In the April issue of Prospect, Philip Oltermann observes a trend he calls the network biography, focusing more on artists’ social networking to gain influence, and less on individual talent and its fruits. Along with this, “anecdotes have become more than mere padding”, he claims, and have moved to centre stage in biographical accounts.
Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s could be seen as a kind of network autobiography or memoir. In the 1960s, which more or less coincided with Boyd’s twenties, he had an uncanny knack of being in the right places at the right time, and worked with movers and shakers across generations of the music world. He was road manager for European tours by Muddy Waters and the ‘blues caravan’, Coleman Hawkins and Roland Kirk, as well as for Bob Dylan’s electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival. He produced Pink Floyd’s first single, as well as all the early landmark albums by Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake. As co-promoter of the UFO Club, he hosted everyone that mattered in British psychedelia during the Summer of Love.
As anecdotes go, Boyd’s are priceless, and anyone who loves folk and roots music will echo the back-cover testimonial comments of more or less naked envy by people like Andy Kershaw and Charlie Gillett. Boyd seems to have relatively little ego invested in the string of incidents he relates. This is both a strength and a weakness. Boyd’s wry observations on his failure to land the big fish has touches of Waugh: “one of two possibilities was always round the corner: a hit or a day of reckoning. No prizes for guessing which arrived first” (Boyd was muscled out of producing Pink Floyd, passed on Procul Harum, and in 1971 never quite signed the contract that would have given him UK rights for the Abba songwriters).
Elsewhere, his downplaying of his role seems like a technique for glossing over non-musical alliances including personal relationships. I have my own anecdote here. When Joe Boyd discussed his book at the Barbican a couple of months ago, a woman stood up during the Q&A to ask whether he keeps up with ‘zeitgeist’ bands like the Arctic Monkeys these days, and then concluded, “Oh, and thanks for not mentioning me”. Drawing back, Boyd defended himself saying, “I mention you in the book”. “I haven’t read your fucking book, have I?” the woman shot back. “Ladies and gentlemen, that was Linda Thompson,” smiled Boyd. In the book, Linda Thompson (Boyd’s girlfriend before she married Richard Thompson) gets only four lines as a postscript to the story of how he moved from the UK back to the US. This is a memoir about music and an era, and the personal pressures of maintaining relationships when working internationally apparently have no place in it.
In this sense, perhaps, we can defend Joe Boyd against the ‘dumbing down’ charge that lurks behind Oltermann’s argument, since he rations himself to anecdotes that bear directly on his craft of making music.
Coming from a patrician, Harvard-educated background, the parts Boyd plays in his stories are those of the entrepreneur (as music business promoter, producer, manager and A&R man), diplomat (on the road and in the studio) and friend of some of sixties London’s radical revolutionaries. Though his association with the latter leads to Joe spending time in prison, there’s no sense in the book of him having even a vestigial axe to grind. Indeed, he describes himself once as the straight “breadhead” providing balance to the more scatterbrained initiatives of his comrades. His treatment of the rise of other movements like Black Power is similarly cursory. When the Ayler brothers cause trouble by playing a free jazz version of La Marseillaise in Paris, Boyd’s conclusion is just misty-eyed: “It was great that people fought about music in those days”.
None of Boyd’s managerial talents would have paid off musically were it not for his talent in spotting interesting music and his commitment to pursue it. The book is dedicated to his grandmother who, he says, “taught me to listen”. This is the main area where Boyd’s ego does make itself felt, as he describes his commitment to getting properly balanced levels at a gig, the sheer pleasure he takes from his first mixing work, his nostalgia for the working methods in his beloved Sound Techniques Studio in West London, and his relationship with engineer John Wood.
In an interview in the current edition of Word magazine, Boyd gives a clear and sanguine account — again lacking any hint of bitterness — of how the skills he brought to production have been rendered unnecessary by technology that allows the atom-by-atom construction of a track. The importance of getting the best from live performers or the grain of the acoustics in a room has been swept aside. His defence of ‘old school’ techniques is not just reactionary, but is argued by reference to recent albums that embrace such techniques, particularly Norah Jones’ debut and the Buena Vista Social Club album.
Boyd might have found a kindred spirit in the production work of David Briggs, as described in Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey. Briggs’ dictum was “first thought, best thought”, and Boyd outlines some similar ideas about how self-awareness undermines great music: the 1964 blues caravan tour of the UK could never be repeated, he believes, once the performers got savvy to what it was that British audiences perceived as ‘authentic’ about their music and started to play up to that. He is dismissive of a 1990s performance by Aretha Frankin at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fair, as performer and audience indulged in congratulating themselves, “she claiming credit for recognizing what they wanted to hear; the audience adoring themselves for being so hip as to want the ‘real thing’.”
As well as the musical analysis and anecdotes, Joe Boyd has a nice line in urbane observations that see through conceits of all kinds. Taking their name from a William Burroughs novel was indicative, he says, that Soft Machine were “trying just that little bit too hard”, while a Hollywood colleague was “bright, well read (barring anything written before 1960 or in Europe) and very ambitious”. While running his record label, he receives many demos from people citing Nick Drake as an influence, but most are chucked into a box marked “WPSEs” — white people singing in English — as they completely miss Drake’s essence.
When Boyd claims that, through his twenties, his ambition was to become an éminence grise, it’s one point where you’re not quite sure whether to trust him. As he reaches retirement age, he reflects that he has achieved that goal. But he is either too wise or too humble to show any grudge at not having as much in his pension fund as he might have had. In this sense, and in the fact that he’s still a fine-looking fellow, there is little of the grise about him.
In conversation at the Barbican, Joe Boyd said there would be a CD coming out to accompany the book. I haven’t seen any sign of that, but in the meantime here is my own playlist, compiled fairly literally using the book as a source.
[Update, 21 May 02006: The CD is now available for pre-order from Amazon, for release on 29 May. The tracklisting shares only three songs with my playlist. Click the image below for more details.]