Joe Boyd, though American, was the leading British folk-rock producer of the late 1960s. Here he talks about his work with some of his most prominent clients, such as Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, and Nick Drake, as well as offering observations about folk-rock in general.
When you were involved in the early-to-mid-1960s Boston folk scene, was there any indication that there would be movement among the folk community to electrify instruments?
I think that when the Beatles' records came out, that had a huge effect. I guess that would be '63. I think that hit everyone, including Boston-area folkies, like a ton of bricks. And from that point on, I don't think there was any options that were considered closed. Then, in 1964, I was in England [as] a tour manager with a gospel tour, and I heard Spencer Davis Quartet playing Leadbelly songs. And so when I got back to New York, Paul Rothchild and I started trying to put together a folk-rock group. So it was clearly something that was in my mind very much, from I would say the winter of...let's say, the spring of '64 onwards, if not before.
Which group was it that you and Rothchild wanted to put together?
It later evolved into the Lovin' Spoonful.
Would that be any people in the Even Dozen Jug Band?
John Sebastian. It was Jesse Colin Young and Jerry Yester and John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky.
You were doing work for Elektra before you got more involved as a producer in the UK, and you had expressed interest in signing people like Pink Floyd and the Move. But as it ended up, most of your recordings were on the folk and folk-rock side of things.
Well, this wasn't so much folk-rock as it was rock. Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton are the two artists, and the Move, which couldn't have been less like folk-rock. These were groups that I tried to get Elektra to sign at various times, and which they didn't sign.
Did you have any sense that there was trepidation on the part of Holzman and Elektra to fully embrace this before Love and Doors got them into the rock market?
No. It was purely that, I think, Holzman was nervous about a young, inexperienced person 3,000 miles from home acting like a loose-cannon A&R man.
I was curious because they did early recordings with the Lovin' Spoonful, the Byrds, and Dino Valenti, but never went further with those acts.
I think a lot of the problem was financial. Jac was a conservative man, financially. And I know that the Lovin' Spoonful were simply...they were simply outbid by Kama Sutra. And, you know, this was the rock business, the pop business, coming up against a company that had a folk mentality. And even though I think they wanted to sign the Lovin' Spoonful desperately, they basically weren't prepared to risk the kind of financial level that Kama Sutra was.
You were the production manager at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Was it as epochal a split between the old folk guard and the newer generation of electric performers as it's sometimes been portrayed as?
Absolutely. It was pounceable at the time. It was completely schismatic.
As far as Dylan's performance, what was your impression of the crowd's reaction?
I think there were a lot of people who were upset about the rock band, but I think it was pretty split. I think probably more people liked it than didn't. But there was certainly a lot of shouting and a lot of arguing, and a sound which, you can hear in a lot of ballparks. You used to get this confusion when Bill Skowron used to come up to the plate for the Yankees, 'cause his nickname was Moose. And everybody used to go, "MOOSE!" And it sounded like they were booing him. Because you don't get the articulation of the consonant, so that a crowd shouting "more, more, more" at the end of Dylan's three songs sounded very much like booing. I've heard recently a recording of that night, and it doesn't sound to me like booing so much as a roar, just a kind of general hubbub between songs, and during Yarrow's attempt to get Dylan back onstage. I would say that it was -- I really wouldn't be prepared to say it was 50-50, or two?thirds/one?third, or whatever. But I think that there was a segment of the audience, somewhere between a quarter and a half, that was dismayed or horrified or varying degrees of unhappy about what he was doing.
When you went to the UK and starting producing, was there a conscious decision on your part to focus on folk-rock recordings?
Well, it wasn't a conscious decision. Obviously I would have liked to form Witchseason Productions in order to record the Pink Floyd, which wasn't a particularly folky band. And I would have been very happy to produce the Pink Floyd and Cream and the Soft Machine and the Move and Arthur Brown. All those were people that I had worked with -- and T. Rex, for that matter -- I worked with, at various times, at various sessions. I didn't have prejudice against that. But I think that maybe two things that sort of helped steer my work in a certain direction...One is that maybe my background and my inclination and my taste were maybe better suited to recording people who had a bit of an eye on the folk element, just in terms of having the right instincts, as opposed to being a Phil Spector or something, who had an instinct for teenagers hanging out on the street corner in working-class districts of urban centers. My instincts were probably more in the ground what my background had been, in terms of listening as I grew up. And also, there may have been elements of, dare I say it, class, in the sense that I probably was better suited to working with reasonably educated, middle-class people than street kids that in a way responded better to somebody who was used to working with them, and who came from the same milieu. I wasn't Mickie Most, I wasn't some of the wild boys that were in the London scene at that time. Not everybody was like that, but I wasn't an Andrew Oldham, I wasn't a...
Guy Stevens is one.
Yeah, a Guy Stevens. Guy, in fact, was a good friend of mine, and I liked Guy a lot. I spent memorable evenings with Guy and Peter Meaden. But they were characters that just had things in terms of a way of dealing with people that I might never have. And it may have been, simply, that the chemistry worked better with the likes of a bunch of kids from Muswell Hill, or a Nick Drake, who went to Marlborough. I come from Princeton, New Jersey, went to Harvard, and I'm just a middle-class guy.
What do you see as the key differences between British and American folk-rock from the time, as they were manifested in recordings especially?
Obviously, a lot of the differences can be seen in the evolution from Unhalfbricking to Liege and Lief , where Fairport decided to stop being an American-type folk-rock band, and become an English?type folk-rock band. And I think everything that happened in so-called folk-rock in Britain after Liege and Lief, and after the Pentangle, that was really in a way the beginning of something. Whereas in America, it began a good deal earlier, in a way influenced by Britain again, but by a different group of Britons, a different scene of British groups playing American music, like the Spencer Davis Quartet doing Leadbelly songs. That influenced, in turn, groups like Lovin' Spoonful and things like that.
But I think that there is a...in a way, English folk-rock is a kind of a construct, because it was something that was kind of pasted on. I mean, there was an element of it. I mean, I think if you look into Scottish dance music or Archie Stewart or somebody like that who had an accordion and had a bass and a drum, there had been traditions of dancing, doing reels and jigs with electric instruments and drum kit accompaniment. But it wasn't really part of the music of Britain, to have that kind of instrumentation. Whereas in America, you had a natural evolution from Chicago rhythm and blues, that was country blues evolved into urban blues evolved into rhythm and blues with electric guitar and drum kit, and in country music you also had the use of drums. Hank Williams records kind of defined a certain way of playing music that was very American. And so it wasn't...there was an evolutionary tradition for this to become a branch of.
And you also had rhythm sections that were...a lot of Americans had done a lot of playing. People in America play. There are places to go, and bars and clubs where people get incredible experience playing, live, all sorts of different kinds of music. This tradition doesn't really exist in Britain. People don't jam, people don't play. They kind of perform, and therefore, every appearance is thought out, conceptualized, rehearsed, and it's a different tradition. So that I think the...most of British folk-rock, really, I may be too subjective here, but I do think that it's very difficult to find threads, until recently, until things like Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby some of those people, who I think are really reinventing some things, coming up with some fresh and different approaches. It's been very difficult to find things in the British tradition which includes, I would say, the Canadian traditions, the maritime provinces and those kinds of folk-rock. All those things, you can really trace back to Fairport and Pentangle.
Whereas in America, it's much harder to find the beginning point. You have to go back into Butterfield, you have to go back to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. With the Youngbloods you have to go back to country-rock, Merle Haggard, the various Nashville evolutions, to get the right perspective on it. And the same thing really isn't true in British music. Although I think Richard Thompson's knowledge of, and affection for, Scottish traditional dance music obviously has some...there is a root there. There's a connection back there. There isn't something completely devoid of connections, but it's more difficult.
What different directions were you trying to explore with your major acts ?- Fairport, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, John Martyn?
I wasn't really consciously trying to explore different paths with different musicians. I was just responding in the studio to how to get down, on tape, the music that these people were playing. Obviously, I would respond, I was a good sounding board for them. But I wasn't consciously trying to say, well, you guys represent this strand and I'm going to steer you that way, and you guys represent this strand and I'm going to steer you in this direction. I was really just responding, recording session by recording session, to the material that we were recording, and making suggestions that I thought was appropriate to the music. I wasn't standing outside it, looking at it, from the same perspective you can twenty years, thirty years later. I was just in the studio trying to make the record, and I didn't think of it as being a style or a trend or a strand of anything. I certainly was influenced by things. There were lines of influence that ran through those recordings. The Incredible String Band wasn't really influenced by very much. They were pretty unique to themselves. Fairport, obviously, were much more influenced by people like the Youngbloods, the Lovin' Spoonful, and all that kind of thing in their earlier period, and then even Liege and Lief, which is such a strand by itself, they were hugely influenced by Big Pink , and wanted to make something -- I think I've said this before in interviews -- that they wanted to make something...they felt they wanted to do something as English as that was American. And they also wanted to get the same snare drum sound.
With Nick, I think I was, as a producer, I was certainly very influenced by the first Leonard Cohen record, by John Simon's record. I was very impressed with that, I thought that was a really beautifully produced record. The voices on "Poor Boy" are definitely a nod, a tip of the hat, in the direction of "So Long, Marianne."
Of the British folk-rock acts you worked with, are there some whose contributions you feel have been underestimated or overlooked, even relative to someone like the ISB?
I'm not sure. I mean, I think, certainly, yeah, the Incredible String Band obviously have been overlooked in a way, have never succeeded in becoming a fashionable relic of the sixties, whereas a lot of other bands are very fashionable relics of the sixties. But I suppose...I think the guy that I worked with who I think, he's appreciated in Britain but maybe not that well known outside, but I think he's had a huge effect on the course of folk?rock over the years, is Ashley Hutchings. He's not as good a bass player as Dave Pegg, but he's a much more important figure in a way. Everything that he did afterwards, I think, has got a lot of class attached to it. Certainly for the first ten or fifteen years after he left Fairport. And he's somebody that I think is a very important figure.
And obviously I think that every time a French?Breton folk-rock band or even Spanish or Finnish or any of the kind of strands of European-connected folk-rock, particularly dance music, being played, and I listen to the drummer, I don't think any of them can avoid being influenced by Mattacks. It's interesting, 'cause I think he didn't really know much about that music at all. He was a strict-tempo dance band drummer. I think obviously Richard sat him down and played him some records and Scottish dance band music, I think that influenced him.
But I think the thing that is kind of a curious footnote to all of this is that Martin Lamble's [drumming] on "A Sailor's Life" was completely different. And they were really interested in following that strand when the car accident happened. And if they had gone and made a kind of Liege and Lief-type of record, with Martin Lamble in the drum chair, the whole history of folk?rock might have been very, very different. Because of the different drum style.
And the problem is, with a lot of things that were great when they were started, as they get descended in the generations, they get reduced to their simplest elements and become cartoon images of themselves. And so you have things which I find unlistenable, which are obviously very influenced by early Fairport. You know, I'm at a folk festival and I hear that kind of lickety-split jig-and?reel being played by somebody, I head for the beer tent. I can't stand it. Partly out of guilt, perhaps (laughs).
British folk-rock in the States is still something of a cultish minority taste. Do you see reasons for that disparity?
I think the difference is that there's...I think everyone in the western world, everyone in the world really, the average person has a great deal of trouble listening to or enjoying music which is not, which is devoid of African influence. I think that African-inflected rhythms are the currency of courtship and the currency of fun and the currency of every kind of popular music, really. So when you have a music such as Northern European folk music, which is pretty devoid of that influence, of that color, that flavor, it's always going to be a very, very minority interest. It will never be a broad popular interest. Whereas the Band playing with Dylan, or the Byrds, or Buffalo Springfield, is full of blues, black influence all through. In the rhythms, and the textures of the melodies, and the way of singing, and everything. It's much sexier music. And therefore, it's always going to be more popular.
Although for a brief time, British folk-rock was extremely commercially popular in the UK.
Most people in Britain are still, the average person is still horrified by the sound of their own folk music. I have friends who joke about someone who could arguably be called one of my most commercially successful associations, Richard Thompson, they refer to as the "room clearer." You know, if you want to get rid of people at a party, you put on a Richard Thompson record and watch them run to the door. Because that whole tone of voice is something that, for most English people, is unbearable, and still is. It's still, you go to a Richard Thompson concert and the audience has got a lot of beards and a lot of gray hair and a lot of...it's a certain type. And it's not a broad popular type. That's why I think, one of the most extraordinary things I've seen in this connection was going to Budapest and going to dancehouses, seeing 17-year-olds with mini-skirts dancing Hungarian folk dances. Because that got hooked in with nationalism, and pride. Whereas in Britain, it's hooked in with a kind of shame, and a kind of horror of early school days, when you had to sing folk songs, join hands, and play games, and to school.
There was a segment of British audiences that seemed much more resistant to electrified folk-rock than American audiences. The reaction to Dylan's tour in '66, for instance, and even a few years later when Martin Carthy joined Steeleye Span.
I don't know why, but certainly it's obviously, absolutely clear that that is true. Certainly the famous shout in the tape in the Dylan concert at Manchester. Andy Kershaw actually went and found the guy who shouted "Judas." It's an interesting phenomenon. I can't...I guess there was always, in a way, maybe one of the reasons is that the British folk tradition is not an instrumental tradition. It's primarily an unaccompanied tradition. And the folk scene that I found in Britain, when I arrived in 1964, was primarily, I mean if you went into a pub on a folk night, I would say that 90% of the music that you heard was unaccompanied. It was either solo unaccompanied, or harmony unaccompanied. The stars of that scene were Louie Killen, Annie Briggs, the Watersons, that kind of thing.
You're speaking of a cappella. No instruments whatsoever.
Yeah. Unaccompanied music. And the Ian
Campbell Folk Group, with Swarbrick on violin, was considered a
And this tradition never really existed in America, of unaccompanied
It just wasn't something that people really did much. If you had a
holler on an old Lomax recording, that was only because they were in
and couldn't get out their guitars. The idea of singing with
was already, in and of itself, untraditional. So people who were
in tradition ?- they accepted the likes of Dylan and Phil Ochs and
like that, because there was a political edge that they responded to,
because it was America, therefore it was natural. The authentic
performance was Woody Guthrie. It was like, a guy with a guitar, or a
with a banjo. That was authentic. But in Britain, authenticity involved
a guy. Jeannie Robertson, the Young Tradition. That was authenticity.
Copper Family, Shirley Collins. This was all the real stuff. And the
were a bit more instrumentally oriented. But England was not. It was
in Ireland or Scotland to play the fiddle or the pipes. Northumberland
as well. But once you get down into England itself, there isn't that
It just doesn't fit. Or if it is, it's a very minor part. So therefore,
the presence of instruments just in and of themselves takes it away
authenticity. So I think there's a farther distance to go than there
in America. It was such a distance between a bluegrass band with a
bass. I mean, everybody was used to seeing Earl Scruggs and Lester
and instrumental virtuosity. It was recognized and very authentic. From
there, there wasn't such a big leap to electric guitar.
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