Nick Garrie’s 1969 album, ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas’, is now seen to be a psychedelic folk/pop masterpiece. It has, however, only recently gained this reputation and for over thirty five years was largely unheard.

The son of a Russian father and Scottish mother, Garrie’s early years were divided between Paris, where his Egyptian stepfather worked as a diplomat, and Norwich, where he attended a boarding school.

He recorded ‘The Nightmares of J.B. Stanislas’ at the age of twenty in Paris with Eddie Vartan, who was a then fashionable French producer and the brother of the actress Sylvie Vartan. Garrie originally intended the album to have a sparser sound, but when he turned up at the studio on the first day of recording he found that Vartan had employed a 56-piece orchestra to expand on his more tender arrangements.

The finished result is a compelling oddity and merges together Garrie’s wistful melodies and often abstract lyrics with Vartan’s colourfully extravagant orchestrations. It is, like the Zombies’ better known and similarly baroque 1968 album ‘Odessey and Oracle’ which was equally ahead of its time, much deserved of the cult status it has since come to gain.

Lucien Morrisse, the owner of Disc AZ, Garrie’s record label, committed suicide before ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas’ was ever released and for years it languished in obscurity, eventually starting to attract fan interest when tracks from it began to leak onto the internet. With rare warehouse copies selling at up to £800, ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas’ only finally saw official release when it came out on CD on Rev-Ola Records in 2004.

Garrie, who spent much of the years in between abroad and at one point ran his own ski school in Switzerland, recorded some singles in the 1970s with French film composer Francis Lai, but did not release a second album, until 1984. ‘Suitcase Man’, which he put out under the moniker of Nick Garrie-Hamilton, went to number one in Spain and led him to tour there with Leonard Cohen. Garrie was, however, unable to build on this and soon afterwards dropped once more into obscurity.

Garrie now works as a teacher near London. His most recent studio album, ’49 Arlington Gardens’, came out in 2009 on the Spanish indie pop label Elefant and was recorded with a set of Glaswegian fans and musicians including Duglas T. Stewart from the BMX Bandits; the Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Francis McDonald; the Doghouse Roses' Paul Tasker and Iona Macdonald, and singer-songwriter Ally Kerr. ‘49 Arlington Gardens’, which is partially sung in French, is on the surface summery and pastoral in tone, but, like all of Garrie’s work, is underscored with a deep sense of sadness and melancholy.

2010 has seen Elefant release a fortieth anniversary edition of ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas’, which includes an autobiographical book by Garrie, and an additional CD of outtakes and unreleased material. Nick Garrie spoke to Pennyblackmusic about ’The Nightmare of J.B Stanislas’ and its slow recognition.

PB: You give the impression in the biographical book that accompanies ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas’ that your musical career is something that you have stumbled into and out of on various occasions. Do you really see it as having gone that way?

NG: Yes. Looking back on it now, I can see that I wrote all my albums when I was troubled and as a way of riding things out when they had gone badly wrong. When I was recording them, it wasn’t something that I was aware of. They were just things that I wrote and did and wanted to do. Even the last one, ’49 Arlington Gardens’, was written though as I was getting divorced and I think writing it was just my way coping with things.

PB: What did you feel troubled about when you were writing ‘Stanislas’?

NG: I wrote most of it when I was between nineteen and twenty. I was at Warwick University at the time, but I had spent so much of my life living in France that I had been called up for the French army as a national. Although I was eventually released from it, for a year I couldn’t go in to France and so I was essentially homeless.

PB: You have said in the biography that singing is something that from the age of about six you have always done. You give a pretty horrific account of boarding school in the late 50s. One of the few highlights seemed to be joining the school choir which was run by a slightly garrulous, one-legged war veteran. Do you think that was a prime influence on your musical development?

NG: Absolutely. I am sure that was the basis. I sung in the choir for about ten years and even long after he had gone. Although I never learnt to read music, I used to do it all by ear. I remember humming these little songs as I got sent off to boarding school and every time I went home and back again for the first two or three years, but I think the choir was for me the prime basis. I sung every morning at Norwich Cathedral during term time at both chapel and evening song and there was a real sense of stillness and comfort in that.

PB: Your stepfather seems to have been ultimately encouraging of your musical career, but how much of a musical influence was there at home?

NG: Not a lot. It was just something that I did on my own.

PB: When did you first begin writing songs?

NG: I first started playing guitar when I was thirteen. It is quite a funny story. I was a bit of a rebel when I was younger and the chap who lived downstairs in the flat underneath my mother and stepfather’s place in Paris was a guy called Kalevi Sorsa who went on to become the Prime Minister of Finland. He worked in my mother’s office in UNESCO and, when he heard that I got myself into some sort of bother, he suggested that she get me playing the guitar.

He gave me Dylan’s ‘Freewheelin’ album and I started with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. I taught myself the chords and just played it for about four or five months over and over until could I play it properly. A load of my early songs were based around the first four chords I learnt on that. I went on from there and started writing my own stuff when I was fifteen.

PB: The suicide of Lucien Morrisse led to ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas’ remaining unheard for over three decades. Even before he died, you, however, imply again in your autobiography that Disc AZ didn’t know quite what to do with you and how to promote you. Do you think that too was a factor in ‘Stanislas’ remaining undiscovered for so long?

NG: Absolutely, because it was never released at all. It was not as if it came out. No one ever heard it. I would go in to see them. We would talk about it. They would say that it would be in the shops next month and it never was. It went on like that for about six months, at the end of which I had had enough.

To be honest as well at that stage I didn’t really like it much either. I didn’t like the arrangements, so after his suicide I gave a couple of copies to my stepfather and for me it was finished. I didn’t listen to it again or even really talk about much for years.

PB: How do you think it stands up now? Do you like it better?

NG: I do like it now, but I still don’t hear it through everybody’s ears. I have had a lot of correspondence with people who really love it, people from all over the world who say how much it has moved them, so it seems a bit churlish to say now that I didn’t really like it. They were songs, however, that I didn’t really recognise at the recording stage and again for a long time afterwards.

I still sing them though and have always sung them. In a way I think I was writing ahead of my time, both for myself and for other people really. I have been playing gigs as Nick Garrie again over the last three or four years and sing songs from ‘Stanislas’ alongside some of the songs that I co-wrote with Francis Lai and those on ‘Arlington Gardens’. I think that they sit together pretty well really.

PB: There is the story about Eddie Varden introducing you to a fifty six piece orchestra which you didn’t know about until you turned up at the studio. What did you expect the songs to sound like? Were they going to be just you and your acoustic guitar or were they going to involve a band?

NG: Eddie would play me stuff. For example I remember him playing Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ and I thought the guitar would be upfront like that. I knew that it wouldn’t be my guitar work because I wasn’t a good enough guitarist. I am still not, but I suspected that would be the basis of it.

The first song that I started recording was ‘Stanislas’. I had no idea that was what we were playing though. He would shove me in the booth and prompt me when and what I had to sing. He was using these mainly classical musicians who were all wearing cardigans and who didn’t think much of me anyway because I was a pop artist. But having said that he was really, really nice and was in many a sort of uncle or father figure to me.

PB: It seems that you had quite an odd relationship with him really because at one level he was very praising and told you that he thought that you would be the next Bob Dylan, but at another level he would do something like that and not tell you what was going on.

NG: I realised years afterwards that it was a terrific investment for them, this orchestra playing for two weeks with this guy who completely unknown completely unknown. I just never expected it and didn’t feel in a position to say very much about it.

I think as well that it was just the way it was in those days. Often the producer even if it was a guitar-based thing would bring in a whole bunch of strings and stuff that the artists wouldn’t know much about or understand what they are doing with. A lot of us were in the same boat and couldn’t read music, so you were immediately in a weak position. When this guy from the label orders a hundred song sheets and you don’t know what song it is, you are not really in a position to do anything.

PB: How did ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas’ gain it audience? Do you know ?

NG: I had just started teaching when I found out about it. I had done a PGCE course late in life and I typed in Nick Garrie as a joke because I hadn’t used the name since ‘Stanislas’ and I couldn’t believe it when there was all these pages on it.

I don’t know for sure, but I believe there was a company called Acid Ray who were in Korea and they must have bootlegged some tapes as they put out a compilation album called ‘Band Caruso’ with ‘Wheel of Fortune’ on it. I think that was the first thing on the web and it did quite well, so that is probably how the name got about. Things went from there.

PB: After Disc AZ collapsed, you took up various jobs abroad. How much effort did you make to resurrect your musical career at this stage or were you just totally hacked off with it and at everything that had gone wrong with it?

NG: I did do the occasional single here and there and always carried on singing. I ended up in Switzerland and set up the ski club, and in fact most of the skill now I have if I sing on stage –I am good with an audience - I picked it up from singing in the Alps and entertaining the skiers. I would do mostly covers and stick in a couple of songs of my own like ‘Deeper Tones of Blue’ and ‘The Wanderer’ and not tell anybody they were mine.

PB: In the late 1970s you recorded some singles with Francis Lai and you also toured Spain in 1984 with Leonard Cohen. How did the Cohen tour come about?

NG: My mother died and I wrote my second album, ‘Suitcase Man’, really in mind of her. She had been the one support I had had through all that time and even after ‘Stanislas’. She and my stepfather had this tiny little flat in Paris with a kitchen with a very good echo. I would sing songs to her in the kitchen and she was the only one who believed in them. She always said, “One day your songs will be heard everywhere.”

When she died, I did the album. I was playing quite a bit in bars at that stage and this French guy gave me an address for a record company and suggested that I get in contact with them. They came to see me and they licensed the album. They never actually paid me for it, but it got to number one in the album charts in Spain and as part of that the publisher or someone there was handling the Spanish leg of the Cohen tour and put me on as the support act.

PB: How did you get on with Cohen?

NG: He is a really kind man. I had never played to more than about fifty people before then and he saw me while I was doing the soundcheck at the first show. I must have looked pretty terrified as he looked after me after that. The Spanish guitarist who was playing with me and I had a tiny dressing room. We were playing this stadium and had a tiny little tressle table with two sandwiches and two cans of beer on it. When he saw that he was absolutely horrified so he took us to his dressing room which was absolutely covered in booze and food and let us use that after that.

He just spoke pearls of wisdom. The first concert we played was in Bilboa and for me it was just the best thing that I had ever played in my life, both in terms of the quality of the singing and the sound. I already had some fans in Spain and when I started playing the song that was on the radio at the time I had a massive encore. He said to me after that,“The audience give out their own electricity and you give it yours and when you combine them then you have got a great night like tonight.” I had never ever sung that way before, but it has stuck with me ever since. I used to just knock back a stiff one before and close my eyes and sing.

PB: And then after having had the number one album in Spain, your career just sort of petered out again, didn’t it?

NG: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I did an album ‘The Playing Fields’ and I couldn’t get a release for that. After that I did an album which I called ‘Twelve Old Songs'. I saw that Cohen had done ‘Ten New Songs’, so I thought I would I try ‘Twelve Old Songs’ and I revisited them and I did new versions of them. I had started playingl gigs in Portugal and I loved the Portugese guitar. Some of the songs on that featured the Portugese guitar, but I wasn’t able to get a deal for it either.

PB: How involved were you in the release of ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas’ when it initially came out on Rev-Ola? How did that happen?

NG: What happened was I was teaching by then and I went to the Arts Centre in Windsor and I dropped a CD off. When I didn’t hear anything, I went back and the guy in charge there said, “Well I get over 200 CDs a week”, and then as he was turning around to go he said, “But, yours is the best one that I have heard in months. Will you play in this singer-songwriter competition we are organising?” And so I did and I won it and the prize was your own website and £200 worth of a web designer’s time.

On the website I thought, “Well. I’ll just put up what I have done” and so I put up ‘Stanislas’ and all the other albums I had done. Four labels asked straightaway about releasing it, but the only one who was interested in maybe doing other stuff was Rev-Ola. I just didn’t want to be seen as some old sixties guy and that is all that I had done because in my mind I have always been writing, albeit sporadically. They ended up doing a compilation album of a lot of my songs from the 1970s and 1980s called ‘The Lost Songs of Nick Garrie-Hamilton’ as well.

PB ’49 Arlington Gardens’, your latest album, was recorded in Glasgow alongside musicians such as Duglas T. Stewart from the BMX Bandits and the singer-songwriter Ally Kerr. How did you become involved with them?

NG: I went to see Joe Foster, who runs Rev-Ola, and I said to him, “I wouldn’t mind doing something else” and he said, “Well, you should go up to Glasgow to meet some musicians.” The first one that I met was Ally and he introduced me to Paul and Iona from the Doghouse Roses. We sat in Ally’s flat and I showed them some songs and Paul said, “You’ve got to record these. They’re even better than the other ones you have already recorded.”

At first I was just going to record a single because I knew that I could just about pay for that. Then we got to the recording studio and Duglas turned up on the train. I didn’t know who he was at first because I don’t follow music very much, but after that things progressed quite quickly.

I think why that album was so good is that it wasn’t really produced by anybody. It was just organic. People would drift in and out. The sound engineer Duncan was really good and he would give the nod if something was working or not. Duglas oversaw everything and he had quite creative ideas and then people like Francis MacDonald came in and played on bits of it and he also had things to say about how we should do things. We started with ‘Twilight’ and there was Norman Blake, Iona and another Spanish girl doing the harmonies and I have still never heard anything as beautiful in my life. It was an absolute joy to do. We recorded the album really quickly over three or four weekends.

PB: Why did that album end up with the name, ’49 Arlington Gardens’?

NG: What happened was that I had been married for twenty years and suddenly I found myself driving around without a home. I ended up in this mate of mine’s house and he and his wife kind of took care of me. The flat next door was 49 Arlington Gardens and I eventually moved in there and I told myself almost as a joke that if ever recorded another album I would call it ’49 Arlington Gardens’

PB: You have now got a deal with Elefant, who have released both ’49 Arlington Gardens’ and the fortieth anniversary edition of ‘The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas'. It seems like they have been really supportive.

NG. They have. I am still in touch with Francis Lai and he said you’ve finally found you feet. They’re like a family. They are like that all to their artists really. It is a home to my songs.

PB: Hopefully nothing traumatic will happen to you first, but will you release another album?

NG: No, I am not (Laughs). I have made four, five albums. They haven’t sold a thing. ‘Arlington Gardens’ is a lovely album, but it has sold a few hundred copies and I think enough is enough. I have done my bit and put out my stuff. Apart from anything else it wouldn’t be fair on the label.

I have got much better at singing live and maybe what I wouldn’t mind doing is a live album and having quite a big orchestra to do like the ‘Stanislas’ songs and then having a band like the BMX Bandits to do some of the others.

PB: Thank you.

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