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Friday 17 January 2020

Betty Came By On The Way

I've been reading Rob Young's book Electric Eden, a book that's been sitting and daring me to read it for quite a long time. I bought it cheap somewhere and then put it on the pile next to the bed. It is several inches thick and tells the story of British folk music- 'unearthing Britain's visionary music' says the tag line on the cover- and deals with many bands and artists who I am on musical nodding terms with, people like John Martyn, The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Pentangle, and some who I know a bit better (Bert Jansch). In the middle there's a lengthy section about Nick Drake. To my surprise in the ten years this blog has been going I've never posted any Nick Drake songs.

I remember first buying a Nick Drake album in 1987. I don't know exactly why because I wasn't really listening to anything like Nick Drake in 1987. I must have read a review somewhere, NME or Melody Maker most likely, and taken the plunge. I was quite open to trying things on the basis of a good review which could be costly and risky. 1987 saw the release of an album called Time Of No Reply, a collection of outtakes and alternative versions. The internet tells me there was a four disc box set released at the same time but I didn't buy box sets in the 80s. I bought Time Of No Reply on cassette and when I got home went to my room to listen to it (at this point I knew nothing about the man who made it other than the picture on the cover of him sitting cross legged under a tree and the fact that he died young, self inflicted, in 1974). The cassette hissed a bit and then these fourteen songs whirred by, finger picked acoustic guitars, sometimes played in odd time signatures, sung in a soft and very English voice with references to trees, dogs, sand, magic, wheels, sheds and Mary Jane. Some of the songs were suddenly decorated with sweeping strings. It sounded nothing like The Wedding Present, The Smiths, Billy Bragg,  Talking Heads, PWEI, ACR, New Order, S' Express or anything else I was into in '87. I can't say I got it straight away, it took some time, but over the years that cassette dug its way in. In those days before CD re-issue culture finding albums by people from the recent or distant past was a hit or miss affair, a matter of rummaging in the second hand shops and rooting through bargain bins. I never found another Nick Drake album until the late 90s when I began to fill in the missing pieces on CD.

There's a richness and an intimacy about Nick Drake's songs and also a sense of the unknown about them, there's always something just out of reach. They're atmospheric, frequently beautiful and tragic too- he sold next to nothing during his lifetime and couldn't understand it, retreated into his shell, ever the outsider looking in. River Man was on that cassette I had in the late 80s and I finally replaced it in higher fidelity when the Time Of No Reply album was updated as Made To Love Magic in 2004 (with some songs that gained new strings and new mixes, stereo versions and so on). This version of River Man is from that CD, the Cambridge era dorm demo according to the inner sleeve.

River Man

In 2004 it was released as a 7" single (which I bought- Nick Drake seems a very un- 7" single sort of artist). This version, a video mix from a CD single I think, has a fuller sound, those strings appearing to make your guts suddenly plunge, and birdsong.

1 comment:

The Swede said...

The original, pre-string arrangement version of 'Time Of No Reply' is my all-time favourite Nick Drake song, though there is virtually nothing to dislike in any of his remarkable output. I don't think I've heard this particular mix of 'River Man' before.