An Interview with Cally
I was introduced to Cally by Gabrielle Drake who called him “the driving force” behind the CD remasters of Nick Drake’s three albums. The remastering of these CDs opened a sonic doorway into the brilliance and depth of the original vinyl recordings, and the story of how they came to be is a fascinating one.
Cally is currently working with Gabrielle, John Wood and Joe Boyd on a CD of material culled from Nick’s home tapes and other sources. He was able to share some information about this project although it is still in the early stages. Update at bottom of page. (Robin Frederick, December, 2001)
ROBIN: I understand you were very much involved in the recent CD remastering of Nick’s three albums. Would you describe your role in that project?
CALLY: Please allow me to ramble a bit:
I was once a marketing manager at Phonogram Records in London, they were owned by PolyGram, a Philips Electrical Company division. I became aware of CDs when they were introduced to the UK in the early 80s. Though the launch by Philips was dreadful I soon saw the advantages of this new format. In their panic at CD not being taken seriously, they gave all of us executives a player to use in our offices, to show off to our artists. I ordered up all of the Decca Rolling Stones albums on CD and played them all day. I only noticed how good these particular CDs were when I went back to vinyl. This is no criticism of the vinyl format, more a criticism of the way that vinyl was mastered in those days. Our vinyl test pressings were always dreadful, yet our early CDs sounded great. Great as in LOUD and clear. Over the years, we had chosen to neglect the quality of the re-pressings of classic old albums.
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 3 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.
A common falsehood is that recording technology was still primitive in 1968. This is not true at all. The second world war developed recording technology to a peak where Nelson Riddle could record Frank Sinatra in ways that sound amazing even today, never mind George Martin and The Beatles.
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. These were not like those Rolling Stones CDs at all. They had merely cut the CD from the EQd 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. The sleeves were no better. 3 sides of poorly reproduced album artwork reduced to the size of a packet of cigarettes, and a whole page telling you how to clean a CD in 4 different languages, ptchah.
It was here that some minion in the production department decided to retitle ‘Road’ as ‘Radio’ amongst many other unchecked errors.
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.
Of their era I put these recordings as the very best of their kind, along with the recordings of Sandy Denny and Scott Walker perhaps. The warm tones in the guitar and in Nick’s voice are crucial, to me, and very innovative of their time and within their genre. If you listen to Roy Harper’s records, or Michael Chapman, their records are quite harsh and abrasive. Something else happened with Nick, and even John Martyn, that set them apart from the more rustic sounds of the ‘folk’ scene. I’m sure that Chris Blackwell would see this as a percolation of all the other black artists on the label seeping into the nice white boys. Or maybe not. These first CD releases, then, didn’t really reflect the beauty of the recordings (or of the sleeves even).
I returned to Island as Creative Director in the early nineties. At this time Nick was still a tiny cult, but sold a few more CDs. Island had been bought by PolyGram and they had a vicious deletions policy if any one title fell below a minimum sales target in any one month. Chris Blackwell had negotiated his way out of this particular clause in the sale, so any deletions had to be personally sanctioned by him.
Of course Nick was always put forward for the chop, and, of course, this was always rejected. The fact that Nick’s albums were always readily available on sale must have helped speed up the growth in interest in his music. Anytime anyone saw a mention of his name, say, another current artist admiring Nick, then they could go and buy any of the CDs with relative ease. This long-sighted policy is extinct in major record companies now. If a CD stops selling, then the stocks are swiftly returned by the shops, they are then reduced in price, sold-off and deleted. Unlike Tim Buckley, or Fred Neil, for instance; Nick’s music was easily accessible to any UK purchaser.
Joe Boyd had always rather disliked the earlier ‘Heaven In A Wild Flower’ compilation, and one day suggested that it may be time for a new compilation. He asked me to do the sleeve, and for Trevor Wyatt in A &R to help source the tapes. Joe spent ages on the track listing, and we compiled it to run the full length of a CD, not to run like vinyl put onto CD with a side one and two. Indeed, we never released it on vinyl, not even as a limited edition.
Joe reproduced the mastering part, and got a far, far better sound out of the original tapes then was evident on the previous CDs. Indeed, ‘Way To Blue’ was the way to go, and really did Nick and John Wood justice. It was then that I argued that we had to update the 3 studio CDs, I was appalled that they were still in their 1986 condition. I left Island in 1997 but continued to lobby them hard for these re-issues. By then I was working with Gabrielle Drake, so it became easier to get the work done. She had a very good relationship with Island, and they readily agreed to get their finger out and so to update the 3 studio albums.
Joe was less involved at this later stage, 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 and to Ryko in the US.
That’s a very long way of getting to the answer to your question.
ROBIN: What did you want to accomplish with the remasters?
CALLY: 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, remember?).
ROBIN: How did you become interested in Nick Drake’s music?
CALLY: What, you mean apart from falling off my chair under the sheer staggering wealth of talent contained therein? Like many people, I loved Island Records in the late sixties, mainly because of the scope between so-called ‘Black’ music, and English progressive rock. I collected all of the catalogues that were given away free in shops (still got them) and wanted to buy all of the records within. Island also released some very influential compilations at the time. They were called ‘Nice Enough To Eat’ ‘You Can All Join In’ ‘El Pea’ and ‘Bumpers’. They provided a cheap way of getting to hear other artists on the label. I was really into Spooky Tooth, John Martyn, Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, Tir Na Nog, and many, many more. So I got to hear Nick on the samplers, liked the tracks, but not enough to buy the albums. I remember being puzzled as to how they didn’t sound like anything else, even with all my favourite Fairports playing on them, and I loved John Cale too. Not surprisingly, Nick’s albums never showed up in my favourite second hand record shop. If you don’t sell many first hand, then you won’t be selling many used copies either. A student grant just couldn’t support wild album buying so Nick got left out. I clearly remember my friend Phil Smee playing me ‘Cello Song’ in 1977, the year of so-called ‘Punk’ and that was it. Despite loving Pere Ubu , Wire and The Sex Pistols, I rushed out and easily bought all three of Nick’s albums. (they were still readily available, remember?!) He became my punk revolution, and I lost many friends over those albums. They would clear the hippest of parties.
ROBIN: Tell me about your background.
CALLY: I played drums in bands, whilst at Art School, and discovered how to design sleeves for bands in about 1976. We were at Watford School of Art and had fantastic tutors: Brian Eno, Tom Phillips, Marc Boyle, Peter Schmidt and Hansjorg Meyer, all masters at their art, and successful in their own fields outside of teaching. Music was very important at Art School, we did as much of that as painting. The band Wire were in the year above us, and we often supported them. They were very open-minded when it came to music, unlike the stupid ‘rules’ that so many narrow-minded punk bands chose to live by then. After I left, and realised that I was not a very good drummer, I jumped ship and spent years working for Record Companies, in marketing, A & R and later Art. I would leave to manage artists at different times, and all the time I was designing sleeves and taking photos as a freelancer. I was very fortunate to be able to work with many of my favourite artists, and later got involved in re-mastering many of their albums like Talk Talk, Scott Walker, The Teardrop Explodes, The The and, of course Nick.
ROBIN: What other projects and artists are you involved with?
CALLY: My other proper grown-up job is managing the ‘band’ The The, who is really just one person: Matt Johnson. He is also a huge fan of Nick’s music, I got him to write a comment about this for the adverts for ‘Way To Blue’ I also have a partnership with an artist called Bill Drummond, who used to be in the KLF and had a few hits in his time. With Bill we now only deal in the printed word and various art projects. I still design a few sleeves, but only on music I enjoy. Even though this is a great time for music in England, you really have to dig deep for it, through the outer crust of flimsy pop and singalong soft-rock. So most of my design work is for tiny bands on tiny budgets.
ROBIN: I’ve heard there are plans for the release of additional Nick Drake material. Can you tell me something about that project?
CALLY: When the bootlegs started to come out, Gabrielle was understandably upset that Nick’s music was being represented in such a shoddy way. I was surprised that if these were being released by fans that they would treat his music so badly, and package it so shoddily. As his fame grew, so more bootlegs appeared. These were all badly mastered, horribly packaged odds and sods. The most annoying thing for us is the fact that all the pitching is wrong on all of these bootlegs. Before Nick became well known, a few dedicated fans would visit his grave in Tanworth In Arden (not Tamworth as printed on the Ryko sampler!) A few lucky souls got to meet Nick’s parents who were overjoyed that Nick’s music still touched so many people. Rodney, Nick’s father, had compiled a tape of Nick’s early home recordings for himself, and, touched by the enthusiasm of these visiting fans, he would occasionally run off a cassette to give to one of them. Little did he realise how his generosity would be abused and that the result would be these poor quality bootlegs. Rodney would have been greatly distressed had he known, principally because he would have been aware of how distressed Nick- always a perfectionist- would have been to have had work which he had considered sub-standard out in the marketplace. By the time I bought one, it had a sleeve and a title (“Here Comes Gabrielle With The Cocoa”).
I suppose, in an ideal world, we would not add more to the material currently on official release, but, because these bootlegs exist, Gabrielle feels that we owe it to Nick to try and produce the home recordings and some of the ‘Aix’ tape in the best possible light.
The criteria for release is always the same: the performance has to be of a standard that Gabrielle, Joe and John feel is acceptable. Then John has to see if he can polish the sound quality to a level that is of sufficient quality. When all of these are collected together, then a final choice will be made, and they will be released. However, we don’t aim to pass these off as a ‘new’ Nick Drake CD. I would rather that the release is seen in context for what it really is: a selection of home-recordings from the mid-sixties by a blossoming talent feeling his way forward with the help of a very musical family.
We are toying with the idea of including a few songs by Molly Drake as well so that the link can clearly be heard. I cannot overstress just how atmospheric, original and beautifully odd Molly’s own songs were. Given that Nick heard these often, there is little wonder that he progressed away from ‘traditional’ song structures and styles of the time, to portray a music of a very different age. This may also have led to the slowness in the acceptance of his talents. I feel that Joe and John spotted this uniqueness because they already had a very broad interest in music. Joe had worked for Elektra which was very well known for their releases of oddball and idiosyncratic styles. It would not have been the first time that such original talent went unnoticed because it didn’t fit in with everything else.
ROBIN: Has it been difficult to gather material for a new release?
CALLY: Bearing in mind the above criteria, yes it is very, very difficult. we have to be careful. New tapes pop up every now and then, and we have to be sure that, whatever gets released, will be the very best of its kind. Most of these kind of releases get spoilt by the rush and enthusiasm to share such matters. Nick was very careful and Gabrielle is certainly no less so.
ROBIN: What stage have you reached in the new project?
CALLY: I am getting Nick’s Beocord Tape Deck repaired so that I can play back the last dozen tapes and have them digitally translated and transcribed. After that we go through the lengthy process of choice.
ROBIN: Will there be new photos as well as new recordings?
CALLY: New photos have surfaced recently. Most are from the time when Nick was signed to Island, as he was photographed for sleeves and publicity purposes then obviously. Gabrielle has a good collection of Nick playing at home, which will be relevant for our new release, which is tentatively called Family Tree.
ROBIN: I’ve heard there might be two CDs. Is there another in the works besides Family Tree?
CALLY: I plan to remaster ‘Time Of No Reply’, put a better sleeve around it, remove the two pre-Island tracks and maybe add a couple of new Island period out takes. This may well follow the release of Family Tree.
ROBIN: Is there a release date?
CALLY: The CD will be released when it is ready. Record racks in shops are littered with countless re-issues and poorly thought-out rushed ‘rarities’. We’d like to not be part of that. Our main intention is to keep Nick’s music alive and for it to be seen as vital contemporary music as opposed to old songs knocked out for collectors. There really are only the 3 main studio albums as his chief legacy. These still contain a good deal more worth than many songwriters ever achieve in long lifetimes, and there is always a new audience as children grow out of flimsy pop and look for music with a bit more depth.
Oct. 5, 2007.
“Family Tree, was released on Oct. 5, 2007 by Tsunami LG/Fontana, in the US and Island Records in Europe. It features previously unreleased tracks from the vaults of the Estate of Nick Drake. The album tells the story of Nick’s musical development in the years prior to recording his official debut album Five Leaves Left.” Album notes are by Gabrielle Drake, Robin Frederick, and Andrew Hicks. To read the complete press release, visit Bryter Music: The Official Website of the Estate of Nick Drake and click on NEWS.
Info from an interview with Matt Hutchinson posted in January 2007 on NickDrake.com:
According to Cally, the Family Tree CD is a collection of pre-Island recordings, some of which have been available on bootlegs. All of them have been pitched to the correct speed and remastered by John Wood, who recorded all of Nick’s studio material.
The Fruit Tree box set was released in November, 2007. It is a limited edition replica of the original Island vinyl set on CD with the film ‘A Skin Too Few’ in the box, plus extensive album notes by Joe Boyd, John Wood, Robert Kirby, and Robin Frederick.
©2001 Robin Frederick
Robin Frederick is a professional songwriter, music producer and recording artist. Nick Drake’s recording of her song Been Smoking Too Long appears on the FAMILY TREE album. She is also a contributor to the album notes in the re-release of the FRUIT TREE box set and FAMILY TREE CD.
Over her 35 years in the music industry, Robin has written more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records , Executive Producer of 60 albums, and the author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV.”