A Documentary Introduction to Nick Drake, Whose Haunting & Influential Songs Came Into the World 50 Years Ago Today

“All smok­ers will recog­nise the mean­ing of the title — it refers to five leaves left near the end of a pack­et of cig­a­rette papers. It sounds poet­ic and so does com­pos­er, singer, and gui­tarist Nick Drake. His debut album for Island is inter­est­ing.” There, in its entire­ty, is Melody Mak­er’s review of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, which came out fifty years ago today. Drake now stands in music his­to­ry as some­thing of a doomed roman­tic hero, an artist who craft­ed a few dozen strik­ing­ly beau­ti­ful, haunt­ing songs and deliv­ered them into a world in which he nev­er felt at home. Unable to make that world appre­ci­ate his work, Drake depart­ed from it at the ear­ly age of 26, and only decades lat­er would Five Leaves Left and the oth­er two albums he record­ed in his life­time find their lis­ten­ers.

Sim­pli­fied though it is, that con­cep­tion adheres to the broad con­tours of Drake’s life. Born in Bur­ma to an Eng­lish civ­il engi­neer and the musi­cal­ly inclined daugh­ter of a high­er-up in the Indi­an Civ­il Ser­vice, he played in school orches­tras and cov­er bands grow­ing up and signed to Island Records while still a stu­dent at Cam­bridge.

By that point, hav­ing expe­ri­enced the music of pre­de­ces­sors like Bob Dylan and Van Mor­ri­son, stints in Moroc­co and the south of France, and the mind-alter­ing sub­stances pop­u­lar in the late 1960s, Drake had fash­ioned him­self into an acoustic gui­tar-play­ing singer-song­writer who must have seemed well suit­ed to the transat­lantic folk-music boom then in effect. He cer­tain­ly man­aged to impress Joe Boyd, the young Amer­i­can record pro­duc­er respon­si­ble for bring­ing acts like Fair­port Con­ven­tion, John Mar­tyn, and the Incred­i­ble String Band into the main­stream.

Boyd did­n’t need to hear much of Drake’s demo tape before he decid­ed to pro­duce a prop­er album, and in the 2014 event above he remem­bers the expe­ri­ence of bring­ing Drake into the stu­dio and record­ing what would become Five Leaves Left. Accom­pa­ny­ing Drake’s voice and gui­tar with a string sec­tion, the album show­cas­es all the qual­i­ties that set him apart from most singer-song­writ­ers then and still do now, from his unusu­al com­po­si­tion­al struc­tures and gui­tar tun­ings to the unapolo­getic Eng­lish­ness of his pro­nun­ci­a­tion and cadence. And unlike so many of the much big­ger records that came out in 1969, it all sounds like it could have been record­ed yes­ter­day — an achieve­ment whose tech­niques engi­neer John Wood has, for the past half-cen­tu­ry, declined to explain. But Drake’s shy­ness and sen­si­tiv­i­ty made him tem­pera­men­tal­ly unsuit­ed to live per­for­mance; he strug­gled to pro­mote him­self, and died of an anti­de­pres­sant over­dose five years and two albums lat­er.

For some time there­after it looked as if Drake’s music might have died with him. But Five Leaves Left and its fol­low-ups remained in Island’s back cat­a­log and by the ear­ly 1980s had built up a cult fol­low­ing, espe­cial­ly among oth­er musi­cians. (The Cure’s Robert Smith has cred­it­ed his band’s name to a line from Drake’s “Time Has Told Me.”) The 1997 pub­li­ca­tion of Patrick Humphries’ Nick Drake: The Biog­ra­phy opened the peri­od of wide-rang­ing dis­cov­ery of Nick Drake, fur­thered by the BBC Radio 2 doc­u­men­tary Fruit Tree: The Nick Drake Sto­ry, the BBC2 tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary Nick Drake: A Stranger Among Us, the Dutch doc­u­men­tary A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, and the many oth­er books about him pub­lished since. (Ten years ago, for Five Leaves Left’s 40th anniver­sary, I myself inter­viewed Humphries and two oth­er authors of books about Drake; you can down­load the pro­gram as an MP3 here.)

In 2004 BBC2 pro­duced a sec­ond radio doc­u­men­tary called Lost Boy: In Search Of Nick Drake, and to nar­rate it brought in a fan by the name of Brad Pitt. “I was intro­duced to Nick Drake’s music about five years ago, and am a huge admir­er of his records,” the actor said at the time, and it may not be a coin­ci­dence that the year 1999 saw the high­est-pro­file use of one of Drake’s songs by far — as the sound­track to a Volk­swa­gen com­mer­cial. Two decades after that big break, and near­ly 45 years after his death, Nick Drake is at the height of his pop­u­lar­i­ty, both in terms of how many lis­ten­ers claim his songs as favorites and how many cur­rent singer-song­writ­ers claim him as an influ­ence. Yet to this day, no oth­er per­former sounds quite like him; in all prob­a­bil­i­ty, none ever will. And no mat­ter how many times one has heard it, Five Leaves Left remains more “inter­est­ing” than ever.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ladies and Gen­tle­men… Mr. Leonard Cohen: The Poet-Musi­cian Fea­tured in a 1965 Doc­u­men­tary

Paul McCart­ney Breaks Down His Most Famous Songs and Answers Most-Asked Fan Ques­tions in Two New Videos

James Tay­lor Per­forms Live in 1970, Thanks to a Lit­tle Help from His Friends, The Bea­t­les

89 Essen­tial Songs from The Sum­mer of Love: A 50th Anniver­sary Playlist

Joni Mitchell: Singer, Song­writer, Artist, Smok­ing Grand­ma

Tom Pet­ty Takes You Inside His Song­writ­ing Craft

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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