Like a Boyd on a Wire

Joe Boyd with with Vashti Bunyan at SXSW

PopMatters talks to Joe Boyd, a man at the center of the folk, rock and blues scenes of the 1960s who lived to tell the tale. "The whole notion of folk music and an appreciation of things that are more rural and more traditional and more rustic than our lives are now is the privilege of the middle class."

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s

Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 1852429100
Author: Joe Boyd
Price: $18.00
Length: 304
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-04

Joe Boyd recently penned a memoir, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, describing his adventures in the music industry in America and England during the turbulent decade. Boyd played a pivotal role in the folk rock scene. His book reveals the connections between his life and the changing world in which he lived. He started as a teenager by booking black bluesman Lonnie Johnson to play in a living room at a friend's house in Boyd's hometown of Princeton, NJ. Boyd attended Harvard and became involved in the Cambridge, MA folk and blues scenes, then managed the European tours of notable black artists like Muddy Waters. Boyd later settled in London, where he ran a club and produced records by such important and influential folk and rock acts as Pink Floyd (the band's first single), Fairport Convention (with Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny) , Nick Drake, and Vashti Bunyan. Boyd's name became associated with a certain level of quality, daring, and intellect as exemplified by the aforementioned musicians.

White Bicycles has received critical praise in major media outlets like the New York Times and the New Yorker. Boyd has been active promoting his book. He recently participated as a speaker and panelist during South by Southwest (SXSW). As a fellow Mercer County, NJ neighbor, albeit from a different era than the one Boyd grew up in, I asked him about race. This was the central social tension of the Garden State during the post World War II era.

"Princeton was a little more sophisticated (from Trenton). My school was integrated. I had a lot of black friends." Boyd said. He graduated from the eighth grade in 1956 then went to boarding school. "Listen, Princeton wasn't ideal. There was plenty of racism around for sure. We didn't play spin the bottle with black girls, but we had black friends." He acknowledged that his early love of the blues may seem odd, but he maintained that he was far from alone in his enthusiasms. The early shows he produced that featured black artists drew full houses of middle-class, white audiences.

"All over the country there were white kids getting fascinated with black R&B and blues. The music of the time was pretty good stuff and still stands up today. It was a golden age for musical creativity, and it was getting documented for the first time. There may have been a great ferment somewhere in the world in the 1870s, but we never heard it. This was an era that was documented with fantastic recordings," Boyd said with a sincere passion. What drew him to the music originally is still within his heart today.

The situation of black music and folk music at the time was somewhat parallel. "It's very difficult for someone from a working class culture to be nostalgic, to look backwards. The black community in America, the mass audience of African Americans, wanted the latest thing. In the Blues boom of the '60s, black music with roots in an earlier era was something white people listened to," Boyd said. The same was true for folk. "The whole notion of folk music and an appreciation of things that are more rural and more traditional and more rustic than our lives are now is the privilege of the middle class."

In Appalachia, Doc Watson didn't play in folk clubs. It wasn't until he learned about it when he went to New York. He never would of thought of his music or conceived of it as folk music. For him, it was just the music of his culture." He said that the audience for both folk and blues music at the time came from the same pool of people.

Boyd was there at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric. Boyd stood between three men who wanted to shut off Dylan's power supply: Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel and Alan Lomax. Some have accused Seeger of rewriting history, as he now claims that he never intended to de-electrify Dylan. Boyd generously describes Seeger's role as misunderstood. "I actually talked to Seeger about it once. He said that what he objected to was the fact that you couldn't hear the lyrics. The sound was distorted. The instruments were too loud. It really confronted what Seeger's music is about. For him, the song, the lyrics mean something, and people can remember it and sing it for themselves. That's a wonderful thing and a perfectly understandable notion. Seeger believes in the meaning of the song. It was he who introduced the hymn "We Shall Overcome" to the Civil Rights Movement. So Seeger had a lot of history and a lot of righteousness on his side. On the other hand it was clear at that moment in history Dylan was going in another direction."

Boyd's still very much interested in the relationship between music and society. He's working on a new book on the world music phenomenon, an area he was directly involved with more than a decade ago when he ran the Hannibal record label . "I like the subject because metaphorically, there are so many other areas of our life where we deal with the same issues," Boyd said, "like architecture." He explained, "There is a time in every culture that people love tearing things down and building new things. Then outsiders, middle-class intellectuals, go 'No no no no no, you shouldn't tear that down. You should preserve it. It's beautiful.' But the others say that it doesn't have proper plumbing. So they build boxes that look horrible but have good plumbing. There is always the tension between the desire to be modern and the desire to preserve tradition and beauty from the past. That tension exists in world music where traditional artists want to add synthesizers and drum machines, and it's the producers from London, New York, and Paris that say 'No, don't do that you won't sell any records.'"

Speaking of not selling many records, Boyd did get a chance to see Vashti Bunyan perform at this year's SXSW. He raved about Bunyan's beautiful voice and brilliant songwriting. He suggested that Bunyan's recent resurgence in popularity was due in large part to the poor sales of the record he produced for her back in 1966. "I love the fact that the tiny sales in the end help relaunch her 40 years later," Boyd said. "When I first heard Bunyan, she was a pretty girl singing about romance. When I finally got around to making a record with her, she was writing about dogs and horses and countrysides. I thought they were wonderful songs, but I knew they were uncommercial. I sort of made the record out of a feeling of completing an unfinished task. I loved her and thought she was great but also understood that the album was willfully unsalable. Still, it didn't cost much to produce." Boyd said he released the disc on the Philips label rather than his usual one, Island, because he did not know how to promote it.

Boyd smiled and continued, "Bunyan sold like 200 records. If she sold 2,000 records, things might not have happened. But since she sold so few copies, people started passing around tapes and made her into a figure of cultlike devotion. A record of hers at a vinyl auction sold for 750 pounds, which is an enormous sum. It startled everybody and got written up in record collector magazines. Some people on a small indie label read about Bunyon and sought her out to record again. I got her back the rights to her first record, which has now sold more than 75,000 copies in re-release." Boyd beamed at Bunyan's success and the part he played in it, however strange the journey may have been. He's been around long enough to know how much the music matters. Its success in the marketplace may reveal clues about the values of the society in which it is produced and distributed, but Boyd takes pride in the quality of the music itself with which he has been associated.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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