ROCK / Still in a class of his own: Nick Drake has been a cult figure ever since his death in 1974. Listening to a new anthology, Ben Thompson can see why

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE few more enduringly mysterious and magical names in British pop than Nick Drake. He made only three albums, released between 1969 and 1972; they were not commercial successes and he has now been dead for almost 20 years. But the ethereal swagger of his music still sustains old fans and entrances new ones. Drake's myth mingles the troubadour allure of the singer-songwriter with the doomed grandeur of a 19th-century Romantic poet. The only thread connecting his otherworldly talent to mundane reality is the fact that his sister, Gabrielle, played Nicola Freeman in Crossroads.

Way to Blue, Island Records' new 'introduction to Nick Drake', achieves a compilation's ultimate goal: it makes you want to buy all the original albums - and wish you hadn't bought the compilation in the first place. The selection skips nimbly back and forth between Drake's stunningly accomplished debut Five Leaves Left, the intricate and deceptively jaunty follow-up Bryter Later, and the sparse and scary Pink Moon, with a couple of songs thrown in from the demos-and-out-takes collection Time of No Reply. It gives the lie to any notion of a straightforward chronological progression in Drake's work. (The eerily prescient 'Fruit Tree' - 'They'll all know that you were here when you're gone' - was on his first record.)

Even those whose motto is 'Never trust a singer-songwriter', and who would rather embrace a porcupine than a hippie, will find it hard to resist Drake. His songs have that precious knack of speaking directly to the listener, even if the listener has not the first idea of what they are on about. The occasional opacity of his lyricism is an asset, not a distraction. Singing seems to be like breathing to him. His spindly guitar-lines and wistful, well-arranged melodies wrap themselves around your heart.

Nick Drake came from the right side of the tracks, which is to say, in terms of conventional rock martyrdom, the wrong side. He was born in Burma to well-off parents, and grew up in a rambling Queen Anne house in the village of Tanworth-in-Arden, near Coventry. He followed the well-trodden family path to Marlborough school - where, all biographies pause incongruously to note, he broke sprinting records - and then to Cambridge. While there, his amazingly fully formed talents were spotted by a passing member of Fairport Convention, who put him in touch with the producer Joe Boyd - an American whose Witchseason Productions was home to Richard Thompson and John Martyn, who became Drake's mentor, and who, a quarter of a century later, would compile Way to Blue.

Boyd immediately noticed the quality of Drake's songs. People seem to remember Nick as tall and scruffily elegant, with enormous hands, but Boyd says: 'The thing that struck you most was that he was very diffident and awkward, in that shy, English-public-schoolboy way.' But Drake knew what he wanted. Feeling that early attempts to arrange his songs were fussy and sentimental, he persuaded Boyd to let his college friend Robert Kirby have a go. The result, Five Leaves Left - the title was taken from the warning which used to be printed inside packets of rolling papers to tell you that your supply was running out - was perfection.

'There was an absolute clarity and cleanliness about Nick's guitar playing which provided a spine for his records,' Boyd says. Where others drew inspiration from the roughhouse strut of Muddy Waters, Drake emulated the sure-fingered blues-picking of men such as Brownie McGhee; combined with unusual tunings, this made his sound highly distinctive. 'There was an awful lot of 'poetic' lyric-writing about at the time,' Boyd remembers, 'but there was an intelligence and a literacy about Nick's work that marked him out.'

He dropped out of college to live in London on a (then) healthy salary of pounds 20 a week. 'I expected he would release the record and tour,' says Boyd. 'It started out well' - Drake supported Fairport Convention at an emotional comeback at the Festival Hall - 'the audience were very earnest and attentive and he mesmerised everybody. But when he went out on his own, playing student unions and folk clubs, it was much harder.' Drake's confidence seems to have been fragile, and the rigours of touring were beyond him. His third album, the sombre but lovely Pink Moon, heralded a spiral into depression. Drake toyed with the idea of joining the army or becoming a computer programmer. He died, of an overdose of the prescription antidepressant Tryptizol, on 25 November 1974, aged 26. The coroner's verdict was suicide, but Drake's family and friends - citing the lack of a note and a recent upturn in his spirits - have always disputed this.

Either way, it's a sad story. This was a man who seemed to have very little to be miserable about. And yet no one hearing 'Black-Eyed Dog', one of a quartet of songs Drake wrote for his fourth album but was not satisfied with, can doubt that the demons in his head were real. He was so lacking in confidence by this time that he had to record the guitar first and then overdub the vocals. The eerie, disembodied voice in which he croons 'the black-eyed dog he knew my name' has an awful air of resignation. Here was someone who, developing the theme of the exquisite, string-drenched rhapsody that gives the collection its title, perhaps knew the way to blue a little too well.

'Way to Blue' is out on Tues (Island, CD/tape).

(Photograph omitted)