Nick Drake only ever recorded three albums: “Five Leaves Left” (1969), “Bryter Later” (1971) and “Pink Moon” (1972). Since his death on November 25th, 1974, there have been nine further albums released, some of which contain previously unreleased tracks. The best of these other albums is, in my opinion, “Time Of No Reply“, which includes two of his finest songs, the title song and “Clothes Of Sand”.
Nick Drake had been a high achiever at school. At Marlborough College, he represented the school at 100 yard and 200 yard sprints, he played rugby for his House team and was appointed a House Captain. He played piano in the school orchestra, and learned clarinet and saxophone. He formed a band, the Perfumed Gardeners, and rejected Chris de Burgh’s request to join the band, as his taste was too poppy. He obtained seven O-Levels and later won a scholarship to study at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge to study English Literature. In 1968, he recorded his first album, “Five Leaves Left”, whilst still studying at Cambridge and the very positive critical reception that the album received encouraged him to walk away from his degree course nine months before its completion. His friends described him as confident, aloof, and authoritative but it seems that he had not really encountered any setbacks in his life until the commercial failure of his music found his resilience lacking. He isolated himself in his London apartment and started suffering from depression, although he was reluctant to take medication, worrying about the possible side effects of combining these tablets with marijuana.
In March 1971, after the release of “Bryter Later”, Nick Drake told an interviewer that “for the next album I had the idea of just doing something with John Wood” (who had been the engineer on his previous albums, but often contributed as a producer). The album was recorded at Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea, London, on October 30th and October 31st, 1971, with only Nick Drake and John Wood present from around 11:00 p.m. on two successive nights. The title track contains a piano overdub but the only other instrument on the album is Nick Drake’s guitar. As UNCUT put it, “to describe the album as stark is to undersell its radical minimalism”.
Island’s press officer David Sandison recalled “I saw him Nick in reception after I came back from lunch and I was talking to somebody and I saw a figure in the corner on the bench, and I suddenly realized it was Nick. He had this big master tape box under his arm, and I said ‘Have you had a cup of tea?’ and he said ‘Erm, yes’, and I said ‘Do you want to come upstairs?’ and he said ‘Yes, okay’. So we went upstairs into my office, and he just sat in my office area for about half an hour. After about half an hour he said ‘I’d better be going’, and I said ‘Okay, nice to see you’, and he left. Now, he went down the stairs and he still had the tapes under his arm, and about an hour later the girl who worked behind the front desk called up and said ‘Nick’s left his tapes behind’. So I went down and it was the big sixteen-track master tape and it said NICK DRAKE PINK MOON, and I thought ‘that’s not an album I know’. The first thing to do was get it in the studio to make a seven and a half inch safety copy, because that was the master. So we ran off a safety copy to actually play.”
When the album was released, his record label, Island, publicised the album by taking out full page adverts in the music papers. However, it failed to sell and Nick Drake retreated into himself even more. A coroner’s verdict of his death, two years later, was suicide and it is tempting to search the lyrics and mood of “Pink Moon” for clues into his state of mind. Despite unsettling negative emotions expressed in some of the songs, the album does not yield an understanding of the artist who produced some of the most beautiful songs in the history of recorded music. Plenty of songwriters write introspective songs with lyrics such as “When I was young younger than before, I never saw the truth hanging from the door” or “to win the earth just won’t seem worth your night or your day” or “know that I love you, know I don’t care, know that I see you, know I’m not there” or “falling fast and falling free – this could just be the end“. Not all such lyrics are indications of a suicidal nature.
There are different opinions about the coroner’s verdict of suicide. After noting that his mood swings had been extreme immediately prior to his death, producer Joe Boyd liked to imagine Nick Drake “making a desperate lunge for life rather than a calculated surrender to death“. However, his sister, Gabrielle Drake, said she would “rather he died because he wanted to end it, than it to be the result of a tragic mistake.”
Hannah Peel is a British artist, music producer and broadcaster. Here is what she said about the title track, “Pink Moon“. “His pain is always met with eloquence and beauty. There’s always an element to his lyrics that can be interpreted in different ways. That’s what’s really magical and keeps you listening.”
“I 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.”
Brigid Mae Power is an Irish singer, songwriter, and musician. Here are her comments about my favourite song on the album, “Place To Be”. “It’s so private and intimate but it didn’t bring me down.” There’s a lot of faith in the song. He is strong and weak at the same time.”
“And I was strong, strong in the sun. I thought I’d see when day was done. Now I’m weaker than the palest blue. Oh so weak in this need for you.”
Vashti Bunyan is an English singer-songwriter. Here is what she said about “Road“. “The song condenses everything he says in his other songs. I really like songs with so few words, they seem to say even more than the more poetic songwriting.
“You can say the sun is shining if you really want to. I can see the moon and it seems so clear. You can take a road that takes you to the stars now. I can take a road that’ll see me through.”
Mark Eitzel is an American musician, the songwriter and lead singer of American Music Club. These are his thoughts on “Which Will”. “It touches on who we are and what we do as human beings. He’s not judging anyone, he’s not making a point, he’s not full of passion or regret, he’s just very plainly singing this song.”
“Which do you dance for? Which makes you shine? Which will you choose, now, if you won’t choose mine? Which will you hope for? Which can it be? Which will you take, now, if you won’t take me?”
Jack Cooper is an English singer, composer and guitarist who is a member of Modern Nature. Here is what he said about “Horn”. “He’s acclaimed for his wonderful guitar technique, his songwriting and the individuality of his voice, yet those three things are stripped away on this instrumental, the most beautiful piece on the album.”
Joe Boyd said this, about “Things Behind The Sun”. “The way the words bounce along with the melody and repeating rhythmic pattern, it’s deceptively simple, yet unpredictable.“
“Open up the broken cup, let goodly sin and sunshine in. Yes, that’s day, and open wide the hymns you hide, you find renown while people frown at things that you say, but say what you’ll say.“
Green Gartside is the lead singer with Scritti Politti. These are his thoughts about the first song on Side Two, “Know”. “He hums the tune for the most part; anyone who has ever suffered depression knows what it feels like when the effort to speak is too great. It’s the sound of someone retreating into himself, for whom the demands of the day are too great. Yet, there is a strength and bravery in its simplicity, in having the confidence to go and record it.”
“You know that I love you. You know I don’t care. You know that I see you. You know I’m not there.” (These are the only words on the song which lasts for 145 seconds).
Robyn Hitchcock is an English singer-songwriter and guitarist who led The Soft Boys in the late 1970s. Here is his take on “Parasite“. “I imagine a dark night. He’s unhappily stoned and has gone into Hampstead station bar for a pint of Guinness and he is hearing people moan about stuff. he’s pretty detached. It’s a pretty bleak song, kind of jubilant and malicious.”
“Lifting the mask from a local clown, feeling down like him. Seeing the light in a station bar and travelling far in sin. Sailing downstairs to the Northern line, watching the shine of the shoes. Hearing the trials of the people there. Who’s to care if they lose?”
Lee Ranaldo is an American musician, singer-songwriter, guitarist, writer, visual artist and record producer, co-founder of Sonic Youth. His preferred song on the album is “Free Ride“. “The guitar playing is just so exquisite, so precise, clear and complex. This song has a slinky quality. I really feel that song could have been some sort of hit.”
“But hear me calling, won’t you give me a free ride?”
The great Richard Thompson said this about “Harvest Breed“. “He has a voice that can draw you in, it has a pleasant appeal and his guitar playing is very accomplished. But it doesn’t ever become easy listening because underneath all that is a disquieting mood”. (Being called “accomplished” by Richard Thompson is something special).
“Falling fast and falling free. You look to find a friend. Falling fast and falling free. This could just be the end. Falling fast, you stoop to touch and kiss the flowers that bend and you’re ready now for the harvest breed.”
Finally, here are Joan Shelley‘s thoughts about “From The Morning“. “It’s the perfect song for meeting you in that raw state after a restless night. It puts a hand over your rack of nerves in that dawn moment, while also acknowledging the pain in everybody. It is the ache and the salve.“
“A day once dawned and it was beautiful. A day once dawned from the ground, then the night she fell and the air was beautiful. The night she fell all around. And now we rise and we are everywhere and now we rise from the ground.”
The advert for Volkswagen, made in 1999, was fantastic. Four young people drive to a party on a moonlit night in an open top car (a Volkswagen Cabrio). They bask in the beauty of the night sky until they reach their destination. They exchange glances, and quickly decide not to stay at the party but to drive off to appreciate the sublime evening. Even better, they are listening to the wonderful “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake. The directors of the film were Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a married couple who later directed “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Living With Yourself”. “Pink Moon” is the title track from Nick Drake’s third album which was recorded in two evening sessions in 1971 and featured no other musicians. The success of the advert caused his album sales to increase from 6,000 in 1999 to 329,000 in 2004.
In 2000, “Melody Maker” voted “Pink Moon” as the 48th best album of all time.