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I Heard The Noose Today, Oh Boy

from Sydney Morning Herald Metro, 24 October, 1997

We asked singer/songwriter and author Stephen Cummings to tell us about his 10 favourite albums. He explains why he didn't make it past number one.

Let me set the scene. It was the early 70's, I was about 15 and at that age where I hid in my bedroom lsitening to Eric Burdon and the New Animals' Winds of Change, or it might have been Pink Floyd's A Saucerful of Secrets. I was fat and secretive. When I wasn't listening to music I was reading music magazines, or else I was writing letters to China asking for Chairman Mao badges.

I'd tripped down to Lee's Sound Lounge and purchased The Incredible String Band's The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. I'd bought it on the strength of the cover, a photograph of a group of flower children, kids and a dog called Leaf, sitting in a field with painted masks and hallucinatory smiles. You could recaption the photo "Newtown, 1997" and no one would be the wiser. Q magazine (June '93. Look it up - I had to!) did a feature on the cover - recounting what had happened to the children in the interim. They all talked fondly of the time.

The Incredible String Band was formed by Robin Williamson and Mike Heron in Scotland in 1965. The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter was the duo's third album and was very influential. All the leading English pop stars of the time admired them. The album was engineered and produced by Joe Boyd and John Woods, who worked with Nick Drake and Richard Thompson.

The group's music was based around traditional music from the British Isles, with eclectic counter-culture references. There were allusions to Eastern philosophy in the lyrics and instrumentation. It was T.H. White's The Once and Future King (a childhood favourite) set to song. The tunes were loosely structured and full of starnge droning sounds, abrupt tempo changes and an instrumentation different to anything else at the time. To my knowledge, they were the first group to use sitar, pan pipes, bells, harmonium, harpsichords and gimbri to decent effect.

The lyrics reflected an absurdist sense of humour. From Williamson's Waltz of the New Moon: "We are the table cloth...and also the table"; or "Earth water fire and air, get together in a garden fair. Put in a basket bound with skin, if you answer this riddle, you'll never get in." Mike Heron's A Very Circular Song became a global hippy anthem: "May the long time sun shine and love surround you and the clear light within you, guide you all the way home."

In the years that followed, my musical taste strayed to disparate areas, but as someone clever once said, "In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning".

Some 20 years on, I acquired a second-hand copy of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. It cost me a dollar and it's the best dollar I've spent all year.

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