Clip: Fairport/Pink Floyd/REM/Drake producer Joe Boyd writes his memoirs
Folk-Rock Memories, Psychedelic but Clear
By BEN SISARIO
Published: March 15, 2007
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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.
- Carl Z. wrote:
> <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/15/arts/music/15boyd.html>And just as an aside, this year's Cropredy festival features the lineup
> Folk-Rock Memories, Psychedelic but Clear
> By BEN SISARIO
> Published: March 15, 2007
> The 1960s had a single, precise climax, Joe Boyd says, and he was there.
> 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.
from _Liege and Leif_ (sans Sandy Denny obviously) playing that album in
it's entirety. This to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the festival.