Heavy Connections The ISB and....Led Zeppelin?

Written by Andy Roberts

"Sometimes me and Pagey have been tempted to stop all the loud stuff and do an Incredible String Band kind of thing, believe it or not."

Robert Plant, Rolling Stone 1973 

As you're eagerly watching the MTV Unledded Plant and Page special the thought might just cross your mind as to where they got the idea to use instruments like a hurdy-gurdy, bodhran (Irish skin drum), mandolin, banjo and the ethnic instrumentation played so impeccably by the Moroccan troupe. If you were really inquisitive and let your mind wander back all the years you may recall odd instruments and vocalisation turning up on various Led Zeppelin albums. Did Plant just decide one day, "ahh come on let's be different, get the mandolin out Jimmy and I'll wail in Indo-European fashion". Or did this aspect of Page and Plant's music have other sources, besides their own inherent musical questing? Indeed it did, and one such source was the Incredible String Band.

Older readers might be familiar with them already, or at least remember them from their youth. Younger readers should ask their parents! Seriously though, the String Band, all of whom are still performing in some way to this day - had a marked influence on the development of certain aspects of Zeppelin's style. Still not convenced? Well....

It you were listening attentively at the 1979 Zeppelin Knebworth gig you might have heard Plant say during his intro to The Land of Milk and Honey, "Along, long time ago, 1960 or whenever it was, me and Pagey got together at his house....and played through a load of material from the Incredible String Band."

You probably ignored it or didn't hear it, but it was just one of many references to the Incredible String Band that Plant has made over the years, citing them as a major influence on his and Page's music.

Plant had also sung the ISB's praises in a Zeppelin tour programme, and in the June 1993 issue of Q magazine in an appreciation of the Incredible String Band by their peers Planty was quoted at length on a subject obviously close to his heart: "We'd always had their records, but we were playing at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and Robin and Mike came along, and found that, despite the bamboozle and the noise of Led Zeppelin, there was some kind of Celtic folk music beating in the middle of it too, something tangible despite the macho gestures. And I suppose we started a sort of mutual appreciation society."

Plant's style of singing was certainly influenced, and acknowledged as such by him, by Williamson's distinctive mode of Celtic, Bardic singing. Plant again, "He had this different approach, which I always see as being some 14th century mixture of Central European singing using the quarter tones of a medieval scale. I stopped going "ooh, yeah" and did that instead. I used to hang out with Rose, and she used to say, "if you want to sing this sort of stuff, we'll put you in touch with someone who teaches Bulgarian folk music" - can you imagine discussing this in mid-Wales over a quarter of an ounce of Lebanese - so I got the address.... I think I used it as a tip for a spliff in the end."

Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, founders and mainstays of the Incredible String Band, were the first people to really introduce foreign modes of music and intrumentation to western 'pop and rock' music - they were the very originators of what is now called 'World Music'.

Page and Plant might have been recording recently with Gnawa musicians in Morocco but Williamson was wondering around North Africa collecting tunes and instruments as early as 1966. Their second and third albums, in particular - 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of an Onion and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter - spread the word throughout 1967 and 1968 and their influence was to be widely seen in arists such as Marc Bolan and Tyrannosaurus Rex, and whilst many British musicians were content to merely plagarise blues tunes from the USA, Zeppelin were also looking nearer home, to reworkings of traditional folk songs and the imagery they contained - all supplied in hefty doses - mixed with mysticism, psychedelia and fun - by the String Band.

It's safe to say, I think, that as a result of Page and Plant's exposure to ISB music the String Band influence began to creep in early albums and was clearly visible on Zeppelin 3, Songs such as Gallows Pole - itself a traditional English song returned to the UK via a US blues version - was given the ISB treatment while Bron-y-Aur stomp could also be said to bear the ISB hallmark.

By Zeppelin 4 the ISB influence seemed more clearly defined, most notably on Battle for Evermore, the long stretch of Plant-wail towards the end of the song owing much more to the ISB than anything Zep did before or after. Other instances of ISB influence can be found throughout Zep's music, but rather than me just list them, if you're interested you'll pick them for yourselves I'm sure.

The Incredible String Band's imaginative vocals and eclectic use of traditional instruments weren't the only things to be admired by Plant. The ISB's love a good, strange lyric also appealed: "I love their storytelling and their capacity to charm with lines like 'I hear that the Emperor of China used to wear iron shoes with ease'. Up til then I'd been more concerned with why Howling Wolf would climb to the top of the curtains and slide down them at the age of 56 and weighing 200 pounds while playing harmonica. The Incredible String Band was tales from another place altogether.

In 1968 the ISB made one of the first 'rock' music films ever, Be Glad for the Song has No Ending, filmed by Peter Neal, the guy behind the first film on Jimi Hendrix. In featured the ISB in and around their commune in West Wales and included a fantasy sequence of a distinctly mystical bent. In 1975, Zeppelin released The Song Remains the Same, part of which featured Page and Plant also filmed in Wales and also in a distinctly mystical bent.....it could have been a totally original idea but there again....

The two bands hung out together ocassionally - a considerable contrast bearing in mind Zep's liking for all things rock 'n' roll recreational variety and the ISB's later penchant for Scientology and clean living.

Whereas Zeppelin could whip up a crowd into an almost praeter-human entity, the ISB specialised in creating a mystical, joyful ambiance - audiences often referred to an ISB gig as being like in a 'church'. Plant again "I was thrilled to around them. I thought there whole communion of audience and musical troupe was absolutely wonderful. However, somehow or other The Prince of Darkness drew me closer and closer to Alice Cooper and the ridiculousness of rock culture and I kept looking behind wistfully as I jumped on the starship and went off to commit more carnal atrocities ha, ha! The one thing we always wanted to do in Led Zeppelin was to finish off the showwith the String Band's A Very Cellular Song** - the bit that goes 'I was walking in Jerusalem just like John. goodnight, goodnight..' But Bonham bless 'im, said some thing very like Fuck Off!"

Plant at some point lived near Rose Simpson of the String Band in mid-Wales and became good friends with her. The twists of time and strangeness eventually led Rose to become the current Lady Mayoress of Aberystwyth and lo and behold Mr Plant was a guest at the Mayoral inauguration in May 1994.

The ISB/Plant connection goes full circle. At the recent MTV, Plant and Page filming, Robin Williamson was contacted to see if he would appear as support for the band, bring them home to their Celtic roots and allowing a purely Led Zeppelin oriented audience to see what all the fuss was about. Sadly it wasn't to be. Page and Plant were up for it but Williamson's appearance was dropped because the overall director of the event decided he didn't want lighting and camera angles altering!

** A Very Cellular Song finishes with "The Long Time Sun". Wouldn't that have been sublime!