Five Leaves Under the Fruit Tree
A few days back, the forty-eighth anniversary of Nick Drake’s debut album…
Five Leaves Left was marked. Born on 19th June, 1948; Nick Drake signed to Island Records aged twenty and, as is the case with a lot of legends, gained mass popularity after his death. It is hard to believe – or perhaps not – his albums did not sell more than a-few-thousand copies. In this day and age, it would be seen as a travesty: then, due to the lack of critical expectation and public awareness; few made too much of a drama about it. One of the reasons behind Nick Drake’s lifetime anonymity could be down to his ‘enigmatic’ approach to promotion. Few photos of him exist – making this feature a bit desperate when it comes to sourcing images – and there is a surfeit of interviews. That is the way Drake operated: keeping himself away from the marketing and promotional side of things: concentrating on the music and his art. Today, he would not last too long and be resigned to the status of ‘cult hero’ or something minor, perhaps. It is as well people have proffered and preserved his music through the decades – one wonders whether he would have such a legacy if Drake relied on the critics of the time to pass his music to future generations. For me, the passing of Five Leaves Left’s anniversary serves as a reminder as to the sheer talent and relevance of Drake. On 26th November, 1974, Drake died of an overdose – whether intentional or accidental – and, many would say, had given up on life. The final years were marked by a progressive sense of retreat and unhappiness – although, his family claim his mood was positive leading up to his death. Strip away the mythology, psychology and rumours and see Nick Drake as the incredible songwriter he was – and a hero that inspires musicians today. I will have a look at his three studio albums – and the effect he has had on contemporary musicians – but one cannot underestimate the effect Nick Drake had on music. In such a short career, he wowed critics and gained a reputation as one of the finest Folk songwriters of the 1970s.
In fact, that last point is doing him a disservice: Drake is one of the greatest songwriters ever and, during his short career, had few equals. The way he wrote and expressed himself; the candour, gravitas and emotion his voice – a fine and extraordinary poet who could convey so much with the merest picking of the guitar strings. The 1979 album, Fruit Tree, allowed Drake’s back catalogue to be reopened – his music was in danger of being overlooked after his death – and provided an opportunity for musicians of the time to connect with a unique artist. The likes of Robert Smith and Peter Buck, during the 1980s, cited Drake as an influence. Today, I hear the tones and colours of Nick Drake in so many artists performing today – not only those who perform Folk music. Drake’s language and lyrics – from mundane items like a garden shed or solitary fruit tree; scenes of the city at dusk or the complexities and demons of the human mind – have given modern artists more confidence. Antifolk artists – who rebel against, what they see as, a rather stilted and limited lyrical palette in Folk – have bonded to Nick Drake. He was not someone who limited himself or followed the pack. The debut, Five Leaves Left, arrived in 1969 – Drake started recording in 1968 with Joe Boyd as producer – and found the student Drake skipping lectures so he could record the album in London. Inspired by John Simon’s production work on Leonard Cohen’s debut album: Boyd was keen to capture the same sort of intimacy and gravity – without reverb, Pop shine and cheesiness. He recruited legendary musicians Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention) and Danny Thompson (Pentangle) to help with the album – Richard A. Hewson was drafted to arrange the strings. Despite the glorious results we have all grown accustomed to: the early stages of production were anything but smooth. Drake and Boyd clashed over artistic ideas. Boyd, advocating George Martin’s idea of using the studio as an instrument, riled the more organic-minded Drake. Both, during early sessions, were unhappy with Hewson’s contributions and there was a general air of anxiety and unhappiness.
Robert Kirby – a music student friend of Drake’s – was drafted in. Boyd was sceptical about an untested and inexperienced musician. Drake’s assertiveness won over and the results are plain to see. Aside from the epic River Man – Kirby not confident enough to do it justice – the string articulation and beauty throughout the album added a huge amount. Five Leaves Left is considered one of the finest Folk albums of all-time. Drake’s voice is commanding and filled with wisdom, curiosity and graveness; the music is elegant, melancholic and sublime. All these ingredients, one would think, would connect and impress critics. That was not the case: Drake was disenchanted and the album was a commercial failure. Looking back; it seems songs like River Man, Three Hours; Way to Blue and Cello Song would stagger – even if they were not accompanied by other brilliant offerings. Maybe the album was too ahead of its time and unlike anything else; perhaps the lack of publicity and promotion meant people were unaware. During this time; Drake was in London – sofa-surfing and spending time on friends’ floors. Letters between Drake and his father revealed a scepticism and wariness – advising his son to continue his studies at Cambridge (Drake dropped out before graduating) and having that safety net. Drake had no intention of playing things safe and was determined to pursue his goals. By November, 1969, Drake opened for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in London. He also played at Folk clubs in Birmingham and Hull. A lot of the Folk purists were not sure how to take to Drake – not ready for his brand of music. Folk singer Michael Chapman, reflecting on the Hull performance, assessed it thus:
“The folkies did not take to him; [they] wanted songs with choruses. They completely missed the point. He didn't say a word the entire evening. It was actually quite painful to watch. I don't know what the audience expected, I mean, they must have known they weren't going to get sea-shanties and sing-alongs at a Nick Drake gig!”
It is dismaying reading about Five Leaves Left’s poor performance. The experience left Drake jaded and affected – he retreated from touring and, as such, the rare times he did perform were marred by long silences and songs played in different tunings. One would imagine a pastoral-sounding album would do well in the folk scene of the late-1960s. Determined not to see his second album suffer the same fate; Drake included drums and bass on Bryter Layter. More commercial, perhaps but, in my opinion, an album that contained the same sort of unique energy and beguiling songwriting as its predecessor. John Cale contributed on Northern Sky and Fly; Fairport Convention were involved – as was Beach Boys musicians Mike Kowalski and Ed Carter. In fact, Drake wanted to replicate the sounds and moods of Pet Sounds – lush strings, romantic orchestration and nuanced soundscapes. Accompanied on every song; there is so much depth and colour to be found. There was, around this time, a contrast between Nick Drake the artist and Nick Drake the person. In the studio, it seemed like inspiration was high and there was a definite stability and ambition. Away from the microphone, Drake was consuming more cannabis and reaching near-psychosis levels of mental unrest. He was cloistering himself away from people and becoming less communicative – his depression exacerbated by a lack of critical affection and touring issues. Relationships with Island Records were strained: Drake was/is an incredible artist but was not gaining the sales and reviews he had wished for. I guess psychological and personal issues conflated with music. There was no demand for a third album but Nick Drake made one: thank God he did because it was the remarkable, Pink Moon. If Bryter Layter was a reaction to Five Leave Left’s (appropriately) pastoral and relaxing sound: Pink Moon was an attempt to return to the reflective end of the spectrum – a stunningly sparse and simple album. Aside from the title track (a bit of piano in the chorus), Pink Moon’s songs was Nick Drake accompanied by acoustic guitar. I feel, of all Drake’s album, Pink Moon has been the most influential and affecting – you can hear its embers and nuances passed down to musicians today.
The twenty-eight minutes of music was created in two nights in 1971. The bleak sound of the record, perhaps, reflected the mental state of Nick Drake – although many claim he was in positive frame-of-mind when he was recording. The sub-half-hour running time was, I guess, about right for an album that manages to expend as much beauty and revelation as it does starkness and dark shadow. After Five Leaves Left; Drake expressed a desire for a fuller, more evocative sound: Pink Moon was the result of unhappiness of Bryter Layter. A contrary and restless artist: Pink Moon, strangely, is Nick Drake at his most comfortable and confident. The nakedness and uncomplicated nature of Pink Moon has resonated with artists of today. At the time, when the album was completed, Drake delivered it to Island Records – mythology claims he popped it to a receptionist and sloped off. Regardless of truth: the album was presented with no fanfare and hype. Drake, perhaps, because of his mental welfare and drug use, was unwilling to commit to promotional duties. The record company were dissatisfied – the album was given a small advert and not a lot of attention. Critics at the time were mixed, to be fair. The sense of Nick Drake being a 'mysterious artist'; someone who was not as revelatory and open as one would hope – there was frustration and a need for greater expression and variation. Those who ‘got’ the album realised shyly-songs like Things Behind the Sun were stunning insights into a unique soul. Pink Moon is an incredible title track that, alone, makes the album a twilight wonder. Free Ride – a rare three-and-a-bit-minute excursion – is a standout: Harvest Breed one of Drake most-famous numbers. We all know (or perhaps not) the aftermath of Pink Moon. Drake became more insular and frugal – receiving a paucity from Island Records; existing a very modest and un-musician-like existence. Friends would see Drake and a blank stare – someone who would look through them (rather than at them). That deepening depression foreshadowed an inevitable conclusion – one where the extraordinary musician would – maybe a sense of having burnt as hard as he could; unable to take the pressures of life – departed the world.
After his death, it took a while for the world to realise the genius and talent of Nick Drake. The classic example of someone unappreciated and overlooked in their lifetime – someone who did very little promotional work was always going to struggle. It was not until the mid-1980s – rather shockingly – Drake’s artistry and true potential was realised. R.E.M. and Robert Smith helped spread his music to audiences at the time. Today, there are musicians overt in their appreciation and love of Nick Drake. Consciously or not: so many of today’s musicians owe a debt of gratitude to the legend. I am not sure what it is about Drake that hits people so hard. The lack of airs and attitude: an artist who was dedicated to the business of making music. In a time where ego and marketing define music – as much as talent and the songs themselves – it is refreshing someone as unassuming and focused as Nick Drake has made an impact so many years after his death. One wonders, if he were alive today, he would be making music. Sure, his life was as synonymous with trouble and problems as it was success and accomplishment. The three studio albums Nick Drake left the world are a reminder of what a singular, exceptional artist he was. His influence will live through the decades; those classic songs – many of which are collected into the playlist at the bottom – are instant and timeless. For me, I am caught between Pink Moon and Five Leaves Left: the astonishing orchestral masterpieces of the latter; the bare and desolate beauty of the former. Whatever your connection to Nick Drake – assuming you ever have one – the forty-eighth anniversary of Five Leaves Left (just gone) should compel many to revisit a master of music. I will be spinning his incredible music tonight and remembering a human being, in all his modesty and mystique, who truly created some of the most…
BEAUTIFUL songs born to this world.