Sunday, 9 April 2017

Nick Drake

(Wyrk in progryss.....)

Nick Drake didn't get much of an audience during his lifetime, though his work attracted critical attention and acclaim and a dedicated, though still small, fan base when the title track of Pink Moon was used in Volkswagen commercial "Milky Way" in 1999.  I was aware of him in the early Seventies, as that was the peak of the singer-songwriters, and I was into them, but his sound didn't grab me - it was just a little too soft, a little too melancholy, a little lacking in bite or energy. There simply wasn't much there to grab the attention of a teenager.  But as his albums these days keep appearing in lists of the best albums ever made, I thought it was time I paid closer attention to him.

Drake had major depression, which caused him to withdraw from performance and recording, retreating to his parents' home in rural Warwickshire. His reluctance to perform live, or be interviewed, contributed to his lack of commercial success. In 1974, at the age of 26,  Drake killed himself with an overdose of antidepressant pills.

Drake signed to Island Records when he was 20 years old and was a student at the University of Cambridge, and released his debut album, Five Leaves Left, in 1969. By 1972, he had recorded two more albums—Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. Neither sold more than 5,000 copies on initial release. Some home recordings (made before his first album) was released as Family Tree in 2007. Recordings made by his mother, Molly Drake, during the 1950s was released in 2013 as Molly Drake.

Drake's music remained available through the mid-1970s, but the 1979 release of the retrospective album Fruit Tree allowed his back catalogue to be reassessed. By the mid-1980s Drake was being credited as an influence by such artists as Robert Smith, David Sylvian and Peter Buck. In 1985, The Dream Academy reached the UK and US charts with "Life in a Northern Town", a song dedicated to Drake (but not about him as a number of people erroneously think). By the early 1990s, he had come to represent a certain type of  "doomed romantic" musician in the UK music press. His first biography was published in 1997, followed in 1998 by the documentary film A Stranger Among Us.

Contemporaries and influences

Each time I listen to Nick Drake I hear John Martyn and Bert Jansch. Martyn's most famous album is Solid Air (1973),  the lead track of which, "Solid Air", was written about Drake.  Martyn was signed to Island, the same label as Drake, and released his first, folk focused, album London Conversation in 1967, with its echoes of the Incredible String Band. His second album, The Tumbler, released in 1968, just after Drake's debut, was more jazz influenced, and closer in style to Drake.  Bert Jansch is regarded as the most significant and influential of the British folk musicians. His style was distinct from Bob Dylan with a strong emphasis on the guitar, and dealing in British folk traditions rather than American, and bringing in jazz ideas rather than pop and rock. His first album was Bert Jansch in 1965. He formed the group Pentangle in 1967, releasing their first album The Pentangle in 1968. Their most successful album was Basket of Light (1968) which contained the hit single "Light Flight".  I suppose there's also a similarity with Jackson C. Frank in the melancholy tone. Jackson, like Drake, had mental health issues. He only made one album, Jackson C. Frank in 1965. And, talking of melancholy, of course there has to be a comparison with Leonard Cohen, especially his first album Pass The Razorblades (sorry)  Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967).  And while we're on the comparisons, a nod toward Syd Barrett whose first solo album after leaving Pink Floyd, The Madcap Laughs, was released in 1970.  I also think of Al Stewart's Love Chronicles  (1969) and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (1968).  Reflecting on these artists I get a sense of the world in which he belongs, and the artists whom he resembles.


Five Leaves Left (1969)

This is clearly folk in the Bert Jansch style but with some strings added that will be to individual taste.  I assume the strings were added to catch some of the feel that Van Morrison got on Astral Weeks. Perhaps I am more familiar with Astral Weeks, but the strings and flute that inform that album seem more in tune with the feel and tone of what Morrison was doing, and underscore it rather than simply accompany it. On this Drake album, the strings seem a chintzy ornamentation with more than a hint of commercial exploitation - though, tellingly when someone tries to deliberately make something appeal to the masses, it often misses. "Way To Blue" is an example of overdone sentimental strings, like something from a Seventies romantic drama.  "River Man", however, has a more subtle and expressive use of strings that genuinely adds to the song.

BBC music blog
The Music Aficionado 

Bryter Layter (1971)

Well, this middle album is certainly not his best. It's OK, but it doesn't have the charm of Five, nor the stark strength of Pink.  It's a quiet, attractive, but ultimately simply pleasant album. "Northern Sky" is a good song with good production. Stands out somewhat.

The Quietus
Rolling Stone

Pink Moon (1972)

His final album. This is more telling, as it's just Drake and his guitar - no distracting strings, or other attempts to gloss and dress up the music. So the sound is good.

Soundblab score 10
Pop Matters
Rolling Stone

Other albyms

Family Tree (2007)

Molly Drake  (2013)


* AllMusic
* BryterMusic
* NickDrake
* Telegraph
* BestEverAlbums
* 10 Of The Best 
* Guardian
* Stranger To The World
* The Atlantic
* Joe Boyd interview
* Short documentary
* A Skin Too Many - documentary
* A Stranger Among Us - documentary
* Under Review six part docu mentary
* Kaleidoscope two part documentary
* Adrian's Album Reviews
* John Peel Archives - article on influences on Nick Drake
* Telegraph biography
* George Starosin  Honest appraisal.

80 April 2019 

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