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"The sixties began in the summer of 1956, ended in October of 1973 and peaked just before the dawn on 1 July, 1967 during the set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London."
With this statement Joe Boyd sets the tone for his fascinating and very personal potted history of popular music in the 60's. In fact the book is more of a sketchy autobiography of Boyd than it is a complete guide to music in that period. He by no means covers the subject extensively but rather personally however since he was such an influential part of the 'scene' at that time his personal recollection do cover a very wide span of music and the music does give you a cultural feel for time.
Joe Boyd is an American born in 1942 from a white very middle class background; he first discovered a love of music from listening to his parent's old scratchy blues and jazz recordings. Boyd did more than simply become a fan he sought out those artist he loved many of which were living in relative poverty and helped to bring them to the attention of a wider white audience.
When we think of sixties bands we might think of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix etc and what all these artist had in common is their interest and fascination in blues and jazz that first started to permeate British culture in the 1950's. The anomaly at the time was that the great exponents of this American musical form were mostly shunned by American audiences both white and black whilst being worshipped by newfound British fans. It took a British blues explosion with bands like The Yardbirds, Cream, The Stones, Fleetwood Mac to take this music back to its home in the US and get homegrown audiences interested. I'm not claiming and neither is Boyd that he single-handed gave rise to this musical revolution but he was certainly a part of it and he was certainly there to witness it.
In fact it is amazing how involved he seemed to be at crucial places and times like a musical Forrest Gump mostly through no design of his own. Boyd got to know a wide range of influential people both performers, producers and eccentric characters. As a young music promoter he brought Muddy Waters over the Britain in 1964. He rubbed shoulders with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the early days of the US folk revival. He produced Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd and Nick Drake and opened the UFO club in 1967 London a shrine for the burgeoning psychedelic scene. He also had time to be a journalist and made a highly regarded documentary on the life of Jimi Hendrix.
Boyd is very good at laying out the ground for his narrative, as he states in his opening line any investigation into the music of the sixties has to begin in the 50's and in Blues. In the early chapters he relates his years in Princetown New Jersey and he manages to convey the excitement felt by middle class teenagers at the exposure to the new music that was beginning to be highlighted on the new medium of TV. It was in conventional small middle class household that the spirit of Woodstock was born. Youth culture and with it new musical form took off in the 50's and matured in the 60's and Boyd's personal account of his early experiences is typical of a whole generation.
Many of the early chapters concentrate on another musical revolution in the 60's that had a much more political basis Folk music. This music gradually developed into Folk rock of the late 60's spearheaded by artist like Dylan and The Byrds. Again Boyd was well placed to witness this having known some of the early stars of the US scene and on coming to Britain being involved in the growing scene in England eventually he went on to produce Fairport Convention.
Boyd's style is very easy to read, he does name drop terribly but then I suppose in his privileged position he is allowed to. The book unfolds mostly chronologically in a series of detailed reminiscences of particular incidents surrounded by a little analysis and reflection to a wider context of the time. Considering the abundant substance abuse that is described it is quite surprising that so many of the memories still seem to be so vivid so it likely that a little poetic licence has been used but it is an entertaining read nonetheless.
For me the most interesting part s of the book were those dealing with the music of the mid sixties and the emergence of what we would today call Rock. In 1967 the centre for this new and progressive (a term later to be abused in the Rock genre) was London and more specifically the UFO club. It is here that bands like Pink Floyd were beginning to their distinctive sound combining visuals and music to a wider audience and guess who ran the UFO? Yes...Joe Boyd! These chapters are full of fascinating insights and anecdotes that illustrate what an exciting and inventive time it was to be a musician... everything seemed possible. We do get a few well-worn Syd Barrett stories and has always these serve to illustrated what a fragile existence most of the artist lived and how many casualties the time produced. As we know now and as many realised at the time the good times couldn't last.
Another massive claim Boyd has is his involvement with Nick Drake one of England's most creative singer songwriters. He paints a very sympathetic view of Drake and his premature demise and you can tell that a real affection and respect existed between them. No great revelations were made to those of us who were already Drake fans but Boyd does confirm the view that Drake was indeed a great misunderstood musical talent and we are only realising now decades on what a great loss to music his early death has been.
In the middle of the book there are some pages featuring black and white photos showing some of the characters that Boyd mentions in the book. These are interesting as it's nice to put some faces to well known names you've heard about and to see what they looked like when they were very young!
One final thing to mention is the title ' White Bicycles' what does it refer to? It comes from a song by Tomorrow (the house band at the UFO after Pink Floyd became too big) but it directly refers to a scheme set up in Amsterdam in the 60's which made bicycles, all painted white freely available to everyone. The idea was to take a bike wherever you saw one use it and then leave it somewhere else for another person to use. The scheme was obviously trusting people to be honest and fair minded and in many ways exemplified the hopes of many in the 60's that people's behaviour and philosophies could be changed by peaceful altruist methods. Of course the scheme failed since people began stealing the bicycles and re painting them so has not to be spotted. The failure of the scheme is used by Boyd to symbolise his view of the 60's as a worthwhile but in the end failed experiment. Many of the idealistic political and social objectives of the 60's became diluted, commercialised and finally destroyed in the 70's. This regret Boyd expresses about the culture in general but also about music, which according to him lost its direction and energy in the 70's and increasingly became big business rather than an exuberant art form and that has continued apart from the short anarchic period of punk to this day.
Boyd continues to live in England and is an occasional columnist for the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday. His recollection of the 60's music scene whilst being very personal is worth examining and 'White Bicycles' will entertain and fascinate any true music fan.
'White Bicycles' in paperback (224 pages) published by Serpent's Tail (ISBN: 1852429100) can be bought from Amazon for £7.91 at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2006