Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Nick Drake - Pete Clemons Asks "did he play in Coventry?"

Pete Clemons has posed a question for his latest article for the Coventry Telegraph. "Did Nick Drake play a gig in Coventry?". There are things that hang on that but Pete will explain in the article.

Did city gig make Nick Drake stage shy?
by Pete Clemons
A MUSICAL question I have had, for a while now, and tried to find a definitive answer to, is one surrounding Nick Drake. It is whether or not he ever played a gig in Coventry, which would solve a riddle about one of my all time favourite ever singer songwriters.

Nick Drake was born in June 1948 and died on November 25, 1974. He grew up in Tanworth in Arden, Warwickshire, was educated at Cambridge University where he was an accomplished sprinter (I believe he still holds the university record for the 100-yard dash) and it was there where he discovered the English folk scene.

His love of folk music led to him signing to Island records in 1969 where he recorded three almost perfect albums. Sadly the wider audience at that time, and for whatever reason, failed to notice Nick and his albums barely sold 5,000 copies each after their release.

No footage, as far as I know, exists of Nick and relatively few photographs were taken or interviews conducted. 'is lack of all round success led, in turn, to bouts of depression and insomnia that in the end had a major bearing on him losing his life at such a young age.

Since his death, and in particular from the beginning of the 1990s, Nick's popularity increased dramatically. It is said that his music has been an influence on such luminaries as Paul Weller, Pete Buck of REM and Robert Smith of the Cure. And those influences spread to the artists' extensive individual fan bases, and beyond, and suddenly it seemed the true genius of Nick Drake had begun to be realised. As a result several posthumous albums and compilations have been released along with various books and articles.

Apart from busking around France and parts of the UK in his early days Nick Drake only ever played a handful of official live performances. Depending on what website or list you look at the total number of recorded events Nick Drake participated at has never gone beyond 20 or so gig dates. And among those confirmed, no date has ever been given for a gig in Coventry.

The websites containing his gigging activity show that he once played a gig in Smethwick. The exact date is unknown but indications show that it was sometime during autumn 1969 at a venue for the Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds works social club. Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds were more commonly known as GKN a company who, at that time, produced cast iron products.

On that particular evening in question Nick performed to an inattentive crowd between a works dinner and a disco that was scheduled for later in the evening. One of Nick's closest friends was singer songwriter John Martyn. So close were they that John had written one of his most famous songs, 'Solid Air',' especially about Nick. 'I know I love you, and I can be your friend, I can follow you anywhere' is a line from that particular song.

John, it seems, remembered the works dinner event well. And some years later, during an interview on Radio 1, John reflected on that particular experience: "It really destroyed him' and that he thought that they (the audience) would have rather listened to the Troggs. So I think that was a major blow to his confidence. I remember him being defencive about it for days and days."

I then read a Nick Drake biography by the well respected author Patrick Humphries. I was completely astonished to read on pages 124 and 125 of the paperback that Patrick had written the following passages which related to gigs played by Nick during late 1969. It was based on more recollections made by John Martyn: "He primarily played for his own amusement. One of the things that contributed to his utter detestation of the whole thing was that he was once booked to play at a Coventry Apprentices Christmas Ball. In those days, Purple Haze was 'in', and there he was singing 'Fruit Tree' and all those gentle breezy little ballads and I can just imagine them swigging back Carlsberg Special and giving him an awful time. I know that gig lived in his mind and he'd talk about it quite regularly." 

" Another source, an unconfirmed eye witness account of the gig, states that: "Nick came on at about 9pm. They were still clearing away the tables and chairs from an earlier dinner. Without a word he proceeded to play and an audience of 10 to 15 people who had stayed and gathered in front of the stage. the rest of the people in the hall continued to arrange chairs, clean up after the meal or just chat. After five or six numbers he just packed his guitar in its case and walked of stage." 

Facts and other things can easily be forgotten over the passage of time. But John Martyn would surely have known if he had been in Coventry or not. Particularly as John's partner at that time was Beverley Kutner who happened to live in Coventry. John Martyn knew Coventry fairly well at that time.

Another factor is that Patrick Humphries is a great writer and I just could not imagine him publishing something without the full facts being fully researched and checked.

Seeing those passages in Patrick's book was all I needed to start my search for evidence and after some considerable time I came across an advert for an Alvis Apprentice Christmas Dance at their Sports and Social Club on the Holyhead Road (nowadays the home of the Alvis retail park). It was held on Friday December 19, 1969.

Admittedly, Nick Drake's name was not on the advert. the band shown on the advert, as scheduled to appear that night, was called ''The Big Idea.' .' But everything else about the whole event seems to fit. It would certainly not be the first time a band or artist had played at an event and whose name had failed to have been included on the advertising flyers.

One of the many things Nettlefolds (GKN) were famous for was the manufacturing of iron castings for the automobile industry. Alvis were of course a major player in the manufacture of cars and heavy artillery for the armed services.

So the links between the two companies were denitely there. So much so in fact that during 1998 Alvis plc acquired the armoured vehicle business of GKN plc. A long shot I guess, but, reading this article may just jog the memory of someone who attended the Alvis apprentices dinner and dance.

I could, of course, be way o| beam with my thoughts, however, I just think that John Martyn's memories, along with his knowledge of Coventry at that time, are just too strong to ignore. I really do think my suspicions hold some water.

Having said that, and even though I really do think it happened, I do so with mixed feelings. On one hand I am convinced in my mind that Nick Drake did perform in Coventry during the winter of 1969. Yet, I get a sense of guilt that Coventry could possibly have been the city and provided the audience that destroyed him as a live performer.

An unfinished song by Nick Drake and Beverley Martyn finished recently by Beverley on her new album.

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