Bicycles - Making Music In The 1960s
By Joe Boyd
Tail 2006, £11.99, pp282
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)
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."
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".
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 2006
| May 19, 2006