Like Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake was a rare talent whose unique voice and premature death sealed his iconic status.
Born in 1948 in Burma but raised in Tamworth-in-Ardern (near Coventry), Drake was signed to Island at the age of 21, played concerts with Fairport Convention and John Martyn, and recorded the albums Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Later (1970) and Pink Moon (1972) before dying at the age of 26.
Drake’s debut album, Five Leaves Left, is a remarkable work, stuffed with complex, introspective music but leavened with arrangements and production straight off the pop shelf.
Thanks to his formidable troupe of co-conspirators – which included the two folk Thompsons (Fairport‘s Richard and Pentangle‘s Danny) as well as string maestro Robert Kirby – the record is full of glittering, warm sounds that have not aged a jot in the interim.
Drake would go on to more popular levels during his brief career, but he rarely excelled himself more than on his first album, especially on the phenomenal River Man, whose weary, questioning lyrics lie beautifully on Nick’s exquisitely soft tenor voice.
Bryter Later is a model of elegant English folk music, described by producer Joe Boyd as “perfect”. Drake’s voice – soft and deep, his precise diction betraying his Cambridge education – is pure melancholy. But while the album received good reviews, its sales were negligible. Drake could not hide his disappointment.
Pink Moon is an impossibly stark, bleak work which sold even fewer copies than its predecessors. In fact, Drake sold just a few thousand records altogether in a lifetime cut short.
Drake’s depression deepened. He checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for five weeks, then checked out. Sometimes he didn’t bother to take the medication he was on. He seemed to lose interest in music altogether.
His father arranged a place on a computer-programming course, but Drake walked out after a day. Bizarrely, he even made inquiries at an Army recruitment centre.
Though disputed by some family members, Drake’s death – via an overdose of Typtasol (an antidepressant) on 25 November 1974 – was officially recorded as suicide.
He remained the lost boy of the British folk/singer-songwriter scene for many years. A 1979 box set, Fruit Tree, sold poorly but introduced him to a new generation of musicians.
By the time the title track of Pink Moon appeared in a television commercial in 2000, the monthly retro-rock magazines and Sunday supplements had ensured that the posthumous cult of Nick Drake was in full flow.
Performers as various as Peter Buck of REM, Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl, Paul Weller and Kate Bush have all paid tribute to Drake’s songs and his influence on their own work. Among a new generation of even younger musicians – young enough in some cases not to have been born when Drake was recording – he has achieved the status of an icon.
There are Nick Drake fanzines and websites, endlessly recycling the scant details of his life. A 2004 BBC radio documentary about Drake was narrated by Hollywood star, Brad Pitt.