Nick Drake Project, Week 5: Place To Be

Recorded Versions: At least two: The studio version on Pink Moon (1972) and one unreleased home recording (1968/69)
Tuning: CGCFGE, but playable in CGCFCE
Capo: 4th Fret (the record will still sound a little sharp)
Tempo: 84 BPM
Difficulty Rating: ●●●●●

Now I’m darker than the deepest sea
Just hand me down, give me a place to be

Place To Be fades in like a companion piece to Pink Moon’s title track. The sequencing of the album seems to encourage this feeling of connection, where one track follows the other, highlighting the similarities in their chord progressions and brisk strumming patterns. Even the smooth volume swell between the songs helps tie them together, like two parts of an overture within a greater work. On first listen it would be hard to assuage the concerns of fans keen to hear more of the fingerstyle guitar playing that Nick Drake was known for. Instead of dynamic fingerpicking, the album Pink Moon introduces itself with two technically straightforward tracks. Those listening out for a sense of resignation in this recording will notice the sonic sparseness, where this opening is not just void of any fellow musicians, but stripped of the idiosyncratic plucking that caught the ears of Nick’s early listeners.

Closer scrutiny of the lyrics doesn’t help matters, tinged with a doomish quality. Each of the three verses is split into two, where the first half (in the past tense) describes happier or more naive times, while the second half (in the present tense) moves towards a gloomy but calm moment of recognition:

1. And now I’m older see it face to face…
2. Now I’m darker than the deepest sea…
3. Now I’m weaker than the palest blue…

Marked by its clarity, Place To Be develops Pink Moon’s comfort in its sense of an ending. The absence of intricate guitar work gives the record its distinct frankness. How better to confide feeling older, darker, weaker?

But as with last week’s Parasite, I’m falling into the trap of listening to Pink Moon retrospectively and biographically. Once again, we have a track that survives in an earlier recorded version, indeed from the same tape as those Parasite demos from the start of Nick’s professional career. The fact that the lyrics have been repurposed for the title of a Nick Drake biography makes it even more urgent that we explore it outside of this historical spotlight.

The lyrics contain a motif of surpassing the superlative ‘est’ with the comparative ‘er’. The song draws up similes, in this case touchstone images of loneliness and sadness, only to acknowledge their inadequacy at expressing the extreme emotions at stake. Feeling ‘Darker than the deepest sea’, Nick’s speaker succinctly establishes himself beyond the boundaries of a regular emotional state, yet he does so with such calm resignation. Focusing on biographical tragedy obscures the emotional subtlety at play, particularly in the songs composed long before Nick was prescribed with antidepressants. The imagery isn’t volatile or exasperating, it’s just enough now, ‘just hand me down, give me a place to be’.

Unlike with Parasite, where the differences between the older and studio versions were fairly subtle and most apparent in the lyrics, with Place To Be the difference is immediately apparent. Unlike the Pink Moon version, this older Place To Be is entirely fingerpicked with sweeping arpeggios. You can hear that the same fingerings are there, but it’s all a lot more elaborate, and dare I say, distracting. A biographer might well observe this shift as part of Nick’s diminishing dexterity owing to his illness, as had been noted by John Wood (who had engineered all three of Nick’s albums). Nick Drake’s Road, which was recorded in the same sessions as this later Place To Be, goes some way of refuting such an interpretation, as it stands as one of his most difficult tracks to imitate. Comparing the two recordings of Place To Be, and acknowledging the lyrical subtlety and frankness available in the composition, the strummed version is the superior as it lets these qualities delicately rise to the surface.

* * *

For the first time, it’s time to retune my guitar away from CGCFCE, Nick Drake’s unique take on Open-C (i.e. a tuning that creates a C chord when the strings are strummed without any fretting required). Fortunately, it’s not a big effort as only the 2nd string is affected, but it does need to drop all the way down from a C to a G (3 tones!). The result (CGCFGE) is a more unresolved sound, as the basic chord shape is shifted towards C minor. Within the song, the difference is subtle, but noticeable. It’s hard to explain, and likely was not a decision made based on deliberate music theory, but driven by feel. It’s not that this retuning modifies the entire nature of the song, but it’s ear-catching, unsettling and there.

So I practised and practised and all was going fine, until I decided to return the guitar back up to CGCFCE (as used by the four previous songs on this blog). As I dialled the tension back into the instrument, I snapped the adjacent 3rd string. The guitar was biting back – Nick must’ve been using really knackered strings in order to retune like this so frequently! After all, he was renowned for using a single instrument for his live sets, agonisingly retuning between each song without any concern for a showman’s patter. I whinged under my breath as I restrung the 3rd string, this time keeping it as CGCFCE. It’s a heavier, wound string, and had lashed out rather violently once at breaking point.

Purist-Pragmatist-Spectrum

After playing Introduction, Pink Moon, Which Will and Parasite, I absent-mindedly ran through Place To Be once more, despite not detuning as detailed above. And surprisingly enough, it sounds absolutely fine. Place To Be is absolutely playable in CGCFCE, rather than CGCFGE, you’ll just lose that certain something. Once again it falls down to your personal placement on the purist/pragmatist spectrum. As I wimpishly nursed my fingertip back to health, I took the easy route. N

Nick Drake Project, Week 4: Parasite

And take a look you may see me on the ground
For I am the parasite of this town

Recorded Versions: At least three: The studio version on Pink Moon (1972) and two earlier home recordings (neither has been officially released)
Tuning: CGCFCE
Capo: 3rd Fret (but the record will still sound a touch sharp)
Tempo: 66 BPM
Difficulty rating: ●●●●●

This week I’m sticking with Nick Drake’s third effort, Pink Moon. However, I will be venturing beyond this album, as for the first time on this blog I’m covering a track that exists in several recorded versions. Parasite forged a more complicated path to the studio, having been part of Nick’s repertoire at least as early as 1968, four years before its eventual release. The song was written considerably earlier than most of Pink Moon, challenging any straightforward sense of that album having been composed as a singular, wholly doomish statement. Certainly it is possible to acknowledge thematic links and stylistic connections between the tracks, but the universally sparse production that consists of one man and one guitar gives Pink Moon a deceptively coherent texture of sustained melancholy.

Yet Parasite sprung from a far more hopeful moment in Nick Drake’s musical timeline, popping up on record on the so-called ‘Brian Wells Tape’ of 1968/1969 and predating even the studio sessions that led to his second effort, Bryter Layter. Thanks to the survival and lo-fi circulation of a bootleg of this tape, it’s possible to hear the song in a more embryonic state, potentially being incubated in readiness for the second album’s more exuberant ‘London’ sound. The lyrics make this urban connection clear, including an explicit reference to the London Underground as the speaker finds himself ‘Sailing downstairs to the Northern Line’, perhaps a nod to Chalk Farm station (and its staircase), the closest to Nick’s then residence in Haverstock Hill.

There’s also plenty of examples of Nick’s penchant for abstract imagery and ambiguous metaphors, typical of his earlier compositions:

Falling so far on a silver spoon
Making the moon for fun

The song creates such images in a series of vignettes, each capturing a sense of isolation despite the surrounding hustle and bustle of the city. Initially the speaker appears like a flaneur, wandering the streets and observing society. But it soon becomes apparent that the ‘parasite’ sketches out these images from the ground, while ‘watching the shine of the shoes’, he appears more like a beggar, struggling to attract attention as he ‘hangs from your skirt’.

With retrospect, it is not a big leap to interpret these lyrics as a plea for attention, where Nick Drake is the unappreciated artist decrying his commercial shortcomings, autobiographically indicting the unfulfilling anonymity of city living. But such a view is misleading, attributing the song a heightened tragic quality as part of Nick’s last completed record. Indeed by the time Parasite came out with the release of Pink Moon, Nick had moved back in with his parents in decidedly rural Tanworth-in-Arden. With the knowledge that these lyrics were penned long before Nick’s commercial discontentment, the importance of hearing the speaker as someone other than Nick himself becomes more apparent, enabling a fairer reflection of the track.

Closer scrutiny of the bootlegs of Parasite complicates this further. In the studio version from Pink Moon, Nick introduces the recurring word ‘hang’ immediately after a line that makes a doomish connotation unavoidable:

And changing a rope for a size too small
People all get hung.

However, in the first of these bootlegs, ‘hang’ is introduced earlier, in a more ambiguous, perhaps innocent phrase:

Take a look you may see me on the ground
For I am the parasite who hangs in this town.

The depressive implication of ‘hang’ from the studio recording is even more distant on the alternative (and noticeably lower quality) second bootleg take, where the crucial lyric is altered significantly:

And changing a shirt for a size too small
People all get hung.

Although Nick’s satisfaction with the main riff appears constant, gently developing from a more halting pattern to a smoother rhythm over three years, a crucial motif in the lyrics seems to have been in flux.

That this gloomier snapshot of the lyrics was the one that ended up on the official release may awkwardly lend credence to those who focus on Pink Moon’s apparent deathliness. But Parasite is much more than that, bringing together the metropolitan frame of reference of Bryter Layter, the elaborate metaphors of Five Leaves Left and the sonic sparseness of Pink Moon. Thanks to these early home recordings we’re able to see how the track was revisited in October 1971, when it was finally recorded for the studio, emerging as a true patchwork of Nick Drake’s three complete albums. Perhaps after all this, Parasite isn’t solely an example of the unbound freedom of songwriting, but a symptom of the practical concerns of compiling an album. Why include it on Pink Moon at all? The answer could carry some bathos – Nick might simply have not written enough songs, as the final album runs for a slim 28 minutes.

* * *

While learning to play Parasite, it quickly became my favourite to practise. Its unusual rhythm and capacity for extra flourishes keep it exciting, despite its repetitive nature. The plonking hammer-ons and Boléro-ish bass pattern also present a pleasing degree of difficulty, even slightly flattering for the beginner as the lilting stomp of the song drags any mistakes along with it. In honesty, I’m surprised to see it discussed as one of Nick’s harder tracks to play in this forum discussion.

Beyond Parasite’s rather jaunty rhythm, part of its appeal stems from its essential descending scale, dropping semitone at a time each measure. Descending melodies are something of a Nick Drake motif, notably deployed on At the Chime of a City Clock, Fly, Hazey Jane I and popping up in key sections of Fruit Tree and The Thoughts of Mary Jane. There also seems to have been something voguish about such guitar lines, most prominently on The Beatles’ Dear Prudence, but also slyly integrated into the immediately recognisable opening bars of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, both tracks having been released roughly around the likely time of Parasite’s composition. Indeed, the lyrics to Lucy fit surprisingly well with the melody of Parasite and vice versa.

Parasite is awkward, with stresses happening in the middle of each bar and hammer-ons that force the descending note onto the offbeat. The rhyme scheme too is unusual, where the end stress of one line rhymes with the middle stress of the next:

Lifting the mask from from a local clown
Feeling down like him
Seeing the light in a station bar
And travelling far in sin

There’s an illusion of togetherness, but really it’s rather rambunctious. The Times’ music critic Pete Paphides has described it as the saddest song to be written in the major key, which may well be so. But as the thumb thumps away at a completely different pattern to the fingers, there’s something clownish and appealing about Parasite, this patchwork harlequin of a song. N

Nick Drake Project, Week 3: Which Will

And tell me now
Which will you love the best.

Week 3: WHICH WILL

Recorded Versions: Only one, on Pink Moon (1972)
Tuning: BF#BEBD# (but playable in CGCFCE if you don’t mind going up a semitone)
Capo: None
Tempo: 95 BPM
Difficulty rating: ●●

After a short break from this blog (it’s been a hectic month!), this week I’m returning with a second track from Pink Moon. From a guitar practice perspective, Pink Moon lends itself in many ways to the Nick Drake beginner. Several of the tracks are technically straightforward relative to his earlier work, there is an even narrower vocal range to contend with, and most simply, there’s less of it (the album is all over in just 31 minutes). Yet the album is by no means accessible in general, presenting an emotionally challenging listening experience of stark melodies and lyrics that inhabit a spectrum of downtrodden poetics to the downright gloomy. Even the title track from my previous post, the ‘brightest’ sound on the album, is checked by its acknowledgement of death as the great equaliser.

Which Will develops the melancholy fug as it recalls one of Nick’s preferred lyrical themes: the anxiety that surrounds decision-making. In this song that worry becomes more of a paralysis, the acute awareness of life’s turning points rendering the speaker inactive. I’ll try and keep my overeager literature-student’s eye in order here, but despite the apparent simplicity there’s much to discuss in this stream of staccato questions. Why ‘which’, not ‘who’? The object of these questions is depersonalised, Which will you love? Which do you dance for? Nick Drake’s voice shrinks away from addressing a fully-fledged person, locking upon the act of choosing itself.

The recorded version that appears on Pink Moon is noticeably sloppy. Frets buzz, strings squeal as they’re mishit all over the place; the piano-like, even mechanical smoothness that characterises Five Leaves Left feels a world apart rather than just 2 and half years. The vocals are still measured and precise, but when layered over this peculiarly percussive rendition, they inevitably imply a degree of physical struggle that makes close listening difficult. The instrumental (Horn) that follows, forming the emotional trench on the album, far from reassures the listener. Nick Drake had given up on live performance and it’s hard to imagine these songs being played in front of a distractible audience. The Which Will / Horn one-two emerge from a far more isolated place.

Much recent writing on Nick Drake approaches his mental health, often taking Pink Moon as our best record of his later state of mind. Depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, insomnia all appear in these discussions, where the schoolboy athletics champion becomes the distant hermit. Where should the songs themselves fit into such diagnoses? I won’t offer any answer here, but I will acknowledge what is obvious from any comparison between Nick’s early and late recordings: like any artist, his writing developed afresh just as it returned to old themes. But there is something inescapably starker about Pink Moon, its sense of withdrawal matched by the absence of any other musicians on the record, uniquely so in Nick’s catalogue.

While researching any existing discussions on Which Will in particular, I came across this rather unexpected Nick Drake fan page, residing on the website of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Here, Nick Drake’s mental illness is linked to his music, but rather than being read into the songs themselves we get a more nuanced and delicate response. Nick’s commercial failure and reluctance to participate in the obligatory promotional activities, as well as a lack of public recognition (in contrast to the high regard he enjoyed from his fellow musicians and label), are mentioned as contributing factors to his growing depressive illness. The blog continues with a succinct summary of the tragic circumstances of his death, but also the hope and inspiration that has arisen since:

Despite [the support of his family and friends] and his brave struggle with his illness, Nick Drake died tragically from an overdose of antidepressant medication in 1974, aged just 26. It is unclear if his death was accidental.

Nick Drake’s legacy is nonetheless a source of hope to many. In spite of his severe depression, he created a body of work that posthumously gained enormous critical acclaim and provided an inspiration to a generation of musicians as well as solace to many people affected by mental health problems.

And to illustrate this, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ site includes a link to Which Will.

* * *

With the intricate plucking from Week 1’s Introduction and the emotive strumming of Week 2’s Pink Moon, Week 3 felt like a good moment to develop some more left hand (fretting) skills. Which Will is still relatively simple in this regard, demanding just a touch more coordination between both hands, especially in the arrhythmic pre-chorus section. It sounds like a small jump, but the addition of several new fingerpicking skills, such as plucking multiple strings at once and the trails of hammer-ons that decorate and accelerate the melody, all add up to a new challenge.

As discussed above, the original recording is not the neatest performance across Nick’s catalogue. I’ll let mimicry be my excuse here, as my version is far from tidy! Played too fast with several fluffs, I’ll let it go down as ‘more effort needed’ (if only it were for lack of effort). Should a cover artist aim to replicate these apparent mishits, or should they smooth it out? I think I’ll just play the songs, and let my likely mistakes happen.

This is now the third consecutive song I’ve played tuned to CGCFCE, which is great in terms of convenience when practising. The only problem in this instance is that the song is actually a semitone or so deeper, requiring you to detune your guitar down to BF#BEBD# to make it sound like the record. I’ve expensed with this. It may make it harder to get the track up to the right tempo once the intricate picking has been perfected, but in terms of sheer annoyance there’s definitely only one option (apologies to the purists!).

The next difficulty comes in the structure of the song itself. To my ear, it’s constructed from five different building blocks. I won’t duplicate Chris Healey’s fine work in tabbing it out but I will add a complete ‘map’ of these bars. This might look rather meaningless without the explicit tab guide, but it’s meant as an illustration of how subtly complicated this song actually is, constantly implying repetitions but then twirling elsewhere in the instrumental breaks:

Bar 1 / Bar 2 / Bar 1
Bar 3 / Bar 4 / Bar 5 / Bar 2

(lyrics come in here)
Bar 1 / Bar 1 / Bar 1
Bar 3 / Bar 4
Bar 1 / Bar 1 / Bar 1
Bar 3 / Bar 4 / Bar 5* (*with variation)

(instrumental break)
Bar 1 / Bar 2 / Bar 1
Bar 3 / Bar 4 / Bar 4

(second verse starts here)
Bar 1 / Bar 1 / Bar 1
Bar 3 / Bar 4
Bar 1 / Bar 1 / Bar 1
Bar 3 / Bar 4 / Bar 5*

(instrumental outro)
Bar 1 / Bar 1 / Bar 1
Bar 3 / Bar 4 / Bar 5
Bar 2

For the record, the ‘mishits’ are considered by Chris Healey on his site as possibly deliberate in part due to the difficulty in ‘misplaying’ the guitar in that way. It requires a fretting finger to ever-so-gently rest against the adjacent high e-string, awkwardly producing a high-pitched ringing sound (known as a harmonic). This is both unorthodox and difficult to reproduce consistently, and Nick does so several times in this song. Maybe, just maybe it’s deliberate. And if so, I’ll return to the drawing board and reconsider the difficulty rating above! There’s a long way to go… N

Nick Drake Project, Week 2: Pink Moon

And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all

Week 2: PINK MOON

Recorded Versions: Only one, on Pink Moon (1972)
Tuning: CGCFCE (or DADGDF# without capo)
Capo: 2nd Fret
Tempo: 83 BPM
Difficulty rating: ●●●●

In 1999, Volkswagen launched a new soft-top version of the Golf. This is not simply a moment of automotive ephemera, but part of the crucial turning point in the rediscovery of Nick Drake’s music. Last week I mentioned the poor record sales across each of Nick’s albums, that eager first press release greeted with a resounding commercial shrug. This week it’s time to bury that as we explore the rise of the ‘Drake cult’ of posthumous appreciation. And it was all ignited by this car advert and the combination of serendipitous and deliberate decisions that led to its creation:

It’s by no means a standalone Superbowl-sized brand statement, but simply one part of a new phase in VW’s existing Drivers Wanted. campaign that experimentally debuted online rather than on TV. The advert soon attracted praise from the creative industry for its sense of timelessness, yet the mysterious song that played in the background was not even considered worthy of mention in AdWeek’s assessment, which simply acknowledged that ‘there’s no dialogue in a November spot called “Milky Way.”’

Nick Drake’s Pink Moon (the title track of his third and final album) was transformed from its almost apologetic release in 1972 to a breakthrough hit in 1999. Within a month of the advert’s first transmission, Pink Moon (the album) sprung to 5th place on Amazon.com’s album chart, even appearing on the US Billboard at a time when online sales weren’t yet factored into the statistics. Nick sold more albums in the USA in one month than he had in total over the last 30 years.

By 2001, Volkswagen began selling new Cabrios with a CD of the tracks featured in their adverts. Pink Moon was selected as the opener. Those who played the CD beyond the first track expecting more of the same were in for a surprise (see below).

2001 VW Cabio Promotional CD.jpg
Nick Drake could never have guessed his music would end up on a compilation alongside such musical greats as Mr Roboto by Styx.

Which brings me back to the moment of serendipity that sparked off this rediscovery. Arnold Worldwide, the agency behind the advert, had earmarked 80s mini-hit Under the Milky Way by The Church for the soundtrack, until it had to be shelved after difficulty in obtaining the necessary rights clearances. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who had been brought in to direct the ad, are credited with suggesting a little-known tune by a 1970s British folky in its place, propelling a revival of interest in Nick Drake. As an aside, Dayton and Faris later went on to direct the 2006 hit Little Miss Sunshine as their debut film, prominently featuring another Volkswagen throughout.

Pink Moon had struck a chord, enhancing the advert’s sensation of nostalgic longing for youthful freedom, driving away from the drunks at the bar in favour of bliss with those who really matter. Not that any of this is present in the lyrics, mind. This little known song, with its distinct lack of pop sensibilities and a theme of death’s inevitability, has that ability to float above the sales patter. It’s somehow completely out of place in an advert, yet absolutely perfect for this advert.

* * *

Pink Moon is characteristic of Nick Drake in many ways, particularly his later work. It crystallises several elements that make his music distinctive: the apparently simple melody mixed with an unusual vocal pattern; lyricism owing much to the Romantic poets; a brightness shrouded by imagery of death or despair. Yet it also reveals an openness to break with his own conventions. The strummed guitar is loose yet precise, expending with the intricate fingerpicking that had opened both of his previous albums. The vocals are pitched far lower than any of Nick’s previous songs, deepened beneath his normal range and reducing his familiar tones into a coarse rumble. Mixed with his slurred pronunciation (‘zaw it coming’ ‘get yee all’), it’s hard not hear indications of physical discomfort and a musician falling increasingly out of step with his own time.

This is apparent in the lyrics themselves, rich in doomy folklore. All sorts of theories have been posited over that pink moon, from its apparently Catholic significance to Dark Age notions of the apocalypse. Most directly, it addresses coming to terms with something inevitable, something that holds significant threat:

Saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get you all

And it’s a pink moon
There’s a pink moon

Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon
Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon

Nick’s primary academic interests while studying English at Cambridge surrounded the Romantic poets, particularly Blake. The crumbled statue described in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias feels most appropriate here, connected as a potent symbol of death that’s ‘gonna get you all’, regardless of current stature:

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains.

But at the same time, Pink Moon could simply indicate a banal newspaper highlight of upcoming astronomical activity, a quotidian thing as daily as the weather forecast. That ‘I saw it written’ could refer to today’s paper as easily as the Biblical authority of ‘as it was written…’. The old ‘red sky at night’ adage is itself originally Biblical, but it has become so culturally assimilated to feel natural and innate: off-colour moon, off-colour luck.

* * *

Learning the guitar part for this song was a more forgiving experience than last week. Pink Moon is conveniently played using the same guitar tuning as Introduction, even with the same capo position (fret 2). However, if you try to play along with the record you’ll quickly notice that it sounds terrible as the recording is a quarter tone sharp of concert pitch (unless you’re happy to tune up your guitar a tad). There’s no intricate and repetitive picking pattern to get used to, just an inviting strumming rhythm that is simple to follow after listening to the record.

tuner
A tuner sadly might not be your best friend with this one, the recorded Pink Moon is played sharper than concert pitch so some fiddling is required.

Pink Moon is the only song on the album of the same name that features an overdub. It’s a simple descending piano line, and uniquely, it’s the only overdub recorded by Nick himself across all his albums. Sadly I’m no pianist, nor have access to a piano, so I’ve left it out. An identical melody is played on guitar at the same time, so it’s one of the easier overdubs to leave out without the song sounding a bit strange. Chris Healey’s tab site once again comes into its own if you’re after a quick reference for the chords.

I’ve also decided to leave out the vocals in my recording this time around, more work is needed here (at any vocal range!), so stay tuned. Despite the likely subject matter, this song is a joy to play, especially to shake off the fingers after practising the far fiddlier Introduction. Pink Moon entered a new phase decades after its composition, it’s a delight. N