Nick Drake, The Poet And Jazz-Folk Innovator We Weren't Ready For

Culture | June 19, 2021

Source: (Legacy.com)

Nick Drake was born in 1948 in colonial Burma; his father Rodney had moved there in the 1930s to work for the Bombay Burmah Corporation, and while there, he met Molly and they married. Two years after Drake was born, the family returned to England, moving to Far Leys, their home in Tanworth-in-Arden in Warwickshire.

While attending Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire, he developed an interest in sports, and he also played piano in the school orchestra, additionally learning both clarinet and saxophone. Both of his parents were musicians; Rodney wrote comic operettas, while his mother, Molly, the true influence on Drake’s work, wrote songs on the piano which Rodney recorded; an album of her recordings was released in 2013.  

Source: (Pinterest).

Time In France

In 1964 or 1965, Drake formed a band, the Perfumed Gardeners, with four classmates, performing Pye International R&B covers and jazz standards, with the occasional song by the Yardbirds and Manfred Mann. After graduation, he spent six months at the University of Aix-Marseille, France, starting in February 1967. While there, he started to really practice playing the guitar, and he busked in the town center with friends to earn money. He also started smoking pot in Aix, and may have began using LSD there, as some of his lyrics from this time period suggest an interest in hallucinogens.

Source: (Pinterest).

His First Album

After returning to England, he enrolled at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University, where he studied English Literature; earlier in his studies, he found a love for the Romantic poets. He lost interest in sports at this point, preferring to play music and smoke pot. In September 1967, he met Robert Kirby, who wrote many of the string and woodwind arrangements on Drake’s first two albums. He started listening to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Phil Ochs and he started to play in coffeehouses and clubs in London. When he met Ashley Hutchings, Fairport Convention’s bass player, Drake impressed Hutchings, who then introduced him to Joe Boyd, the owner of Witchseason Productions. Boyd offered Drake a contract early in 1968. By 1969, at 20 years old, he had signed with Island Records and released his first album, Five Leaves Left, named after the notice that was in his favorite rolling papers. His sister was aware that he was making an album, but he was secretive about its progress, and she did not know how far along he was until he dropped a copy on her bed, saying simply, “there you go.”

Source: (Classic Album Sundays).

His Music Was Too Complex

Five Leaves Left was not a commercial success, in part because it did not receive much promotion or airplay. Drake didn’t fit neatly into the folk genre as his music was more nuanced, using folk style acoustical guitar with classical string arrangements and chord changes influenced by jazz. In addition to his unusual tunings, his songs did not have choruses. Melody Maker described the release as “poetic” and interesting, while NME said that it did not have “nearly enough variety to make it interesting.” Drake then dropped out of Cambridge nine months before graduation. 

Source: (TheuDiscoverMusicStore)

It Was About The Music, Not The Performance

On September 24, 1969, he opened for Fairport Convention at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The audience didn’t really take to him; his songs required him to change tunings between songs and during the uncomfortable silence, he didn’t engage with the audience. During the first half of 1970, he continued to tour, although he was uncomfortable on the stage, playing more than 20 shows, until his final performance on June 25. He stopped in the middle of performing “Fruit Tree” and left the stage.

Source: (Wikipedia).

Recognition Came Late

Bryter Later, released in 1971, also did not sell well, even though it was more upbeat and jazzier. His parents took him to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with endogenous depression and prescribed three different medications which made him unable to write music. He would stop taking the drugs, self-medicate to be able to write, and then the depression would return worse than before. He then started to work on his third and final album, Pink Moon, which was just him, his guitar, and a piano overdub. The 28-minute album took only two nights to record. It was released on February 25, 1972 and was his first album to be released in America. It received mixed reviews, but two months later, a compilation was released in America and Rolling Stone gave it a great review. He recorded three more songs and then became more withdrawn. After a very good article in ZigZag, he returned to the studio, finishing the three songs he had begun working on and recording two more.

Source: (Classic Album Sundays).

Understanding What We Lost

Drake returned to his parents’ home after visiting a friend. Around dawn, he emerged from his room briefly and then took amtriptyline, an antidepressant. His mother found him later that morning, dead from an overdose.

Although he remained low profile in the 1970s after his death, in 1979, Island Records released the Fruit Tree box set, which included his three albums and the additional tracks. It did not sell well, but by the 1980s, musicians such as Kate Bush, the Black Crowes and Robert Smith of the Cure cited him as an influence. In 1985, the Dream Academy released Life in a Northern Town, which had a dedication to Drake. In 1998, documentaries about Drake began to be released. The Guardian named Bryter Layter as number one on the list of “Alternative Top 100 Albums Ever”. His songs began to appear in movies, and “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen commercial, boosting Drake’s sales. After the commercial, “Pink Moon” became the first Nick Drake to hit the Billboard Hot 100. His acclaim has continued to grow. All three of his albums were on the 2003 Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2018, he was inducted into the Folk Hall of Fame. 

Tags: 1970s Music | Jazz

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.