Nick Drake is one of those enigma’s of popular musical history. A supremely talented player, poet and musician who never ever received the acclaim, during his life, he undoubtedly deserved. Recording only three studio albums in his short career before his untimely death at the age of 26 in 1974, Drake did, nevertheless, leave an indelible legacy that is keenly felt to this day.
In 1969 Nick’s first album was released, the sublimely orchestrated Five Leaves Left, before releasing his follow up, Bryter Layter, the following year. Nick was, however, crippled by nerves, which meant he was unable to fully support either album with live performances, resulting in their poor sales, despite their critical reception. By the time Bryter Layter had been finished Island Records, and producer Joe Boyd, were certainly not confident of Nick’s ability to produce more work.
Nick himself had also begun to doubt the direction he was taking with his music and had intimated to Boyd that for his third album he wanted to just work on his own recording simply and without the rich arrangements that had characterized his first two albums. Added to this psychological issues with Nick’s mental health, marked by long periods of debilitating depression, the hopes of more work by Drake were, quite understandably, not either expected or perhaps even looked forward to by the record company.
That’s not to say that Nick wasn’t supported by Island. Indeed he was able to spend sometime in Spain at Chris Blackwell’s villa before returning in autumn 1971 ready to put some work into the third album. However, and in line with his earlier intimations to Joe Boyd, Nick was determined to produce a pared back album, working with engineer John Wood of the studio Sound Techniques. In October 1971, John and Nick, in two late night sessions at the studio, recorded 11 short tracks, that eventually made the third album, Pink Moon. Featuring just Nick and his acoustic guitar, with a later overdubbed piano part on the opening title track, the album, running at just over 28 minutes is minimalist in it’s approach. This minimalism perhaps contributed to a lukewarm critical response; critics comparing it unfavourably with Drake’s previous works, the critical response contributing, despite Island’s unusual promotional campaign of full page adverts in the music press, to sales of around 6000 units.
Much has been made over the years of Nick Drake’s struggles with his mental health and depression with many claiming Pink Moon is the embodiment of those issues he had. Others who also knew him well have pointed out that his depression left him unable to function in even the simple ways, let alone write music; Pink Moon can’t have been written in any other time than Nick being in a better place, perhaps indeed as proven by the period he spent in Spain allowing him to come back to work. However, what is apparent lyrically is that Nick’s mental health has a huge influence on the songs produced. Side Two opens with a simple song ‘Know’ that has just one simple poem put to Nick’s guitar accompaniment:
‘Know that I love you, Know that I don’t care, Know that I see you, Know I’m not there.’
On the face of it, given Nick’s tragic death just two years later at the age of 26, a remarkably prescient song and certainly full of meaning and sentiments that perhaps shouldn’t have been felt by an artist, if not commercially viable, who was artistically only going to grow and develop along with other contemporaries such as John Martyn and Richard Thompson into one of the great folk songwriters of the late 20th century.
And whilst, during Nick’s life time Pink Moon, and for that matter Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter, did not sell at the levels their undoubted excellence deserved, it is quite amazing that all three of these albums have found their place in musical history. Much of that is down to the title track of the album being used by the car manufacturer Volkswagen in a 1999 campaign. In many ways it created an ogre of ad execs trying to find the next unknown classic to sell their product, but what is sure is without VW’s unearthing of Nick’s music the world would have been a poorer place. Since 1999 Pink Moon has sold over 70000 units which, whilst not benefitting Drake as a person, most certainly has benefitted his legacy as an artist, a weaver of beautiful music and a poet of unique ability.