White Bicycles is a book mainly about British music in the 1960s, by Joe Boyd, the Boston (Massachusetts)-born manager and producer. The best, or at least the most British, of the quotes on the back cover, is Brian Eno’s: “I was so engrossed I missed my train station.” Whoever chose the quote for the front cover chose the right quotable notable but went with a less charming line.
Joe was manager, producer, or both to musicians such as Nick Drake (about whose music I recently posted), Sandy Denny (like Nick Drake, no longer with us) the Incredible String Band (post coming soon), and Richard Thompson (my favorite musician). But I don’t think that you need to be particularly into the birth of British folk-rock to enjoy the book. White Bicycles is a fine memoir, with a well-judged blend of accounts of events, anecdotes of people, and opinions on lots of things.
Joe opens my favorite chapter (24: the chapters aren’t named) by telling us that Nick Drake liked Sound Techniques, a London recording studio with a plaster cow’s head above the door. He then tells us of the difficulty of getting a ham and cheese sandwich in the store across the road from the studio. (The sandwich turns out to be significant, by the way.)
The central character in the chapter is John Wood, who often engineered the albums that Joe produced: “the normal deference of engineer toward producer didn’t seem to apply.” One of the things I particuarly like about this book is that it tells us about John Wood, as well as about Nick Drake, and about other “supporting characters” as well as about the musicians.
The central opinion in the chapter is that modern recording, with digital equipment and overdubbing, is musically inferior to getting everyone in the same acoustically suitable room and recording to tape what they play. The central mood is one of nostalgia and regret for some forms of “progress.”
Joe’s view of the London music scene he helped to create is more interesting because of his perspective as a foreigner arriving in Britain. Then again, it may be of particular interest to me, as a Brit now living in the city of his birth.
I found out about White Bicycles via Joe’s visit to the public radio show All Songs Considered. Joe’s web site includes links to the many media stops he made promoting the book.
I’m with Brian Eno (and many others) in recommending White Bicycles.