Joe Boyd: Interview

’White Bicycles‘, Joe Boyd‘s riveting memoir of his life as record producer and manager in the ‘60s, arrives with impeccable timing. British folk rock is freakily fashionable at the moment, with Boyd protégés like The Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention revered as sacred ancestors by the new breed of beardie American minstrels such as Devendra Banhart. But the New Jersey-born Boyd‘s involvement in music extends way beyond gently plucked guitars and dulcet-toned troubadours.

  • He was the production manager at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 (it was Boyd who plugged in Dylan’s electric guitar that fateful night), he co-founded the legendary London psychedelic club UFO, and produced Pink Floyd’s debut single ‘Arnold Layne’. Boyd appears across the pages of ‘White Bicycles’ as a Zelig-like figure, popping up alongside legend after legend: Muddy Waters, Roland Kirk, Eric Clapton, Duke Ellington, Nico, and – most unlikely of all – the pre-Abba Benny, Björn, Agnetha and Frida, with whom he spent an evening wassailing in Sweden. He shared a house in Laurel Canyon with John Cale and even dated Linda Peters, the future Mrs Richard Thompson.

    Unlike Zelig, Boyd was no bystander, but a crucial backroom catalyst and enabler – or, as he prefers, ‘an eminence grise’. His career took off when he arrived in London in late 1965. Swept up in the ‘incredible energy of 1966’, he neglected his day job (setting up the UK branch of Elektra) and became a prime mover on the city’s psychedelic underground. With partner John Hopkins he started UFO.

    ‘There were a lot more freaks in London than we’d realised,’ he recalls of the club’s wildfire success. ‘The great golden period of UFO was from December 1966, when it opened, to April 1967, when “Arnold Layne” came out. Next, Hoppy and his pals at International Times threw the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream rave at Alexandra Palace – the one that Hendrix and Lennon turned up to – and there were a lot of cameras there. Almost instantly, UFO was swamped by the curious.’ Hard on the heel of these ‘tourists’ came the media and the law, resulting in tabloid horror stories about naked 15-year-old girls tripping out of their minds, police raids, and a drug bust for Hopkins.

    The idea for UFO evolved as an offshoot of the London Free School, an idealistic ‘education for the people’ venture that operated out of a basement in Ladbroke Grove. Renting a nearby church hall, Boyd and Hoppy staged a series of precociously triptastic Pink Floyd sound-and-light shows to raise money for the LFS. ‘Then, we thought: why not raise some money for ourselves?’ chuckles Boyd. ‘We were both broke – I’d lost the Elektra job, while Hoppy had been a photographer but had given it up for “the revolution”. So starting UFO seemed like an obvious way to make a bit of bread.’

    Among the more anarcho-yippie ‘heads’ of the time, like Grove hairy Mick Farren, the well-organised Boyd was regarded as suspiciously bourgeois and business-savvy. But in this respect he exemplified a breed of aesthete-entrepreneurs who flourished in the ’60s – characters like Chris Blackwell of Island Records (with whom Boyd’s production company Witchseason forged an alliance), Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert (the team behind The Who and the Track label), Floyd and Marc Bolan manager Peter Jenner and beatnik club owner Giorgio Gomelsky. They all walked the line between art and commerce, the underground and the mainstream. Equally driven by a passion for rock and a love of the hustle, record biz mavericks such as Denny Cordell and Tony Secunda (the producer and manager behind The Move) are as vividly drawn in Boyd’s memoir as more widely known figures like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny. Although Boyd managed to balance the demands of music and the bottom line, he says he wasn’t nearly as tough or shrewd as the true players of the era. After recording ‘Arnold Layne’, for instance, he was manoeuvred out of any stake in Floyd’s future.

    Ironically, for someone at the swirling kaleidoscopic centre of London’s freak scene, Boyd’s own approach to producing records shunned all the trippy tricks that got slathered over music in the late ’60s, opting instead for a warm and luminous naturalism. ‘I had a horror of making the hand of the producer visible, so all those overdone studio effects like phasing and panning never appealed,’ he explains. ‘I felt it would date the music, whereas I always wanted my things to be listened to in 50 years. For me the task of a producer is to create the illusion of a band in a room playing together live in a real acoustic space.’ You can hear the timeless fruits of Boyd’s sensitive approach on the ‘White Bicycles’ double-CD of Witchseason productions, to be released in tandem with the book.

    And the title of the memoir? It’s an emblem, explains Boyd, for all those ‘lovely ideas of the 1960s’ that didn’t quite work out. It specifically refers to the Dutch Provos scheme of distributing white bicycles around Amsterdam for people to use for free – a utopian plan that worked fine for a while, ‘until by the end of 1967 people started stealing the bikes and repainting them’.

    Boyd explains that in his increasingly desperate search for a title, he recalled that in the book he identifies the moment when UFO faves Tomorrow performed their Brit-psych classic ‘My White Bicycle’ as the absolute zenith of the ’60s, the peak before the crash into disillusion and disintegration. The pinnacle occurred at ‘just before dawn on Saturday, July 1 1967’. If his sense of recall sounds suspiciously precise for someone who surely ought to have been blitzed out of his gourd at the time, Boyd anticipates any objections, confessing, ‘I cheated. I never got too stoned. I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one ’60s myth: I was there, and I do remember.’

    ‘White Bicycles: Making Music In The 1960s’ is published by Serpent’s Tail, May 27. The ‘White Bicycles’ anthology of Boyd productions is out on Fledgling Records

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