In the late 1960s and early ’70s, there was a bloom in colourful singer-songwriter artists with a tendency to focus their experimentalism to the confines of the fretboard on an acoustic guitar. Big names include John Martyn, Cat Stevens and James Taylor. Less well known at the time was the young prodigy from Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, Nick Drake. Drake was as experimental as he was talented with an acoustic guitar on his lap. He pushed the boundaries to explore complex and unorthodox tunings and fingerstyle picking patterns to create melodies that express the poetry of his lyrics, often as much as the words themselves.
One might question why this talented Cambridge University student didn’t become a star during his seven years as an active musician. The answer mostly lies in his personality and mental state. As a keen 20-year-old student in 1968, he got his first chance to make it big as he managed to swing some time in the studio with producer Joe Boyd who was adamant that Nick Drake’s organic sound should remain untouched by the pop tendencies of the time which often involved too much reverb and over-texturing with too many instruments. The resultant debut album Five Leaves Left was a triumph with regards to recording what Drake had set out to achieve sonically with his first album. However, the release and marketing for the album was an utter disappointment for Drake as it received little airtime on the radio and very few record sales.
After the release of his first album, Drake managed to meet DJ John Peel to record some of his early tracks for his radio show and managed to play some larger gigs. The most notable of his gigs was supporting Fairport Convention in September of 1969. His gigs were unfortunately not well received due to an obvious shyness present in Drake that took all aspects of personality from the performances and he often took a long time to retune his guitar in between songs. Drake’s folk singer peer Michael Chapman said of his performances: “The folkies did not take to him; [they] wanted songs with choruses. They completely missed the point”.
By the time Drake was looking to record his second album Bryter Layter, he was in a position of desperation and confusion as to how his music hadn’t connected with the ears of the nation. In an attempt to win over the obstinate listeners, he recorded his most commercially accessible album. Many of the songs are more uplifting with more instrumentals and backing from musicians from Fairport Convention and John Cale. However, this last-ditch effort wasn’t to be as yet another of his albums flopped upon its release.
This continuous failure to find his footing in the musical mainstream had begun to take its toll on the already introverted Drake as he took a gradual downward spiral into depression and reclusiveness. For his final album, Pink Moon, Drake opted to stay away from the public, refusing gigs and only working late at night with just his producer John Wood present. The album reflects his mental state at the time as a collection of some of his most melancholic songs to date. The bleak landscape of Pink Moon’s artwork goes an extra length to reveal the troubled mind behind the music.
With the original idea for a photograph of Drake to be used for the sleeve design for Pink Moon, photographer Keith Morris was commissioned to take some photos of Drake on Hampstead Heath. The photos, however, were discarded as Drake’s already skinny appearance had begun to succumb to his depressive state and self-medication tendencies – not so appealing for customers scouring the record shops. In a change of direction, Drake’s sister put the label in contact with her friend Michael Trevithick who was a surrealist artist. Trevithick was given vague instruction from Drake that he wanted a pink moon to appear on the album for understandable reasons, but gave very little else – at the time, Drake had become very withdrawn and it is noted that extracting words from him was often very difficult.
The album cover Trevithick produced shows a psychedelic depiction of a pink moon in the centre with a selection of objects floating in the surrounding sky. The sliced section of the moon shows it to be made of cheese and the presence of a sad clown-like face and a tail give it a simultaneously jovial, disturbing and melancholic feeling. This psychedelic melancholy very well reflects the moment in time, as the early ’70s had been a time of crushing reality for the flower power hippie movement of the ’60s; peace and love had become an ever out of reach prey. The poster of a US space rocket slots the album into its place in history at a time where space exploration was at its peak. This jumble of objects seems to also resemble the scattered state of Drake’s thoughts at the time while symbolising his very English adoration for a good cuppa.
This abstract and haunting artwork became all the more haunting when two years later, Drake was pronounced dead on November 25th, 1974. He had become increasingly withdrawn from social engagements as he moved back to his parent’s house in Warwickshire to take refuge from societies pressures. With his decline in mental health ever-worsening, he ultimately took an overdose of amitriptyline, the anti-depressant he had been prescribed. It is still undetermined whether this was a tragic accident or an act of suicide. This final album of his was indeed an audiovisual exhibition of a truly talented, yet, troubled mind.