This little logo appeared on the sleeve of so many of the albums I listened to from the end of the sixties and the early 70s that it was a kind of quality assurance stamp. Mostly on Island but some on Elektra. This was the symbol of Witchseason Productions, and of Joe Boyd and it played a huge role in the career and development of many artists who are still loved today.
By the time Joe Boyd, born in Massachusetts but raised in New Jersey, settled in London in 1966 he had already established his place in music history. He had promoted tours by leading blues artists in the US and in Europe, bringing new audiences to the likes of Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Initially dismissing Bob Dylan as a flash in the pan, he wandered into a room at a New York party where Dylan was playing the unrecorded ‘Hard Rain’ to friends and was smitten. Becoming a pillar of the folk scene, he embraced Dylan’s rebellious nature and was on the mixing desk when Dylan shocked the audience at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by playing his first electric set.
In his fascinating autobiography White Bicycles, his first impressions of Britain are striking:
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Shuttling back and forth between Britain and America in the sixties provided endless opportunities for comparison and contrast. For a start, the British didn’t seem to own anything. The most poverty-stricken folk singer in Cambridge (Massachusetts) or Greenwich Village had at least a record player and a refrigerator and many drove cars. In England, pilgrimages would be made with a newly purchased LP to the flat of someone with the means to play it. Milk bottles on the window ledge brought hurriedly inside on winter mornings were a reminder that kitchen appliances –and central heating –were rare luxuries
When I started meeting musicians, I noticed other differences between the cultures. Some British art students would form a group, then learn how to play their instruments well enough to perform the songs written by the group’s strongest personality. The results might be technically unsophisticated but were often more original than those of their American counterparts, who were too close to our musical forms to do much more than accurately re-create them. Dylan, always the exception, was almost British in his unconcern with vocal grace or instrumental fluency.
Joe Boyd, White Bicycles
In both America and the UK, the hip music scene was closely interwoven with what was called the Underground – venues, magazines, demonstrations, festivals and, above all, tribal identification. The clothes, the hair and the albums you carried under your arm advertised you as not part of the mainstream. In the US it was more serious and political – after all, they were at war and males in the Underground were resisting being drafted into the army and sent to Viet Nam. In Britain, it was lighter in tone and more about culture. Boyd notes how young men with long hair, earrings and Afghan coats would be standing in the pub sharing pints with their ‘straight’ fathers – something very rare in the polarised US.
Boyd quickly established himself as a father of the Underground scene in London, setting up the venue UFO where the cool bands could play to stoned and tripping audiences. While he partook in all the hedonism available, he was organised, efficient and had an American work ethic. He produced Pink Floyd’s first single Arnold Layne, and narrowly missed signing them and The Move to his new management and production company. It wasn’t long before he found his first rising stars, the Incredible String Band, in Glasgow.
I had been stumped for a name when Donovan released a song called ‘Season Of The Witch’: Beatniks out to make it rich Must be the season of the witch.”
Joe Boyd, White Bicycles
Although the String Band were on Elektra, who supported Boyd’s ambitions, he found his spiritual home with Chris Blackwell, who was turning Island Records from a West Indian calypso and reggae label into a home for the more experimental side of British music.
Soon he had an impressive roster of performers – The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, John and Beverley Martin, Dr Strangely Strange – all earning around £20 a week (£240ish today). Of these, it was Nick Drake who most inspired him, and on whose behalf he worked hardest. Boyd was a champion of artists who seemed to have – indeed who had – little commercial potential. Nick Drake’s albums were an opportunity for him to take the raw material of a brilliant but shy songwriter and package it in imaginative arrangements. They made little impact at the time outside the small London folk-rock scene but the Nick Drake legend has grown steadily and endured till a tribute concert by well known artists can fill a hall.
Island and Boyd were two corners of the Witchseason triangle. The third was studio engineer John Wood, who not only captured the Witchseason artists at their peak but managed the studio experience in a way that challenged them and brought the best out of them.
“In a way I would say that there were three stages to the process. The first stage concerned the relationship with the artist about the music — what were we really doing here? — which was my job. Then came the actual recording, in which John took a stronger role than I did, in terms of the process — we’ll have the guitars here and the drums here, that was all John. And then once the sound was all set up, I got involved again, saying ‘Let’s do it again a little faster,’ or ‘Let’s do it again a little slower,’ or ‘I don’t like the way you’re singing it.’
(Joe Boyd interview)
What was Witchseason really like?
I used to see the Witchseason logo on Fairport and String Band albums and wonder what Witchseason actually was – I imagined a three or four storey white building on a dignified London street, like the Beatles’ Apple, which I’d seen on Let It Be. Andrew Greig, a String Band fan from Fife, took the same curiosity all the way to London, and turned up on Witchseason’s 83 Charlotte Street doorstep to plug his own psychedelic folk band Fate and Ferret. Here are his first impressions and his fleeting encounter with Nick Drake.
The Witchseason office was not notably psychedelic, just a desk and a phone, and a dark-haired young woman sitting behind it. A few assorted seats, a couple of framed posters, others just pinned to the wall. Boxes, papers and some loose records. It did not look like the epicentre of hip London: the ISB and Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd and the UFO Club.
‘We’re Fate and ferret from Pittenweem. We’ve brought our tape for Joe.’
‘You can leave it with me.’
We waited. A tall man in a dark jacket appeared silently from the street, glanced at us once – something vivid in that look – then studied the floor.
‘Just go in, Nick – Joe’s expecting you.’
The long black hair and averted face nodded and shuffled through to the inner sanctum. George and I looked at each other, shrugged. Five minutes later he emerged, raised his head fractionally to glance at us, then scuttled out.
(Andrew Greig and Mike Heron You Know What You Could Be)
As his artists grew in stature and confidence, Joe’s nurturing care was increasingly questioned.
The Incredible String Band’s devotion to Scientology and refusal to listen to my advice, coupled with my arguments with Sandy, the growing recalcitrance of Fairport and Nick’s simple concept for his next album all combined to make me feel that everyone might be happier with me out of the way.
Certainly my involvement with Witchseason artists was intense. Everything was based on the assumption that there would be success – when it became clear that it was headed for more hard slog and meagre rewards, the Witchseason business model fell apart. In retrospect, I might have considered selling to Island but staying on as producer etc. But I was too burnt out to see that clearly and was intrigued by the possibilities of learning about the film business.
(Joe Boyd interview)
In 1970 Boyd returned to the States, where he established the Hannibal label and added to his list of achievements the soundtracks of A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance, and worked with R.E.M., the McGarrigles and 10,000 Maniacs while continuing to work with Richard Thompson and becoming a champion of East European music. Living in London again now, and looking half his age, he continues to speak, write, produce and organise concerts, notably celebrations of Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention.
Joe Boyd productions for Witchseason
( This is only the 1967 – 1971 fraction of his massive list of credits!)
The Power of the True Love Knot (Shirley Collins)
The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (The Incredible String Band)
Rags Reels and Airs (Dave Swarbrick, Martin Carthy & Diz Disley)
“Arnold Layne” / “Candy and a Currant Bun” (single by Pink Floyd)
“Granny Takes a Trip” (single by The Purple Gang – see ‘Further reading’ section)
“She’s Gone”, “I Should’ve Known” recordings for projected single by Soft Machine, June, Sound Techniques, London released on Triple Echo, 1977, Turns On Volume 1 (Voiceprint 2001 CD)
Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (Pink Floyd tracks)
Very Urgent (Chris McGregor)
“If I Had a Ribbon Bow” / “If (Stomp)” (single by Fairport Convention)
“If (Stomp)” / “Chelsea Morning” (single by Fairport Convention)
Fairport Convention (Fairport Convention)
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (The Incredible String Band)
Wee Tam and the Big Huge (The Incredible String Band)
Kalpana – instrumental and dance music of India (various artists)
What We Did On Our Holidays (Fairport Convention)
“Si Tu Dois Partir” / “Genesis Hall” (single by Fairport Convention)
Unhalfbricking (Fairport Convention)
Five Leaves Left (Nick Drake)
Liege & Lief (Fairport Convention)
Kip of the Serenes (Dr. Strangely Strange)
“Big Ted” / “All Writ Down” (single by The Incredible String Band)
Changing Horses (The Incredible String Band)
Just Another Diamond Day (Vashti Bunyan)
Stormbringer! (John and Beverley Martyn)
U (Incredible String Band)
Full House (Fairport Convention)
I Looked Up (The Incredible String Band)
Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending (The Incredible String Band)
Pottery Pie (Geoff and Maria Muldaur)
Brotherhood of Breath (Brotherhood of Breath)
Bryter Layter (Nick Drake)
Smiling Men with Bad Reputations (Mike Heron)
Call Me Diamond / Lady Wonder (single by Mike Heron)
The Road to Ruin (John and Beverley Martyn)
Heavy Petting (Dr. Strangely Strange)
Find out more about Joe Boyd and Witchseason
Boyd’s vivid and amiable autobiography.
You Know What You Could Be
A fan’s-eye glimpse of Witchseason and the world they, their musicians and their audience lived in.
Joe Boyd Interviews
- Sound on Sound 2006 – Boyd talks about the artists he’s produced, John Wood and Nick Drake, and his recording philosophy
- Journal on the Art of Record Production (2007) – concise Q&A