Towards the end of the swinging 60s, Joe Boyd and John “Hoppy” Hopkins opened the iconic UFO Club in the basement of 31 Tottenham Court Road, London. “The first night of UFO, the crowd was good, but not massive,” Boyd tells us below. “Everyone stared at everyone else, amazed there were so many freaks like them.” From that night forth, the UFO Club became the hub of activity for burgeoning London artists, especially those who did things a little differently.
Jimi Hendrix played there, Yoko Ono showed her avant-garde art there, and Pink Floyd – a house band at the time – went from being part of the furniture, to the being the fabric of a new emerging sound. Boyd, an American producer who had worked on tours for the likes of Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan, saw something special in the group. He recorded Pink Floyd’s debut single, Arnold Layne, along with the recordings of other UFO regulars, Soft Machine. (His expansive and colourful career lead him to work with Nick Drake, collaborate with Stanley Kubrick on the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange, and produce feature films.)
The psychedelic ballroom opened a door for Pink Floyd and a gateway for a flood of diverse artistic talent, and Boyd was one of its founders. Here, as Boyd’s cultural significance is celebrated within the V&A’s new Pink Floyd retrospective exhibition (beginning today and running from to 1st October), the musical guru talks us through his time with Pink Floyd, the UFO club, and the technicolor streets of 60s London.
Clementine Zawadzki: What inspired you to open UFO Club?
Joe Boyd: The free school events in Notting Hill and the International Times launch party at the Roundhouse had been great successes. Hoppy [John Hopkins] and I both needed money, hence the idea to try something in the West End.
Clementine: The UFO Club was a prominent underground fixture in the 1960s. What was London like at the time you and John Hopkins opened the club?
Joe: The first night of UFO, the crowd was good, but not massive. Everyone stared at everyone else, amazed there were so many freaks like them. In December ’66 you didn’t see many weird clothes on the streets, but by May, they were everywhere. The city had changed completely in six months, and after Sgt. Pepper, it turned into a commercial fad, rather than a liberating movement.
Clementine: How did you see London perhaps change since the club opened and paved the way for so many psych bands to come through?
Joe: That was mostly down to LSD. The Pretty Things were a blues band, Tomorrow was a pop band – and then they took acid and became psychedelic bands. UFO was the focus for that culture, so they wanted to play there.
Clementine: Pink Floyd of course played at UFO in their formative years. How did your relationship with the band initially come about?
Joe: Their managers were a part of the London Free School ‘Board’ (an informal group) and so was I. I saw their first show in Powis Square, then brought various label heads down to see them and tried to get them a deal. Then I produced their first single.
Clementine: What was it like recording Arnold Layne with the band?
Joe: One night to record, one night to mix. With John Wood as engineer, it went very smoothly and onto a four-track machine. A few overdubs, then a mix. Fun and easy.
Clementine: For a band like Pink Floyd, the atmosphere was key to their performance. How did the space at UFO contribute to the beginnings of their showmanship in those early days?
Joe: They rehearsed in an artist’s studio and enjoyed it when he experimented with lights. Their early shows at the LFS were like that, UFO just carried on from there. They brought the lights – we had our own every Friday in a corner of the club – we and The Floyd were mutually encouraging.
“Syd Barrett was a free spirit, an explorer, and experimenter. The rest of the group were architecture students. He carved out a way forward and they built an indestructible edifice that conquered the world based on it.”
Clementine: What indicated to you early on that Pink Floyd had the potential to not only be a big band, but to also begin a movement in music?
Joe: They were completely original. No blues aspect to what they did, or very little. They were completely English, freed from devotion to American influence. They paved the way for European Rock like Kraftwerk and ABBA. And Syd was obviously a genius. You don’t come across talents like his very often.
Clementine: Do you have any memory from the UFO days that stands out for you?
Joe: A uniformed bobby collecting clothes belonging to a naked guy they had arrested outside from the UFO dance floor. He ended up with more underwear – some of it female – than one person needed and then he blushed.
Clementine: How do you think the early stages of Pink Floyd’s career influenced the progression of the band?
Joe: Syd Barrett was a free spirit, an explorer, and experimenter. The rest of the group were architecture students. He carved out a way forward and they built an indestructible edifice that conquered the world based on it.
Clementine: What do you remember about Syd Barrett?
Joe: Flashing dark eyes and keen intelligence.
Clementine: Do you have a favourite Pink Floyd track and or lyric and why?
Joe: Bike – “I’ll give you anything, everything if you want things.”
Clementine: Do you have any posters etc. from the UFO days that you’ve hung on to? Any treasured artefacts from that time in your life?
Joe: Not many, but one big gold and candy-stripe UFO poster with a torn corner.
Clementine: Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently throughout the UFO era? I read that the club’s popularity became part of its struggle to stay open?
Joe: Without my UFO-partner John Hopkins (who went to prison in June ’67) we were probably doomed, but what we were doing became fashionable. I thought I could compete with commercial promoters, but I was wrong.
Clementine: How do you feel about guitar bands today?
Joe: I don’t listen to many. I imagine it’s hard to find creative space that hasn’t been already occupied by bands from earlier eras. Time for some new influences!
The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 13th May to 1st October.