Strange Face Project

The award-winning show about a lost Nick Drake recording rescued from the bottom of a skip returns to Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016. The extraordinary story of how one man shared a recording no one knew existed.

Since his tragic death in the mid seventies, Nick Drake's haunting music has influenced countless artists – including Paul Weller, Kate Bush & Radiohead. But how has the discovery of a previously unheard recording touched the lives of a very special group of people: the lucky few, who were chosen to hear it?

Strange Face Adventures with a Lost Nick Drake Recording is the story of a discovered tape, a lost Nick Drake recording and how the man who found it chose to share it in an extraordinary way. Humorous and poignant  ‘Strange Face’ celebrates life, coincidences and the legacy of singer songwriter Nick Drake.

In the 1970s, when working as a post-boy at Island Records, television composer Michael Burdett rescued a tape from a rubbish skip.

“I picked it up because it had ‘Nick Drake, Cello Song’ and ‘with love’ written on the box. The words ‘with love’ made me think that it had to be Nick’s handwriting and on that basis 
I couldn’t let it go to the dump.”

It was over 20 years before Michael played the tape. When he threaded it on to a tape machine, he was astonished to hear an unknown version of Cello Song, one of Drakes’s greatest works.

During his brief recording career, Nick Drake produced just 3 studio albums, so Michael knew the discovery of a new recording would be a significant find. Drake’s estate manager came to hear it, bringing with him Nick’s friend and string arranger, Robert Kirby.

“Kirby settled down in the studio and I put the recording on. When the guitar started, it was obvious from his face that he did not recognise this particular version. Then as Nick’s voice came in, his eyes moistened. It felt like a very personal moment and I remember thinking that his face would have made a telling photograph.”

Realising it was not his place to copy, release or broadcast the recording Michael put the tape aside as a curiosity until some years later when he heard news of Kirby’s death. Around the same time Michael watched the documentary, Grizzly Man, the unfortunate story of Timothy Treadwell who was killed by a grizzly bear he was filming in the wild. In the documentary the director, Werner Herzog, listens to the audio recording of the fatal attack on headphones.

“I remember thinking that watching someone listening to something so ghastly was one of the most visceral things I had ever seen. It made me think, what would I actually like to watch people listen to on headphones?
 And in that moment I knew what I was going to do.”

Michael set off on a strange adventure. With a CD player and headphones in hand, for nearly two years he travelled the length and breadth of Britain with the aim of offering 200 random individuals an exclusive opportunity to hear the recording as he photographed them, whether they knew of Drake’s material or not.                                                                                                            

Among the people he approached were some well-known faces, including Billy Bragg, Sir Tom Stoppard, Tracy Chevalier, Danny Baker, Alan Yentob, Martin Freeman, The Mighty Boosh, Richard E Grant, Jonathan Pryce, Fearne Cotton, Ross Noble and Paul Whitehouse.

Michael photographed everyone who listened, people from the age of two to 96, and recorded their thoughts on the newly discovered recording

“The great thing about Nick Drake is that you have to meet him half way. You have to lean in to hear what he is saying.” Billy Bragg, singer-songwriter

“He just died without me noticing. It is the velvet in his voice that brings out the best in him” Melvin Hodges, factory worker

“It was like the forest came to life and carried me about in a little silver papoose” Noel Fielding, comedian, actor

Nick Drake’s music was seldom reviewed when he was alive and he never received the recognition his talent deserved. It is often said that this disappointment caused him to take his life. But by the mid 1980s his music was being cited as influencing the likes of Peter Buck (R.E.M) and Robert Smith (The Cure). Today, Drake’s work is more popular than ever. It can be heard on TV programmes, movie soundtracks and television commercials and continues to inspire and influence new generations.

Meet the people he photographed and hear their touching stories – what are their memories of the experience and were they moved by it? And how it felt to be in this most exclusive of clubs.