Mike Heron – Smiling Men With Bad Reputations (1971)

This album delighted me the first time I heard it, and it’s never failed me since.

Heron was one half of the classic Incredible String Band lineup. By 1971 the ISB, who peaked early, were starting to run out of puff and Heron had a stock pile of tunes that weren’t well fitted to or for other reasons not getting onto the ISB’s albums. Heron came from a pop background (though the ISB had more esoteric leanings and foundations) so maybe he just had a rock itch to scratch.

No matter the reason he decided to cut a solo album that went down roads the ISB were never going to explore. He and producer Joe Boyd took their time recording it and invited in a bewildering array of musicians so that each track would get exactly what it required. This can’t have come cheap, and the album (without much promotion or a supporting tour) sunk like the proverbial in it’s time. As an aside this seems to be not an uncommon scenario for albums that Boyd was involved with (though the ISB actually did sell well in real time): Great ideas, fine musicianship, original, clever, disappears without a trace and then 20 to 30 years later everybody suddenly realises it was a masterpiece.

Anyway, in my real time I ordered this disc from the late, lamented Canned Applause record shop a few years ago. One afternoon I got a call to tell me my order had arrived. I stopped off at Canned Applause to pick up my CDs, ripped the cellophane off this one on the way back to my car, shoved the CD in the player and was in love before the first track had finished (indeed before I’d got out of the parking bay). About 15 seconds in the intro to the opening “Call Me Diamond” gets a joyous splash of South African township horns courtesy of Dudu Pukwana. It’s downright infectious and bought an instant grin to my face.

Pukwana’s horn arrangement and own solos are well matched to a sort of up tempo soul groove with Heron sounding more like Steve Winwood than the ISB. The rhythm section on this track are Boyd go-to players Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and Mike Kowalski and they do a very fine job indeed with Nicol throwing the occasional Kwela lick into the mix (Pukwana had been teaching him).

That’s the first number, and Boyd and Heron never use a trick twice on this album. The next track, the gorgeous “Flowers of the Forest” (with a marvellous guitar part by some bloke named Thompson) is folkier, softer and has a completely different supporting cast (including, according to the liner notes, Winwood himself though I’ve never actually been able to hear him).

Heron, who played everything bar the kitchen sink on ISB records (and maybe I should double check the liner notes in case he DID put down a sink overdub) confines himself to vocals and occasional acoustic guitar and gets in specialists for every track. So we get a marvellous Indian-tinged orchestral arrangement (and no rock band) on “Brindaban”, Indian folk instrumentation on “Spirit Beautiful” (with clever call and response vocal arrangement) and half of the Who (Townsend and Moon) on the enjoyably hard rocking “Warm Heart Pastry”.

And despite the disparate nature of the individual tracks it all hangs together as a very satisfying whole. Heron’s voice and personality shine through throughout and serve as the common element and every song is interesting. And it’s well sequenced, it flows well from one track to another. The only sour note  is the inclusion of two bonus tracks originally left off of the album. This is a common practice when re-releasing old albums, and whilst I understand the reasons for doing it, it often spoils the flow of a well thought out album that builds and then concludes in a satisfying way. If they put 30 seconds of emptiness between the original ending (the introspective solo acoustic “No Turning Back”) and the first bonus track then it might give some time for the experience to sink in, but too often they’re disruptive (even if they do have Elton John and Jimmy Page playing on them).

The “sixties” (as a musical era, not a chronological decade) were marked by a happy eclecticism and a sense of musical adventure. This album is every bit as good an example of that sixties spirit as anything the Beatles (or the Incredible String Band) did.

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