Promoter/producer/club owner Joe Boyd, with his production company Witchseason, introduced the world to some enduring artists in its time (1967-70): Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan. He also produced Pink Floyd’s first single and co-founded the great psychedelic rock club, UFO. After reshaping the UK’s musical landscape, Witchseason folded up shop after three years. Richie Unterberger revisits the legacy of Boyd through the words of those who were there at the time: Mike Heron, Iain Matthews, engineer John Wood, and Boyd himself.
“I’ve always wanted to take basic blues and folk music and cram it down people’s throats,” declared Joe Boyd in the March 7, 1970 issue of the UK Record Retailer. The British folk-rock he helmed as head of Witchseason Productions might have owed more to folk than blues, and eased its way into the collective public consciousness with far more grace than a shove down the throat. But few figures have done so much to cultivate and promote a major branch of roots-based music with as much success, and in as little time, as Boyd did in just three years or so with Witchseason.
Boyd started Witchseason in partnership with singer Tod Lloyd for just £6000 in 1967. By the time of Record Retailer’s feature, Witchseason was overseeing the production and management of an astonishing roster of British folk-rock heavyweights. Fairport Convention was the best folk-rock band in all of Britain (and, some would argue, the world); the Incredible String Band mixed all kinds of folk with hippie psychedelia; and Nick Drake was, again arguably, the finest young folk-rock singer-songwriter in the country.
He’d also found time to produce the Incredible String Band’s 1966 debut LP; co-found London’s premier psychedelic rock club, the UFO; and produce Pink Floyd’s first single.
Also with Witchseason were John and Beverley Martyn, and quirkier acts never destined to find a wide audience, such as Dr. Strangely Strange (a rough Irish equivalent to the Incredible String Band) and wispy singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan. Nick Drake never sold in quantity either while he was alive, but Witchseason had its share of commercial success. Fairport Convention had cracked the Top Twenty UK album charts a couple times, and Sandy Denny’s just-post-Fairport outfit, Fotheringay, would do likewise with its sole LP. The Incredible String Band had even got to #5 with their 1968 album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.
“Koeepaddi There”, the opening track on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter:
There aren’t many other companies in rock history that have operated so extensively in one style in both production and management, as well as publishing via Witchseason’s Warlock Music. Yet by the end of 1970, its “Season of the Witch,” the Donovan song that had given the enterprise its name, was ending. None of the acts would enjoy comparable commercial or artistic success after Boyd sold Witchseason to Island, and neither would the entire British folk-rock scene. How could such an unconventional umbrella have sprung and folded up so quickly?
The Roots of Witchseason
While it might have seemed like Witchseason’s empire of sorts came from left field, in fact Boyd was also quite seasoned, as you might put it, in the British scene before the company even existed. He discusses Witchseason in some detail in White Bicycles, but it doesn’t even enter the story until page 171, more than halfway through the 275-page book. By spring-summer ‘67 he’d already been a production and tour manager for European jaunts by Muddy Waters, Coleman Hawkins, and Stan Getz; worked as stage manager for Bob Dylan’s legendary electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; and run the London office of Elektra Records.
He’d also found time to produce the Incredible String Band’s 1966 debut LP; co-found London’s premier psychedelic rock club, the UFO; and produce Pink Floyd’s first single. Putting production, management, and publishing under one tent might have seemed too full a plate, but Boyd was used to multi-tasking.
And as an American based in London, his semi-outsider status might have worked to his advantage. Like some other Americans who made an impact on the British rock scene—such as producer Shel Talmy, famous for his work with the early Who, Kinks, and Pentangle—Boyd wasn’t inhibited by expectations of how things should or shouldn’t work overseas. With extraordinary self-motivation, he helped make things happen that not only didn’t conform to unwritten rules, but had never yet happened at all.
Yet for all his status as perhaps the most important non-musician of British folk-rock, that wasn’t quite Boyd’s goal when he moved to London in late 1965 to work for Elektra. British rock was getting harder, louder, and freakier, and he wanted to be part of it. He helped put together a quasi-supergroup with Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood, Jack Bruce, and Paul Jones, the Powerhouse, to record a few tracks for the 1966 Elektra compilation What’s Shakin’.
“Cross Roads” from the album What’s Shakin’ (1966):
Elektra chief Jac Holzman, however, wanted Boyd to focus on promoting the label’s artists, such as Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Tom Rush, and Paul Butterfield, in England. Joe wanted Elektra to sign up-and-coming British rock acts like the Move who had little relation to the folk and blues that were Elektra’s pre-Doors strong suits. That led to a parting of ways not long afterward since, as Boyd told me in a 2000 interview, “I think Holzman was nervous about a young, inexperienced person 3000 miles from home acting like a loose-cannon A&R man.” But by then Boyd had gained production experience with an act he did manage to get on Elektra, the Incredible String Band.
“When we met Joe in ‘66, he had recently decided that he wanted to be a record producer,” remembers Mike Heron, who with Robin Williamson would comprise the core duo of Incredible String Band’s shifting lineups. “It followed that when we played him our folk club set, his first thought was of recording us. The management part didn’t really get going till Witchseason was formed in ‘67. However, Joe did have the idea that we could develop into a concert hall act, appealing to the emerging hippy audience. He sent the live set tape to Jac Holzman at Elektra, and it all took off from there. The speed was astonishing—helped, I think, by ‘right place right time.’”
“My intention was always to produce records,” explains Boyd now. “But from the start with the ISB, I realized that the kind of music that interested me was rarely easy to categorize. If the ISB had continued as they began, they never would have played outside the Scottish circuit. If their records were going to sell, I had to get them on bills opening for Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane.” So as for combining production and management, “I accepted it as a necessary burden. When as managers, we realized that few agencies understood how to book our artists, we had to start an agency. Publishing of course, is a different story—if I had focused more on publishing, I would have a far easier life in my old age!”
In retrospect, the Incredible String Band might seem an ideal group with whom Boyd could enter record production—grounded in the folk and blues he loved, yet determined to take it in more idiosyncratic, even experimental-underground directions. But it wasn’t at all what he had in mind for an overall aesthetic as he began building a career as producer and, then, manager/publisher at Witchseason.
“Obviously I would have liked to form Witchseason Productions in order to record the Pink Floyd, which wasn’t a particularly folky band,” Boyd told me in 2000. “I would have been very happy to produce the Pink Floyd, Cream, the Soft Machine, the Move, and Arthur Brown. All those were people that I had worked with — and T. Rex, for that matter — at various times, at various sessions. I didn’t have prejudice against that.
“But I think that maybe two things that sort of helped steer my work in a certain direction. One is that maybe my background, inclination, and taste were maybe better suited to recording people who had a bit of an eye on the folk element. Just in terms of having the right instincts, as opposed to being a Phil Spector or something, who had an instinct for teenagers hanging out on the street corner in working-class districts of urban centers. My instincts were probably more in the ground what my background had been, in terms of listening as I grew up.
“Also there may have been elements of, dare I say it, class, in the sense that I probably was better suited to working with reasonably educated, middle-class people than street kids that in a way responded better to somebody who was used to working with them, and who came from the same milieu. I wasn’t Mickie Most [producer of British stars like the Animals, Donovan, Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, and the Jeff Beck Group]. I wasn’t some of the wild boys that were in the London scene at that time. Not everybody was like that, but I wasn’t an Andrew Oldham.
“They were characters that just had things in terms of a way of dealing with people that I might never have. And it may have been, simply, that the chemistry worked better with the likes of a bunch of kids from Muswell Hill [the area of London in which Fairport were formed], or a Nick Drake, who went to Marlborough [the British equivalent of an elite US prep school]. I come from Princeton, New Jersey, went to Harvard, and I’m just a middle-class guy.”
By May 25, 1968, Witchseason was able to place an ad in Billboard advertising its “independent production and personal management,” listing as clients the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake (more than a year before his debut album), and obscure South African jazzers the Chris McGregor Group. “The management side was formed to make sure my recording artists are provided with the proper setting for public performances,” Boyd told Record Retailer in early 1970 (though, as it turned out, Drake would seldom play live). “And I do like to be totally involved with the artists I record.”
But, as he acknowledged in the same article, “I still think of myself primarily as a record producer. That’s mainly what I’m interested in.” And it was as a producer, rather than a manager or publisher, that he’d make his biggest mark, proving vital in the formation of the first (Donovan’s classics excepted) distinctively British brand of folk-rock. It might be going too far to claim his productions had a house or trademark sound in the way that, say, Phil Spector’s or pioneering early-’60s British independent producer Joe Meek did. But a certain consistency of quality and clarity was ensured by often using the same studio, Sound Techniques in London, and the same engineer, John Wood. Too, some of the musicians in the bands Witchseason produced/managed sometimes guested on each other’s records.
Witchseason in the Studio
“If there is one thing you can pin, one thing that actually does make Witchseason’s productions…records that Joe does, or certainly records that I’ve done with him…that distinguishes him is the ability, or the division one status, of the musicians we’ve worked with over the years,” Wood told me in a 2002 interview. “I do think that is an important component of the records we’ve made. And it has also meant that there are very few records that Joe and I have ever made together which have any gimmickry or trickery on them. Because the object has always been to make sure the music speaks for itself.” He wasn’t so sure Sound Techniques itself laid a big imprint on the sound, though he noted, as heard on some of Drake’s tracks, “I never worked anywhere else where I could get such a good string sound from such a small section. That was a sort of slight quirk of the room.”
Added Wood, “Nearly all the records that I ever did for Witchseason, everybody knew pretty much what they were going to do before they did it. The Incredible String Band, maybe, would be an exception. They evolved a lot in the studio. But most of Fairport’s records never evolved in the studio, really. They pretty much knew what they were going to do before they did it. They might have tried a few things. But ‘Sailor’s Life’ [an epic rocked-up traditional folk tune from their third album, 1969’s Unhalfbricking], for instance, they knew exactly what they were going to do, and did it in one take.”
Observes Mike Heron, “When Joe got into his stride as a producer, he found John Wood’s ideas about recording and sound generally so close to his own that the two of them became a team quite quickly. Working at Sound Techniques together they became a much loved double act for us and the other Witchseason artists. They captured the largely acoustic instruments sounds on the ISB first album, and embraced with enthusiasm the more experimental ideas Robin and I had on the following String Band albums.”
Heron’s then-partner Rose Simpson, who joined the ISB for a few years in the late ‘60s, sees Boyd’s greatest pluses as “real love and understanding of music, fine ear, vast knowledge, able to meet musicians on their own ground without falling under their spell, feeling for the spirit of the times, flexibility but determination to achieve his own vision and toughness to do so.
“Joe and his production team were so interested and enthusiastic about their artists and always eager to hear new stuff. Joe was delighted if someone was popular and made money, but it wasn’t his primary motivation any more than ours, so there was no pressure to repeat a successful formula. His own wide musical interests encouraged those of his artists, and he chose people to work with who shared his own laid-back attitudes and diverse interests.”
I asked Boyd what different directions he was trying to explore in the studio with Witchseason acts in our 2000 interview. “I wasn’t really consciously trying to explore different paths with different musicians,” he replied. “I was just responding in the studio to how to get down, on tape, the music that these people were playing. Obviously, I would respond, I was a good sounding board for them. But I wasn’t consciously trying to say, well, you guys represent this strand and I’m going to steer you that way, and you guys represent this strand and I’m going to steer you in this direction. I was really just responding, recording session by recording session, to the material that we were recording, and making suggestions that I thought was appropriate to the music.
Added Joe, “The Incredible String Band wasn’t really influenced by very much. They were pretty unique to themselves. Fairport, obviously, were much more influenced by people like the Youngbloods, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and all that kind of thing in their earlier period. With [their fourth album, 1969’s Liege and Lief], which is such a strand by itself, they were hugely influenced by [the Band’s] Big Pink. They felt they wanted to do something as English as that was American. And they also wanted to get the same snare drum sound.” In our more recent interview for this story, he elaborated, “One key to that record’s impact was the fact Fairport didn’t have a ‘rock’ drummer. [Dave] Mattacks came from the world of dance bands and he played those ‘folk’ beats with brilliant originality.”
With Nick Drake, “As a producer, I was certainly very influenced by the first Leonard Cohen record. I was very impressed with that, I thought that was a really beautifully produced record. The voices on ‘Poor Boy’ are definitely a nod, a tip of the hat, in the direction of ‘So Long, Marianne.’”
While it also might be going too far to say Witchseason fostered a family-like atmosphere that helped bring out the best in its acts in the studio and on the road, Heron agrees “there was a camaraderie among us. Certainly all the Witchseason artists loved dropping in to the office. It was right in the middle of Soho—Italian cafes, Chinese food and guitar shops. An ideal musicians hang-out spot. The ISB were often paired on gigs with Fairport and were close at the time. But then as far as I recall things were pretty chummy between all of us in the Witchseason stable.”
Managing at Witchseason
This doesn’t mean Boyd didn’t have his share of unexpected odd situations to navigate, or even crises to weather. Fairport Convention were involved in a serious road accident in 1969 that cost drummer Martin Lamble’s life, and almost broke up the band. The Incredible String Band, originally a trio, nearly dissolved almost as fast as it had formed when co-founding member Clive Palmer left after the first LP was recorded and Robin Williamson took off for Morocco, though he’d reunite with Heron a few months later. Boyd’s written about his shock and, to some degree, dismay when the Incredible String Band, now including Williamson and Heron’s girlfriends Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson, became Scientologists at the end of the ‘60s.
Possibly no one else would have had the patience to produce even one album with such an artist, let alone a couple, such was Boyd’s belief in Drake even in the face of low sales and oft-indifferent reviews.
Some of the personal lives of Joe’s charges could get yet more difficult. John and Beverley Martyn’s promising career as a duo terminated when, as documented in Beverley’s memoir Sweet Honesty, their stormy relationship left no room for her to share the stage or studio with an increasingly abusive husband. More famously (though not so well known at the time), Drake was so reclusive, withdrawn, and reluctant to promote himself with concerts and interviews that it seems a miracle he managed a recording career at all. Possibly no one else would have had the patience to produce even one album with such an artist, let alone a couple, such was Boyd’s belief in Drake even in the face of low sales and oft-indifferent reviews.
As for the adaptability needed to manage and produce acts that underwent unexpected changes, says Rose Simpson, “I don’t think it was his greatest strength as far as ISB went for sure. But maybe that was because ISB lost what he valued originally and he recognized that they could not maintain the same creative powers as music changed around them and we changed amongst ourselves. Perhaps less true of Fairport where the personnel changes didn’t drastically change the nature of their music and performances.”
Boyd was indeed adept at going with the flow as Fairport shifted from Californian-influenced folk-rock to a more traditional British folk-oriented repertoire. But he wasn’t so sentimental that he’d step in to keep members in Witchseason’s orbit as the band evolved. Not long after he’d generously bought original Fairport woman vocalist Judy Dyble an electric autoharp (as heard on their debut LP, the sole Fairport album with the Dyble lineup), she was fired, replaced by Sandy Denny. Boyd, she told me in 2006, was nonetheless “always very kind to me, and if, as he says in White Bicycles, he would rather I had not been part of the band, he never let me become aware of that.”
When Iain Matthews, who’d come into the group shortly before Fairport’s first album as their main male singer, was let go less than a year later, Boyd himself had to deliver the news. As Matthews tells it in his recent memoir Thro’ My Eyes, Boyd informed Iain, “The band have asked me to tell you that they want you to leave.” Wrote Matthews, “Deep down I loved being in the band and in my naiveté when Joe said leave, I presumed he meant soon. It never occurred to me that I was expected to leave immediately, within the hour.”
“Joe was both a visionary and a businessman,” Matthews recently told me. “He had a ruthless side and was more than willing to be the axe man. But aren’t all good leaders that way. I have nothing but positive things to say about Joe these days. He opened doors for me that few others could have.”
It should also be noted that for all its positives, Witchseason wasn’t the ideal home for everyone. As a bandleader and solo artist, Iain went on to considerable success in the early 1970s, scoring a #1 UK hit (and substantial US one) with Matthews Southern Comfort’s superb cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”
By that time he was managed by a much different team, Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, songwriters most famous for penning unabashedly pop hits for British groups the Honeycombs (“Have I the Right”) and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (“The Legend of Xanadu”).
“When I met Ken and Alan they were at a crossroads,” says Matthews. “They had done the pop thing to great success and wanted to see [if] all they knew could apply to something more subtle and underground. They were looking to widen their image and saw me as the perfect vehicle. It was a very different relationship than the one Joe and I had. I got to know Joe far better in later years. Ken and Alan were hands on and more personal from the get-go. Plus, I was no longer simply a singer in a band. I was a solo artist, and that changes things.” Howard and Blaikley’s company, Axel, “had far less going on than Witchseason, so I quickly became a bigger fish. They also had great connections and dare I say, a sharper edge when it came to deal making.”
Witchseason as Mentor
But if the dismissal of Matthews might have shown Boyd’s ruthless side, he could also be more open and generous with young hopefuls than almost anyone in a comparable position, back then or today. In Andrew Greig and Mike Heron’s double memoir You Know What You Could Be: Tuning into the 1960s, Greig writes about his barely-up-and-running Scottish teenage band Fate & Ferret showing up at Witchseason in hopes of getting a deal. They weren’t successful, but their path to Witchseason, and Boyd’s openness to hearing them out, says much about the company’s relatively unconventional way of doing business.
In August 1968, Greig explains when interviewed for this story, “it was thrilling but not implausible to be able to go backstage to meet the Incredible String Band. It was in tune with the spirit of the time. The ISB were particularly inclusive and open to meeting and spending time with their audience. This attitude was also a feature of the egalitarian folk scene, from which they had emerged. And it was wired into Witchseason. Open ears, open eyes, open mind: that is how it was to us and for us, two provincial schoolboys who had begun writing our own songs.”
After gaining backstage access to the Incredibles at an Edinburgh concert, “We talked with Robin, Rose and Likky. Said we had some tapes and drawings we wanted to send them by way of thanks for everything they had given us. Rose pointed out their tour manager, Anthea Joseph, for us the crucial contact at Witchseason. Anthea shared the attitude of openness to experience. It was Anthea who decided George [Boyter] and I (Fate & ferret) were ok, wrote down the Witchseason address, suggested we sent Joe our tape, and also send anything for the ISB there.
“So we did. Through her we arranged to come by when we traveled by fish lorry to London from Fife, Scotland. It was a small (two rooms, I think) office. A few posters on the wall, records lying about. One young woman on the phone. Joe in the inner sanctum. Then Anthea appeared, welcomed us, said to stay around till Joe could see us. Some twenty minutes later, he called us in. To us he seemed very grown up, though he was in his late twenties. We noted long hair and cowboy boots. He was both friendly and reserved. He was a watcher and listener – ideal qualities for a record producer!”
As Greig admits, “Our taped songs were pretty rough. Instead of overdubs we would hit Pause, change instruments if required, then hit Record again. A Grundig [recorder], done in George’s bedroom. Joe had struggled to find a deck that ran slowly enough, but he did listen. Said he liked the funny one. Said we should play more gigs, write more songs. Said if we sent new material, he would listen. He asked to keep the song lyrics and daft stories we had written for and about the ISB. The next time we saw the ISB in Edinburgh – now in the grandeur of the Usher Hall – we were astonished to open the program and see our stories and George’s drawings spread across it. That’s how it worked: informally.”
So they did get something out of their visit, though not the recording contract that might have been their ultimate goal. “We came by Witchseason three or four times, sending new tapes in advance. On one excruciating occasion, Joe listened to our tape while we were there. We sounded terrible.”
Many and maybe most company chiefs would have insisted the band leave without coming back at this point, but Boyd did much the opposite. “He said he was having a recording session with Fairport Convention that night, we could come along if we wanted,” Greig continues. “We did. John Wood was engineering. He and Joe clearly had a close, trusting working relationship. The Fairports were drunk and friendly.
“Various musicians came through the office when we were there. We spent time with John Martyn – the nephew of our gym teacher! – who was about to record with Joe. Also his then wife, Beverley. And Dr. Strangely Strange, a Dublin-based psych/rock/baroque/folk band. Nick Drake passed through, eyes fixed on his feet. We were able to hang around at length, leave guitars and rucksacks etc.
“Perhaps only in the early days of punk was such informality possible,” he reflects. “Basically we were teenaged nobodies, just very keen and very excited. We just wanted to make great records like our heroes. Money didn’t really come into it. The kindness and openness given to us at Witchseason, by the ISB and musicians we met, was extraordinary and of its time. Maybe Joe thought there was a possibility we would amount to something. As it happens, George Boyter co-founded the Headboys some six years later, was signed by Robert Stigwood Organisation, made two LPs, four singles, toured UK and Europe, then broke up in a welter of litigation. I became a writer and that has been my work ever since.”
The Incredible String Band As Inspiration
The tale of Greig’s young duo also illustrates the considerable influence the Incredible String Band wielded in the British Isles. Although it’s largely overlooked by modern-day historians, a number of recording acts from the UK and Ireland emulated the ISB to some extent, Dr. Strangely Strange being just one of the better known of these.
“Yes, we were aware of it and sometimes irritated by what seemed closer to imitation than influence,” says Simpson. “I can’t identify right now the most significant things, apart from the obvious ones of instrumentation and openness to all world musical influences. Perhaps also the willingness to try anything, acknowledge creativity in many forms, the refusal to aim for commercial success and mass popularity, but do what we believed in at the time and do it with all the truthfulness we could manage.”
In Boyd’s estimation, “Many artists were influenced by them. McCartney said that Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was his ‘album of the year,’ the Stones were clearly influenced by them on Satanic Majesties, and many more claim influence or show symptoms of it. Green Gartside, for example, approached me to ask if he could take part in an ISB tribute—to my astonishment. He said the teenage earring that got him expelled from the family home in Wales was inspired by Robin W’s.
“Mike and Robin were brilliant songwriters and the atmosphere of the time, when styles were just starting to take shape and rub up against each other, was conducive to the adventurous atmosphere of those records. Edinburgh in the early ‘60s (as Mike’s book shows) was a very fertile place, full of drugs, travel, adventure, exoticism. Mike and Robin soaked that in and propelled it forward.
“Today, reverence for the Beatles usually leaves out the awkward ‘Oriental’ or ‘Maharishi’ period—you don’t see many photos of the Fab Four in India. Same problem with the ISB—their image from the ‘60s (plus later Scientology phase) bruised their memory. They don’t represent the ‘Sixties’ the way our current nostalgia likes to imagine it—nowhere near as hip as the Velvets’ version of that decade.”
Witchseason as Publisher
One of Boyd’s less celebrated skills was his ear for good material, especially for a band like Fairport, who mixed roughly even amounts of originals and covers on the albums he produced. He gave them access to his extensive record collection, as well as acetates of songs by Joni Mitchell (who then had yet to release anything on vinyl), to cherry-pick for suitably obscure quality cover material. “Joe had a direct line to her publishing demos and supplied us with whatever we could handle,” Matthews confirmed when I interviewed him for my book Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock’s Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock.
That in turn might have fostered Witchseason’s least celebrated wing, Warlock Music. Boyd was aware of music publishing’s value, not just through original material on his own acts’ records, but also through covers of his clients’ songs by other artists. The biggest success in that regard was probably Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” which became the title track of Judy Collins’s hit 1968 album; according to Matthews, “I’m sure the Joe pipeline was how Sandy got ‘Who Knows” to Judy Collins.”
Artist development, publishing, and cross-promotion of the Witchseason stable all came together in the rarest and most valuable disc associated with the label. In July 1970, Boyd hired Elton John, then just on the verge of breaking through as a solo artist, to sing compositions by several songwriters signed to Warlock, including Nick Drake, Beverley Martyn, and John Martyn. These were placed on a publishing demo titled Warlock Sampler, which also features Linda Thompson, then known as Linda Peters, singing a few tunes by Mike Heron and obscure American bassist Ed Carter, who was part of a Boyd-signed band, the New Nadir, who never issued anything while active. It’s been reported that only a hundred copies were pressed, and only a half dozen survive.
Everyone involved in the sampler as a writer or performer was or would become well known, with the exception of Carter, whose inclusion in this distinguished company always intrigued me. Boyd recently filled me in on the back story: “Ed Carter and Mike Kowalski were Beach Boys sidemen who fell for London (and at least one of its girls) and decided to stay. They were great guys, excellent session men who had one great song—‘I Don’t Mind’ [which was included on the Warlock Sampler, sung by Thompson, with piano and backup vocals by Elton John]. I liked the idea of recording them, but the album we started lacked material as strong as that song, so it was never finished. Mike, I think, is still married to the English girl and they live in L.A.”
From the Warlock Sampler:
The New Nadir’s version can now be heard on the companion compilation to Boyd’s White Bicycles book. Notes Joe, “When I included that track on the White Bicycles sampler CD, I got an email from the daughter of Gerald Wilson, a great California jazz composer/arranger, pointing out the similarities of ‘I Don’t Mind’ and one of her late father’s compositions. So perhaps lucky it was never a hit and we’d ended up in a ‘My Sweet Lord’-type of court case.”
As Thompson would soon rise to fame in a duo with future husband Richard, this could be seen as Witchseason breeding up-and-coming talent by giving her a chance to gain studio experience with a non-commercial release, at the same time promoting songwriters in his stable. According to Linda, however, “In the case of me singing on demos, it was nepotism. I was his girlfriend. I was nervous, got drunk and took tons of Valium, so I wasn’t happy with those recordings. Joe was trying to get the songs to more commercial artists. I don’t think it worked.” What’s more, hardly any songs whatsoever by the most famous of the composers, Nick Drake, were covered in his lifetime.
The Warlock Sampler might not have been as successful as intended, but 1970 still seemed to find Witchseason at a peak. Fairport Convention had two UK top twenty LPs; Fotheringay’s self-titled debut did likewise. Fairport were starting to tour the US, where the Incredible String Band had already started to gain an underground following with tours, even as their albums languished in the lower rungs of the Top 200. Recorded in 1970, Nick Drake’s Bryter Later barely sold anything upon its initial release, but couldn’t have come out any better artistically as far as Boyd was concerned. “It’s one of those albums that I can listen to without ever thinking ‘I should have done this better,’” he proudly told me a quarter-century after it was issued. “I enjoy it every time I hear it.”
Yet at the end of 1970, Boyd had not only sold Witchseason, but was getting ready to leave England altogether. What happened?
Witchseason Winds Down
While difficulties with temperamental artists are part of a day’s work for producers and managers, there were a couple of unusually demanding situations that had taken their toll on Boyd that year. Although Fotheringay’s album had been a qualified artistic and commercial success, Boyd admitted in his 1996 interview with me that “I wasn’t too fond of Fotheringay as a band. I felt they had strengths and weaknesses.” Fotheringay guitarist Jerry Donahue never felt Boyd had his heart in the group, telling me in an interview for Eight Miles High, “he was usually reading a newspaper with feet on the desk.”
Amplified Boyd in Mick Houghton’s excellent I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny, “There’s a general view that I was so against Fotheringay and why was I undermining them on every occasion, and I was.” Added the producer, “Fotheringay was like Greece, it was unsustainable and Sandy was the European bank…[they] spent more time on the beach than working on new songs.”
Denny left Fotheringay to go solo, in part because she was under the impression Boyd would produce her, an arrangement that failed to materialize after Joe sold Witchseason and moved to Los Angeles to work for Warner Brothers. To Boyd’s recollection, he intended to take a break from his Warners job to produce it. Denny’s interpretation seemed to be that Joe was abandoning her.
“I do wonder what could have happened if I had stayed in London and produced the definitive Sandy Denny solo album,” he muses. “Or figured out how to make Nick [Drake] known while he was alive.”
On another front, Boyd had already been losing some of his enthusiasm for the Incredible String Band’s music after their conversion to Scientology. He got more aggravated when they launched a collaboration with performance ensemble Stone Monkey for a confusing multimedia theatrical production in conjunction with their double LP U. Although U was actually a quite interesting and at times stimulating album, the show was poorly reviewed and stripped down, and then discontinued, after the group ran out of money.
“I can only hear it still as part of a production I didn’t enjoy and which I felt had too many faults to last beyond the short time of its performances,” says Rose Simpson. “I can see there are some good tracks and that it is eclectic, but many of them are contrived repetitive, derivative, pastiches of earlier ISB and just don’t have that ‘straight from the heart’ genuineness and originality that I value in Mike and Robin’s music. The whole social experience of the collaboration with Stone Monkey did, I think, undermine ISB’s tenuous unity and the influences of Scientology are only too obvious in the production itself and some of the tracks.
“Witchseason was not enthusiastic about it. Like me, they generally regarded it as an unwelcome diversion from what made ISB powerful. The delight in the amateur and unschooled, which was good and important in the context of Heron and Williamson’s musical talents, didn’t work on that scale of production. Williamson would probably not have accepted any sort of Director but now even Stone Monkey people recognize how much one was needed. Williamson’s stronger personality carried the day despite others’ doubts, but there was no unity of intent and therefore some lack of commitment from many of us involved. We made no attempt to plan the project, and only perfunctory rehearsals for performances or music. All was ad hoc and still feels scrappy and insecure to me. What could be charming in the spontaneity of performance was irritating on that scale, and just confusing and strange for many audiences who expected an ISB concert.”
“They wanted to take their new creation on tour, but I was unsure,” Boyd wrote in a 1997 article for The Guardian. “With a cast of ten dancers and musicians, plus sets and costumes, it was going to be an expensive show to take on the road. Many of the songs had meanings even more obscure than those of their opaque masterpieces in the past.
“Promoters who had earlier been happy to book the ISB were dubious about U. Guarantees were reduced, the group was financially at risk everywhere, and audiences began to level off. Poor reviews and responses to U’s first few performances made me beg them to call off the rest of the tour and rebuild ISB. They would hear none of it. Their confidence was impossible to dent—they were sure U would work. It didn’t, and we lost a great deal of money. The saga of U helped me decide what to do next: I sold my production company and moved away from London.”
“Basically, financially, Witchseason overreached themselves,” John Wood told me. “To some extent, it was probably by overindulging artists. I never saw any sort of time limits or budgetary control on records, really. They were also touring bands and publishing. At the end of the day, the financial side of it got out of control. So Island Records took on Witchseason and met its liabilities. Certainly the recording liabilities alone to Sound Techniques were fairly large. Joe was very straightforward and frank about it, and we never had a problem over it.”
In Andrew Greig’s view, “In retrospect, it was unusual and very demanding, the way that Joe and Witchseason combined recording – his core talent – with management and tour managing. By the time of U, he seemed stretched and stressed. The office much busier, Anthea away touring with the Fairports. Nevertheless he took time to take us out for breakfast when we were faint with hunger.”
Even without taking into account the difficulties of combining multiple businesses into one, Witchseason simply might not have been generating as much money as some people assumed, in spite of its British chart records and their catalog’s wealth of positive press coverage. When Boyd was mulling over signing Dr. Strangely Strange, he notes in Adrian Whittaker’s recent biography Dr. Strangely Strange: Fitting Pieces to the Jigsaw (written with Dr. Strangely Strangers Tim Booth, Tim Goulding and Ivan Pawle), “Witchseason’s books were not balancing and my response—which in hindsight was not exactly full of wisdom—was that if Island was giving me a certain amount of money every month, and if I could release more records without spending a lot of money, then one of them might do well and generally help the picture.
“I had the idea that this Irish group that was plowing a similar furrow might build up a big following in Ireland and England and be ISB junior and sell well. The ISB’s sales didn’t come through Witchseason, it was a straight Elektra deal, although I got royalties as producer. So that was part of it.” Linda Thompson summarizes things more succinctly: “Joe had a great talent for picking great artists. The preponderance of them didn’t make a dime, and I should know.”
For more about Dr. Strangely Strange: Fitting Pieces to the Jigsaw Puzzle: https://drstrangelystrange.
The Witchseason Legacy
If not everyone with Witchseason felt abandoned—as, according to some reports, Sandy Denny did—his absence was certainly felt. “Joe’s move to Los Angeles to join Warner Brothers was impactful,” Fairport Convention guitarist Simon Nicol told me in a 2002 interview. “It affected not just the careers of the people that he’d been a father figure to, and a mentor for. He obviously was winding it down when he saw this coming, and perhaps there were a number of artists who were just too late. They missed his bus, you know, they missed his guidance.
“Maybe there would have been more stuff that we could have looked at if he’d carried on for another five years or so. Because basically, his move to Los Angeles wasn’t totally productive for him or for Warners. He managed to keep in touch with the McGarrigles and do things like that, but really not a huge amount, above and beyond that. Certainly not in the UK.
“But life is about change. You have to adapt to these things. You can’t live under somebody’s wings through your whole life. Joe was a fantastic avuncular figure in my early days, and I still really can’t stop but smile when I bump into him nowadays. He didn’t do everything right, he wasn’t saintly. But he certainly enabled things to happen which otherwise would have never been heard of. And that’s a good thing to have said about you.”
For the Incredible String Band, Rose Simpson, who’s just finished her own memoir of the era, agrees that after Boyd left, operating without their former manager/producer became “totally different. His substitutes got personally involved with Mike or Robin, took sides, were unable to maintain necessary detachment, could not manage them as Joe could when necessary, and didn’t have the experience of bands, the knowledge, personal charisma and negotiating power that keeps a band comparatively happy and healthy and together. The touring and performance structure was OK, publishing rights absolutely chaotic, but then that had always got problematic. And maybe, with Scientology in the ascendant, even Joe couldn’t have managed ISB for their advantage. He remained record producer while I was with them, but lost that intimate knowledge of the band’s personalities which had enabled him to bring the best out in both H & W [Heron and Williamson].”
Would a Witchseason be possible today? It’s certainly harder to wear all those hats at once, and not just because of the demands on time and resources. “That type of company rarely happens any more,” points out Matthews. “I know in the USA it quickly became a conflict of interests and unlawful.”
With the enormous changes in the record industry in the last fifty years, is it possible for a company to play such a large role in a particular style of popular music these days, or ever again? “I am sure there are small rap or trance outfits that create huge waves in present-day popular music,” Boyd responds. But he does have a couple of particular regrets as to what Witchseason could have achieved. “I do wonder what could have happened if I had stayed in London and produced the definitive Sandy Denny solo album,” he muses. “Or figured out how to make Nick [Drake] known while he was alive.”
As for Witchseason’s legacy, muses Greig, “I think the key values we saw and heard in the ISB were playfulness, openness and joy. Art as Joy still seems to me a relevant and deeply radical option in our times. Witchseason, Joe’s recordings, made their music last. Likewise Nick Drake. Basically, Joe recorded and backed what he really really liked, and the humaneness and informality (sometimes mild chaos) that Witchseason brought to their relations with musicians known and unknown has real and lasting value and effect.”