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So knotty but nice

Rob Adams reveals why the Incredible String Band will never be short of fans So the sixties peace and love message had a pragmatic basis.

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Billy Connolly is describing the Incredible String Band's Saturday night, Sunday morning happenings on the top floor of a disused, stairless department store in Sauchiehall Street. In this ''all-night shebeen'', as the Incredibles' Robin Williamson puts it, crushed velvet-clad hippies mixed amiably with neds on their way home from the dancing. ''Nobody could ask you outside to give you a smack in the mouth,'' Connolly tells BBC Scotland's EX:S: Retying the Knot: The Incredible String Band, ''because you couldn't get outside. You had to wait for the lift.'' Ah, the etiquette of the square-go. From these beginnings came a band that changed people's lives the world over. A band that within a few years was to progress from Sauchiehall Street to a spot immediately after Canned Heat at Woodstock. A band whose followers travelled from Canada, Australia and Japan to attend their reunion gig, along the road from their all-night shebeen, in the Henry Wood Hall, 23 years after they split up. Their detractors called them hippie-dippy nonsense. Fine, but it's difficult to imagine other British stars of Woodstock, Ten Years After, say, inspiring the same loyalty. Connolly, still an unashamed Incredibles fan, used to wonder where this audience full of ''people who looked like Charles the First'' came from and what they did during the week. They were probably doing everyday jobs, like working in an accountant's office, as Mike Heron was when Robin Williamson wafted into view, leading him into a world of whitewashed walls, strings of garlic, and Kerouac novels - Kerouac remains a hero of Heron's to this day. Outside office hours, Heron played in rock bands; Williamson was a fully-fledged beatnik. With Clive Palmer they formed the Incredibles, playing a ''gipsy, vaudeville, jug band, Celtic mixture'', in Williamson's words. In early 1966, they came to the attention of Joe Boyd, later to produce Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and a raft of other folk/ rock notables, who had landed a job with Elektra Records. Boyd was given a budget of #150, no less, to record their first album. Then they went their separate ways, Palmer travelling to Afghanistan and into relative obscurity, and Williamson going to Morocco. Here he intended to sit under a tree and study Arabic flute for the rest of his life. By early 1967, though, he was back with a rucksack full of instruments, working with Heron on what was to become The 5000 Spirits album. To the gypsy, vaudeville, jug band, Celtic mixture were added all sorts of exotic flavours. If they'd been marketing-minded, they'd have called their music World Music and patented the name. As it was, they just played what they felt fitted the songs, songs that inspired Led Zeppelin to buy The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter and ''follow the instructions''.

The ''little upstate folk festival'' which became Woodstock was, says Boyd, a painful experience. The sea of heads wanted to boogie in the mud; ISB gave them wistful tales of myths and legend. They've never been included in any of the films, which tells you something, says Heron. By then the tensions were setting in. Williamson had invited the splendidly named Licorice McKechnie to sing. Heron evened things up by buying his partner, Rose Simpson, a bass guitar. Simpson, who went on to become the Lady Mayor of Aberystwyth, recalls it all with the look of a Joan Bakewell who can't believe what she got up to in her youth. ''They handed you something, and you'd hit it, ring it, whatever,'' she says, having just recovered from the recollection of travelling down to London in her dressing gown. As the Incredibles embraced film and more theatrically-based music and began inviting more and more people into their stoically democratic fold, Boyd saw danger signs. ''My view is, if you're not great, shut up,'' he says of the new arrivals whose appearance shifted Williamson and Heron from centre stage. Williamson and Heron were, anyway, pulling in different directions, the former enjoying the theatrical side which would later manifest itself in the role of fin de siecle seannachie he performs with such aplomb. Heron, meanwhile, enjoyed watching this spectacle but itched to make more rock-oriented music. In the end, they concur, they grew away from doing what they were good at, which was intimate concerts, while the music business was setting its sights on stadium rock. Contrary to Boyd's assertion in the Guardian last January, they remained friends, if not particularly close ones, and spurred by Boyd's comments, they decided to get back together for two concerts. No-one will claim their Henry Wood Hall reunion in September was sensational. How could it have been? They're different people now. But if Led Zeppelin borrowed from the Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, let's return the compliment. The Incredible String Band's songs remain the same: charming, of the time perhaps, yet still magical - and infinitely preferable to a square-go.

n EX:S: Retying the Knot: The Incredible String Band is on BBC 1 on Wednesday at 10.45pm.

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