Bob Dylan going electric at Newport. Pink Floyd debuting at UFO, London's premier psychedelic club, in December 1966. A seventeen-year-old Richard Thompson ripping into the solo from "East-West" at a small English club in June 1967 and getting the ball rolling for the then-unknown Fairport Convention.
These are just some of the incredible slices of musical history witnessed by producer, label owner, and impresario Joe Boyd. They are integral anecdotes at the heart of his 2006 memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent's Tail, $18), released in America next month amid an author tour that pulls into the Bay Area this week.
Valiantly fighting a cold, the gregarious and loquacious Bostonian is away from his adopted London hometown, regaling music fans with stories and insights from someone who was at the crux of London's late-'60s psychedelic and folk-rock boom, all of which makes Bicycles so hard to put down. Boyd's subsequent years found him discovering and recording Nick Drake and running Warner Brothers Films' music department (where he compiled the soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange and the Hendrix documentary) before founding and running Hannibal Records for twenty years.
It was only after his label was scooped up by Rykodisc that Boyd decided to write a book. "After I left Palm/Hannibal/Ryko in 2001, my first thought was, 'I'll show those bastards, I'll start another record label,'" he explained. "Then I kind of sobered up and thought that wasn't such a good idea since I was almost sixty, and 2001 was not exactly the most optimistic blooming time in the record industry."
Back in the day, Boyd was hired by famed American jazz promoter George Wein as a tour manager, where he oversaw 1964's Blues and Gospel Caravan tour before being hired as a production manager for the following year's Newport Jazz and Folk Festival. Boyd quickly dismisses the oft-told myth of Pete Seeger attempting to chop speaker cords with an axe during Dylan's legendary electrified set. "Paul Rothchild, a good friend of mine and a good guy, was asked to talk about Newport for a documentary many years ago," Boyd recalled. "I think the image stuck in his head of a story I told him about a performance the night before by some Texas prisoners who were swinging axe strokes at a stump onstage fetched by Seeger from a Rhode Island bog while singing a cappella. Paul likes a good story, but all I know was that he wasn't backstage. He was out mixing sound and wouldn't have been able to see if Seeger did that."
A brief stint running Elektra Records' London office brought Boyd back to Europe, where he eventually started his own production company. During the late '60s and early '70s, he ended up helping run UFO while discovering and producing the likes of Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, and cult figure Nick Drake ("A wonderful experience that was very rewarding and very satisfying").
These and many other stories resulted in a book that presents Boyd's firsthand accounts and measured hindsight shaped by the perspective of an American in England able to glean intriguing insights into the differences between the UK underground versus what was going on in the States. "In America, blue jeans and a work shirt [was the uniform] whether you were a beatnik, student civil rights activist, or a hippie," he said. "In those days, American men were not comfortable playing games with gender, whereas the English loved to dress up. During the summer of '67 in London, boutiques like Biba, Granny Takes a Trip, and Hung On You were as important cultural outposts as UFO, the Roundhouse, or any of the clubs. People dressed like peacocks, and the explosion of taking acid was very physical in the way people adorned themselves. There was a more gentle hedonistic quality to the English counterculture because things were not as violently serious in England as they were in America."