Why the mysterious British musician Nick Drake is misunderstood

Nick Drake
A major new biography of Drake is correcting misconceptions around the singer’s life and death (Credit: Victoria Waymouth)

Almost 50 years after his death, Nick Drake is more popular than ever. With a new biography and covers album of his songs out, Neil Armstrong sifts truth from fiction.

By Neil Armstrong
Almost 50 years after dying from an overdose, the folky singer-songwriter Nick Drake is more popular than ever. With a new biography and covers album of his songs out, Neil Armstrong sifts truth from fiction.

An open-top car glides through the moonlit Californian night, its passengers gazing out at the star-filled sky. It pulls up at a beach house where a rowdy party is being thrown. The four young people in the convertible look at each other and, silently agreeing that it’s just not their scene, drive on.

The 1999 Volkswagen advert is 60 seconds long but nearly a quarter of a century later, viewers are still posting online about its profound impact, not because of the stylish visuals but because of the haunting music accompanying them: Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.

The English singer-songwriter died in 1974 at the age of just 26. He had released three albums which didn’t make much of a splash during his lifetime, but which gradually gathered a cult following after his death. The US commercial sparked a major upsurge of interest in his work.

And now, almost half a century after his death, Drake is being rediscovered all over again. The Endless Coloured Ways, a collection of 23 of his songs by artists such as David Gray, Fontaines DC, Self Esteem and John Grant, is released this Friday, and a definitive new biography, Nick Drake: The Life, by Richard Morton Jack, has just been published.

The biography contains no shocking new revelation, no discovery that turns on its head everything we thought we knew about Drake, but rather provides an absorbing portrait of the man and his milieu through the accumulation of fascinating detail. It also serves to correct many misconceptions.

The myths about him

“Quite a lot of assumptions have arisen because people tend to mythologise these iconic entertainment figures who die young,” Morton Jack tells BBC Culture. “And actually, peeling that back and getting a really good consensus from a large spread of people who knew him in different ways was very satisfying.”

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‘I thought: This boy’s gone, we can’t reach him any more’ – the tragedy and beauty of Nick Drake, by those closest to him

From a youthful hook-up with the Rolling Stones to crafting his bleakly brilliant final album, three extracts from an exhaustive new biography offer the most nuanced portrait to date of the 70s singer-songwriter

For a singer-songwriter who only made three albums, Nick Drake continues to cast a long shadow. A mixture of extreme shyness and difficulties with mental health meant that his beautiful, meditative and deeply melancholic take on mystical English folk slipped through the commercial cracks during his lifetime. There is no known footage of him performing live and very few interviews exist. Drake died from an overdose of antidepressants in 1974, aged just 26, but since his death, his music has found new audiences as successive generations have discovered an enigmatic but immaculate body of work.

Now a new biography of Drake, by the journalist Richard Morton Jack, offers a definitive version of a life story previously shrouded in mystery and, eventually, clouded by tragedy. Containing unseen photos, previously unreleased correspondence and the insights of the people who knew Drake best, it provides a rounded portrait of an artist whose recorded works continue to beguile and resonate. In these exclusive extracts, we see the light and shade of Drake: his problems are laid bare, but so is his exquisite artistry.

Rumours were swirling around Tangier that the Rolling Stones were in town. [His friend] Julian [Raby] confirmed their presence on the penultimate night: “I was looking out of a tiny window over a narrow alley when I saw the Stones’ party passing, in sheepskins and bell-bottoms, like a medieval apparition.” Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were there, as well as a court including Anita Pallenberg, Cecil Beaton, Robert Fraser, Christopher Gibbs and Michael Cooper. Urged by his companions, Nick took his guitar when they sallied forth the next evening. “Hoping to make contact with them, we went down to their hotel, the celebrated El Minzah,” he wrote home.

“Having seen them going in, looking quite extraordinary even by their own standards, we marched in and I made a request to play in the bar. After I had been turned down very politely, Bob [Drake’s friend Rick Charkin, so nicknamed because he was thought to resemble Bob Dylan], whose nerves seem to stop at nothing, proceeded to ring up the Stones’ suite and ask if they might be wanting a little musical entertainment! This was unfortunately refused in a similar fashion, and it was decided that my fortune should be made elsewhere. So we made a quick tour of the nightclubs, asking if I could play.

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The Artistry of Danny Thompson: Part 1, The 1960s

Chronicling the magnificent career of bassist Danny Thompson, this article focuses on his work in the 1960s, including Pentangle, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and others.

I have been toying with the idea of writing an article about Danny Thompson for a while. His playing is a common thread across so many albums I cherish, that dedicating an artist profile article to him seemed inevitable. But where to begin, what to cover? There are over 400 album credits with his name on it, spanning almost six(!) decades. The task seemed monumental, given my inability to avoid digging deep into my chosen subjects. I finally decided to take the plunge and go for it. So here is the first article in a series (what else?) that will cover a few decades of his unique career. This one here is dedicated to his work in the 1960s.

Danny Thompson was born in 1939, taking his name after ‘Danny Boy’, the song his miner father loved to sing. He tried his hand with various instruments including trumpet, mandolin and guitar, but the first serious instrument was the trombone, an instrument of which he said: “It is the only one I had much success with, probably because it’s an instrument of judgement, just like the bass.” He gave up on the trombone due to his love of boxing: “I lost my first fight and swore I would never lose another one. And I didn’t, in 22 fights. That was one of the reasons I gave up the trombone, because a smack in the chops is not very good for that.” His desire to play with his mates in a skiffle band led him to the bass as a DIY project: “I made my own tea-chest bass and at 14 I would get on the London buses with it to go to gigs and play.” The entrepreneurial lad had the foresight to build hinges into his bass, making it collapsible and easily transportable on a bus.

At the age of 15 Thompson bought Victoria. Don’t leave in disgust, no basic human rights are violated in this story. Victoria is a French bass circa 1860 built by Gand, a famous string instrument builder. This was the beginning of a beautiful love affair with a musical instrument. Thompson tells the story: “I bought her for a fiver from an old man who I promised to repay at five shillings a week. I collected her and the same night did a gig in a Wandsworth pub for fifteen shillings [three weeks’ money!]. On the way to the pub it was drizzling and she got quite wet and when I started to wipe the rain from her, all the beautiful varnish came through making the trumpeter remark: ‘blimey it’s probably a Strad or somethin’!” Victoria is not a Strad, but its worth was many folds what Thompson paid for it: “The next day he took me to Foote’s bass shop in Brewer St, Soho and they offered me £130. I took her back to the man and said ‘this is worth £130, not a fiver’. But he said ‘look son, if you want to play it, just give me the £5’. I think back to that a lot and think that it was meant to be, especially as it turned out that this was an extraordinary instrument that I now cherish. She’s been on countless recordings from the 1960s until now – and she is beautiful.” Danny Thompson remarked that for him to play on a different bass “it’s as though I’m being unfaithful. It feels like I was sleeping with some other woman while my wife is in hospital delivering my baby!” Continue reading

‘Five Leaves Left’: The Legacy Of Nick Drake’s Album Debut

The start of the all-too-brief recording life of Nick Drake, on his debut ‘Five Leaves Left,’ released by Island on September 1, 1969.

Don’t go looking for extensive chart statistics to map the career of Nick Drake, because there aren’t any. That’s to say that, however much we now rightly revere the quintessential sensitive singer-songwriter, his tragically short life was painfully unrepresented by commercial rewards on either the UK or US charts while he was alive. A far cry from today, when you hear his music playing everywhere, from album-oriented radio stations to supermarkets.

We’re celebrating the start of Drake’s all-too-brief recording span and his debut album Five Leaves Left. Produced by the great acoustic music frontiersman Joe Boyd and released by Island on September 1, 1969, the LP featured such timelessly haunting pieces as “Time Has Told Me,” “River Man” and “Way To Blue.”

Five Leaves Left, which took its title from the manufacturer’s message inserted near the end of a packet of Rizla cigarette papers, was recorded between the summer of 1968 and a year later. It featured contributions from Richard Thompson, then of Fairport Convention, on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and others, as well as the beautiful arrangements of Robert Kirby.

The record has come to be internationally acknowledged as a classic, landing at No.280 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, 85th in a 2005 poll by the UK’s Channel 4 TV, and No.74 in an NME all-time list. In 1975, the NME’s Nick Kent described it as “one of those albums that seem tied to exhorting and then playing on a particular mood in the listener, like Astral Weeks and Forever Changes.

Public indifference, critical approval

Indeed, the public’s apparent indifference to Drake’s singular talents was not for lack of some critical approval. Mark Williams, reviewing Five Leaves Left as a new release for the International Times, made the point that the newcomer’s voice would be compared with Donovan’s.

“But Don would get nowhere without his songs and Nick will get nowhere without his,” he wrote. “They are beautiful, gentle breezes of cadent perfection which carry along reflective poems like dancing, golden leaves.”

Source: ‘Five Leaves Left’: The Legacy Of Nick Drake’s Album Debut | uDiscover