Bookplanet: producer of Pink Floyd, REM and Fairport Convention looks back
Folk-Rock Memories, Psychedelic but Clear
By BEN SISARIO/NY Times
The 1960s had a single, precise climax, Joe Boyd says, and he was there.
In a new memoir, “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s,” Mr. Boyd, a veteran record producer whose résumé includes Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and R.E.M., ignores the conventional high points of the decade — Woodstock, the moon landing — and instead asserts that a set by the psychedelic rock band Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London shortly before dawn on July 1, 1967, was the big moment, when drugs, political activism and far-out music had their purest convergence.
“On one level, obviously, that’s a self-satirizing statement; it’s ridiculous,” Mr. Boyd said on a recent visit to New York, where he was beginning work on a new record by a Cuban pianist, Adonis Gonzalez. “But then behind that there’s another level in which I’m secretly thinking: ‘Well, yeah, actually, that is when and where it all peaked, that’s where it all changed. That’s about the time that the wind shifted.’”
Reminiscing about the glory days of rock may be the pursuit of anyone with a beer and a decently stocked iPod, but Mr. Boyd has unusual authority in this area. As he recounts in “White Bicycles” he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right job.
Born in Boston, he vowed at 17 to be a producer, which he defined as “listening for a living.” A year out of college, in 1965, he served as the stage manager for the Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan played his epochal electric set. Setting himself up in London, Mr. Boyd was one of the founders of UFO, the center of Britain’s fledgling psychedelic scene, booking early shows by Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine. He produced Pink Floyd’s first single, “Arnold Layne,” and helped shape British folk-rock with albums by Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan that have directly influenced the current generation of neofolk avant-gardists like Devendra Banhart, Espers, Joanna Newsom and P. G. Six.
This week Mr. Boyd, now 64, will be at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Tex., where he might also encounter bands inspired by some of his later collaborators, like 10,000 Maniacs and R.E.M., or by the world music released on his former record label, the pioneering Hannibal.
In “White Bicycles,” which came out in Britain last year and will be published in the United States next month by Serpent’s Tail/Consortium, Mr. Boyd serves as a kind of invisible narrator, tracing a serendipitous musical life through a vivid cast of characters, each rendered with a disarming candor. (His explanation for his lucid memory: “I cheated. I never got too stoned.”)
Recounting the Newport festival, he describes not the familiar legend of shocked crowds, but the backstage consternation of Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel and Alan Lomax, who demanded that Mr. Boyd turn down the volume. (He didn’t.) Pink Floyd enters the story a year later, as a Cambridge band “looking for some London exposure.” Nick Drake, who had little success before his death in 1974 but has become the model of the wistful, self-effacing male singer-songwriter, is introduced via his manner of answering the phone, “as if it had never rung before.”
Mr. Boyd’s unobtrusive storytelling style mirrors his recording philosophy. “As a producer you have to listen with such energy and with such attention and with such love for what they’re doing,” he said, “that you give them at least a fraction of the kind of energy they’ll get back from an audience.”
Richard Thompson, who began his career as the guitar prodigy in Fairport Convention, remembered the crafty wisdom of that approach. “Joe’s great talent was being transparent,” he said, “allowing the artists’ personalities to come through. From what I’ve seen of the great producers, the ones who say, ‘Now it’s time for a tea break,’ or ‘That’s enough of that song, let’s move on’ — this is great producing, not ‘I’ve got this vision in my head.’ ”
The records Mr. Boyd made in the late ’60s and early ’70s with a circle of British bands including Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band were innovative in ways that those by most American groups of the time were not. Pastoral in tone and with deeper roots in traditional song, the British music tended to be less topical, and largely avoided the self-referentiality of the singer-songwriter style.
“The music written during that time in Britain — new, original music — seemed to retain a certain timelessness and universality,” said Joanna Newsom, who is a fan of Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention, “whereas music being written in the U.S. at that time feels more dated, and feels more a product of that particular time.”
As an American who had a curiosity about British traditional music, Mr. Boyd was also a force in pointing many British musicians to explore their folk roots when that music was not particularly in vogue, said Vashti Bunyan, who made one record in 1970 with Mr. Boyd and then quit music, returning two years ago after fans and young musicians sought her out. “Joe was the encouraging outsider,” she said on a recent tour stop in Brooklyn.
It is a role that Mr. Boyd relishes. Hannibal, the label he founded in 1980 and ran until 2001, specialized in world music, releasing albums by the Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté and the band Cubanismo. In a small studio on the Lower East Side, as he leaned over a piano wearing a professorial corduroy jacket, Mr. Boyd’s face lit up like a 21-year-old music fan’s as Adonis Gonzalez played 19th- and 20th-century Cuban rarities by the likes of Ignacio Cervantes and Ernesto Lecuona.
Despite Mr. Boyd’s recollections of musical discovery, “White Bicycles” is in part a tragedy, as drugs destroyed lives and high-minded idealism crumbled. The UFO club in London, site of psychedelic concerts and film screenings, of visits by Yoko Ono and clothing-optional Happenings, lasted only about nine months: a microcosm, Mr. Boyd said, of the inevitable end of the ’60s counterculture.
The title of the book refers to both a song by Tomorrow — played at that predawn UFO show — and the plan of the Provo anarchists in Amsterdam to leave bicycles throughout the city for free use by citizens.
“In Amsterdam almost all the white bicycles by the end of 1967 had been stolen and repainted,” Mr. Boyd said. “So white bicycles became a kind of symbol of the spirit of that age, and that inevitable doom for that innocence and naïveté.”
But he is reluctant to blame drugs; some, he said, were particularly useful in making records. “People who were smoking joints could make great music in the studio,” he said. “People who had even taken maybe more acid than the average person could make great music in the studio. As soon as the white lines came out — pack up, go home, tell everybody to come back the next day.”
In the ’70s, Mr. Boyd said, he continued to make records but also made laborious and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at movie producing, and as a result he spent less and less time recording music he loved.
“People have asked me if I’m going to write another book starting where this one leaves off,” he said, “and the answer is absolutely not, because particularly the ’70s, I don’t remember.”
The reason? Not drugs; meetings.