LONDON, ONTARIO – As summer 2018 starts chugging its way through its final third, here’s a book tip for anyone looking for a worthy volume to take along to the cottage or the beach or your air-conditioned basement: White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s by Joe Boyd. It might help if you retain an abiding fondness for that most fertile and inventive of periods in popular music when – in the wake of a Beatles-led British Invasion of the entire English-speaking world – unprecedented numbers of young musicians, alone or in small groups, started making music in vital and ingenious new ways.
You might think that ground has already been pretty well tilled by various musical chroniclers but the American-born Boyd who accomplished much of his best work as an absurdly young promoter and record producer in mid-to late ‘60s Britain, always had a lot more to do with less flashy and more idiosyncratic acts on the fringes, than those on the top 40 charts. And most significantly – unlike a lot of other purveyors of musical memoirs – Boyd is a notably gifted and insightful writer.
Boyd has had his tantalizing brushes with the musical mainstream, usually at the front end of a musician’s career before serious money could be generated. He produced Eric Clapton’s very first recording session with an ad hoc group called The Powerhouse that included a certain Stevie Winwood on organ; the resultant few tracks they laid down emerged a couple years later on What’s Shakin?, an undistinguished sampler album on the Elektra label. He produced the very first (and let the record show) the very finest of Pink Floyd’s handful of singles, Arnold Layne, about a dedicated snatcher of panties and also gave the Cambridge-area quartet some of their very first, high-profile gigs at London’s notorious UFO nightclub which he co-managed through most of 1967.
Other acts which Boyd booked at the UFO were The Soft Machine, The Pretty Things, The Move, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Tomorrow (from whose biggest single he borrowed his book’s title), Family and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Procol Harum. With those last two acts he came maddeningly close to also producing their first singles (respectively Fire and A Whiter Shade of Pale); either of which would have done wonders for his financial portfolio. In the ‘80s (by which time he was mostly based back in the States) Boyd produced REM’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, their very darkest of early albums which didn’t seriously trouble the charts.
Boyd’s main claim to fame as a producer is for a handful of British folk-rock acts that emerged in the mid-60s –The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention (and its dozen offshoots including Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson; for their first decade Fairport never had the same lineup on two consecutive albums), Shirley Collins, Fotheringay, John & Beverly Martyn and Nick Drake. I was plugged into Fairport and the Incredibles at the time of their first releases; all the others I sought out subsequently when I stepped off the pop music carousel in my 20s in search of more substantive music.
Boyd was the first producer whose name on a disc would prompt me to give an unheard artist a chance and I note that over the years I’ve culled very few records from my collection which are affiliated with the two production companies he headed up – Witchseason (in the 60s) and more recently Hannibal. Vashti Bunyan struck me as just a little too twee for words but I’ve subsequently heard from enough of her champions that if I ever find her only album again, Just Another Diamond Day, I’ll probably have to give it another chance. And I shed all my albums by Dr. Strangely Strange decades ago; they struck me as a very poor man’s Incredible String Band. But I still miss their marvelous cover art and inspired album titles: Strangely Strange Yet Oddly Normal, Kip of the Serenes and Heavy Petting. If Boyd ever wants to pull together a decent compilation of Dr. Strangely Strange’s finest moments, I expect I’d bite again.
Part of what makes this book such a pleasure to read is the fondness Boyd has for all of the artists he’s worked with. One shudders to think how the singularly troubled and unlucky Nick Drake might have fared in the care of a less compassionate producer. Though his albums never sold worth spit during his suicide-shortened lifetime, Boyd never faltered in his support and encouragement for the poor tortured genius. And when he sold off the entire Witchseason catalogue prior to returning to the States in the mid ‘70s, he attached a codicil to the contract that no Drake album would ever be allowed to go out of print. And then a mere 26 years after he was laid in the earth, Drake finally hit the big time (and has stayed there ever since as one of the most admired songwriters of the period) when Volkswagen decided to feature Pink Moon in a car commercial.
Boyd’s regard for musicians and their struggle to realize their art shines through in a touching early chapter when he recalls the first concert he ever promoted at the age of 18. Boyd, his brother Warwick and a childhood friend Geoff Muldaur (whose albums, with and without his wife Maria, Boyd would also produce) loved to go digging through thrift shops in their hometown of Princeton, New Jersey searching out old blues and jazz records. When they heard that Lonnie Johnson, an old bluesman whose records they adored might still be alive and working as a cook in a Philadelphia hotel, Boyd realized what must be done:
“A borrowed phone directory revealed Johnson, Lonnie, at a North Philadelphia address, the blackest area of the city. We dialed the number. ‘Is this Lonnie Johnson? The Lonnie Johnson who recorded Blue Ghost Blues in 1938? Yes? Would you come to Princeton and play a concert next week? Yes, I think we can manage fifty dollars.’ We looked at each other in amazement: we had booked Lonnie Johnson! We commandeered a neighbour’s large living room and ordered our friends to attend and bring a dollar each for the kitty. When the day came, we borrowed Geoff’s father’s Rambler and headed for Philly. Outside a downtown hotel, a neatly dressed grey-haired man stood by the kerb with a guitar case and a small amplifier.
“Lonnie seemed as pleased to see us as we were to see him. He told of returning from a European tour in 1951 to find that his girlfriend had run off with his money, guitars and record collection. Rock’n’roll was coming in and he didn’t have the energy to fight it; he hadn’t played a gig in eight years. When we reached rural Pennsylvania, Lonnie marvelled at the fireflies in the summer twilight, the trees and green lawns; it had been years since he had been out of the city. He answered our eager questions and laughed gently. When we ogled a girl walking beside the road he added to our teenage lexicon of essential phrases by warning us to beware ‘the fuzzy monster that causes all the trouble’.
“When we got to Princeton, the room was full. No one had the faintest idea who he was, but as soon as he picked up his guitar all were entranced. At first Lonnie brushed off requests for blues and sang standards like I Cover the Waterfront and Red Sails in the Sunset. ‘White people always think Negroes just play the blues. I can sing anything.’ There was a beautiful black girl sitting on the floor by his chair and he started singing to her, flirting shyly. As the evening went on and everyone relaxed, the music grew more intense and Lonnie began playing his old blues. Our friends and their parents edged closer to Lonnie’s chair in the middle of the room; none of them had ever heard anything like it.
“We collected $100 for him and he was so pleased he took the train home to save us the drive. The following year he would start performing in coffee houses for the young white audiences he met for the first time that night in Princeton. He made a few LPs for Prestige Records, was reunited with Duke Ellington at a New York Town Hall concert, moved to Toronto, where he had the support of some devoted fans, and died in 1970 having added yet another chapter to his remarkable fifty-year career.”
Building on his experience with Lonnie Johnson, a 21 year-old Boyd found work as a tour manager for the American Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan (including such heavy hitters as Muddy Waters, Brownie McGhee, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry, Reverend Gary Davis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe) as it toured the UK in 1964. The following year, he was the stage manager at the Newport Folk Festival and refused to obey when the organizers demanded that he pull the plug when Dylan infamously went electric. And the year after that, he leapt at the chance to live and work in Britain in the London office of the US-based Elektra records.
Cross pollination – the mingling of American and British musical motifs, finding ways to nourish contemporary music by borrowing from older styles and traditions - is a major theme in Boyd’s life and work. Repeatedly in White Bicycles he makes some startlingly astute trans-Atlantic contrasts. Here he is on the advantage the Brits had with musical forms such as rock and blues which did not emerge from their own soil:
“When I started meeting musicians, I noticed other differences between the cultures. Some British art students would form a group, then learn how to play their instruments well enough to perform the songs written by the group’s strongest personality. The results might be technically unsophisticated but were often more original than those of their American counterparts, who were too close to our musical forms to do much more than accurately re-create them. Dylan, always the exception, was almost British in his unconcern with vocal grace or instrumental fluency.”
Here he comments on the benefits of learning your chops in a slightly less affluent society; how when it comes to absorbing influences and doing something fresh with them, sometimes less is more:
“I read an interview with Keith Richards once explaining how he and Mick Jagger had a single blues record between them when they first met. It was one I knew well: a Stateside four-track EP licenced from the Excello label, with Slim Harpo on one side and Lazy Lester on the other. They played it until it was so worn they could barely hear the music through the scratches. One way of looking at the Stones’ sound is as a South-East London adaptation of the Excello style. If they had owned more records, their music might have been less distinctive.”
And here he compares the differences in the ways the two countries handled the generation gap:
“By the mid-sixties, America was experiencing the ‘generation gap’. Parents whose kids returned from school or college with long hair and a rebellious attitude often went into shock. Children were disowned, ‘grounded’, locked up, beaten, shorn, lectured, or sent to psychiatrists, military school or mental institutions. In Britain I visited pubs where earringed boys with long hair stood drinking a Sunday pint next to their dads in cloth caps. Neither seemed the least bit concerned. Americans were so unsure of their often newly won status that they could not comprehend the next generation rejecting what they had worked so hard to achieve. The British seemed to feel that little was going to change, no matter how long their child’s hair grew . . . much of British society seemed happy and content compared to status-anxious America.”
White Bicycles was first published in 2006. As it didn’t turn up in any London shops I frequent, I put off buying it until last month’s visit to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon which apparently has every book ever published in the history of the world. Of course, I always could’ve bought it on Amazon but was loath to do so without sampling it first. Then I met singer/songwriter Ryan Boldt, best known as the frontman and composer for roots and roll band The Deep Dark Woods shortly before we headed out west. We were introduced at a party by my daughter (who just happens to cut Boldt’s hair which I am not paternally obliged to say is one of the loveliest manes in show biz today) who thought we might have some shared points of interest. Good call, child.
The party in question was a house-warmer being thrown by our avenue’s newest neighbours who also happen to be the proprietors of the Brown & Dickson bookshop. As 99% of the people in attendance were well under the age of 40, it was my intention to drop off a bottle of wine, say ‘Welcome to the hood’ and skedaddle so the young’uns could roll up the carpets and do the jitterbug or whatever it is they like to do nowadays.
But then Boldt mentioned having met English traditional folk singer Shirley Collins on his most recent tour over there. I asked about Shirley’s sister, Dolly, and made reference to their 1969 album, Anthems in Eden, and then we were off and running for the next couple hours, swapping titles and recommendations of all of the acts Boyd worked with and lots of others as well. It was Boldt who told me I must read White Bicycles for which I thank him very much and if I put him on the trail of anything which might yield similar treasure for him, it might have been sketching out the incredibly tangled and fruitful career of Ian Matthews (nowadays spelled ‘Iain’) who left Fairport Convention after their first two Boyd-produced albums.
It occurs to me that one reason Boldt might’ve found Boyd’s memoir so worthwhile is because it is primarily focused on a music scene – much like today’s – which finds itself in such radical flux. All the old models of music career management have been pretty well swept away and ingenious new approaches need to be devised. At a time when the whole musical deck of cards has been tossed up in the air, I can see where a musician like Boldt – who shares Boyd’s affinity for traditional forms, who is drawn by love for music-making and not a drive to make the biggest splash, who is content to work on the margins producing music of lasting value – could take a lot of inspiration from this marvelous book.
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