Art is seldom so tidy. And that work was never done in total isolation: Drake worked with Chris Blackwell at Island, with the producer Joe Boyd, musicians like Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson, from Fairport Convention and pentangle respectively, with The Velvet Underground's John Cale and the string arranger Robert Kirby, an old college friend and anchor to his past. His songs were played in his lifetime on the radio by the likes of John Peel and Bob Harris and he did tour with the Fairport's so plenty was packed in. If his own life was pitted by sadness and depression his art has given many a quiet, undefined pleasure. Investigation of his catalogue is respectfully recommended.
Born in June 1948 in Rangoon, Burma where his father Rodney was an engineer who married Mary 'Molly' Lloyd, daughter of a senior member of the Indian Civil Service, Nick Drake was brought up in idyllic circumstances in the glorious village of Tamworth-in-Arden in Warwickshire. His older sister Gabrielle later became a successful actress. Home life was genteel and pleasant. The Drakes were a musical family and mother Molly was herself an accomplished songwriter and pianist with a large collection of records that exposed Nick to everything from Delius to Noel Coward. Using his mother's reel-to-reel tape recorder the young Nicholas enjoyed committing his own ditties to fleeting posterity.
Educated at prep school in Berkshire and then at public school, Marlborough College in Wiltshire, Drake was an avid sportsman, a fine sprinter, a great reader and confident enough then to become head of house where it was noted his character exhibited traits of aloofness as well as an amused Colonial hauteur. Immersed in the arts, though no lover of academic science subjects, Drake seemed destined for solid establishment stuff when he won a scholarship to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and delayed that with a kind of gap year stint in Aix-Marseille, southern France. He travelled to Morocco where he enjoyed the local culture, lived with Gabrielle in Hampstead for a while and then took himself and his guitar off to Cambridge. His musical tastes now ran to Bob Dylan of course, Phil Ochs and blues folkies like Josh White. The vinyl revolution of 1967/8 would mirror the social changes on campuses across Europe and America and Nick was in one of the right places at the right time for both.
Considering his refracted image as a loner it's worth recalling that even as an undergraduate (he never completed his English degree) Drake would take himself to play in the clubs of Soho and the coffee houses of London town. In 1968 he supported Country Joe and the Fish at the Roundhouse where Fairport Convention's Ashley Hutchings saw him and recalled he looked like a star already, tall and handsome with the kind of detached, tousled charm that made men envious and women swoon.
Hutchings introduced the young man to American producer Joe Boyd, himself only 25 at the time, and an album was mooted and then achieved via Boyd's Witchseason Productions, licensed through island Records.
This album, Five Leaves Left, was recorded by Boyd and engineer John Wood with the intention of mirroring the in your face immediacy of John Simon's work for Leonard Cohen: nothing flash, just a unique listening experience. Drake's songs here were as much an introduction to himself as any perceived buyer. Starting with 'Time Has Told Me' and ending on the elegiac 'Saturday Sun' the pieces were the very basis for his recent live shows so while he tested the waters he was far from callow in execution of his craft. For a start Drake's own acoustic guitar playing and slightly ethereal unhurried vocal approach indicated an artist with a dual desire to communicate something poetic while retaining a hands-off disposition. The contributions of the Thompson's, pianist Paul Harris, the barest snatches of percussion and Kirby's arrangements all add up to a sumptuous feast. Stand out track selection could be invidious but 'River Man' (scored by the veteran Harry Robinson), 'Man in a Shed' and 'Fruit Tree' would all become subtle anthems for those that heard this 1969 release and went woah - who the hell is this!
The follow-up Bryter Layter, somewhat influenced by Drake's love of William Blake, again employed a select crew, in fact a quite remarkable backdrop. This time various Fairport's (Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks were the usual rhythm section) were joined by John Cale on celeste, harpsichord piano and organ and Beach Boys session men, the bass guitarist Ed Carter and drummer Mike Kowalski, who dropped by Sound Techniques Studio to join in the folk baroque ensemble after playing in London with the surf brothers. While Drake never seemed completely satisfied with his albums he should have been. This one contains the masterpieces 'Hazey Jane 1/11' and the glorious love song 'Northern Sky', which would be the basis for The Dream Academy's worldwide hit 'Life In A Northern Town' (1985).
Drake's final studio album, Pink Moon, was recorded after a hiatus, the singer having found London life too tough to handle and so returned to his parental home in the Midlands. This time he opted for a completely solo approach with John Wood elevated to the producer's chair. The songs were laid down over a few days in late October 1971 and while they were short the album only lasts 28 minutes they were so extraordinarily graceful and rustic that Pink Moon has been described in many publications as Drake's masterpiece and even an album ready to rub shoulders with the mournful blues of a Robert Johnson character. Inevitably, writers have laid the mantle of poet upon Drake's fragile shoulders but his words are lyrics, albeit with haiku brevity, function within the melodic mantle that guides them along.
'Pink Moon' itself is the perfect opener but the intimacy of tracks like 'Road' and 'Things Behind the Sun' evoke a British tranquillity akin to a twilight walk through fields and woods.
Heartbreakingly, this was Nick's last complete album he died at home in November 1974 a few weeks after attempting a fourth record but he left such a mark that his work can also be found on some stellar collections. Of these we're pleased to point you in the direction of A Treasury, Family Tree (a gathering of many super rare and previously only bootlegged cuts), Made to Love Magic (featuring an unreleased 'River Man' and a late attempt at 'Tow the Line') and the excellent Way to Blue: - An introduction to Nick Drake, which was certified gold in 1999.
Now cited as an influence on so many others from Ben Folds, Kurt Cobain, Paul Weller and Kate Bush it's as clear as the limpid sky that Nick Drake was an auteur and a genius writer and singer. If he was reluctant to grasp the nettle of fame in his own life, a dire shame, at least his work still stands and endures. The epitaph on his gravestone reads 'Now we rise and we are everywhere', a line found in the song 'From the Morning' on his last album Pink Moon. Applied to him, it's a fitting legacy.
For all things folk, be sure to check out We Are Folk...
With even more of the Fairport Convention crew helping him out -- including bassist Dave Pegg and drummer Dave Mattacks along with, again, a bit of help from Richard Thompson -- as well as John Cale and a variety of others, Drake tackled another excellent selection of songs on his second album. Demonstrating the abilities shown on Five Leaves Left didn't consist of a fluke, Bryter Layter featured another set of exquisitely arranged and performed tunes, with producer Joe Boyd and orchestrator Robert Kirby reprising their roles from the earlier release. Starting with the elegant instrumental "Introduction," as lovely a mood-setting piece as one would want, Bryter Layter indulges in a more playful sound at many points, showing that Drake was far from being a constant king of depression.
While his performances remain generally low-key and his voice quietly passionate, the arrangements and surrounding musicians add a considerable amount of pep, as on the jazzy groove of the lengthy "Poor Boy." The argument could be made that this contravenes the spirit of Drake's work, but it feels more like a calmer equivalent to the genre-sliding experiments of Van Morrison at around the same time. Numbers that retain a softer approach, like "At the Chime of a City Clock," still possess a gentle drive to them. Cale's additions unsurprisingly favor the classically trained side of his personality, with particularly brilliant results on "Northern Sky." As his performances on keyboards and celeste help set the atmosphere, Drake reaches for a perfectly artful reflection on loss and loneliness and succeeds wonderfully.
Words - Ned Raggett
It's little wonder why Drake felt frustrated at the lack of commercial success his music initially gathered, considering the help he had on his debut record. Besides fine production from Joe Boyd and assistance from folks like Fairport Convention's Richard Thompson and his unrelated bass counterpart from Pentangle, Danny Thompson, Drake also recruited school friend Robert Kirby to create most of the just-right string and wind arrangements. His own performance itself steered a careful balance between too-easy accessibility and maudlin self-reflection, combining the best of both worlds while avoiding the pitfalls on either side. The result was a fantastic debut appearance, and if the cult of Drake consistently reads more into his work than is perhaps deserved, Five Leaves Left is still a most successful effort. Having grown out of the amiable but derivative styles captured on the long-circulating series of bootleg home recordings, Drake imbues his tunes with just enough drama -- world-weariness in the vocals, carefully paced playing, and more -- to make it all work.
His lyrics capture a subtle poetry of emotion, as on the pastoral semi-fantasia of "The Thoughts of Mary Jane," which his soft, articulate singing brings even more to the full. Sometimes he projects a little more clearly, as on the astonishing voice-and-strings combination "Way to Blue," while elsewhere he's not so clear, suggesting rather than outlining the mood. Understatement is the key to his songs and performances' general success, which makes the combination of his vocals and Rocky Dzidzornu's congas on "Three Hours" and the lovely "'Cello Song," to name two instances, so effective. Danny Thompson is the most regular side performer on the album, his bass work providing subtle heft while never standing in the way of the song -- kudos well deserved for Boyd's production as well.
Words - Ned Raggett
After two albums of tastefully orchestrated folk-pop, albeit some of the least demonstrative and most affecting around, Drake chose a radical change for what turned out to be his final album. Not even half-an-hour long, with 11 short songs and no more -- he famously remarked at the time that he simply had no more to record -- Pink Moon more than anything else is the record that made Drake the cult figure he remains. Specifically, Pink Moon is the bleakest of them all; that the likes of Belle and Sebastian are fans of Drake may be clear enough, but it's doubtful they could ever achieve the calm, focused anguish of this album, as harrowing as it is attractive. No side musicians or outside performers help this time around -- it's simply Drake and Drake alone on vocals, acoustic guitar, and a bit of piano, recorded by regular producer Joe Boyd but otherwise untouched by anyone else.
The lead-off title track was eventually used in a Volkswagen commercial nearly 30 years later, giving him another renewed burst of appreciation -- one of life's many ironies, in that such an affecting song, Drake's softly keened singing and gentle strumming, could turn up in such a strange context. The remainder of the album follows the same general path, with Drake's elegant melancholia avoiding sounding pretentious in the least thanks to his continued embrace of simple, tender vocalizing. Meanwhile, the sheer majesty of his guitar playing -- consider the opening notes of "Road" or "Parasite" -- makes for a breathless wonder to behold.
Words - Ned Raggett
Hunger for "new" Nick Drake material had reached enough of a fever pitch by the 21st century for Island to try digging up enough for this odd patchwork collection, combining outtakes with remixes of tracks that had been previously issued on the Time of No Reply album. The result is a curious disc that's not quite an anthology of wholly previously unreleased material, and thus of somewhat limited value to Drake collectors, though it contains much good music. The only song here previously unavailable in any form is the 1974 outtake "Tow the Line," a melancholic solo acoustic performance (as are most of the tracks on the CD) that's well up to the standards of Pink Moon and the 1974 tracks that previously surfaced on Time of No Reply. Also new to official release are spring 1968 solo acoustic versions of "River Man" (later to appear on Five Leaves Left with orchestration) and "Mayfair" (a later recording of which was used on Time of No Reply), as well as a March 1969 version of "Three Hours" that's longer than the one later cut for Five Leaves Left. There's also a newly discovered take of "Hanging on a Star" (one of the 1974 outtakes used on Time of No Reply) with a different vocal. The differences between these and the familiar studio renditions aren't knock-your-socks-off different, but certainly good and well worth hearing by Drake cultists.
It's the rest of the material that might be the target of criticism from concerned consumers, whether for posthumous tampering or redundancy with previously available albums. Most controversially, two tracks from Time of No Reply -- "Time of No Reply" itself and "I Was Made to Love Magic" (the latter here, for some reason, retitled simply "Magic") -- have been altered to include Robert Kirby's original orchestral arrangements, recorded in 2003. Actually in both instances, the substituted orchestration is integrated very tastefully, but it can never be answered whether Drake himself would have approved or had it done the exact same way. The remaining cuts are simply remixes or remasterings of six songs that appeared on Time of No Reply, the remixes of the 1974 songs "Black Eyed Dog," "Rider on the Wheel," and "Voices" (originally titled "Voice from the Mountain" when it first appeared on Time of No Reply) being done by the original recording engineer, John Wood. Though those remixes of the 1974 tracks in particular are an improvement (the songs on the original release had been mixed onto a mono listening tape), again it's not the sort of thing that will generate revelations unless you're an audiophile. As everything Drake recorded was worth hearing, this CD too is quite worthy judged in isolation, and certainly full of the subdued mystery the singer/songwriter brought to his music.
Words - Richie Unterberger
For many years after his death, unreleased home tapes that Nick Drake made shortly before beginning his official recording career have been bootlegged among collectors. The 28 songs on Family Tree add up to an extensive (though not quite complete, missing some minor covers like "Get Together," "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and "Summertime") compilation of the performances he recorded on such equipment before he cut his debut album, 1969's Five Leaves Left. The bulk of it, and the part that's been oft-bootlegged, was recorded on a reel-reel at his family home (and include a vocal duet between him and sister Gabrielle Drake on "All My Trials," though otherwise they're all solo performances). Less familiar, and hence probably new even to many hardcore Drake collectors, are eight songs taped on cassette somewhat earlier during his spring 1967 stay in Aix-En-Provence in France, as well as a couple of earlier versions of songs that later appeared on Five Leaves Left that were taped by Robert Kirby in 1968, and a couple recordings of songs sung and played (on piano) by Nick's mother, Molly Drake.
Many Drake fans will already be familiar with the performances he taped at his family home, but the cleaned-up sound here makes this disc much easier to listen to than those earlier unauthorized releases, though everything's still (inevitably given the sources) a little lo-fi. As for the music, it's a very pleasant and listenable portrait of Drake's folk roots, though not on par (and not meant to be) with his studio releases. For one thing, at this point, he wasn't playing much of his own material; most of the songs are traditional folk tunes, or covers of compositions by '60s folk songwriters that were obviously big influences on Drake, such as Bert Jansch, Jackson C. Frank, and Dylan (and, on "Been Smokin' Too Long," a friend he met in France, Robin Frederick). Also, both his guitar work and singing are more derivative of the likes of Jansch, Donovan, and country bluesmen such as Blind Boy Fuller (whose "My Baby's So Sweet" he covers here) than they would be by the time he settled into his own style on Five Leaves Left.
Still, much of what makes Drake special does come through, even with the relatively low percentage of original material and primitive recording conditions. His folk guitar work is already nimble, but more striking are his vocals, which already boast his characteristic mixture of assured slight smokiness and English reserve. And the few Drake compositions put his reclusive yet poetic world view in greater, more original focus, though it's really only on the songs later used on Five Leaves Left (and, perhaps, the haunting if Donovan-esque "Strange Meeting, Pt. 2") that it becomes fully mature. The two Molly Drake songs, incidentally, aren't mere completist add-ons; they make it clear that she was likely a substantial influence upon her son's melancholy melodies and songwriting, if perhaps a subliminal one. Less essential, though still illuminating for the dedicated Drake fan is a classical instrumental (by "the Family Trio") with Nick on clarinet.
Words - Richie Unterberger