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White Bicycles: Making Music in the 60's

by Joe Boyd

Serpent's Tail

Image - White Bicycles

Unless you’re a diehard Richard Thompson fan or one of those obsessive types who reads all the liner notes on every CD you buy, Joe Boyd’s name may not be familiar to you. I can guarantee that you’ve heard music he’s produced. Boyd may be best known as the manager/producer who helped birth the British folk rock scene with Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson and Nick Drake. He scored a number one single with "Dueling Banjos" from the movie Deliverance (but thought so little of the song he didn’t bother to put his production credit on the single).

White Bicycles is Boyd’s memoir of his musical adventures in the 60’s. Boyd had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time for many pivotal moments in musical history. Joe’s first venture in the music business was pulling bluesman Lonnie Johnson out of retirement at the beginning of the blues revival. His first proper job in the business was as tour manager for a 1964 European tour of one of George Wein’s Blues and Gospel Caravan shows. The performers on that tour included Muddy Waters, Reverend Gary Davis, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. The next year, Joe was stage manager at Wien’s Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric.

Boyd’s life got more interesting when he relocated to London. He ran the UFO Club in London which was the epicenter of the psychedelic scene. Boyd discovered Pink Floyd, produced their first single and briefly managed the band. Boyd’s management/production company, Witchseason, brought the world Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake.

What makes White Bicycles a truly remarkable music memoir isn’t simply the fact that Boyd was there at so many major moments in music history. What makes Boyd’s account such a good read is his unflinching willingness to tell the story as it happened, even if it doesn’t make him look good at times. Boyd gives a nuanced account. Many accounts of Dylan’s '65 Newport appearance celebrate it as the triumph of rock and roll. Boyd’s account includes that too, but he also allows us to see the bittersweet reaction of the performers who realize that they destroyed something good when they plugged in. It’s the sort of balanced accounting that you rarely find in rock writing.

Boyd isn’t afraid to question his actions. Would the Incredible String Band have gone on to lasting fame if he’d sent them out to play an acoustic set in the rain at Woodstock instead of letting them reschedule for Saturday afternoon? Where would he be if he’d actually signed the publishing contract he’d arranged with a couple of unknown Swedish folkies in Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (later known as the guys in ABBA)? The question that seems to play most on Boyd’s mind though is, was there anything he could have done to save Nick Drake from an untimely death?

Joe Boyd is a great storyteller and White Bicycles is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Boyd‘s career didn't end in the 60‘s. He continues to work in the music industry. I hope Joe writes a companion book to chronicle his tenure as label chief at Hannibal Records, his production work with REM and 10,000 Maniacs and his championing of world music artists.

Did I mention that Joe Boyd has a good sense of humor? He closes out White Bicycles saying, “And as for me, I cheated. I never got too stoned. I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one Sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember. “

Serpent's Tail: www.serpentstail.com