Three Records From Sundown

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There is one word us radio producers can never seem to let go of tape. Our job used to be all about tape. My first Marantz recorder captured sound on cassette tapes. If you’re a little bit older than me, you even produced your stories on tape. You’d sit in front of a reel to reel and cut apart someone’s voice with a razor blade. And then splice the magnetic tape back together with clear adhesive tape. These days we use digital recorders and computers, but we still use the word tape. If Sam or Katie or Avery goes out and does an interview, the first question I’ll ask is, did you get good tape? The raw material that we work with is tape. It just is. There is no alternative.

Roman Mars:
The story we’re presenting today is about one artist who is also inextricably linked to tape – cassette tapes, in this case. Had it not been for obsessive fans collecting and copying and passing along his songs in the era of tapes, we might never have come to know his music. Then again, had he lived in a different era, perhaps he would’ve gotten the recognition he deserved within his own lifetime. From radio producer Charles Maynes, this is “Three Records from Sundown.”

Joe Boyd:
You know, one of the things that I’ve said a lot, but I’m not sure how much people understand it really, I don’t like singer-songwriters generally. It’s not what I choose to listen to. It’s not my first option. You know, I grew up listening to roots music, or to jazz, or to, you know, music by, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but music by real people, by people from the earth, people who are not middle-class, and I don’t think in history, you look back, I don’t think there’s that many examples of the middle-class inventing anything culturally. So when I put on a tape and I hear, well-educated white person strumming a guitar, I’m looking at my watch, I’m saying, okay, I’ll give this about another 15 seconds, and then unless the voice is really startling… And Nick Drake just grabbed me by the throat. It’s one of the great sadness and frustrations of my life in the music business that I wasn’t able to figure out a way to get it across to people in his lifetime.

Voiceover:
“Three Records from Sundown.” Producer Joe Boyd remembers Nick Drake.

Charles Maynes:
The early days. In 1966, Joe Boyd, an ambitious young American, arrived to London hoping to make his mark in the thriving music scene. He produces the first Pink Floyd’s single and he discovers the English folk-rock pioneers, the Fairport Convention, but arguably he makes his greatest find far from the streets in London, in Cambridge. Nick Drake.

Joe Boyd:
The English have such funny names for class. I would call him an upper-middle-class boy. You know the upper-middle-class always called themselves middle-class, but you know, the lower middle class also call themselves middle-class. Anyway, he was definitely, he went to a boarding school, he spoke with a very refined accent, he was part of a kind of a gilded youth generation of well-off upper-middle-class kids. And he was very talented in music. He started playing the clarinet. He switched to the guitar. His mother played the piano and wrote songs. And years later I discovered, I heard tapes of his mother. And they’re amazing. They have these wonderful chords and the style of the song is a bit, you know, very English, very almost music hall, upper-class music hall Flanders and Swann power kind of thing and he started playing the guitar and he’s just, he was just, I didn’t know where it came from, but he developed a way of reproducing the guitar, the kind of chords that his mother played on the piano. (piano and guitar plays)

Joe Boyd:
I heard him first because one of the Fairport Convention told me about hearing him at a concert at the roundhouse. It was a Vietnam protest concert. And I followed up the lead and invited him to come in and bring me a tape and he brought me a tape and I put it on at the end of that day and just immediately knew that this was something completely different. A lot of retuning of strings so that he could play in very unusual tunings and his articulation of arpeggios on the guitar and the whole way he used that to play his songs is completely unique in my view. It’s so strong and so central, so devoid of solos. I mean, there’s nothing about guitar solos in there. It’s just a way of orchestrating assault and a complexity that is stacked.

“Three Hours” by Nick Drake (clip)

Charles Maynes:
Boyd immediately signs Nick Drake to deal with his Witchseason imprint on Island records. The year is 1968. Drake is 20 years old. But Boyd’s new talent is beyond reticent. In his memiors, Boyd writes “in the years to come, I would get used to Nick Drake’s way of answering the telephone as if it had never rung before.”

Joe Boyd:
He was so shy as a performer. When the circumstances were right, and the only circumstance that I remember most clearly as being right was when the Fairport Convention played the festival hall, and it was very dramatic because they’d had a car accident and the drummer had been killed and this was a re-configuration of the group. So everybody was in their seats and respectful.

Joe Boyd:
Nick came out, didn’t say anything. Made a song, people applauded and then spent three minutes without speaking, retuning his guitar. Everybody stayed silent. Played again. Everybody gave him a big ovation. You got an encore at the end and I thought, this is going to work, and then you send him out on his own. You know, and there’s a student union full of kids, bar at the back. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know jokes. He just tunes and tunes his guitar and takes quite some time and he just, in those little intervals between songs, he lost everybody. So he’d really stopped performing live and there was no other way in England in those days from to really break an artist.

Charles Maynes:
The middle days. At this point, all efforts to advance Drake’s career would center on the recording studio. Boyd recruits engineered John Wood at Sound Technique studio in London for Drake’s debut album. The record is called “Five Leaves Left.” The year is 1969.

Joe Boyd:
It’s difficult to remember that there wasn’t really a template for doing this kind of record in those days. To record a singer with strings or with larger orchestral arrangement, but not in a pop way, you know, with a kind of dry-ish intimate sound on the voice and doing it in a sort of tasteful way was not something that had been done much. And we’d already tried one arranger, the guy who worked on the James Taylor record – the first James Taylor record – and just hated what he did with it so it just didn’t work at all. And Nick then said, well, I have this friend in Cambridge, Robert Kirby, and I went up to Cambridge to meet Kirby, you know, and I was a bit freaked out because I thought, Nick is world-class so we’d want the best. We want world top arranger in London, whoever it is, we’ll spend the money and we’ll get the guy. And Nick was saying, well, actually, let’s try my friend and Cambridge, who’s 19 years old, you know? And I think, Oh no, no. But I went up and met him and I just liked the way they work together and the way Robert seemed to really, really love Nick and his music. And I just felt, okay, let’s just go with this.

Joe Boyd:
And so we did this first session, and the first track they did was “Way to Blue,” which I had never heard because he didn’t have a way to play it to me in a way. And I suppose I could have gone down into the room and just listen, but I tended to let John Wood be the guy running around moving microphones and messing around in the studio, and I sat in the control room. And besides, it was a climb, you know, this controller was upstairs. And you know, he had to climb all the way down, all that back up again. So I was just sitting up there reading my paper and listening to the strings rehearse, and you’d hear them. John would focus on one microphone, then another microphone, then another microphone. Try and get that in. He’d go downstairs, move the microphone, move the chairs around, and I kept hearing these bits and pieces of this thing. It just sounded amazing but I couldn’t figure out what it really did sound like.
And then finally we got everybody in position and John got his sound he wanted on every microphone, every part of this six-piece string, string ensemble, and then he just pushed all the faders up and we listened to this whole thing.

“Way to Blue” by Nick Drake (clip)

Joe Boyd:
I thought when we made the record, oh my God, the critics are going to love this is. This is so on. Thought we were going to get headlines. And Melody Maker said that it was an awkward mixture of folk and cocktail chance. So I don’t know. It’s, it was very sad.

Charles Maynes:
The record sells fewer than 5,000 copies. Boyd is discouraged, but Drake is distraught. Seeking to build on what little momentum exists, Boyd just dragged Drake back into the studio. This would produce his second record, the album “Brighter Later.” The year is 1970.
One of the things that influenced my approach a lot was the first Leonard Cohen album which I thought John Simon did a great job of producing and one of the songs I love was “So Long, Marianne.” He has these girls mocking his line. Sort of singing behind him, against him, in a kind of contrast brassiness to his delicacy.

Joe Boyd:
When he played me “Poor Boy,” originally when he played it to me, that chorus line, “Oh, poor voice or sorry for himself.” He sang and I just had this idea right away and just said, “Nick, let’s get some girl singer to sing that line and you answer at the end of that. At the beginning of the chorus.” He kind of looked at me funny, like, are you sure? I said, yes, I’m sure.
“Poor Boy” by Nick Drake (clip)

Joe Boyd:
John Wood and I learned recording Nick very quickly that you just turned Nick off in the monitors because Nick’s performance is always great. You know, when we would record Nick with strings or rhythm section or whatever, even if he was out in the room and when he recorded with strings, he recorded in the room and it’s like, it’s different from the way people do things today. Tracks like “River Man,” that’s not an overdubbed string section. That’s Nick singing and playing guitar in the room in the middle of the strings.

Joe Boyd:
You’re listening very carefully to everybody else and you go for their performance. If you get a great take from the strings or the brass, rhythm section, or whoever the weakest link is, that’s your time. You don’t even have to listen to Nick. Then you listen back and you put Nick in and it’s fantastic. Cause he was always just fun. He stole those complicated guitar parts. He never flubbed. It. Just never did.

Charles Maynes:
Despite critical acclaim, “Brighter Later” sells poorly. Despaired, Drake leaves London to move home with his parents in Tanworth-in-Arden. His behavior is increasingly erratic and reclusive. At his family’s urging, Drake seeks psychiatric care.

Charles Maynes: Detail: Around the same time, Boyd leaves London for California where he accepts a job in the film industry. Nick Drake has a kind of reputation as a very solitary, lonely figure.

Charles Maynes:
What was it like? Was that at odds with the person you knew?

Joe Boyd:
Yeah. I mean, he was soft-spoken. He was hesitant. But he knew what he liked and he had very good ideas and he worked very closely with Robert Kirby and it was incredibly fun to work in the studio with Nick. Just because the material you’re working with is so great. And the fact that it’s not a self-contained group. You got to go out and put a group together to make these records one track at a time.

Charles Maynes:
The end days. In 1972 Drake records his third and final album, “Pink Moon.” The record consists mostly of just voice and guitar. And Drake does not ask Boyd to participate. “Pink Moon” sells fewer copies than even its predecessors. Soon thereafter, Drake suffers a mental breakdown and is hospitalized. Following his release, Drake would agree to work on a new album. That album was never finished

Charles Maynes:
In 1974, Drake is found dead in his bedroom due to an overdose of the antidepressant tryptizol. He was 26 years old.

“Pink Moon” by Nick Drake (clip)

Charles Maynes:
Is that the end of the story? No.

Charles Maynes:
Detail: Boyd eventually sells his label’s stake in Island Records. One of his parting conditions is the drDrake’s recordings never go out of print. Never? Never.

Charles Maynes:
Second detail: After his death, Drake’s recordings begin to find an audience. Fans make pilgrimages to the Drake family home in Tanworth-in-Arden, Drake’s parents, Rodney and Molly touched by the interest in their son, invite these visitors in and allow them to copy cassettes and home recordings of Drake’s music. Over time, the Drake legend spreads. A combination of word of mouth and tape to tape, to tape, to tape, to tape, to tape, to tape, to tape, to tape.

Charles Maynes:
Is it surprising to you how popular Nick Drake’s music has become kind of after his death and cult it sprung up around?

Joe Boyd:
No. I mean, I always thought he should be that popular and my view was what took everybody so long. It’s such a shame that people didn’t recognize it in his lifetime. But, you know, there it is. The music is there. I don’t know how to deal with questions like “Was it ahead of its time?”. I don’t think so. It was very much, it happened in that time and it was a set of influences but I do think that in a way its failure at the time has been part of its success now in the sense that very few people growing up in the 80s, they didn’t have parents who were playing Nick Drake to death at them. There’s no films from the 60s with girls dancing around with flowers in their hair with Nick Drake as the soundtrack. It’s not identified with that period. It is culturally unanchored. So it’s free to be adapted and embraced by people from other generations and people just come upon. It doesn’t sort of say that I am from the 60s. It just says on Nick Drake.

“Fly” by Nick Drake (clip)

Roman Mars:
“Three Records from Sundown” was produced by Charles Maynes in 2009. It received a Third Coast Festival Director’s Choice award in that same year.

Credits

Production

Producer Charles Maynes spoke with Joe Boyd for this story. Three Records From Sundown won the Directors Choice award from the Third Coast Festival in 2009.

Music

“Nothing But Trouble” — Lonnie Johnson
“Cello Song”— Nick Drake
“Poor Mum”— Molly Drake
“Three Hours”— Nick Drake
“Road”— Nick Drake
“Way to Blue”— Nick Drake
“So Long Marianne”— Leonard Cohen
“Poor Boy”— Nick Drake
“River Man”— Nick Drake
“Pink Moon”— Nick Drake
“Hanging on a Star”— Nick Drake
“Fly”— Nick Drake

  1. I am so haunted and captivated by this production. I’ve been a fan of Nick Drake since the dawn of time, but I never imagined him sitting in the middle of a recording studio, surrounded by strings. I’m so sad to have lost him, and so grateful to have found him. Does that make sense?

    This presentation of his story is truly beautiful. I loved every moment.

  2. jamison

    An absolutely haunting and wonderful podcast. At the same, time i personally feel that this episode gets dangerously close to breaking the Cardinal rule: “no cardinals”. Even with the sub-theme of “tape” it kinda sits outside of what i’m used to from 99%. Still great. still happy.

  3. Lesley Picking

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for playing this important piece of ‘tape’ about Nick, the ‘Man in the Shed’!

    Here in New Zealand nobody seems to know about Nick Drake but I have been enthralled by his story for many many years. It’s wonderful to know that other other people in the world have been affected by his work. Pink Moon box set is my go-to album when I need gentle inspiration.

    There is a great documentary on You Tube about him I saw some years ago that I would highly recommend called A Skin too Few.

    RIP Nick.

  4. Interesting, unusual episode. I love 99%, and I heavily promoted the latest Kickstarter campaign, so it pains me to be motivated to criticize one the shows. I liked the music and the story here, but the heavy radio-/tape-style production on the narration seemed overdone and sometimes hard to listen to.

    1. Kelly Jackson

      Amen! I was worried everyone would love the precious, over produced narrative that detracts so heavily from the quiet, understated wonder of Mr. Drake. Glad to know I’m not the only one who found it to be stylistically grating.

    2. Steve

      My thoughts exactly. The sound effect “gimmicks” (clicking sounds, tape playing sounds etc.) are, at times, over the top and distract from Nick’s beautiful music and story. Watch the YouTube videos mentioned by other commenters. They are very moving. And above all listen to Nick’s timeless music.

  5. Garrett

    Roman, I recently listened to your featured episode on Radiolab and you mentioned that visceral feel you strive for when someone listened to 99pi, this is absolutely one of those episodes. Uncomfortable, tragic, yet beautiful, inspiring, and unexpected. Keep up the good work guys.

  6. I have to agree with Richard Gunther on this episode. Great content, but the tape-splicing gets very distracting. It’s one thing if it’s actually found tape, but this is just the producer re-cutting his on voice, and often with effects that wouldn’t even happen in a cassette. The production should help to set mood, but in the middle of a profound piece of information of his life, I’d ranter not be interrupted by a tape seeking sound.

  7. I’m with George Castillo and Richard Gunther- enthusiastic about Nick Drake and tape, turned off by the tone. I did actually turn it off several times. The combined effect of tape noises, self-important interview subject (Joe Boyd), and contrived noir voiceovers felt heavy-handed. It won the Third Coast award, so maybe it makes more sense outside the context of this podcast. However, I do enjoy the sound design and music stories- keep them coming!

  8. Andy

    This episode is a departure from regular 99pi. Loved the episode and listened to the whole thing. But it is the wrong topic and the wrong style for 99pi. I felt that the episode lacked objectivity and that normal research component that is so hard to find among this medium.

    Sorry to be critical, but we hold you to a higher standard,

  9. Tom Maxwell

    I was introduced to Nick Drake by my girlfriend when I was a teenager. During my angsty, nervous teenage years, Nick Drake was a comfort to me. Amazing songwriting. I haven’t listened to him in a long time so I am very thankful that you did this episode. Definitely a departure from the typical episode, but I liked the approach taken on telling his story. Thanks again.

  10. Adrian

    Love 99PI, to the point of obsession, but for all that is good and pure in this world please don’t bombard our ears with another of these podcasts. The mid-90s faux grunge style of editing/producing made it unlistenable, and for the first time I actually skipped a 99PI podcast. Great subject matter, horrible production. Maybe if I had listened to it through my flannel-covered headphones…

  11. RayRay

    Felt like reading a text in which each sentence is typed in a different font, some bold, some italic, some underlined.
    This is what’s wong with talk radio thats trying to be different for the sake of being different, too much effort on style over content. Overediting made this thing unbearable and cheapens the hard work put into it. I love your show man, just felt like sharing this one was a bit off from the usual.

  12. A agree with many above, this is a wonderful, sweetly tragic tail of music unrequited, that was edited/produced by a someone who thinks their technique should be above the content. Total hack job, and not what I look to this podcast for. I’d even suggest you re-cut the narrations, and post it again. The popping and clicking and volume shifts are just childishly over-done. What the hell were you thinking? After the 3rd break I had to stop listening. Frustratingly crappy, because I’d really like to hear the rest of the story. Is there a transcript available?

  13. Paul

    I disagree with many of the comments here about the episode’s presentation; I neither found it distracting nor not up to the standards, or content, of 99pi. I would be unwilling to argue the point (can’t die on every hill), but I can say that I thought that the episode was moving, and that’s enough for me.

    Part of my reaction is personal. I had a sister who managed a record store in Cambridge, MA in the 60s and early 70s. She gave me a copy of the US release of Nick Drake when it came out in 71, when I was 17. I admittedly approached his music warily at first, but grew quickly to love it. Fast forward to this year, my sister died, and as part of a reception for her I played recordings of some of the music that she had introduced me to over the years. The first song was River Man. As the intro bled into the lyric a woman who had worked with my sister – and who I had not previously known – stopped her conversation and stood transfixed by the song of a singer that she had never heard before. She made a new connection to both the music and to my sister at that moment. And, that struck me as fitting. Lovely episode.

  14. Mark

    Roman, I have been a big fan of 99% Invisible for quite some time, but Three Records From Sundown is a jarring departure in from the usual style and content of your podcast. Had the numerous clicks and pops been softened, and had the wide fluctuations in volume been ironed out, I might have actually enjoyed the episode. I certainly wouldn’t have been left with that headache and sense of frustration. Usually I am sorry when the episode comes to an end, but with this one I felt a feeling of relief and liberation.

    I don’t care what award it won–that show wasn’t even close to the high standard you have set.

    But I know this was the exception. I can’t wait until the next episode drops!

  15. Andrew Kephart

    Based on the parts I could make it through, this is an amazing story. It’s a shame that the production gets in its own way so badly. I’ll second the motion for recut narration without the gimmicky annoyances. Can’t wait for next week with what I hope is back to the usual high quality….

  16. jhhj

    Too bad we couldn’t have had a story about Nick Drake with a narrator who wasn’t making the story all about him and how much he hates most people and how terrible it is to be middle class. (I gather he’s upper class.) I decided to listen to a Nick Drake album instead.

  17. Harmon

    This is the nigh-unlistenable pretentious nonsense we have to excuse when we explain why we listen to public radio.

  18. Levent

    LOVE 99pi as well as Nick Drake’s music, but I have to join in the chorus of irritated listeners. The horribly mixed and executed “tape” effect simply makes no sense — it feels utterly unnecessary and, frankly, cowardly.

  19. Daniel

    Nick Drake is easily in my top five, but the production on this made it almost impossible to get through. I would love to listen to an edit that didn’t have such over the top tape noises and fluctuations in volume

  20. Brain

    I found this to be one of the worst episodes of 99pi I have listened to. I agree with the others who said the production was distracting, but really this was the story of a failed musician. How many of those have there been? And the entire story I kept thinking to myself “no wonder this guy failed, who wants to listen to this!?” He is clearly a talented musician, but it doesn’t matter if you are talented if you are making music no one wants to listen to. Roman, you guys do an amazing job, but this one just didn’t measure up.

  21. nine09

    I enjoyed this episode just as much as your other episodes. And thank you for introducing me to Nick Drake. I loooove his music.

  22. The fake “tape” effect was incredibly distracting. The podcast should be about the subject, not the podcaster. I wish I was able to but I couldn’t get through it. I hit stop and delete.

  23. Hawley

    I can’t thank you enough for reminding me how much I love Nick Drake. I was introduced to him 20 years ago when I was a budding spooky person. And even though I wasn’t interested in music like that at the time, I found his music beautiful and unique. Thank you sooooo much.

  24. I found the episode and its production both a departure and a WELCOME one. Hate to disagree with so many…wait, no I don’t. Love Drake, loved the presentation. Have shared the link and feel at last vindicated for having adored Drake’s music since I first heard it used in the film “Dream with the Fishes” in the mid-90s. Love you guys.

  25. ps, I had never heard the song Fly, which is at the end. I slapped my hand over my mouth and sat in awe of the beauty for the whole time. I’ve shared this podcast with many friends. Thank you.

  26. ac78

    Would have liked to listen to this to the end – I have never heard of him and found the music interesting. The clicks, pops, reverb, rewinding tape was SO distracting I never made it to the end. A little goes a long way…

  27. crying

    You utter bastard. My ex-girlfriend of 5 years and I shared an obsession for Nick Drake, with ‘Know’ being one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard. I’m now dating a model, who I really thought I was happy with. But after listening to this I realise I still love her. i really fucking miss her and I didn’t have a clue. Northern Sky has torn me to pieces.

    1. Phil Champ

      This is rather good. Joe Boyd, of course, is impeccable. For me, it was no concidence that Nick started to slide once Joe took that Hollywood gig. I think Nick had expected fame and fortune similar to his compatriots Fairport Convention.

  28. Marshall

    “In history you look back and I don’t think there’s that many examples of middle class inventing anything…culturally.” This is such utter horseshit that I don’t think I need to exemplify even one of the thousands of cultural works of art created by members of the middle class throughout the history of its existence. It’s nice that this guy, Boyd, kept Drake’s work in print after he sold his stake in Island Records, but is it really any wonder that he couldn’t break him? Ironically, the two albums he was involved in are overproduced and pretentious. Maybe if he had gone with the stripped down production style of Pink Moon first, Drake would have found his audience. Also, this radio story is over-produced and “tape” is a pretty tenuous connection to the built world. Other than that, I enjoyed it!

  29. Justin

    If this podcast is about items in the built world, and the item in this one is tape, then why not make it about tape? It could be about people who developed tape recording technology or magnetic tape itself or dolby noise reduction. If this was a radio show that you simply liked very much and wanted to present to your audience, and/or you needed the material because of moving to weekly shows then please be honest about that to us and to yourselves. This does not seem to be a 99% invisible story, this is biography and not in your normal very enjoyable style. You have done other people’s stories before and done biography before and they all have fit into what seem to be the overarching themes and style of the podcast better than this one. Just confused.

  30. Ross

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who found the constant tape “effects” distracting. What an obnoxious way to edit such an interesting story.

  31. Melissa

    I loved this episode, and it reminded me that I have Nick Drake songs buried in my music archives somewhere that need to come back out. Fascinating story, and I had no idea about the arc of his life and career. How lucky we are to have him on tape.

  32. Martina

    Loved the music in the entire podcast… but what is that song at the end? Specifically at minute 29:00??

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