Interview: Folk-Rock Producer Joe Boyd and his Magical Mystery Tour

By Bradley Bambarger <2007>

As a young record producer and artist manager, Joe Boyd touched key strands of the Sixties pop-culture revolution — the traditional folk, blues and jazz revivals, the budding of folk-rock and psychedelic rock. Boyd was working at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan shocked audience and organizers by “going electric.” He discovered Nick Drake, produced the first Pink Floyd single and helmed the film memorializing Jimi Hendrix.

Boyd takes pride in the accomplishments of the Sixties, his and those of his generation. But the Princeton, New Jersey, native doesn’t flinch from the disappointments as a sense of community gave way to self-interest. The main title of his memoir — White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (published by Serpent’s Tail/Consortium) — is a metaphor for the idealism of the times, referring to the bikes Amsterdam provided then as free municipal transportation. Even if it wasn’t long before those bikes were being stolen and repainted, the impulse was inspiring.

“A lot of it went sour by the decade’s end, but the innocent optimism of the Sixties created an atmosphere of ‘anything’s possible’,” Boyd says, on the phone just after reading from White Bicycles at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. “This relayed a lot of positive energy into society, as well as produced great music. Of course, that atmosphere feels far away today, which is a more passive, pessimistic time.”

The bumper-sticker line goes, “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.” But the 64-year-old Boyd remembers, in piquant detail and with a grasp of history that makes White Bicycles one of the more refreshing chronicles of that tumultuous, creative but pored-over era. And Boyd really does have keen recall, not having taken the time to keep a diary: “I have a good memory, but it’s also true that I’ve been telling stories for years about taking Muddy Waters around Europe. Also, being so young at the time and the experiences so intense, my memories of the Sixties are especially vivid. I couldn’t begin to write about what I did in the Seventies.”

Boyd’s intake of substances was also milder than that by some of his artists, he points out: “I never had the personality of someone who pushed things to the edge, consumption-wise. I took acid three times, not 25. I smoked hash, but not everyday. And I hated cocaine, which took over the scene in the Seventies.”

The Zelig-like path Boyd took through Sixties music is obvious from the personalities that step from the pages of White Bicycles, from old-guard sax kingpin Coleman Hawkins (regal, irascible and always late) and nascent blues singer Rod Stewart (already dyed blond and in an androgynously dandified outfit) to enlightened Island Records tycoon Chris Blackwell (“although I liked doing deals as much as he did, Chris was just better at it — the most competitive man I’ve ever met”).

Almost as impressive is the book’s list of what Boyd almost did, but didn’t quite. For every prescient decision and historic recording session, there are tales of missed opportunities. He turned down Abba’s U.K. publishing (albeit before they were Abba) and let the Incredible String Band give up its Woodstock slot to another act just as the film was rolling. He was outmaneuvered on career-making deals for Pink Floyd, Cream and Procol Harem. He lost a girl in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a fly-by-night Dylan.

Albert Einstein and Lonnie Johnson

To Boyd, the Sixties peaked in 1967 (at London’s pioneering psychedelic club UFO, which he ran) and didn’t end until 1973 (with that year’s economic doldrums starting a squeeze on the prosperity and free time that had helped fuel young people’s ingenuity). The era began for him in 1956, when Dick Clark started on “American Bandstand” and the Boston-born Boyd was a Princeton teenager.

Boyd’s mother was the head of the photography department at the Princeton University store, and his father was a “quixotic entrepreneur,” author of such ventures as an ahead-of-its-times version of Mastercard in the late ’40s. His idyllic memories of growing up in Princeton include getting candy corn from resident professor Albert Einstein on Halloween 1950.

A music lover by age 3, Boyd listened to his Vienna-trained grandmother play Brahms on the piano. Then, with Princeton pal Geoff Muldaur, he became a teenage aficionado of blues and jazz records.

“I developed a lot of confidence in my ears, which would serve as a reflex when I started producing,” Boyd recalls. “I would always think when recording, ‘Is this worthy of being on my shelf next to Duke Ellington, Big Bill Broonzy, the Staple Singers, Edith Piaf?’ Having a sense of history is one of the reasons why I never liked making records that sounded trendy… The goal has always been to capture music when it’s most real, before artists are prey — or sometimes savvy — to commercial expectations.”

English art-pop fantasist Robyn Hitchcock — who sang songs from Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” to Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne” at Boyd’s Austin event — was a teenager in the late Sixties, intrigued by Boyd’s name as he obsessed over the guitar solo on the Pink Floyd b-side.

“I grew up poring over the back of record covers, wondering what sort of entity this Joe Boyd must be,” Hitchcock recalls. “I thought that he must be this crucial force, well-informed and with great taste. I was right. A lot of tracks from the late ’60s sound terribly dated, but most of Joe’s stuff travels through time beautifully.”

Boyd studied literature at Harvard, rooming in a $35-per-month apartment with nascent singer Muldaur and, eventually, his doe-eyed partner, Maria d’Amato (later Muldaur). Aiming to train as an “éminence grise,” Boyd worked for impresario George Wein at the Newport Festival and its European extensions. White Bicycles has wonderful stories of Boyd managing tours of veteran blues and jazz artists through Europe, mediating personality conflicts between the likes of Reverend Gary Davis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Boyd’s first experience of booking a gig actually came in Princeton, when he and Geoff Muldaur brought singer-guitarist Lonnie Johnson to town in 1960. When they reached him via the phone book, Johnson’s unique four-decade career straddling blues and jazz had cooled; he was working as a cook at a Philadelphia hotel. They promised him $50, but filled a neighbor’s living room with people, netting him $100. He would go on to an Indian summer of recordings and tours playing for the sort of kids he met that day.

From Harvard, Boyd went to London, the center of the Sixties musical universe. After curating the UFO club, he managed pivotal artists in the English folk-rock renaissance — Fairport Convention (with Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson) and hippy eccentrics the Incredible String Band (Paul McCartney’s favorite act of 1968). Boyd would eventually lose the Incredible String Band to Scientology, a movement that he would investigate from the inside later in Los Angeles with budding movie producer Don Simpson — one of the book’s fascinating side trips.

Of Boyd’s discoveries, few have more resonance than Nick Drake, whose music is far more popular now than it was during his short life. (He died of an anti-depressant overdose in 1974, aged 26.) In a move of loyalty and foresight, Boyd wrote a clause into deals that kept Drake’s albums perpetually in print; the catalog was able to get a big boost from a mid-’90s Volkswagen ad that used his song “Pink Moon.”

“The popularity of Nick’s music now is bittersweet to me, truthfully,” Boyd says. “I always face the question of what could I have done to make it better for him while he was alive and if that would’ve made a difference.”

A recorded companion to Boyd’s book has been released by the U.K. Fledgling label. Likewise titled White Bicycles, this anthology of his Sixties productions includes slices of psychedelia (Soft Machine, Pink Floyd) and folk-rock (Fairport Convention, John & Beverly Martyn), as well as songs by Drake, erstwhile Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico and lost neo-folkie Vashti Bunyan (recently on a comeback as a godmother of the new “freak folk” movement).

But the White Bicycles disc also includes such rarities as Eric Clapton’s original take on “Crossroads” and, created long before Paul Simon thought of Graceland, pioneering “township bop” by South African jazzers Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana. Also there is Geoff and Maria Muldaur’s version of “Brazil” used in Terry Gilliam’s film of the same name.

Beyond the Sixties

As the Seventies rolled on, Boyd left London to run the Warner Bros. film-music department in Los Angeles, overseeing the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, even yielding a №1 hit with “Dueling Banjos” from Deliverance. Beyond films, he also produced albums by Kate & Anna McGarrigle, as well as a massive hit single for his old friend Maria Muldaur, “Midnight at the Oasis.”

In the Eighties, Boyd produced such albums as R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction. But his main occupation was launching Hannibal Records, which handled Drake’s catalog and released albums by the likes of Richard and Linda Thompson (a former girlfriend of Boyd’s). In the Nineties, when Boyd was living in New York City, Hannibal issued such discs as Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré’s collaborations with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. Boyd eventually sold Hannibal to Rykodisc, though he oversaw the label until 2001.

These days, it’s hard for Boyd to get too excited about new pop music, as he points out that “the Sixties saying was that ‘when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city shake.’ Now the walls of the city are plastered with ads for corporately sponsored music — a difference you can hear.”

Still, Boyd adores singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright, daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle (“but she doesn’t want her mom and dad’s old producer”). He also wouldn’t mind producing records with some of the young roots-tango artists of Buenos Aires.

Mostly, though, the warm reception for White Bicycles has inspired Boyd to write another book, about world music and the tension between “people from developing countries who want to be as modern as possible and people from the developed world who want get in touch with the roots of things.”

Boyd lives in London, having established “life patterns and friendships in my first years of being an adult there.” From a distance, those Sixties days look better and better, the era’s spirit outweighing any regrets.

“I’m always reassured when I hear right-wing commentators on Fox News talk about what came from the Sixties — individualism, feminism, civil rights, sexual freedom, the sense of America not always being right. When their faces turn red, I think, well, we must’ve done something right.”

(Originally published in 2007 in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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