The timeworn cliché that no great artist is appreciated during his lifetime has rarely held true for pop musicians in the era of rock and roll. Far more modern pop stars have outlived their popularity and commercial viability than have achieved it for the first time only decades after their deaths. One glaring exception to this rule, however, is the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake, a performer far better known today than at any point during his lifetime. On November 25, 1974, Nick Drake died of an overdose of prescription antidepressants in his home in Warwickshire, England. His death brought an end to a tragically short recording career, but it set the stage for one of the biggest posthumous “comebacks” in popular music history, fully a quarter-century later.
Nicholas Rodney Drake was born in 1948 in Rangoon, Burma, and came of age in England during the creative musical ferment of the 1960s. Though clearly influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan and frequently referred to as a folk singer, Drake’s sound was, as it is still, unique enough to defy easy categorization. Discovered at the age of 20 while playing live in various London venues, Drake completed his first album, Five Leaves Left, within a year. A work of delicate, melancholy beauty, Five Leaves Left now commonly earns a place on lists of “Greatest Ever” albums lists, but it sold extremely poorly in its day, as did the only two other albums Drake released during his lifetime, 1970’s Bryter Later and 1972’s Pink Moon.
A longtime sufferer of serious depression, Drake did little to improve his commercial fortunes by withdrawing from society and refusing to play live or grant interviews. In the years after his death on this day in 1974, his music earned him a cult following, but nothing approaching stardom. Increasingly cited by contemporary stars as a musical influence over the course of the 1980s and 90s, however, Drake stayed on the fringes of the popular consciousness long enough to gain stardom by an unlikely means some 25 years after his death, when a memorable Volkswagen television commercial was set to the title track of his final album, Pink Moon. After airing for the first time in February 2000, the VW ad featuring “Pink Moon” led Nick Drake to sell more albums within the next year than he ever sold during his lifetime.