11/03/2010

Joe Boyd: At the Heart of Folk Rock

On the evening of March 22, 2007, I had the fortunate opportunity of hearing and meeting Joe Boyd, the American who became famous for his sharp work on British recordings by Pink Floyd, The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, and Nick Drake. During the bright years of the 1960s and 1970s, his eager activities as a producer, a manager, and a promoter were at the heart of the new realm of folk rock that was being created in the United Kingdom. In March of 2007, when I met him, he was making appearances at bookstores across the United States, to promote his autobiography, White Bicycles.

After Joe Boyd moved from the United States to London in 1965, while he was working for Elektra Records, he produced the first album by The Incredible String Band in 1966 (followed by seven more), and the first single ("Arnold Layne") by Pink Floyd in 1967. He went on to produce six albums by Fairport Convention, two albums by Nick Drake, and two albums by John and Beverley Martyn, in addition to albums by Fotheringay, Richard Thompson, Nico, and many others. He also was one of the founders of UFO, a club that served as headquarters for the psychedelic crowd in London. He can, therefore, make a reasonable claim to being one of the preeminent figures of that period.

As an American living in England (where he still resides), Joe Boyd was able to gain a singular perspective on British musicians. In the diverting chapters of White Bicycles, he provides a colorful account of youthful life in London during the grand heyday of British rock, giving his own sharp-eyed views of the singers and songwriters, from Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd to Robin Williamson and Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band, whose well-known music he helped to shape. He entertainingly conveys the striking particulars of a musical world in which bright talent was abundant and eccentricity was not only accepted, but was actually encouraged.

In his appearance at Powell's Books, on Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland, he offered clear and engaging memories of his priceless experiences in the making of music. He described, with much humor, being backstage when Bob Dylan first performed with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He also expressed his sadness in regard to the haunting tragedy of Nick Drake, the shy and pensive songwriter whose beautiful songs did not become widely known until the 1990s, more than twenty years after his untimely end in 1974, at the age of twenty-six.

As I listened to Joe Boyd telling his marvelous stories, I thought of my own brief meeting with the late Sandy Denny, one of the British musicians with whom he had worked most closely. Sandy Denny first found considerable fame for herself as a member of Fairport Convention, singing on several of their best albums, including Liege and Lief, and later as a member of Fotheringay and as a single performer. She also is remembered for her vocal performance with Robert Plant on "The Battle of Evermore," a stunning track on the fourth album by Led Zeppelin.

When I spoke with Sandy Denny in November, 1974, after a lively concert by Fairport Convention at the Berkeley Community Theatre, she clearly had been imbibing, a habit that played a troublesome part in her early passing at the age of thirty-one, but her mood was open and cheerful. I asked whether she would be doing any more recordings with Led Zeppelin, and she laughingly replied that she had never been paid for "The Battle of Evermore." She was a peerless singer and an unusually gifted songwriter, and it was Joe Boyd who carefully guided her toward greatness.

More about Fairport Convention at Berkeley Community Theatre in 1974 here