Pink Moon: Finding Hope In Nick Drake’s Bleak Masterpiece

The final album recorded during Nick Drake’s lifetime, ‘Pink Moon’ is stark and foreboding – but traces of hope can be found in its lyrics.

By Martin Chilton

Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, released on February 25, 1972, is a short and intense masterpiece from the British folk singer-songwriter.

By 1971, the 23-year-old was overwhelmed by depression and had lost all confidence as a live performer. His final public gig, at Ewell Technical College, in Surrey, in June 1970, had been abandoned halfway through the song “Fruit Tree” before a disconsolate Drake walked off stage.

With no immediate plans to make a new record to follow 1969’s Five Leaves Left and 1971’s Bryter Layter, Drake spent time recuperating at Chris Blackwell’s Spanish villa, at the personal request of the concerned Island Records chief. Drake then snuck away with producer John Wood to lay down a new album, which was recorded over just two late-night sessions at Sound Techniques in London’s Chelsea, in October 1971. Wood later said that “it felt like there was a kind of urgency about it.”

Pink Moon is Drake’s music at its starkest and most uncompromising: no other musicians, no arrangements, just Drake and his acoustic guitar and one piano solo on the title track, with its ill-omened pink moon a portent of disaster. Drake did not know what he wanted on the cover of his new album, except that it had to feature a pink moon. In the end, a surrealist painting by Michael Trevithick, who was the boyfriend of Drake’s sister Gabrielle, was chosen and seems fitting.

The album, which is only 28 minutes long, has an unsettling simplicity. Drake said he didn’t want it arranged, just to stand “naked.” In the brilliant and bleak “Parasite,” Drake uses the device of a journey on the Northern Line of the London Underground to offer a chilling view of the emptiness of contemporary life.

Pink Moon received good reviews, but its intimations of darkness (“Now I’m weaker than the palest blue,” Drake sings in the masterful “Place To Be”) left people feeling uncomfortable. Nevertheless, Island Records kept faith in the young singer, and the company knew that with such exceptional songs (“Road,” “Which Will”) they had something special on their hands. One of the highlights is “Things Behind The Sun,” on which Drake plays some beguiling picking guitar as he sings:

Please beware of them that stare
They’ll only smile to see you while
Your time away
And once you’ve seen what they have been
To win the earth just won’t seem worth
Your night or your day

Drake was a talented technical guitarist and a painstaking musician. For example, he tuned his bottom string down to a low A just so he would get the right fret on one line of “Free Ride,” to emphasize one of the lines. Danny Thompson, who worked with Drake on Five Leaves Left and played bass on John Martyn’s classic Solid Air, which is an album about Drake, said: “Ultimately, it’s the real beauty of his music that draws people in, and his stunning guitar playing, which was so clean.” Continue reading

‘Greek, without the sex’: Nick Drake and John Martyn’s folk bromance

A new book explores a musical friendship entailing joy, anger, ‘mountains of drugs’ … and tragedy. In this extract, the pair’s friends examine a complex rivalry

John Martyn and Nick Drake.
 ‘They wanted to be better than each other’ … John Martyn, left, and Nick Drake

In 1967, Robin Frederick, a singer-songwriter originally from Florida, returned to London from studying in Aix-en-Provence, where she had met a young, beautiful, meandering and tantalisingly unattainable young Englishman called Nick Drake. Frederick “spent the summer in London with John Martyn, listening to Sgt Pepper and the Incredible String Band, watching John learn to play sitar in about 10 minutes, living on toast and tea”.

She wrote the beautiful Sandy Grey about Drake, which cast him “in the role of wandering, rootless, fatherless boy”. Martyn recorded the song on his debut album, London Conversation. At the time, he didn’t know it was about Drake, or indeed even who Drake was. Perhaps he saw something of himself in it.

Introduced by their mutual friend Paul Wheeler, Martyn and Drake met for the first time in 1968, a year before the release of Drake’s debut album, Five Leaves Left. “Nick laughed a lot at John’s perceptive and witty comments,” Wheeler says. “Those were qualities which John used to win over live audiences … I think John was impressed by Nick’s ‘cool’.”

By 1969 and 1970, the social circle at the basement flat on Denning Road which Martyn shared with his wife Beverley and her young son, Wesley, was drawn largely from the Witchseason production and management company, and the Island label. It offered a familial, nurturing camaraderie. Nick Drake often dropped in; he, Martyn, and Richard Thompson would play in each other’s company, but almost always individually rather than interacting with one another. “I never remember them jamming together,” says Linda Thompson. “They were all brilliant guitarists, very different and stylised, so you couldn’t just jump in. They were careful not to tread on each other’s toes. It’s a dick thing; they all wanted to be better than each other.”

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