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Adventures with a lost Nick Drake recording

A version of Cello Song intended for the skip has inspired a photography exhibition 37 years after the singer's death

What would you do if you discovered a previously unheard Nick Drake recording? A song by one of most famous, cultish singer-songwriters of the early Seventies; a man who died so young that his oeuvre is limited, but is nevertheless one of the most influential English musicians of the last 50 years.  You’d want everyone to hear it, right? Organise a tribute album, perhaps? Cash in on the discovery? Luckily, Michael Burdett did none of those things.

Burdett, a television composer and photographer, harboured the lost Drake recording for nearly 40 years. In the 1970s, when working in the post room at Island Records (the label Drake signed to), Burdett was asked to throw some tapes into a rubbish skip. Having rummaged through them, and hoping to salvage some to use in a studio he was setting up, his eye was caught by one tape in particular.

Click here or on "View Gallery" to preview Strange Faces in pictures

“I picked it up because it had ‘Nick Drake, Cello Song’ and ‘with love’ written on the box,” Burdett says. “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 two decades before he sat down and listened to the tape. Thinking it would be the Cello Song, a beautiful, highly recognisable, string- and guitar-drenched track from Drake’s 1968 debut, Five Leaves Left, Burdett was amazed to discover a completely different never-previously-heard version.

Instead of seeing pound signs, Burdett reacted to the discovery by embarking on a rather unusual artistic project. Armed only with a portable CD player and headphones, Burdett traipsed the length and breadth of the UK and personally approached 200 people offering them the chance to hear the recording. Of those asked, 167 said yes – and Burdett photographed their reactions.

“In a world where recorded music is distributed so casually and freely it’s almost lost its value. I saw an opportunity to use a recording to create a very personal moment for a number of people - and maybe to give them an incredibly special memory,” Burdett says.

The city workers, scientists, farmers, hairdressers, musicians tattooists randomly approached and photographed by Burdett are pictured in various stages of rapture. Although the brooding Drake, who was posthumously seen as a doomed romantic hero, did not create music to make you smile exactly, several of the listeners are seen with soppy, enthralled grins on their faces.

Comedian Noel Fielding was one of those Burdett approached. He remarked: “[The music] was like the forest came to life and carried me about in a little silver papoose.”

Factory worker Melvin Hodges, who also took part, said: “He [Drake] died without me noticing. It is the velvet in his voice that brings out the best in him.”

The photographs, titled the Strange Faces Project - not, as a comment on the visages of the subjects, but in reference to the opening lyric of the song: “Strange face, with your eyes/ So pale and sincere”)- is currently on show at the Idea Generation Gallery in London.

Drake died of an overdose of prescription antidepressants aged 26 in 1974. He had recorded three albums and been critically acclaimed, but only really acquired widespread fame in the mid-to-late Eighties, long after his death.  As well as being playful and hugely appealing to look at, the photographs serve to further cement the impact Drake’s creative output has had, despite its brevity.

The Strange Face Project: Adventures With A Lost Nick Drake Recording at Idea Generation Gallery until 12 February 2012, www.ideageneration.co.uk