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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Musical History Tour: Joe Boyd and Robyn Hitchcock revisit the '60s

By Mark Jenkins

Robyn Hitchcock and Joe Boyd will revisit the '60s tonight at the Birchmere. (Tom Oldham)

By Joe Boyd's reckoning, "the '60s began in the summer of 1956" and "ended in October of 1973." There's a sense, however, in which the '60s have yet to conclude for the New Jersey native who found himself at the center of London's acid- and folk-rock booms.

Boyd's witty 2006 memoir, "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s," has kept the era alive for him, and not just on the page. Boyd and singer-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, whose recording career began in 1977, have developed a show that combines the author's reminiscences with tunes by some of the performers Boyd promoted or produced. They'll do this '60s-rock-swap meet Wednesday at the Birchmere.

At 68, Boyd looks more like an Oxford professor than a Woodstock veteran. He's lived in Britain for most of his adult life and has acclimated nicely. He arrives for an interview wearing suspenders and a corduroy jacket, and asks for tea with milk while waiting for Hitchcock, who's 10 years his junior, to join the conversation via speakerphone.

The two men's collaboration began as an impromptu event at the 2007 South by Southwest festival, and still hasn't hardened into an act. "We've got two whole shows of material," Boyd notes. "We do try to change it up. So I can keep Robyn interested."

They seek to maintain the performance's looseness, Hitchcock says, simply because "it works. And I don't thrive on repetition."

No tunes are guaranteed for any show, but certain songbooks are sure to be opened. "We're definitely going to do a Syd Barrett, definitely a Nick Drake, definitely an Incredible String Band, definitely a Bob Dylan," Boyd assures. "I don't think we've ever not done those four."

Those performers are Boyd touchstones. Barrett was the original leader of Pink Floyd, who played often at London's UFO Club, which Boyd ran, and whose first single he produced. Nick Drake and the Incredible String Band are perhaps the most admired cult acts from Boyd's late-'60s stable. And "White Bicycles'' recounts several brushes with Dylan, notably Boyd's stint as production manager at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where the great folk hope broke the peace (and Pete Seeger's heart) with an electric guitar.

Considering the various mid-'60s Dylan tunes he might perform, Hitchcock notes that "I brought a collection of harmonicas and a capo."

"But, Robyn," Boyd interjects, "that means you won't be able to say - "

" 'Has anybody got an E harmonica?' " Hitchcock completes the query - famously asked by Dylan at Newport - in his best nasal American folk-rock accent.

As a young teenager, Hitchcock says, he was profoundly influenced by the Boyd-linked material he now performs. "Some of these songs are more me than I am. And I was one of the people who carried this music, like an ant, from the mid-'60s into the mid-'80s."

"White Bicycles" is a reference to an obscure '60s song, but also to the bikes that Dutch hippies placed around Amsterdam, to be shared in the spirit of utopian cooperation. It was a spirit that didn't last.

Drake and Barrett both came to sad ends, and for Boyd, London lost some of its charm as the '60s ended. This section of his book is packed with tales of disappointments and near-misses, including the saga of how Boyd almost owned a big chunk of the publishing rights for two little-known Swedish songwriters who would soon found Abba.

Boyd's biggest hits came after he moved to Los Angeles in 1971 to work for the music department at Warner Bros. Pictures. He produced "Midnight at the Oasis," the most successful single from several albums he made with Maria Muldaur. And then there was Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel's "Dueling Banjos," the left-field smash originally released as a single only to humor "Deliverance" director John Boorman. (Boyd thought so little of the tune's commercial prospects that he didn't bother to credit himself as producer on the label.)

In the '80s, Boyd produced albums by R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs and Richard and Linda Thompson, among others. But it wasn't the same. "One of the big changes was contractual," he recalls. "You were no longer working for the label. You were working for the artist. It changed the relationship a lot. Nothing against the artists, who I loved working with. But it was different, and not in a good way."

These days, Boyd would rather hit the road than work in recording studios, which now produce digitally altered music he finds flat and stiff. As Hitchcock guffaws, Boyd bemoans "the grim hold that Pro Tools has on the process these days. If you give somebody the opportunity to move a bass note a nanosecond forward so that it's absolutely in sync with the bass drum, they'll do it."

"Yeah!" Hitchcock chimes in.

"And therein lies the death of something."

For both Hitchcock and Boyd, the music of their youth has more appeal. "You can be in a restaurant and hear a song from the '60s, and it sounds modern," says the Boyd. "It's almost current, in a way."

"That's because modern life began somewhere between 1965 and 1969," Hitchcock adds. "We seem to be doomed to forever wander up and down it."

When he wrote "White Bicycles," Boyd wasn't quite sure what distinguished the decade's music. "It didn't really occur to me until afterwards, when people started asking me questions."

"I think the big thing that happened was the capture of the high ground of pop culture by the middle class. Before that, making pop music was a working-class occupation. It was un-self-conscious. Then this whole generation, of which I was part, discovered old blues and folk. All this music was free for us to plunder. It's like a huge empty playing field. You could go anywhere, and be really original."

Today's music scene, Boyd suggests, lacks that sense of openness. "Now it's like a crowded cocktail party. There's barely a place to stand."

By Mark Jenkins  | March 9, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  In today's Post  | Tags:  Joe Boyd, Robyn Hitchcock  
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