on 7 March 2007
I've long thought the statement, 'If you remember the 60's you couldn't been there', to be a nonsense.
As a weekend hippy who got high on very good music, cheap Canadian Clubs and ginger (and no stronger chemicals), I remember the times pretty well. This meant having the ability to slip into the action at weekends and then do a day job to pay for the records, the gigs..... and then through the drag of the working week, eventually slip into next weekend's action. It was improved most Wednesday evenings by making the trip to Tolworth's Toby Jug off the A3, to see the likes of Timebox (soon to become Patto, and with Ollie Hassell doing a Keith Moon destruction job on his vibraphone), Fleetwood Mac (a half crown for this, and 'Albatross' had just left the No. 1 singles spot), King Crimson (first UK tour - but this was a terrible venue for the band), Led Zeppelin (1st tour and the audience only warming to them in the second hour of playing), Edgar Broughton Band (audience only just in double figures, but still a great show), a classic line-up with Jeff Beck (Nicky Hopkins, Ron Wood, Tony Newman and Rod Stewart), or the Groundhogs backing John Lee Hooker. Then get rather disillusioned about the hippy ethos at the end of Traffic's Oz Benefit concert at Central Middlesex Poly one summer's evening, when I discovered I'd been sit on the floor (of that canteen, which Traffic welcome us to), immediately in front of Oz-man-in-chief Richard Neville. I stood up and accidently trod on his cloak; he mouthed f*** off' retrieving a portable cassette recorder concealed there, on which it seemed he was making a bootleg recording - of a band who were doing him a huge favour.
This is not the first book to describe this period of radical musical change and social "revolution". Several books have been written by some of the protagonists of the London hippy scene of the mid/late 60's - e.g. Richard Neville (him again) now wealthy back in Oz, Mick Farren describing The Social Deviants (and Pink Fairies) and International Times, 'Lost In the Woods' a biography of Syd Barrett and the rise of Pink Floyd, 'Out-Bloody-Rageous' the Soft Machine biography. Now here Anglo-American record producer Joe Boyd, has come up with a most readable gem of an autobiography, concentrating largely on the period 1964 to 1971. The book's title 'White Bicycles'refers to the white bicycles frequently seen then in the Netherlands, (which were for anybody to use - echoing the intended freedom to 'share each other's goods, plough each other's earth', and the related hippy ethos), and of course the hit by one of the first bands he managed, Tomorrow.
Boyd relates how he fell into the music business, discovering a long forgotten blues singer was happy to do a gig at a Harvard Uni student hall for 25 dollars as long as he got a ride to the show. Boyd had a whip round taking a dollar each from everybody who attended, and so was able to give the musician a 75 dollars bonus. Then the summer jobs working for record labels. Or acting as goffer at the Newport Jazz & Folk Festival in 1965, when he claims rock came about i.e. when Dylan brought his electric folk band on stage with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper in that line-up, so shocking the folk purists, such as Pete Seeger, that they walked out of the Festival. Then road managing elderly blues singers around Europe. The love affair with the UK after Boyd talked himself into a scouting job for talent with Elektra Records, for example claiming how close he was to grabbing Floyd for the label. Seaprately discovering Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, and then getting Denny into the band. Being stunned by Nick Drake's demos and then being more stunned that nobody bought Nick Drake's records when first released - although when John Cale asked Boyd who was new, on hearing a work-in-progress tapes for '5 Leaves Left', Cale went straight round to Drake's digs, sorted out a couple of tunes, then they recorded these together the following Monday. And then the rise and fall of the Incredible String Band.
What works here for me is Boyd's style of writing, with its constant shift of time and location between neighbouring chapters. This provides a powerful echo for me of the 60's: strong memories but not necessarily in true chronological order and so much there that it wasn't possible to concentrate on all at the same time. One page you are in Boston mid 60's, the next negiotating with Island Records' Chris Blackwell, selling the rights to the recording licenses of Witch Season signings in 1970. The casual decision to start UFO in London's Tottenham Court Road, the bands that appeared there, the drugs sold too which Boyd turned a blind eye until the Met forced the club's closure.
A good book which I strongly recommend to all to give some insight into the original London underground scene, which in part lead to progressive music/rock and the somewhat amateur wheeler dealing associated with it. Also an excellent companion to the 'Forever Changing: Golden Age Of Elektra Records, 1963-73' CD box set.
on 19 May 2006
I'd feared Joe Boyd's White Bicycles would be lightweight--not sure why, except that so many books are, nowadays--and thought I might only be interested in the section about the Witchseason artists and their time period (a favorite of mine). To my delight, Boyd's accounts of earlier adventures in the States and the UK, and of the many musicians he worked with then, are just as fascinating. He writes well, and his knack for remembering and expressing detail makes all the people he encountered seem very real, and gives depth to the book.
As reviewers elsewhere have pointed out, this isn't an autobiography of Boyd himself, but a memoir of his role in a specific timeline. There isn't much reference to his childhood, or to personal relationships; those aren't what Boyd is concerned with. For instance, of all the photos of musicians and moguls in the book, only two snapshots include him. You might expect him to be egotistical, considering the influential career he's had, but he really doesn't sound that way. While he does come across as quite confident--and if he hadn't been, he wouldn't have been able to work with so many people in so many different situations--he doesn't cast himself as the central figure. He portrays himself simply as one of the players in an amazing part of musical history, and gives the impression of trying to be fair as he looks back on everything. A few times I found myself reading between the lines, as he talked about a person or situation with which I was already familiar, and I suspected he was being careful not to say what he really thought. But this was obviously in deference to the feelings of others, not from a desire to lie or be secretive.
Throughout the book, you're impressed by the fact that no one else has had quite Boyd's point of view. His descriptions of road trips make the blues musicians involved nearly jump off the page; the same goes for his inside accounts of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. And I got a clearer idea of the UFO club than I've ever gleaned from anything else written about it.
Boyd leaves out some things; I was surprised and disappointed that he doesn't once mention Anthea Joseph, who was a close co-worker during the Witchseason years. But he gives wonderfully affectionate pictures of Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, engineer John Wood, and many others. He talks about the recording techniques used decades ago, in terms even I could understand. Only a few times does he get the least bit preachy; unlike some other memoirs written by people fondly remembering the 60's, Boyd sticks pretty much to facts, and to his impressions at the time instead of later ruminations.
White Bicycles is an evocative book, great for a straight-through read, and then for dipping into again and again for reference and enjoyment. Highly recommended!
on 6 December 2006
Written by a man who has produced so many classic albums and who has encouraged and brought to the limelight many artists I love, I simply had to get this book. And it certainly delivers. Many, many interesting facts, dates, anecdotes about as many artists are crammed into the pages, so it makes for avid reading, especially if you're a music fan interested in the music in the past century (for we can not only read about obvious artists and groups like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, but about jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins as well).
The downside of this book for me is the fact that it stays on the surface too much. Both the artists as indeed the writer himself stay a bit distant, so that I didn't feel as involved as I wanted to. It might well be that Joe Boyd just wants to keep it factual and concise, but I think that he could have written a better book had he chosen to go a little deeper into (some of) the artists whose records he has produced.
Nevertheless, this is a fine book and you'll love all he has to write. Like I said, for me not buying and reading it immediately was not an option.
on 1 October 2007
I had, since reading Fred Goodman's extraordinary "Mansion on the Hill" in 2004, wondered if an equally well written counterpart would appear which would map the development of music of the sixties and early seventies in the UK rather than the US... reading Boyd's memoir I was delighted and moved to find such an erudite and bewilderingly knowledgable book. It is razor sharp in analysis of the constantly evolving nexus between the artists, producers, management and audience, which easily equals Goodman's tome, subtitled "Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce". It is also heartbreakingly on the money when it comes to the industrialisation of the (counter)culture which proceded almost as soon as artists could establish themselves outside the confines of Tin Pan Alley. A brief period in the development of music which can be readily seen as a golden era, accounted for with great humility and wit. A must buy for any serious music fan.
on 10 March 2008
I found the first few chapters a bit of a grind, but once you get past Joe Boyds early years to when he takes his first tentative steps in the music business, the book becomes an informative and entertaning read. Joe Boyd is remembered mostly as the guy behind the Witchseason label, and his production and management links with a variety of performers most notably Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention. He was the person who launched the famous UFO club in London and organised a number of festivals. Yet, he missed a the chance of working with some bigger names - although he did produce Arnold Layne for Pink Floyd. Certainly an insight into how the behind the scenes cogs and wheels turn in the music industry and how being in the right place at the right time, let alone having the right connections counts for everything
on 31 August 2006
How rare this is: a book without an ounce of fat or indulgence, about which one can honestly complain that more would (for once) really have been more. Joe Boyd is a guy whose missed opportunities literally dwarf the successes that other people spin into volumes, yet who crams this fabulously rich musical life is into just 260-odd pages, a guy whose personal involvement with Newport, Woodstock, the UFO club, with iconic names from John Lee Hooker through Dylan, Syd Barrett, Hendrix, Nick Drake, the early 60s US jazzers, the cream of the US and British folk-rock scenes is littered across every page... yet who touches on it all so lightly as to emerge astonishingly, almost unbelievably modest and unassuming.
In the end, it is a real complaint, if the best that one could have. He leaves us wanting more all right - more detail and context, more about the recording process and what makes a great record great, about what gives the recordings of the 60s and the 70s a depth and resonance which is so rarely heard now - because Boyd really loves music and when does touch on these things it's genuinely illuminating. In the end it comes across as a prospectus for one of the best dinner guests you could imagine. You so want to break out the brandy and drill deeper into what are already extraordinary stories.
A final grievance - the book runs out of steam early in the 70s, though I'm fairly sure Boyd still has places to go - OK, it's subtitled 'making music in the 60s', but does that mean another volume will follow ? Lets hope so.
on 2 July 2006
An excellent memoir of the 60's from someone who was not only there but had a role to play in many different but fondly remembered aspects of the time.
Despite Boyd's successes there were also a load of missed opportunities recalled with a rueful but amusing slant - for instance he could have had a large slice of ABBA's publishing if circumstances hadn't intervened.
Most of the major names from the era seem to cross Boyd's path, but it is of course because of Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and a few others that Boyd's memoir becomes an essential read. Just to find out how Fairport came to record Liege and Lief rather than a completely different record is almost worth buying the book for in itself.
Joe Boyd is a man it's hard not to resent. He's been tall, handsome and not obviously poor most of his life but, most particularly, during the 1960s, he developed an almost supernatural ability to be in the right place at the right time and then do the right thing while he was there. Like a countercultural Superman, he zap!s into Newport 1965 and arranges for Dylan to go electric with the members of a group Joe Boyd created; in 1966 kapoww! he's in London founding UFO, the white hot centre of the English underground, with John Hopkins; blamm! he's in Edinburgh discovering the ISB; shazam!! - he helps to create British folk rock with Fairport; kerrunch!!! he discovers Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan. And so endlessly on. And now he writes about it all with effortless grace and humour. So here's a guy whose co-production of the brilliant album "Desertshore" by Nico in 1971 gets only a passing one-liner. It would be a great relief to find some kind of flaw in this paragon, but he was also blessed with perfect taste and produced most of my favourite albums. Too much, man. Too much.
Boyd was part of the grand tradition of American folk entrepreneurs like Ralph Peer, Alan Lomax, Frank Walker, H C Spiers and Moe Asch. He says his ambition was to become an eminence grise, and that's about what he did. He grised the wheels, he came to arrangements both financial and musical, he put this thing on top of that thing and finessed this deal with that company, but all the time he was the thinking hippy's bread-head (if he hadn't have called this book "White Bicycles" he could have called it "Accounting for Taste") and he knew what was rubbish and what was not. He was a jazz-blues fan who fell in love with British folk music and in his headlong full-tilt pelt through the late 50s and into the early 70s he managed to let the following slip through his fingers: Steve Winwood, Cream, Pink Floyd, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Move and the artists soon to be known as Abba. Man alive, he was a contender, but if he'd snapped all of them up when the snapping was good he'd have been Robert Stigwood. It's quite a stretch in anyone's language, from getting Coleman Hawkins out of his bed and onstage to nearly signing the future Abba.
Ten things I didn't know before reading "White Bicycles" :
1. The Even Dozen Jug Band (1964) included Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian, Joshua Rifkin, Steve Katz, Stefan Grossman and David Grisman. Wow!
2. White people clap on the wrong beat.
3. In the 60s blues acts could tour successfully in Britain and Europe but no one was interested in the USA..
4. Joe spent a fortnight in Brixton on a drugs possession charge (his time there sounds like an episode of Porridge)
5. Padstow, May Day 1965 was the high-water mark of the English traditional folk revival as
6. Around 9.30 on the night of 25 July 1965 was the moment 1960s youth exchanged idealism for hedonism as
7. The 1960s "peaked just before dawn on 1 July 1967 during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London" (Joe is nothing if not particular).
8. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album on its own outsold the Beatles' entire catalogue
9. Joe and his pal Paul Rothchild put the Lovin' Spoonful together just like a folk-rock Monkees (a fact that's been airbrushed out of history)
10. Nick Drake was the greatest ever talent Joe produced.
Now, this last statement is, like No. 8, not true, but Joe thinks it is. Note the following
Boyd on Drake :
"there was something uniquely arresting in Nick's composure. The music stayed within itself, not trying to attract the listener's attention... His guitar technique was so clean it took a while to realise how complex it was... the heart of the music was mysteriously original."
"up close the power of his fingers was astonishing with each note ringing out loud... I had listened closely to Robin Williamson, John Martyn, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Half-struck strings and blurred hammerings-on were an accepted part of their sound; none could match Nick's mastery of the instrument. After finishing one song he would retune the guitar and proceed to play something equally complex in a totally different chord shape."
"I had told him he was a genius and others had concurred."
"the sale of Witchseason included a provision that Nick's lps must never be deleted, although I didn't need at argue the point with Blackwell, he loved Nick too."
It's hard to disagree with Joe Boyd - he is the man after all - but imagining Nick Drake's music to be in the same league as Richard Thompson or more especially Robin Williamson is just loopy. Modern advertisers, tv music finders and the younger generation seem to like Nick Drake a lot more than the ISB or RT but that don't prove a thing except that "Time Has Told Me" is an awful lot more like elevator music than "The Mad Hatter's Song" or "Genesis Hall".
Joe's main band - the one he produced and managed longest in the 60s - was the Incredible String Band and he now seems to regard them with something approaching embarrassment. They get as many putdowns as Nick Drake gets praise, and since they were hugely greater talents one must ask why.
It seems part of the answer is on page 186 : "History has deemed the ISB terminally unhip, forever identified with an incense-drenched, tripped out folkiness". And later, after they disastrously took up Scientology, "soon the new compositions began to lose their wild melodic beauty... was this a natural decline after years of original output or was it Scientology? I resisted the thought that creativity might be linked to unhappiness or neurosis." Taking the first point, Joe seems not to have noticed the new psychedelic folk movement which has taken hold in the USA and consistently namechecks the ISB - for instance there's Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective, Wolf Parade, Sufjan Stevens, the Espers and Six Organs or Admittance. For these people the ISB are the very quintessence of hip.
The second point is also telling : the ISB disappointed Joe badly (whereas Nick Drake didn't live long enough) - firstly by joining a grisly cult, then by becoming happier people after having joined! That wasn't the script Joe had in mind for them at all.
Joe includes some fantastically sweeping generalisations on such topics as why the English hate their own folk music, why there wasn't so much of a generation gap in Britain as there was in the USA, and why so many great 60s artists made terrible records in the 70s (in one word, cocaine). It's all wonderfully contentious and you may wish to learn a few of these to start off a lively debate in your local. This book is never boring
Note : It may be worth mentioning a few albums Joe produced in case you didn't realise just how eminent his grise was : The Power of the True Love Knot by Shirley & Dolly Collins; all of Nick Drake; What we did on our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, Liege and Lief and Full House by Fairport; Kip of the Serene by Dr Strangely Strange; Just another Diamond Day by Vashti Bunyan; Fotheringay; Stormbringer and Road to Ruin by John & Beverley Martyn; Desertshore by Nico; soundtracks to A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance; Waitress in a Donut Shop by Maria Muldaur; Kate & Anna McGarrigle's first two; Reggae got Soul : Toots and the Maytals; Rise up like the Sun by the Albion Band; Shoot out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson; Fables of the Reconstruction by REM; The Wishing Chair by 10,000 Maniacs; Supply and Demand by Dagmar Krause; The Music of Bulgaria by Balkana; Worker's Playtime by Billy Bragg ; Kaira by Toumani Diabate.
on 3 June 2009
a great book trawling through great times, through the eyes of a man who was at the heart of it. I know Joe Boyd through Nick Drake, but his early experiences as a promoter and a tour manager for the greats of jazz and blues was a welcome bonus.
I actually felt there was a lot about Joe Boyd in this book - he's crammed a lot in, and hasn't let his ego make him the star of the show, despite his contribution to the music of the period. the elegiac tones of the final pages are quite poignant, and will make those of too young to have been there pine for what we missed but can still hear on the records of those times.
well written, and a ludicrously easy read, essential for anyone into the music of the period.
on 6 July 2015
Not overly impressed. Too many lists, predictable anecdotes, name-dropping and general music biz banter rather than insightful detail. Also a strange selection of sources - why involve Rose Simpson (by far the least talented of the ISB) whilst belittling Licorice.