Let’s have an argument about Nick Drake. I’ll chuck in Donovan for starters

After last week’s post about the excess of musical talent in my family, my friend Slavena posted on Facebook, “Well Paul, maybe you could excel in writing…..”

She was trying to cheer me up, and also, maybe, tell me that she likes the way I write.

Of course, what she doesn’t know – and neither do you – is that my dad, in addition to being a phenomenal pianist (and holding down a day job at the Southern Electricity Board) also wrote about 70 crime novels that sold millions.

Which is not to mention that my brother Dudley is now trying to get his first novel published.

So, no Slavena, my family won’t even let me have writing to myself!

But at least I have this blog, where I can talk about what I want to.

And this week I want to ask you:

So, where do we stand on Donovan?

Bit of a bore now? A bit full of himself? Talks self-importantly, making frequent references to his influence on The Beatles.

Certainly hasn’t made any music of note for a very long time.

Now, where do we stand on Nick Drake?

Beautiful young man, genius songwriter, brilliant guitarist, left a wonderful legacy. Tragic he died so young. So sad.

Given all that, where do we think we’d stand on Donovan had he died after 1968’s A Gift From A Flower To A Garden?

My guess? We’d all be bewailing a tragic loss.

But no-one listens to Donovan any more. His first two albums were incredibly influential on young starter-guitarists like me, and then, in 1966, Sunshine Superman took it to another level. But after 1970 – well, it’s a long way down.

Which just goes to show, as some mega-cynic once said, that dying young is a great career move.

This all came to mind because my friend John Howard mentioned he was reading Gabrielle Drake’s biography of her brother Nick. I found myself thinking “I’d like to read that”.

But then I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t you want to read a biography of Donovan?” And the answer was: actually, I would.

Just for context, Donovan had released five albums, one of them a double – before Nick Drake started recording his first.

What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid was released in May 65. For emerging folkies like me, it was a revelation. I didn’t want to sing sea shanties, but Bob Dylan was too intimidating. The Times They Are A-Changing held a definite message, but it wasn’t one you could hope to credibly carry at age 16.

Catch The Wind, on the other hand, was beautiful, simple and easy to sing. And the album which that song leads you into had at least five other songs you could incorporate into your set. Car Car was like a child’s nursery rhyme – but it was written by Woody Guthrie, so everyone would happily sing along; no credibility problems back then.

Six months later, Fairytale was released. Apart from the hit single, Colours, it showed – as was common back then – artistic and musical development from the first album.

In particular, Sunny Goodge Street was quite jazzy. It was also lyrically a little oblique for 16-year-olds from Wolverhampton with its references to hash-smokers, Mingus, and ‘smashing into neon streets in their stonedness’.

I would hazard a guess that this song was a touchstone for 17-year-old Nick Drake, still three years away from beginning to record his first album, which was eventually released in 1969.

Not to take anything away from Nick Drake, but back then singer-songwriters were ten-a-penny (as we used to say pre-decimalisation).

At Music Week, I was the only teenage staff writer. So all the folk, progressive, underground and far-out stuff came my way.

Before you even heard their albums, you would have been to see Al Stewart, Roy Harper and Cat Stevens. You could watch James Taylor, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Certainly, after their debut release there would be important showcase gigs.

It’s beyond doubt that at least one of Nick Drake’s albums came across my desk. What I said about it, what I thought about it I can’t possibly remember.

I might well have raved about his first, as I did about Joni Mitchell’s, Leonard Cohen’s, Kris Kristofferson’s, Randy Newman’s – it’s a long list.

But the thing about Nick Drake was, he didn’t follow through. He didn’t gig and he wouldn’t do interviews. In a maelstrom of emerging talent – it was an absolutely extraordinary time – he didn’t get lost; he actively hid.

You might say, “But it should really be about the music”. And I might reply: “Oh, get over yourself”.

Nick Drake’s albums emerged into an overcrowded world of pop, folk and rock music that was exploding in an unprecedented display of talent, the existence of which was previously unimaginable. Who knew?

But my main point today is not to knock poor benighted Nick Drake. Forty years later, we can all see that if he’d gigged, if he’d done the publicity rounds he might well have been a contender.

Or he might not. Many weren’t, for various reasons. But what is clear forty years later is that he made music that survives all fashions, all fads.

And it is also clear – to me at least (and I think John Howard) – that if Donovan Leitch had died after the release of his 1968 double album, A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, today we would all be talking about what a loss Donovan was.

The fact that he’s still around to bore us with his tales of how he taught Lennon and McCartney to fingerpick – resulting in songs like Blackbird, Julia, Dear Prudence and Mother Nature’s Son on the fabled White Album – only goes to say how damaging to your heritage it can be to live too long.

So, to somewhat redress the balance, here’s Donovan and Sunny Goodge Street. Have a listen, and then we can start the arguments about whether Nick Drake might have been influenced by Mr Leitch.

And, for comparison, here’s Nick Drake’s At The Chime Of A City Clock.

 

 

Through the door at Apple Corps (Episode 1)

As far as I recall, The Beatles are the only artists ever to have an album in the singles chart.

With The Beatles, their second album, sold so many copies so fast it outsold all but the top ten singles that week, and reached number 11 in the singles top 20. The chart company had to change the rules after that.

This was the era when The Beatles were Kings. This was the era when Capitol Records in America released the double album The Beatles (aka The White Album) at a price almost three times the cost of a single album, and still they sold four million copies in four weeks.

This was also the time, believe it or not, when I could walk in and out of Apple Records at will.

Apple was a strange and wonderful place, constantly buzzing, but seemingly with very little purpose. There is an old music industry word, ‘ligger’, which denotes those who crash gigs and record company parties, but who have no purpose in being there. Apple seemed to be largely staffed by liggers, with some notable exceptions.

I remember being there only once on official business, to interview Allen Klein who had recently taken over management of The Beatles.

Also in the room was Peter Brown, who ran the daily management of Apple. Peter was there to tell me about a company restructure. My job was to listen, ask questions and file a feature back at Music Week.

Unfortunately, Allen Klein was an inveterate gossip, and I was a willing partner.

I would have got to the point eventually. Copy was, after all, expected back at Music Week. But I didn’t get to the point quickly enough for Peter Brown, who finally lost patience.

“I thought you were here to talk about our restructure,” he said.

“Oh come on,” said Klein, “the guy can’t help gossiping! We’ll get to that.”

That was it for Peter. He shuffled his papers together and left the room with his assistant. Which is a shame, because he was (and is) a good guy, and – contrary to Klein – was looking after The Beatles’ best interests.

(To make up for it, all these years later, I’ll point you at his brilliant book, The Love You Make. Despite being written with obvious affection, it doesn’t shirk stuff that still has the ability to shock, even 40 years later.)

So now, left alone, Klein and I gossiped away. Although he was a bit of a crook, and definitely less than straightforward in some of his dealings, he could go back to the late 50s with his rock ‘n’ roll stories. He had also managed Sam Cook. And, to his credit, he had found ££millions of unpaid royalties for the Fabs. He was currently in good favour.

Plus, though I wouldn’t call him charming, he was good company, and a top of the range gossip. This is the bit of him that attracted John Lennon in the first place.

After Peter Brown walked out, and as Klein and I continued to talk, the door opened behind me.

I didn’t look round, but I noticed Klein tip his chin and raise his eyebrows. Whoever this newcomer was, he or she was welcome, but happy to sit out of my line of sight.

Klein was telling me about a cupboard full of unreleased tapes he’d found. I thought I was about to hear confirmation of the great unreleased Beatles album (Hot As Sun; nothing but a rumour, later a bootleg).

In fact they were the tapes for what became the Let It Be album. The Beatles were so unhappy with them, they were going to leave them to rot.

A few minutes after the newcomer had arrived I heard – from behind – the familiar voice of Ringo Starr chip in. His tone conveyed annoyance.

I was getting a telling off from a Beatle!

Peter Brown had obviously asked him to come in and get me back on track. Ringo was making very pointed remarks about what my editor would be expecting from me, as opposed to the direction the conversation was taking.

Don’t ask me how it happened, but instead of falling into line and doing my job (!), I carried on as if nothing had happened. Before I knew it, I had Ringo chatting too. One of the most interesting things to emerge was that he had taken charge of all movie footage collected during The Beatles’ career. He was working, he told me, to put together a history of the band that would include untold amounts of unseen footage.

This conversation was taking place in 1969. The Beatles Anthology was finally aired in 1995. So that little task only took him 26 years.

At least I filed my copy the next day; it appeared in Music Week the following week and was forgotten within days. Events at Apple moved so quickly it was hard to keep up.

I remember vividly the day Alistair Taylor, one of Brian Epstein’s Liverpool posse, turned up at Music Week’s offices. He stood in front of my desk and said: “They’ve sacked me.” I was 20. I didn’t have a clue what to say to him.

He had come down to London with The Beatles and now ‘they’ had sacked him. He looked more forlorn than any man I had ever seen.

Karma, though, was almost instant. Klein himself was sacked within the year.

All this Apple Talk reminds me of a recording I made years ago of an iconic Beatles track. I hope my cover of the old soul shouter Twist & Shout makes you smile.

My version is voyeuristic, the lead vocal almost heavy breathing.

It’s an old demo, made – apart from my vocals – exclusively with early synthesisers, two of them now legendary: a Roland SH101 for the bass; a TR606 for the drums; and a Crumar Stratus for the ‘brass’ and ‘organ’. So forgive the quality, but enjoy the humour. If it makes you laugh, that’s fine by me. It’s meant to be amusing.