You Know What You Could Be: A Scottish Take on the 1960s

You Know What You Could Be: Tuning into the 1960s (2017 UK)
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig
Riverrun Books, 370 pages.

There are tons of musical biographies in which the artists in question find some way of asserting that they changed musical history. Most of that is rubbish, just ex post facto attempts to obscure the fact that they got lucky and managed to get noticed in a crowded field of contenders. An exception to this was Scotland’s Incredible String Band (ISB).

Who, you say? Exactly! One of the things about the 1960s is that, despite the recording industry, scads of record shops, hip radio stations, and the British Invasion, there were scores of artists who were famous on one side of the Big Pond but not on opposing shores. ISB was one such band, though it did tour North America a few times and played at Woodstock (in an unfavorable slot sandwiched between two hard rock bands). Their records were available in the U.S. but they didn’t chart well. In part this was because they were a bit ahead of the curve; the ISB are considered pioneers of acid folk rock and progressive folk, two labels that didn’t even exist in their day (1966-74). The trio–plus sidemen/women du jour– consisted of Clive Palmer, Robin Williamson, and co-author of our book in question, Mike Heron. Between them they played everything from guitar and fiddle to harp, sitar, banjo, flute, keys, and more. The heart was Robin Williamson, whose innovative playing and songwriting influenced scores of musicians, including Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. Do you know ISB singles such as “The Hedgehog Song,” “Everything’s Fine Now,” “The Song Has No Ending,” and “October Song?” Probably not, but if you asked someone who came of age in Britain during the 1960s, you’d get a different response. Many consider “October Song” a path breaking composition.

Distance, luck, and Elektra Records’ lackluster marketing strategy help explain why ISB was known mainly to Yanks like me who bought obscure records on a whim to see what was out there, my lame attempt at obtaining “coolness.” Objectively, Williamson’s voice was the biggest obstacle. How to say it? It was weird! Think as singular and octave-straining as that of Steve Winwood, but more so. I confess that at the time, I didn’t like it and offloaded my ISB album. Wish I had it back. It was only later that I learned to appreciate what Williamson was on about. (I’ll dismiss the lackluster 1999-2006 reunion tour and Williamson's immersion into Scientology.) ISB’s music was dreamy, drifty, and often quite long, the last another reason they didn’t chart well in the USA. Some of it, though, has the vibe of improv explorations of jam bands.

This background is necessary to review You Know What You Could Be. In Britain, reviewers raved over the book’s first 104 pages, which were written by Heron. That’s fanboy stuff, as Heron is no prose stylist. His is more of a series of disconnected riffs and select memories that appeal to ISB junkies. If you’re not, you will probably skim Heron’s pages. Because he assumes everyone knows all about the band, he mainly offers random tidbits about love affairs, Williamson’s genius, the songs Heron wrote, and usual tales of bad boy star misbehavior.  

By contrast, Andrew Greig is a real writer whose poetry, non-fiction works, and novels have won praise and awards. (He’s also my favorite living Scottish author.)  He’s a writer because he failed at his first love: music. Like every Boomer I know who played an instrument, Greig was in a band. Unlike most, though, that group, Fate & ferret [sic], was at least good enough to attract the notice of Elektra’s Joe Boyd, who produced ISB. Greig grew up in a small Fifeshire town and was headed for a conventional career. Then, as they say, the 60s “happened.” Greig’s path took him instead to poetry, Edinburgh, and music. He and his best mate were–you guessed it–obsessed with the String Band. As Greig admits, F & f too closely mimicked their heroes.

In his 263 pages Greig also muses over the ISB and how the band’s music impacted his youth, but it’s really about how the 1960s transformed Scotland and youngsters such as himself. The handprint of dour Presbyterianism remained smudged across the Scottish landscape until the '60s wiped it away. Greig makes us feel the excitement of coming of age at a time in which music, sex, and dreams were first openly discussed, if not necessarily condoned. His description of trying to smuggle a few young women back into their dorm in Glen Coe is hilarious, and we can almost see the stardust in his eyes when he recalls artists with whom he encountered, including Williamson. Mainly, though, his tale is one of a young Scot growing up and, in the process, coming to grips with both his personal and national identity. He does not apologize for his youthful idealism or the indiscretions that went with it, a refreshing honesty that takes the steam out of self-proclaimed moralists who think everyone alive in the '60s should repent. It’s hackneyed to say that Grieg writes like an angel, so let’s skip that and take our collective cap off to the way in which his poetic eye gazes upon the sublime and the mundane and finds grace, beauty, humor, and poignancy in each.

Who says dreams can’t come true? Over the years Greig and Heron have become friends. Who wouldn’t wish to be a fly on the wall when Grieg joined Heron on stage to dust off some ballads, folk chesnuts, and ISB songs?

Rob Weir

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