When 26-year-old Nick Drake passed away in November 1974 at his parents’ home south of Birmingham, England, his three albums on Island Records (1969’s Five Leaves Left, 1971’s Bryter Layter, and 1972’s Pink Moon) had sold fewer than 20,000 copies in total, he’d played perhaps a few dozen concerts in his life, and had given only one interview. His death received scant attention even in the British music press, and according to family members he considered himself a failure.
But Drake’s music seemed destined to endure.
When Drake’s manager and producer Joe Boyd sold his Witchseason Productions to Island, he reportedly insisted that Drake’s albums never be deleted from Island’s catalog, convinced that they’d someday find favor among record buyers. “There are a lot of things which feel like they’re a part of their time, and they have a fascination for that reason,” Boyd told journalist Richie Unterberger in 1996. “But I think Nick’s music doesn’t really feel that way. It feels kind of outside of time in a way, and so it doesn’t date. I think that his originality and intelligence of what he did...people, once they sit down quietly and listen to a Nick Drake record, very rarely lose interest after that.”
The ineffable qualities that made Drake’s records poor candidates for commercial success in their time allowed them to connect with audiences decades later. As Brian Cullman wrote in Musician magazine in 1979, during the first round of several rediscoveries of Drake’s work:
In the course of a very short life…. Nick Drake recorded three albums of unmatched beauty and power that have actually moved people and touched people in ways that few records ever do…. [F]ive years after his death, the songs seem stronger, more full-bodied and more fully-rooted than they sounded six, seven, eight, or nine years ago. Like operas made of stone, they sing and they are quiet….
By the 1980s, a new generation of admirers began moving Drake’s music from the margins to the mainstream. Kate Bush, Television’s Tom Verlaine, and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck dropped Drake’s name in interviews. Robert Smith of The Cure made it known that he took his band’s name from a line in Drake’s “Time Has Told Me.” The Dream Academy dedicated its 1985 hit, “Life in a North Town,” to Drake. Upon discovering the latter fact, Island’s then-new head of A&R, who just happened to have gone to school with Drake, promptly put together the first “best of” compilation of Drake’s music, Heaven in a Wild Flower, which sold as many copies as all of Drake’s previous releases combined.
Attention to Drake gained more steam in the 1990s. Papers like the Chicago Tribune and New York Times published short articles on his cult appeal, and the BBC released several radio and television documentaries on Drake. But the dam finally broke when music video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris decided to use Drake’s song “Pink Moon” in their 1999 Volkswagen commercial. After selling around 100 copies per week prior to the VW ad, Pink Moon began moving more than 1,000 copies per week. Suddenly, Drake’s releases were in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
My introduction to Drake came during my freshman year of high school. Disenchanted with the increasing superficiality of Rolling Stone, my dad began buying U.K. music magazines. Perhaps the first issue he picked up was the February 1997 issue of Mojo with Drake on the cover. Never having heard Drake’s music, I read the article with interest. When I arrived at Ohio University a few years later, I bought the CD of Drake’s second album, 1971’s Bryter Layter, at Haffa’s Records.
Bryter Layter remains my favorite album of Drake’s, and I’m far from alone in singing its praises. Drake’s first English-language biographer, Patrick Humphries, calls it “Drake’s masterpiece.” Both Boyd, and the album’s engineer, John Wood, told journalist Arthur Lebow, who wrote the liner notes to Drake’s Fruit Tree box, that Bryter Layter is the only perfect album they made. “It’s one of those albums that I can listen to without ever thinking, ‘I should have done this better,’” Boyd has said. “I enjoy it every time I hear it.”
Thanks to Boyd and Wood, Bryter Layter is Drake’s most sonically rich album and a prime example of the late-’60s, early-’70s British folk sound that both Boyd and Wood — who also worked with John Martyn, Fairport Convention, and the Incredible String Band, among others — were so instrumental in shaping.
But the true greatness of Bryter Layter lays in Drake's songwriting. On his second release, Drake produced some of his most evocative lyrics and captivating melodies. As Unterberger put it:
Critics…identify Drake’s “peak” at their peril, but it may be that Bryter Layter was his most accessible work. From a purely musical viewpoint, it’s his most diverse, with Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks from Fairport Convention providing most of the rhythm section work, and appearances by John Cale and Richard Thompson; female soul singers Doris Troy and Pat Arnold even do backup vocals… [and] Robert Kirby again adds some beautiful classical-influenced orchestral arrangements.
For all those reasons and more, Bryter Layter is the subject of this edition of TBVO.
Despite its obvious quality, Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left, received mixed reviews and sank without a trace, selling a scant 3,000 copies. Island botched the album’s rollout, which was marred by production flubs and a total lack of advertising. However, at least part of the album’s struggles could be attributed to Drake’s growing stage fright and the first signs of the depression that would consume much of the rest of his life, both of which hampered Boyd and Island’s attempts to promote the record.
“I was very surprised [the album didn’t sell],” Wood told Uncut in 2014. “I can’t remember anybody who wasn’t bowled over by it. But it didn’t go anywhere. Partly because he didn’t have any reputation performing, and partly because I’m not sure Island were as enthusiastic as they might have been.”
As Island’s David Betteridge told Humphries, “Nick’s albums were well received inside Island, but there were certainly the questions: ‘Where’s the single?’ And ‘Is he on the road?’ And if you can’t answer those two questions….”
Drake’s first major concert appearance, at the Royal Festival Hall in September 1969, gave Boyd hope that Drake could make it as a performer on the folk circuit. At that gig, Drake supported Fairport Convention, whose bassist Ashley Hutchings had recommended Drake to Boyd, in their first post-crash performance.
“It was the most successful gig Nick ever did,” Boyd explained. “In retrospect, it made us overconfident. The situation was so unusual: the audience had assigned seats and it was the Festival Hall, so you didn’t talk or drink beer. And it was very reverential because of the death of [Fairport’s] Martin Lamble — everyone was very respectful. Nick tuned his guitar for three minutes and didn’t say anything. Then he played, and they clapped. Loudly. You just felt, wow, this can work: Nick is so great and his music is so mesmerizing, he doesn’t have to tell jokes, he can go out to work.”
But beneath the surface, even that triumph was tenuous. “It was a good place for him, but he was cripplingly nervous,” Martyn told the Drake fanzine Pynk Moon. “I mean, he was distraught before the gig. It was rather embarrassing in fact to see him. He was distinctly uncomfortable on-stage. I mean, the music was fine, but he just didn’t like being there at all ... I got the impression it was costing him too much to go on the stage. It was just like no amount of applause or anything else would ever have paid him back the mental effort and energy he had to expend.”
Buoyed by the Royal Festival Hall gig, Boyd booked a tour for Drake. “My intention was to go and see him, cheer him on, shush people who were talking too loud,” he told Mojo. “But I was either in the studio, or in America, and he did three of these dates and got so discouraged by the audience response that he cancelled the rest of the tour.”
“I spoke to the promoter of one of the shows,” Boyd wrote in his stellar autobiography, White Bicycles. “He said people talked a lot and when Nick started tuning between songs they talked more and bought more beer. The noise of glasses clinking and conversation became louder than Nick’s music. He never said anything on stage, just tuned and sang, and when the noise became too much, looked at his shoes for a minute then got up and walked off the stage.”
Faced with this new roadblock, Boyd’s conclusion was simple: “My only response was, ‘We have to do a better album.’”
There were models for what Boyd wanted to accomplish with Drake. “I was looking at Leonard Cohen who was saying, ‘I’m a poet, not a singer’ and sold 100,000 copies of that first album without a public appearance,” Boyd remembered. “I said, ‘If Leonard Cohen can do it, we can.’”
Thus, when Drake entered Sound Techniques studio in early 1970 to begin work on Bryter Layter with Boyd and Wood, their shared goal was to make an album that would propel Drake to some measure of commercial success. “[Bryter Layter] was, in fact, deliberately a more popular approach,” Wood told me. “Not a pop record, but a more, you know, accessible, let’s call it, approach. I hate that term commercial.”
Despite the mystery surrounding Drake’s life and his posthumous image as an almost otherworldly, ascetic figure, there’s little doubt that Drake yearned for some measure of critical and chart recognition. As Drake’s Cambridge University friend and string arranger Robert Kirby told a Nick Drake fan site, “Nick seems to have become the patron saint of the depressed…. But the danger is that when fans take on this intensely personal relationship, they can want to be the only ones to own the experience. They sometimes want everything to be just him and guitar and do not want to believe that, particularly with Bryter Layter, he was crying out for commercial success.”
Drake’s motivation, however, didn’t seem to be fame and fortune. He was born into a well-to-do family and seemingly could’ve counted on his parents for financial support. But he lived in a series of spartan flats with little to occupy his time beyond practicing his guitar. Instead, Drake sought chart success out of a desire for his music to be heard by as many people as possible.
The unmistakable sense that Drake’s second album needed to be something remarkable led to sessions that stretched over nine months. Not that Drake bristled at the length. “He loved the studio,” Boyd told Music Radar in 2013. “I think he was probably happier there than most places.”
By 1970, Sound Techniques had established itself as one of the premier studios in the U.K. Founded in 1965 by Wood and Geoff Frost, who’d met while working for Morris Levy’s Sound Studio, Sound Techniques became the Boyd’s go-to studio for his work with Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, and Drake, among others.
Frost and Wood built Sound Techniques from the husk of a 19th-century dairy in Chelsea. The studio consisted of a large room with a high ceiling in the center and two low ceilings on either side, above which sat Wood’s control room and Frost’s equipment workshop, respectively. Their goal with Sound Techniques was to create a more vibrant American sound than most British studios, and the varying ceiling heights afforded Wood a diversity of sonic options within a relatively small space. The result, apparent in all Sound Techniques recordings, was an atmosphere that threaded the needle between the “live” sound of Motown and the “dead” sound of the Record Plant. As a 2008 profile of the studio in Sound on Sound explained:
There is a distinctively rich, colorful sound and style that filters through not just the Joe Boyd records but many other Sound Techniques recordings, to the extent that people have referred to it as the John Wood sound or the Sound Techniques sound. As with all the great studios in the era before excessive multitracking, the individual facets of a particular room gave each studio a unique sound, and the Sound Techniques live room certainly contributed to the great sounds it produced, with the high ceiling in the middle, the space under the office on the right–hand side that gave such a big string sound, and the sloping floor. The natural leakage between microphones would allow the room’s character to come shining through.
Even three decades later, Boyd’s enthusiasm for Sound Techniques is inescapable. “When I listen to records we made together in the sixties,” he wrote in White Bicycles, “I can still hear the air in the studio and the full dimension of the sounds the musicians created for us. I can hear the depth of Nick Drake’s breath as well as his voice, the grit in the crude strings of Robin Williamson’s gimbri and Dave Mattacks’s drum technique spread out warmly in aural Technicolor across the stereo spectrum.”
Frost and Wood sprung for cutting-edge gear like an EMI limiter, Altec compressors, a variety of microphones, including Neumann 67s, KM56s, KM54s, AKG D19s, and an RCA ribbon. However, their tight budget meant that they constructed their own monitors, tape machines, and mixing desk. “The funds were so limited…most of what we had, we made,” Wood told me.
Frost and Wood’s decision to build their own mixing desk unexpectedly created a new line of business for Sound Techniques, whose consoles became an in-demand piece of equipment, installed everywhere from Trident Studios in the U.K. to Sunset Sound and Elektra Studios in the U.S. “We never started out to manufacture mixers for anyone other than ourselves,” Frost told Sound on Sound. “It came as a bit of a surprise when people saw the first desk at Chelsea and said, ‘Cor, this sounds great, can you make one for us?’”
While Frost focused on gear, Wood took the role of studio manager, responsible for overseeing most of the sessions at Sound Techniques, including Drake’s. Wood quickly developed a reputation as a hands-on engineer instrumental in shaping the sound of the albums recorded at Sound Techniques. “I met John Wood and I liked him, and I liked the feel of the studio…,” Boyd told Sound on Sound in a 2006 profile:
One of the unique aspects of my relationship with the engineer in those days was that John sassed a lot. When other people who were used to working on sessions would come and work with us there were a lot of raised eyebrows. Basically, John does not suffer fools gladly, and that was the way I learned how to work, and I relied on it…. I liked the fact that I’d say “Let’s do this,” and John would say “You what? You must be out of your fucking mind!” And then I’d have to think about how certain I was about wanting to do something. I found it a great way of working, and John made a huge contribution to those records.
In a way I would say that there were three stages to the process. The first stage concerned the relationship with the artist about the music — what were we really doing here? — which was my job. Then came the actual recording, in which John took a stronger role than I did, in terms of the process — we’ll have the guitars here and the drums here, that was all John. And then once the sound was all set up, I got involved again, saying “Let’s do it again a little faster,” or “Let’s do it again a little slower,’ or ‘I don’t like the way you’re singing it.’
It’s very hard to separate how everything worked out. John, clearly, was responsible for the kind of sound that is on those records, but I think also I had a part to play.
Despite Drake’s reputation for almost monosyllabic shyness, he wasn’t afraid to assert his will in the studio, even with the presence of two strong personalities in Boyd and Wood. “The first strong memory I have if Nick Drake was at the second of third sessions for Five Leaves Left,” Wood told Arthur Lubow, who wrote the liner notes to the original edition of Fruit Tree:
Nick started getting hotter and hotter under the collar. He was very young, and he had struck me as a person you could push about. Some people in a recording session will do what you tell them. But he was getting quietly more and more aggravated, and in the end, he dug his heels in and dismissed the arrangements [Boyd had devised with Richard Hewson]. He said he’d got his friend at Cambridge, Robert Kirby, he thought would be much more sympathetic to what he was doing. Robert had never before done anything in his life in a recording studio. But two weeks later we booked him together with a bunch of musicians — a smaller bunch than the first time, I remember. And we were flabbergasted, he was so good.
Particularly with Drake’s aversion to live performance, studio work was central to Drake’s creativity, and he took it even more seriously than most artists. “I went to the studio a lot when Nick was recording…,” Linda Thompson told Mojo. “I had no idea how important those records would become to legions of people. I was, however, aware of a magic that surrounded Nick. You’ve heard about people who save it all for the work. He took that to a different level. Unlike most sessions, there wasn’t much levity in the air. Honestly, it was a bit like church when he was singing and playing.”
Drake’s precision in the studio quickly earned the respect of both Boyd and Wood, as well as the musicians who appeared on his albums. “Nick was the least problem,” Boyd told Music Radar. “Of course you mic’d him close, but the point was that he never made a mistake in the studio. He never sang out of tune. He never missed a guitar note. You could really forget about monitoring him — you really monitored everybody else to make sure they didn't make mistakes, and if they did you'd stop and go back to the top, but Nick you didn't even have to bother with. And then you could have the pleasure of listening to the whole thing, including Nick, at the end.”
“Nick was a very underrated guitarist,” Richard Thompson, who contributed guitar on Drake’s first two albums, told Mojo. “Playing his own music he was quite extraordinary. He played immaculately and uniquely, on acoustic guitar, which isn’t an easy instrument to play in a flawless way. You get buzzes, you get fret noise. Not with Nick…. He’s really worked at it very hard. I get the feeling music was the overriding interest in his life to the detriment of anything else.”
“Nick Drake and the McGarrigle sisters, as far as I'm concerned, are probably the really artists that I've enjoyed and admire most that have ever worked with,” Wood told me. “Nick was not only a great writer, but he was just totally in command of everything he did…. He just came across larger than life, confident… He knew what he wanted. And as long as nobody messed him about, he was easy to work with. I never found him difficult. Ever.”
Despite the impression among some fans that Bryter Layter’s more accessible sound came about over Drake’s objections, those who worked with him make clear that Drake’s single-minded focus on his music meant that little was done without his full approval, particularly by the time the recording for Bryter Layter commenced. “Since Five Leaves Left, I think Nick had become a little more assertive in the studio,” Wood explained in the liner notes to the reissue of Fruit Tree. “He was laying down a bit more what he wanted when the takes first went down. When we did Five Leaves Left, he wouldn’t come out initially and state what he felt. I think he as a little bit more upfront when we did Bryter Layter.”
“I know I shouldn’t, but I still get depressed by supposition that Joe and myself somehow destroyed this album against Nick’s wishes,” Kirby has said. “Nick always had the final word. He made the decisions…. [Bryter Layter] was a conscious effort on his part to be more commercial…. Bryter Layter is 100 percent Nick’s work and how he wanted it at that time.”
Part of Drake, Boyd, and Wood’s shared plan to make Bryter Layter more accessible was the addition of rhythm section, which was lacking on Five Leaves Left. “There was an underlying feeling that Bryter Layter needed to be a bit more accessible in some ways,” Wood told Uncut. “Five Leaves Left is fairly formal in its structures. A rhythm section would give the album a wider appeal.”
“There’s hardly a drum kit on Fives Leaves Left, whereas there are drums on every track of Bryter Layter except ‘Fly,’” Boyd noted in the Fruit Tree reissue’s liner notes. “So the whole feel is different. But it’s funny you don’t really remark on that until you read the sleeve notes. That is due to the consistency in John’s sound and his whole approach to recording Nick.”
Indeed, all of Drake’s records share a restrained sonic naturalism, one which cuts across many of the records made by Wood at Sound Techniques. But much had changed in the studio between the recording of Five Leaves Left and the recording of Bryter Layter. “Between the two records, we actually changed the acoustics in the studio,” Wood explained. “So by the time we did Bryter Layter we had put in another four tracks [bringing the total to eight]. We changed the acoustics a bit. We made it a bit more controllable.”
In preparation for the Bryter Layter sessions, Drake traveled to The Angel, the old pub in Little Hadham where the members of Fairport Convention were living, to rehearse with bass player Dave Pegg, drummer Dave Mattacks, and (according to some accounts) guitarist Richard Thompson. “The idea was that it was always going to go down with the rhythm section, or most of it was going to go down with the rhythm section,” Wood told me, “and the rhythm section was going to be Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks, which is what you’d expect.”
“It was sometime during early 1970,” Pegg told Humphries:
It was actually very good fun, because we had a rehearsal room there, which was very rarely used…. Nick came down for about three or four days…. He was so introverted, you could never tell if he liked stuff or not, but we got an awful lot done in that time. It 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.
The other rhythm section that would back Drake on Bryter Layter consisted of Americans Ed Carter and Ed Kowalski, part of The New Nadir, whom Boyd had signed to Witchseason before the group disbanded and Carter and Kowalski joined The Beach Boys’ touring unit.
“One of the things I remember about this record was how much fun it was to see Nick playing with the rhythm section,” Boyd has said. “Most of the tracks were done differently from the way we did them on Five Leaves Left, where the vocal was usually recorded live. With this record, because you had drums in the room, and Nick with his guitar, we had to overdub Nick’s voice on a lot more tracks than before. The album was therefore more about production in the contemporary sense.”
According to Pegg, the sessions for Bryter Layter were loose and happy:
It was a very exciting record for me to be involved in…you got things like a brass section, people like Ray Warleigh there. There were some really interesting players on some of that stuff. Most of it was done live, and it was done fairly quickly. You'd have the benefit of the arrangements that Robert Kirby did — he was a fantastic arranger, who had a really original approach.... It was a noticeable development from learning the stuff at The Angel, which was all very skeletal. Joe was more or less in charge of it in the studio. It was very much Joe and John Wood and Robert Kirby. It was actually a very fun thing to do. All those Bryter Layter tracks. You got a real buzz off what was happening, which is not always the way with recording. Moments of great joy in the studio very rarely happen…. Bryter Layter was certainly one of my best and most enjoyable experiences at Sound Techniques.
Despite Drake’s push for a contemporary sound and commercial success with Bryter Layter, he wasn’t exactly thinking in the mainstream pop idiom. According to friends and family, the albums that inspired Drake were somewhat esoteric: Robert Johnson’s King of The Delta Blues Singers, Randy Newman’s debut, Love’s Forever Changes, Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. With the exception of the spartan King of the Delta Blues Singers — whose sound would factor into Drake’s final album, Pink Moon — all the records that influenced Drake blended folk and jazz influences with pop and orchestral instrumentation in eclectic and unpredictable ways.
“All the strings and the flutes and horn arrangements, he and Robert worked those out together,” Boyd told Classic Album Sundays’ Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy in 2013. “He definitely [wanted it that way]. There’s no question that Nick was fully engaged in that process with Robert. And when Robert an arrangement, [Drake] was always happy. [It was] gone over in great detail before Nick brought it in [to the studio].”
Wood remembers being thrilled with the material that Drake earmarked for his second album. “I thought the quality had upped,” he said in the Fruit Tree liner notes. “I loved it. It was just great fun to record…. It’s the quality of the playing and the quality of the people you’re working with that matters, and Bryter Layter has that quality in spades.”
The album opens with “Introduction,” one of Bryter Layter’s three instrumentals, an idea of Drake’s that irked Boyd. As Boyd recounted later:
They’re curious things because they sort of fit, in a way, but they’re much more mainstream than the songs. They’re less remarkably original. By this time my communication with Nick was not as good as it had been on the first album. He was more introverted, more stubborn, more resistant. He just put his head down and said, “I want to record these instrumentals,” and he wouldn’t really discuss it. He just said, “That’s what I want.” My opinion of about Nick was: The first record hasn’t sold, but the guy is a genius, so I’m not going to argue with him. Anyway, I’ve sort of blotted out a lot about the instrumentals. I wasn’t that keen on them. They were mercifully short.
Boyd pushed Drake to record “Things Behind the Sun,” a track he’d already composed by the time of Bryter Layter, but which ultimately wouldn’t be used until Pink Moon. “I found [the instrumentals] very MOR,” Boyd told Mojo in 2018. “He wanted to open and close both sides of the record with them. Four instrumentals. I let him do them with Robert, and we managed to get three done, but I was leaving for California and I just put my foot down. I said, ‘Nick, we’re out of money, we’re over-budget, and we’re not going to have a special session to record a fourth instrumental.’ He was pissed off.”
Drake had albums that used symphonic instrumentals to set the tone in mind when planning Bryter Layter. “The instrumentals were his idea and inspired by [The Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds and, to a certain extent, [The 5th Dimension’s] The Magic Garden,” Kirby explained in one interview.
Expanding on their writing in the liner notes of the Fruit Tree box, Kirby said, “[B]efore Five Leaves Left came out, Nick and I were working on the instrumental ‘Introduction’ for Bryter Layter…. There were never meant to be vocals on this. Nick talked a great deal about concept albums, which were out at the time, and wanting to use instrumental overtures and links between tracks.”
The lack of the fourth instrumental ultimately somewhat undercut the thematic coherence of their use, at least in the vinyl format. However, in its digital form, the instrumentals divide the album beautifully even if, as Boyd contends, they’re less striking than the other songs on the album. The minute-and-a-half long “Introduction,” with Drake’s elegant fingerpicked guitar figure, Kirby’s sweeping string arrangement, and Mattacks’s padded-stick tom-tom flourishes pulls the listener into the world of Bryter Layter. The instrumental title track fills the sixth slot on the 10-track album, its mellow vibe led by Lyn Dobson’s beguiling flute. Perhaps the strongest of the instrumentals, “Sunday” closes the album, with Kirby’s string arrangement and Ray Warleigh’s flute trading off its repeated melodic figure.
“We probably did them all at the same time,” Boyd has said, “because they’ve all got Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks. The Ray Warleigh and Lynn Dobson overdubs were probably done at different times.”
The second track on Bryter Layter, “Hazey Jane II,” is its first proper song and one of the standout tracks from Drake’s career. Drake biographer Trevor Dann calls “Hazey Jane II” “a rude musical awakening for any listener lulled by the overture into expecting Nick’s second album to be another gentle, pastoral one like his first.” Dann continues:
Nick strums instead of fingerpicking. There’s a pumping brass arrangement by Kirby, echoing James Last or even Herb Alpert, and a jaunty folk-rock bass guitar instead of a languid jazzy double bass. And drums — drums on a Nick Drake album for goodness sake! Nick’s vocal is a shock too…words tumbling over each other. The precise and perfectionist Nick even runs out of breath before the end of the first verse, struggling to hit the right note on the word “morning”…. [A]fter the initial shock, the splendor of the song emerges. Based on the same tuning as Introduction, though capo’d up a tone, it is one of Nick’s great melodies and includes one of his best-known and most revealing lyrics….
Drake’s voice anchors the song in the center of the stereo image with Mattacks’s jaunty, propulsive drums pushed deep in the soundstage, intertwining with Pegg’s thundering bass. Drake’s acoustic leans to the left of the soundstage, while the horns begin towards the right of the track, joined by Richard Thompson’s twangy second-position Stratocaster guitar fills, which adds a country flavor to the horns’ R&B overtones. “When I played on Bryter Layter I was brought in as an afterthought,” Thompson told Mojo. “I never heard back from Nick about my playing on those tracks, but then I never expected to.”
As the song progresses, the horn parts become more elaborate, with intertwining lines panned hard right and hard left. According to Kirby, he and Drake “listened to various Altantic/Stax things” when devising the horn parts for “Hazey Jane II,” but the sound “came out very English.” Boyd sees this as one of the track’s strengths. “‘Hazey Jane II was a revelation because Robert came up with this fantastic horn part, which didn’t sound like anything else at the time,” Boyd noted in the Fruit Tree reissue’s liner notes. “It had nothing to do with R&B horns or with jazz horns. It was unique without being weird and very mainstream in many ways….”
Lyrically, “Hazey Jane II” is one of Drake’s most beloved songs. Though it’s precise meaning has been hotly debated, with lines like the opening couplet “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” and “And all the friends that you once knew are left behind / They kept you safe and so secure amongst the books and all the records of your lifetime” the track seems to refer to the difficulties of managing the anxieties of adulthood and modern life, more broadly. As writer Peter Hogan put it, the takeaway seems to be that “slowing things down is the only way to stay sane, with a grassroots approach to changing the world: begin with your brother and your sister (and by implication, yourself).”
“Hazey Jane II” closes with perhaps Drake’s most famous line. As songwriter and writer Robin Frederick, who knew Drake, has explained:
Nick, English scholar that he was, wrote and envoy at the close of “Hazey Jane II.” Defined as a short verse of praise or explanation at the end of the poem, an envoy is a devise that is not used in pop songs…. At the end of “Hazey Jane II,” Nick wrote something he apparently wanted us to remember. It’s the line from the work that is most often quoted, and the one that may give us the clearest insight into his troubled life: “If song were lines in a conversation / The situation would be fine.”
The next two tracks on Bryter Layter, “At the Chime of the City Clock” and “One of These Things First,” mark Kowalski’s first appearance on drums, joined on bass by Pegg on the former and Carter on the latter. “It’s interesting we had all these different combinations: Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg and Mike Kowalski, Ed Carter and Mike Kowalski,” Boyd has said. “But generally with Nick’s guitar at the center of things and John’s approach to the sound, they sound pretty seamless. I really liked Mike Kowalski as a drummer. He was really American…. I think Mike Kowalski drove things a bit harder than Dave Mattacks. Both ‘At the Chime of the City Clock’ and ‘One of These Things First’ kick ass more than the other tracks.”
Kowalski told Humphries about his experiences working on Bryter Layter:
Nick was shy, but he obviously knew his stuff. As a guitarist, I’m sure he knew Django Reinhardt and Joe Pass, his jazz playing was strong and rootsy. The drummer's booth at Sound Techniques was tiny, but it was a big, comfortable studio. Joe Boyd hardly said a word. 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. I remember there were quite a few takes. He wouldn’t let the improvisation get out of hand. He would recognize certain accents, he would hear you playing embellishments, and ask you to accentuate that. “At The Chime Of A City Clock” was like that.
“At the Chime of the City Clock” deals with the emotional ambivalence Drake felt towards his life in his adopted city of London. Certain lines (“Stay indoors beneath the floors / Talk with neighbors only; The games you play make people say / You’re either weird or lonely”) palpably convey Drake’s loneliness. Yet the song also captures the excitement of the city and the sense of possibility it embodied for a young man like Drake, still hopeful that his musical dreams would come true. Kirby has pointed to the lyrics of “Chime” as an example of Astral Weeks’ influence on Drake. “It's funny, [Astral Weeks has] a track about walking around Ladbroke Grove [‘Slim Slow Slider’], and Nick's got ‘At The Chime Of A City Clock,’” Kirby told Humphries. “There are similarities. And yes, we were listening to [Astral Weeks] a lot at the time.”
The structure of the song mirrors Drake’s contradictory feelings about city life. As Frederick notes:
Shifts between minor and major in the music parallel the mixed emotions described in the lyrics. One minute everything’s looking sunny, the next he’s on his knees praying for warmth. Both the verse and chorus feature the same musical pattern — descending chords over a droning, single-note bass line, but the verse (“A city freeze…”) is in Ab minor while the chorus (“And at the chime of a city clock…”) is in Ab major. We’re in essentially the same place, but there’s a big difference in the emotional tone: the minor verse is sorrowful and anxious, the major chorus upbeat and positive.
Sonically, the track opens with Nick’s fingerpicked acoustic pattern in the left channel. Pegg’s bass and Kowalski’s then enter in the center of the stereo image, soon to be joined by Drake’s vocal. Though it only adds to the beautiful room ambience of the finish track, Drake’s vocal bleeds into his acoustic guitar, and vice versa, as Wood demonstrates in the A Skin Too Few documentary.
Kirby’s subtle string arrangement, spread across the stereo image, comes in on the first chorus. The song’s musical highlight, Warleigh’s fluttering-yet-soulful alto sax, enters midway through the second verse in the right channel and persists throughout the duration of the track.
The next song, “One of These Things First,” shakes the recurrent melancholy of “Chime” for a more insistently optimistic mood. Frederick calls it “probably Drake’s most accessible song…[an] up-tempo jazz waltz…[with] a catchy melody, a memorable hook, and a lyric that just about anyone can identify with.”
Lyrically, “One of These Things First” balances the optimism of possibility with the certainty of paths foreclosed. As the song opens, Drake sings, “I could have been a sailor / Could have been a cook; A real live lover / Could have been a book; I could have been a signpost /Could have been a clock; As simple as a kettle / Steady as a rock.” Despite the “could have” refrain, Drake recites these possibilities with equanimity. Combined with his invocation of inanimate objects, the song hints less at failure than at reincarnation.
Like “Chime,” “One of These Things First” begins with Drake’s fingerpicked acoustic in the left channel. Before Drake’s vocal begins, it’s joined in the right channel Paul Harris’s soaring piano. These two pieces are held together in the center by a drum track with keen hi-hat work from Kowalski — who has called "One of These Things First” “a special track” — and Carter’s effectively busy bassline, which is played on Kowalski’s ’54 Fender Precision bass.
The fifth track on the album, “Hazey Jane I,” opens with perhaps Drake’s most beguilingly complex guitar phrase. Drake’s acoustic is joined almost immediately by Pegg’s loping, lyrical bassline and Kirby’s gentle string arrangement. As on “Introduction,” Mattacks eschews his snare and instead accents “Hazey Jane I” with muted tom rolls. Buried deep in the track in Drake on Hammond B3 organ.
Lyrically, “Hazey Jane I” seems to be one of Drake’s few relatively straightforward love songs. Drake asks “Do you curse where you come from? / Do you swear in the night?; Will it mean much to you / If I treat you right?” As Boyd put it on Sound Opinions, “There is a sadness of an outsider looking in either yearning after ‘Hazey Jane’ or another girl…[asking] ‘Which will you go for? Which will you choose?’”
After the album’s title-track instrumental, erstwhile Velvet Underground member John Cale makes his first appearance on Bryter Layter with “Fly.” In White Bicycles, Boyd recalled how Cale’s enthusiasm for Drake’s music moved him to insert himself into the recording session:
After a session [for Nico’s Desertshore] one day, he 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 amazed. “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 pick-up for the viola, an amp, a Fender bass and 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 relax and be carried along.
According to Cale, “[Drake] was a very quiet guy. It was very difficult to figure out what was going on in his mind. He made music with a real sensuality — very different from English folk music.”
The entirety of “Fly” consists of Drake on acoustic, Pegg on bass, and Cale on harpsichord and viola. According to Dann, “As with the opening two tracks on the album, ‘Fly’ uses the same tuning as its preceding instrumental. This may explain the sequencing of the original album. But Nick’s impassioned plea for a second chance is one of the sublime moments of Bryter Layter and surely deserved greater prominence.”
Lyrically, it’s hard to tell if “Fly” is directed at a lover, a friend, or a higher power. Drake implores, “Please give me a second grace / Please give me a second face.” Either way, it’s affecting stuff. Cale’s intricate instrumentation buoys Drake’s lyrics and descending guitar line, giving what could be a somber song an uplifting air.
Bryter Layter’s next track, “Poor Boy,” is one of the most atypical Drake tracks, and (at least among certain fans) one of the most controversial. By Drake’s sparse standards, the song’s arrangement is positively busy. For the only time on the record, Drake plays electric guitar. He’s joined by Pegg on bass and Kowalski on drums. Warleigh retuns on alto sax. Then South African jazz pianist Chris McGregor and backing singers P.P. Arnold and Doris Troy are added to the mix.
According to Boyd, Drake, Pegg, and Kowalski recorded the core of the track together. Drake opens the track with what sounds like a hollow-body jazz electric in the left channel. It’s joined on the left by Kowalski’s drums, buried deep in the mix. As the track kicks in, McGregor’s transcendent piano splashes across the stereo field, Pegg’s bass thunders in, and what sounds like a second, this time acoustic, guitar enters on the right.
Like Cale’s contributions to Bryter Layter, McGregor’s performance on “Poor Boy” was serendipitous. As Boyd wrote in White Bicycles:
The day we recorded the track for “Poor Boy,” I had spent the morning mixing a record by the South African jazz pianist Chris McGregor. When Nick and the other musicians arrived, Chris asked whether he could stick around to listen…. When Nick, Dave Pegg and Mike Kowalski started running through the song, I turned and saw Chris grinning. I asked whether he was thinking what I was thinking. While John went to get the microphones, I buzzed down to the musicians in the studio, “You’re getting a pianist in a minute,” then introduced Nick to Chris. He had a look at the chord sheet Nick wrote out and we turned on the tape. That first-take piano solo on “Poor Boy” is one of my favorite moments in the studio.
McGregor’s flourishes throughout the track, punctuated by his solo midway through, define the track. But Warleigh’s sax solos late in the song, which seem to anticipate some of the textures David Bowie would explore later in the decade, give McGregor’s piano work plenty of competition.
The most controversial piece of the track, however, is Arnold and Troy’s backing vocals.
Drake’s lyrics for “Poor Boy” mix what on bootlegged acoustic demos of the track sounds like self-pity and self-mockery. Drake grapples with the paradox of his loneliness and depression in the face of his privileged upbringing and his opportunities in the music business:
Never sing for my supper
I never helped my neighbor
Never do what is proper
For my fair share of labor
I’m a poor boy
And I’m a rover
Count your coins and
Throw them over my shoulder
I may grow older
How cold it grows
And nobody sees
How shaky my knees
How steep my stairs
And nobody smiles
If I cross their stiles
Oh poor boy
So sorry for himself
Oh poor boy
So worried for his health
Boyd explained to Mojo how the lyrics inspired Arnold and Troy’s involvement. “On his original demo of ‘Poor Boy,’ Nick sang the line ‘Oh poor boy/So sorry for himself,’ mocking himself,” Boyd noted. “The minute I heard that I thought of emulating the mocking female voices on Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long, Marianne.’ Nick said, ‘Do you really think so?’ and in retrospect that may have been him saying, ‘I don’t think so.’”
Because of these taunting backing vocals, biographer Dann has called Drake’s demo “immensely superior.” Many fans agree (though I’m not one of them).
Even Boyd has speculated that Drake felt that the track “got away from him.” However, it’s hard to square this supposition with Boyd, Wood, and Kirby’s shared insistence that Drake was willing to put his foot down in the studio, especially during the recording of Bryter Layter.
Indeed, Kirby insists that Drake liked the backing vocals. “Recently the female vocals on ‘Poor Boy’ have come in for some stick,” he noted in a 2007 interview. “To start with, Doris Troy and P.P. Arnold were two of the best ever, and that phrase is supposed to mock Nick’s self-pitying. It is supposed to be viciously sarcastic. I was there and Nick actually told them what to sing and how to sing it!”
The final track with vocals on Bryter Layter, “Northern Sky,” is arguably the album’s most beloved song and one of the signature tracks of Drake’s career. As Frederick wrote in the Fruit Tree reissue’s liner notes:
The song is nothing more nor less than a demonstration of the power of simplicity and repetition in the hands of a master songwriter. “Northern Sky” consists of little more than two chords and two melodic phrases with a turnaround at the end, yet it has been singled out by NME as “the greatest English love song of modern times.” How did he do it? Believe me, I wish I knew.
According to Beverly Martyn, Drake wrote “Northern Sky” while staying with her and John. “He wrote that one around us,” she told the Guardian. “We had a tree in the garden across the pavement — hence the line, ‘Smelt sweet breezes at 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. Just lovely.”
“Northern Sky” begins with Drake’s strummed acoustic, now in the right channel for a change. Cale’s Hammond enters on the left at the beginning of the track. Soon Cale’s celeste joins Drake’s guitar on the right, while Cale compliments his own organ playing with a delicate piano, also in the left channel. The song is anchored by Pegg’s simple bassline and Kowalski’s soft-yet-insistent drumming, which is buried deep in the mix.
Bryter Layter closes with its third instrumental, the aforementioned “Sunday.” According to Kirby, Boyd tried to get Drake to write lyrics to “Sunday,” but Drake insisted on keeping it as an instrumental. “This is a driving song,” Kirby has said. “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. There’s one section towards the end of the instrument, 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.”
Drake, Boyd, and Wood took just as much care with mixing Bryter Layter as they had during its relatively drawn out recording sessions. As Boyd put it, “We remixed it endlessly.”
“First of all, we mixed Bryter Layter at Sound Techniques,” Wood explained in the Fruit Tree liner notes:
Then we took the tapes to America and mixed it again at Vanguard. I didn’t like either [mix]. Then we came back [to London], and I changed the speakers at Sound Techniques, and we mixed it again, and that’s the one we used…. We had mixed Five Leaves Left in one long sequence of several days…. Bryter Layter, however, was eight-track. Mixing eight-track could be quite complicated because you’d probably record the basic set up on about four tracks, and on those tracks you’d probably have bass, drums, acoustic guitar, and vocal…. Then on something like “At the Chime of a City Clock,” you’d end up with two or three string tracks and the sax and maybe something else. Sometimes you’d end up with more than one thing on one track, so you’d have to start sorting out different options for the track, with changing cues, throughout the song.
“It was only eight-track,” Boyd told Humphries, “but there were so many layers and different ways of approaching it…. We certainly put an awful lot into it. John Wood loved Nick, and I think took tremendous care, which you can hear in the way it stands up. I think the sound he got on Nick’s voice, the sound on the acoustic instruments, is just very, very good.”
Wood agrees. “I think I’d probably pushed harder than anybody to redo it,” he said. “And I suppose I just kept feeling there was more on the tapes than we were getting [in the initial mixes].”
Drake attended the Sound Techniques mixing sessions and provided feedback on the process, but Wood doesn’t remember him advocating for changes to the work he and Boyd were doing.
By the end of the third mix, everyone seemed happy. “Bryter Layter is certainly the record I felt most completely satisfied with,” Boyd has said. “The one record I can listen to with unalloyed pleasure, and not think for a minute, ‘Oh, I wished I'd mixed that differently’…. We did have that feeling of real pleasure and excitement about the record…. Whenever I’m stuck in a studio and I can't face listening to a song again, I say: ‘Remember Bryter Layter...and remember how rewarding it is to listen to now.’”
According to Kirby, Drake was optimistic that Bryter Layter would avoid the commercial indifference that had met Five Leaves Left. “This was going to be the one with a single on it…,” he told Humphries. “I always rated ‘Poor Boy,’ but they could have gone with ‘Northern Sky’…. 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. We were told this was going to be the one.”
Even the album’s title, a play on BBC weather forecasts predicting that it would be “brighter later,” hinted at Drake’s high hopes for Bryter Layter.
Drake’s optimism, however, proved to be fleeting. While Bryter Layter was greeted to mostly warm reviews in the U.K., it’s release was marred by delays. The album’s official release date is often reported as November 1, 1970. However, according to most accounts, production issues pushed it back to March 6, 1971. Ultimately, it sold a scant 3,000 copies.
According to Drake’s friend Paul Wheeler, “He said he’d assumed that it would be much more successful than it was.”
In retrospect, Boyd believes Drake’s fear of performing and interviews conspired with changes in the music industry to sink his career:
The reasons he wasn’t successful during his lifetime were a combination of fairly simple things. First of all, he didn't build up a live following or tour. The example who I guess could be a kind of parallel to Nick in some ways and did do well [was] Leonard Cohen. His records were released in North America at the height of the boom in FM radio, when people were playing a lot of album tracks. He didn’t tour either. He didn’t perform until well after he had become a famous person.
Because Nick’s records weren't released in America until the early ‘70s, it was really down to England to make him a star. He fell, unfortunately, in the period between the demise of the pirates. Really, all you had was BBC Radio One, and there wasn't really much room for album tracks or for artists like Nick on radio in Britain. Eliminate live performances, radio exposure - I mean, there isn’t a lot there to get what he did across, and I think that...there were people in America. David Geffen was a big fan of his and was interested in releasing his records, [which] came out on Island in America, which really wasn’t very well organized at that point in America.
But at the same time, it’s also true that I think the music doesn’t reach out and grab people by the lapels. It takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s also very English. I think for America at that time, a kind of unassertive introspective English musician wasn't necessarily going to get a lot of attention.
Whatever the causes, Bryter Layter’s failure to sell seemed to mark the beginning of Drake’s descent into depression. “After Bryter Layter it went downhill quickly for Nick,” Wheeler explained to Drake’s first biographer, Danish poet Gorm Henrik Rasmussen. “I recall that he once said that he felt like a novice at being depressed. Nick had never imagined that he could find himself in a desperate situation. He was shaken to the core. He kept complaining that everything was slipping through his hands. He felt that he was guided from above — this guidance working through the record company, the producers, and the general system. He was losing control over his life. And it came as a complete surprise to him.”
Drake’s friends and family didn’t know how to help him through the disappointment. “I think there was a great deal of embarrassment around his peer group that what he — and we — thought was going to happen hadn’t really happened,” Kirby told the Guardian. “Having made the break before completing his degree, I felt that maybe [he felt] he was letting his father down. I mean, it must have knocked his self-confidence, if nothing else.”
After Bryter Layter, Drake would quickly record the hauntingly sparse solo album Pink Moon over two days in October 1971. If Bryter Layter seemed designed to cultivate an audience, Pink Moon seemed equally contrived to avoid one. It, too, sold sparingly. Drake would record only once more prior to his death from an overdose of the antidepressant Amitriptyline on November 24, 1974, and those tracks would not be released until the 1987’s Time of No Reply.
Long before Drake’s music would be touted by a new generation of artists in the ‘80s and rediscovered by the record buying public following the “Pink Moon” Volkswagen spot, those who knew Drake held on to his work. “I still play [Bryter Layter] all the time…,” Pegg told Humphries in the pre-VW ‘90s. “It’s one of the few records I’ve been involved with that I do play, all the time. And that isn’t just hindsight. Before I had it on CD, I went through the vinyl copies.'
As Richard Thompson told Mojo in 2018:
We’re still here talking about him because of the quality of the music. It was something people didn’t quite get at the time. He made beautiful records. He had help in that with John Wood, and Joe Boyd and Robert Kirby…did a great job of sitting Nick in the right aural space, making very unfashionable, simple hi-fi records, without tricks, that managed to be timeless. You can still pick up a Nick Drake record and think, 'This is a great sounding record.'
Fans wanting the best sounding digital version of Bryter Layter face a muddled landscape1. Bryter Layter first appeared on CD in 1987. Since then, it’s been reissued on CD on numerous occasions, often with ambiguous identifying information. CDs with different masterings share the HNCD 4435 catalog number, for example. More recently, Bryter Layter has become available on streaming services and download sites downloads such as Qobuz and HDTracks. Complicating matters further, Bryter Layter has been included in several box sets, including Fruit Tree, the Tuck Box, and the streaming Digital Box Set.
After much investigation, it seems that there are three distinct masterings of Bryter Layter. The first can be found on all pre-2000 Bryter Layter CDs, whether released by Hannibal, Island, or as part of the original Fruit Tree CD box. No information is given about this mastering in the skimpy booklet included with these CDs. The second mastering can be found on all Bryter Layter CDs released between 2000 and 2013, including the Tuck Box and post-2000 editions of the Fruit Tree box. The liner notes identify this mastering as a “24 Bit Super Bit Mapped mastering by Simon Heyworth at Chop-Em-Out, Re-mastering engineered and supervised by John Wood.” Making things even more confusing, some Heyworth/Wood CDs were labeled as HDCDs, despite not being HDCD encoded. The Heyworth/Wood mastering can also be found on all non-high-resolution streaming editions of the album, including the Digital Box Set. The third mastering is the 24/96 hi-resolution mastering that first accompanied the 2013 “Back to Black” vinyl reissue of the album as an included download. This edition was mastered at Abbey Road in 2012, with Adam Nunn serving as the remastering engineer and Wood as the remastering producer. A level-adjusted version of the Nunn/Wood mastering was subsequently released for standalone download and can be found streaming on Qobuz. It has also found its way onto some Japanese CD releases.
The pre-2000 CDs of Drake’s music have long been dismissed as sonically inferior by those involved. Wood told me they used “inferior Production Masters.”
Cally Callomon, the former creative director at Island who took over the management of Drake’s estate in the late-’90s at the request of Drake’s sister, Gabrielle, explained the circuitous path of Drake’s albums to CD at length to Frederick in 2001:
In 1986 I managed Julian Cope, and signed him to Island Records. At that time they [Island] were about to celebrate their 25th birthday, and they were going to release tons of their old albums on CD, including Nick’s three titles. I was deeply impressed that Chris Blackwell insisted that Nick’s titles as well as Sandy Denny’s would never be deleted no matter how few were selling. Nick sold about 20 albums a month, so their decision to release them on CD was brave (or foolhardy) to say the least.
When Nick had finished recording his albums, John Wood would go to the cutting rooms and attempt to get all the beautiful sound down onto vinyl in what was known as ‘the cut’. This meant that he had to make some decisions about how to compromise the original sound with the limitations dictated by vinyl record manufacture: certain frequencies have to be curbed, and volume levels have to be tamed. After this is done, a tape is made called an EQ’d Production Master.
This tape is not the original master, but the result of the compromises John would have made to suit vinyl. I should say here, that John was usually very happy with these compromises. When he recorded any artist, as an engineer, he would have had to think about the future requirements of the manufacturing process, and many of the necessary limitations may have been adopted in the studio for Nick to hear. The only 3 people to hear what it was like to stand next to Nick whist he played were John, Joe Boyd and Nick, when the tape was played back. Probably a tea lady too….
Because releasing Nick Drake on CD was a tad ambitious, Island had to do it as cheaply as possible. Managing an artist on Island enabled me to get all 3 CDs for free, and I was aghast at how bad they sounded…They had merely cut the CD from the EQ’d master tape, and all the limitations, designed for vinyl, were apparent on the CD, not to mention the tape hiss. I thought that they sounded terrible in comparison to the vinyl LPs…. Record Companies are notorious for losing master tapes, I’m not sure what tapes they used to manufacture the CDs from, but they were really poor….
It is important to point out, here, that, after you get past the sheer amazement of Nick’s melodies; of his guitar playing; of the arrangements; of his voice; of his lyrics; of the performance; of the textures and tones in the playing, you appreciate how beautifully all these elements were captured by Joe and John…. These first CD releases, then, didn’t really reflect the beauty of the recordings (or of the sleeves even).
While at Island, Callen and Island A&R staffer Trevor Wyatt helped Boyd replace source better tapes to release the Way to Blue disc. Then, after leaving Island to work for Gabrielle, Callen pushed for the remastering of Drake’s three studio albums. “Joe was less involved at this later stage,” Callen told Frederick:
He was largely based in the US running his Hannibal label through Ryko. John was bought down from his Scottish home and he re-mastered the three albums in London. My role was to co-ordinate all of the mastering, the finding of tapes, correcting all the lyrics back to Nick’s original transcripts etc., re-scanning and retouching all of the artwork, and clearing the use of new photos from Keith Morris. I babysat the project right up until they were let loose in shops.
John wanted CDs that sounded as good as the vinyl, and we had my old vinyl copies in the mastering room at the time. He found it very easy to re-produce the same listening experience from off CD that would have been enjoyed by people in their bedrooms at the time [the vinyl records were released]. The big difference with these CDs are no surface noise, and very, very clear signals, that is, no denigration of the sound due to a knackered stylus or cartridge. I thought that they sounded fantastic, and it was startling to sit in a studio and hear those tapes after all these years.
John worked from tapes that contained the music that left the original studio (Sound Techniques) not the sound that left the cutting rooms (the production masters).
Because the original master tapes of Bryter Layter have been lost, a new source needed to be found. Fortunately, Wood made copies of his master tapes. As Wood told me, “All releases of Bryter Layter since the first CD remaster in I believe 2000 or thereabouts have been from my 1st generation copy of the original masters.” This first-generation copy of the master was used for the 2012 Nunn/Wood mastering, too.
Based on the numbers, all three masterings are nicely dynamic, a fact that’s can be confirmed with even a cursory look at the waveforms.
With no worries about compression, it’s time to consider the equalization of each mastering. To do that, we’ll examine the same five songs (“Hazey Jane II,” “One of These Things First,” “Fly,” “Poor Boy,” and “Northern Sky”) from each release in Har-Bal using the software’s “average power“ graphs3.
First up is the original ‘80s-‘90s CD mastering (brown) and the Heyworth/Wood mastering (purple):
The clear pattern that emerges is that the two masterings are incredibly similar through the upper bass and midrange, while the Heyworth/Wood mastering has a little more energy in the low bass and the high end.
Now let’s compare the Heyworth/Wood mastering (purple) and the Nunn/Wood mastering (orange):
The differences here are harder to summarized than those between the pre-2000 CDs and the Heyworth/Wood mastering. Generally, the Nunn/Wood mastering has more upper-bass/lower-mids than the Heyworth/Wood mastering, but not necessarily more lower bass. It also tends to have a touch more treble. However, many of the differences are hard to summarize.
Turning to subjective analysis, the differences are clearer4. To make comparing these masterings easier, I lined up the level-adjusted versions of each in Audacity and used its solo function for instantaneous switching.
Like the Tears for Fears TBVO, something that jumped out at me immediately is that the channel balance is not the same across these masterings. To provide some context, I found a rip of the original 1970 vinyl release. Unfortunately, no clear pattern emerged. Compared to the original vinyl, a given digital release might lean toward the left on one track, then lean toward the right on the next track. Nor was one digital release more accurate than the others. Putting the data into a spreadsheet, I found that each digital release varied from the vinyl by almost exactly the same amount across the five tracks. Given that, I tried to consider balance subjectively as just one factor in each mastering’s sound quality.
Beginning with “Hazey Jane II,” the left-right balance sounds off on the original CD. Drake’s voice, which should sit in the center of the stereo image, tilts slightly to the right. On both the Heyworth/Wood and Nunn/Wood masterings, it lands closer to the center.
It’s also immediately clear that the pre-2000 CD has less depth than either of the more recent masterings. Both the Heyworth/Wood and Nunn/Wood masterings convey a better sense of front-to-back space, with the Nunn/Wood mastering doing it best.
The high-frequency roll-off on the original release is also apparent. Perhaps because of this, it also has much less apparent tape hiss. However, it’s not a good tradeoff. A recording from this era should have some tape hiss, and it’s not excessive on either the Heyworth/Wood or the Nunn/Wood mastering.
The lack of bass extension on the pre-2000 CD is also obvious. Moving from it to the Heyworth/Wood mastering to the Nunn/Wood mastering, the low end increases with each mastering. While the original CD is clearly too bass light on this track, it’s hard to say whether the Heyworth/Wood or the Nunn/Wood strikes the balance best on “Hazey Jane II.” Some might find the latter to be too bassy. However, the former still doesn’t quite convey the visceral impact of Mattacks’s kick drum the way the Nunn/Wood does. Overall, I think the Nunn/Wood gets the low end right.
As the depth issue might suggest, on pure realism the Nunn/Wood surpasses the other two releases. This is particularly apparent on Richard Thompson’s lead guitar, Kirby’s horn arrangements, and Drake’s vocal. Thompson’s lead sounds somewhat buried in the Heyworth/Wood mastering, if not as badly as on the original CD. Likewise, the horns on “Hazey Jane II” sound muted on the Heyworth/Wood mastering, whereas the Nunn/Wood gives them their proper bite. While, as the graphs show, the Nunn/Wood mastering has ever-so-slightly more energy in the 6-7 kHz region, it’s hard to attribute such a dramatic difference to that alone. Rather, it seems likely that the Nunn/Wood mastering is simply a better tape transfer.
Turning to “One of These Things First,” the Nunn/Wood’s treble boost relative to the other two masterings is obvious thanks to the increase in tape noise during the track’s quiet introduction. As the graphs suggest, the original CD and the Heyworth/Wood have a very similar tonal balance on this track. However, both sound a bit too rolled off on the high end. The attack on Harris’s piano and Drake’s acoustic simply sounds too tame on the everything but the Nunn/Wood mastering.
As with “Hazey Jane II,” the Nunn/Wood’s depth advantage is clear on “One of These Things First.” It creates a sense of the room at Sound Techniques around Harris’s piano, whereas the other two releases make Harris’s piano sound flat and closer mic’d.
Almost the exact same comments can be made about each version’s rendering of “Fly,” except in this instance Cale’s viola and harpsichord are replacing Harris’s piano.
On “Poor Boy,” the Nunn/Wood mastering’s realism advantage is even more marked. Immediately, Drake’s acoustic in the right channel sounds more legible and lifelike than on the other two masterings. The same is true of P.P Arnold and Doris Troy’s backing vocals, which tend to blend into an indistinguishable whole on the original CD. This is less true on the Heyworth/Wood disc, but it can’t compare to the Nunn/Wood mastering, which makes it easy to hear Arnold and Troy’s individual vocal lines. Likewise, the depth and reverb on McGregor’s superb piano is far and away better on the Nunn/Wood mastering. Finally, the extra low end on the Nunn/Wood provides the heft needed for Kowalski's fill near the 4:25 mark.
I could extend this analysis to “Northern Sky,” but by now I think it’s clear what the verdict is. The 24/96 Nunn/Wood mastering, which can be downloaded from several sites, streamed on Qobuz, or (for those who want a physical copy) purchased as a Japanese import, is head-and-shoulders better than the other two.
How should you listen to the Nunn/Wood mastering of Bryter Layter? Paul Wheeler has recalled Drake’s love for headphones. “He was fascinated by the idea that he could sit in the car with headphones on…,” Wheeler told Humphries. “Maybe he foresaw the kind of insular world, a Walkman world.”
So pick up a good pair of headphones and put on the Nunn/Wood version of Bryter Layter, a headphone album if there ever was one. It’s how Nick would’ve wanted it.
1. Even as I write this, I’m not 100 percent certain I’ve gotten it all right. There are a few Japanese CDs, for example, that I wasn’t able to get my hands on. Likewise with the original 1987 CD, which is unavailable on Discogs. But all context clues indicate they’re drawn from the same masterings as those discussed here.
2. Only original album tracks, not bonus tracks, are included in this measure, for an apples-to-apples comparison between versions.
3. When necessary, Har-Bal’s loudness matching option, which doesn’t affect the frequency response, was used to create clearer graphs.
4. For the subjective analyses, all CD editions were ripped with XLD and played with Audirvana. The main DAC used was a Berkeley Audio Reference Series Alpha DAC with the most recent firmware. I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC and Forssell MDAC-2a. Amplification came from a Schiit Ragnarok 1 speaker/headphone amplifier and a Monoprice Monolith THX AAA 887 headphone amplifier. Most listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Focal Utopia, ZMF Vérité Closed, and Audio-Technica ATH-ADX500.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.