Prospect JUNE 2006 - by Brian Eno


Joe Boyd: White Bicycles: Making Music In The 1960s

Pop music is the most useful lens through which to view the turbulent, optimistic, deluded decade of the 1960s. Joe Boyd's memoir captures it perfectly, says Brian Eno.

I used to imagine being invited to rethink the history syllabus. Start from now and work backwards would be the first maxim, and then Look for interesting individuals in interesting places and find out what happened to them. If you wanted to apply that approach to a study of the 1960s, you wouldn't find many better places to start than this book.

It's primarily about music - in his time Joe Boyd has been tour manager, record producer, talent spotter, world music explorer, éminence grise and Svengali. But two things distinguish it from other music books. The first is Boyd's acute ear for originality and quality, which put him at the centre of several movements later seen as seminal. The second is to do with music itself, and why, throughout the 1960s (a loose period which Boyd defines as 1956-73), it became the most powerful lens through which to understand that turbulent, optimistic, deluded decade.

By 1965, the centre of the stylistic conversation in English and American youth culture had come to revolve around pop music; or, to put it another way, pop music was the place where you declared and explored your allegiances, revulsions and visions. You not only loved the music - you wore it as a flag. Your choices of music stood for moral, political and even economic positions. It was a battleground with quickly shifting terrain and many subtle distinctions.

Boyd was a key figure in one of the greatest battles: between folk and pop. Like all deeply felt cultural divisions, it wasn't an argument between people with different tastes, but between people who believed in quite different worlds. Folkies saw their music as pure, socialistic, honest - belonging to a world of decent work and real values, whereas pop fans saw it as rural, hairy and irrelevant. Pop fans in turn saw their music as modern and dangerous, part of a world of malleability and revolt, but folkies heard that same music as synthetic, ephemeral and shallow.

In one of the many well-observed accounts in the book, Boyd describes the atmosphere at the 1965 Newport folk festival, where Bob Dylan - the new voice of folk - appeared on stage with a loud electric band, much to the horror of the older folk singers. The outcome is well known: the noisy, wild newcomers won the audience, and the direction of music changed. But this book takes us backstage - to the bitter breakdown between the factions (Boyd acting as ambassador for both) and the strange mixture of triumph and regret on the part of the winners when they saw their rivals vanquished. It's rare in cultural history to be able to catch such a decisive moment in all its emotional complexity.

This moment represented the sharp form of the slow transition throughout the 1960s, from roots to relativism. The blues performers that Boyd promoted were loved for their authenticity by young white kids but had little cachet in their own communities - and indeed were anxious to shed their rootsy image and get a real band behind them. As such they were responding to the same philosophical shift as Dylan had.

This book shows how 1960s music became a sort of social laboratory where all the incoherent experiments of the larger society were being conducted. A generation that had lost interest in formal religion, philosophy and politics still wanted somewhere to locate those thoughts, and music anchored that place. With a light touch, Boyd weaves the tapestry of racial struggle, political alienation, sexual liberation and feminism that - often through a cocktail of hallucinogens - was the backdrop for this music.

Like many of the talented characters of 1960s pop, Boyd benefited from a time when the music business was so baffled by its profitable new products that people like him became cultural curators. Yet the quantity of material was nothing like what it is now, and most people shared a great deal of their listening experience with others. In short, there was, for a few years, a canon.