All Its Wonder To Know

Time Of No Reply by Nick Drake (Hannibal, 1987).

In some ways, we should actually be grateful that Nick Drake recorded so little. Aside from the three albums and a fourth that was never finished, there was only ever really a handful of outtakes, a smattering of home demo recordings, and a couple of radio sessions, only one of which still exists and even that wasn’t known to have survived until a couple of years ago. Not that his family and associates were ever likely to have allowed it anyway, but this more than anything has prevented the endless reselling and repackaging of his meagre output in increasingly slipshod ways to squeeze a steady stream of spare coppers out of his fans. You can’t resell and repackage what doesn’t actually exist.

By accident as much as by design, what little reselling and repackaging has taken place has always been of the absolute highest standard and for years there was only ever one ‘other’ album. The 1987 collection Time Of No Reply gathered together previously unheard songs left over from the Five Leaves Left sessions – he had reportedly turned up to record both Bryter Layter and Pink Moon with the full content and running order worked out and never introduced any additional numbers – with a couple of rejected attempts at recording songs with a different arranger and with a full band, a handful of interesting home demos and those four thrillingly bleak songs from the final album sessions. Doubtless like many fans, I listened to Time Of No Reply as often as I did the ‘proper’ albums, never less than impressed at how such a coherent and listenable collection had been cobbled together from a handful of disparate offcuts. I was especially taken with the hissy, muted and muffly home demos of otherwise unheard songs, which I described in a feature on Nick Drake in my old paper-and-ink fanzine as sounding “a little like eavesdropping on someone who never existed”. This was a piece, incidentally, in which I purposefully rejected the growing and worrying cult around Nick Drake by sidestepping the tragic tinge to his life and career as much as possible, and concentrated on joining the dots with whatever recorded and documentary evidence did still exist, railing against those that fetishised his troubled mental state as showing “more of a love of themselves than a love of his music”. As you can imagine, that resulted in a few letters.

Due to the support and foresight of his record label, Nick Drake’s albums had remained on catalogue ever since they were first released, and he had been a reasonably major name since the release of the Fruit Tree box set in 1979, warranting an entry in the Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia Of Rock & Roll as early as 1983. Even during his career, despite poor album sales, Nick Drake was never quite the marginalised obscure visionary that many like to believe he was; initially he had gigged regularly if not enthusiastically, at least three fairly major artists covered his songs during his recording career (and a fourth almost did), and he had featured on the legendary Island Records budget price sampler Nice Enough To Eat, which sold in ridiculous quantities and which I am assured by those who were there at the time could be heard playing in the background of any given house party for months on end. Although it would be a stretch to describe him as especially successful, Nick Drake never really was the doomed shunned outsider that the mainstream just couldn’t understand; after all, I first heard him when I heard The Thoughts Of Mary Jane in the late eighties. On daytime Radio 1.

Family Tree by Nick Drake (Island, 2007).

So protective were Nick Drake’s friends and family of his legacy that they eventually opted to embark on a for once thoroughly worthwhile reissue and repackage campaign, intending to make what little he actually recorded sound and indeed look as good as possible. Painstaking remasters of the three albums were joined by the handpicked compilation A Treasury, and the splendid Family Tree which mixed his home recordings with those made by the rest of his family including sister Gabrielle (yes, her out of UFO) and the beautifully deep and expressive songs of their mother Molly, which would probably otherwise have gone unheard by the general public. Given how fond I am of pointing out how closely Bryter Layter resembles the incidental music from Fingerbobs, incidentally, it’s worth noting that the combination of acoustic guitar, woodwind and dusty formal piano on Family Tree sounds not unlike the lone surviving copy of a copy of a copy of the soundtrack from a lost Smallfilms production. And of course there was also a new version of Time Of No Reply. Except it was and it wasn’t.

Made To Love Magic, as it became, was an admirable and understandable attempt at rebuilding what had been an ad-hoc collection of offcuts and outtakes aimed entirely at devoted fans into something approaching a ‘new’ Nick Drake album. To that end, a good deal of impressive polishing was applied to the offcuts and indeed the outtakes. Regular arranger Robert Kirby added previously unheard orchestration to some of the rejected songs, and there was a major find in the form of an unused take of Three Hours, in a radically different free-jazz experiment with percussionist Reebop Kwakuh Baah and an unknown flautist; hammering out a dramatic guitar jangle to signal to them that it was time to cut loose and go wherever they wanted was a side of Nick Drake nobody had ever really expected to hear. Previously derived from a functional reference tape made at the time, the four final session tracks were properly mixed and mastered from the original multitracks and sounded much sharper and more direct. They also discovered a previously unknown song – Tow The Line – at the end of the session tape; there was a good deal of excitement at the thought of the first proper ‘new’ Nick Drake music since 1979, and the song was bizarrely given its world premiere by Radio 2 introduced by Brad Pitt, although unfortunately it lacked the powerful intensity of the other four tracks and acted as a somewhat muted conclusion to the album. Time Of No Reply had of course finished with Voice From The Mountain – now apparently officially renamed Voices – which looked forward without actually seeing very far.

If Nick Drake had looked a bit further than the sound in the country lane and the sound from the tree, though, he might have seen that while Voice From The Mountain retitled or otherwise would find its way onto Made To Love Magic, several other tracks from Time Of No Reply would sail away into a land of forever. Though some of them came partway back at least. Hanging On A Star was replaced by a less resigned and more pleading take with a busier arrangement also found on that revisited final session tape, and Mayfair by a home demo (along with one of River Man also recorded around the same time) which it was felt was brisker and more informal and showed a controversial ‘jolly’ side to the introspective big-shoed blazer-sporter, while the home demos of Been Smoking Too Long and Strange Meeting II (which sadly never clarifies just how strange Meeting I was) later found their way onto Family Tree.

Made To Love Magic by Nick Drake (Island, 2004).

Others, however, didn’t find their way anywhere. Mysteriously, the home demo of Fly, which if nothing else was interesting to hear shorn of the viola and harpsichord, vanished completely. The original non-orchestrated take of Time Of No Reply was consigned to history. Then there’s the slightly more problematic matter of I Was Made To Love Magic. On Time Of No Reply, this had been presented in its only known recorded form with orchestration by Richard Hewson, later to reinvent himself as The RAH Band of The Crunch and Clouds Across The Moon wedding disco perpetuity. If you’ve not heard it, it’s a woodwind-led Tudor-style arrangement that sounds very unlike Nick Drake, but very much like – if we’re going to keep the Watch With Mother analogy going – the theme from The Herbs. For Made To Love Magic, this was removed using ‘technology’, and replaced with a Robert Kirby arrangement; which, it has to be said, is superb and gives Magic – as it was now retitled – a dark and mysterious air that nobody really would have expected from the original version. The only problem was that the original version was then effectively erased from history, and it somehow became the default position for fans to explain this away on the basis that it was dull, ‘inauthentic’, and generally deserving of having scorn poured on it from a tremendous height. As you can imagine, someone who had listened to the original Time Of No Reply so many times might just have something to say about that.

While it’s easy to see why Nick Drake might have rejected this version back in 1969, it’s not quite as much of an unlistenable aberration as some seem to want to imply. It sounds – presumably deliberately – like a close facsimile of the sort of records Donovan was making around that time, and while that’s not the direction that Five Leaves Left should have gone in, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it as an actual recording. If nothing else it’s at least interesting from a historical and contextual point of view, and it’s not as though there’s exactly universal agreement on how some of his contemporaries’ arrangements were handled; there are those who argue that Jake Thackray’s early records should never have been orchestrated, equally arguably missing the point that they became some of the most thrillingly and wittily arranged records of the late sixties and that unadorned earlier takes exist anyway, while nobody really objects to the full band folk-rock backing of Tim Buckley’s earlier albums, despite the fact that the best readings of the songs featured on them appear on later live recordings. To dismiss it as somehow irrelevant or tainting or actually bad when it isn’t at best smacks of a lack of understanding of context and of sixties music in general. Or, if you will, a love of yourself rather than a love of his music. You can argue that you’ve got a greater understanding of Nick Drake’s music because it ‘speaks’ to you all you like, but there’s no actual reason why you shouldn’t necessarily also feel that way about The Elf by Al Stewart.

So, this isn’t an entitled moan or a demand that all currently available albums are withdrawn and reworked to my specifications – the people who knew and worked with Nick Drake can do what they like with his work, frankly – but it is a couple of words in defence of the original version of I Was Made To Love Magic, and a suggestion that maybe it’s a little bit of a shame that it isn’t available anywhere any more. Even if it’s just for people to snort at it for being ‘inauthentic’.

Made To Love Magic by Nick Drake (Island, 2004).

Buy A Book!

You can find an expanded version of All Its Wonder To Know in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. For added authenticity, why not replace it with one made by another barista at the last minute?

Further Reading

Things Aren’t So Bad, They’re Just More Wrong Than Right is a similar feature about attempts to ‘reclaim’ Scott Walker as something that he quite patently wasn’t; you can find it here.

Further Listening

The lost original arrangement of I Was Made To Love Magic by Nick Drake was one of my choices – along with RuboviaSkymanThe Only Way by Lisa Stansfield, Secrets Of The School UndergroundThe Brain and Jackanory‘s live action adaptation of Starstormers by Nicholas Fisk – when I appeared as the guest on a special edition of Looks Unfamiliar; you can find it here.

One Of These Things First by Nick Drake features in Tape Over This And I Will Thump You, an annotated playlist of tracks that I originally discovered via compilation tapes other people made for me, which you can listen to (and read about!) here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.