Revealed: the forgotten tapes of Nick Drake, lost genius of British rock

Three decades after his tragic death, the melancholy singer is a bigger star than ever. And now, says Anthony Barnes, a wealth of unreleased songs is to be heard at last
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The Independent Culture

Previously unheard recordings by the enigmatic singer-songwriter Nick Drake - one of the great lost geniuses of English music whose influence permeates modern rock - are to be released three decades after his death.

"Field recordings and home recordings" made by the introspective singer before his apparent suicide 30 years ago have been cleaned up for sale to the legions of fans he never knew he would have. But then many of his devoted followers were not born while he was alive.

Drake virtually retired from music after making just three albums, partly because of the indifferent response to his work. He died three years later, in 1974, at the age of 26. But his tragic story and the carefully crafted songs that accompanied it have achieved a popularity in recent years that would have astonished him.

The forgotten singer became a cult figure only after his death - then, recently, a major influence on mainstream guitar music. Radiohead, Coldplay and the Mercury Prize-winner Badly Drawn Boy are among the modern bands whose melancholy tones owe a great debt to an artist seen today as the epitome of arty English romanticism.

Now his fans have two new releases of rare recordings to look forward to. The first will be Made to Love Magic, an album largely made up of unreleased material that is expected to shed precious light on the personality of an artist thought to have given only one interview, and whose official output was slender. The songs may even offer clues to the mystery of his death. Then next year Family Tree, a selection of tracks recovered and restored from poor quality bootlegs, is expected to appear.

The painfully shy Drake - whose sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, oversees his estate - began to record his first album, Five Leaves Left, while a student at Cambridge. He was all but unknown during his short-lived career, selling only about 10,000 copies of his albums. But the release of a "best of" compilation a decade ago, designed as an introduction for younger record buyers, and the inclusion of his song "Pink Moon" in a car advert in 1999, helped to kick-start sales of his back catalogue. His song "Fruit Tree" also featured in the nostalgic ITV1 series Heartbeat, and on an accompanying album. Drake's was the only track on it that had not been a huge hit.

Since then Drake has been cited as an inspiration by numerous rock stars, such as Peter Buck, guitarist with REM, who said: "There was just something to me, as a teenager growing up in Georgia, incredibly sophisticated about him - the way the strings came in, that baroque sound, the guitar, the frail voice."

Made to Love Magic is said to consist mainly of "home recordings and field recordings" drawn from the years 1968 to 1974. Cally Callomon, the manager of Drake's estate, said some material was newly discovered. "Some of it has never been heard before. We are satisfied that what is on the album was material he intended to release."

Details of the tracklisting are still to be announced but at least one song is understood to be completely new to fans, while other tracks include alternate versions. BBC Radio 2 is believed to be working on a documentary about the star's life. Other tracks on Made to Love Magic will be taken from another posthumous release, Time of No Reply, which contained the last four songs he recorded.

After his third album, Pink Moon, in 1971, the increasingly withdrawn Drake - who had already given up his brief career as a live performer - is said to have decided he had no more songs left. He was depressed and uncommunicative, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown. He toyed with the idea of a different career, even considering the Army. During the most difficult periods of his illness, Drake refused to cut his nails or wash.

He was persuaded to begin recording again in 1974 and visited Paris, spending time with the singer Françoise Hardy. Drake died in November of that year in his bedroom at his parents' house in Tanworth-in-Arden, overdosing on the antidepressants he used to help him to sleep. A verdict of suicide was recorded but there are suggestions he did not realise that upping the dosage even slightly could be lethal. However, Gabrielle has said: "I personally prefer to think Nick committed suicide in the sense that I'd rather he died because he wanted to end it all than for it to have been the result of a tragic mistake."

Interest in the singer's limited back catalogue has meant a lucrative trade in fakes purporting to be his works in progress. The Family Tree album will draw together his genuine pre-debut tapes to stem the trade in what Mr Callomon called "dreadful quality, poorly packaged" bootlegs. It is likely to be released in 2005.

"Getting it right over-rides getting it out," said Mr Callomon. "Gabrielle rightly takes great care in ensuring Nick's work is seen in the best light for as long as possible. This is meant to be a true representation of Nick's music before he wroteFive Leaves Left."

The album is expected to include covers of songs by Bert Jansch and Bob Dylan and feature tracks from a tape Drake made in France which recently appeared. They will shed light on the development of his distinctive and intricate guitar style.

Patrick Humphries, author of the definitive Nick Drake: The Biography, said: "There is no footage of him performing anywhere. All that's left is the memories of people who saw him."

As well as the albums of unreleased material, a new "best of" will be released this year, all by Universal/Island.

Rock lives cut short

Janis Joplin: Finest white female blues singer of her generation. Emerged at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 with Big Brother and the Holding Company then scored as a solo artist. Died in 1970 of a heroin overdose, aged 27.

Jim Morrison: Flamboyant singer with the Doors whose poetic lyrics added a further dimension to the band's blues-based rock. Died in the bath in Paris in 1971, aged 27, but lack of autopsy meant no exact cause of death was established.

Jimi Hendrix: Guitar virtuoso, wild and amazing performer, changed the face of rock'n'roll. Died in 1970 after choking on his vomit. He was 27.

Ian Curtis: Front man for Manchester post-punk act Joy Division, who hanged himself in 1980 at the age of 23. Band regrouped as New Order.

Jeff Buckley: Angelic-voiced singer-songwriter whose only completed album Grace is hailed as one of the all-time great debuts. Died in a swimming accident in 1997, aged 30. His singer father Tim died of an overdose - aged 27.

Kurt Cobain: Guitarist and singer with Nirvana, found worldwide success with Nevermind. Unease with fame, a troubled marriage to Courtney Love and heroin use may have contributed to his shooting himself in 1994, aged 27.

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