U is a double album, the seventh album overall, by the psychedelic folk group, The Incredible String Band (ISB), and was released in October 1970 on Elektra Records. Material for the album derived from the show of the same name. The ISB, supported by the dancing group known as the Stone Monkeys, performed in the "U" show in both the UK and the US. Interpretations of both the performances and the musical content involved the band's ideas stemming from their conversion to Scientology. The show, along with the compositions, were seen as ambitious, but consequently ended in disappointment for the band.
In 1969, the ISB had effectively converted to the Church of Scientology, and released their album, Changing Horses which, in relation, expressed the morphing views of the band members. Robin Williamson had expressed a desire to involve the band in a form of mixed media on a grander scale, sparking the "U" concept. In November 1969, while at the Chelsea Hotel, the band encountered two ex members of a dancing troupe known as the Exploding Galaxy, one being Malcolm Le Maistre, a future ISB member. Them and the newly formed Stone Monkeys then lived together at the band's communal residence at Glen Row in preparation for what Williamson later described as a "surreal parable in song and dance".
On April 8, 1970 the ISB, augumented by the Stone Monkeys, opened the three-hour "U" show for ten consecutive days in the Roundhouse, located in London. As many as 12 characters took part in the extravagant light and dance performance that encompassed the ISB's views on Scientology. The band was not foreign to the use of dancing in their performances, in the past a dancing duo known as Mimi and Lasandre were regularly involved in the group's early tours. However, "U" took those ideas to another scale as the performers were meant to express a psychological story that was up to the audience to interpret. As Williamson explained, "It's called "U" because it's U in shape. It starts off with somebody in some ancient period of the Golden Age in the past, who survives successive lifetimes coming down through lesser and lesser awareness and finally gets back to a good state of mind again". Following the shows at the Roundhouse, the group was booked to perform for six consecutive nights at the Filmore East in New York City, but without the assistance of the dancing troupe, who were unable to take part for financial reasons. Another brief tour of the western US was also conducted shortly afterwards. As a result of the lack of performers, the band completed the "U" shows in a standard concert format and the overall tours suffered heavy financial losses.
In order to recoup the financial losses of the "U" show, record producerJoe Boyd booked the band, supported by Janet Shankman, Peter Grant, and Maistre, in a San Francisco studio to record nearly two hours of material that would then be formed into a double album. The ISB were on a time constraint schedule, they were required to complete the whole of the material within 48 hours in which time the group intermittently recorded and rested in shifts. Despite the time limitations, the album still contained characteristically complex instrumentals and overdubbing. The music on the album was taken from the compositions the band performed while touring in the "U" show, and there was a staggering diversity of elements long associated with the group, and new and highly progressive ones. The wide assortment of songs proved how capable, and willing, the ISB were at adapting musical genres into their own interpretations. Such occurrences became more common for the group as the decade progressed, but to lesser success. Following the conclusion of recording and the band's subsequent tour, the recordings on the album were rarely ever featured in the ISB's repertoire again.
U was released in October 1970 on the Elektra label (catalogue item 7E-2002 in the US, catalogue item 2665 001 in the UK). In the US, the album peaked at number 183 on the Billboard 200, remaining on the charts for three weeks, and on the UK Albums Charts it managed to reach number 34 during a two-week stay. Also, in Melody Maker magazine the album charted in the top 20, before dropping off in a few weeks. The album's cover by Shankman was literal interpretation of the show as it featured a mult-colored "U". Inside the gatefold sleeve were photographs depicting the band and the Stone Monkeys in the midst of a performance of the "U" show.