Legendary record producer Joe Boyd has worked with Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairpoint Convention, Sandy Denny and The Incredible String Band. Here he reveals his top five albums of all time to Classic Album Sundays. Joe will be joining us for a very special Nick Drake ‘Bryter Layter’ session for the House of St Barnabas charity on Sunday, 13 October. More info and ticket links can be found here.
Paul Simon – ‘Graceland’
I am known in world music circles as a curmudgeonly anti-fusion person, but to me the whole point is rhythm. If you put an exotic melody or exotic singing over a kind of bland mid-Atlantic track like ‘Giant Leap’ or a lot of Peter Gabriel stuff, that’s just so boring. The way Paul went about it was to go and record African rhythm sections playing real South African rhythms. Then as the musicians were so great, they challenged him to write the best lyrics he’s ever written because he had to come up to the bar they had set on the rhythm tracks. The album isn’t flawless as he himself admits as the thing with Los Lobos and the Cajun thing didn’t really work that well as he was trying to bring accordions together with the South Africans. But I just think as a project it is an extraordinary thing.
I interviewed Paul for the book (for my new book on World Music) and some of the things that came out were so great. For instance, Malcolm McLaren had messed everything up two years earlier by going there and ripping everyone off and behaving kind of boorishly. This made people very resistant and very suspicious. Then they played for a few hours and while Roy Halley was getting the sound, they came in for a playback. After they listened to it everyone was fine from then on as all the musicians were so amazed at how it sounded and how thrilling it was.
I’ve gained knowledge through the research I’ve been doing and discovered that ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ with the male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing and Paul did not know what they were singing about on the subject of this girl. You discover that Paul’s singing admiringly of this girl and these traditional Zulu guys are saying “What’s going wrong with the world when a girl can be so independent?” There is this tension between the New York Upper West Side sensibility and the Natal province South African sensibility. That is my current obsession with ‘Graceland’ and all the implications of it. It is such a complex thing and the music is great.
Lucinda Williams – ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’
It’s funny because when Lucinda Williams was making ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’, I met her in Austin and she had just finished the first version of it which she then threw out to do all over again. At that point she was in this state and she kept calling me in London and sort of telling me what was going on so I feel as if I was kind of following the progress of this record and in a way that album made me move back to New York from London.
I loved living in Europe (I was running Hannibal Records at the time), and I loved the way European musicians deal with their roots, whether it is a Hungarian traditional band or Bulgarian or French or English. However, I couldn’t really imagine that there would be an album with a group of songs written by a contemporary artist that would connect the personal confession story with their own root music as vividly as Lucinda did in that record. She has the ability to write non sequiturs that are just so incredible as they are so perfectly disconnected and connected. My favorite line is on ‘Metal Firecracker’ and she is talking about the end of this relationship and she says, “We’d put on ZZ Top and turn ’em up real loud. I used to think you were strong, I used to think you were proud, I used to think nothing could go wrong. All I ask, don’t tell anybody the secrets I told you”. It’s amazing.
Dinu Lipatti – ‘Final Recital at Besancon’
This is the slightly more arcane end of my choices and one of the first records I absolutely treasured. I still have the very first copy I bought and I now have a digital copy on CD, as well. A music teacher I had as a teenager introduced me to a pianist called Dinu Lipatti who was a Romanian pianist and who to me is still the greatest classical pianist ever. He died of leukemia at the age of 33. He did this concert at a festival called Besancon Festival in France and on the recording he plays Chopin and Bach. It’s the most soulful classical performance (with the possible exception of Maria Callas) that I have ever heard and it’s just heartbreaking, beautiful, incredible stuff.
I have never stopped listening to Dinu Lipatti. I listen to classical music but there’s classical music and there’s Dinu Lipatti. For me it is a separate category.
¡Cubanismo! – ‘¡Cubanismo!’
I thought what the hell, I’ll throw in one of mine because on a number of levels this record was probably the most fun adventure I have ever had making a record. The level of musicianship was the highest I have ever experienced in a studio and my experience after it was released gave me some of my biggest thrills during my time as a producer.
The record started because I used to spend a lot of time in New York in the eighties at my record label Hannibal. We had offices in New York and London (it was the world’s smallest multi-national), and when I was in New York I went to this place called ‘The Gate’ every Monday night because they had this thing called ‘Salsa Meets Jazz’. It was an amazing event as they would book two Latin dance bands like Orchestra Broadway or Conjunta Libre or Eddie Palmieri. They would have these two bands, a dance floor with people dancing and then they would have a guest jazz soloist who would play the last number of each set. There were four sets, two by each band, over the course of the night and during the last number of each set they would be joined by Lester Bowie, David Murray, Fathead Newman and these great jazz guys in New York.
There were some incredible nights and I would go and try to find records that were like what I was hearing. However, there weren’t any because Latin Jazz isn’t like that. Latin Jazz is jazz with a conga drum and a flute and with a kind of Latin decoration on it but it is jazz basically. Latin commercial recordings are very vocal orientated, and very slickly produced for Latin American commercial radio in New York. It is very compressed and very slick productions with very few solos.
So having soloists playing against these fantastic rhythm sections and playing dance music didn’t exist. So I said, “I want to do a record like that.” I tried to do a deal with Conjunto Libre who was really the best of those bands at the time but they just finished making a record with some finance guy with a funny bent nose and a funny Italian name and he wore a camel hair coat without putting his arms in the sleeves to the meeting and I just thought, I’m gonna get in trouble here trying to make a deal with this guy. He wanted fortunes for the record and everything.
So I was still nursing this idea and my friend Lucy Duran who does the world music show for Radio 3 is an expert on world music. She kept driving me to see these Cuban band whenever they came to London and I didn’t really think any of them were as good as the Puerto Rican / Nu Yorican bands I was seeing in New York.
Then I saw this band Sierra Meastra and I thought, well now we’re talking. Sierra Maestra’s lead trumpet player was Jesus Alemany and I thoght this guy is good! When the band went back to Cuba, he stayed behind and married Lucy so I got to know him. One night over dinner I told him about my dream of doing this kind of record and he said, “Well we could do that in Cuba in a minute. I’ll put that together for you.” The next thing I knew I was on my way to Havana and he had set this whole thing up.
By this time Hannibal was owned by Rykodisc and I gave them slight heart attack by going and saying, “Can I have $25,000 please in a suitcase because I’m going to Havana?” They said, “What’s the projection?” and I said, “Well I don’t know! It depends on how it turns out.” This was before Buena Vista Social Club or any of that kind of stuff. So I took the engineer Jerry Boys and we went to Cuba.
The first day I was in Havana I remember walking in apartment building hallway where this group was rehearsing. It was all tiled and the acoustics were incredible and they were packed in like sardines and people could barely move because it was such a small space. I just walked in there and went “This is unbelievably good!” It was like the best rhythm section in Cuba with Tata Guines who is like the father of the conga. There were great soloists on every instrument and we went in the studio and basically made the record in four days.
When we put it out and I didn’t understand that Cubans in America would never play it as the Cuban exiles control all of the Latin radio in America. Because it was a communist record, they would never play it. But then it just magically started to sell and I remember because everyone was really frustrated we couldn’t get reviewed in the Latin press and we couldn’t get played on Latin radio. A few white people in world-music-type places were reviewing it and were talking about it and a few FM radio stations were occasionally playing it. Then it mysteriously started to sell and about two months after it had been released.
It was a June night in New York and I was seeing a friend who was playing at 9th Street and Avenue C and another friend was playing way over in the West Village later that night. On this balmy summer night, I walked from Avenue C to the Hudson River and I swear I heard my record coming out of four or five bars as I walked.
The record is called ¡Cubanismo! and then the band toured as ¡Cubanismo!. They played the New Orleans Jazz Festival and everything like that. I have made records that have been successful, but they’re more successful with nerdy white guys who collect records, the folkies in the specialty corner. But to walk across downtown New York on a summer night and hear your record coming out of bars was like a peak for me.
Swan Silvertones – ‘Saviour Pass Me Not’
The fifth in my personal taste is the greatest LP ever made and you have triggered something. It has been a source of great angst for me that somewhere along the line I lost my copy of this record. My brother has a copy and I taped his copy so I have it on a cassette. Yesterday I went online and have now invested $180 in buying a copy of this record. It is pristine and still in it’s shrink wrap and I found it on some obscure website.
The record actually ties back to ‘Graceland’ because it’s a taste that I share with Paul Simon. He has always been obsessed with American Gospel music and his ‘Loves Me Like a Rock’ song features the Dixie Hummingbirds. He added the high voice of Claude Jeter who was the falsetto singer of the Swan Silver Tones which many aficionados agree is the greatest of the gospel quartets. They made a lot of records over the years and some of their LPs have unbelievable tracks.
On this particular day in 1962 while recording for VJ in Chicago, they went into a studio and nobody put any effects on it and the sound and the mood and everything came together and it’s an unbelievable record. I could sit and listen to that record over and over again as it’s just an incredible record. That is my greatest record of all time.
Classic Album Sundays will be hosting a special event with Joe Boyd at The House of St Barnabas celebrating Nick Drakes “Bryter Layter”. We will be having a Q&A session with Joe as he discusses the making of the album, then we will be listening to the album in full on our audiophile hi-fi system.
For more info and tickets: http://www.wegottickets.com/event/238393