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Joe Boyd

Article from International Musician & Recording World, August 1985

Chas de Whalley meets legendary Folk Rock svengali, Joe Boyd

"The thing is that Western Anglo Saxon Middle Class masses don't have any original ideas. I'm not trying to make a political point or anything. I'm simply telling it like it is. Their only source of new ideas is from working class cultures of various kinds. That's certainly how it's been with Pop music. Ever since original Rock'n'Roll ran its course people have been dipping into earth-level sources to find something to revitalise it. Usually they look to black music, be it Reggae or African or whatever. But sometimes they look elsewhere. I mean, what did the Beatles do but bring an element of cheeky British Music Hall tradition to Rhythm and Blues. That's probably a bit of an unfair analysis since they were the kind of people who rise above particular trends and transcend them with their own uniqueness. But in reality that's all the Beatles did. At least in the beginning anyway."

Three floors below, through a window opened up onto a warm evening in summer Soho, you can hear the garbage trucks revving and coughing as they clear up the debris of the day's business on Berwick Street's fruit and veg market. Upstairs, in the one room and half a landing which is his Hannibal Records' London HQ, Joe Boyd sits with his feet up on the desk, looking for all the world like Jon Voigt playing a hip young Harvard university professor, ready to conduct an after-hours seminar on the historical development of Rock.

Or rather Folk Rock, since that is Joe Boyd's speciality. There is something of a 'Folk' revival taking place at the moment, as anybody who hasn't got his head stuck firmly up his MIDI outputs should be able to tell you. On the one hand Billy Bragg, The Men They Couldn't Hang, the Pogues and the Boothills and on the other the renaissance of Richard Thompson herald a 'back to the roots' movement in the UK, while across the Atlantic Los Lobos and Lone Justice cop the critical acclaim while bands like REM and 10,000 Maniacs are making their mark too under Joe Boyd's careful eye. But the man's heyday, as any IM reader approaching the dreaded Three Oh will tell you, came in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when his name, and that of his Witchseason and Warlock Music productions, were synonymous with some of the great British Folk Rock groups like Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, John and Beverley Martin and Nick Drake. Some even claim that he helped invent the Folk Rock form. But Joe Boyd neither admits nor denies the charge.

"I helped certain things happen, that's all. Historical forces and trends roll along by themselves anyway. They create their own momentum. It's just that individuals can give them that little extra shove which helps push the inevitable over the edge and make it into something tangible. But the point is that lots of things happen which are of historical momentousness only in retrospect. At the time they didn't seem that special or important. They were just the obvious thing to do under the circumstances."

Nevertheless, the fact is that Joe Boyd has built an entire career out of making what prove to be blindingly obvious connections a month or two, or a year or two in some cases, before the rest of the music industry. Whether it be behind a Fairport Convention experimenting with Folk tunes and emerging with a rocked up jigs and reels album like Liege and Lief or a Robin Williamson and Mike Heron who transformed themselves under Boyd's guidance from a couple of Scots pub balladeers into an Incredible String Band who were every self-respecting British acid casualty's notion of a fun night in a forest.

Joe Boyd started early. As production manager of the Newport Festival of 1965, he figured prominently behind-the-scenes when Bob Dylan plugged in with the Butterfield Blues Band and an electrified Maggie's Farm sent tidal waves flooding through Folk. Joe Boyd was barely 22 at the time but already he'd earned a reputation as someone who "could get a 65 year old Blues singer to a gig on time and sober" and has been to Europe a couple of times tour-managing the Blues and Gospel packages which first brought the likes of Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to ecstatic British audiences. He'd seen for himself the devastating effect genuine ethnic influences could have on Pop music.

"Whenever we had a night off from the tour I'd take Muddy or Sonny or someone down to the local folk clubs which were a staple of the grassroots scene in Britain in the early Sixties. There was a very close social connection between Folk and Blues in those days. Sometimes one of my guys would get up and do a floor spot and I'd see odd looking kids in trenchcoats or whatever standing up at the back drinking it all in. They'd come over and introduce themselves and tell us they were really into singing the Blues or playing the guitar and they'd turn out to be Rod Stewart or Roy Wood. One night in Birmingham I was taken along to see a band in a pub with a 15 year old singer. It was the Spencer Davis Group and they did an upbeat version of a Leadbelly song which blew me away. Another time I was at the Hammersmith Odeon and I saw John Lee Hooker virtually mobbed by a Teenybop crowd. Not an intellectual college audience, just a bunch of ordinary kids. This was in 1964, remember. I could hardly believe it!"

In his turn Boyd found himself equally impressed and inspired by the great pioneers of the English Folk revival he saw then. Like the Ian Campbell Folk Group, the Watersons and the Dransfields. He returned to the United States convinced that a change was coming and that a cross-fertilisation of musical cultures would prove to be the next Big Thing. After an early and exploratory line-up of The Lovin' Spoonful fell apart in his hands he stumbled upon his new gold dream in the form of The Paul Butterfield Band, white boys on blues, sweating it out in a Chicago bar. One call to a close friend at Elektra Records led to the band signing a record deal and Boyd getting a job as an A&R man. Which is how he ended up back in Britain again in November 1965 manning the Elektra office in London. But he barely lasted a year.

"Elektra had a different idea of what I was supposed to do than I did. They wanted me to promote their acts like Butterfield, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and so on while I wanted to get out there and sign talent. I managed to slip in a deal with The Incredible String Band, but after that Jac Holzman, the owner, would have none of it. I fought with him to sign the Move and the Pink Floyd, but he didn't want to know!"

Joe Boyd resigned to go freelance and produced the first Pink Floyd single Arnold Layne, diving headfirst into the London psychedelic subculture of 1966 and 1967, surfacing behind the UFO concerts at the Roundhouse and discovering the Fairports and a mysterious and enigmatic singer-songwriter named Nick Drake who never sold records in any quantity but enjoyed a huge underground reputation which lasts till this very day. With quality acts like this under his control Boyd signed Witchseason to Island Records in 1968 and for the next five years or so he kept the albums coming until, once again, he packed his bags and returned to the States to produce Kate and Anna McGarrigle's stunning debut album and to take up a staff job with Warner Brothers on the West Coast. Since 1981, when he started his own Hannibal label, Boyd has split his time equally between London and New York. Commuting between cultures.

"Travelling back and forth between Britain and the US, you get a perspective on things which you don't get if you're stuck in one place all the time. As a general point I believe that Americans play better than the British, because they work harder at it. A kid in High School is probably playing in six different bands at any one time: A cover band, a Blues band, a Country band and so on. Eventually when he gets to his early 20s something gels and his stays with something specific. But in the UK that doesn't happen. Kids get an idea, a concept or an image, and then pick up an instrument and try to make it happen. That's why the UK is such a source of originality while the US seems frequently stuck in a rut.

"Musically speaking I come from an eclectic background anyway. My grandmother was a concert pianist while from a very early age my parents encouraged me to collect Jazz records. When I went to college in Boston I used to see Joan Baez playing the coffee houses and Bob Dylan playing in people's bedrooms at parties. Having that sort of experience and awareness behind me has helped me to see round corners, if you like. When I first came to Britain, for example, the Folk scene was incredibly parochial and they simply didn't understand people like The Incredible String Band. But I'd been to San Fransisco and St Marks Square and I saw a very real connection between what they were doing, and what the early West Coast psychedelic bands were doing. There were the same influences and ideologies going down. The same drugs and the same audience. Similarly I was certain that if you exposed someone like Richard Thompson, who had been brought up on Chuck Berry and Django Reinhardt to English Folk something was bound to happen."

Richard Thompson looms large in the Joe Boyd story. Since he left Fairport Convention the bulk of the guitarist's solo albums likeHand of Kindness, Small Town Romance and most recently the Across A Crowded Room collection have been Boyd productions. The relationship between the two has had its ups and downs but once in a studio it is almost empathetic.

"There's never that much debate when I record with Richard. We just get the rhythm section together and knock out the backing tracks as live and as quickly as possible. Of course, it's always the same crew — Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and either Bruce Lynch or Dave Pegg on bass — and they've spoiled me really because they're so good. We rarely take more than about three days to lay down the backing tracks to a whole album. I like to keep moving. Do two or three takes of something and then move on. Sometimes we struggle, which means five takes. And then I always leave it because I reckon after five times through they've gotten the song. So you just go back to it a few hours later or the first thing the next day. A good 90 per cent of the time we don't need to overdub anything on the rhythm track. Richard always plays his solos and sings while the track goes down and it's not at all unusual to find the bulk of it turns up in the final mix! Live he comes through with a certain intensity which you can't get by overdubbing.

"But then I've no real interest in making records layer by layer. I'm not that sort of producer. I generally feel that it's my function to get down on tape what the group wants to get down. And consequently the only records I make which are successful are the ones where the group knew exactly what they wanted to do and it was my job to make sure nothing went wrong. And I would like to think that there is nothing particularly distinctive about the way I make records except that I managed to create an atmosphere in the studio whereby a good performer performed well.

"I try to avoid the intrusion of 'a sound' as such. Stand back and squint and you'll probably discover there's a texture and a unity about the records I've produced. But I couldn't really tell you what it is except that I always like to hear everything and I'm always looking to find out how little I have to put down on tape to make it all happen.

"What I hate and avoid is when, as a listener, you're forced to become aware of the record making process as you listen. Like panning things from left to right across the speakers. Then the listener focuses more on the idea of somebody twisting a dial or moving a fader rather than what the musician is playing. It detracts from the music. At least for me it does.

"But I don't believe that should be hailed as a principle for anybody else to follow. You listen to Phil Spector or Beachboys or Trevor Horn records and you couldn't possibly believe you were listening to music. Those kind of producers set out to dazzle you with technique, and they're brilliant at it. But I don't have the imagination to make those kind of records. I just react to what's put in front of me and I'm lucky enough to have the sort of ears which tell me what's good and what's not. I'm not the guy who says 'I've got an idea. Do it this way.' I'm much more the sort of producer who says 'Well, you played me the three different ways round this problem — I think that one's the best' fully confident I can get it to work to most people's satisfaction!"


Arnold Layne (EMI 45)

Hangman's Beautiful Daughters (ELEKTRA LP).
Wee Tammy and the Big Huge (ELEKTRA LP).

What We Did On Our Holiday (ISLAND LP)
Liege and Lief (ISLAND LP)

Bryter Later (ISLAND UP)

Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Warner Bros)

Across A Crowded Room (POLYDOR)

Thermonuclear Sweat (HANNIBAL LP)

Fables of Reconstruction (A&M LP)

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Aug 1985

Donated by: James Perrett

Recording World


Joe Boyd



Related Artists:

Pink Floyd

Richard Thompson

Interview by Chas de Whalley

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