‘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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The Parts You Don’t Hear: Nick Drake

Today, Sunday 25th November 2018 marks 44 years since the death of Nick Drake. When he died he was virtually unknown but the few who knew him were wowed by his incredible guitar playing, his laconic but melodic vocal style and his unique song-writing. He made his 3 albums in the Sound Techniques, Chelsea studio, all with engineer John Wood and 2 of those with producer Joe Boyd.

The subject of Nick Drake is close to the hearts of The Parts You Don’t Hear‘s Directors Nick Turner & Neil Innes.Nick recalls first hearing Nick Drake as a teen listening to Mark Radcliffe‘s late night show on BBC radio 1 back in the mid 1990’s. Mark played Which Will from album Pink Moon and having first thought that this was a new artist, the next day Nick went to HMV to buy the album which instantly became an all time favourite. Many years later, Nick noticed that a lot of records in his music collection bared the words Recorded at Sound Techniques and Engineered by John Wood. Interest piqued and a google search later led to an article on Sound On Sound by Sound Techniques founder Geoff Frost‘s son Matt Frost. This excellent article followed by a brief email conversation with John Wood enquiring whether he was writing a book, formed the beginning of the journey for Nick and co-Director Neil Innes.

For Neil he first heard Drake’s Fly on JJJ in Australia in 1998 but never knew/heard/remembered the name of the artist or the song. It wasn’t until many years later in 2002 that it would crop up on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson‘s The Royal Tenenbaums. Neil searched for all he could find. Floored by the viola and harpsichord, which he would later find out were John Cale’s (who also made 3 solo albums at Sound Techniques, Chelsea), Neil became a die hard fan of Drake’s miracle finger picking and crazy tunings and snapped many a string retuning his old guitar attempting to play along.

These days, even given the history of British music, folk or otherwise, there isn’t a name which lands with the power of Nick Drake. We hope you enjoy this brief artist specific preview on Nick Drake that we have compiled from our interviews for the upcoming The Parts You Don’t Hear.