Clive Palmer (pictured above in C.O.B – top left), renowned banjo player and founding member of the legendary Incredible String Band passed away on 23 November 2014 in Penzance, after a long illness. The announcement was made by fellow folk musician, Wizz Jones, who referred to him as “one of the finest musicians I have ever known… an inspiration and a well loved friend.”
Clive, described back in the day as a beatnik banjo player began playing skiffle, jazz and folk in 1950’s London, honed his skills by busking in Paris before moving to Scotland to co-found the Incredible String Band. Whilst this remains for a many one of his career highlights it really just skims the surface of what was an adventure-filled life for a musician who shunned the show-business limelight.
He entered into music at a young age becoming a regular visitor to the G’s (The Gyre & Gimble – a famous London folk music coffee house) shortly after his mother’s death in 1956 when he was only 13 years old. He would cycle to the club where he mixed with the likes of Davy Graham and Long John baldry. According to Rupert White’s splendid book Folk in Cornwall he’d often sleep rough in the West End as a result.
This was really just the beginning for the independent minded Clive, he was still at school in 1960 when he went busking with Wizz Jones to France where they made a surprising amount of money in a short period of time. It was an experience that he would repeat several times over.
He headed to Edinburg in ’63 and ended up at Archie Fisher’s folk club which held court at the Crown Bar. It was on a night that Bert Jansch was playing that he first met Robin Williamson, all three were to later share digs. Robin and Clive agreed to form a duo and performed under the name of Robin and Clive playing all over the UK. This was a booming time for folk music and the money they earned playing the clubs was certainly not to be sniffed at.
Robin Williamson – 1964 Hymns & Haws w/ Owen Hand & Clive Palmer
In 1965 they wanted to expand their sound, they were joined by Mike Heron on guitar and they went on to become the Incredible String Band. In ’66 Clive decided to start his own folk club venture in Sauchiehall Street Glasgow. Although it didn’t last long Clives’ Incredible Folk Club became a happening place which ran every Saturday night from 11pm until dawn on Sunday morning. According to an article in the Daily Record at the time mentioned in Grahame Hood’s biography on Clive (Empty Pocket Blues) the ages of those present ranged from 16-70 and performers included Matt McGinn, Hamish Imlach, Alex Campbell and Bert Jansch. Hamish was the club’s MC who gave ‘Billy Connolly the unofficial post of resident auto-harp player’.
Word spread fast and Joe Boyd (also acting as a talent scout for the Elektra label) soon picked up on the waves they were making and approached them to offer them a record deal…although the ISB were yet to be a bigger name their self-titled debut made Melody Maker’s ‘Folk Album of the Year’.
Clive was already having doubts about the direction the ISB were heading in, he favoured more traditional folk. He headed off to India with a friend on foot hitchhiking via Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. His reputation as a banjo player must have stood him well as whilst in India he played banjo on Indian television.
He was to return soon after when he ran out of money. He obviously had a lot of time to think about his future as when he returned he returned he decided not to re-join the increasingly popular duo of Robin and Mike. Instead he briefly formed a duo with Wizz Jones. Clive made an album of banjo music, Banjoland, which remained unreleased until 2005 which featured Wizz Jones and Wizz in turn released an eponymous album on which Clive also played.
It was a visit to Cornwall in ’68 to visit a friend that he seemed to find his niche. The folk scene was thriving there, especially around the famous rural and idyllic Folk Cottage in Penzance (later moved to The Sawmills). This scene played a crucial role in launching the careers of Ralph McTell, Michael Chapman and the first lady of Cornish-language folk Brenda Wootton as well as many others. In ‘Folk in Cornwall’ McTell refers wonderfully to Clive as having an ‘almost shaman-like approach to music and art’.
The chance of staying in a caravan near Folk Cottage came up and Clive moved in and stayed. He joined a jug band…Famous Jug Band (FJB) who released an album in ’69 called Sunshine Possibilities…
The record deal did bring them much in the way o financial reward as the deal was stacked in the record labels favour, something that seemed a common occurrence in those days with many musicians living well below what we would call the poverty line today. It was a constant battle, a lot of them were living on just ‘tea and potatoes’.
The 1970’s saw the breakthrough for a number of artists on the Cornish scene including Ralph McTell who through hard work at playing gigs across the country landed a spot on the Isle of Wight festival and Michael Chapman got a TV spot on the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore show in the same year. It all seemed to be suddenly happening.
It was through Ralph McTell that CBS got turned onto Clive Palmer and Mick Bennett who played in Temple Creatures which evolved in a round about way (also via Stockroom 5) into Clive’s Original Band – COB who along with John Bidwell released Spirit of Love in 1971, the instrument featured on the cover is a dulcitar played by John, a cross between a dulcimer and a sitar.
COB is considered by many to be his best work. After their debut release COB would play the Royal Festival Hall supporting Clive’s old flatmate Bert Jansch. Further highlights followed including Cambridge Folk Festival. Their big break came in ’72. They released two further albums: Moyshe McStiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart (1972), the latter apparently named after an off-license in Putney. 1972 was also the year that saw them tour with Pentangle on which they were also reunited with Wizz Jones…they appeared to be on a roll.
Following this a promising residency at the Half Moon in Putney in ’73 started out small and just grew although it turned out this just wasn’t enough to sustain the band which then broke up in ’73.
One thing which seems very clear from reading about Clive is that he had no big ambition to become famous. That wasn’t quite the end of COB as in 1978 a solo album called Just Me was released on German label Autogram.
Clive went to live in Brittany although he returned to recording music in the early 1990s with a new fervor. Noted releases include a bluegrass album Charlie Goes West as well as a cassette only compilation House of Images. One of the highlights of this period was being reunited with Robin Williamson and together they recorded At the Pure Fountain in Cardiff in 1999.
As you can see from looking at Clive’s discography his love of music was far from over. After touring in the reformed ISB he also went on to release a new album, All Roads Lead To Land in 2004, and then toured as a duo with Lawson Dando in 2007 around the South West. He even purchased a set of Scottish Highland pipes which possibly never saw a public performance in his hands.
After moving back to Cornwall in 2007 he recorded another album after teaming up with former “Stockroom 5” and “Temple Creatures” member Tim Wellard to produce a new album, The Land of No Return in 2008. This album led to the formation of The Clive Palmer Band, who toured between 2008 and 2011 and produced another two albums, Along The Enchanted Way and Live at the Acorn in 2011.
At the tail of Hood’s Empty Pocket Blues he quotes Clive saying ‘I just want to play with friends and have a relaxed, easy time. See what comes along – like fishing, I suppose!’
He certainly crammed a lot into a great life. He is survived by his wife, Gina.
Clive Palmer: 13 May 1943 – 23 November 2014
Highly recommended reading: Empty Pocket Blues: The Life and Music of Clive Palmer by Grahame Hood and Folk in Cornwall by Rupert White.