Nick Drake Under Review
Nick Drake Under Review is a wonderful documentary available currently on Amazon Prime that should not be missed by any music fan. This is not the typical Hollywood documentary that spends the majority of its time on fluff. This is a deep dive into the music of Nick Drake, much of it described by the artists who were around while he was alive and recording. It’s a treasure trove of insight into how his playing was influenced by a cross section of jazz and traditional English folk music, which served as a multilayered foundation for lyrics that were influenced by poetry from the likes of Baudelaire, Blake and Tennyson.
Drake was a gifted multi-instrumentalist, as equally accomplished on piano or saxophone as he was on guitar. It was probably his ability to think and hear in terms of each of these individual instruments that allowed him to create such unique melodies and vocal phrasings within his songs. It also explains his extensive use of alternate tunings on the guitar, as he seemed determined to stretch the constraints of traditional tuning in order to bend the sound of his guitar to what he needed to match the sounds that he heard in his head as he composed the songs.
Nick Drake made only three albums, Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1971), and Pink Moon (1972). To his great misfortune, they could probably not have been made at any worse point in time from a career perspective. Five Leaves Left was released at a time when it competed directly with the likes of Abbey Road by The Beatles, King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King, Tommy by The Who, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and debut albums from Blind Faith, Santana and Crosby, Stills and Nash. His record label at the time didn’t have the resources to promote his work under even the normal pressures of the business, and to compete against these era defining releases was just too far out of their league. Under these circumstances Five Leaves Left struggled to sell even a couple of thousand copies, despite now being ranked in retrospect well within the top 20 released records from that year.
Bryter Layter met with the exact same fates in 1971, despite his producers bringing in John Cale from The Velvet Undergound and members of the British band Fairport Convention. It also suffered from miserable sales and mixed reviews at the time of its release, and it too is now routinely listed as one of the top 100 records released in 1971. Compounding the label's inability to properly promote the album with airplay, Drake suffered through a short series of disastrous live performances, the last of which he aborted just three songs into his set, when he walked off the stage never to be seen by a live audience again.
By the time Pink Moon was released in 1972, the entire landscape of modern music had shifted, and what now sold well were mostly records that had less to due with melody and structure and more to do with power chords played at an ear splitting volume. The fact that the tiny label he recorded for was bought up by the bigger and much more powerful Island Records didn’t aid him at all, as they weren’t expecting or even wanting a new release from him when he simply walked into the company headquarters, handed the master tapes to a secretary and left. Pink Moon is a return of sorts to the more minimalist approach of Five Leaves Left except darker and much more personal. Once again, his record received little attention and sales were poor.
Thirty years later his music was included as part of the motion picture soundtrack for the movie Garden State, and of all things, a Volkswagen commercial. Suddenly the world knew who Nick Drake was, and appeared to want much more from this mysterious singer songwriter, but there was no more to be had. Although a fourth album had been started, it would never be completed. Drake had been severely depressed by his lack of success and in early November 1974, he took an antidepressant medication to help him sleep. Whether intentional or not will never be known, however he was found dead the next morning lying across the bed in his room at his parent’s house. He was 26 years old. By 2014, his three albums had sold more than 2.4 million copies.
If you haven’t taken the time to listen to the works he left behind, you absolutely should, and you should pick the right circumstances to take it all in. Pick a perfect fall evening with the windows open and a gentle breeze in the air, sit in your most comfortable chair and just listen to the music without any other intrusions from our now far too busy lives. Unforgettable.