Between leaving Cambridge and moving into his own flat in leafy Belsize Park, Nick Drake briefly lived in Notting Hill Gate, with a girl whose name no one seems to remember, and her pet monkey. Robert Kirby, a frequent visitor to the Notting Hill flat, recalled Nick asking him what he’d like to listen to: ‘Put on the monkey,’ he’d say: ‘[The monkey] didn’t need any goading, because as soon as the turntable would start spinning, the animal would jump on top of it. Then we would sit and watch the monkey go round and round.’
With no revolving primates to distract him, most of the songs proffered by Nick for inclusion on Bryter Layter were written in his spartan ground-floor flat. Beverley Martyn feels that public school and university had left Nick ‘feeling institutionalized’ and that these first months in London represented the ‘beginning of his independence’. If this was indeed Nick’s first experience of real independence, he nevertheless still had a support network that many in his position would have envied. Richard and Linda Thompson’s flat in Haverstock Hill was a stone’s throw away, while John and Beverley Martyn – both very protective towards Nick – were just up the hill in Hampstead. In the first weeks of 1970, the Bishop’s Stortford branch of the Sound Techniques/Witchseason family welcomed Nick as he set about rehearsing his latest batch of songs. In the village of Little Hadham, Fairport Convention had taken residence in a disused pub called The Angel. Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings having recently left the band, the rest of Fairport – Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson – spent three or four days with Nick. ‘You could never tell if he liked stuff or not,’ Pegg recalled, but we got an awful lot done in that time. He was just running through arrangements for Bryter Layter. He had all the songs and fairly positive ideas about how he wanted them done. His songs were fairly guitar-based, and he was a great guitarist. That was enough, really. On a lot of those things they were so complete with what he did, and it was early days, we were only learning rhythm-section things.
Nick’s satisfaction with these early sessions can be gauged by the presence of Pegg on nine of the ten songs on Bryter Layter and of Mattacks on four of them. (Thompson also tackles lead guitar on ‘Hazey Jane II’ – the only guitar part on the record not undertaken by Nick.) Augmented by a crisp, dewy string arrangement from Kirby, ‘Introduction’ is just Nick with the Fairport rhythm section – Mattacks deploying the sparest of punctuation by means of padded sticks on the tom-toms. It’s also one of the first tracks that Nick had written for the album. Robert Kirby remembered that the pair had been working on it before the end of their final term at Cambridge: ‘Nick talked a great deal about concept albums, which were out at the time, and wanting to use instrumental overtures and links between tracks. [‘Introduction’] was an overture. It was always an overture. He wrote the guitar part, I recorded it on the trusty Ferrograph, I worked out some parts, played them to him on the piano, he’d say, “No, I don’t like that . . .Yes, I do like those . . .”’
John Wood said he had tried to ‘get out of Nick why he’d done the instrumentals’ but hadn’t got ‘very far’. It might be that the idea of instrumentals interspersing songs with vocals was also seeded in the early concerts that Nick performed at Cambridge: shows that had seen Nick perform two or three original numbers, interspersed with classical pieces from a string quartet. Whatever Nick’s vision was for the overall shape of Bryter Layter, it has long been established that it was one Joe Boyd did not wholeheartedly share. ‘I was never happy about the three instrumentals,’ he admitted. Boyd had heard Nick sing ‘Things Behind the Sun’ at the Fairport concert a few months earlier and suggested that Bryter Layter could certainly use a song of that quality, perhaps in place of an instrumental.
Nick ceded some ground – there are three instrumentals on the record instead of the intended four – but for the main part, this was the producer and engineer’s first encounter with the ‘obstinate integrity’ that his sister Gabrielle has identified as one of her brother’s defining character traits. It’s also in the context of this ‘obstinate integrity’ that subsequent criticisms of the record are perhaps best examined. The creeping intimation among some fans and critics that Nick’s vision was somehow compromised by a handful of relatively poppy arrangements is at odds with the recollections of some of those who worked on the record. ‘Joe Boyd hardly said a word,’ recalled drummer Mike Kowalski. ‘Nick was very much in control. He did all the communicating. He was very demonstrative. He’d demonstrate just what he wanted in the studio, improvise, and let you groove with it.’
The mutual accommodation between structure and serendipity which seems to characterize so much of Bryter Layter is especially prevalent on the album’s longest song, ‘Poor Boy’. Having worked on an album by Chris McGregor in the morning, Boyd asked the South African jazz pianist to stick around for the ‘Poor Boy’ session, scheduled to take place in the afternoon. ‘As I was hearing those jazz chords and the way the song was taking shape,’ recalls Boyd, I just kept “hearing” Chris on the piano . . . Nick brought out his chord chart and they just ran through the chords first, a verse or two, then were recorded on the piano. What you hear on the album is the first and only take . . . the only solo Chris played.’ It was a solo that left a clear imprint on the memory of Robert Kirby. Speaking to Patrick Humphries, he remembered ‘being down there to watch Chris McGregor put down his stuff for “Poor Boy”, Pat Arnold and Doris Troy wailing away, and Nick sitting there at the back, seeming quite happy.’
Nick’s original demo of the song described by Joe Boyd as the album’s ‘symbol’ signposts much of what the recorded version subsequently foregrounded, in particular the Greek chorus that gently sends up the song’s protagonist: ‘Oh poor boy / So sorry for himself / Oh poor boy / So worried for his health.’ In the recorded version, of course, that role is assigned to Doris Troy and P.P. Arnold, both renowned solo artists and ubiquitous session singers – their inclusion another reference back to Joe Boyd’s Leonard Cohen preoccupation: ‘I had always been obsessed with those slightly mocking girls’ voices on “So Long, Marianne” . . . and as soon as I heard Nick play, I said, “That’s where I’m going to use those voices.”’ And when ‘Poor Boy’ reached home to Far Leys, it would prompt another unlikely chorus. Unbeknownst to Nick, the song inspired his mother to write a riposte of sorts. ‘Poor Mum’ was a fleeting meditation on the hopes and ambitions that remained unfulfilled while the song’s protagonist got on with the business of raising her children as best as she could. (If Molly Drake’s response has a subtext, it’s surely that angst isn’t the sole domain of the young – should they be inclined to dwell on them, older generations have no shortage of accumulated compromises and regrets upon which to hang their anxieties.)
For Robin Frederick, the ‘urban gospel’ flavour of the backing vocals on ‘Poor Boy’ is superseded by a stronger influence: the bossa nova sound popularized in this country by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto’s Getz/Gilberto album:
‘A comparison with Nick’s guitar track on ‘Poor Boy’ with João Gilberto’s bossa nova guitar on ‘Corcovado’ (‘Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars’) reveals a substantial similarity. Composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim and interpreted by Gilberto on guitar and vocals, tracks like ‘Corcovado’, ‘Desafinado’ and ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ made use of complex chords, close voicings and progressions that circle around a cluster of common tones, all of which are present in ‘Poor Boy’. Bossa nova is also characterized by a melody line or vocal with a smooth, detached quality, the result of starting melodic phrases around Beat 2 or Beat 3. You can hear exactly that kind of phrasing in ‘Poor Boy’ and, in fact, most of Nick’s songs.’
Sequenced midway through side one, occupying the same position as ‘Poor Boy’ on side two, ‘At The Chime Of A City Clock’ sits on Bryter Layter as its distorted mirror image: the double bounce of a thumb on the bass string at the beginning of each bar; the presence once again of jazz players Mike Kowalski and Ray Warleigh; a minor-to-major shift on the chorus; and a lyric which returns to a common theme: its protagonist’s inability to cling on to anything useful in the ceaseless tidal flow of city life: ‘A city star won’t shine too far / On account of the way you are.’ Patrick Humphries describes the song as ‘a big-city frieze, a fragmentary London portrait of the Soho streets Nick walked when he hitched down from the Marlborough to the Flamingo and the Marquee’. There are some inspired choices of musician on the album, and Warleigh’s saxophone solo on ‘At The Chime Of A City Clock’ is a case in point, releasing a luminous vapour trail into the magic-hour half-light of Robert Kirby’s string arrangement. ‘Ray pops up on many of my records,’ recalls Boyd, ‘He’s a really, really good player. He never cut a huge swathe through the British jazz scene, but for me, he just plays wonderful solos. It’s sort of perfect what he did on “At The Chime Of A City Clock”.’
The same could be said of Kirby’s work here. In 2002, Kirby explained how he sought to accentuate the ‘lonely and bleak’ aspect of the song by eschewing chords in favour of a reflective counter-melody on the strings.Mike Kowalski’s tendency to ‘drive things a bit harder than Dave Mattacks’ is, according to Boyd, key to the feel of the songs on which he played. Another case in point is ‘One Of These Things First’, which also benefits from an intuitive display on the bass from sometime touring Beach Boy Ed Carter (his only contribution to the album). The four-note phrase he plays twice, as Nick sings ‘I could have been / One of these things first’ nudges the whole thing into the realm of perfection.
As with so much of Bryter Layter, the gently efferverscent arrangement of ‘One Of These Things First’ almost serves to throw us off the scent of a lyric that sees its creator at something of an existential impasse. In the words of Robin Frederick, ‘You hardly notice the song is about regret and lost chances.’ Indeed, it’s worth keeping in mind that outside of the harmonious studio sessions, Robert Kirby now darkly perceived Nick to be ‘in crisis’. With every relocation, he seemed to be jettisoning more possessions. There was little more in his Haverstock Hill flat than a mattress dragged from the bed to the warmth of the gas fire. That ‘One Of These Things’ is sung in the past conditional tense suggests, at least subconsciously, that fatalism had set into Nick’s worldview. On paper, the words read like a self-commiserating epilogue to ‘Day Is Done’, or a question that – from the depths of depression – he would appear to answer on Pink Moon with ‘Parasite’.
But on Bryter Layter – what Paul Wheeler called Nick’s ‘city album’ – questions easily outnumber answers, and no more so than on ‘Hazey Jane I’ and ‘Hazey Jane II’. The prescience so often attributed to ‘Fruit Tree’ is perhaps even truer of ‘Hazey Jane II’: ‘And what will happen in the morning when the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out the window in the morning?’ asks Nick. By the time he reiterates the question a minute later, Kirby’s bustling, kinetic arrangement has shaded in the remaining details of the never-ending London rush-hour portended by Nick’s lyric. For this, the first song on the album to be recorded, Nick freighted in the Fairport rhythm section that had accompanied him in Little Hadham, but moving forward, Nick explained to Wood that he wanted the drums to feel ‘more broken’ on some songs, which led to Mike Kowalski supplanting Mattacks on tracks where his style was deemed to suit the songs better. Talking about the use of horns on the song, Kirby recalled him and Nick ‘listening to various Stax things, but it came out very English. In the same way that George Martin’s stunning brass arrangements for [The Beatles’] “Got To Get You Into My Life” could only be English. There was absolutely no attempt by me to make it sound like an American rock brass section. It sounds more like an English brass band.’ Kirby’s sentiments are echoed by Joe Boyd: ‘“Hazey Jane II” was a revelation because Robert came up with a fantastic horn part, which didn’t sound like anything else at the time. It had nothing to do with R&B horns or jazz horns.’
The defiant Englishness of ‘Hazey Jane II’ – positing as it does a sort of red-brick response to Tijuana – must have sounded confusing to contemporary music fans in an era that saw rock bands almost exclusively using horns to import a little rootsy R&B authenticity into their sound. For Robin Frederick, the only thing that doesn’t work on the song is what she sees as Nick’s attempt to ‘emulate the psychedelic lyrics of contemporary rock music’, describing such lines as ‘Take a little while to grow your brothers hair’ as ‘awkward and self-conscious’. She nevertheless notes that he ‘ends this song with one of his most evocative and revealing lines’:
‘Nick, English scholar that he was, wrote an envoy at the close of ‘Hazey Jane II’. Defined as a short verse of praise or explanation at the end of a poem, an envoy is a device that is not often used in pop songs. Because the end of a song is what stays with the listener, this is where the commercial songwriter puts what he wants you to remember.’
If this is true of ‘Hazey Jane II’, it would seem that what Nick wanted us to remember was: ‘If songs were lines in a conversation / The situation would be fine.’ If not exactly a cry for help, this parting shot seems to bear out the contrast between the Nick that his friends would encounter outside of the studio and the more assertive focused character communicating his ideas to the team of kindred spirits that surrounded him in Sound Techniques: Joe Boyd, John Wood and Robert Kirby.
‘Hazey Jane I’ was one of the earliest songs written for Bryter Layter. As with the first recordings of ‘River Man’, the most striking thing about the song in its home demo form is just how much of the string arrangement is rooted in elements of Nick’s playing. The high, chiming notes picked out just ahead of each line in the verse form the basis of Kirby’s work on the song – a perfect example of what Connor McKnight, writing for ZigZag in 1974, referred to as the arranger’s ‘literally fantastic empathy with Nick’. In fact, the interweaving of Nick’s songs with Kirby’s arrangements on Bryter Layter was down to more than mere empathy. They worked in close proximity together. Only once the basic tracks were recorded would Kirby look at what each song required in terms of an arrangement. As John Wood puts it, ‘The tracks were scored up with Nick looking over Robert’s shoulder. That was very different to the arrangements for Five Leaves Left, which were mostly put together with a view to the songs being performed live in Cambridge.’
Perhaps more than any other song on Bryter Layter, ‘Hazey Jane I’ shows how far Nick had progressed, both as a tunesmith and lyricist, since the compositional baby steps of ‘Princess Of The Sand’ three years previously. For Robin Frederick, ‘the intricate guitar arrangement on this song is among Nick’s best work. There are memorable guitar phrases at the top of the song and in the fills between verses. He also displays his ability to keep a rock-solid rhythm going, even when playing a complicated, fingerpicked arrangement like this one.’ As with its namesake, it’s a song which seems to resonate more with each ensuing decade. Writing for Mojo in 1999, Ian MacDonald asked, ‘Can it be that the materialist worldview, in which there is no intrinsic meaning, is murdering our souls?’ MacDonald seemed to think so, and posited the exponentially expanding popularity of his Cambridge contemporary as evidence. In ‘Hazey Jane I’ a series of similar questions seem to allude to a similar spiritual void: ‘Do you like what you’re doing? / Would you do it some more? / Or will you stop once and wonder / What you’re doing it for?’ Only with the mention of Jane does the song hint at resolution, and even her presence in the story is oddly chimeric: ‘Sure that you would do the same for me one day / So try to be true / Even if it’s only in your hazey way.’
In marked contrast to the recording made by Brian Wells a year previously, Nick’s attempt to sing ‘Hazey Jane I’ during one of his final live performances at Les Cousins in 1970 was still imprinted in the memory of another performer decades later, though for all the wrong reasons. Having got to know him through mutual friends John and Beverley Martyn, Brian Cullman opened for Nick that night. ‘His shyness and awkwardness were almost transcendent . . . There was a new song he sang that night that he kept starting and stopping, never completing; he finally just sang the opening lines over and over again: “Do you curse where you come from? / Do you swear in the night?” It was chilling and morbidly fascinating.’
According to John Wood, the (barely audible) sound of Nick playing Hammond organ on the album version of ‘Hazey Jane I’ suggests that the recording took place relatively late into the Bryter Layter sessions. Wood suggests ‘it was something he picked up from John Cale’, who had arrived at Sound Techniques to help Joe Boyd finish work on Nico’s Desertshore album and play on the sessions for Mike Heron’s Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. Time and time again, Nick seemed to revel in the company of larger-than-life characters whose air of certitude would briefly send his own social anxieties into abeyance. John Martyn was one such character, as was Danny Thompson. Bob Squire – underworld-affiliated bespoke supplier of second-hand vehicles for touring Witchseason acts – was another. Writing about Squire’s late-night liar-dice sessions, Boyd recalled: ‘I never saw Nick more relaxed than in Bob’s kitchen and few things seemed to give him more pleasure than winning a round of liar dice.’
The impact that Cale had on Nick was immediate. In his memoir, Boyd recalls that: ‘Cale put his feet up on the mixing desk, waved his arm imperially at John Wood, and said, ‘Let’s hear what else you guys are working on.’ We played him a few things, and eventually got to Nick. Cale was amazing. ‘Who the fuck is this guy? I have to meet him, where is he? I mean, where is he right now? I rang Nick and told him that John Cale would be over in half an hour. Nick said, ‘Oh, uh, OK.’ I wrote out Nick’s address, John grabbed it, and ran down the stairs. The next morning I had a call from Cale. ‘We’re going to need a pickup for the viola, an amp, a Fender bass and a bass amp, a celeste and a Hammond B-3 organ. This afternoon.’ I had scheduled a mix on another project that day but Cale had decided it was time to record ‘Northern Sky’ and ‘Fly’. They arrived together, John with a wild look in his eyes and Nick trailing behind. Despite his domineering manner, Cale was very solicitous towards Nick, who seemed to be guardedly enjoying himself: his only choice was to be relaxed and be carried along.’
Cale, for his part, remembered Nick as ‘a very quiet guy’: ‘It was difficult to figure what was going on in his mind.’ Much later, possibly as a means to avoid having to go over familiar ground, Cale seemed to shut down further enquiries concerning his professional involvement with Nick. ‘When that record was made,’ he told the Guardian, ‘Nick was not in the studio. I was the hired hand to come in and overdub and put some colour on the tracks. I finished the tracks, went on my merry way and met Nick much later.’ This version of events seems to contradict not only the recollections of Joe Boyd, but Cale’s own 2007 account of Nick’s animated response when the older musician introduced him to his Martin D-12 12-string guitar: ‘He’d never seen one before. He just picked up that guitar and it was just like this orchestral sound coming out. He went nuts, entranced. And all those chords were ringing. It was watching somebody get lost in an instrument. I didn’t know about all the other problems, he was just very shy and very withdrawn. And I was trying to work out what the choruses were, but there weren’t any.’
Within twenty-four hours of being played what had been recorded of Bryter Layter, Cale had masterminded the completion of two more songs. If Kirby felt any resentment at being supplanted by Cale, there’s no evidence to suggest as much. Quite the reverse, in fact. His natural equanimity seemed to extend to the events in the studio that day, when he turned up to assist John Wood. Along with ‘Hazey Jane I’, ‘Fly’ dated back to the performances captured by Brian Wells a year previously and home recordings made in Tanworth-in-Arden at around the same time. Indeed, the baroque accompaniment provided by Cale (viola and harpsichord) places it closer to Five Leaves Left that anything that surrounds it on Bryter Layter. Whether by coincidence or homage, the high, ornate harpsichord flourishes are strongly reminiscent of Larry Fallon’s work on Van Morrison’s ‘Cyprus Avenue’ – and the line ‘come ride in my street-car by the bay’ is all too easy to imagine tumbling from the mouth of the bead-wearing, free-spirited Morrison of the late Sixties. ‘We were certainly listening to Astral Weeks heavily at that time,’ confirmed Kirby.
For Robin Frederick, ‘a sense of compromise and resignation’ is unavoidable in ‘Fly’: ‘From the world of poetry, popular music has borrowed the term ‘prosody’, extending its meaning to refer to the way in which music underscores and intensifies the emotional content of language. ‘Fly’ is a beautiful example of musical prosody. The verses all have essentially the same melody but they are sung in two different octaves, each with its own emotional character. Nick sings the first and third verses near the top of his vocal range. The words are pleading and vulnerable, the thin, high vocal conveys a sense of childlike helplessness and need. The second and fourth verses are sung an octave lower and in these the content is quite different. This low voice belongs to an adult who talks about ‘recompense’ and ‘if’s, sounding more like an accountant than a lover . . . [If you] try switching the lyrics – sing the high verse lyric in the lower octave and the low verse lyric up an octave – you can feel the difference; the song is not as emotionally effective. Nick knew just what he was doing.’
‘Those two tracks, “Fly” and “Northern Sky” sound full,’ comments Joe Boyd. ‘They sound top productions, but what’s on them? On “Fly”, there’s viola, harpsichord, [Dave Pegg on] bass, Nick’s guitar, that’s all. On “Northern Sky”, it’s celeste, piano and organ, bass, drums and Nick’s guitar. So the tracks are very self-contained, but they sound immense.’
Perhaps the one moment of transcendent joy in Nick’s canon, “Northern Sky” came to him during a stay at John and Beverley Martyn’s new house in Hastings. By the time the couple had released their second album, The Road To Ruin, Beverley was pregnant with her second child. Despite the stresses of domestic life, both seemed protective of Nick. ‘It was nice to try and make him laugh,’ recalled Beverley, ‘because he had such a good sense of humour’: ‘Sometimes he’d mutter something under his breath and you’d want to hear it, because, really, you wanted to hear anything he had to say. I was a bit mumsy with him, I’d say, ‘Have you eaten?’ and he would say no. He would eat whatever you were eating. After I made mince pies for the first time, I remember him saying that they were ‘scrumptious’. He wrote ‘Northern Sky’ around us. We had a tree in the garden across the pavement – hence the line ‘Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree’. The top of the tree came to the window where Nick was, and you could see the full moon on the sea at night.’
Paul Wheeler, a close friend of both John Martyn and Nick, echoes Beverley Martyn’s recollection. ‘It’s all to do with the view from John Martyn’s house in Hastings,’ he says. ‘There’s the line “I never held emotion in the palm of my hand” – which is all to do with a remark that Nick made to me. He was holding a raspberry in the palm of his hand when he was stoned, and someone commented that it was actually a bunch of grapes. Nick laughed that this was unquestionably “true”.’
For Robin Frederick, ‘Northern Sky’ is ‘nothing more or less than a demonstration of the power of simplicity and repetition in the hands of a master songwriter, [consisting] of little more than two chords and two melodic phrases with a turnaround at the end.’
‘Northern Sky’ is also the nearest Nick ever got to writing a classic love song. Robert Kirby confessed to wondering what sort of person could have divined such feelings of unalloyed ecstasy in Nick. ‘Is the “you” a girl on the scene or a generic Keatsian/Wordsworthian concept? It’s hard to imagine a girl who wouldn’t fall for him if he fell for them. At Cambridge, all our girlfriends fancied him like mad. It was infuriating!’
On a song whose protagonist fleetingly allows himself to float free of his existential moorings, the relatively speedy execution compounds a sense that we are privy to the crazy magic invoked by Nick in the opening line of ‘Northern Sky’. Running through the centre of the song is an inspired musical conversation between Nick and John Cale on piano, each one a co-ordinate in a process of mutual discovery that can so often lose its sparkle with every subsequent attempt to get it right. Unusually for a Nick Drake song, there lurks a sense on ‘Northern Sky’ that everything might be all right: the dizzying ascent into the middle section which the protagonist dares to ask for a return on his pledge of devotion, and finally, with the reiteration of the opening first verse, something almost unprecedented for him: a positive sense of resolution.
Bookending side two of Bryter Layter are two of the album’s three instrumentals. If nothing else, the title track and the closing-credits reverie of ‘Sunday’ bear testament to Nick’s dogged faith in his original vision for the record. For Robin Frederick, the preponderance of instrumentals was quite simply a sign of the times: ‘There was a lot of experimentation with the album format in the late 1960s. Both solo artists and bands recorded instrumental preludes, interludes, bridges between songs, interpolations, introductions with dialogue and sound effects – you name it, somebody did it. From Steve Miller’s five minute ‘Song For Our Ancestors’ [a favourite of Nick’s] to the one-minute ‘Prelude’ on Chicago II, to Brian Wilson’s orchestral forays on Pet Sounds, instrumental tracks added a new dimension to the traditional album: they suggested there was more to it than just a haphazard string of songs.’
For all that, Frederick’s view – that ‘Nick was not playing to his strengths’ – is one shared even by many of Nick’s staunchest fans. In the absence of a vocal, performances from two different flautists take centre stage on ‘Bryter Layter’ and ‘Sunday’. Lyn Dobson (Georgie Fame, Manfred Mann, Soft Machine) steps forward to play on the former, while the latter sees Ray Warleigh switch from the alto sax he plays elsewhere on the album. Suffused with a marginally more melancholy, contemplative air, ‘Sunday’ is arguably the more successful track. Robert Kirby said that the song was a tribute of sorts to their time together in Cambridge: ‘This is a driving song: you’re meant to listen to it while you’re driving. I can remember when Nick and I had this great thing where we used to drive around on Sunday.’ In particular, Kirby drew attention to ‘one section towards the end of the instrumental, a low string chord which is meant to be when you drive on a motorway on a nice day with the window open, and a lorry passes you.’ In 1974, Kraftwerk would record their own driving anthem ‘Autobahn’, using a Heath-Robinsonesque agglomeration of synths, drum machines and Moog to simulate the sound of passing vehicles on a German motorway. Both artists had set out to evoke the sensation of driving through their native country through music. With ‘Sunday’, Nick Drake had beaten Kraftwerk to it by four years.
On the back cover-art of Bryter Layter, we see Nick gazing on at a speeding car under the Westway streetlights. It’s an apt visual shorthand for what you hear when you place the record on the turntable. This is London seen through the eyes of a protagonist who has yet to find his groove in the bustle of the big city. ‘Northern Sky’ notwithstanding, resolution evades every song on Bryter Layter. It sounds like an album nervously anticipating its own reception. Together with Robert Kirby’s string and brass arrangements, the title of the record (bastardized from the BBC shipping forecast) bears out a sense that, on balance, it was all probably going to work out fine. It was a view seemingly shared by everyone who worked with Nick on the record. ‘I loved it. It was just great fun to record,’ says Wood. ‘You very seldom make a record and don’t say, “It’s a shame we didn’t do this or that,” [but] Bryter Layter to me is that record – I can’t find anything I would have wanted to change . . . It was so obvious to me and Joe [Boyd] that this was special.’
Feeling that they had an album which could finally break Nick to a wider audience, Joe Boyd and John Wood took special care over the process of mixing it. Wood: ‘First of all, we mixed Bryter Layter at Sound Techniques. Then we took the tapes to America and mixed it again at Vanguard. I didn’t like either. Then we came back and I changed the speakers at Sound Techniques, and we mixed it again, and that’s the one we used. Nick wasn’t involved in the Vanguard ones because he wasn’t in New York. He certainly came to the other mixes and made comments but I don’t ever recall him being particularly vigorous in his opinions about what we did. Possibly he liked what we did – so he didn’t have to be vigorous, I don’t remember. I can certainly remember mixes we did with artists who were vigorous in their opinions, and he wasn’t one of them.’
Quoted in Patrick Humphries’ biography, Robert Kirby summed up the Bryter Layter sessions as ‘happy times’: ‘Nick was quite high on it. The first [album] had got his name known. I think he felt this was going to be the one.’ Also in Humphries’ book, Paul Wheeler recalled having dinner with Nick just after the release of the album (in November 1970). ‘He said he assumed that it would be much more successful than it was. And I do remember being surprised, because I didn’t think he was in it for that.’ Given their shared subcultural sensibilities, it’s perhaps not surprising that Nick may have given Wheeler the impression that commercial success wasn’t high on his list of priorities.
Three months had after the release of the record, only another attempt from Island around this time to re-promote the record yielded any reviews. An equivocal Melody Maker review blithely dismissed it as ‘late night coffee ’n’ chat music’. Reviewing for Record Mirror, Lon Goddard was much more positive. ‘Definitely one of the prettiest (and that counts!) and most impressive albums I’ve heard . . . Happy, sad, very moving.’ Writing for Sounds, Jerry Gilbert placed much of the credit for the album at the feet of the musicians that surrounded Nick, going as far as to name them all.
It was Gilbert also who would have the distinction of being the only music journalist to interview Nick. At the time of the encounter, no reviews of Bryter Layter had appeared in the music press, and with this in mind the downcast tone of the interview is unsurprising. (Gilbert: ‘You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.’) Nick’s few utterances hinted that having seen Bryter Layter fail to shake the world off its axis, there was little sense in continuing the experiment by following it with a similar sort of album. ‘For the next one, I had the idea of just doing something with John Wood,’ he told Gilbert. In the intervening years – prompted in part by the fact that sales of Bryter Layter have lagged behind the records either side of it – Boyd himself has come to wonder whether he, John Wood and Robert Kirby ‘were all so enamoured of Nick’s music that [on Bryter Layter] we moved happily into the vacuum created by his diffidence.’Possibly so; but then, as the Richard Hewson episode and Nick’s refusal to complete ‘Things Behind The Sun’ had shown, Nick was perfectly capable of digging his heels in when he wanted to. It makes no more sense to blame someone for a triumphant outcome than it does to credit someone for a failure. Nick’s contemporary Vashti Bunyan saw her Joe Boyd-produced album Just Another Diamond Day emerge in the same year as Bryter Layter to less than 1,000 sales.
For decades, she had all but disowned the record, sometimes citing her dissatisfaction with Boyd’s production and some of Robert Kirby’s arrangements. Decades later, when the reissue of the album brought her universal acclaim, Bunyan returned to it anew and heard it in the same way that a new generation of fans were hearing it. There is no reason to believe that Nick’s feelings about Bryter Layter _were anything like those that Vashti initially envisaged for her record. Nevertheless, the underlying point remains the same. For almost any artist, creation and reaction are inextricably linked. Had _Bryter Layter been an immediate hit, Nick may have thought twice before jettisoning all ornamentation for his next album.
This is an extract from a series of longer pieces that appeared as an eBook, entitled ‘A Nick Drake Companion’. The entire contents of ‘A Nick Drake companion' can also be found in a comprehensive anthology of writing about Nick Drake, ‘Remembered For A While’