An Article from Chicago Tribune covering Robyn Hitchcock and Joe Boyd's Chicago show, a part of their "Chinese White Bicycles" US Tour:
What was it like to be at the heart of London’s underground music scene in the late ‘60s? You could do worse than having Joe Boyd and Robyn Hitchcock as your tour guides to that galvanizing era, a role they’ll play March 19 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Boyd’s a Harvard-educated music aficionado who opened the London office of Elektra Records in the mid-‘60s and found himself at the center of a musical, cultural and social revolution. He ran London’s UFO club, and worked closely as a producer, adviser and co-conspirator with such ground-breaking groups and artists as Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake.
Robyn Hitchcock was a young teen when psychedelia reigned and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett was the toast of London. An ardent student of the era, Hitchcock went on to incorporate its sounds and attitudes in his music as a solo artist and with the Soft Boys over the last four decades.
Now, Boyd and Hitchcock are teaming up for an evening celebrating that era, with Boyd reading excerpts from his excellent 2006 memoir, “White Bicycles,” and Hitchcock chiming in with the music of Barrett, Drake and other ‘60s heroes and cult figures with whom Boyd collaborated.
In separate interviews, the two discussed the music that forever shaped them:
Hitchcock on Boyd: “Joe happened to be in an extraordinarily intimate position with this metamorphosis of our culture. He’s running this club (UFO) that is like no club before or since, with Pink Floyd as the house band, and Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band. It was that brief period of music and culture that was called the underground, which is what I was reading about in the Sunday papers at age 13. It was a weird mix of mysticism, drugs, feminism, pornography, music -- it was all one. Drugs were seen as a sacrament rather than just another kick, which is what they turned out to be. It was an era that set people off into two directions, either extreme selfishness or a more spiritually minded view of life, a more tolerant, more life-loving attitude than Christianity had been able to spawn in many centuries of rule.”
Boyd on Hitchcock: “He channels the ‘60s without ever being an imitator. He somehow has that spirit. He’s drunk at the source of Barrett, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, but isn’t a slavish copyist. He takes it all in his own direction with an anarchic spirit, which is hard to find these days.
Hitchcock on how the ‘60s influenced him: “Joe was part of that group of people changing the world, and I was the next generation saying, ‘I want to do that.’ My sister was making me wax beads that I was wearing around my neck. I’d get hold of these records, and tried to play along on a guitar I couldn’t tune. By the time I was up and running, it was over. It was over as a movement, but it set in motion a series of attitudes that prevail to this day. Here we are 45 years later, and Joe is nearly 70 and I’m not far off 60. We might be seen as professors with lustful twinkles in our eyes. We’re not kids anymore, but there is that endless, elastic youth that the ‘60s promoted and here we are at the end of our yo-yo strings.”
Boyd on his first recording session as a producer in 1966 with Eric Clapton’s ad-hoc group, Powerhouse: “I didn’t feel intimidated. We were all about the same age and I actually hung out with Clapton a bit. We spent a Saturday at the Elektra office, and we both brought our favorite blues records to choose material for the session. He brought in albums by Freddy King, Albert King, a lot of urban modern blues records, and I brought in a bunch of acoustic blues records, like Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton. He knew them all, but he was not originally thinking that way. So I said, ‘What if we choose a country blues song that might have gone up the river to Chicago but didn’t, and pretend it became a Chicago blues.’ That’s how we did ‘Crossroads.’ He ended up coming up with a hybrid between ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’ and ‘Crossroads’; he adapted a riff from ‘Riverside’ that became a template for the version of ‘Crossroads’ everyone knows from Cream a few years later. The music was all his. But the idea of opening up the scope of what we were looking at is something I suggested. So I earned my keep, I felt.”
Boyd on Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett: “If you take the 10 to 12 months from August 1966 to June, July 1967, he was incredibly important to everything that happened. You could have a group like Pink Floyd, which liked to experiment with trippy sounds and long improvisations, but with Barrett you had someone who provided a platform of great melody and really witty songwriting. That was one of the miracles of what happened in London during that time. The Floyd had so much confidence, because this soundtrack they were creating for this little coterie of freaks in west London was really, really good. Syd brought real quality to the scene. Later, after he left the Floyd and started breaking down, he made those two solo records, which I found very difficult to listen to; it’s painful to me to hear him sound so damaged. Then years later I was arranging a tribute concert and I had to go back and listen to everything. I was stunned by how good everything was, what an extraordinary talent he was, how seriously accomplished and sophisticated the songs were. One of my great regrets is that Syd once gave me a demo tape of five of the songs that didn’t work for Floyd but would wind up on his first solo album (the 1970 release ‘The Madcap Laughs’). I remember it being superior to the performances on ‘Madcap,’ but I lost the tape.”
Hitchcock on Barrett: “Syd Barrett resonated within my younger self. I altered my molecular structure to absorb him. He is unfortunately better known for his ruination than for what he did before it. His story is an old one, a young, beautiful person being sacrificed in some way and wandering through life as a blighted ruin. I still love his songs. Joe is emphatic that Syd was nothing like the casualty that became widely known. He is known as the guy who started Pink Floyd and went away. I feel his decline and disintegration, his voyage into the darkness was sort of inevitable from the first notes of the first thing he recorded, ‘Arnold Layne.’ It was a doomy voice with a black sense of irony. There was a manic elation in the early Floyd recordings, which hinted that a crash was on the way. What goes up, must come down. What drew me to Barrett was that he had done that art, the material he did just before he dissolved. Joe reckons that he wrote all those songs before things went wrong. I actually became a fan because l liked the later stuff. (Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut) ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ was great, but what hooked me in was him wandering through the ruins on the ‘The Madcap Laughs.’ I don’t think there was ever a truer record than that. He seems to be the most extreme example of what everyone experienced: that liftoff from 1965 to 1967, and then the terrible comedown. Bob Dylan and John Lennon had it. Brian Wilson. Even Donovan didn’t write any good songs after 1970. Something was in the air that gave those people momentum and then took it away.”
Boyd on his love for Fairport Convention: “It was music I normally turned my back on because they were doing folk songs. I didn’t like the singer-songwriter scene that much. There were a lot of people trying to be Bob Dylan, and to hear these English kids singing Phil Ochs and Eric Anderson songs was kind of bizarre. But the English perspective gave it a charm that most of the American equivalents didn’t have. There was a moment at UFO where they were going to do ‘East-West’ by the Butterfield Blues Band, which I thought was a terrible idea! Mike Bloomfield made it work on the original because he’s a great improvisational guitar player, but I didn’t want to see this English band try it. Then Richard Thompson began to play and cut Bloomfield to pieces. He was 17 years old and already an incredible guitar player. He’s not a blues player. He doesn’t orient his playing around blue notes. Rhythmically he is influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis’ left hand attack. Everybody else on the scene was into blues, but his sound was very Celtic, with shades of North Africa, classical, jazz. Later there was a Coltrane influence. But the thing that knocked me out, on the (1968 debut Fairport) single) “If I had a Ribbon Bow,” he takes a Charlie Christian type solo on it. And I thought, ‘Where did he get this?”
Hitchcock on Nick Drake: “What’s least part of this period is Nick Drake and had the book been published 20 years ago, not many people would’ve care about him. But now he sells more records than just about anyone in the book, because his music was heard on a TV commercial and like a volcano it brought him to the surface decades after he died. Nick Drake was the odd one out, he wasn’t psychedelic. He had nothing to do with rock or hippie culture. He wrote jazzy, thoughtful songs. At the time his records came out (in the early ‘70s), he wasn’t for me. The music was too breathy and jazzy. I liked my singers a bit more nasal, like Dylan and Lennon and Barrett, with that acid clang in the guitars. That sort of spangle. Drake had a bit of a soft edge. Then someone gave me a tape of his music in 1990, and I started listening again. (R.E.M.’s) Peter Buck kept telling me (Drake’s) ‘Pink Moon’ is the scariest song ever written. I was drawn in.”Hitchcock on drugs:
“I took LSD a couple times, but I knew had to be careful. I never surrendered to it. By that time, 1973 or so, I could see what LSD had done to and for the artists I loved. I avoided it through the same self-preservation instinct that has keep from being in the top 20. I’m a cagey fellow. I like to have control over my life, and where my life is. Extreme fame is like extreme drugs -- you can’t control it anymore. I don’t want to come across as a crushingly sober individual, I’ve had far from a temperate life. But I knew I wasn’t going to write those (druggy) songs, I was too late. I do maintain I was the last one to hatch from that era. I popped out and said, ‘Where is everyone?’ ”