Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

With Cerys Matthews on the World Service

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Dear Mailing List,

Let’s hear it for Cerys Matthews! She sweeps all before her as champion radio presenter. And to prove what good taste she has, she did an hour-long programme with me, playing records and talking Sixties, for the World Service. For those of you who haven’t heard enough of me lately, it’s on the BBC iPlayer until Feb 9.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03dg4ct#play

And let’s hear it for Richard Morton Jack of Flashback magazine who is sending me his copy of the Sydney Carter ep! (Flashback is an erudite fanzine – in this case, not a contradiction in terms…)

Other responses to my last newsletter include the most welcome news that Norma Waterson is up and about and singing like the angel she is. Wonderful! I have also been told that a photo exists of Bob Dylan singing from the stage of the Singers’ Club. Yet more about Mr MacColl that I have to take back! I’m (almost) always happy to stand corrected.

And so many people have told me – via email and in person – how much they loved Sydney Carter…

It has been brought to my attention that the podcast track-listing which can be seen on iTunes, is not visible when you listen from my website. We are working to correct this and hope to have a full listing of all tracks visible in the coming days.

ciao for niao

Joe

English Folk Music

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Happy New Year! The A-Z podcasts are back after a fortnight’s hiatus with “T”. Easy as pie at www.joeboyd.co.uk – click on a letter and the ten-minute podcast plays.

 

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As a teenager, I was horrified by the idea of white blues singers, but modified that view when I heard my friend Geoff Muldaur successfully channelling Lonnie Johnson on a Boston coffee-house stage. I was also put off by middle-class singer-songwriters until I was bowled over by Bob Dylan in a tiny room at a Cambridge, MA party in 1963. These prejudices never evaporated entirely; for every Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell, there seem to be thousands of well-bred strummers whose cds I recycle to Oxfam. And don’t get me started on the Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Winter cults! But I digress from the subject at hand…

 

When I arrived in London in 1964, I had already developed, then lost or modified a number of such prejudices. Before setting out for London, I had a very bad attitude about English folk music. (I know, some of you, my dear English readers, still have a bad attitude about your own folk music; if so, perhaps you’d better skip this newsletter and wait for the next one…) I have written elsewhere about having these views confounded by an encounter with the Ian Campbell Group and Dave Swarbrick, and then by Norma and the rest of the Watersons. (White Bicycles, Ch. 7). But when I went to the famous “Singers Club” in Farringdon, there was Ewan MacColl singing shanties with a finger in one ear, conforming to the humourless stereotype prevalent across The Pond. MacColl had notoriously barred Bob Dylan from singing at the club; only songs from whence you came were allowed! His rigid, snotty attitude was just as advertised and I never went back to The Singers’ Club.

 

Around the same time, producer Bill Leader took me to small basement flat just down the road from MacColl’s club to meet a man from the opposite end of the class and stylistic spectrum of British songwriters. Sydney Carter was eccentric, middle-class, donnish, kind, off-hand and idealistic (He had worked in an ambulance corps in WW2 rather than fight…). He wrote poetry and taught a bit, but his primary source of income seemed to be fees and royalties from writing songs with Donald Swann of the Flanders and Swann comic duo. (Economic guru Stephanie Flanders is the daughter of the other half of that team.) I was entranced by his odd, off-hand songs. When I returned to London a year and a half later to open the Elektra Records office, I took Sydney into the studio to make an EP “The Lord of the Dance”. The title song was to become his most famous, gleefully sung by happy-clappy liberal Christians the world over. But don’t hold that against him! Like Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”, which became a red-neck anthem despite the ironic lyrics, “Lord” is a secular sceptic’s attempt to portray Christ as the very human founder of a cult of joy and ecstasy (which is pretty close to how it actually was until killjoys like St Paul got ahold of it). I think my EP was the first recording of “Lord”, but I wish the God-botherers had been quicker off the mark with the title song; the EP might have sold better and not been a black mark against my track record with the Elektra bosses back in New York. (If anyone has a copy and wants to sell it or make me a digital version, I would be very grateful; it’s the only one of my productions not in my collection.)

 

A series of concerts last year took me back to Year Zero of my exposure to the London folk scene. In April, there was a tribute to Carter (who died in 2004) in a small, medieval theatre adjoining the Porter’s Lodge at Balliol College, Oxford. One driving force behind this event was Martin Carthy, a longtime supporter who accompanied Sydney on that 1966 Elektra EP (and who shared my dislike of MacColl). Martin led a great group of singers in the canon of Carter songs, including my personal favourite “Taking Out the Dustbin in the Gray’s Inn Road” as well as his anti-war song, “Crow on the Cradle”, for years a staple at Jackson Browne concerts.

 

The other instigator was Stephen Sedley, whom I met in my first years in London. He grew up a folksong buff; his lawyer father represented many folksingers as well as Topic Records. Sedley now teaches law at Oxford, having retired from the bench after a heroic career championing human rights as a Lord Justice of Appeal, a member of the European Court of Human Rights and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. (After I introduced a girlfriend to him at a Human Rights Lecture, she told me it was far more impressive and thrilling than the time I introduced her to Mick Jagger.)

 

Earlier last year, I impulsively purchased a train ticket to Glasgow to hear some of my favourite singers pay tribute to one of my least favourite songwriters. Celtic Connections had brought together Norma Waterson, Chaim Tannenbaum, Martin Carthy (who knows a good song when he hears it, regardless of who wrote it), Jarvis Cocker, Eliza Carthy, Dick Gaughan, Paul Buchanan (The Blue Nile) and Karine Polwart to honour the long-deceased (1989) MacColl’s memory. One attraction for me was that the evening was curated by Ewan’s sons Neil and Calum and Neil’s wife Kate St John. Working with those three in various combinations on my own live tributes to Nick Drake and Kate McGarrigle has been an unalloyed pleasure. And there was in the back of my mind the nagging thought that if he had such great kids, maybe it was time for a reassessment…

 

The concert was terrific. Chaim and Norma stole the show with their renditions of “My Old Man”, “Go Down You Murderers” and “Shoals of Herring” (Tannenbaum) and “The Moving On Song” (Waterson). Sitting in the audience, I was forced to admit the old crank wrote a lot of great songs, full of anger and passion and wonderful folk-based melody. Even the often-corny “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” sounded pretty good in Buchanan’s hands.

 

But another reassessment was also slowly dawning in my prejudiced mind. Researching my world music book, I’ve discovered a hero-figure in Dimitri Pokrovsky, the man who defied Soviet ideologues to revive regional Russian folk music. Cultural specifics are anathema to authoritarian regimes; they prefer broad generalities and the music that expresses them (the Soviet Moiseyev Ensemble being the archetype). The Right-Left divide in politics these days often comes down to denial vs acceptance of facts. Local music is the equivalent of factual research. Pokrovsky was not only opposed to Soviet kitsch, but he peered into the future and recognized the dangers of post-Soviet Russian nationalism; he refused to call any folk song “Russian”. They were ‘from Voronezh’ or ‘Irkutsk Oblast’, never “Russian”.

 

At a time when cultural battles are being waged over what it means to be “British”, or “English”, MacColl’s strictures that you should sing songs from your home territory begins to seem like a good idea, an antidote to the kitsch clichés of UKIP and the Tories. And when I went to give a talk at the English Folk Expo last year, I found many wonderful musicians fully committed to the notion of local music, usually their own. It was inspiring, and yet another reason to give the old finger-in-his-ear crank a respectful reappraisal: he might have been right after all!

 

The Glasgow concert was such a success that they took the show on the road in November and the London show was, again, terrific. I hope a few of you got to see it. And I am so glad I bought that train ticket last January; Norma Waterson’s health has taken a turn for the worse and it’s hard to say when we’ll hear her sing like that again.

 

It was nice to see Jarvis Cocker and Norma bonding backstage. I remember the 1996 Mercury Prize awards, when the jury announced a deadlock between Pulp’s “Different Class” and Norma’s solo record for Hannibal. They gave it to Pulp in the end, but Oasis had also been nominated, and I’ve saved the Daily Mail headline “Grandmother beats Oasis in Mercury Prize Vote”.

 

Tribute concerts have sprouted like toadstools in recent years, but for me, 2015 was a vintage year because of those celebrations of two eccentrically British songwriters. They were based only a few hundred yards from each other along Roseberry Avenue, but between them there was a chasm of class, attitude, style and personality. Somehow, last year, they seemed quite nicely balanced, resonating beautifully across the decades, never to be forgotten.

 

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On-line reviews of the A-Z podcasts…

 

“Digestible wisdom for all”

by electrophreek

Joe Boyd is one of the titans of music production and his hard fought insights into the nature and scope of global music are among the finest you will ever encounter. This is the bench mark of music podcasts and the standard by which all should be judged.

 

“Brilliant”

by modal d

Exhilarating, mesmerizing, poignant. That such a pivotal figure, responsible for so much music I love, would take the time to put together this series is just an incredible gift. Listen!

 

“A Poem Is A Naked Person” and the English Folk Expo

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If any of you are near Bristol, England this Monday (November 2) evening – come along to the Institute of Art and Ideas where I’m giving a talk and answering questions. It starts early, at 6pm, which is appropriate for the now-geriatric era which is the subject of the event, “The Sixties”! The location is 15 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1HB and the phone there is 0117 921 0455.

I promised to fill you in about the late Les Blank’s film on Leon Russell – “A Poem Is A Naked Person” – which I saw at the BFI London Film Festival 2 weeks ago. I was certain it had been re-edited since Les screened if for me in 1972 as some scenes I vividly remembered were not now in it, according to those who had seen it more recently. And also because Leon had agreed to its release – something I could never imagine him allowing based on what I recall seeing 45 years ago….

Well, it turns out that the film is almost entirely unchanged since then. It’s just my brain that has changed… or something. I still don’t consider it a very flattering portrait of Mr Russell, but it’s not as cruelly realistic as I remember. For those of you who have never seen a Les Blank film, I recommend that you remedy that lacuna straight away. (http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/Flowerfilm.html or amazon) Les was a master documentarian. He would hang out with the subject, in his understated way, sometimes carrying a camera with no film, until he had become part of the wallpaper. Only then would he start.

In the case of a wonderful musician like the Zydeco great Clifton Chenier, this created a warm, affectionate and unself-conscious portrait of a man you wished had invited you over to share his gumbo and listen to his tales and his music. In the case of Leon Russell, it reveals a man from whom you would run a mile to avoid having to spend any time in his company. Or at least the Leon Russell of 1971; he may have mellowed in the intervening years.

The general atmosphere among Leon and his musicians and friends that Les captured in “Poem” stood in stark contrast to the prevailing mood at the English Folk Expo in Bury immediately prior to the screening. Over two days in this relaxed Lancashire mill town, I heard wonderful music, met engaging and inspiring people and generally enjoyed myself. I heard old faves Eliza Carthy and Sam Lee, new faves Stick In The Wheel and discovered Ollie King, the Rhiengans Sisters and Dan Walsh. The overall standard was very high and the atmosphere of mutual support and friendly exchange that prevailed during my two days there (I missed the Saturday so I could see ‘Poem’) made the contrast with the drugged and ego-fuelled atmosphere in Russell’s compound in the early ’70s all the more disconcerting. Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll were really fun, honest! Don’t let films like this re-write history. And don’t let my comments put you off seeing it. Les Blank was a wonderful film-maker and “Poem” is grimly fascinating.

In my keynote address at the Folk Expo, I talked about the “American Epic Sessions”, the sounds and images from which have stayed with me and which I cannot stop talking about. I was taken to task for mentioning T-Bone Burnett and Jack White but not director Bernard MacMahon and producer Allison McGourty. I plead guilty! They were so nice to me at the reception after, as well! My excuse is that I write these things off the top of my head and am determined to keep the newsletters informal stream-of-consciousness essays that evade the exigencies of proper journalism. But I would hate anyone to feel slighted. And, by way of redress, I should point out how beautifully shot the film is, claustrophobic in the best possible sense. Well done, everyone.

I am looking forward to immersing myself once again in the warmth and good music that is the English folk scene these days. Saturday I go to Cecil Sharpe House for a celebration of Shirley Collins and look forward to seeing many of my favourite singers and people. I am particularly keen to hear Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, whom I heard in the BBC Folk Awards earlier this year in Cardiff. On my lunchtime stroll today (after recording some more A-Z podcasts nearby) I stopped by Rough Trade to say hello to Geoff Travis and he told me he’d signed the duo. A good match, I say!

This is getting too long – I’ll write another one soon about the Womex conference in Budapest… A multi-cultural event in an “illiberal” (according to Hungarian Prime Minister Orban) country… and where I led a discussion on “Nationalism and Folk Music”… stay tuned.

Joe

PS – some complaints that podcast “Letter D” is unplayable. Unfortunately, there was a brief time when D was on the blink. Anyone who subscribed via iTunes during that period got delivered a faulty “D” and will have to delete, unsubscribe and re-subscribe to hear it… but hey! it’s all free…

Jonah, American Epic Session and Les Blank

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Due to a glitch on our end, all those email raves about the “Joe Boyd’s A-Z” podcast seem to have bounced back! The problem has been sorted now, so feel free to lob bouquets or brickbats by hitting “reply” to the newsletter. Letter J has just gone up, filled with the “great, thick blubbery rugs” of a whale’s insides… Yes, J = Jonah. (If you do have nice things to say, feel free to track down the ‘ratings and reviews’ page on iTunes and tell the world….)

Meanwhile, last weekend I attended a screening of “American Epic Session” – a BBC Arena project (coming to your screens – and PBS in America) next March. It is a wonderful film, in which T-Bone Burnett and Jack White supervise a series of recordings on a replica of the first electrical recording machine from 1925. Only one mic, balances obtained by moving the musicians closer or farther away from the microphone; the mono sound goes directly into a mastering stylus and carves out the unalterable grooves. Now that’s the way to make a record!

The theme of the project is to re-create that moment in 1925 when the music industry was in a crisis very similar to where it finds itself today. The first nationwide radio networks had been formed, broadcasting dance bands and crooners and vaudevillians into every corner of America – with radio available all day, why would anyone ever again buy a record? The desperate solution to this dilemma was to seek out the only demograpic that couldn’t listen to the radio – the rural poor! (Many of whom had no electricity, but did possess wind-up grammophones.) Thus record producers such as the great Ralph Peer went out into the hinterlands to find hillbilly and blues singers who would appeal to this newly targeted demographic.

T-Bone believes, and I think he’s right, that this moment led directly to America’s domination of the world’s popular music. Without those recordings of the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the rest of the great rural music catalogue, the ‘authentic’ music of America would never have established itself as an important genre. Hence, there would have been no Sam Phillips (Sun Records) and no Elvis Presley, no LIttle Richard, no rock n roll revolution et etc.

Burnett and White make their point eloquently by enlisting an array of talent, young and old, to perform material, mostly from that period, the old-fashioned way, around a single mic. Los Lobos with acoustic instruments perform a 19th century Jarocha song from Vera Cruz, there are ancient Hawaiians singing and a parade of great Anglophones performing blues and country music. Betty Lavette singing the Beale Street Sheiks’ version of  “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” was my personal highlight, but there isn’t a make-weight song in the film. It culminates in Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard duetting on some old country songs. Don’t miss it!

I head back to the LFF tomorrow to see the late Les Blank’s “A Poem Is A Naked Person”, his documentary about Leon Russell. I saw a different version of this film in 1972 when Les brought it to me at Warner Bros in LA. He had been commissioned by Leon and his label, Shelter Records, to make a film about the Oklahoma singer along the lines of the great films Les had made about Lightnin’ Hopkins, Clifon Chenier and other great Texas and Louisiana musicians. The problem was that Les’ approach, in which he hangs around the musicians long enough to become invisible and then starts filming, tends to reveal a great deal about their lives and the background of their music. In the case of Hopkins or Chenier, the warts-and-all films make them into more sympathetic and interesting figures. With the Russell film I saw, this was not the case. Les wanted me to plead his case with my friend Denny Cordell, boss of Shelter. It was a wonderful film, but if I had been Leon and Denny, I too would have done anything I could to keep the film being show. Thus, “Poem” has been buried in Les Blanks vault for almost 45 years until Russell finally gave his OK. It will be interesting to see how different this version is from the one I saw those many years ago….

I’ll let you know….

 

 

iTunes!

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It took a few weeks but JOE BOYD’S A-Z is now available as a podcast on iTunes. I have seven letters up, so you can listen for over an hour! (10 minutes each)

Tell your friends, tweet them, facebook them, start a virus…. (If you like it, that is.)

Just go to your iTunes store and ask, mine is the only podcast under “Joe Boyd”.

You can also, of course, listen at joeboyd.co.uk or at acast.com

Happy listening…

Joe

 

Joe’s new A – Z Podcast!

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Last month saw the launch of my podcast, “Joe Boyd’s A-Z”. Each weekly 10-minute episode starts with a track from my collection, which serves as a doorway to talk about memorable recording sessions I’ve been involved in, or to my favourite albums, or to curious histories and remarkable personalities. I’ve spent the last year and a half listening to (bits of) my (very large) collection in alphabetical order by song-title – hence the idea for the podcast.

Listen to the podcasts so far….

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H

You can also subscribe at acast.com by downloading the acast app and subscribing to Joe Boyd’s A-Z.

 

My Albanian adventures

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I have been hiding my head in shame for the past month after committing an apostrophe-crime in the editor’s letter I shared with you, right after the other rant about bad grammar!  Thank you to all the sticklers who pointed this out.

A somewhat shorter version of the following account of my Albanian adventures with be printed in the next issue of “Songlines” magazine.  But with more photos!  (To say nothing of other interesting articles and reviews…)  So buy a copy!

 

A lute player from Sheffield named Enzo Puzzovio walked into my office at Hannibal Records one day in 1988 with a video of that year’s festival of Albanian music in Gjirokastra. Albania was a closed country then, its only friends North Korea and Cuba. How did he get a visa? How did he manage to smuggle out the tape? His tale has faded from my memory, but the images remained undimmed: a gigantic stage with conical-hatted polyphonic singers in embroidered red vests and tasselled shoes silhouetted below battlements with black-eagle pennants flapping in the wind and snow-capped mountains in the background. Nothing in Europe seemed anywhere near as exotic. I resolved one day I would go to that festival.

My vow was finally fulfilled last month. For seven nights, I joined the throngs walking up the steep cobble-stoned path to the castle, in the city immortalized by Ismael Kadare in his novel Chronicle In Stone:

The city…seemed to have been cast up the valley one winter’s night like some prehistoric creature that was now clawing its way up the mountainside… The traveller seeing it for the first time was tempted to compare it to something, but soon found that impossible, for the city rejected all comparisons…

 

Bryn Albania

 

It was a slanted city, set at a sharper angle than perhaps any other city on earth, and it defied the laws of architecture and city planning. The top of one house might graze the foundation of another, and was surely the only place in the world where if you slipped and fell in the street, you might well land on the roof of a house – a peculiarity known most intimately to drunks…. In some places you could stretch out your arm and hang your hat on a minaret.

In the fort’s huge promontory, standing guard over an immense and dramatic valley that stretches from Northern Greece to the Adriatic coast, the same gigantic stage I had seen 27 years ago was now bedecked with LED screens showing cheap, clichéd imagery meant to glamourize the music for Albanian tv. Every region sends a troupe selected through local competitions, with three groups appearing each night. The music of the mountainous North sounds rugged and hard-edged, very different from that of the more lyrical South. Diaspora delegations from Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and the U.S. were also invited; as many Albanians live outside the country as in.

 

Dancers on stage

 

My friends and I sat through extended actings-out of obscure rituals and mock weddings with scant musical reward, only to be blindsided by a moment of magic: a lone singer with an ancient tale strumming on a cifteli; a quintet of a capella polyphonic improvisers and droners, or a pair of dancers elaborately stepping round a crouching man with a hand-drum keeping intricate time while periodically bouncing it off the floor. There were brilliant clarinettists, violinists, solo singers male and female, dancers in groups, in pairs, individuals. The quality was variable but the variety remarkable. The U.S. contingent was surreal in its alteration of starkly pure authenticity and backing-tracked rubbish. One Albanian friend marvelled at how bloomingly American the hyphenate girls looked, like cheerleaders from a Hollywood film.

At a delicious lunch one day, in a beautiful small square under blossoming trees, a man approached our table and to my astonishment, asked if I was Joe Boyd. A Nick Drake obsessive in Gjirokastra? Impossible, surely! It turned out, of course, to be the 1988 video man, Enzo Puzzovio, back again for more. I’ve begun to realize that once Albanian music gets ahold of you, it doesn’t let go easily.

The week was hypnotically, delightfully surreal: getting used to the idea that this ancient, horizontally-challenged town was, for seven days and nights, home, and that each evening we would trudge the winding road to the castle for another four-hour marathon of Albanian music. Sunsets over the mountains were as variable as the music, turning the dramatic valley blushingly romantic or bloodily ominous. With the wind kicking up those long-remembered pennants, even a few seriously chilly nights failed to prod us to leave before the last note had been sung, the last step danced.

The huge audience (there was no entrance fee) drank it all in, making no distinction between the kitsch and the stunning. For them, it was all about the words, the songs, the familiar melodies known from childhood. Albanian folk music has no post-modern bourgeois revivalists, nor is it, as in Bulgaria, resented for the long decades it was forced down the population’s throats by a heavy-handed regime. Albanians just like their music; at gatherings, people seize any excuse to start singing while Tirana dance instructors do a nice trade teaching urban kids the traditional steps they will need for an upcoming wedding.

Every evening before the show, they screened clips from past festivals. In the Enver Hoxha years, musicians would arrive a week or two before the quinquennial event, rehearse during the day and fill the city’s narrow cobbled streets every night with music. Hoxha evidently loved folk music, so long as subversive or reactionary verses were replaced by lyrics honouring him and the Albanian Communist Party. The footage shows huge, joyful crowds, dancers, singers, pipers, clarinettists – all having the time of their lives.

Selectively edited or not, the images don’t fit the world’s notions about Albania in those years. We only knew that it was dark, closed and friendless. Private cars were illegal. Once I saw a photo of the vast expanse of Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square at rush hour with a scattering of bicycles and a few nervous pedestrians scurrying across. The countryside was dotted with oddly shaped air-raid-shelters looking like what Oscar Niemeyer might have doodled on a pad when he was starting to think about Brasilia. One morning in the early ‘70s after a red-eye from L.A., I was thrown from one side of my JFK-to-Manhattan cab by a crazed driver who turned out to be an Albanian refugee a few weeks into his new American life. He had scaled mountains and clung to the undercarriages of Yugoslav freight trains until he reached a refugee camp in Italy. Getting his visa was a doddle; the US had quotas for every country in those days and no Albanians had applied for ages. About the only sighting of Albanian culture we had in those years was the rumour that John Belushi’s grandad’s hat had inspired The Coneheads.

 

Men dancing and mountain

 

The street-party atmosphere of the past has mostly disappeared; the budget only allows for the regional all-stars to stay the night of their performance. We managed to find a few after-parties in sterile hotel bars at the edge of the town, but the streets were largely devoid of music. Those nocturnal jam-sessions were certainly a high point; veterans told of drunken dos lasting until dawn as recently as 2009. On our next-to-last evening, I found a small café down a side street with outside tables. A group of eight men were seated around a few bottles of rakia and some glasses. They talked quietly until one simply started singing; the rest joined in with a drone. Against this basso ‘bed’, two or three singers perform largely improvised lyrics and melody. There is similar music in Epirus in Northern Greece and some of the harmonies reminded me of singing I’d heard in the mountains of Southwest Bulgaria, but there is something in the mournful scales and tone of Albanian harmony that creates an unmatchable atmosphere. Perhaps it was the acoustics of the cobblestones, or the quickly re-filled glasses of rakia at our own table, but the music that night was completely mesmerizing. When I moved closer, one of the men gestured to an empty chair; leaning my head into the circle of voices was an experience ‘5.1 Surround-Sound’ could never have matched.

Following a tip from the hotelier who organized our guest rooms, we drove down the valley one day and through a pass into a more remote one. A few miles outside the musical town of Përmet, we fell in behind other vehicles on a winding dirt road towards what looked like an observatory atop a high mountain. All we knew was that there was a religious ceremony going on and music would be involved. I imagined a small rural stone church with, say, a polyphonic sextet performing a sacred variation on the traditional songs we heard every night at the castle.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The green dome atop the mountain turned out, after 40 minutes of arduous bouncing, climbing, backing up in the face of downward headed vehicles and gawping at the ever more spectacular views, to be a shrine of the Bektashi sect of Islam. Many dervishes (whirling and non-whirling) have been devotees of this group founded in the 13th century by Persian and Turkish Sufis. They shifted their base to Tirana when Ataturk expelled them from Turkey in the 1920s. Like most Sufis, the Bektashis are tolerant, a quality very much on show that afternoon. Once through the gate of the shrine, it was peaceful, quiet and prayerful. Pilgrims and intruders wandered easily from one simple and elegant building to another. The views were breath-taking.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Outside the gate, on the other hand, was cacophony and chaos. Two competing outfits provided ear-splitting, high-energy music: clarinet and voice backed by drum machine and keyboard bass. Beer and soda cans lay everywhere while young men and girls circle-danced beside grills where freshly slaughtered lambs were being charred. The trip provided a memorable diversion, but that evening we were, once again, early-birds at the castle, making sure to secure good seats. The concerts had become addictive and hypnotic; the idea of missing one of the regions was completely out of the question.

If the Bektashis were, in musical terms, a long way removed from Gjirokastra, my prelude to the week lay at a conceptual distance almost as far and in a completely different direction. My Russian friend Sasha Cheparukhin was, by coincidence, producing a ‘world music’ festival at Budva, a beach resort just up the Adriatic coast in Montenegro the day before Gjirokastra’s opening night.

What can you say about a man who has managed both Pussy Riot and Tuvan throat-singers Hun Huur Tu? Having escorted them around celebrity parties in the Hamptons and Hollywood, Sasha has put together a band built around Russian rock veterans and legendary New York guitarist Marc Ribot for Pussy Riot’s 2015 Rock Festival Summer. But he won’t be travelling with them; he has more important fish to fry now.

The political atmosphere in Russia has holed his musical and entrepreneurial agenda below the water-line. Businessmen and local government officials who backed Sasha’s festivals and concerts are subdued or have moved abroad. One favoured Russian destination, either for holiday homes or as a refuge for those no longer comfortable in Moscow, is Montenegro. All along the coast, billboards in Russian advertise real estate, restaurants and casinos.

Dukley, a property development company in the port of Budva, asked Sasha to organize a beachfront festival with the aim of building up the town as an off-season cultural destination. Sasha duly set himself the task of bringing local musicians together with ‘world music’, not an easy task in a country with almost no sense of its own musical identity.

Montenegro’s journey towards a modern European destiny couldn’t be more different from that of its neighbour to the South. Some have suggested Montenegro is simply a cigarette-smuggling enterprise that has astonished itself by becoming a nation. Today, it is very much ‘open for business’, with beachfront developments dotting the spectacular mountainous coast. Albania, with its ancient language un-related to any other Indo-European tongue, trails in the wake of Montenegro and other Balkan lands in its trek towards EU membership, a bit insular and strange but very strongly itself.

The evening was a triumph for Sasha; the show was beautifully put together, it ran precisely on time, the sound was excellent (all highly unusual in the Balkans and certainly not true of Gjirokastra) and the crowd loved it. My own experience began brightly with a serenade of local Montenegran a-capella harmonies, followed by my old favourite Inna Zhalanaya, a Russian Sandy Denny figure, whose folk-rock manages to sound modern, ancient, adventurous and conservative all at the same time. I could listen to her sing all night, but the next act was waiting in the wings, the sun was setting exquisitely over the sea and as the crowd grew, my enjoyment faded.

The electronic effects of Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen were followed by a collaboration with some ex-members of King Crimson, then the new stars of the ‘world music’ circuit, Darkha Brakha from the Ukraine, with their huge woolly hats and dramatic show. The climax was “Montesteppe”, a collaboration involving a rock rhythm section, a Montenegran bard with his ancient guzla, a throat-singing Tuvan and a Buryat flautist. It was all brilliantly executed, virtuosic stuff and beautifully produced by Sasha. The crowd of Russians and locals seemed astonished by how much they loved this exotic stew and cheered it lustily.

Some evenings in Gjirokastra may have had an equally low ratio of musical thrills to tedium for me, but I felt more at home in the fortress than on the Budva beach despite the excellent supper and perfect seats arranged for us. I have come to realize that I’m doomed to find myself ever farther off the main pathways of even the minority tastes of the world music crowd. I would willingly have sat for hours in front of the guzla playing bard (preferably in a small room with no microphones), or listened to the Buryat flautist or the Tuvan throat singer. Or even, perhaps, to the talented Ukrainians of Darkha Brakha if they took off their silly hats, ceased trying to put on a show and just sang folksongs. But that would hardly have pleased the beach crowd at Budva.

I confess to being (mildly) affronted by the assumption behind placing singers and instrumentalists from exotic cultures in front of pounding rock drumming and electric keyboards or next to turntable-wielding deejays; without such presentation, goes the thinking, no one will listen. Or at least no young people will listen. And on the beach at Budva, this was no doubt correct. But despite everyone’s headlong rush into the maw of ‘fusion’, history tells a different tale.

My heroes are those eccentric Argentinians Hector Orrezzoli and Claudio Segovia; they brought a troupe of tango singers, players and dancers from Buenos Aires to Paris, then Broadway, then the World in the 1980s. They put “Tango Argentino” in bright lights, charged high prices, had perfect sound and staging and ran for two years on Broadway. The music remained untouched and undiluted, not dumbed-down in any way, while most of the dancers were in their 50s. The pair did the same for flamenco, Brazilian maxixe and the vaudeville blues of the 1930s before Orrezoli passed away in 1995. Then there was a brilliant concert tour of Central Asian music in the 1990s, organized by Dartmouth professor Ted Levin and the Aga Khan Foundation, that filled halls in Europe and the US with exquisitely curated and presented Silk Road music with not a Yo-yo in sight.

And what about the Buena Vista Social Club, or Cesaria Evora, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo? All the big “hits” of world music have been dressed up and made shiny by producers from outside the home culture, who kept the music un-altered and fusion-free. Don’t get me started! I’m plotting to bring some un-fused Albanian virtuosi to Britain next year. Watch this space – and when I do, you had all better buy tickets or there’ll be trouble!

Girls

1st photo by Bryn Ormrod, the rest by Andrea Goertler

My Career As Village Crank

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My career as village crank, banging out letters to the editor, is on the upswing! Two letters published in the past three weeks! One in the Guardian, one in the International New York Times. They trimmed them a bit, so I’ll let you read them as nature, well me anyway, intended:

To the Guardian:

Sirs,

I congratulate the sub-editor who struck this blow for grammatical sobriety. The ‘festival of song’ is, indeed, “kitsch”, not “kitschy”. Too often, your reviewers and journalists have been allowed to pin an unsightly tail on this poor word and on its “camp” mate as well. Each is as ridiculous as describing Usain Bolt as “fasty” or “Joanna Lumley” as “glamorousy”.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Boyd

To the New York Times:

Sirs,
Mark Lynas (INYT April 25/26) knocks down a straw man. Informed objections to GMO crops are not, as he suggests, because they are intrinsically harmful to human health. Lynas purports to support GMO food as a means of limiting pesticide use, but the most widely planted GMO crops are corn and soya plants genetically engineered to permit and encourage the use of pesticides and herbicides, Monsanto’s Roundup in particular.

The primary interest of GMO-developing corporations is in profiting from the sale of chemicals and fertiliser as well as securing copyright on ‘dead-end’ seeds. Cartoonish descriptions of GMO-objectors as Luddite and anti-scientific is a destructive distraction from scholarly studies that show putting the future of the world’s agriculture in the hands of such companies is a path towards the planet’s impoverishment, not its enrichment. This view is not irrational but evidence-based and scientific.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Boyd

New events, Geoff Muldaur and Sam Charters

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My somewhat cranky appearance on Radio 4’s “A Good Read” is available now in BBC iPlayer: (The article I mention about the great Lesley Blanch can be read here.)
Despite the scowls directed towards anyone who asks when my book on ‘world music’ will be finished, some evidence is emerging of what I’ve been up to. My Pushkin House talk on April 8 at 7pm – Vladimir Putin’s Rite of Spring: music and nationalism – will be reprised at the ‘other’ Hay festival – How The Light Gets In on Thursday, May 28 at 3pm.
The festival will also include a performance of “Chinese White Bicycles: Live and Direct from 1967 with Joe Boyd and Robyn Hitchcock” on Friday, May 29 at 430pm.  It will be great to be back on stage with Robyn; – we haven’t done this for almost two years! See a clip here.  And in the intervening period, of course, we went into the studio together and brought forth the bouncing baby cd and lp known as “The Man Upstairs” (No click-tracks were abused in the making of this album…)
 
I was in the studio again the past weekend, this time simply as friend and observer. My boyhood pal Geoff Muldaur was continuing his fascinating process of composing and recording an album of “blue chamber music” (my description, not his), which follows the path laid down 10 years ago by “Private Astronomy”, his tribute to Bix Beiderbecke for Deutsche Grammophon. In that album, Geoff realized Beiderbecke’s dream of setting his solo piano pieces for chamber orchestra. DGG loved the demo Geoff and New York producer Dick Connette had recorded and gave me (as exec producer) $100,000 to complete the project. (Those were the days! Back in the mists of time….) Dick and Geoff assembled some of New York’s greatest jazz and classical musicians and added vocals by Martha and Loudon Wainwright (as well as Geoff himself) on songs famous for their Beiderbecke trumpet solos; the (DGG parent company) Universal Music A&R people were ecstatic about the results.
Having worked in the ‘indie’ sector for so long, I had a rude awakening bumping up against the ways of major labels. When I started talking about marketing budgets, international touring and release schedules, the A&R man said “Marketing? Oh, that’s down the hall in another office…”. That department’s reaction – expressed far more politely but nonetheless clearly – was “what the fuck did you make this record for? We’re way too busy cranking up the Jamie Cullum numbers to waste time on this shit!” When I enquired why they had spent $100K if they had no intention of selling the record, the marketing man explained that it wasn’t his $100K; that was the A&R department’s problem and he had to spend his budget more prudently than they obviously had.
The album barely ‘escaped’ in the US and Germany and was never released anywhere else. (It has now ‘escaped’ from Universal and is available from amazon and at Geoff’s gigs.) During the exciting few days when we thought there might be a European tour, I introduced Geoff to the remarkable Gert-Jan Blom, leader of Dutch ensembles such as Boulevard of Broken Dreams, The Beau Hunks and The Metropole Orchestra. He, I knew, would be the man to find Bix-and-Geoff-friendly Dutch musicians. They instantly became friends and Geoff now visits Amsterdam regularly to ‘woodshed’ his new work and is starting – with Gert-Jan as producer (and backed by Geoff’s old friend and patron Roger Kasle) – to record an album of his own compositions and settings of poems and songs from the 1920s and ‘30s.
I realize it is impossible to be objective about the music of a childhood friend with whom I have worked off and on over so many years (Pottery Pie with Geoff and Maria Muldaur in 1969, and Geoff’s Having a Wonderful Time in 1976, both for Warner Brothers, then I Ain’t Drunk in 1981 for Hannibal and Private Astronomy in 2005). But I can’t resist stating that I find what Geoff is up to very exciting.
Back in the ‘20s, there were strong musical currents back and forth across the Atlantic, with Debussy, Ravel and ‘Les Six’ eagerly soaking up jazz influences and Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington and, later, Charlie Parker avidly studying the works of European composers while Gershwin and Grofé broke new ground by lowering the barriers between classical, jazz and popular music. (When Parker spotted Igor Stravinsky in his audience, he quoted the opening bars of Rite of Spring to the composer’s delight.) Thanks in part to the unrelenting hostility of German critics like Theodor Adorno, ‘serious’ music turned away from all that and drove over the 12-tone Viennese cliff. After the war, the CIA-financed Darmstadt festival became a feeding frenzy of minimalism, helping the likes of Varese, Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez to dominate the post-war musical world; there was no place for the kind of harmonic and rhythmic adventures that had made the 1920s so full of exciting possibilities.
Geoff is picking up the threads dropped when Bix drank himself to death in 1931 and Schoenberg’s pal Adorno stormed out of a New York jazz club cursing the ‘animal’ sounds to which he had been persuaded to listen. Geoff is self-taught, having spent the last 25 years immersed – between gigs – in Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Frankie Trumbauer and Jelly Roll Morton. But don’t let that put you off, this is proper music! What I heard on Sunday involved a classically-trained Afro-American vocalist, a string quartet and three woodwinds. I’ll let you know when this album (which is taking almost as long to complete as my book) is released. In the meantime, Geoff’s solo voice and guitar are paying a rare visit to the UK at the end of April. He will appear at Sam Lee’s Magpie’s Nest club on April 29 in London, as well as other dates in Newcastle, Saltair, Wigan, Whitstable and Brighton (details here).
* * *
Geoff, my brother Warwick and I used to spend entire teenage weekends listening to jazz and blues, mostly on European reissue LPs (America wasn’t much interested in its own musical roots in the late 1950s…). In 1959, we stumbled on an astounding compilation called “The Country Blues”. It included tracks by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Lonnie Johnson, Sleepy John Estes and Skip James and it completely blew our minds. (We had not yet learned to say that, but would in a few years…). Then we discovered there was a book of the same name, written by the mysterious figure who compiled the LP – Sam Charters.
Sam Charters died just over a week ago. I never got to know him as well as I did John Hopkins, whose recent death I have written about so extensively. But Charters had as much – if not more – influence on my life as Hoppy.
It was in that marvellous book that I discovered what ‘record producer’ meant. Travelling around the south, renting hotel rooms, auditioning local singers and taking wax discs back north to be pressed and sold (largely by mail-order) back to the southern communities from which those singers had sprung – now that was a romantic career plan! Too bad I’d been born forty years late. When I realized that music was still out there to be discovered and that producing records would be my life, it was, remarkably, that same Sam Charters who gave me the tip that opened the door to my professional career.
In the winter of 1965, the night before leaving for Chicago (on business for my then-employer George Wein, producer of the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals), I found myself sharing a table at the Kettle of Fish bar with Sam. We and the other Greenwich Village blues hounds had gathered to hear the first New York performance of the just re-discovered Son House. When in Chicago, Sam urged me not to confine myself to South Side bars in my quest for great blues, but to head to the North Side and check out a mixed-race band under the leadership of Paul Butterfield. I mentioned the tip to my friend Paul Rothchild, newly appointed head of A&R at Elektra Records. He joined me in Chicago, signed Butterfield, added (at my suggestion) Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar. Six months later I had my reward: a job opening Elektra’s London office – on my way at last!
Over the course of the Sixties, I crossed paths with Sam on a few occasions, but never got to know him well. I loved the “skating-rink” sound on his production of the first Country Joe and the Fish lp; the credits told me it was recorded at Vanguard Studios just next door to New York’s Chelsea Hotel. Engineer John Wood and I started booking time there for recording and mixing; John jury-rigged the huge studio and its cement basement as an echo chamber and we got some great sounds. Again, thanks to Sam Charters.
I heard that he had moved to Stockholm with his wife Ann, author of definitive books on Kerouac and the Beat Generation. For the Swedish Sonet label, Sam produced a series of great records of Cajun and Zydeco music as well as finding the legendary Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes playing in a Stockholm hotel bar. Sam launched a comeback that culminated in a Grammy award, a reunion with Valdes’ long-estranged pianist son Chucho and the great semi-biographical animated feature Chico Y Rita.
 
A few years ago, I met a Swede who gave me Sam’s phone number. He was pleased to hear from me, thanked me for the appreciative name-checks in White Bicycles, and we chatted for an hour, batting record production anecdotes and compliments back and forth across the wires.
Shortly thereafter, I was perusing the Music section in a San Francisco bookshop (not the famous City Lights, which is wonderful, but the also excellent Green Apple) when I noticed a collection of Sam’s writings titled A Language of Song. The chapters cover a range of his interests, from New Orleans jazz to calypso, gospel, Cajun and Cuban. One caught my eye and had me instantly gripped – a piece about his and Ann’s 1958 sojourn on a remote coast of Andros Island in the Bahamas.
I know my readers constitute an elite group of music aficionados. Many of you will, therefore, have heard of the great Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, mentor and inspiration to Ry Cooder, but you may not be aware that he was discovered on that seminal Bahamian visit by Sam Charters. For me, Warwick and Geoff, when we dropped the needle in 1960 on “Music of the Bahamas” – an lp bought largely because of the awe in which we, by that time, held the name “Sam Charters” – Spence was just one part of the mosaic of strange and wonderful sounds that unfolded before our astounded ears. Hymns and spirituals, sea chanties and ballads, performed by a group of singers including Frederick McQueen and John Roberts, names that became as revered to us as Skip James or Sidney Bechet. We never knew how Sam came to be in the fishing village of Fresh Creek to make those great recordings, we just accepted them as part of the cornucopia of heart-stopping music we pulled, one after the other, from dust covers and lp jackets during those life-shaping years of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. (Spotify, I was glad to discover, can reveal many of these great tracks if you Search for “Frederick McQueen”, “John Roberts” or “Joseph Spence”.)
Over the years, I return again and again to those recordings and others made in later years by subsequent visitors to Andros. In 1976, the Kate and Anna McGarrigle lp I produced ended with their version of Roberts’ “Dig My Grave”, with the soaring voice of their old friend and harmonizer Chaim Tannenbaum taking the lead. Chaim reprised this classic when we paid tribute to Kate in London, New York and Toronto in 2010, 11 and 12.
As a memorial to Sam Charters, I’d like to finish off this (very long, I realize) Newsletter with some edited passages from his account of that 1958 visit:
“One of the sounds we could hear was the ocean. It drove in a monotonous thudding against the headlands a few hundred feet beyond us in the darkness. We could hear dogs barking – every house had a scarred, wary dog chained in the yard outside the door as an alarm and as protection against the other dogs in the settlement. There was the occasional scrabbling of goats as they stirred uneasily in the tangled brush that hemmed in the house yards. From one or two of the houses we could hear battery-operated radios. The voice on the one station that reached the island was methodically reading the expected times of the next day’s high and low tides in every harbour of the Bahamas. In the night air around us was a hum of night insects and low piping exclamations of birds darting in athletic sweeps after the insects. But mingling with all of the sounds was something else that was drawing us through the dry brush that lined the paths we couldn’t see well enough to follow. There was singing, somewhere in the shadows beyond us…….
 
…… Through the open door we could see the faces of women in wrinkled cotton skirts and faded blouses slumped on wooden chairs in the center of the room. They were singing in an emotional, ragged chorus, some of them crying as they stared down at the uneven boards of the floor. The dark skin of their faces shone in the gleam of the lanterns. Some were gray-haired, their hair braided and pushed under their stained straw hats. Their tired faces were lined, and their bodies filled out their loose clothes with the shapelessness that comes with the years. One was holding a pipe, but she had let it go out. All of them had handkerchiefs balled in their hands, and they twisted them between their fingers, wringing them convulsively, then using them to wipe the tears from their eyes, as though the moisture were a kind of solace….
 
……”What is the singing for?”
 
There was a sucking sound as he drank from the bottle, then he shrugged and began to cry openly. “The woman in the house, she sick. She goin’ die soon.”
 
The voices inside the house went on with the ragged hymn as voices broke in with emotional interjections. “Hear me Lord!” almost a shout. “I’m praying to you, Oh Lord” “Oh Lord Jesus, I come to you.”  A voice broke. “I’m thinking of you Lord Jesus.”
 
The man’s grief-stricken face turned toward us again. “We’re havin’ a wake for her.” ………
 
 
Some days later….
 
……. As we were walking along one of the crushed shell paths we heard music from a building site ahead of us. Three or four men were working on the walls of a small house, but it was almost midday and they were working lethargically in the heat. A few feet from them a man with a guitar was sitting on a wall of loose bricks in the shade of a palm tree. There was so much music that I was certain there must be another guitarist on the other side of the wall, and I walked a few steps and leaned over to look. There was no other guitarist. There was only the man sitting on the bricks with a large acoustic guitar that he was playing with strong, agile fingers. We had just met Joseph Spence….
 
…..His improvisations often pleased him as much as they did his listeners, and he would laugh noisily when he had managed a particularly difficult bass run or a complicated rhythmic shift. As I wrote later that day:
 
‘He conceived each new chorus as a challenge, and at his most fluid and inventive moments his improvisations developed into a series of variations…..He was so skilled that he could set a rhythm in triple meter – 3/ 4 or 6/8 – against the basic duple meter – 4/4 – of the piece; but Spence was the only one I ever heard who could play 4/4 in the lower strings  and 3/ 4 in the upper strings at the same time. With all his inventiveness he also had an irresistible sense of Caribbean rhythm to everything he played.’
At the first recording session:
…..The men’s voices were hoarse from the intensity of their singing, and their shirts clung to their chests. I was conscious that the singers had drawn us back with them into a moment of their lives on Andros that had almost been forgotten and we each understood that in a few years it might not be possible to experience a moment like it again…
 
From “A Language of Song” / Sam Charters / Duke University Press.  
 
 

John “Hoppy” Hopkins

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John “Hoppy” Hopkins died at the end of January. Some of you may have read the obituary I wrote for the Guardian or heard my contribution to “Last Word” on BBC Radio 4.
The Guardian stayed reasonably true to my original text, but added more facts and removed some of the quirkier passages. Originally, (and within their word-count restraints) it read like this:
Wow!! was John “Hoppy” Hopkins’ response to any number of things: an idea, a record, a film, a poster, a joke, a poem, a drug, a girl…. And his “Wow!” did not simply echo the ubiquitous “far out” of San Francisco hippies; his delight in the world was genuine, committed, astute and infectious.
Hoppy, who has died, aged 77, was co-founder of International Times, the UFO Club and the London Free School. During the intense two-year heyday of London’s fertile and diverse counterculture, he was the only true leader the movement ever had.
John Hopkins was born in 1937 in Slough; his father was a naval engineer, who designed turbines for large vessels. After attending Felsted School, he took a General Science degree at Cambridge, receiving his MA in 1958. His degree was undistinguished; as Hoppy put it, he discovered sex, drugs and jazz at Cambridge and pursued all three with great diligence. After graduation he worked as a lab technician for the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, but lost his security clearance after a jaunt to Moscow for a Communist youth festival.
In 1960, he moved to London and became a photographer. I first encountered him backstage at the 1964 ‘Blues and Gospel Caravan’ photographing Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe for Melody Maker. His seldom-shown work is among the most evocative of the era, including brilliantly insightful shots of Beatles and Stones, John Lee Hooker and Thelonious Monk as well as a colourful early-‘60s underbelly of tattoo parlours, bikers, fetishists and derelict architecture. (There is a book of them: “From the Hip”, Damiani Press 2008 – http://hoppyx.com/)
In the summer of 1965, Hoppy joined with Barry Miles (future biographer of Ginsberg and Burroughs) and poet Michael Horovitz to organize the Albert Hall Poetry Olympics, featuring the American trio Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso, as well as Brits Adrian Mitchell, Alexander Trocchi, Christopher Logue and Horovitz; that night, the standing-room-only audience recognized themselves as a counter-culture for the first time. Two months later, Hoppy started the first of a life-long series of projects to democratize communication and information. The Notting-Hill-based London Free School achieved few of these goals, but its money-raising events gave Pink Floyd their start and his inspired collaboration with the local West Indian community brought about the first annual Notting Hill Carnival.
In October of 1966, he and Barry Miles published the first issue of International Times, Europe’s first underground paper. (By the end of 1967, there would be almost 100 of them.) The IT launch party at the Roundhouse – with music by Pink Floyd and Soft Machine – inspired Hoppy and me to open the UFO Club in a West End dance hall. Every Friday, Hoppy would mount a scaffolding at the back of the club, play records, make gnomic announcements, show films, project light shows and imbue those nights of music, theatre and dance with an unforgettable atmosphere. Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Arthur Brown, Procul Harum, Tomorrow, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Fairport Convention are among the many bands for whom a UFO appearance helped launch a successful career.
In response to a March police raid on the IT offices, Hoppy mounted a “14-Hour Technicolor Dream” at Alexandra Palace; Peter Whitehead’s film “Let’s All Make Love In London” shows a dazed John Lennon wandering in the huge crowd, transfixed by Yoko Ono cutting a paper dress off a girl as Pink Floyd greeted the North London sunrise.
Revolutions are, almost by definition, factional, but during those two golden years from June ’65 to June ‘67, the working-class anarchists, vaguely aristocratic bohemians, musicians, crusaders, poets, dropouts and psychotropic adventurers were united in their respect and affection for Hoppy. Seemingly irreconcilable differences were bridged again and again by our ever-positive leader. He had a scientist’s suspicion of waffle or cant, forcing us to confront the flaws and contradictions in our ideas and actions, but always in the most positive and supportive manner. All craved the reward of a “Wow” from Hoppy.
That he was seen as leader of this amorphous movement espousing recreational drug-taking, political protest, sexual liberation and “obscene” literature inevitably led to his downfall. Hoppy’s flat was raided and a small amount of hashish found. At his trial, he attacked the prohibition on drugs and, having been branded a “menace to society” by the judge, was handed a nine-month sentence. Outrage at the sentence inspired ubiquitous Free Hoppy graffiti as well as a full-page celebrity protest in The Times, paid for by Paul McCartneyWithout Hoppy, UFO lost its way and closed by October; the scene he had inspired was reduced in his absence by internal bickering, police harassment and better-funded competition.
Though prison robbed him of his energy for leadership, the following decades saw Hoppy persevere with his ideals. Inspired by the Paris events of May ’68, he and Miles converted IT into a workers cooperative. With his partner, Sue Hall, he formed Fantasy Factory, an offline editing facility that revolutionized affordable low-tech video editing, bringing it within reach of community activists and independent directors. UNESCO funded Fantasy Factory’s educational package and distributed it widely in the developing world. For Hoppy, culture was always seen in the context of politics and vice-versa.
Always eager for scientific challenges, a chance meeting in 1990 led to Hoppy designing and constructing a greenhouse for horticultural research at the University of Westminster. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2007, he never lost his curiosity or his charm, meeting a new partner for his final years at a gathering of Parkinson’s sufferers. In his final months, his speech and movement severely hindered by disease, he was still able to open wide his brightest eye and say ‘Wow!
John “Hoppy” Hopkins, born 15 August, 1937, died 30 January, 2015.
With you, loyal mailing list readers, I can be less restrained. I have no idea what my life might have been like had Hoppy not turned up that afternoon at Fairfield Halls Croydon to snap those pix for Melody Maker. I liked him immediately and asked if he was coming to the show that night. He had other plans, but eagerly accepted a pair of comps for the Hammersmith Odeon (now the Apollo) show the following week.
Afterwards, he gave me his phone number and address and, as I recall, we shared a joint in the alley outside the stage door. When I returned to London at the end of the Blues and Gospel Caravan tour (for which I was tour manager), a folk club organizer offered me a slab of hashish at a bargain price. It was far too large for my modest level of consumption, so I rang Hoppy. He jumped in a cab and the three of us rode round a Soho block while Hoppy sniffed and pinched and bargained until the deal was done. I went back to his flat to sample the bounty and a friendship was forged. (Curious to recall our shared assumption that a London cabbie in 1964 wouldn’t have the faintest idea what we were up to…)
From late April until the beginning of August, I rented cheap rooms, or slept on floors and sofas waiting to go back on jazz promoter George Wein’s payroll in Paris on August 1. I made three friends during those first weeks in London: Roy Guest, who was the Caravan’s liaison for the British promoter; Nigel Waymouth, a blues fan who came backstage at that same Hammersmith Odeon concert; and Hoppy. My entire life in London since then can be traced to the headwaters of those three encounters: Roy introduced me to the folk scene and all of his musical friends, Nigel turned out to be brilliant artist and designer who started Granny Takes A Trip and designed the UFO posters and Hoppy turned out to be… well, Hoppy.
That summer, he was living in a large flat on Westbourne Terrace; Paddington was unfashionable then and the rent was nothing. For a month or so, I slept on his sofa, watched, followed and learned: back-doubles around London, the best curries, the best fry-ups, how to develop and print black and white film, how to talk to girls, how to listen to the Ayler Brothers, how to roll a British joint. Hoppy was always up for it, always full of energy, always positive, always searching, questioning. And it was no free-ride; I was expected to run errands, drop off film, make excuses to stood-up girls… When I ran out of money, he loaned me £10, a large sum in those days.
My first attempt at pay-back came in September when I got him a press pass to the Berlin Jazz Festival. He took fantastic photos (many still for sale, or viewable in From The Hip) of Miles, Roland Kirk, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Clarke… I got him another pass to the Newport Jazz Festival in July ’65, where he told me about the big poetry reading at the Albert Hall he’d helped organize a few weeks earlier. I didn’t grasp its significance until I moved back to London in November. I rang Hoppy as soon as I arrived and he invited me to a meeting of the London Free School the following night. Everything seemed to have changed; Hoppy was no longer taking pictures, he was organizing. Leaflets were printed, a hall was rented, West London locals – Trinidadians, Irish, Ukrainians, students on the dole – were targeted as beneficiaries. The idea was to share our privileged knowledge with the disenfranchised – a theme that would run throughout Hoppy’s life.
The next two years are a vivid blur: Pink Floyd gigs to raise money, the IT launch at the Roundhouse, the UFO Club every Friday in an Irish dance hall in Tottenham Court Rd, the Technicolor Dream, borrowing a 16mm projector every Friday from Yoko Ono and returning it through a door left open to the street each Saturday dawn, police busting people in the queue, getting advice from Michael X about how to confront authority…. I’m not sure how I discovered that Hoppy was a terrific blues pianist, but he performed expertly when I hired him for Incredible String Band and Purple Gang recording sessions. (The Mad Hatter’s Song and Bootleg Whiskey, respectively.)
When Hoppy went down in June, the air went out of everything. We were already under siege – what had been a colourful psychedelic sidebar to “Swinging London” in the autumn of ‘66, had become a threat to the stability of society by the spring of ‘67, as the Beatles told of taking acid and then released LSD’s slickest advert, Sgt Pepper; the police colluded with the News of the World to bust the Stones. By the time Hoppy was released in January, our world had changed out of all recognition. I was busy in the studio and the “underground” was completely fragmented. Hoppy went into what he later confessed was his ‘Maoist’ period, sometimes even provoking factionalism rather than healing it. The warmth never went from our encounters, but throughout the 70s and 80s, they were sparse.
In the ‘90s and ‘00ies, I saw more of him; I found there were things I could do for him – help him move a couple of times, for example. He ended up in a great 3-room ‘sheltered accommodation’ in Islington, with a garden at the back. I would sometimes explain to American friends why I can’t imagine living in the US; would someone like Hoppy, who had been so central to the culture but who never profited from his efforts, have been taken care of that way in America? (Will Britain still be like that if the Tories win in May…?)
As his health deteriorated, I saw more and more of him. In the hospital a few days before he died, though his mouth was unable to form words, his good eye was wide and alert as I talked of how he’d changed my life and changed the life of this country. He moved his head up and down; for all his gentle humility, Hoppy knew who he was and what he’d accomplished.
Note: there is an event in commemoration of Hoppy’s life on Feb 27. If any of you are seriously keen to go, email my website and if there still seems to be room, I’ll let you know where and when.