[by Kate Hickson, UK] Joe Boyd, the author of White Bicycles (subtitled “Making music in the 1960s”) did a great deal when it came to acting a midwife to the soundtrack to many people’s lives during the 1960s. He produced era-defining music by the likes of Eric Clapton & The Powerhouse, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, The Purple Gang, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and Brotherhood of Breath. Then he went on to do it again, overseeing recordings by the likes of Richard & Linda Thompson, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Maria Muldaur, Dagmar Krause and 10,000 Maniacs. With his Hannibal hat on, he brought Hungary’s Márta Sebestyén and Muzsikás and Bulgaria’s Bulgarka Vocal Trio to our attention.
He has shaped our musical perceptions, maybe third-hand as when Kate Bush turned on to Bulgaria’s best-known musical export, as he wrote about in Rhythms of the World (1989), but also in ways deserving of attention way beyond dimly remembered tales of bygone jolly goods.
Factor in Boyd’s time on the hamster wheel of the London club scene, artist management with Witchseason, his film activities, notably Scandal and Jimi Hendrix (since released in an updated two-disc edition by Warner Home Video), and as all-round scenester and White Bicycles has material enough to whet the appetite of any devotee of that era’s music.
The scene: North London. The date: March 2006.
Let’s try to avoid paraphrasing White Bicycles tales.
All for it.
Did you go about White Bicycles with a mental shopping list or did you do a mind map of the subjects you had to cover?
The first idea was, I’m going to write a book and two friends gave me one-sentence pieces of advice – which I immediately recognised to be true. One was, ‘Don’t do the whole thing, just do the Sixties.’ The other one was, ‘Separate chapters by subject rather than period.’ So I wrote a chapter about the Incredible String Band. That helped in a way to push me out of the picture when I was writing about Nick [Drake] or Muddy Waters. Once I had that I found the structure came to me pretty easily. In the course of numerous drafts, my prose was cleaned up, honed and streamlined and became less cluttered.
Did you have a free hand with what you could record for Elektra over here [the UK]?
Not at all. Fundamentally, my job with Elektra was slightly fudged in the sense that I really wanted to be a producer. I like to think what I have is a connoisseur’s eye for the business end of things. In my visits to England in ’64 and the spring of ’65 I went to Collet’s [Record Shop in New Oxford Street, the most important folk and jazz record store in London] and I talked to Hans [Fried] and Gill [Cook, the store manager], checked the bins to see what was what. I was interested in the record business as a business. And in things like distribution and promotion.
In the first half of ’65 a number of things happened. The first one was I helped Paul Rothchild find Butterfield and add Mike Bloomfield to the band. Rothchild was already a friend, but he now had a concrete reason to try and get me into the door at Elektra in some fashion as a kind of payback for helping him sign Butterfield. And also because having done that I’d showed that I was an asset. Potentially.
What he and I were always talking about was A&R. Like who’s good and who should be signed. I guess I’d met Jac Holzman but I ran into him at some little festival at some weird ski resort in Connecticut in August of ’65. After Newport. For some reason, George Wein had been involved a concert on Friday and Saturday nights and because I was working for George I went up there and acted as production manager, got the sound check done, set up the stage.
Because Judy Collins and Tom Rush, Phil Ochs maybe, were Elektra artists, Holzman came to the festival. There was a reception backstage after the first concert. I’d had a hard day, swallowed a glass of cheap red wine quickly and found myself in conversation with Holzman. He said, ‘So tell me, you’re been to England a few times, what’s Elektra’s presence over there?’ I answered, ‘Oh, it’s crap.’
Is this in the Bounty [Elektra’s UK budget outlet label] days?
No, Bounty didn’t exist then.
They were being imported by a company called Record Imports Ltd who were focussing mainly on Nonesuch. They had a big classical catalogue and also handled Blue Note. They had an office in a basement in Poland Street.
I said, ‘Well, first of all the records cost too much. There’s no good promotion. You’re not a serious presence.’ I said it all in rather blunt and rather undiplomatically because I’d had a few drinks. Afterwards I said to myself, ‘What am I doing? I’ve insulted Jac Holzman!!!’ To the contrary, I think. I think that Rothchild had been pushing him to see if there might be a job of some kind at Elektra. I think that rather than insulting him, Holzman quite liked my attitude and my aggression about what ought to be done about Elektra in England. So these two strands came together. At the end of September I was invited to come up to a meeting at Elektra. Rothchild and Holzman were there and they asked if I wanted to go to London and open an Elektra office. It was actually set up as a joint venture with Record Imports.
I was always struggling to get to be allowed to do anything as a producer. If you think about Holzman turning down Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd and The Move during that period, it was a shame. Although I don’t know if we as an organisation would have really been up to the task of marketing all those artists at the time. It was a pretty low-level, folkie, amateurish operation. The Love and then the Tim Buckley advance copies arrived probably a month or two before I left.
Still on the other hand you did get Sydney Carter, Alasdair Clayre and Cyril Tawney.
Yeah. Looking back on it, they had very good justification in being wary of what Boyd would be up to! Obviously from a commercial point of view in terms of whether I was the person who should have been given more of a free hand, it’s a lot ‘nicer’ to point to Eric Clapton & The Powerhouse and the Incredible String Band and the possibilities of Clapton and the Pink Floyd than it is to Sydney Carter and Alasdair Clayre.
I had a good time making that record Alasdair Clayre. Alasdair was a poet and wrote some good songs, taught English, was a Fellow of All Souls. Peggy Seeger played on the record. But I think I got into the idea of recording that record largely because he was my way of staying in contact with Vashti Bunyan. I felt that she was the star.
How were they connected then?
He knew her and he took me to see her. He played and she played at an ICA event, the old ICA before it moved to the Mall. He took me backstage afterwards. She’d gone so I kept sending messages to her through him. He saw her occasionally and I admit I was obsessed that I had to sign Vashti Bunyan. If I had to make an Alasdair Clayre record to prove what a good job we could do. Or if I told Alasdair to fuck off, I’d never find Vashti again. It sounds ridiculous from this distance, but at the time it had a logic.
What was the charm of her music for you?
Again, it’s like those memories we were talking about, the record that I eventually did with her, Diamond Day, stands in a way between me and what she sounded like three or four years earlier. I remember thinking that she was gorgeous, she had this gorgeous voice, she had these lovely songs. In a way my take on her was not much different than Andrew Oldham’s who signed her at the time. She was like Marianne Faithfull, only better. I haven’t heard the single that she did with him or any of the demos of the songs that she might have performed at the ICA ever. I just remember having this feeling that this was special and could be successful. She had a star quality in an anti-star sense, in a diffident, shy, hair falling in front of her face kind of way.
I think that what’s happening now with Vashti is fascinating. It sort of justifies my feelings. She performed with her hair falling in front of her face, very shyly at the Barbican in front of 2000 people and absolutely justified top billing. She’s getting offers from all over the world now to go tour, the record’s selling and selling and selling. I feel, I saw that, I saw all that in 1965 at the ICA!
You touched on the Incredibles. I can remember going to Collet’s in New Oxford Street round about the time that Changing Horses came out. Hans Fried sagely told me they were under the sway of Scientology at that point and that one could detect that in the lyrics. I was never able to. Can you give me a hint of how they were coloured creatively?
I never really discussed these things with them. Their joining Scientology worried me because, to me, it seemed like a self-important, obscured cult. There were a lot of things that seemed at first to benefit them. It’s very hard to analyse a writer’s motive, why they write something. Certainly Scientology is full of stuff about past lives and has a strange take on the world and the spirit-mind-body relationship. You can parse some of those later lyrics, particularly I think in U, and come up with analyses in terms of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and maybe come up with something. For me, what was noticeable most of all was [them] kinda going off the boil. One song in I Looked Up, for example, which I thought was actually one of their better later songs and I enjoyed recording it, was “This Moment”. That is very core to Scientology.
The theory of Scientology seems, on paper, to be very sound. If you somehow clear away the ‘engrams’ as they call them, the links that are built into your cellular system between painful memories and the details of what’s around you at this very moment, if you can sever the connection between the fact that you may have been in a school room with the colour of these walls and a teacher rapped you on your knuckles and humiliated you in front of the class, you will be freer in this moment to live, to be yourself, to respond to things that are happening now rather than things that happened long ago when you were smelling that smell, seeing that sight or hearing that sound. “This Moment” is one of their best Scientology-related songs because it’s a perfectly reasonable and universal sentiment. It just happens to come with a particular Scientology edge to it. I even like Licorice’s little verse.
My concern was about the decline in the quality of their songs. It was never clear to me whether Scientology had anything to do with that, because there were a lot of other things going on. It’s very hard really to find original artists who maintain a level of originality, freshness and spark six albums in.
One of the things I found interesting – and I don’t if this had any bearing on your role – was the way they would perform material before putting it out on record. That kept an edge and avoided comparisons. Often they would tour and not play or promote the new album’s material.
A lot of musicians were like that in the Sixties. I risk sounding like Old Fart about the modern day and young people these days, but I do find it depressing going to a concert and seeing a lot of artists playing their album. They play all the songs they’ve recorded and know what you want to hear. They know what they’re promoting and that the record company’s paying tour support. In the mid Sixties people played what they wanted to play. That was one of the things you did. You played songs you hadn’t recorded yet to try them out, to test them, to hone them, to get them ready to be recorded. That made the whole [recording] process of a different nature. And possibly higher quality.
They never did jam with Chick Corea though!
You alluded earlier to Nick Drake’s college friends peopling the songs; did you have many acts that you would talk to about the content of the songs? Was that a tendency of yours?
No. And I never really talked to Nick either about his songs. I tended to take them pretty much at musical face value. I didn’t really get into what they were about.
Were you in any way prepared for the impact for the effect of psychedelia on this country when it hit this country? A spirit was afoot.
For me, during the whole year of 1966 you could sense all these things building up. When Elektra and I parted company, which was September of ’66, I was faced with a choice. I had to decide whether I was going to stay in Britain or go back to America. I had no job.
My father came to England in October or November ’66 but he remembers getting on the bus to go to Heathrow [London Airport] to go back to America. He gave me a hundred dollars or something as a present. I was standing at the door of my bed and breakfast hotel and I was wearing my raincoat and it was torn. That’s the image he still has. I was in a precarious economic position. Fortunately, John Hopkins – Hoppy – had much more momentum, having been a very successful photographer, but he, combined with my friendship with him, kept me in touch with what was going on in the so-called ‘underground’ and how it was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It was Hoppy that invited me to go the Roundhouse to the International Times launch party. That was really the template for UFO. Hoppy had reached the point where his activities with the Notting Hill Free School, International Times and all that meant he would have had to say to all his regular customers for his photographs, ‘I’m not available, I don’t have time.’ He pretty much had lost his main source of income, as had I. The Incredible String Band wanted me to manage them; I’d suggested it and they’d agreed that I should manage them. I had that but they weren’t making any money and I wouldn’t make any money managing them for quite some time. Hoppy had no money from International Times. We were both in this position that we really wanted to be doing what we were doing, but we needed cash flow to pay the rent. So UFO was that. So, that’s the long answer to your short question. Yes, I did see psychedelia as something that was going to be much, much popular. That’s why Hoppy and I started the UFO. We saw it as something that had potential to get a lot of people through the door and for us to pay our rent thereby. We did it definitely as a means of capitalising on what was going on.
Did you keep a collection of the posters from the UFO club?
In those days I didn’t keep things. When I think of some of the records that I had! The poster company crashed and burned at a certain point. The creditors got all the stock. I was running around frantically and never at that time, knowing that this was going to happen, did I go over and carefully rolled p two copies of each poster and put them in my attic. Very soon I was very depressed that I hadn’t. I got together with Felix Dennis and he suggested we had lunch. We went to a little workers’ caff. I’d never really known Felix. The International Times crowd was rather snooty towards the Oz crowd – they were Johnny-come-latelies and we couldn’t read their magazine, they were never part of the UFO world. Their real momentum came after UFO closed.
Suddenly in 1975 or 1976, I’m having lunch with Felix. He said he lived nearby, said he’d show me his pad. His study had all these beautiful framed UFO silkscreen posters. I said, ‘Oh Felix, oh Jesus, God, it’s breaking my heart. You were together enough to collect these.’ By the time Osiris went under, it would have been easy for him to take a few posters. And he had. That was the difference between Felix Dennis and me! He said, ‘You mean you don’t have a set of the posters? Oh well, I have an extra set.’ He pulled out a big tube that was not complete but had almost all of the UFO posters and gave them to me.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the book was the sound of bubbles of mythology being burst. That was to do with the whole business about the use of axes at Dylan’s performance at Newport. That’s a story that’s gathered so much moss as it’s rolled down the decades.
Paul Rothchild is the likely source for this. There is a story in some Dylan documentary where he talks about Pete Seeger talking about, ‘Cut the thing.’
This was a power line. Is anybody going to cut through that?
Exactly! I know Paul and Paul liked a good, embellished story. He’d heard me talk about the prisoners and the axes and certainly he was aware how violently the Old Guard responded to the sound. I’m also certain the source of this is Paul Rothchild. I know where Rothchild was during that whole thing. He wasn’t behind the mixing desk. He wasn’t backstage. He couldn’t have seen. He wouldn’t have seen and he could only have gotten it by hearsay. I was bragging about snatching the wires away from the axes with the Texas prisoners and Pete Seeger seeing me doing it. I certainly told Rothchild as well, how violently appalled they were by the level of the sound. The fact that I was reporting to Paul the violence of Seeger’s response to the sound and an incident with axes and wires and Seeger is my guess how that happened. If I didn’t see it, that doesn’t prove it didn’t happen. But Seeger knew enough about the way sound controls worked! You don’t power the speakers. The power would have been way back with the generator or a line to a utility pole or way off somewhere in the bowels of the production area, nowhere near the backstage. And a sound cable to a speaker? Well, they’re stacks of speakers and you’d go round cutting one after the other. Seeger knows enough about the way things work. It’s a mix-up. It makes a good soundbite though.
Fledg’ling Records released a similarly titled White Bicycles CD to coincide with the book’s publication. It includes Boyd-produced tracks by Pink Floyd, Purple Gang, Fairport, Geoff & Maria Muldaur, Johnny Handle, Dudu Pukwana & The Spears and Soft Machine. Boyd contributes written notes about each selection. More information at www.thebeesknees.com.
Read the review of White Bicycles in Czech
The White Bicycles CD won Mojo magazine‘s Compilation of the Year Award for 2007.
More information at http://promo.emapnetwork.com/mojo/honours2007/