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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Countercultural Superman, 23 Jun 2007
This review is from: White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Jul 2008 07:02:00 BDT
Jm Leven says:
You know your stuff! Great review, a wealth of info on its own. I sort of know what you mean about Nick Drake and elevator music - sometimes it gets me that way, other times I'm just in awe of it. I certainly prefer the first 4 Incredible String Band albums, but Richard Thompson better than Nick Drake? Come on! He played some nice guitar with Fairport, but he was far from essential to the sound - many other guitar players could have done as well. Ok, they didn't and he did. Fair play to him. But his solo stuff? Nice touch on the acoustic guitar, passable electric player, awful singer, uninspired writer. Nick Drake WAS a genius, even if just for a certain mood; Richard Thompson is just a decent guitar player without an act.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Sep 2008 19:58:15 BDT
French Fancy says:
How can you say Drake was a genius and dismiss RT as a 'decent guitar player'. As melodious as Drake was he palls beside the legend that is Richard Thompson.
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