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Off the Beaten Tracks: Nick Drake – Now We Rise

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AT the end of my second column about Nick Drake, he was dead from a drug overdose at the age of 26 having spent his final months in self-imposed squalor. How sad that by the time the world woke up to his talents his ashes had long been interred beneath an oak tree, with a gravestone bearing the legend ‘Now we rise and we are everywhere’.

In 1979, five years after Nick’s death, Island Records released Fruit Tree, a triple LP box set featuring his first three albums plus four tracks he recorded with engineer John Wood during his final months. These are Rider on the Wheel, the anguished Black Eyed DogHanging on a Star and Voice from the Mountain.

Again sales were minuscule but Drake was gradually becoming a cult figure synonymous with doomed romantic genius. A steady stream of pilgrims arrived at the family home in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden, where his parents Rodney and Molly made them welcome, even allowing them into his bedroom unaccompanied, leading to a rash of souvenir-taking.

By the mid-1980s he was being cited as the inspiration for the likes of Kate Bush and Paul Weller, while Robert Smith named his band The Cure after the line ‘a troubled cure for a troubled mind’ from Time Has Told Me

The Dream Academy’s 1985 hit single Life in a Northern Town is a salute to Nick and its sleeve contained a dedication to him. Radio One DJ Mike Read mentioned Drake when playing the record and began to receive requests for his music.

Among Read’s audience was Island A & R man Nick Stewart, who had known Drake at prep school, Eagle House in Berkshire. He realised that his old friend’s music was tailor-made for the emerging CD market and asked TV producer Trevor Dann to compile a ‘best-of’ disc. Heaven in a Wild Flower shifted more than 20,000 copies, double the number of Nick’s total sales thus far. Also in 1985, his former manager, agent and producer Joe Boyd found the tapes of his original sessions in Island’s library and struck a deal to re-release Fruit Tree as a box set on his own Hannibal label with a fourth album, Time of No Reply.

This begins with the title track followed by three more outtakes from Five Leaves Left – I Was Made to Love Magic, Joey and Clothes of Sand. Man in a Shed and Mayfair were recorded before the Five Leaves sessions. Fly Been Smoking Too Long and Strange Meeting II are home recordings – the former was written by Robin Frederick and is one of the few cover versions performed by Drake.

The real treasure of this album is an alternative version of Thoughts of Mary Jane recorded in December 1968 with Richard Thompson on guitar replacing Robert Kirby’s orchestration. The four ‘last tracks’ from the 1979 Fruit Tree set complete Time of No Reply, which was also released separately as a single album.  

At about this time Rodney and Molly Drake were visited by Scott Appel, a gifted young American who had fallen in love with Nick’s music while a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Impressed by his enthusiasm, they gave him some home-recorded tapes of Nick’s work and snippets of lyrics. He returned to the US and recorded reconstructions of Drake songs which had never seen the light of day, including Bird Flew By, Our Season and Blossom. He also turned a one-minute guitar piece named after the Drakes’ home, Far Leys, into a six-minute duet with himself. These appeared on an album, Nine of Swords, which includes a delightful cover of Place to Be, from the Pink Moon album. The Los Angeles Times described Appel’s LP as ‘a moving example of an artist realising his own vision by honouring the achievement of a master’. It didn’t sell much, however.

In 1988 Rodney Drake died of heart problems aged 79 and in 1993 Molly followed him at the age of 77. Both departed too soon to see their son’s popularity increase exponentially.

After a succession of adulatory newspaper and magazine stories, another compilation was released in 1994. Way to Blue sold more than 100,000 copies. Twenty years after his death, Nick Drake was a star. There were tribute concerts on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1998 BBC Radio Two broadcast Fruit Tree: The Nick Drake Story, available on YouTube in five sections. Here’s the first. And in 1999 the BBC showed A Stranger Among Us – Searching for Nick Drake. 

Meanwhile the folk journalist Patrick Humphries had come out with Nick Drake: The Biography. But what really kick-started the Drake phenomenon at the turn of the century was of all things an advert for a car.

Volkswagen, which was launching a cabriolet version of its Golf model, wanted an ad to appeal to young coolsters and hired the US agency Arnold, which in turn recruited husband-and-wife pop video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The original choice for the soundtrack was Under The Milky Way by the Australian band The Church but there were contractual problems and someone suggested Pink Moon instead. ‘We were very excited because we were long-term Nick Drake fans,’ said Dayton. ‘It was a really cool idea; it had cachet.’

The moody one-minute video, shot in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, shows four friends driving through the night to a beer joint with Pink Moon on the Golf’s radio. When they reach the bar they find unpleasant behaviour going on so they reverse out of the car park and hit the road beneath a pink moon, superimposed in the studio.

In the month after the ad came out, Nick Drake sold more albums in the US than in the previous 30 years. It also won several awards for Dayton and Faris, enhancing their career prospects greatly. ‘I’m very proud of it,’ said Dayton in an interview for Trevor Dann’s book Darker Than The Deepest Sea. ‘Many people in advertising say it’s their favourite commercial.’ Of Drake’s music, he added: ‘There’s an honesty, a timelessness, a vulnerability and a directness that never goes out of style.’

In 1993 a 25-year-old Dutch filmmaker, Jeroen Berkvens, began a seven-year project to produce a documentary about Nick. He was assisted by Drake’s actress sister Gabrielle, and was talking with her at Far Leys when he noticed some old film spools on a shelf, one of which was labelled Family Holiday. It included shots of Nick as a baby in his beautiful mother’s arms, and playing as a boy with his family on the beach – the only known moving pictures of him. They went into the film A Skin Too Few, (sorry about the subtitles) which premiered in 2000 and was shown on BBC4 in May 2004. That same month an updated version of the 1998 radio programme was broadcast, narrated by Brad Pitt, who had asked for Drake’s music to be played at a celebration of his marriage to Jennifer Aniston. Pitt’s involvement brought massive publicity.

The programme, now titled Lost Boy: In Search of Nick Drake, included a recently discovered song, Tow The Line (Nick’s own misspelling). This proved the major selling point of yet another compilation, Made to Love Magic. To be fair, it does include previously unreleased versions of River Man, Mayfair, Magic and Time of No Reply.

To maximise the family brand, Gabrielle Drake made a businessman, Cally van Callomon, director of Bryter Music, The Nick Drake Estate. He was responsible for a real rip-off; a compilation called A Treasury whose only new material was a 46-second snatch from the Pink Moon sessions of Nick playing Plaisir D’Amour – a pretty cynical way to make die-hard fans part with cash.

In 2007 came Family Tree, a collection of home recordings previously available on bootlegs. This included a duet between Nick and Gabrielle on the traditional All My Trials and two brief tracks written and performed by their mother, Poor Mum and Do You Ever Remember

With the Drake Industry in full swing, in 2011, 18 years after her death, mum got an album of her own. Molly Drake features 19 songs she recorded at home in the 1950s.

In 2014 sister Gabs produced a £40 book of reminiscences about Nick, Remembered for a While. And in 2017 those clogdancing Geordie folkies The Unthanks released Diversions Volume Four, The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake, in which the former Crossroads and Corrie actress recites her mother’s verse between songs. Here’s the first and best track. 

In 2018 Mojo magazine produced a tribute CD including this version of Fly, from Bryter Later, by the wonderful Bridget St John.

That’s it so far in the story of the extraordinary posthumous adulation of Nick Drake. Heaven knows what he would have made of it – let’s hope he would have approved given the lack of sales success he suffered during his lifetime.

I’ll leave you with a repeat taste of the man at his best; the exquisite Northern Sky.

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky.

Beautiful.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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