An Interview with Joe Boyd

Joe Boyd - Producer, Impresario,  Music Lover of the First Order, and Author of "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s"
Joe Boyd – Producer, Impresario, Music Lover of the First Order, and Author of “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s”

If all Joe Boyd did was discover Nick Drake and produce his first two albums (numbers 280 and 245, respectively, on “Rolling Stone”’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”) that alone might have assured his place for posterity. But he also discovered Fairport Convention, produced their first five albums, discovered and recorded Pink Floyd, ran the seminal UFO club in London (home to Pink Floyd, The Soft Machine, Arthur Brown, Procol Harum, Fairport Convention, Eric Burden, The Incredible String Band, and Jeff Beck, among others), managed jazz tours for Verve records and tours of blues masters like Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharp before that. In short, he’s been an integral part of music for decades – which he chronicled in “White Bicycles” (which we reviewed here). Recently, he agreed to dig deeper into some of the themes and observations of that memoir, and speculate with us about the future.   

the connections

Agency Review:

There’s a strange contradiction that I keep trying to work out that perhaps you can help me with. On the one hand, when I read memoirs or histories of the sixties, it feels like it was an incredible time of cross pollination – that people could connect with people very easily. You wake up and find Bob Dylan across the breakfast table from you. In Popism, Warhol describes Judy Garland showing up at the Factory. In Brian Cullman’s piece in the Paris Review, he stumbles onto Nick Drake at John Martyn’s house. And yet we live in an age in which those kinds of connections should be infinitely easier and more commonplace because of social media – and yet don’t seem to be. So what was it about the 60s that engendered that kind of connection that we seem to have lost?

Boyd:

I’m not sure those connections are so rare. We will no doubt read in memoirs of the first decade of the 21st century how Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson met at a mutual drug-dealer’s house or something, or how the billionaire founders of Facebook were in the same House at Harvard or something…. It’s only in retrospect that those connections seem so unlikely. But there were fewer people in the music scene in the 60s for sure, fewer people trying to be hip Downtown in NYC then, fewer freaks in London etc.

Agency Review:

That’s an interesting perspective – so it really felt to you like a smaller community then? I think that’s fascinating because from my perspective, as someone who grew up listening to the radio, buying albums, and discovering folk and jazz and classical and rock and pop and the rest, it felt like the music world was a vast universe that spread to every corner of the globe. And yet for you, it felt like a small world. And that comment can only be made by someone who feels it’s much larger now. So why? What seems so much larger about music now and when did it get larger?

Boyd:

All you have to do is look for the ‘hip’ sections of cities today. They are way larger than they used to be. You could still roll in to NYC in the early ‘60s and find a room to rent in Greenwich Village that could be paid for with a few hours work street-busking or waiting tables. There were only a few clubs in NY then where folk music was being performed – now there are tons of gigs every night. The internet has opened up the musical world to so many people – were there any hip bands in Portland, Oregon in 1967? Or in Riga, Latvia? There is a huge population increase in music and in every other kind of media. Partly this is due to the collapse of the old economy – people used to have ‘normal’ jobs to go into, the ones their fathers or mothers had done before them. That’s all broken down now. In the 60s, you could come to LA and go to the Ash Grove or the Troubadour and have met everyone that was doing something musically interesting within a week. Not possible today.

the change

Agency Review:

Late in the review of “White Bicycles” I took a shot at what I thought you were talking about when you said why the “hinge” of “the journey from idealism to hedonism” happened when Dylan went electric at Newport, but, of course, I’m not at all certain I got it even remotely right. I thought you were sensing a loss of community, a loss of connectedness that night – in spite of the fact that you loved the music Dylan was making that night. Was that it? Or was it something else – and why that night?

Boyd:

I meant that the early 60s folk movement that was central to the Civil Rights struggle and was generally part of the idealistic energy of a young generation shifted by the later 60s to the Haight-Ashbury, Summer of Love theme, dominated by pleasure-seeking, drugs, sex etc. And you could make an argument for Dylan’s ‘going electric’ to be the moment which both marked and propelled that shift.

Agency Review:

So what you were identifying was a shift, in a sense from outward-looking to inward looking. From engaging with the world to engaging only with one’s self. And I can see now how Dylan going electric at Newport would be a signifier of that. But it didn’t cause it. And those things don’t just happen all of a sudden – like one morning everyone wakes up and thinks “Fuck civil rights, I’m gonna get stoned for the rest of the decade”. Which raises two questions. First, did you realize it at the time that that moment was happening, that it was like the wave that Hunter Thompson writes about famously in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”? And second, what were the things that were leading up to it that made you – either in retrospect or in the moment – say “Hold on. We’ve crossed the Rubicom”?

Boyd:

We knew it was a huge change, but we didn’t know to what. There was an optimism about it coupled with a sadness for what was being lost. If we had been able to see Altamont, RFK, MLK, Haight-Ashbury etc waiting down the road, we might have been less cheerful…

But I do think Dylan’s moment was not just a marker, but helped cause it. Before that, there was no “rock” – there was blues, there was rock n roll, there was pop. But Dylan standing there in jeans, singing about abstract subjects that weren’t boy/girl stuff; I think that moment inspired the whole ‘rock band’ revolution. Without it, there would probably have been another such moment, but I’m a great believer in the ‘great man’ school of history. Napoleon, Hitler, Dylan – they all caused history more than being the manifestations of it.

As for saying ‘hold on’ – social groups don’t have a collective will, although they may have a collective consciousness.

the collaboration

Agency Review:

In spite of the incredible connectedness that I referred to above, there was also a silo-ing that I’ve often found somewhat confounding. Sure, Clapton shows up on one Beatles track. Sure, the Band back Dylan. But those are the exceptions – and coming out of the jazz tradition like you do, where everybody played with everybody, did it seem strange to you that there wasn’t more collaboration? That all the bumping-into of each other that we keep reading about in the memoirs didn’t result in some amazing partnerships?

Boyd:

I think there was a lot of collaboration. Clapton with Delaney and Bonnie, the Mad Dogs tour, Concert for Bangladesh etc. Just in my world, the Fairport guys backed Nick Drake, Dudu Pukwana and many others. Jazz is fundamentally an easier terrain for ‘jamming’ and collaboration because of its structure. When the structure gets more individual (viz Roland Kirk vs Kenny Clarke in my book), jazz gets as tricky as rock.

Agency Review:

Hold on. You’re kind of having it both ways, aren’t you? On the one hand you’re saying when things get more individual, collaboration gets more difficult – and then to prove that there was more collaboration than I’m giving credit, cite two live albums that were well into that more individualized time (post Dylan at Newport) (Bangladesh 71, Mad Dogs 70). And you say the Fairport guys backed Nick Drake – and who was more individual than Nick Drake? So let me reframe the question a bit. It would seem to me that no one on the planet would have said no if the Beatles asked them to play on a record. It would seem to me that no one in their right mind would have said to Eric Clapton, no we don’t want you to sit in with us. Pink Floyd recorded “Saucerful of Secrets” at the same studio at the same time that the Beatles were making the “White Album” – how could one group not talk to the other? In “White Bicycles” you discuss how there was a very clear competition and jealousy among the Blues performers you carted around England on your first tour – was there some of that? Or did musicians of the time simply not see themselves in a way that would allow for collaboration outside of their groups/tribes/families? Or am I just barking up the wrong tree altogether?

Boyd:

I think the singer-songwriter boom of the 60s created a new dynamic. Jazz is structured so that there is a canon of compositions and improvisation is what it is all about. When singers compose their own songs, they want to control at least its initial presentation, which leads either to groups dominated by great songwriters or teams (Beatles, Kinks, Who, Crosby Stills Nash, etc.), or individuals like Dylan, Joni, Neil Young etc. I think within the limitations that the musical context imposes, there was a great deal of collaboration. Just read “Hotel California” about the scene that gave birth to the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt etc – everyone was writing songs for everyone else, singing harmony on their records, etc.

Perhaps it’s more like St Petersburg in the 19th C with the Mighty Handful (Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Balakyrev) who orchestrated each others’ compositions and finished them after they died etc, than it is like Harlem jam sessions, but the spirit, I think, was similar.

the past

Agency Review:

You say near the end of “White Bicycles” that you believe that part of the strength of your generation was its connection to the past. I think there’s something to that – but then like Faulkner, I don’t believe the past is even past – but I also realize that every generation rediscovers the past they need. So, with that in mind, I’d like to ask you about the current phase of discovery – bands like Mumford and Sons, or the Lumineers or what’s being called “roots music” – do you think it’s healthy and sincere, or hipster poserism, or, as in every generation, a bit of both and that the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater.

Boyd:

I hesitate to comment, as I don’t listen deeply to the artists you mention. From my cursory attention and quick turning away, I would say their engagement with the past is superficial, but there are others more serious about it. And certainly there are plenty of fans out there buying old vinyl and books like White Bicycles. But I do have the sense that society in general is less interested in the past than we used to be. Classic film series used to be packed, 19th century novels avidly read, history discussed. But maybe I don’t move in the right circles…

Agency Review:

I think there’s always some sense of anti-intellectualism in every era, a belief that either the past was shite and we must build the world anew, or just a blind ignorance of history and culture because, frankly, I’d rather be playing my guitar than reading Thackeray. But I also know two other things. 1) that musicians are always looking for new sounds – whether that’s you looking for folk music in England that excited you as much as the stuff you loved in America, or Coltrane exploring Middle Eastern textures or Pink Floyd exploring just how far they could push rock before it all came apart. And 2) that there is something communal about playing real instruments together in a room, something that connects not only the people in the room in a unique way, but that connects all of them to centuries of other musicians. And I’m wondering if that’s what we’re seeing – and I ask you, because I think both of those things were alive in the years you write about in “White Bicycles”. Musicians seeking new sounds, musicians rediscovering the joy of making sounds in a room with each other. So while I respect that you can’t comment on the bands of today, do you think that the way I’ve characterized music, musicians and the era of “White Bicycles” is fair or even remotely accurate?

Boyd:

I think there is a difference between ‘seeking new and interesting sounds’ and ‘connecting to a deep musical culture’. There are many young musicians in places such as Hungary and Russia who are self-consciously learning from old singers and players and trying to forge cultural continuity. Same thing in certain areas of America – Cajun Louisiana, part of the (white) South etc. That is very different from cruising the Harry Smith collection for samples, or composing songs with a superficial nod to various ‘roots’ acoustic styles. I think there was a genuine reverence in the 60s for the older musicians we met at Newport every year, or who we listened to on 78s and lp anthologies. I don’t believe that really applies to Mumford and the Luminaires, but maybe they feel it deeply but just aren’t very good at it!

Perhaps that’s unfair, as there aren’t really the same opportunities now there were for, say, Bill Keith, Peter Rowan and Richard Greene to join Bill Monroe’s band and tour with him for years. That kind of experience is un-repeatable today, no doubt.

the future

Agency Review:

On the one hand, we could say that the music business is completely different from what it’s ever been in the past – thanks to social media, the collapse of the labels, downloading, bit torrents, etc. On the other hand, we could make the case that it’s always been completely different – the sixties were different from the fifties, the seventies different from the sixties, and so on – and not just from a musical styles perspective, but from an actual business perspective. That said, what do you think the future holds? You allude to it a bit in “White Bicycles”, but even since that estimable book was written in 2006 the music business has evolved. So, recognizing that you don’t have a crystal ball, and that, as Edmund Burke said, one should never judge the future by the recent past, tell me about the future of the music business.

Boyd:

All I can say, since I have little engagement with the business as it is currently structured, is that the collapse of the major labels, or at least their humbling, will, we hope, lead to something fragmented but interesting at both retail and production level. I am depressed that even the surge of interest in vinyl is tainted by the fact that most lps today are cut from digital masters. Digits do make it hard to enrich the sound and texture of recordings from the flat, boring sound we mostly get today. But I am sure there are surprises. The internet seems to help ensure that we have a steady supply of eccentrics coming into view, which is always a good thing and keeps life unpredictable.

Agency Review:

I like what you said there about keeping life unpredictable. It makes me think of two things I’d like your thoughts on. On the one hand, do you think that that unpredictability is the stock and trade of the music business, which is why it’s such an insanely difficult business – maybe not even a “business” in any real sense? And on the other hand, looking back, wouldn’t you say that “unpredictable” also describes your career, at least as you portrayed it in “White Bicycles” – from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Sandy Denny, from Nick Drake to Pink Floyd, from The Incredible String Band to Billy Bragg to Coleman Hawkins to Fairport Convention to Abba to Dueling Banjos? And if so, what unpredictable thing is next for you?

Boyd:

Many lives seem unpredictable from the outside, but totally logical from the inside. I have never seen any conceptual separation between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Pink Floyd or Cubanismo and Richard Thompson. All made music that tickled a particular part of my brain, so I keep them in the same compartment.

I hesitate to give fortune any hostages by outlining future ideas and plans. The only thing I can say for certain is that I am working on a book (as yet untitled) about the phenomenon we refer to as “World Music” and its historical roots. It is proving a long and arduous task, but one I’m very much enjoying.

As for the music industry, I think there has always been a tension between the individuals who thrive on unpredictability, whether they be producers, singers, songwriters, a&r men, or label owners and the investors who are looking for the predictability that sustains profits. At one point – the Golden Age of the 1970s, for example – money men like Steve Ross had the wisdom to create predictability by giving creative men like Ahmet Ergegun, Mo Ostin and Jac Holzman total freedom, even the freedom to bid up advances in competition with each other to sign a new artist, something that would give any business consultant a heart attack.

But it seems eventually the less imaginative money managers won, so formulaic output thrived and eccentricity withered. Let’s hope they outsmarted themselves and the music business can look forward to a post-apocalyptic landscape of small labels and low-tech revolutionaries.

You can read our review of Joe’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to Joe here.

Illustration of Joe Boyd by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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