The late 1960s and early ’70s saw a boom in singer-songwriters, who fused the folk of the old days with the experimentalism that the counterculture advocated, and they all leaned heavily on the guitar as their weapon of choice. From John Martyn to James Taylor, these types of acts were innumerable, and all brought something different to the party, and more often than not, they had a lot of hair.
Some of these acts, such as Taylor and Cat Stevens, were incredibly popular, and they crossed over into the mainstream as the anger of the ’60s faded away into the drug-influenced inertia of the ’70s, when the appetite for such explicit and unrelenting messaging had waned. At the time, many of these acts weren’t very credible, and today, they are less so.
However, as with the late great John Martyn, who never got the plaudits he deserved at the time, there was another who only enjoyed real success after his death and who was arguably the best songwriter of his day. This young genius hailed from Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, and he went by the name of Nick Drake.
An incredibly cerebral artist, he pushed the boundaries of the acoustic guitar, utilising unorthodox tunings and fingerstyle techniques that allowed him to really elevate the poetry of his lyrics, creating a sonic palette like no other that is still remarkable to this day. His music is melancholic, expressive and heady, and the first time anyone hears Nick Drake is a moment they never forget, a testament to his work.
There is no real down point in Drake’s small but potent back catalogue. Whether it be ‘River Man’ from 1969’s Five Leaves Left or ‘Place to Be’ from his third and final album, Pink Moon, he produced many powerful moments that will remain as revered in years to come when we, too, have left this mortal coil.
Personally, the first time I heard Nick Drake, I was 15, and it was on a Sky Arts programme recounting his life, and it’s a moment that I still think back on quite often. The first track I heard of his was ‘Northern Sky’ from 1971’s Bryter Layter, and to say it blew me away is an understatement. The warmth of the track is tangible, and it sounds like sitting under the astrological Plough as it flickers in its full celestial beauty on a warm summer’s eve. How fitting is it then that the instrument underpinning the track is the bell piano, the celesta?
It may come as a surprise to you, and whilst the guitar work, lyrics and Drake’s vocal performance rank among his very best, it wasn’t Drake who added the piano, organ or celesta. That was the work of former Velvet Underground hero John Cale. Bryter Layter producer Joe Boyd had recruited him as a producer and collaborator on the song, who saw the potential in the unaccompanied demo version of the song that Drake has originally presented him with.
Ironically, at first, Drake wasn’t keen on the arrangements that Cale added, but as time wore on, he grew to be very pleased with it, coming to think that the song would be his first commercial success. Typically though, Island Records decided not to release the song as a single, and Bryter Layter didn’t receive the marketing support it deserved, so it became a failure, which can be taken as a reason why Pink Moon returned to the hauntingly sparse musical arrangements it is famous for.
However, the power of ‘Northern Sky’ would be picked up in the ’80s by those who were the children of Drake’s generation. It became the song that stoked widespread interest in his work, and much of this can be attribted to the work that John Cale did to it, effectively giving it a facelift with his heavenly arrangements.
There’s no surprise that the convergence of Nick Drake and John Cale was astounding; I just wish they did more work together.
Listen to ‘Northern Sky’ below.