By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The party game should have been called The Six Degrees of Joe Boyd.
A now-legendary music producer, the American-born Boyd (right, above) was a central figure in London's music scene during the mid-'60s. He ran Elektra Records' office there as well as the famed UFO club. In both capacities, he worked with artists such as Eric Clapton, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nico, Nick Drake and Pink Floyd. He's loaded with stories about many of rock's iconic figures and watershed moments. Before London, he was a part of the folk revival in the states, working with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. When Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Boyd was the guy who plugged in his guitar.
While Boyd was shepherding seminal music in the '60s, Robyn Hitchcock was hoarding it as a gangly teen and aspiring rocker. Within a decade, the eccentric and occasionally loopy Hitchcock was reproducing those sounds in his own music — in the Soft Boys in the '70s, with the Egyptians in the '80s, on his solo albums still.
Now the two have joined forces for a short tour. Boyd tells stories, some of which he reads from his superb 2007 memoir White Bicycles, and Hitchcock chimes in with songs to illustrate a point, pop a punchline or simply revel in '60s nostalgia.
They've performed the show together a handful of times, at South by Southwest and other festivals, but it's hardly rehearsed.
"No, no, we wing it," Boyd said in an interview from London. "Robyn was actually worried about committing to too many of these shows, afraid they'd start to get rehearsed and structured. One night in Portland [Ore.], they'd scheduled a second show, as we have in Chicago, and some people from the first show said they'd buy tickets and stay for the second if we'd do different stuff. We cobbled a whole new show together in 10 minutes. It helped convince him we could keep this spontaneous and loose and not let it calcify."
"We decide before each show which episodes he's going to tell, then I select the songs accordingly," Hitchcock said in a separate interview. "Joe tells his stories very well. There's so much. This is Joe's story, and I come in as the winged messenger singing the songs he midwifed into existence and asking persistent questions about Syd Barrett. He's very good, and the camera loves him. We're filming the Chicago shows, in fact, to make an amalgamated compound version for video."
Spontaneity, after all, has been the hallmark of Boyd's producing career. "I'm always in favor of not rehearsing too much," he said. "I try to do things as live as possible in the studio."
This, he said, is one of the reasons his producing career has slowed to a trickle in recent years. Boyd rarely picks up producing gigs anymore. "The people that do call me up, I say, 'Well, if I really like the music, would you be up to doing it live in the studio? A week to record and a week to mix?' They look at me like, uhhhh. 'A week, is that all?' Why would anyone need more? What are you going to do in there with more than a week other than overthink it? They say they'll get back to me, and they don't. ... The recording process has been demystified now. Many artists think, probably rightly, Robyn included, that they don't need a producer. In the '60s, groups would come in wide-eyed and need someone to show them what to do. I still think that process was a good one. I'm not sure the ProTools and democratizing of the process has really empowered artists as much as they think."
Boyd revived his producing duties in the '80s, tackling emerging bands such as R.E.M. ("Fables of the Reconstruction"), 10,000 Maniacs ("The Wishing Chair") and Billy Bragg ("Worker's Playtime"). Boyd and Hitchcock first met in London while Boyd was working on R.E.M.'s album, Hitchcock said.
I asked Boyd for an '80s story instead of a '60s one. He told one — by way of last year's remastered anniversary reissue of R.E.M.'s "Fables."
"I always had a problem with those mixes. The group was unhappy, I was unhappy," he said. "No one liked the room we were mixing in. Michael [Stipe] was always saying, 'Turn me down, turn me down,' and Peter was saying, 'Turn me down.' How could you mix a record if everyone wanted to be turned down? Peter's the one who brought me in on this in the first place. He was a big Nick Drake and Incredible String Band fan. So when it came time for the 25th anniversary, I approached the group — we're still good friends — and said, 'Let me try remixing a couple of tracks, see what you think. If you like it, we'll do the whole record.' So we did, and I was kind of thrilled by it. It sounded great. Everyone agreed it finally sounded really good — but at least one person in the group felt the moment is the moment, that the mixing is part of the art, and he was uncomfortable remixing it. I understood, I didn't disagree. Normally I would never suggest remixing a record. We'd all agreed that this decision would have to be unanimous, and since there was some resistance, I said fine and left it. Then they remastered it, and somehow they managed to do not everything but some of the things I was trying to accomplish in the remix. It sounds much better."
But this show, titled "Live & Direct From 1967," concentrates on that formative era.
"It's all about the '60s, really, which technically started in about 1965," Hitchcock said. "This is when Joe was tour managing and intersected with Bob Dylan. He's putting his coat into a room at a party, and there's a guy on the floor serenading two young women. It's Dylan singing 'Masters of War' and 'Hard Rain.' You can imagine his voice muffled by all the coats but somehow still hypnotizing them. ... If the world went into color in 1965, the color were defined by '67. There was pop music sounding very different, and people were getting very hairy. Something changed in the molecular structure of society, and a lot of it had to do with music. Music either symbolized or caused it, I don't know which. I was changing myself. I was 14. I'm emblematic of it. That change is part of my DNA."
"This show only works because of Robyn's connection to the music I had a hand in, and it's a deep, unfathomable connection," Boyd said. "Here's somebody whose music is completely original — you couldn't possibly accuse him of being derivative — so out and completely Robynesque, and yet it's so in the spirit of the '60s. He didn't absorb much into the '70s. The loam in which his curious musical plants grow is very much the rotting — and now I'm sounding like Robyn, I've been around him too much — the rotting carcasses of the '60s are the loam in which his fruits grow."
Boyd's roots reach all the way to the soil here, in fact. His musical career might not have taken off without what he calls his "turning point in Chicago."
"Chicago was very important to me, and I've hardly been back there since," he said. "I had some cousins who lived there, and I'd come out to visit with my father. We discovered Bob Kester and the Jazz Record Mart, and Delmark Records. We'd hang out at that shop, and Kester was amused by our precocity as teenagers. He would allow us to thumb through his 78 [rpm record] collection. It was great to get to go to Chicago because we got to hang out at Kester's. After my freshman year at Harvard, I decided to take a year off and go to work at a record company. Kester gave me the introduction to Les Koenig at Contemporary Records [a jazz label in California]. After that, I became a distributor back in Boston for Delmark and others. Then I happened to hear about [blues musician] Paul Butterfield, and told [producer] Paul Rothchild what I'd heard. He went to Chicago, saw Butterfield, signed him to Elektra. I suggested adding Mike Bloomfield, too, and that worked out so well that's how I got the job offer from Elektra to go to London. So the key things in my life happened in Chicago, and since 1965 I've barely been back."
ROBYN HITCHCOCK & JOE BOYD: 'LIVE & DIRECT FROM 1967'
7 and 10 p.m. March 19
Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $31-$35, (773)728-6000, oldtownschool.org
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.