When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby.

Label: Ace Records.

Compilation Of The Week.

During the golden age of vinyl, buying a new album was often part of a wider musical education and could lead the record buyer on a long and fascinating musical journey. That was the case for the small group of people who bought Nick Drake’s debut album Five Leaves Left on the ‘3rd’ of July 1969 and the followup Bryter Later on the ‘3rd’ of March 1971. Bryter Later opened with the orchestrated Introduction where swathes of beautiful, haunting strings accompanied Nick Drake’s plucked guitar. Suddenly, record buyers were reaching out and looking for  Bryter Later’s album cover to see who orchestrated Introduction? On discovering the name Robert Kirby, many record buyers went in search of other albums featuring his orchestral arrangements.

By the time Bryter Later was released, Robert Kirby had only worked on around seventeen albums, which featured his trademark string arrangements. This included albums by Vashti Bunyan, Gillian McPherson, Ralph McTell, Audience, Andy Roberts, John Kongos, Keith Christmas and Spirogyra. These artists feature on When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby, which was recently released by Ace Records. Later, Robert Kirby went on to work with John Cale, Ian Matthews, Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson who also When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby, which is a lovingly curated homage to one of the oft-overlooked arranger. 

Robert Kirby was born on the ’16th’ of April 1948 in Bishop’s Stortford, in Hertfordshire into a lower middle class family. His father was a factory foreman, but he had high hopes for his son when the young Robert Kirby won a scholarship to become a day pupil at Gresham College. 

By then, Robert Kirby had discovered rock ’n’ roll and was listening to Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and even Connie Francis. However, Robert Kirby’s love of music also included singing in the choirs in the local church and at Gresham College where he won a choral scholarship to study at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

On his arrival at Gonville and Caius College in 1966, Robert Kirby realised that he was about to study at one of the top Oxbridge colleges. Gonville and Caius College had a reputation for producing many leading academics and it had already produced five Nobel Prize winners. However, Robert Kirby hoped that his time at Gonville and Caius College would lead to a teaching career. 

That wasn’t how it turned out. During his time at Gonville and Caius College met Nick Drake, when the pair auditioned for the Footlights. Neither was successful, but having met Nick Drake, Robert Kirby he was an aspiring songwriter. When Robert Kirby heard Nick Drake’s lyrics, he fell in love them. Soon, though, Robert Kirby had fallen in love for the second time.

This came after Robert Kirby discovered The Beatles’ song She’s Leaving Home. This resulted in Robert Kirby realising that he would rather eventually work as an arranger than a teacher. However, Robert Kirby hadn’t envisaged his career as an arranger beginning until he left Gonville and Caius College.

Not long after that, Nick Drake started playing live and needed string arrangements for his shows. The man he turned to, was Robert Kirby, and this was the start of a successful musical partnership.

In 1969, Nick Drake signed to Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions, who would record his debut album Five Leaves Left. It was an album that required string arrangements, and Joe Boyd decided to that Richard Hewson take charge of the arrangements. Nick Drake rejected Richard Hewson’s arrangements and suggested using his old friend from Cambridge Robert Kirby.

When Robert Kirby was asked to take charge of the arrangements for Five Leaves Left before recording began at Sound Techniques, the well known studio in Chelsea, London. Robert Kirby began work on the arrangements, and Joe Boyd was so impressed with his work that he asked him to work on another album being produced by Witchseason Productions.

This was Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day which was recorded at Sound Techniques and   released in 1970. When people heard Robert Kirby’s work on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left and Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day the offers of work started to pour in. His service as an arranger were much in demand.

During one of the Joe Boyd sessions at Sound Techniques, Robert Kirby met producer and manager Sandy Robertson who owned September Productions. He was also looking for an arranger, and Robert Kirby became Sandy Robertson’s arranger of choice. 

Despite working for Sandy Robertson, Robert Kirby still worked for Joe Boyd, and when the time came for Nick Drake to record his sophomore album Bryter Later in 1970. It was released on ‘3rd’ of March 1971 and was last Nick Drake album that Robert Kirby worked on. Bryter Later also features the song that opens When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby.

This is the orchestrated Introduction which opens Bryter Later which was released by Island Records on the ‘3rd’ of March 1971. On Introduction, Nick Drake’s plucked guitar opens the track and soon, swathes of beautiful, haunting strings accompanied Nick Drake’s plucked guitars. It’s one of the finest songs that Nick Drake would record during his tragically short career.

In 1971, singer-songwriter Keith Christmas released his third album Pigmy on B&C Records. It features the beautiful folk rock ballad Forest and The Shore which was written by Keith Christmas  and produced by Sandy Robertson. Robert Kirby’s strings add the finishing touches with a carefully crafted dark mellotron choral arrangement. It transforms the track and shows how far Robert Kirby had come as an arranger by 1971.

By 1975, Robert Kirby had worked on John Cale’s album Helen Of Troy, which was released on Island Records. It was a controversial album, and one that John Cale didn’t want to release as he believed the album featured demos. However, when he returned from an Italian tour in November 1975, he discovered that Helen Of Troy has been released against his wishes. One of the highlights of the album was I Keep A Close Watch a dark, brooding ballad which featured a stunning string arrangement by Robert Kirby. They dance above John Cale’s vocal and add a contrast and help bring out the beauty in the song.

Rainbow River was a song from Vashti Bunyan’s debut album Just Another, which was released by Phillips in 1970. By then,  Vashti Bunyan had been around for a few years, but had yet to make a commercial breakthrough. Sadly, Just Another failed commercially and Vashti Bunyan turned her back on music for over thirty years. The understated and ethereal Rainbow River which features beautiful arrangement by Robert Kirby and is a reminder of what music lost during the years Vashti Bunyan was away from music.

Andy Roberts was a British folk rock artist who released his third album Nina And The Dream Tree on the B & C Records sub-label Pegasus in 1971. One of the highlights of Nina And The Dream Tree was I’ve Seen The Movie which featured an impassioned, needy vocal from Andy Roberts as he delivered lyrics that were sometimes lysergic and always rich in imagery. However, the song wouldn’t have been as successful without Robert Kirby’s string drenched arrangement that sometimes added to the emotion and drama.

By 1977, Robert Kirby was a successful arranger who had worked   on many different projects, and with many folk rock artists. This included on Spriguns 1977 album Time Will Pass which was released on Decca and featured White Witch. This Mandy Morton composition benefits from a string arrangement as Spriguns successful fuse elements of a folk rock, psychedelia and progressive rock on this enchanting ballad.

Belfast born Gillian McPherson had served her musical apprenticeship on the club scene before signing to RCA and releasing her debut album Poets And Painters And Performers Of Blues in 1971. It was produced by Danny Thompson who brought  Robert Kirby onboard to add strings to a couple of tracks. This included the sweeping strings that feature on the ballad It’s My Own Way where Gillian McPherson delivers a tender, ethereal vocal. Sadly for Gillian McPherson and music lovers Poets And Painters And Performers Of Blues was the only album this truly talented chanteuse.

Apart from being a member of  The Strawbs, Fairport Convention and Fotheringay, Sandy Denny enjoyed a successful solo career. The final album released before her death in 1978 was Rendezvous, which was released by Island Records in 1977. It featured the heart-wrenching ballad Silver Threads And Golden Needles which features a silver arrangement by Robert Kirby.

Spirogyra was formed in Bolton, Lancashire in 1967 by Martin Cockerham and Mark Francis and in 1971 they released their debut album St. Radigunds on B&C Records and featured vocalist Barbara Gaskin. St. Radigunds was arranged and produced by Robert Kirby, and featured the Martin Cockerham composition Love Is A Funny Thing. Barbara Gaskin delivers a tender, ethereal vocal that hints at vulnerability. Coupled with Robert Kirby’s arrangement and crystalline production this was a winning formula, and one of the highlights of St. Radigunds which today is a cult classic.

In 1975, Australian singer-songwriter Gary Shearston released his seventh album The Greatest Stone On Earth And Other Two-Bob Wonders on the Charisma label. It was arranged and produced by Gary Shearston and Robert Kirby, and featured Friend To Me which is one of the album’s highlights. A cascading piano plays its part in the arrangement to this Gary Shearston composition, while his vocal had obviously been influenced by American folk and French chanson. Although unlikely bedfellows they work well on  Friend To Me which is a reminder of Gary Shearston who later, turned his back on music to become an Anglican minister.

After their ill-judged decision to turn their back on music to establish a Sufi community in Suffolk, Richard and Linda Thompson hit the comeback trail in with the release of First Light on Chrysalis in 1978. The Thompson’s brought Robert Kirby onboard to add strings to First Light, which was produced by Jon Wood and Richard Thompson. He also wrote the title-track  First Light, where Robert Kirby’s strings augment the harmonies that accompany Linda Thompson’s vocal on this spiritual sounding ballad.

When art rockers Audience recorded their third album The House On The Hill for Charisma, Gus Dudgeon produced the album and Robert Kirby arranged and conducted the strings. This included the Howard Werth composition Ravioléo. It showcased Robert Kirby’s string arrangement while a Nick Drake inspired guitar plays and later, a scatted vocal is added. The result was an intriguing and enchanting track from The House On The Hill which was released on Charisma in 1971.

The progressive folk band Illusion who were formed by the four remaining members of Renaissance, and added guitarist John Knightsbridge and drummer Eddie McNeil to their lineup. Illusion released their debut Out Of The Mist for island Records in 1977. A year later, Illusion released their eponymous debut album for island Records in 1978. By then, progressive music was no longer flavour of month amongst the critics. Instead, the new breed of cynical critics slated anything progressive and flew the flag for New Wave music. In doing so, the critics missed out on a hugely underrated album which featured Madonna Blue which like the rest of Illusion was produced by Paul Samwell-Smith and featured a string arrangement by Robert Kirby. They provide the finishing touch to this progressive folk pop opus penned by Jim McCarty.

Ralph McTell penned the folk rock ballad Pick Up A Gun closes When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby. It’s one of his own compositions and featured on his 1971 album You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here. It was produced by Gus Dudgeon with Robert Kirby’s taking charge of a brass arrangement while his strings sweetened a poignant song full of social comment.

When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby is the perfect introduction to one of the greatest British arrangers of his generation whose career spanned five decades. Robert Kirby sometimes produced artists and groups, and there are several of his productions on When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby which was recently released by Ace Records. Robert Kirby was much more than an arranger, and was a talented producer who was The Strawbs keyboardist between 1975 and 1978. During that period there was still plenty of work for Robert Kirby. However, after 1978 the work dried up for Robert Kirby

Over the next two decades, Robert Kirby was no longer as busy and only arranged four albums during the eighties and three during the nineties. Most of Robert Kirby’s time was spent working for the market research company RSL. For a man of Robert Kirby’s this must have been a disappointment, considering his musical CV. Despite that, Robert Kirby continued to play his beloved piano and in the evenings listened to classical music. This was Robert Kirby’s routine until the late nineties.

As the new millennia dawned, a new generation of artists had discovered Robert Kirby’s arrangements. May had heard his arrangements on Nick Drake’s debut album Five Leaves Left and the followup Bryter Later. Artists like Paul Weller and Teddy Thompson and old friends like The Strawbs and Vashti Bunyan brought arranger Robert Kirby onboard and he was back doing what he loved. Sadly, after a short illness which required emergency heart surgery Robert Kirby passed away in a West London hospital on the ‘3rd’ of October 2009. 

That day, British music lost one of the greatest arrangers of his generation, Robert Kirby. He left behind a rich musical legacy, including the twenty tracks he arranged and produced during  the seventies which feature on When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby. The lovingly curated When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby is a near flawless compilation of tracks and essential listening for anyone who appreciates and loves music from this golden age of British music.

When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby.


1 Comment

  1. Have you ever listened to the (two) albums by Judee Sill from around the same period? There are some beautiful arrangements on those records with such haunting songwriting. Certainly worth checking out if you haven’t. Her song ‘The Kiss’ is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

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