01 June 2007

Way Back In The 1960s

1 Pepper - 40 p.r.S.P.

This week will see hundreds, if not thousands of words spilled over...well, I don't even need to name the record, do I? Unless you've been living a hermetic existence in a cave for the past forty years (in which case, you probably aren't reading this anyway), you know what I'm talking about. It probably has an almost equal number of praisers as it does detractors and seems to have nearly become a cultural phenomenon all on it's own, beyond that even of it's creators. Whatever you may think about it, the fact that it's being discussed fairly fervently 40 years after it's release seems to show it's inherent staying power. I like it so much, that as an exercise in breaking out of the Gregorian "time prison"--I created a calendar based around it.

Thing is, or seems to be--that it has over-shadowed a lot of other great albums from the same year, American and British. One that I really like, and admittedly has been getting a bit more press in the past decade or so, is The Incredible String Band's The 5,000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion. Created by two Scottish bohemian folkies, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, plus guest spots by John "Hoppy" Hopkins, a figurehead in the London psychedelic/underground scene--as well as stand-up bass by Danny Thompson, later of Pentangle and his many collabs with John Martyn and Richard Thompson, "5,000 Spirits..." seems to capture that moment in 1967 when the positivity and spirituality (not religiousness) of the nascent counter-culture was going to waft everywhere and change the world. Naive? Yeah, probably--but I suppose it's the thought that counts.

Right from the opening track, Chinese White, you get the feeling you're in for something delightfully weird. While Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing At Baxter's and even Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn brought out the big guns of acid-fuelled studio trickery--Heron and Williamson manage to create an other-worldly playground with just a finger-picked acoustic guitar and "bowed gimbri", a sort-of African lute that Williamson had brought back with him from a journey to Morocco (he had left the UK with Clive Palmer, the I.S.B.'s founder, but had returned due to money problems--ain't it always the way..). With Williamson sawing away on the gimbri and Heron singing lyrics like "Climbing up these figures/the sun is tugging at my shoulder/and ev'ry step I take/I think my feet are getting older..", they're heralding in something, but what? I don't know--but it sounds ancient and yet contemporary (at least for 1967--hell, to me, it sounds contemporary in '07).

The rest of the record charts a "trip" (pun intended a bit) through their styles and lyrical matter which would crop up on subsequent records--Robin gets mystical on The Mad Hatter's Song, The Eyes OF Fate and My Name Is Death--while Mike ruminates on romance won and lost with The Hedgehog's Song, Gently Tender and Painting Box. They tip their caps to Mr. Bob Dylan, both musically (Blues For The Muse--all wheezing blues harp and ol' timey chorus) and lyrically--he gets a shout-out in Way Back In The 1960s, the album's humourous and deft closer. No Sleep Blues seems to be one of the funniest and spot-on accounts of the effects of insomnia (possibly through ingesting "Dr. Hoffman's Head Medicine"), while You Know What You Could Be definitely appears to be "of it's time" with lyrics about "crimson shapes and purple sounds" and "quartertones of lightning"--still, it hasn't aged that badly and could be considered a blue-print for 'psychedelic folk' (if you consider that a genre). There's a smattering of sitar on some of the tracks, but it fits in well and would become a staple on their next few albums. The drones compliment the songs and this is well before sitar would become an acid-rock/folk cliche.

Then there's that cover art. To me, it's still one of the most striking cover images I've seen. Some might call it "gaudy", but I think the use of colour enhances the whole. I like the hermaphroditic winged being with the Earth inside of it...rising out of the eye (the "I"?), as well. I used to think that the roots of the plants spelled out something in a nearly unreadable calligraphy and actually spent about an hour one day trying to decipher some 'secret message' possibly contained in it--to no avail. It is that kind of cover, though, that I end up studying for hours. The cover was designed and illustrated by Simon Posthuma and Marijke Kroger of the Dutch art group The Fool. They were responsible for "far-out" designs like the one on Eric Clapton's psychedelic SG guitar and The Beatles' Apple boutique mural. They themselves recorded a one-off album in 1968 and while it's definitely not a classic, it's lysergic whimsy (probably sounding a bit dated even in '68) makes for a nice curio. I'm not sure where the rest are now, but it appears that Marijke emigrated to the U.S. and she has a website with some of her more recent work displayed.

I'm aware of the charges against "5,000 Spirits.." as well. Yes, some of it does seem a bit too twee, as in bits of "The Hedgehog's Song" and especially Little Cloud, a Heron tune about a "little chick cloud" who visits him and promises to take him to "distant lands wondrous and fair", until the "chief cloud" makes her float away back up to the upper regions of the sky. I know - it probably belongs more on a children's record than on a "serious" album, but I think it's tunes like "Little Cloud" that give "5,000 Spirits.." it's unabashed child-like enthusiasm. It certainly doesn't happen on later, band (and world) weary records like Earthspan or Hard Rope & Silken Twine. The vocal "freak out" section near the end of "Gently Tender" does sound a bit forced, to my ears anyway. It doesn't really fit with the rest of the tune and seems almost an after-thought, tacked on in the studio. There's also the "music doesn't match the album cover" stigma - I must admit that the cover does (at first) make you think that this record will be as completely out-there as "Piper..." or "Baxter's", only to seem understated on first listen. To me, it's not really the music that matches the cover--but the lyrics--and those seem to be the most mind-blowing element of all.

So there you go - one of my picks for "overlooked" (not so much anymore - but still not afforded the praise it should have) "Summer Of Love" classics. While the I.S.B. would go from "5,000 Spirits..." to create their 'meisterwerk', The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (released in April 1968), expanding their sound and the group itself--I don't think they ever captured such a moment again as they did with this one.

Next week: Eric Burdon & The New Animals' Winds Of Change and Tyrannosaurus Rex's My People Were Fair, They Had Sky In Their Hair But Now They're Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows....jes' kiddin'


Anonymous said...

Very well said. '5000 Spirits' is an amazing album but I haven't played it in ages. I will now. ISB do sound a bit twee but when they are weird they are really weird. I mate of mine bought this based on the sleeve alone and was very disappointed but, for me, they are such a unique band that the world would have been a much duller place without them.

As far as the other big release of 1967...I take my hat off to it (shame it didn't have few more good tunes);)

The Purple Gooroo said...

Yeah - I added that bit in about the cover art because I read Joe McGinchley's (I think that's his name) review at "Ground & Sky" and he says essentially the same thing...saw the cover art and thought it was going to blow him away..and it didn't. I, myself, love the album, possibly even more than "Hangman's Beautiful Daughter"--but I think I like 'em both about the same.

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha - I will accept your back-handed praise of the mighty "Pepper", sir. :-)