July 27th, 2019

Posted in Tunes / Vinyl Blog by Randy Wells

PINK MOON

OK, it’s the end of July, and I’ve somehow missed every one of this album’s significant anniversaries.

Still, this is probably the best article I’ve ever written about any subject, so here goes.

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Nick Drake was born June 19, 1948 in Rangoon, Burma. Such unusual beginnings for a shy singer-songwriter who would die of a drug overdose twenty-six years later might seem exotic to some. But the gentle music he created sounded quite ordinary to most, if they heard it at all.

Each of his three albums when originally issued between 1969 and 1972 sold but a few thousand copies. Though Drake’s cult status survived the decades among a small band of feverish devotees, his recorded output probably would have remained largely ignored by the general public if not for a Volkswagen TV commercial aired in 1999.

Drake’s song “Pink Moon” provided the advertisement’s back track and it soon spread virally, making it to fifth spot on Amazon’s music sales chart. Within a month of the commercial’s first airing, more of Drake’s records had been sold than in the previous thirty years combined. Another long lost poetic genius had finally been discovered.

For those readers who are not rabid fans, here are some relevant observations: Drake was disheartened in late 1970 after Bryter Later, his second album, did not sell much better than Five Leaves Left, his first. The poor sales were due, at least in part, to Drake’s shyness that made him hesitant to do publicity, his reluctance to tour, and a lack of airplay. Only 5,000 UK copies of each album were initially pressed in 1969 and 1970. And none were pressed in the U.S. until the late 70’s. No wonder those original pink label Island LPs fetch hundreds of dollars.

After giving up on an English literature degree at Cambridge and putting so much effort into the lavish Bryter Later, Drake became withdrawn, feeling as if he had failed. Reportedly, he was a perfectionist (his pristine guitar work is evidence of this) who found it difficult to accept that success can take years to achieve.

At the same time, Drake’s mentor and producer Joe Boyd was leaving England to work at Warner Brothers. A despondent, solitary Drake moved from his flat in London to his parent’s home in Tanworth-in-Arden, about 90 miles away. When his parents realized how morose their sensitive son had become, a psychiatrist was consulted who prescribed anti-depressants.

In mid-1971, concerned about Drake’s health, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell offered the unsettled artist a vacation at his Spanish villa. Drake traveled there, then returned to London apparently rested and ready to record his next album. He showed up with a set of new songs very different from his previous compositions. These were not breezy tunes with elaborate backing instruments and strings (check out the beautiful “Northern Sky” from Bryter Later). Instead, Drake had created stark solos of intense introspection.

Using only his voice and an acoustic guitar, the self-taught Drake recorded eleven short songs in just four hours over two midnight sessions in October 1971. These were all first takes recorded live, except for the title track, “Pink Moon,” which Drake overdubbed with a piano. It was pure stripped down Nick Drake, as naked and honest as he could be.

The recording studio was London’s Sound Techniques with the legendary audio engineer John Wood at the controls. When Wood, who was now Drake’s sole producer, asked Drake how he would like the songs completed, Drake replied that they were to be left alone with no frills. A few days later the solitary artist simply dropped off the master tapes at Island Records.

It would be encouraging to report that when issued in February 1972 this 28-minute album of sublime melancholic beauty became a huge commercial success, but like Drake’s previous efforts, it sold poorly. He experienced a nervous breakdown and after five weeks in the hospital, retreated wearily to his parent’s home where he remained isolated in resignation. On November 25, 1974, Nicholas Rodney Drake died from an overdose of the antidepressant Amitriptyline.

Perhaps the cover of the album (by Drake’s sister’s boyfriend Michael Trevithick) can shed some light on that fragile time. It depicts a sad clown’s face, a teacup, a shell, a tulip, a new shoe, and an Apollo rocket launcher against the backdrop of a pink Swiss cheese moon. The interior shows a large solarized photograph of Drake. I’m not sure that elaborating on any hidden clues would be fruitful, so let’s focus on the music we are left with.

Pink Moon’s title track begins with a gentle strumming guitar and Drake’s soft vocals, similar in some ways to the lyrical “Northern Sky”. Yet here he remains the introspective loner. Gone are the soaring backing instruments that would have carried us to more comfortable heights. Instead, there are only descending octaves and a poignant piano solo that leave you after its brief two-minute length in the shadows contemplating the artist’s intentions.

“Place To Be” is even darker, and at the same time more illuminating. With direct lyrics and a tender pastoral reverence over everything, it’s a meditative hymn that cannot be denied in its longing to be more, to be stronger, to rise above “the palest blue” and “this need for you”.

“Road” could have been a precise finger-picking exercise in alternate tunings, but instead it eerily leads anywhere you want to go: “I can take a road that will see me through.” Interestingly (or perhaps metaphorically), on several occasions late in his life the desolate Drake drove his car until it ran out of gas.

Another short song, and perhaps one of his most beautiful, is the graceful “Which Will”. Here is a confident, if wary, Drake who enters into painfully perceptive territory that is both known and unknown. “Which way do you love the best” could mean anything and everything. It still haunts listeners today.

The repeating four note instrumental “Horn” seems like bleak filler, until it’s seen as a modal prologue for “Things Behind the Sun”. A fitting end to side one, this is a relatively jaunty tune that’s certainly more in keeping with his earlier albums, as it attempts to console the listener with its uplifting lyrics and soothing guitar work.

Side two leads off with the mysterious “Know” whose hypnotic mantra-like chant is as disturbing as it is vague. What follows is one of Drake’s most revealing compositions, “Parasite”. This somber autobiographical parable is a stunning confessional work observed by a detached Drake. “Free Ride” offers welcome relief with its upbeat cadence in time with carefree vocals. The next to last song, “Harvest Breed” continues that restless theme and echoes Drake’s intimate debut album.

The album closes with the romantic and brilliant “From the Morning”. By now you know you are either in the presence of genius, lost for words, or ready to hear something else. Like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, this is not an album for everyone. Whatever the listener’s reaction, this closing consolation is a gift offered unconditionally. To me, it sounds as if while creating the record Drake paid no attention whatsoever to commercial considerations.

REVIEW:

Ok, we will start with the latest reissue, and move backwards.

The inclusion of a 24bit/96kHz FLAC download code in the new box set initially had folks wondering if the LP was cut from a digital source. Rest assured, the original master tapes were used, the original engineer/producer John Wood was involved, and the interior of this set reproduces the master tape box.

Included are the original gatefold sleeve (reportedly scanned from the original art), a heavy paper inner sleeve replica (unfortunately unlined), the 180 gram LP with pink rim labels, a copy of the promotional shop poster, and a facsimile of Nick’s handwritten lyrics to four of the songs. Also included are download codes for an MP3 sourced from the digital file as well and an MP3 from a needledrop, for a total of three.

Reportedly, reissues of Bryter Later and Five Leaves Left will follow. Reportedly, the original master tapes for the second album are lost, so unfortunately that reissue was sourced from John Wood’s vintage analogue copy tape. And because the first album’s original master tapes are apparently unusable, its source will be a 24bit digital file.

When comparing the various pressings available, it’s important to note that, thanks to Joe Boyd’s insistence, Pink Moon as well as Drake’s other two albums were available on UK Island LPs for many years. And most importantly, because it wasn’t a big seller, later Pink Moon pressings were often made from the same lacquers as the original “pink rim” or “sunray” Island label LP. These are denoted in the run-out area by a stamped A-1U for side one and a stamped B-1U for side two.

OK, let’s compare some pressings. Here’s what I had on hand for Pink Moon: Original 1972 UK Island LP ILPS 9184 (stamped -1U lacquers), original 1972 US Island LP SMAS 9318 (handwritten H-3 lacquer), 1979 3-LP UK Fruit Tree Box (-4U/-2U), 2002 Simply Vinyl LP, 2007 Japanese Universal 200g LP, and the new Universal box set 180g LP.

I’ll make this short. Run, don’t walk, and order a copy (or two) of this new reissue. Everything else is second best in my opinion. If your analog rig and electronics are up to the task, you will hear rich nuances, air, and separation not available on any other pressing I’ve heard. As good as the original UK –1U pressing is, and it is very good, it can’t compete with the resolution and fullness available here. Don’t worry, this mastering is not one of those attempts at eliciting more detail at the expense of warmth and musicality. You can expect to hear newfound bending of guitar strings and previously unheard vocal inflections. Yet everything is natural and smooth, with the added benefit of greater presence and believability.

Bottom line, this new reissue was done right. Mastered with care from the original master tapes, EQd all analog, pressed at the highly regarded German Optimal plant with excellent quality control (my copy is flat and quiet), and presented in custom packaging that only adds to the experience, it’s my vote for best reissue of 2012.

I could dissect all the pressings I listened to in preparing for this article, but instead I will make a short summary of the six pages of notes I compiled while comparing them all. Here’s how I rank them after the new reissue:

The UK original with pink rim labels and –1U lacquer is wonderful with a natural guitar attack that’s almost as realistic as the new reissue. It has very well reproduced piano and vocals, a nice spread from speaker to speaker, but it’s a bit unresolved and recessed in comparison. My copy of the US original on pink rim labels is better than the UK in some ways (attack, air, dynamics), but it’s less natural and the vocals are shifted slightly to the left. Both of these pressings have a convincing three-dimensional soundstage, something the following pressings lack.

The 2002 Simply Vinyl LP (not the more recent version) is actually pretty good. It has very quiet surfaces, but there’s a slight veil between you and the performance. The 2007 Japanese LP never develops a natural warmth, remaining clinical in it’s presentation. Lastly, the 1979 Fruit Tree box LP is a compromise. With two additional songs on each side, created by the inclusion of four bonus tracks, everything is squashed and shifted to the left. Fortunately, the first two albums in this box do not suffer the same fate and sound fine.

In closing, let me say that I’ve been a fan of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon ever since I first saw it listed in Michael Fremer’s “Top 40 Rock/Pop/Soul/Blues LPs” article in the September/October 1991 issue of The Absolute Sound. I went in search of every record on that list, and when I saw this one in a US cutout pressing, I bought it, unwrapped it, and played it ten times in a row. Having just broken up with my girlfriend, Drake’s Pink Moon was perfect for that time.

Playing the album post-breakup would probably have been too gloomy for most, but for me it revealed a deeper yet critical part of the human condition – one I was experiencing. Today I would probably reach for Beck’s Sea Change to explore my solitude. In the 50’s it might have been Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. Whatever the era, there will always be a need for quiet, contemplative, and meditative music for healing the soul.

Pink Moon is arguably Drake’s least accessible album, but I view it as his most intimate and compelling. Yes, it can be heartbreaking. John Wood said he couldn’t listen to it for years, and Joe Boyd called it “a record of quiet desperation, the sound of someone hanging on by their fingernails.” It can be an uncomfortable portrayal of an artist who’s wandered over the edge, past all hope, and perhaps beyond all possibilities – but open expression of strong emotion can be cathartic for the listener.

In a creative life tragically cut short, the long ignored genius of Nick Drake continues to touch the lives of others, and will continue to do so because of this reissue. Five Leaves Left might have matched the brief number of years he would live after that initial 1969 release, but some artists suffer for their art.

Perhaps by playing only for their own personal redemption, these innocents touch upon a universal chord that resonates within our collective consciousness. Drake achieved that I’m sure. And witnessed by his current cult-like status albeit with greater recognition and a most unlikely but gratifying commercial success, his music is even more apt today. In this way, he will remain ageless.

Copyright 2013 Randy Wells. All Rights Reserved.

Original article on Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet