The geography of Nick Drake’s London was never exact. His record company famously claimed they had no idea where he lived; received wisdom has it that he spent much of his time in and around Hampstead, possibly Haverstock Hill; the only journalist that ever interviewed him noted that he barely existed at all. And so the shadowy streets and decaying railway arches of Shoreditch seem congruous enough to stage the next movement in the making of Nick Drake’s myth. Michael Burdett – a TV composer by trade – presents a 160-strong collection of photographs entitled the Strange Face Project at the Idea Generation Gallery until February 12. However, Drake fans should not come expecting previously unseen snaps of the tragic singer-songwriter – instead, they’ll find photos of people listening to his music.
If that sounds entirely disposable, readers should know there’s a twist. As a young man working at the BBC, Burdett was asked to throw out some old tapes. In doing so, he came across a tape of Drake’s ‘Cello Song’, marked with a handwritten label that read, simply, ‘with love’. Assuming that it was Drake’s own scribble, he took it home for further investigation and apparently forgot all about it. 20 years later, he came across the tape again, gave it a listen and realized he had something rather precious. Every Nick Drake fan knows ‘Cello Song’ well – it opens the second side of his debut album ‘Five Leaves Left’, as well as the excellent Island Records compilation, ‘An Introduction to Nick Drake’. As Burdett played the tape, he found that it was an alternative arrangement entirely, and probably something that had not been heard by anyone else since it was discarded as an outtake some 30 years earlier.
The stumbling block for Burdett came in getting permission to broadcast it or release it – Nick Drake’s estate were apparently keen that it remained unearthed. Playing it to people on earphones, however, seemed legal enough, and so he did just that, offering random strangers the chance to listen to an unheard Nick Drake recording in exchange for allowing Burdett to photograph them while they were listening.
Cue the next difficulty. Burdett freely admits that he’s no photographer, telling Time Out that he doesn’t even own a camera. If this is true, it’s not obvious from the monochrome exhibition. Some of the photos are exquisite (the Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett above is an excellent example), and the brief narratives that supplement each image – the story behind the ‘photo session’ that went into producing it – are often enthralling. Not every subject knew Nick Drake’s work before they heard the new ‘Cello Song’, and the photographer has included all responses, good, bad or indifferent, much to his credit (not everyone likes Nick Drake, after all). The exhibition works in much the same way as a Nick Drake song does, pulling the audience into its own privacy, leaving them with a sadness, but also somehow soothed. It’s an oddly personal thing.
If there’s one frustration, it’s that you never get to hear the song itself. The pivotal point – the focus of attention – is simply not there, no matter how much you wish it were otherwise. At the opening night, we found ourselves seeking out people who had heard it, just trying to get some kind of firsthand account. Such is the way with Nick Drake. He exists in delicate sounds and half-remembered stories. He barely existed at all.
For info, see gallery.ideageneration.co.uk.
In the archives
This renewed interest in Nick Drake got us thinking. The artist was quietly releasing albums, back in the bloom of Time Out’s youth. Though the reviews written at the time were far and few between, it struck us that – being the hip young gunslingers we were – someone in the office might have had a listen. And, sure enough, they did. On March 17, 1972, the job of reviewing Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ fell to Al Clark, apparently one of very few critics to champion Drake’s work at the time of its release. His review (above) recognises the artist’s mastery, noting that, ‘those that have tried their hand at his material haven’t even scratched the surface yet.’ Clark appears also to have had a little foresight, and there’s a heavy poignancy in his final paragraph. ‘Sadly’, he writes, ‘Nick Drake is likely to remain in the shadows, the private troubadour of those that have been fortunate enough to catch an earful of his 3am introversions.’ Within three years of this review, Drake was dead – possibly a suicide, possibly an accidental overdose. Neither Clark nor Drake could’ve had an inkling of how far from the shadows his music has since crept. The ‘soul with no footprint’ has left a more prominent mark on modern acoustic music than any of his contemporaries could’ve imagined. Jon Wilks