NICK DRAKE Way To Blue - An Introduction To Nick Drake (Island)

Normally I'd be more inclined to gnaw my own leg off than accuse any CD of being value for money, but this release almost defines that much abused phrase: over an hour's worth of some of the most wonderful music I've ever heard, a sumptuous booklet packed with stunning photos (in some of which Drake looks curiously like top Cornish ambient techno pioneer the Aphex Twin), notes by his (and Fairport Convention's/Pink Floyd's/R.E.M.'s) one-time producer Joe Boyd, a full set of lyrics and personnel details - even a quote from John Martyn's "Solid Air" (written for and about Nick Drake) under the stylish transparent jewel box, all for under a tenner! And from a major label too!! Uncharacteristic quantities of thought appear to have gone into this compilation, and it should be applauded. (Shame Island neglected to release it on vinyl...but for once I'll let that pass).

Enough of the commercial, what of the music? Nick Drake, as you may know, was an English 'folk singer' (in it's broadest sense) who released three albums in the late sixties and early seventies before his drug-induced death in 1974. The parallels between his career and Tim Buckley's are too striking to ignore (like Buckley he won critical but not commercial acclaim during his lifetime) especially when you start listening to the music, which could be mistaken for "Happy Sad" minus the bits that annoy (the 16-minute bongo solos, for example) plus the unequalled folk-rock expertise of musicians such as Danny Thompson, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson (and is that a typographical error or is John Cale on there as well?). The lyrics could be Michael Stipe's, Robbie Robertson's or dusty Victorian poems: mystical imagery that says more than is immediately apparent, especially on the ominous "Black Eyed Dog" and "Fruit Tree", the latter foretelling (it was on his first album, "Five Leaves Left") Drake's own story with chilling accuracy. It's not all gloom and foreboding though: other classics include the sumptuous "Northern Sky", "Pink Moon", arguably the winner of any "Best 14 Piano Notes In Rock" competition, and the unusually lively "Poor Boy" and "Hazey Jane II".

But why keep wittering on? "Way To Blue" is one of the finest compilations I've heard since (although in no way comparable to!) New Order's "Substance" - it's packed with great songs, yet doesn't suck the original albums dry of interest. A friend, who more normally listens to indie and techno albums, bought this because Drake is (rightly) lionised by the lead singers of the Red House Painters and American Music Club. He liked it so much he bought Drake's "Pink Moon" CD the next day - it's that kind of album. Indispensable!

PATRICK HUMPHRIES Nick Drake (Bloomsbury)

Given its subject’s fragile commercial appeal and legendary reticence, the trouble I went to to track down a copy of this, the first biography of doomed English folk legend Nick Drake, seems almost comically appropriate. Having trekked all over Cardiff and Oxford looking for it during the festive season (it was published in November), I attempted to track it down at my local Ottaker’s, where I had first seen it before Christmas. "Yes", said the bloke behind the counter, "we did have two copies of it. We sold one, and sent the other back. Well, if it’s not going to sell over Christmas, it’s probably not going to sell at all, is it?".

Author Humphries has done a cautious and sensitive job of uncovering what made Nick Drake the conduit for such beautiful, but ominous, music. He’s fastiduous in crediting his sources, and notes (admits?), with some regret, in the foreword, that Joe Boyd, his producer, and Gabrielle Drake, his actress sister, had ‘decided not to cooperate’, which also meant he was unable to quote any of Nick’s lyrics in the book. Nevertheless, he has done a sterling job in tying together loose ends of articles, reminiscences from friends, recorded interviews with his late parents and conversations with contemporary musicians, chiefly R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. Corners have not been cut. Bizarrely, Humphries also notes that it was his doctor uncle who delivered the infant Nick.

If there are faults, they are chiefly in the way that Humphries wields his rock writer’s gift for simile - how about "The end of the first year of the new decade lay bitten and spat out, like an old cigar", for example? But such excess rarely intrudes on the story of how the young Drake went from school in Marlborough (perennially trying to avoid the even younger Chris De Burgh, apparently!) to Cambridge, on the hippie trail to Morocco, left university to make three transcendent new folk albums in a career sabotaged by chronic shyness and later depression, only to die of a suspected overdose in his parents’ house, at the age of 26.

That’s the bones of it: the biography adds some feeling for the magnitude of his genius, and the steepness of his descent into depression. Perhaps the two key points at which the book really touches the soul are Nick’s repeated cry, which echoes throughout the book, "I’ve failed at everything I’ve tried to do", and the photograph of his music room at his parent’s house, filled with reels of tape, a piano, various haphazardly arranged pieces of early 70s hi-fi equipment and a framed reproduction of the cover artwork from the "Pink Moon" album on the wall. They remind you that you’re not reading a story about some kind of cosseted, distant rock-star figure surrounded by yes-people, you’re trawling through the wreckage of the life of a real person, just like any one of us, except with a talent that could have been the cause of, or even the result of, his mental problems.

As it says on the back cover (all it says on the back cover, in fact, as if the publishers thought "Nobody ever hyped Nick Drake, and we’re not about to start now"), this is "The first biography of Nick Drake". Unless Joe Boyd or Gabrielle Drake change their minds, it should be the only biography of Nick Drake: Humphries has treated his subject with sensitivity, thoroughness and compassion. If there is space in your life for the music of Nick Drake, or for that of the many who have openly acknowledged their debt to him (a list that would include R.E.M, Elton John, Paul Wellar, Jackson Browne, Everything But The Girl, Tom Verlaine, The The and practically the entire sadcore movement), you should read this, and weep.

NICK DRAKE Bryter Layter (Simply Vinyl)

Nick Drake's greatest album finally makes it back to vinyl courtesy of the good folk at Simply Vinyl, and after all my moaning about the quality of some of the company's Byrds and Jefferson Airplane issues not being all they could have been I'm pleased to report that all the SV product scrutinised by me in this issue sounds very good indeed.

"Bryter Layter" was Nick Drake's second album, originally released to zero commercial success in 1970. The intervening decades have seen it ascend to the kind of cult classic status now afforded to the likes of "The Velvet Underground & Nico" or "Astral Weeks", following Drake's championing by fans as diverse as Elton John, Paul Weller and Peter Buck. Here, by happy accident, some of Drake's most lusciously evocative songs collide with an elaborate production by Joe Boyd standards, all wrapped up by fine understated playing from such luminaries as Daves Pegg and Mattacks, Richard Thompson and even John Cale.

There are so many wonderful moments here it's difficult to know where to point the beginner: there's the swirling "Astral Weeks"-style jazz-folk of "Poor Boy", maybe a little more stilted and mannered than Van The Man's equivalent but still astonishing, the doomed romance of the matching twinset of "Hazey Jane II" and "Hazey Jane I", the almost comical nursery rhyme simplicity of "One Of These Things First" and "Fly" and the gorgeous desolation of "At The Chime Of A City Clock", just pipped to the best track award by shimmering hymn "Northern Sky".

Nick Drake's influence on popular music may not be as profound as, for example, The Velvet Underground's, but his sweet sadness seeps through household essentials such as "Automatic For The People", or the slow-motion sepia sadcore of American Music Club, Tindersticks and Red House Painters. Help atone for the criminal neglect his music was dogged by during his too-brief life: buy this album.

NICK DRAKE Five Leaves Left (Simply Vinyl)

More fine work from the good folk at Simply Vinyl, as they continue their efforts to breathe the Nick Drake back catalogue back onto the black stuff. "Five Leaves Left" arrives in its original gatefold sleeve, replete with the lyrics to "Sundown", "Saturday Sun" and "River Man", and pressed on high quality 180 gram virgin vinyl for maximum audiophile brownie points

We all know that Nick Drake played what could be loosely described as 'folk music', but it's only gradually becoming apparent, thirty years on from the original release of "Five Leaves Left", just how apt that description might be. The songs on "Five Leaves Left" sound ever more traditional with each passing year - there's as little, or as much, tying them to 1969 as there is to 1869 or 2069. I can think of no other songwriter, with the possible exception of some of Michael Head's work on "The Magical World Of The Strands", whose songs so steadfastly refuse to be rooted in time. Maybe the subtle, delicate arrangements assist here - the relative gloss that Drake's second album, "Bryter Layter", possesses, might help sugar the pill of his eloquent, doomed romanticism, and arguably makes for a better album in the process, but "Five Leaves Left" more ably demonstrates the core of what made him such a wonderful writer. And, as the album that contains "Fruit Tree", sowed the seeds of his eventual retirement from life.

Musically, the pleasures here are almost boundless, as Drake's folksier leanings are edged towards "Astral Weeks"-style jazz ("'Cello Song") or full blooded classical orchestration ("Way To Blue"). Some of the more whimsical numbers arguably fail to satisfy ("The Thoughts Of Mary Jane" and "Man In A Shed", for example) but are more than compensated for by the hermetically sealed completeness of "River Man" and "Fruit Tree". And Simply Vinyl have, happily, made an excellent job of ensuring that all the flavour floods out on this exemplary reissue.

As if you need to ask, "Five Leaves Left", along with every other album Nick Drake recorded, is one of the greatest, yet most criminally ignored, musical achievements of the last century. If you appreciate the sweet, suffocating misery and redemption that, for example, R.E.M. sprayed over "Automatic For The People", or even Thom Yorke's more desolate moments on "OK Computer", you'll recognise the same stirrings of the soul in the music of Nick Drake.

NICK DRAKE Pink Moon (Simply Vinyl)

A recent story in the Daily Express told of how America had gone Nick Drake mad following the use of the title track of this album in a Volkswagen convertible commercial, sending the CD soaring into's top five. It's a deliciously unlikely tale, there being something both delightful and unbelievably incongruous about the thought of Nick Drake's fragile acoustic musings being used to sell cars. Whatever next, Syd Barrett soundtracking deodorant ads?

"Pink Moon" is the barest, most uncomfortable release in a catalogue that does little to ingratiate itself with the listener. Recorded in just two late evening sessions, it's a slim half an hour of Nick Drake's voice and guitar, with a brief touch of overdubbed piano shading on the title track. Demons are being exorcised on these eleven songs, the ghost of Robert Johnson flutters in the spaces between the notes as the hellhounds close in on their prey. Desolate thought it undoubtedly is, maybe no artist has made emptiness sound so comforting, especially the brief moments of sweet redemption such as "From The Morning".

As is to be expected, this Simply Vinyl reissue is exquisite: a thick gatefold sleeve contains lyrics, credits and a photograph missing from the Island CD issue, and the hefty slab of 180 gram vinyl used ensures every crack and quiver of Drake's guitar strings is as faithfully reported as possible.

Legend tells of how when Nick Drake delivered the master tapes of "Pink Moon" to his record company he left the package and disappeared without a word. Days later the receptionist finally realised the package contained the new album from one of the label's acts. It's typical of the neglect and indifference that plagued his music during his too brief life. Now, through the least likely circumstance imaginable, it appears that the greater public are finally getting around to hearing these wonderful songs. That would be one revival worth celebrating.