The Artistry of Robert Kirby

The British folk revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s produced great instrumentalists, many of them guesting on albums by a multitude of artists. It was a relatively small and incestuous scene, cross-pollinating its members across recording dates that were made at low budget. Many albums of that period featured gifted musicians such as Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson, Pat Donaldson, Dave Mattacks and many others. These records are revered for the great guitar, fiddle, bass, recorder and other instrument players on them. To top it many albums also included amazing vocalists. But very few pay attention to the orchestral arrangements on some of these albums. This was a period when small and large orchestras with trained classical musicians were in demand when the songs required dramatic, cinematic quality. Various arrangers worked behind the scenes and were known to producers and studio personnel, and perhaps none of them was as involved in the folk scene as Robert Kirby. His work greatly enhanced the mood of the songs he arranged and created a unique atmosphere for them. The name may be obscure to many readers, but if you followed that scene, and certainly if you listened to the music of Nick Drake, then you heard the arrangements of Robert Kirby.

Robert Kirby1

Robert Kirby’s first inclination was to become a music teacher, but in the mid-1960s he added to his classical music education a love for folk music and the Beatles. George Martin’s arrangements for the Fab Four caught his musical ear, opening his mind to the possibilities of blending classical arrangements with popular music. Songs like Eleanor Ribgy and She’s Leaving Home owe as much to the string arrangements as the melody and vocal delivery. Kirby later said: “My favorite musician is Mozart but the Beatles run him a close second.” During his studies at Caius College in Cambridge, he hooked up with the vocal cabaret group Fab Cab (“Fabulous Cabaret”), a group of choral scholars who sang close harmony acapella arrangements mixing medieval songs with popular music. After a performance at the Caius May Ball in 1967 the group was picked up by the Polydor label, at which point it changed its name to The Gentle Power of Song and in 1967 released the single Constant Penelope and an album titled Circus. It is a rare artifact of its time, mixing choral music with fuzz guitar and psychedelia. Kirby became one of the members in this 6-piece group and worked on arrangements for their Christmas album Peace, sadly never released on CD.

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The Gentle Power of Song, Kirby 2nd from right

Robert Kirby’s big break that kicked off his professional career as an arranger started on a chance call from his friend Nick Drake. The two knew each other since their audition during their first term in September 1967 at the Cambridge Footlights Revue, an annual event by the Footlights Club at the University of Cambridge. They both failed the audition, but found a mutual kindred spirit in their love for music. Kirby remembers the first time Nick Drake played him some of his songs: “Once Nick started playing his guitar I was dumbstruck by his skill and originality. To be perfectly honest, I was not immediately taken by his voice – I was a Choral Scholar – but I was with his lyrics.” Drake asked Kirby to arrange some of his songs, but the task proved to be a difficult task as a result of the his friend’s love of unusual tunings: “I used to sit with him and go through exactly how he played his chords, because he always detuned his guitar. He used strange tunings, not proper guitar tunings, and not the ones like people use in D tunings. He had very complicated tunings. Very complicated. Sometime a low string would be higher than the string above. And so it would be very important for me to write down exactly how he played each chord and every bar. I would do that with him and it sometimes annoyed him I think, because it took a long time.”

Their first collaboration was in the spring of 1968 in the Bateman room of Gonville and Caius College, where an octet made of four strings, two flutes, double bass and French horn played Kirby’s arrangements behind Drake on the songs Time of No Reply, Made to Love Magic, My Love Left with the Rain, The Thoughts of Mary Jane and Day is Done. Shortly after this performance Nick Drake was signed by Joe Boyd to his Witchseason Productions management company.

Nick Drake

Nick Drake

I covered the story of Nick Drake’s debut album Five Leaves Left in another article so I will keep it brief here. The gist of it is that after a different arranger tried to unsuccessfully orchestrate the songs, Nick Drake asked Joe Boyd to give Robert Kirby a chance. This was a faithful event for Kirby, on which he later said: “Everything always goes back to Nick Drake. Meeting Nick made my career.” Indeed, the orchestrations he created for four songs on that album are legendary and still sound amazing decades later. What is more amazing is how proficient he was in the studio, given that this was his first major recording session: “These four tracks with the string quartets, we did in one three-hour session. We did them live with Nick. Nothing was overdubbed.” John Wood, recording engineer on these sessions, adds: “Robert had never before done anything in his life in a recording studio. But we booked him together with a bunch of musicians. We were flabbergasted. He was so good.” Kirby’s personal favorite arrangement here is Fruit Tree, also one of my favorites in an album full of great songs. How a young man of 20 comes up with these lyrics is part of the enigma that is Nick Drake:

Life is but a memory

Happened long ago

Theatre full of sadness

For a long forgotten show

Seems so easy

Just to let it go on by

‘til you stop and wonder

Why you never wondered why

Between the completion of the recordings and the release of the album, Nick Drake and Robert Kirby performed twice with a small chamber group, in what I believe are their last live performances together. On June 10, 1969 they played at Caius College again, this time as part of the annual May Ball. The second was at the Pitt Club in Cambridge.

Kirby’s services were called upon again for Nick Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter. Kirby said of the album: “It was a conscious effort on his part to be more commercial. The instrumentals were his idea and inspired by Pet Sounds and, to a certain extent, The Magic Garden.”. A great track that showcases both Drake’s mastery of the guitar and Kirby’s arrangement skills is Hazey Jane I. Fairport Convention members Dave Pegg on bass and Dave Mattacks on drums guest on this song. Kirby said that Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and the work of Henry Purcell influenced his work on that album.

A review of the album in Sounds magazine recognized Kirby’s talent: “A great slice of credit must go to Robert Kirby, whose splendid arrangements are as noticeable as they were on Nick Drake’s last album.”

In between Nick Drake’s first two albums Robert Kirby started establishing himself as an arranger, working with artists mostly from the British folk rock scene that everyone was looking to record at the time. Joe Boyd was working with Vashti Bunyan, who after a few singles in the mid-1960s for Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label got disenchanted with the music business and took off with horse and carriage to the north country. She was still writing songs, great songs at that, and they caught Joe Boyd’s ear. In December of 1969 she went into the studio to record her first full-length album. Boyd brought in a number of stellar musicians from bands he was managing, including Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention. He also introduced her to his recent favorite artists: “I didn’t know who Nick Drake or Robert Kirby were, since I’d come straight down from the Outer Hebrides at Joe Boyd’s invitation – having been out of circulation for about two years in one way or another.” To her dismay, and similar to her earlier singles, Bunyan had no input into the recording process, instrumentation, arrangement and mixing of the album. That, plus the lack of attention to the album, Just Another Diamond Day, by Philips Records after its release, kept Bunyan in obscurity and sent her back to the country. Still, she remembered fondly the work that Robert Kirby contributed to her album: “The songs on Diamond Day that were arranged by Robert Kirby, who was Nick Drake’s arranger … I think, and thought at the time, that they were exactly what I wanted—almost orchestral chamber music.” A fine example is the short album opener Diamond Day, showcasing her beautiful and fragile voice and Kirby’s ability to score a matching accompaniment for recorders.

Kirby continued to work with artists from the British folk scene throughout the early 1970s. His next project was with a singer who, like Vashti Bunyan, released some of the best music of the time before vanishing for a few decades. Shelagh McDonald’s story is an odd one indeed, but lets focus on the music. Sound Techniques, a recording studio in Chelsea, was a meeting ground for many folk rock artists. Nick Drake’s albums were recorded there, and Kirby met another mover and shaker in that scene. Producer Sandy Roberton started his career in the exploding blues rock scene of the mid-1960s as a publisher of Chess records in Britain, and then co-founded the legendary Blue Horizon label. Roberton found similarities in the dedicated following between the blues and folk scenes and started producing folk artists. One of them was Shelagh McDonald, a delicate singer who benefited from that association by having the cream of the crop of musicians on the two albums she made. We are talking talent such as Danny Thompson on bass, Richard Thompson on guitar, Keith Tippet on piano, Pat Donaldson on bass and the list goes on. McDonald visited Kirby at his flat to review her songs which he liked instantly. The result yielded some of his best work, and he later reminisced about that experience: “The principal thing I remember about Shelagh is how uncannily similar she was to Nick Drake – tall, slim, very beautiful, alabaster skin accentuated by beautiful dark hair. But I believe (heresy!) that she had the edge on Nick in the vocal department – her voice was beautiful, magical, haunting. The fact that she served her apprenticeship through the clubs showed in her professionalism. She also had a great speaking voice and a great sense of humor as well.” One of his favorites from the first album is Ophelia’s Song, a fitting arrangement for strings and woodwinds.

Two more artists produced by Sandy Roberton participated in Shelagh McDonald’s recording sessions and Kirby went on to work with them as well. The first was Keith Christmas who in 1971 released his third album, an excellent collection of songs under the title Pigmy. The album closer, Forrest and the Shore, is a wonderful song highlighting not only Kirby’s string orchestration, but also his ability to write a choral score that greatly enhances the song. Kirby said of that period: “It seemed to be a positive thing to do, to get on with a career as an orchestrator. Arranging in those days was heaven. Everyone wanted strings!”

The second was Andy Roberts who the same year released another highlight of that period, the album Nina and the Dream Tree. Roberts later recalled: “We met in the early 70s when Bob was making his name as an arranger, principally through his superb work with Nick Drake. Quite often he would be arriving as I was leaving Sound Techniques, or vice versa. He was a natural choice when it came to choosing an arranger for I’ve Seen The Movie on the album Nina And The Dream Tree, and he added an ethereal, other-worldly quality to that track that was quite superb.” Indeed that track is as good as it gets, and the strings are an integral part of that wonderful song.

1971 was a fantastic year for Robert Kirby. He worked with Ralph McTell, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, produced the excellent band Spirogyra, and even tasted rock royalty when working with Elton John on his album Madman Across the Water. One more project that year was the arrangements he created for Steve Ashley’s debut album Stroll On. The album was not released until 1974, but it is a great artifact of that time, a baroque folk collection of wonderful songs. Ashley later recalled: “I decided it would be nice to have string arrangements in a kind of Delius/Vaughan Williams style. John (producer Austin John Marshall) played me Nick Drake’s stuff and said ‘this is the man’. So we got Robert Kirby, I sang him a few counter-melody ideas for some of the songs and he went away and came back with these amazing, mind-blowing arrangements.” As on Vashti Bunyan’s album, Kirby also demonstrated his love for the recorder. On Candlemas Carrol he wrote the parts for tenor and treble recorders, played by flutist Chris Taylor.

Also in 1971 Kirby was invited to write a string arrangement for one track on the band’s Audience album The House on the Hill. The band was signed to the famous Charisma label and on this album secured the services of producer Gus Dudgeon. This is a great album, and Kirby’s arrangement is unusually featured on the energetic track Raviole, the string accompaniment complementing the great playing of Howard Werth on acoustic guitar.

A year later saw Kirby contributing his talents to the Strawbs, starting with the concept album Grave New World and continuing to Bursting at the Seams, the album that yielded their big hits Lay Down and Part of the Union. On that album you can find the magnificent track Down by the Sea, featuring an addictive electric guitar riff and one of Kirby’s most bombastic string and brass arrangements. The song remained a mainstay on their live performances, usually as a regular set closer. A few years later Kirby would join the band as a keyboard player, touring with them for two years.

Skipping a few years to 1975 we find Robert Kirby collaborating again with John Cale, whom he met during the recording of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter. The ex-Velvet Underground Welsh multi-instrumentalist and singer added magic to that album, memorably playing celeste, piano and organ on the song Northern Sky. In 1975 Island released his album Helen of Troy without his consent, with material he claimed to be demo tapes. The album includes Kirby’s arrangement on one of my favorite songs by Cale, the lyrical I Keep a Close Watch.

We come to the last song in this review and what a better way to end than with Sandy Denny. In 1976 she recorded what would sadly become her last studio album, Rendezvous. The masterpiece on that album is arranged by Harry Robertson, another great arranger who lent his talents to British folk artists. Robert Kirby wrote the arrangement for the wonderful song Silver Threads And Golden Needles. It was first attempted in 1970 for Fotheringay, Denny’s band at the time.

In an interview Kirby commented on his aim as an arranger: “I try to make sure that the arrangement compliments the song. I listen to the words, I listen to what they are playing. Although I hope it is commercial, my first aim is not to stick on stock commercial riffs and make it sound sort of poppy.” Indeed, you will not find stock commercial riffs on any of the songs in this review, and none in the wonderful collection of songs featuring his arrangements that were released on Ace Records on the album When The Day Is Done – The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby.

I will let Joe Boyd, who produced Nick Drake’s albums, close this article with is comments about the artistry of Robert Kirby: “Nobody was writing string charts for singer songwriters like Robert Kirby in those days, very very different sensibility, what he did. I mean nobody bought these records at the time, but over the years everybody knows the music and Robert Kirby’s style has become so influential, now if you hear a dignified sensitive acoustic singer songwriter record with strings, you can very often hear Robert’s influence on those records”.

Robert Kirby2

If you enjoyed reading this article and want to read more about great arrangers, try the article about Andrew Powell, who wrote wonderful arrangements for Al Stewart, Kate Bush and the Alan Parsons Project, among others:

  • The Artistry of Andrew Powell- There is something about a large orchestra backing a singer that appeals to me. I don’t mean the sugary over-melodramatic ones like the theme song for Titanic. I love the lush orchestrations Nelson Riddle created for Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings in the 1950s, or those behind Ella Fitzgerald in her American songbook series. In the 1960s many great Related Posts

You may also be interested in the article about Nick Drake’s debut album Five Leaves Left:

  • Five Leaves Left, by Nick Drake- On September 24, 1969, Fairport Convention played a live show that gave the world a preview of their album Liege and Lief, released a few months later and now considered a staple album in the emerging British folk rock revival of the late 60. The circumstances surrounding the recording of the album, following the tragic death of drummer Martin Lamble in a car […]

Other articles about folk music on this blog feature some of the best British folk artists from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Categories: Retrospectives

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2 replies »

    • I was expecting that question 🙂 After a few more Strawbs albums and working with Iain Matthews, Richard and Linda Thompson and a few more, sometime in the late 1970s Kirby left the music business and became a successful market researcher and a director of Ipsos. He continued to arrange in a smaller capacity. A few notable projects included Paul Weller’s Heliocentric and public performances of Nick Drake’s music. He sadly passed away in 2009.

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