Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter” turns 50

by Laurie Hutcheson | Folkradio UK

Folk music was at the heart of the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s: troubadours created elaborate progressive folk; Al Stewart and Roy Harper employed diverse instrumentation; explorative basslines became ever more common; John Martyn and the Pentangle fused jazz rhythms and harmonies into hardwired folk, whilst Fairport convention produced angular, electric albums. Drake’s producer Joe Boyd was notably present, signing the prolific Incredible String Band, who along with the likes of the Third Ear Band and Quintessence developed another 70s folk direction. It was in this world of experimentation and musical fervency that Nick Drake recorded Bryter Layter.

Drake’s producers, friends and labelmates pushed at the forefront of experimentation as his iconic sound matured. But it’s easy to see him as apart or distant from this world. Even on the cover of Bryter Layter, his most collaborative work, he’s shrouded in shadow – a promise of the quiet, dark place we enter through his songs. Drake was described by his close, protective friend John Martyn as the most withdrawn person he’d ever met, whilst Nick’s long-time producers Wood and Boyd recall his hesitation to stamp his authority when recording ‘Five Leaves Left’ and his despondent frailty in the ‘Pink Moon’ sessions. Bryter Layter, however, is distinct, and with the benefit of distance that time provides, it is, I think, Drake at his most ambitious and coherent – proactively responding to the vibrant musical world around him.

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Richard Thompson: ‘I had to put the pen down, take a deep breath, have a little cry’

The folk-rock pioneer has finally written his memoir, covering a life-changing crash and his fiery romance with Linda Thompson

Richard and Linda Thompson

It’s nearly 55 years since Richard Thompson began his career in music. A pioneer of folk-rock, hugely influential singer-songwriter and one of Britain’s most astonishing guitarists, he was only a month out of his teens on the morning of 12 May 1969 when all promise was nearly stopped short. His band, Fairport Convention, had been signed on the spot in 1967 when producer Joe Boyd saw his talent with a guitar at 17, and their mission to reconnect British rock with the older, beautiful songs of their home country was well under way.

He’d already jammed with Jimi Hendrix and supported Pink Floyd; now Thompson’s band had recently finished their third album, Unhalfbricking, with new singer Sandy Denny. A work full of ambitious originals and covers that still regularly appears in best British album polls, it got to No 12 in the charts then; decades later, it became a touchstone for the Green Man festival-endorsed folk-rock revival of the 2000s when everyone who liked Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham raved about it.

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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