Who exactly was Nick Drake?
Nicholas Rodney Drake was born June 19, 1948, in Rangoon, Burma, where his father Rodney served as an engineer with the Bombay Burma Trading Company. A couple of years after his birth, the family returned to the Drake estate, Far Leys, at Tanworth-in-Arden, which was just south of Birmingham in Warwickshire. Drake’s mother Molly sang and played piano, and she taught young Nick to sing and play as well, and he apparently showed a real aptitude for music. Nick’s older sister, Gabrielle, became an actress and eventually starred in a number of BBC television series and movies. Nick Drake enjoyed the typical upbringing of English privilege.
While away at boarding school in his teens, Drake bought a second-hand guitar and started experimenting with odd tunings and songwriting. His schoolwork suffered due to his musical pursuits, but he was still able to eventually land a slot at Cambridge for his university studies. As his musical involvement grew, however, his interest in his education foundered almost completely. Then, Drake’s Cambridge roommate brought a four-track home demo recording of Nick’s songs to the attention of producer Joe Boyd with Island Records. After only hearing half of the first song, Boyd stopped the tape and offered Drake a record deal on the spot in early 1969. Joe Boyd was currently working closely with Fairport Convention and John Martyn in the studio, and through those connections arranged to get Richard Thompson and other local luminaries to play on Drake’s debut. In mere months, Five Leaves Left was on UK record store shelves.
Since his untimely death in 1974, Nick Drake has achieved a level of cult celebrity that has disproportionately outpaced his lifetime’s creative output. A 2014 BBC article referred to him as “the patron saint of the miserable,” but then went on to explain why the opposite of that is actually much closer to the truth. That article was in response to the publication of a coffee-table style book, Nick Drake: Remembered for a While, which was co-authored by Drake’s older sister, Gabrielle Drake. She wanted to at least try to more effectively humanize her now-famous brother, and his life and music. Her attempts at achieving that were somewhat disparaged by a number of reviews of the book; Pitchfork said that while the book was beautiful to look at, it “told us so very little about a man we know nearly nothing about.” Regardless, Nick Drake has remained something of an enigma among musicians, with an enduring mystery that shrouds even the slightest details of his brief existence.
There is no known video footage of Nick Drake performing any of his music, and a single five-song collection exists of Drake recordings performed for a live radio broadcast. And there’s only one extremely brief published interview where Nick Drake offered responses to any questions. Other than his catalog recordings, there’s nothing else in his own words that exists in any format, and that’s scant material to build a legend on. Most of the information about his personal life comes from a handful of remembrances from family members; from a colleague while Drake attended Cambridge; from a handful of musicians; and from Joe Boyd, his producer at Island Records who worked closely with Drake on his first two albums.
Nick Drake died of an accidental overdose of prescription antidepressants in late 1974. The simple fact that he passed away at only age 26 is probably one of the most important factors in his relative anonymity for so many years: had he made it to age 27 prior to his departure from the planet, he would have no doubt been assigned membership to pop music’s infamous “27 Club.” He might have been mentioned in the same dialogue alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and so many others from that era (and onward) who left much too soon – all at age 27. And perhaps, might have drawn a greater level of early interest in his music. When Nick Drake was found dead in his bed on the morning of November 25, 1974 – a mere five years after the release of his first LP, 1969’s Five Leaves Left – his ongoing battle with depression and schizophrenia had reduced him to a level of almost complete obscurity in the music world. His death didn’t even warrant an obituary in any of the major UK newspapers; it was almost as if he had never existed.
Both of his first two albums, Five Leaves Left (1969) and Bryter Layter (1971), failed to chart upon release, and sold fewer than 5,000 copies each in the UK. Pink Moon (1972) sold fewer than 3,000 copies total between the US and the UK upon release; only a relative handful of Nick Drake LPs ended up with music lovers worldwide, and even fewer (if any) promo copies were sent to the press. It’s very likely Drake’s albums got nearly zero airplay on either side of the pond during his short lifetime. This makes it even more astonishing that Pink Moon – Nick Drake’s worst-selling catalog album upon release – would eventually become the touchstone and catalyst for the extraordinary record sales and the cult of celebrity that developed around him decades later.
Pink Moon was Nick Drake’s only album issued simultaneously upon release in the US and the UK. That occurrence was actually quite miraculous, especially given Drake’s declining mental state and poor record sales up to that point. Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records, was rather smitten with Drake’s music and Pink Moon in particular. However, Blackwell was totally disheartened by Drake’s refusal to tour in support of the album or grant interviews to the press. Regardless, the album did receive a few positive notices in the UK music press, including an advertisement in the February 1972 issue of Melody Maker. Despite that small push from Island Records, the LP’s sales were abysmal, to say the least.
The obvious beginning of Nick Drake’s decline as a live performer began only months after the release of Five Leaves Left in July, 1969. The album received very little promotion, got mixed reviews in the music press, and was selling poorly in record stores. As part of the small promotional effort that Island Records did undertake, arrangements were made for him to play live in the studio that August for BBC One’s John Peel Show, and also for him to open for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in London a month later. Apparently John Peel didn’t know what to make of Nick Drake, and wasn’t able to do much on his show to help add any uptick to Drake’s album sales. While nothing else from that broadcast is known to exist, surprisingly, the five songs Drake recorded in advance of the broadcast were salvaged, and are available for streaming or download on Qobuz, Amazon, HDtracks, and other online services. Unfortunately, there’s only the music; no studio chatter from John Peel, Nick Drake, or anyone else has been preserved. But the performances here are outstanding, despite the somewhat less-than-audiophile recording quality.
Regrettably, the Royal Festival Hall performance was a disaster by all accounts. In a Wikipedia article, the prolific Leeds folk singer Michael Chapman, who was also on the bill, made the following comments about Nick Drake’s performance that night:
“The folkies [at the Royal Festival Hall] did not take to him; [they] wanted songs with choruses. They completely missed the point. He didn’t say a word the entire evening. It was actually quite painful to watch. I don’t know what the audience expected, I mean, they must have known they weren’t going to get sea-shanties and sing-alongs at a Nick Drake gig!”
A 2014 article in The Atlantic marked the 40th anniversary of Nick Drake’s death. In the article, veteran New York folkie Brian Cullman offered an appraisal of Drake’s 1971 performance at the legendary Le Cousins folk nightclub in London’s Soho district. Cullman had been invited to play that night, and felt his own performance was totally forgettable, but he found Nick Drake’s set (which immediately followed his own) much more interesting. In years of surfing the internet for Nick Drake minutiae, It’s probably the most telling written critique of a Drake performance I’ve been able to unearth:
“His shyness and awkwardness were almost transcendent. A tall man, his clothes – black corduroy jacket and pants, frayed white shirt – hung around him like bed clothes after a particularly bad night’s sleep. He sat on a small stool, hunched tight over a tiny Guild guitar, beginning songs and, halfway through, forgetting where he was and stumbling back to the start of that song, or beginning an entirely different song which he would then abandon midway through if he [suddenly] remembered the remainder of the first. He sang away from the microphone, mumbled and whispered, all with a sense of precariousness and doom. It was like being at the bedside of a dying man who wants to tell you a secret, but who keeps changing his mind at the last minute.”
The Le Cousins performance came not long after the release of Bryter Layter, and it was painfully obvious that Nick Drake had almost completely lost his way as a live performer. From the comments of colleagues and contemporaries alike, it’s obvious that he was ill at ease performing on stage. This is actually quite the shocker, considering the level of polish in his playing and performances on his first two albums. His performance at Le Cousins would be among his last public appearances. Producer Joe Boyd managed to persuade Drake to get some help with his obvious problems, and he was quickly diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. Drake reluctantly started taking prescribed medications that seemed to help to a certain extent. Boyd also got Drake to agree to his only documented interview, which was featured in the March 13, 1971 issue of the UK’s Sounds Magazine with writer Jerry Gilbert. That very brief interview (here in its entirety) presents the only recorded responses to any questions ever answered by Nick Drake:
Jerry Gilbert: Nick Drake is a shy, introverted folk singer, who is not usually known to speak unless it is absolutely necessary. But Nick is not the kind of folk singer who will drift into your friendly neighborhood folk club; in fact, if you’ve seen him perform, the chances are that it was on the bill of a sell-out [Royal] Festival Hall concert.
Last week I spoke to Nick, and eventually discovered that it has been precisely this kind of gig that had hung him up – the reason why he has shied away from public performances almost without exception.
Nick Drake: “I think the problem was with the material, which I wrote rather for records than performing. There were only two or three concerts that felt right, and there was something wrong with all the others. I did play [Les] Cousins and one or two folk clubs in the north, but the gigs just sort of petered out,” Nick explained.
JG: Nick pointed out that he was not happy with the way the gigs were working out and he couldn’t get into them properly. Why, then, was he performing at such esteemed venues as the [Royal] Festival Hall?
ND: “I was under some obligation to them, but it wasn’t the end of the world when I stopped. If I was enjoying the gigs it would have made much more sense.”
JG: Don’t, however, gain the impression that Nick is not a superb artist. Placed in the right context, his songs produce quite a stunning effect over a period of time. He has worked on two albums with Witchseason [Productions] producer Joe Boyd, the latter having been released only last week. Entitled Bryter Layter, it features some of the musicians who contributed to the success of the John and Beverly Martyn albums, notably Paul Harris; and Robert Kirby’s arrangements are just as important as Nick Drake’s songs.
ND: “I had something in mind when I wrote the songs, knowing that they weren’t just for me. The album took a long time to do, in fact, we started it almost a year ago. But I’m not altogether clear about this album – I haven’t got to terms with the whole presentation.”
JG: What’s the next step for Nick?
ND: “I think there’ll be another album and I have some material for it, but I’ll be looking around now to see if the album leads anywhere naturally. For the next one I had the idea of just doing something with John Wood, the engineer at Sound Techniques.”
JG: Would there be any gigs to promote the album?
ND: “I don’t think that would help – unless they were done in the right way. I’m just not very sure at the moment, it’s hard to tell what will turn up. If I could find making music a fairly natural connection with something else, then I might move on to something else.”
Jerry Gilbert noted that during the interview process, Nick Drake rarely maintained eye contact with him throughout the session, and that Drake had alluded to abandoning music altogether, possibly even by joining the military(!). It’s obvious that Drake was unraveling on every possible level, both personally and professionally. Producer Joe Boyd has commented that Drake was smoking a tremendous amount of cannabis at the time, more so than he had observed by any other musician, or anyone, for that matter. He wondered whether Drake’s excessive pot consumption might be interfering with the medications he was taking for his depression. Not long after the Sounds interview was published, Joe Boyd, who had become Nick Drake’s confidant and friend as well as producer, left the UK for California, which is said to have devastated Drake. John Wood indeed became the producer for Pink Moon, Drake’s final studio album.
The commercial failure of his first two albums was a crushing blow to Nick Drake, pushing him even more headlong into the depression that was rapidly taking control of his life. After Pink Moon crashed and burned, he retreated to the only place where he could find solace, his parents’ countryside estate, Far Leys, which during the next two years became both his refuge and personal prison. Drake’s existence there offered an escape from the pressures of the outside world, but also (according to statements from his father, Rodney Drake) increased Drake’s feelings of being trapped within Far Leys’ walls.
Drake’s lifeless body was found in his bed on the morning of November 25, 1974. When the ambulance arrived, he was pronounced dead on the scene. He was buried in the churchyard of nearby Saint Mary Magdalene in Tanworth-in-Arden, which has become a point of pilgrimage for legions of fans over the last few decades.
There is no known video footage of Nick Drake as an adult performing or being interviewed, but a 12-second video came to light a few years ago that has been the subject of an increasing amount of online speculation. It’s been posted on YouTube, and has over 300,000 views, which is pretty remarkable for a highly speculative video of such a relatively obscure figure. The very grainy video from around 1970 shows a man walking through the grounds of a UK music festival. You can only see him from behind, but having watched the video multiple times and having seen countless still images of Nick Drake, based on his appearance and style of dress, I’m convinced that it’s definitely him. Apparently so are many others, especially a writer for Rolling Stone who brought the video to the world’s attention a few years ago.
Despite their poor sales performance, all of Nick Drake’s albums remained in print, selling a negligible number of copies over the decades. Then in 1999, four twenty-something art directors for Boston’s Arnold Worldwide ad agency were tasked with the development of a new promotional effort for Volkswagen, and decided to use the song “Pink Moon” – which one of them had heard at a friend’s house years earlier – in the Volkswagen Cabriolet commercial that launched the campaign. That ad also happened to be the first VW commercial to ever appear on the internet, and the online version came with a download link that allowed you to access the MP3 of the song. In mere months, the level of interest from the public exploded, and “Pink Moon” became Nick Drake’s first and only song to ever appear in Billboard’s Hot 100. It had taken longer for one of his songs to become a hit – 27 years – than the time he was alive on Earth. Ultimately, all of his albums have reached Gold Record status, both in the UK and the US. When I saw that Volkswagen Cabriolet commercial for the first time on television, I honestly just about fell out of my chair – holy crap, that’s Nick Drake!
I can’t claim to have been a Nick Drake fan from the onset – that would have been a virtual impossibility for me, or for just about anyone else in the United States at the time. I was only 11 years old when Five Leaves Left was released, but despite my young age, I’d already become relatively music-savvy and had begun to devise ways to earn income and start purchasing LPs. Still, in spite of my personal newfound enthusiasm for music, I had no awareness of Nick Drake or any of his songs, and Five Leaves Left wasn’t released in the US until 1976. That was seven years after the album’s initial release, and two years after Drake’s death! Even at that point, virtually no one in the US had ever heard of Nick Drake, much less heard any of his music.
The first time I ever read Nick Drake’s name in print was in a review in the old Audio magazine for the release of Fruit Tree, a 1979 retrospective box set that combined all three of Drake’s studio albums, along with a fourth LP that eventually was released as Time Of No Reply (it culled alternate tracks and outtakes that didn’t make the cut for any of the studio releases). The reviewer waxed poetically about the box set, and my interest was definitely piqued. To my dismay, no one in the greater Atlanta area seemed to be stocking the Fruit Tree box set (Tower Records had not yet arrived on the scene locally).
Not knowing any real background on Nick Drake, I went to a good local independent record shop – Fantasyland Records on Pharr Road in Atlanta. I was surprised to find that they actually had both Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter, but on the Antilles label, which I didn’t know was a spinoff of Island Records, created to distribute underserved Island titles in the US market. Both were used, and in mint condition for $9 each, which seemed like a lot for used LPs at the time – but I had no knowledge of their rapidly escalating collectibility. I eventually also tracked down a copy of Pink Moon, and all three were in constant rotation on my turntable for seemingly forever. Nowadays, on Discogs, original Island label LP pressings of Nick Drake albums are frequently listed for upwards of $800, and the Antilles label pressings can go for as much as $400.
In 1998, Universal Music acquired the rights to the Island Record catalog, but CDs from Nick Drake weren’t released in the US until 2000, and that was due in no small part to the success and interest created by the Volkswagen commercial. As part of Universal’s Back to Black LP reissue series, they released all three Nick Drake titles in 2013 on 180-gram vinyl. By that point, Drake’s CD sales were significant, and with the sudden resurgence of interest in vinyl, the LP releases made perfect business sense. Around the same time, Nick Drake’s albums were remastered again, and Universal also had high-resolution 24/96 digital files created from the master tapes (apparently, the tapes were in rather poor shape). The LPs shipped with accompanying download code coupons, which allowed the purchaser to also get MP3 files for the albums via the internet. Unbeknownst to Universal, the download codes for any of the individual albums worked to allow you to download MP3s for all three Nick Drake albums. At some point soon after, it was also discovered that you could use those same MP3 download codes to access the 24/96 FLAC files for all three Drake albums, and – I just found this out the other day – this was apparently possible for an extended period of time, but no more. Just my luck – I recently paid full price for all three 24/96 downloads.
I then tried my luck with the Simply Vinyl LP reissues of all three Nick Drake titles; they were basically horrible, awful pressings. After the Back to Black LPs had been released, Universal decided to combine all three into a 180-gram reissue of the Fruit Tree box set, and I decided to treat myself to this as an early Christmas present that year. The sound quality was definitely a slight uptick from my Antilles pressings, but I have no idea whether they were actually sourced from the analog originals, or from those 24/96 digital files. There seems to be a lot of disagreement from online sources (like Steve Hoffman’s forum) as to whether the analog originals were used for the LPs. That said, the pressings are pretty great, despite a few ticks and pops and some minor surface noise that detracted a bit from the overall listening experience. But then, the Antilles label pressings aren’t particularly audiophile quality, either.
Discovering the music of Nick Drake has been a life-changing experience for me. He’s a singular artist – there’s really no one else remotely like him. My overall impressions of the 24/96 digital download files is exceptionally positive. I’ll talk about each album at length in the next issue.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.