Joe Boyd and the Dead Debate
In winter, a good book is a gift. Theres no good weather to serve as a diversion, no baseball, and leaving home can be more trouble than its worth.
One valuable book that showed up this past winter was Joe Boyds White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. Boyd is on the quiet side as producers go. Hes a handsome guy, but hes less flamboyant than Phil Spector and has fewer widely-known hits than George Martin. However, if youre curious about British rock and folk circa 1967 to 1971, you probably have a few records or CDs with his name on them.
Pink Floyd did a lot to start my musical quest, and Boyd produced Arnold Layne and might have worked on Piper At The Gates Of Dawn but for record company politics. I went through a phase of collecting Incredible String Band records in the early 90s, have always admired (thought not always enjoyed) Fairport Conventions early albums and Richard Thompsons Shoot Out The Lights, and have had more Nick Drake in my rotation than usual lately because my wife likes him. As well, Fables Of The Reconstruction is a dark horse favorite for me among R.E.M.s records. Boyd was involved in all of the records above, most often contributing by staying out of the way, making subtly capable use of studio resources and letting the music happen.
He wrote his book with a similar spirit. Some Amazon reviewers have commented that its too short. However, short of discussing what the artists ate during the sessions, its hard to think of what could have been added. Boyds memory is good, he still enjoys the music and he doesnt give himself excessive credit.
He has a few opinions, though. Since Boyd was involved in the psychedelic scene, its inevitable that the Grateful Dead will come up at least once. The book includes a passing reference to their music being simplistic. When Boyd appeared on Sound Opinions, the Chicago Sun-Timess Jim DeRogatis, a reliable Dead-basher (theres an amusing exchange between him and Dennis McNally in his book Turn On Your Mind), brought up the question of how San Franciscos psychedelic bands compared with Londons. Boyd replied that he thought that while the Deads clothes and artwork was psychedelic, their music was simply a continuation of the American jugband tradition. The Sound Opinions producer inserted an excerpt of Cold Rain And Snow from the Deads first album to reinforce the point.
Granted, almost everyone is a psychedelic piker compared to Syd Barrett, who personified the form, and who gave up the later decades of his life to do so. Nonetheless, an excerpt from Anthem Of The Sun or Live/Dead might have told a different story. It is also worth considering that Floyd had some interest in American traditions (judging from the fact that they named the band after two blues musicians), but based on the admittedly limited available evidence, they would have likely had so little skill at emulating them that its a good thing they found themselves a different sandbox to play in by the time of their meeting with Boyd.
Boyd, who has seen his Nick Drake productions sell far more copies in recent years than when Drake was alive, has learned some firsthand lessons about music not giving up its secrets quickly. As Dead fans know, their music could take time to yield its secrets. This simplistic fare was, in truth, quite complex: complex enough to encompass jugband music, simplistic music, and (at times) just bad music. And to encompass psychedelic and stimulating music at other times.
As mentioned above, Boyd has a few opinions. Fortunately, hes mature in expressing them. Also, a debate now and then is not a bad thing. In fact, like a book, it can be a welcome diversion during winter.