Nick Drake
Bryter Layter

By Beppe Colli
May 14, 2013

As it's customary these days when it comes to those artists who in the course of a short career released just a few studio albums - and if this is true for solo artists and groups such as The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, who in their live performances added something very specific and unique to their music, is even more true for musicians like Nick Drake, who in the course of their whole career played just a handful of live gigs - Nick Drake's art gets repackaged and offered to new buyers at semi-regular intervals under a fresh guise, those few unreleased tracks he left behind being variously reassembled, with his three studio albums being repackaged with new features: all stuff which it's hoped to stimulate both punters and casual buyers.

Last year it was Pink Moon's turn to be re-released in a new box set featuring a 180gr vinyl LP mastered from the original analog tapes, plus assorted gadgets and objects - Pink Moon, let's not forget, being the last complete album released by Drake in his lifetime, also the one that's nowadays widely regarded as the one that best presents "the true essence" of  Nick Drake.

We already know that Five Leaves Left, Drake's debut, will be released in a new version mastered from digital files, the original tapes being lost or damaged. Now's the time for his second album - Bryter Layter - to be released, in a box set featuring some gadgets, also - and here I hope this will be considered the most important feature, but given the current climate I'm really not so sure - a fine piece of 180gr vinyl mastered from (original) analog tapes: a "dub" of the original master that Drake's ace engineer, John Wood, copied at the time, and which he still had.

As I usually like to do in cases like this, I surfed the Web looking for info and opinions about the new re-master, and so I paid a visit to Steve Hoffman's Forum, the place where John Wood - the man who alongside original producer Joe Boyd was "the man in charge" when it came to Nick Drake's albums -  had posted a few messages about the whole re-release program.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I happened to read these posts:

"Shaffer: I listened to an interview with Joe Boyd on Sound Opinions the other day, regarding the Nick Drake records. He spoke about the numerous irate letters he receives from (newer) fans demanding that the first two albums are released without the orchestration.";

"back2vinyl: Sound quality apart, I must say I dislike this record more with each listening. I think the production is very badly misjudged and I can understand if, as was stated above, people have asked if they can have the album without the brass and strings. You've got Nick Drake's tiny, folk artist voice singing in a little-boy-lost, faux-naif half-whisper set against an entire rock orchestra complete with brass and strings and even, in one place, with P.P. Arnold and Doris Troy belting out backing vocals - it's totally incongruous and sounds, in my opinion, absurd. Pink Moon on the other hand works perfectly - that tiny half-whisper is perfectly complimented by the spare, understated guitar playing and it makes for an incredibly haunting and intimate musical experience.".

Well, we already know what a track featured on Bryter Layter sounds like when deprived of its orchestration: the album of unreleased tracks/versions titled Time Of No Reply (1986) featured a 1969 home recording for acoustic guitar and vocals by Drake of Fly, without Dave Pegg's electric bass, also without John Cale's contribution on harpsichord and viola. This home version of the familiar song already features those two vocal parts on different vocal registers, and that descending figure played on the low strings of an acoustic guitar. Would we really prefer to listen to this figure - which in the album familiar recorded version is kept quite low in the left channel - as the only counterpoint to Nick Drake's vocals?

So this topic opens a whole can of worms. As usual, readers are invited to take a deep breath.

Tags such as "unknown artists" or "cult artists" are best considered with a certain caution, of course. Having become accustomed with Nick Drake's music in the days when he was alive and working, I've never thought of him as a "cult artist". "An artist for happy few", perhaps - meaning: "appreciated by few", not "an artist whose music is fatally destined to be appreciated by just a few". You know, what about Joe Byrd and his group, The United States Of America? (Just one album.)

I was a fresh visitor in London, Summer '75, when I bought my first copy ever of Rolling Stone magazine (the UK edition), which I'd never seen before. There, before my very own eyes, was an obituary for Tim Buckley, who had O.D.'d. It was not a long and extensive obituary by any means, and it was not followed by a longer one in the next issue. Please notice that at the time Tim Buckley was really a "cult artist", due to such experimental albums of his as Starsailor and Lorca, also due to his involvement with the "counterculture", as showed on his previous albums.

When I paid a visit to Virgin Records' shop in Marble Arch, on Oxford Street, I was quite surprised to find US import copies of Tim Buckley's Starsailor, The Stooges' first one on Elektra, White Light White Heat by The Velvet Underground (the black cover where a knife pierces a skull), also the UK edition of same album (the one with the soldiers on the front cover), (Lou Reed already being in his post-Transformer, Sally Can't Dance, and Rock 'n' Roll Animal "fame" period): simply put, they were still on sale because people had not bought them.

I really have no precise idea about how many copies Nick Drake sold in his lifetime, I suppose in the neighborhood of... a few thousand per title. But if I wonder why, I'd say due to his (fully justified) aversion to playing live, and doing interviews for the press, not because his music was especially "difficult"; on the contrary, it was quite accessible, and it didn't require any special process of adjustment on the part of the listener.

In my opinion, it's Syd Barrett's music that - when compared to Drake's -  requires a "process of adjustment on the part of the listener", a higher degree of "empathy". Sure, it could be argued that it's also thanks to his legendary figure as a psychedelic misfit that Syd Barrett's music has received that great amount of attention, and I couldn't agree more. But the same thing, I believe, happened to Nick Drake, whose life story and tragic death have created a mass cult which cannot rival Jim Morrison's only due to the total absence of suitable visual material.

In the years following his death (1974), Nick Drake remained a presence in my life as a listener, Bryter Layter being the album that I listened to more often, and that I appreciated the most. My preference was mirrored by those (few) reviews I read and those (tiny) "encyclopedias" I read at the time (here in Europe, 'cause in the States Nick Drake received almost no attention - which is a curious counterpoint to what happened later). And I still remember that Nick Drake's music was a constant presence in the "quality FM radios" that were born in Italy in the mid-70s, Bryter Layter being the preferred title, with Five Leaves Left not too far behind.

Readers can imagine my surprise when I happened to notice that Nick Drake's name was mentioned with increasing frequency by musicians (mostly from USA, if I remember correctly) whose music was definitely not on a par with the object of their admiration, Drake slowly becoming one of those "right names to drop". And this point Drake's new sales amounted to "only" a few thousand. My surprise turned into incredulity when I was told that, as the soundtrack to an ad (!) for a cabriolet (!) by Volkswagen, the song Pink Moon had become a hit (!), alongside the album of same name.

My personal experience when it comes to the previous decade - which doesn't exclude the possibility of other hypotheses being considered as being worth investigating - tells me of Nick Drake being "linked" to "elementary" singer-songwriters "genres" sometimes going under the umbrella name "lo-fi". Then, of course, it's time for the usual "snowball effect" for an artist that had never really sold much. It appears that, as it often happens when it comes to music performed in an "intimate" framework - that is, guitar and vocals - the "nakedness" of the performance is believed to show the "essence" of an artist, his/her "true" art.

As it's widely known, as soon as he heard the results of the work of the chosen arranger, Nick Drake stood his ground. It was the right thing to do, as the version of I Was Made To Love Magic with the orchestral arrangement by Richard Hewson which appeared in the aforementioned Time Of No Reply clearly shows. Even when not taking into account those issues pertaining to the quality of the song itself, both the arrangement and the vocal performance seem to go in the general direction of an artist that Drake could never be: Scott Walker. So it's thanks to the intelligence of Joe Boyd, record producer, that Drake was able to choose the young Robert Kirby as the writer for the album's orchestral parts.

Listening to Five Leaves Left tells us - but it was something that was apparent even at the time - of an album of its time, but which also talks to its time. Musicians such as Richard Thompson on guitar and Danny Thompson on double bass are the links to such "folk-rock" groups as Fairport Convention and Pentangle, while here and there one can hear echoes of The Incredible String Band - a group which, almost totally forgotten today, was quite famous and influential (!) back then. Drake's melodies need no introduction, of course, but here I'd like to stress the fresh-sounding complexity of Drake's guitar work, which would be noteworthy even when performed by a musician twice his age.

I have to admit I never liked much Paul Harris's piano parts, whose "American" extrapolations underline harmonic elements that I don't consider as being primary elements in Drake's music. Maybe it's just a matter of taste. But I have to add that, though in technical terms it can be said to be more "raw", the piano as played by Drake himself on the album's closing track, Saturday Sun, sounds quite more pertinent.

Kudos to the orchestral arrangements by Kirby and the one by Harry Robinson, to Danny Thompson's double bass, to Rocki Dzidzornu's percussion, to Nick Drake's vocals and guitar.

The album's songs - Time Has Told Me, River Man, Three Hours, Way To Blue, Day Is Done, Cello Song, The Thoughts Of Mary Jane, Man In A Shed, Fruit Tree, and Saturday Sun - are the chapters of an album that's austere-sounding, but also quite communicative.

We can be sure that, whatever he happened to ingest, Neil Young could ably perform Old Man or Out On The Weekend. But there are instrumental efforts which require one's muscular apparatus to work at its best, and as it's widely known, such things as alcohol, antidepressants, and barbiturates create havoc with one's technique (readers are invited to compare, if they so wish, Paul Kossoff's guitar vibrato on Tons Of Sobs or Fire And Water, and on Free At Last or Heartbreaker).

In the time elapsed between the release of Bryter Layter and Pink Moon many things happened to Nick Drake. The latter album presents a musical language that's in a way simplified, some moments - such as Road - reminding me of Donovan at his most accessible attitude. Also, the performance of Things Behind The Sun - a composition that according to Joe Boyd was originally scheduled to appear on Bryter Layter - is not what it could have been. There's still a long road to those four tracks recorded in February '74, which at the time they were originally "discovered", post-mortem, made some critics talk of "masterpieces"; but one cannot help but wonder if - though he had already expressed this intention long before the fact - Drake's choice to record an album in such a Spartan way would have stayed the same, had Joe Boyd - Drake's producer and enabler - not decided to relocate to the States.

Let's try putting personal preferences aside - we know there are musicians who love Debussy who regard Five Leaves Left as being Drake's best, while others think the same due to the album sounding so fresh. In my opinion, there's at least one aspect that can be said to make Bryter Layter Drake's best album: its working perfectly as a whole, each track flowing into the next with a strong harmonic relationship. This is something that's peculiar of many albums recorded in the late 60s-early 70s, when music had become conscious of its own possibilities, and considered the Side of the vinyl album as its ideal dimension.

But there's also another element which makes Bryter Layter Drake's best: the strong individuality of the instrumental contributions featured on the album: Chris McGregor's piano, John Cale's viola and keyboards, Ray Warleigh's sax and flute, the bass and drum parts by Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, Ed Carter, and Mike Kowalski (who plays very fine things with brushes), Robert Kirby's brass and string parts, Paul Harris's piano, which is perfect in its indicating things changing and staying the same on One Of These Things First - all stuff that would greatly diminish the contribution of a lesser artist than Drake.

Recorded sound and production are close to perfection - no wonder both Joe Boyd and John Wood consider this album as their best work.

It happens quite often that I get asked about why was Nick Drake so little appreciated in the course of his lifetime. Well, I think that what I said above stands. I could also add those intervals - for instance, those "sevenths" which were so typical of South-American music - that at the time were considered as being "non-rock", something that was often perceived as being quite extraneous to "rock" music. It's quite possible that today's audiences are more "open" - or maybe they're more "indifferent".

But there's something I'd like to add.

For a long time now, phantasm figments of the imagination have taken the place of reality, and one is often asked to explain something which never really happened. Inside this framework, the question about why Nick Drake's music was not rewarded as it was only logical to be entails a concept where blind listeners - deaf - can't see such a superior talent standing alone in the middle of a desert.

But things ain't like this.

At the time we are talking about, there was an explosion of talent and instrumental and technical innovation on a mass level that have had no equal since. Inside this framework, Nick Drake's work - which of course is sublime - doesn't stand so tall as in the present, half-barren landscape.

I hope that fans of those musicians won't get too angry with me when I say that at that time when Drake was active people like Cat Stevens (with Alun Davis's contribution on guitar) and James Taylor were quite light-weight. It's a time when - we've all heard about the Beatles and Dylan, right? - people like Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell appeared, and those energies previously confined inside groups such as The Byrds and The Buffalo Springfield exploded: think of Stephen Stills (here 4 + 20 will suffice), David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, Neil Young. While "underground" names such as Bert Jansch and the abovementioned Incredible String Band opened a path for Richard Thompson and John Martyn.

There's also Donovan, of course - whose undervaluation is currently the best demonstration of nearsightedness on a mass level when we talk about that time. Donovan albums such as Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow, and Hurdy Gurdy Man - also his dozen epoch-defining singles - make for quite substantial work. Albums whose climates are quite diverse (something that nowadays is often regarded as a fault, as in "each track sounds different from the previous one"), excellent instrumental performances (Danny Thompson's double bass, Harold McNair's flute, fine drums and percussion - which are said to feature Phil Seamen - saxes and clarinets, Shawn Phillips on guitar and sitar), and a sizable influence on the music of that time, starting with the (once) famous, and in many ways historical, track called Sunny Goodge Street ('65).

This will have to do for now.

Just one question: If we consider Pink Moon as being a masterpiece, what about such albums as Songs For A Taylor and Harmony Row by Jack Bruce?

Beppe Colli 2013 | May 14, 2013