White Bicycles - Making Music In The 1960s
By Joe Boyd

Serpent's Tail 2006, £11.99, pp282

At the end of the 1970s the hard reality of life forced me to make the jump from the old vinyl to the then-new CD format. I experienced a great surprise as I gradually discovered that the fact that the music was being transferred from the old to the new format was not a process devoid of any unpleasant consequences: quite a few re-releases of historical albums, in fact, did not match what I so clearly remembered from the vinyl editions; even more alarmingly, it all seemed to happen without much fuss about it in the press. So I decided to start working, trying to formulate a first attempt at a clear view. The article that came out of all this appeared in 1991 in the Italian magazine Musiche (and later, in an English translation, in the UK magazine called ReR Quarterly) with the title Remixes: Cosmetics or Fraud?. And given the fact that the more I listened, the more strange things appeared, I decided to investigate the LP/CD differences of (just for the sake of a round number) 100 albums.

One of the 100 albums I chose was a nice one by Richard and Linda Thompson called Shoot Out The Lights. I had not been lucky with it: the vinyl copy I owned (an expensive import copy from 1982) had already been quite warped when new, and its central hole was not really placed in the centre. I had hoped that its re-release in the CD format would make it possible for me to listen to the music without having to feel sea-sick. But it was an illusion: I soon found out that the CD had half the tracks where the left and the right channels were reversed! It was time to call London: originally released on Joe Boyd's Hannibal label - Boyd had also produced the album - Shoot Out The Lights had been released on CD by USA label Rykodisc, which also had offices in London. I explained the problem, and the motivation behind my article, to a very kind guy. "I get it. But you'll have to talk to Joe", he said, "and right now Joe is away for his holidays". I asked who this Joe was. "Joe Boyd. He deals with the Hannibal catalogue. He'll be back in two weeks."

At this point I was quite sure that when it came to Shoot Out The Lights it was all over: the possibility that somebody like Joe Boyd would answer the phone and talk to an Italian unknown about the stereo channels of Shoot Out The Lights being switched sounded as totally absurd to me. This is the reason why: as summarized on the back cover of White Bicycles, "Joe Boyd's first proper job at 21 was bringing Muddy Waters to Britain in 1964. When Dylan went electric at Newport the following year, Boyd was the stage manager. His first session as a record producer was Eric Clapton's original Crossroads. A year later, he had produced Pink Floyd's first single and installed them in his UFO Club, the heart of psychedelic London in 1967. With the help of the Incredible String Band, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, he arranged the brief but intense marriage between pop music and British folk. He discovered, produced and managed Nick Drake".

But he answered the phone, and in a clear voice proceeded to discuss - with no trace of ever being in a hurry - the case of the inverted channels. (It goes without saying that a thousand questions immediately came to my mind, but I judged against it.)

An American who had graduated at Harvard, Joe Boyd could in some ways be included in the selected group of Americans who made their mark in UK - here the names of Shel Talmy and Jimmy Miller immediately come to mind. But the heritage of Joe Boyd's recorded work is maybe even more important than the one of the abovementioned names: sure, chart success always seemed to elude him (not that he ever fought hard to get it), but the albums of those "cult artists" that better represent his work have always had an important place for those who look for an individual personality well outside of the current fashion.

Hannibal Records having just been founded, Shoot Out The Lights being a recent release, the article by David Fricke which appeared in 1983 in US Musician magazine saw Boyd offering many remembrances about some of his favourite recordings, all testifying to his atypical modus operandi - both in life and in the studio. I have to admit I would have liked for White Bicycles to devote more space to those "technical issues" that "make" a sound. But this is not what this book is (mostly) about, even if Chapter 24 is dedicated to the studio where many historical sessions took place, and to the engineer who shared a large part of the load with Joe Boyd: John Wood.

Boyd's life and work in UK are for the most part known, so the most surprising parts of the book are the ones about all things Made in USA before he switched Continents. Boyd has the great virtue of being able to say a lot by using just a few words ("The years 1954 to 1956 were the great cusp, when black music was discovered by white teenagers and sold millions of records"); he can also paint a complex picture with just a few strokes ("The bourgeoisie can only borrow its culture from below and above - and America never did have much of an 'above'"). There are many anecdotes which shed a lot of light (like booking bluesman Lonnie Johnson, then working as a cook in a Philadelphia hotel, for $50) or are typical of an era (there's a funny one about Bob Dylan); there's also a long tale of the "blues 1964 UK tour". Some jazz experiences, too, such as the tours with Roland Kirk, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Also the folk era, the birth of the Butterfield Blues Band and the by now world-famous episode starring Dylan at Newport.

There are some very perceptive observations about the cultural differences as perceived at the moment of his arriving in London (even about the size of the joints!) and then off we go: Annie Briggs, Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, Davy Graham, Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse sessions for the What's Shakin' compilation, the Incredible String Band and so on. The very important encounter with John Hopkins and the opening of the UFO Club - here we have a lot of beautiful pages about the musical and social turmoil of the era (hence, the title of the book: does anybody still remember the Provos and their White Bicycles?). There's also a chapter about Chris McGregor and his Blue Notes, from the contract with Polydor, arranged by Boyd, to their tragic end.

As it was not impossible to foresee, the figures getting more space are for the most part the members of the group Fairport Convention, above all Sandy Denny, and Nick Drake. But we also have a lot of "minor figures" who give just the right taste to many a tale. I'm sure the reader would have liked to see a lot more space devoted to each and every of the main characters; but those were really dense and intense times, and so - though the book stops for the most part in the early 1970s, with just a few short trips to the future - it's obvious that the sheer amount of facts presented here has its share of disadvantages. But we also have an enormous quantity of little revelations, of tiny, but precious, details.

Once in a while some sort of moral comes to the surface. Also a point of view about the development of modern society that's really not too far from what was written by Ian MacDonald in his fantastic book about The Beatles, Revolution In The Head.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006

CloudsandClocks.net | May 19, 2006