Nick Drake: Northern Sky and the short life of a brighter talent

Updated: Mar 17

Ian Malin

Fifty years ago, in the second week of March, an album that now has almost mythical status was released and hardly anyone noticed. A postal strike had delayed its delivery to shops, there was no single to promote the record and almost no publicity except a short interview in Sounds in which its singer said how much he disliked performing live. Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter sold a few hundred copies and all but disappeared from the public consciousness, if it had ever lodged there at all.


And that was the problem. This was an era when singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens, Carole King and James Taylor had set out on careers that would see them sell millions of albums. Nick Drake, once memorably described as England’s Orpheus, could not understand why he was being ignored. He knew he had talent and was not just another upper middle-class troubadour. This sense of injustice and a drug habit would send him into a spiral of depression. In 1974 he died from an overdose of the anti-depressant Tryptizol at the home of his bewildered parents in the picture-postcard village of Tanworth-in-Arden, deep in rural Warwickshire.


Tryptizol was routinely prescribed by doctors. Much stronger than Valium, it could turn the patient into a zombie. By the time of his death the 26-year-old Drake had all but left this world already. He would drive his parents’ car without knowing where he was going and routinely run out of petrol, his fingernails were left to take on a life of their own, not great for a guitarist, and he cut himself off from what he saw as the heartless music business and disappeared.


A depressing tale yet Drake remains revered. Half a century on from that difficult second album, Bryter Layter, he has a host of admiring musicians who cite him as a major influence. Drake’s music has been used to sell Volkswagen cars, little snippets feature on many a film. The actor Heath Ledger was said to have been obsessed with Drake before, with horrible irony, suffering a similar death to that of his idol. Drake left behind a small but almost perfect body of work, like a doomed Keats. His attractions now are easy to understand. He has a lovely, husky tenor voice, his songs have sad and cryptic lyrics and his guitar playing, with its unusual tunings and finger-picking technique, is sublime.

The author Ian MacDonald put it best in an essay, Exiled From Heaven: The Unheard Message Of Nick Drake. ‘To listen to Drake is to step out of this world of pose and noise and enter a quiet, oak-panelled room, dappled with sunlight, a room opening through French windows, into a lush garden, quiet because we’re in the country, far from the sound of the city. It’s summer, bees and birds are abroad in the shade and beyond the nearby trees a soft tangle of voices and convivial laughter can be felt, along with the dipping of languid oars in the rushy river winding through cools woods and teeming meadows hereabouts. An English landscape with Gallic ghosts from Le Grand Meaulnes and La Maison de Claudine. And an acoustic guitar gently playing beyond the hedgerow in jazzy 5/4: River Man.’


MacDonald perfectly captures the essence of Drake. His music is rooted in a rural dream-like idyll. Rather than Keats, the poet Drake really shared an affinity with was William Blake. Drake’s musician mother Molly once said that her son believed Blake to be ‘the only real poet’. Nick Drake’s other influences included the 17th-century mystic Henry Vaughan and the Japanese poet Basho, whose haiku-like simplicity in his work The Narrow Road To The Deep North can be detected in many of his songs, many of which reflect nature and its changing seasons and natural phenomena, the sun, the stars, the wind and the rain.


Bryter Layter is not as strong as Drake’s remarkable 1969 debut Five Leaves Left. It is more uneven, with its test-card instrumentals that sound like filler material and its jazz tinge. Backing singers Doris Troy and PP Arnold were recruited to give it a more commercial feel and the brass arrangements sound a bit out of kilter with Drake’s work. But it does contain what is arguably Drake’s best song. Northern Sky has popped up more than once on Desert Island Discs and is a copper-bottom classic. Producer Joe Boyd recruited John Cale, once of The Velvet Underground, who added piano, organ and celeste to the original recording. The song was supposed to have been a single but never was.

Northern Sky was written when Drake was living with John Martyn and his wife Beverley in Hastings. Beverley later said: ‘He wrote that one with us. We had a tree across the pavement. Hence the line Smelt the sweet breezes at the top of a tree.’ Whatever its origins the song played a major contribution in the revival of interest in Drake during the 1980s. In 1985 The Dream Academy had a hit with Life In A Northern Town which was inspired by Northern Sky. The group’s singer Nick Laird-Clowes name-checked Drake in an interview in Melody Maker, saying his song came ‘from a strong connection with Nick Drake in a way I can’t even explain’.


Many feel the same way as Laird-Clowes and experience this connection with a singer who never had a hit single of his own but suffered so much from the indifference he felt in his own sad, short life. When I last visited Saint Mary Magdalen Church in Tanworth-in-Arden a couple of German tourists were sitting on the bench by the green outside the churchyard where the songwriter is buried alongside his parents Rodney and Molly. The little church has become a shrine to such pilgrims over the years. The hum of the M40 can’t be heard in this idyllic setting. All I heard was the first cuckoo of spring and, I fancied, the voice of Nick Drake on the wind.


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