Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Island Records Turns 50 and Nick Drake

Randall Stephens

Island Records, one of the most influential labels in 20th-century pop music, is marking its golden anniversary. Chris Blackwell started recording Jamaican bands under that name in 1959. Over the decades the label's roster included such luminaries as Bob Marley, U2, Free, Traffic, Cat Stevens, Fairport Convention, and King Crimson. It's latest hitmaker is Amy Winehouse, the troubled retro-vulgarian with a voice. The BBC reports a series of anniversary concerts to celebrate the benchmark. MOJO, Uncut, and Q also feature material on Island's 50th.

MOJO's cover story on one of the label's legends, Nick Drake, enigmatic chamber folk phenom, is a treat. (Drake, who died of an overdose of antidepressants in 1974, has been the subject of myth for some time.) The MOJO piece recounts Drake's toff years at Cambridge and his work with legendary producer Joe Boyd in the heady days of the late 1960s. Chris Blackwell, too, reflects on his experience with Drake.

One of the best accounts of this era, and the flurry of artistic activity, is Boyd's very entertaining White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent's Tail, 2007). "His accent was at the aristocratic end of 'received pronunciation,'" Boyd writes of Drake. "Born in Burma, where his father was a doctor in the Colonial Service, he attended Marlborough and was now at Cambridge, reading English. I had met many public schoolboys (Chris Blackwell, for example) who seemed to have not an iota of doubt in their entire beings. Nick had the accent and the offhand mannerisms, but had somehow missed out on the confidence."

And on his abilities and creativity Boyd remarks: "One evening, Nick played me all his songs. Up close, the power of his fingers was astonishing, with each note ringing out loud - almost painfully so - and clear in the small room. I had listened closely to Robin Williamson, John Martyn, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Half-struck strings and blurred hammerings-on were an accepted part of their sound; none could match Nick's mastery of the instrument. After finishing one song, he would retune the guitar and proceed to play something equally complex in a totally different chord shape."

(A superb poetic documentary of Drake in context, A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake (2004), can be watched on youtube in three sections. Joe Boyd is featured as are Gabrielle Drake, Robert Kirby, and modfather and Island Records labelmate Paul Weller.)

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