White Bicycles: Joe Boyd

Syd Barrett, Nick Drake and more...
Joe Boyd Robyn.jpg
Relaxing by the pool following a show at Sydney Opera House, Joe Boyd has every reason to look to the future. Yet the producer is Down Under to work on the Nick Drake tribute ‘Way To Blue’, a project which emphasises the sheer artistry of the lost Cambridge songwriter, and also Boyd’s own quiet influence on the course of music history.

Now largely retired from the world of music, Joe Boyd took the time to write down his memoirs for the 2006 release of ‘White Bicycles’. A wonderful book, the producer seemed to single-handedly take the old maxim about memory and the 60s (you know the one) and flip it upside down.

Embarking on a speaking tour, a change meeting with English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock at SXSW sparked an idea, which became a concert, which became a tour. Now lasting for two years – and counting – the pair are set to return to England for a one off show in December. “He definitely conjures the feeling of the 60s” Boyd explains. “As he describes it, when he was growing up he was like a kid with his nose pressed up against the glass of the 60s: Listening to Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band and all that stuff. On another occasion he said that I was his Frankenstein and he was my monster!”

Reading from his memoirs, Joe Boyd discusses a career which includes trad greats and cult heroes, chart hits and frustrating near misses. Playing off one another, Boyd and Hitchcock in turn reflect on the legacy of the 60s. “I sort of wander back and forth between readings, extemporising. Basically we’ll decided which songs Robyn will sing and then I’ll build a little talking bit around that. I’ll read a little selection of my encounters with Dylan and then he’ll sing ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. Things like that”.

A man of many talents, Robyn Hitchcock apparently has hidden reserves of potential cover material – something which can come in handy. “When we go to some places we try and do local content. Like there’s an early chapter about Baltimore, Philadelphia where Dick Clark came from, all about being a kid in the 50s. I said “I don’t suppose you know any doo wop do you?” He revealed that he used to sing ‘To The Aisle’ by the 5 Satins. Then we did a festival in Norway, so we he and some Norwegian friends of his learned ‘Sunny Girl’ by the Hep Stars which was the song which led me to my abortive attempt to sign Benny Anderson to publishing in 1970. He’s very flexible, Robyn. Each show we have to find something that connects to where we are, he can usually find something. Also, he interrupts me when I’m talking, which is good!”

The pull of watching Robyn Hitchcock leaf through the pages of pop and rock history would be enough for many fans, but the real heart of the shows is undoubtedly Joe Boyd’s first hand recollections of working with some truly incredible talents. Such as his spell behind the mixing desk for Pink Floyd’s debut single ‘Arnold Layne’, the first glimpse of Syd Barrett’s mercurial talent. “It was fun!” he exclaims. “They were very much a unified group at that time although they were all slightly – I wouldn’t say in awe of Syd but they had huge respect for Syd. At the same time a kind of wariness about.. He would be the one who would insist on doing things a certain way, going that little bit further out. He wasn’t a dominant character but quietly in his own way, because he was the real creative spark, everyone looked to him. Roger and Nick would be very practical about moving forward in the process, talking to me and John Wood about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. But they’d always refer over to Syd, who might be downstairs playing on his guitar or something like that. He was full of good ideas, although he was quieter – he and Rick were the quiet ones. Roger and Nick were the organised ones.”

The Pink Floyd - Arnold Layne



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Later, Joe Boyd would manage The Incredible String Band, act as a stabilising hand for Fairport Convention and form his own imprint. Witchseason would ultimately fail to find wider success in its own lifetime, although its back catalogue continues to resonate with releases including work from John Martyn, Vashti Bunyan and of course Nick Drake. “He was great to work with” the producer recalls. “First of all, the two most central things are that he brought fantastic songs and he performed almost flawlessly in the studio. You didn’t even had to listen to him, you just had to listen to everybody else.”

Continuing, Joe Boyd insists that he always anticipated Nick Drake’s work would find a wider audience. “Oh I always expected it. My view is: what took everybody so long? To me, it was tragic that it didn’t happen in his lifetime” he says. “The burgeoning of Nick’s fame really started thirty years ago – in 1982. There were a lot of articles, there were some articles in American papers and the records started to sell. I had licensed some of the stuff away from Island in America and I can tell you that every year sales would double. At least!”

Nick Drake - Day Is Done



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But that was then. For now, Joe Boyd is planning more events, more spoken word events and more shows with Robyn Hitchcock. Closing, I put it to him that he has lead a charmed life, being able to find himself in such tantalising positions on an almost daily basis. Is this luck, or did he have a plan during the turbulent years of the 60s? “I don’t know. It’s a mixture of all those things. I did have some very fortuitous encounters. At the same time you tend to make your luck, in the sense that I was very determined to make my way in the music business and also to travel, to go abroad and to go to England. Those sort of dove-tailed and you could say in some cases the events were things that I happened to be on the edge of and others where I was a more positive factor.”

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Joe Boyd & Robyn Hitchcock are set to play London's Purcell Rooms on December 1st.

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