Nick Drake was an English guitarist and singer-songwriter, whose albums Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon never achieved commercial success during his lifetime, in large part due to his reluctance to perform live or promote his work. As a result there is no known video of Drake as an adult and, in fact, as he increasingly withdrew from the world, he became so depressed that he stopped being able to sing and play guitar together. On 25 November 1974 his mother entered his bedroom to find him lying supine on his bed; he had consumed a large amount of anti-depressant tablets and his body was completely overwhelmed. He was just 26 years old.
Much of Drake’s music reflects his dark state of mind but there is a purity to it that makes people connect. Other songs, particularly from his happier period at Cambridge University, might almost be described as upbeat. Following the release of the retrospective album Fruit Tree in 1979 his music found a wider audience, and the use of one of his iconic tracks, Pink Moon, in a TV commercial, brought his music widespread public recognition. Artists such as REM’s Peter Buck, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Kate Bush, Paul Weller and Beck have all cited his work as an enormous influence on their own. As Drake’s music continues to grow in popularity, Guitars Exchange pays homage once more, this time by proposing his ‘Top 10’ songs.
10) Things Behind The Sun
Things Behind The Sun, from Drake’s final album Pink Moon, is a good example of the singer’s desire to take more control of his songs and strip them back to basics. Coming at the time it did, the song reflects Drake’s heavy drug use and dark outlook on life, but it nonetheless contains a lovely light melody. Engineer John Wood, at Sound Techniques studios, recorded the song with Drake in the absolute dead of night, with just his voice and guitar.
9) Time Has Told Me
This folk song from Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left, has an other-worldly melody and gentle lyrics that hint at the possibility of a romantic encounter: “Time has told me, You're a rare, rare find, A troubled cure, For a troubled mind.” However while Drake had a few close relationships with women, it was never clear that any of them became intimate.
8) Fruit Tree
Drake’s unusual but highly skilled guitar technique shine on Fruit Tree, which again came from Five Leaves Left. At this point in the musician’s career he was influenced by a producer who felt his songs should have orchestral accompaniment, and his close friend Robert Kirby contributed the string arrangement for this beautiful song. Even at this early stage there were indications that Drake felt he would not be recognized during his lifetime; a theme he would return to later. “Safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were truly worth” he sings forebodingly.
7) Place To Be
Given that 1972’s Pink Moon was written in a state of near despair, many of the songs on it are surprisingly textured. Place to Be, which refers to time passing and things getting darker, is a good example. Drake’s rich voice accompanies a melody that could almost be described as cheerful. " I was green, greener than the hill where the flowers grew…” Drake sings, “Now I'm weaker than the palest blue." His personal struggle, honesty and humility shine through in what many consider to be his finest song.
6) Black Eyed Dog
But if you want it darker, as Leonard Cohen might say, Black Eyed Dog is a good place to start. In this song Drake is no longer trying to disguise his distress; but as fans have found from songwriters such as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, many find a deep connection and solace in these kinds of songs. Drake rips into the guitar strings as he sings: “A black eyed dog he called at my door, A black eyed dog he called for more” before giving it to us straight: "I’m growing old and I want to go home, I'm growing old and I don't want to know.”
5) Time of No Reply
Time of No Reply was recorded during Five Leaves Left, but only released in 1986. It contrasts beautiful finger-picking with a lyric that captures something of the essence of loneliness and despair. It is night and the songwriter seems to be reflecting on his friends who are no longer available: "The sun went down and the crowd went home, I was left by the roadside all alone, I turned to speak as they went by, But this was the time of no reply."
4) Pink Moon
A 1999 Volkswagen advertisment show four young people driving under the moonlight in a Cabriolet convertible, as Drake’s song Pink Moon provides the soundtrack. The heavily repeated commercial gave Drake an audience that he never would have believed during his lifetime. The irony is heavy: when the song was recorded Drake was being referred to as "the great silent enigma of our time," and his record company, Island, even claimed that they had lost contact with him. The first they knew of his plans to make an album was when he strolled into their offices and delivered it in a plastic bag. Years later when his friend and colleague John Martyn was asked if he was surprised at his late friend’s success, he exploded with anger; the suggestion being that if Drake’s talent had been recognized at the time, he might well be alive today. Many see the lyrics to this song as too obscure too penetrate - “Saw it written and I saw it say, Pink moon is on its way, And none of you stand so tall, Pink moon gonna get ye all” - while others see in it another portent of his death.
3) River Man
The atmospheric River Man, from Five Leaves Left, is a folk-jazz fusion that unsettles with its predominantly 5/4 timing. The song was recorded at a time Drake was drawing on the help of a lot of other musicians, and on this track Danny Thompson of folk band Pentangle played double bass, while Scottish composer Harry Robinson also contributed to the string arrangement. River Man was written at a time Drake was happily skipping lectures at Cambridge and is probably inspired by the River Cam and the students punting. “Going to see the river man, Going to tell him all I can, About the plan, For lilac time. If he tells me all he knows, About the way his river flows, And all night shows, In summertime.” River Man is a gorgeous song and certainly among Drake’s most joyous.
2) Hazey Jane II
This is another upbeat track from Drake; and just to prove it parents have even named their children after it! Drake’s voice is fragile but it contrasts with deceptively cheery sounding lyrics. A line like “Let's sing a song, For Hazey Jane
She's back again in my mind…”, for example, is soon followed by the more wry: “If songs were lines, In a conversation, The situation would be fine.” Some claim to have identified Drake clutching a classic Yamaha G-50 NT on the front cover of Bryter Layter, and he may have played it on this track, but very few details about Nick Drake or his life are straightforward.
1) Day is Done
It is fascinating how different people’s ‘Nick Drake favourite songs’ are; but this is undoubtedly mine. The introductory guitar-picking is breathtakingly beautiful, before a cello, flute, and the first verse gently enters. The line ‘when the day is done’ hauntingly repeats at the start of the first three verses, but then Drake takes each short story in a different direction. The song progresses, as if it is a life that is ageing, until the end gradually comes into sight: “When the game's been fought, Newspaper blown across the court, Lost much sooner than you would have thought, Now the game's been fought.” Melancholy, yes; but utterly sublime.
RIP Nick Drake (19 June 1948 – 25 November 1974)