches me and teaches me
Who would mouse and who would lion
Or who would be the tamer?
And who would hear directions clear
From the unnameable namer?
Who would skip and who would plot
Or who would lie quite stilly?
And who would ride backwards on a giraffe?
Stopping every so often to laugh
Amoebas are very small.
Fuck. Less than half a joint left.
Heron gets another turn at the mike—ha! Mike gets another turn at the mike! Well, apparently he caught some sort of bug while trolling around the Caribbean, for he gives us one more shot at something that vaguely resembles a genre known as “White Person Calypso.” “Mercy I Cry City” is a long bitch about the terrors of the city life that is trying to steal his soul (his words, not mine). He asks the completely stupid question, “But where’s your quiet pastures,” skips over his grammatical faux pas, and begins to babble about all the awful aspects of city life while conveniently forgetting that he’s recording the fucking record in the evil city of London because fucking cities have resources to help you become rich and famous, you fucking hypocrite. Here’s a sample of his whiny moaning:
You cover up your emptiness
With brick and noise and rush
Oh, I can see and touch you
But you don’t owe reality much
Oh, send another carriage
Chugging down your chokey tube
I hope it makes you happy
‘Cause it don’t do my health much good
You’re slowly killing fumes
Now squeeze the lemon in my head
Make me know just what it’s like
For a sin drenched Christian to be dead
Ah, show to me your glitter
And your flashing neon light
You see, I think that only the sun knows
How to be quietly bright
Well, at least he had the guts to admit that his brain is made of citrus.
Williamson’s wobbly wanderings return in “Waltz of the New Moon,” where Lord Krishna makes a brief appearance, probably without his permission. I’m now down to one-quaarter of a joint to get me through the last four. Breathe deep the gathering gloom, my child! Okay, I’m ready for “The Water Song.” Shit! There’s the sound of running water! Now I have to pee! Okay, I’m back . . . did I miss anything? No? Okay, then, on to the next song, “Three is a Green Clown.” Did I type that right? No, it’s “Three Is a Green Crown!” Does that qualify as a Freudian ship—no, I mean slip, Freudian slip! Oh, shit, the wobbler is back and he’s got a sitar! Where did I put my lighter? Fuck! What did he just sing?
Well here you are now o now you are here
Well how has it been so far
The hair and the fur
Lemons, frankincense, and myrrh
Wait a minute—-that can’t be right. I thought the wise men brought something else, didn’t they? Yes, it was gold! Gold! Not lemons! See—I’m not that stoned! Why do they keep singing about lemons? Did they own shares in the United Fruit Company? That would explain the Caribbean connection. Is this song over yet? Two more? Okay, a couple of more hits ought to do it.
Next is . . . “Swift As the Wind.” Oh my God! What’s wrong with Mike Heron? He’s moaning and screaming like someone is squeezing his nuts! Okay, he’s calmed down now. Oh, no! There he goes again! Is there a doctor in the house? I can’t listen to this . . . I think I have one more hit left. Yes! Okay, last song . . . “Nightfall.” Oh, crap, not the fucking sitar again! There goes Williamson, singing in his own personal scale. It must be nice to have a personal scale—that way, no one can tell you that you’ve muffed it and you can move through life floating on pillows of self-esteem. Hey, I just quoted Guided by Voices! I’d sure like to hear GBV right now. What’s that song? “I crept from the soft dimension . . . la la la la la la . . . ” Oh yeah, “Everyone Thinks I’m a Raincloud,” then something in parentheses. I love that song!
Ah! Blessed silence! It’s over! That was tough. First things first. Back in a few . . .
Oh, did that feel good! You see, I bought a turntable especially for this series and secured a copy of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter in warm, luscious vinyl. Well, that vinyl disc has been ripped, bent, scissored, stilettoed and shattered into a hundred pieces, all of which I flung joyously down the garbage chute at the end of the hallway.
Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last!