If you read my PopMatters article on Incredible String Band from October 2022, you may have noticed that all the songs covered were composed separately by either Mike Heron or Robin Williamson. They rarely collaborated – though no doubt they offered each other suggestions.
Given that it was so evident on their albums that Williamson and Heron were free spirits, so to speak, it seemed inevitable that they would each eventually go solo. As each of their later albums came out, it was becoming more apparent that they had different musical ambitions – while benefiting from the huge potential that their Incredible String Band work had opened up. When the decision came to go their separate ways, it didn’t come as any great surprise. It was, we might say, a moment quite unlike the dramatic break-up of the Beatles.
Let’s explore Mike Heron’s career by considering seven of his most interesting songs.
An impression we might get from listening to an Incredible String Band album is that Heron and Williamson were always blithely confident about what they were doing and never had any doubts about their music or its impact on the world. But a willingness to explore artistic possibilities didn’t automatically ensure their ambition was always realised. Heron explores the question of artistic doubt in this remarkable – but little-known – song, “1968”.
It was never recorded for an official release as an Incredible String Band track by their record company at the time. It was composed in 1974 and then performed on BBC radio. Heron performs it with Williamson; and that is entirely appropriate, given that the song concerns them both.
“1968” is a haunting piece of work: the acoustic music has a yearning quality, and the vocal delivery is heartfelt. It’s such a beautiful song that the casual listener can infer it’s a straightforward celebration of the band’s achievements. But I read “1968” as more an expression of doubt about the role of the people singing it, even while it acknowledges the value of what they have created.
After all, it was in 1968 that Heron and Williamson brought out both The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Wee Tam and the Big Huge, which together demonstrated that to be popular, music didn’t need to follow the dictates of commerce but could address new themes in a radically experimental form – music that had range, resonance, and depth, and which appealed to a whole sector of people dissatisfied with the hit parade.
The year 1968 was certainly the year when the Incredible String Band triumphed. But in 1974, the musical, cultural, and political context seemed less favourable. Hence, the key questions posed: “Are we lost, my friend?” and “Do you think we will be sure of all the song / Of all the song there is?” Answering the second question will also answer the first.
In 1969, Incredible String Band released a short film directed by Peter Neal, Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending. It consisted of interviews with Heron and Williamson, followed by a psychedelic fable with cosmic overtones. It was a typical Incredible String Band creation. One could see “1968” as essentially asking whether the everlasting “song” has been realised in their music.
The question is tentatively answered by a resolve to “do it one more time” and “keep the fire a-going” in the hope that that might bring “Bright sunshine in darkest night”. Promise is also indicated by the affirmation that “I still love to see / A rainbow…” One might think of Wordsworth and his faith that so long as “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky”, a state of “natural piety” is assured.
The fact that Heron composed “1968” in the year of the disbandment of the Incredible String Band might suggest that if the song were to have no ending, it would be better for it to be sung separately by Williamson and himself. Meanwhile, it seemed appropriate for them to sing it one more time together.
However we interpret it, “1968” has obviously meant a great deal to Heron over the years, as he re-recorded it for the 1996 album, Where Mystics Swim.
2. “Feast of Stephen”
Three years before the disbandment, Heron had already released a solo album, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations (1971). It’s important to stress that this independent venture need not be taken as a sign that he was already anxious to leave the band. As their manager Joe Boyd realised, Heron wanted to experiment musically in a manner closer to rock music – as a brief holiday, so to speak, from his role as a key figure in a band known largely for its folk roots. However, it obviously can be seen as anticipating the final farewell. (Williamson was to release his own first album, Myrrh, the following year.)
The title, “Feast of Stephen”, evidently comes from a list of “good people to hang out with” in Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers and Other Meditations. Leary’s book is a series of reflections on religious philosophy, focusing especially on the TaoTe Ching but also referring to the author’s own experiments with LSD. By this time, Heron and Williamson had been experimenting with drugs for a while.
Heron’s album is recognisably a work produced with the benefit of the musical advances of the late ‘sixties’60s, as is shown by the array of musicians who agreed to take part: John Cale, Ronnie Lane, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, Richard Thompson, Linda Thompson, Simon Nichol and Dave Mattacks amongst others. Perhaps the standout track is “Feast of Stephen” – an impressive example of British folk rock.
The title refers to the saint’s day of 26th December, that of St Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr. It creates a strong winter atmosphere and articulates the struggle to survive in a rural dwelling during the freezing weather. The natural world is presented as haunted by the supernatural sphere, as in the line, “But it was not mortal step drew me from the guests to meet the night”. So accordingly, the protagonist knows to “light my eyes to Venus green”. Christian and pagan spirituality merge. Musically, the work culminates in a wordless chant that seems to go on forever – prompting various commentators to make a comparison with “Hey Jude”. “This “Feast of Stephen” is a song that echoes Fairport Convention and the Beatles.
3. “Maker of Islands”
This song was included on the Incredible String Band’s final album, 1974’s Hard Rope and Silken Twine, but it would seem that Heron was not wholly satisfied with that version. He re-recorded it shortly after the band’s disbandment, and it is the first track on The Glen Row Tapes – a large body of solo work he produced between 1974 and 1978 but did not release until 1988.
“Maker of Islands” is a reflective song of great beauty. Here the reflection is that of an ordinary man who tries to find satisfaction in his everyday work despite the constant feeling of being a “lonely one” who is sailing “on the roughest sea”. He seeks a “maker of islands” who could give him a sense of belonging – a place where he could “lie easy / In my soul”. While the title phrase might suggest cosmic yearning, the island is simply a metaphor for finding love and security.
Looking back, we might note that Heron always had a pragmatic tendency. There’s an earlier song of his – included on the 5000 Spirits album from 1967 – which gives the following homely advice: “You know what you could be. / Tell me, my friend / Why you worry all the time / What you should be.”
Interestingly, Heron and his friend Andrew Greig chose the title of that song for their joint memoir, published in 2017, You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 1960s. With the wisdom of hindsight, he reflects humorously on the time he spent, prior to the founding of the Incredible String Band, working at an accountancy office during the day and reading Jack Kerouac in the evenings – that is when he wasn’t playing at various folk clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Every day life has always been something that Heron has deemed worth celebrating.
Mike Heron’s Reputation (1975) is widely regarded as his best post-Incredible String Band album. Certainly, there are some standout tracks on it – so many that it’s hard to choose just one or two.
“Evie” is one I definitely celebrate, partly because it’s so deceptively simple, and it conveys such a vivid sense of nostalgia. Strictly speaking, “Evie” is a series of repeated declarations to a young woman who was the love of his life when he was young – interspersed with particular memories of listening to the music which they both loved then, that of Buddy Holly.
So it is that we hear the line “Oh, what a sweet song, Evie” over and over, suggesting not only how much she meant to him but also how much the soundtrack of the “silver sounds” of Holly’s songs meant to both of them. Those sounds now linger as a reminder of his affection for Evie and his admiration for a great singer who died tragically young.
As we said, the 1950s seemed to have mattered to Heron a good deal in the form of Kerouac and the Beat movement; we can also add the form of rock ‘n’ roll. It would be wrong to dismiss the spirituality of his work from the late ’60s onward as a hippie affectation. That later vision had its roots in an earlier cultural experience.
5. “Singing the Dolphin”
Most interested listeners would probably agree that “Singing the Dolphin” is the best track on Mike Heron’s Reputation, thanks to the sheer beauty of the music. A song about war, it benefits from the subtlety of Heron’s guitar work and vocal – both conveying depth of feeling without melodrama. Add to that the soaring voice of Linda Thompson and Ron Leahy’s harmonium, and it’s a sound that lingers – conveying a desire for healing even while defeat, despair, and death are likely.
Two sailors have been enduring relentless combat. One of them has been severely affected, and his comrade is trying to calm and reassure him. So it is that the dream of sailing to peaceful waters begins to take shape: a smooth and clear sea voyage to find peace from Plymouth in England all the way to Norway. There, they can, as it were, find healing in the company of dolphins – somehow bonding with them through song.
The power of “Singing the Dolphin”‘s lyrics lies not in the certainty of redemption but in the desperate determination to keep hope alive. “Joseph, the mud gives way to coral somewhere / And the hours of light they last and last” conveys what is desired, not what they will probably get. To see “no hostile flag” and to “have grown free from sighing” are no more likely than “Singing the dolphins through”.
“Singing the Dolphin” lingers with the listener, not as a mystical revelation as one might find in an Incredible String Band song, but as an acknowledgment of the horror and the pity of war when seen in the context of nature’s harmony and beauty. Accompanying this is the ecological message that we cannot retain our humanity if we fail to empathise with our fellow creatures on this planet.
6. “A Song for Robert Johnson”
“A Song for Robert Johnson” is an outstanding track from 1996’s Where Mystics Swim. Set to a pulsing beat, it’s a homage to one of the greatest blues artists. It covers the key episodes of Johnson’s story: the deal with the devil at the crossroads in order to gain that brilliance of the guitar-playing for which he’s known; the affairs with other men’s partners, leading to constant threats; the suspected murder by either a jealous husband or an envious musician; the consequent talk of his spirit remaining, with the sound of his guitar still heard at the crossroads.
We turn to the blues to articulate the truth that life for most people is hard, something to endure. It offers a realisation of the pain of life and simultaneously a release from it for the duration of the song. The meaning that one takes from Johnson’s body of work is conveyed in “A Song for Robert Johnson”, but it is not something that can be neatly articulated. The chorus tells us it is a matter of “feeling” so deep that “you could die for it” – as, perhaps, Johnson did.
To get the full force of that chorus, you have to be familiar with “Stones in My Passway”, a song that Johnson wrote in 1937, the year before he died. There, we find the source of “the bird that whistles” and “the bird that sings” in Heron’s song. Johnson may tell us that “my road seem(s) dark as night” and that “My enemies have betrayed me” and “overtaken poor Bob at last”: “They have stones in all my pass”. But Heron affirms that Johnson’s genius cannot die, for “the strong, strong heart beating / And the stretched-out wings that he made / Won’t so easily fade”. Further on, “A Song for Robert Johnson” affirms that “when your road is dark as night, / When nothing else gets to your sadness / He’s picking up his guitar and he’s feeling it right”. The suffering is alleviated by his musical genius.
Nothing like Heron’s “Song for Robert Johnson” would have been expected by fans of the Incredible String Band. Except for Williamson’s highly formal treatment of the traditional folk song “My Name Is Death” on 5,000 Spirits, there isn’t much in the band’s oeuvre that digs deep into the nature of mortality. But dark as Heron’s vision is in this later song, it is both inspiring and enlightening.
7. “Savage Moon”
The uncompromising song “Savage Moon” is from 1998’s Conflict of Emotions. When I hear it, I can’t help wondering if Kerouac is a guiding spirit here, given Heron’s early devotion to his work.
Kerouac was the descendant of Breton Canadians who married members of the Mohawk and Caughnawaga nations, and he was always proud of this heritage. Admirers of his work will be familiar with the observation made by Sal Paradise, the Kerouac character, towards the end of On the Road: “the earth is an Indian thing”. It follows Sal’s ruminations about the people who originally inhabited the land through which he has been driving with his friend Dean Moriarty: “they were not fools, not clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it”. As for the land, it has not been the white man who has understood and respected the land but the Native Americans. They have always known what living in harmony with the earth is.
In the sleeve notes, Heron provides key quotations from Native American leaders of the past, namely Chief Luther Standing Bear and Walking Buffalo. For example: “We saw the Great Spirit’s work in almost everything; sun, moon, trees, wind and mountains. Sometimes we approached him through those things. Was that so bad?” (Walking Buffalo) In this context, the invading white man is guilty of violence against the existing population and of ignorance of its wisdom.
The song has a satirical quality, such as one has to admit that the whole logic of the invaders was flawed and that the spiritual vision of their projected enemy was entirely at odds with their own obsession with taking land and exploiting it without understanding its beauty and mystery.
Essentially, “Savage Moon” takes the form of a dialogue between two early white settlers: they debate how to make sense of the culture established by “the primitive red man”. One of them simply concludes that this land is “barbarous country … alive with the beasts and the red man’” The other, however, is at least prepared to ponder the way the religious rituals of the “red man” suggest a feeling of “kinship with birds of the air / With the trees, with the winds that blow” – a feeling, indeed, that one can “see kinship everywhere”. The dialogue gets no further than this, but it would be hard to miss the message.
Kinship with the Earth is certainly a theme that the Incredible String Band explored. Here, though, Heron goes further, explicitly challenging the actions and attitudes of those who came to destroy the culture that maintained it.
Whether Kerouac is an influence hovering around “Savage Moon”, there is certainly a concurrence of concern here. I suspect that it would certainly be a song he approved of. For an explicit treatment of Kerouac’s work, it is worth listening to “Mexican Girl” from the 1980 album, Mike Heron. It explicitly revisits an episode from On the Road.
Not Forgetting …
It would take another article to cover other songs by Mike Heron that deserve attention. But I hope the above survey has conveyed something of his continuing talent and confirmed the sheer range of his musical explorations. I should mention the album Echo Coming Back, released in 2005. It contains some of the songs I’ve covered and some newer compositions that are well worth listening to. As for the Incredible String Band, it has been periodically revived over the years, sometimes featuring Heron, but not Williamson, sometimes Heron and Williamson, and more rarely featuring both of them along with the other founding member, Clive Palmer.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that the 1979 performance, “An Evening with Robin Williamson and Mike Heron“, was staged twice in 1997. The second, performed at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, was duly released as a CD the following year. (Notably, they included “1968” in their setlist.) Around the same time, the BBC broadcast a television celebration of the Incredible String Band, Retying the Knot, with particular reference to the reunion of the two key members.
Whatever musical adventures either Heron or Williamson took as solo artists over the decades, they shared that amazing musical origin: a band that demonstrated huge musical talent and reinvigorated popular music. Without those years of exploration, the music we’ve just been considering would never have been possible.