by Ryan McKeeman
I recently listened to the "Three Records From Sundown" episode of the 99% Invisible podcast. It featured the story of Nick Drake. You may have heard his songs around the time of Zach Braff's directorial debut film, Garden State. If you're like us, you may have thought at the time that Nick Drake was the latest in a line of Indie-folk, singer-songwriters made popular by...well, mostly by Brooklyn. You also probably really liked Garden State.
When you check out the podcast, though, you'll learn that Nick Drake's music was recorded modestly in a basement just outside London in the late 1960's and early 1970's. And that he recorded three prolific, sad, sappy albums in the span of only four years. These albums have a uniquely Nick Drake sound, which is at once easily recognizable as Nick Drake because of how uniquely talented he is as a silky-smooth vocalist and based on the simplicity of the songs, it could easily be any one of hundreds of folky singer-songwriter artists. Unfortunately, he died from a prescription drug overdose at the age of 26 in 1974, well before his songs became popular.
His albums never received fame during his life for several reasons, one of which was Nick's inability to perform live. And perhaps that he never recorded with Rick Hall's "Swampers" at FAME Studios! He used odd tunings and spent much of the time during his show adjusting his instrument so that it was absolutely perfect. The crowd lost interest. His self esteem suffered...hence the prescription in the first place. Maybe as a result, though, he never really picked up the quintessential "sound of the 60's," at least as we think of it today. Listening to his music now feels like it could just as easily belong to 2015...or 1975...it's "culturally unanchored" as they mention in the podcast. It's timeless. Had you not heard that podcast or read this article, you might even find yourself curious about when Nick Drake's next album is coming out.
I'm not sure if it's the acoustic quality that displaces the sound in time. Acoustic instruments, at least for me, are temporally transcendent. Some of them unapologetically belong to a place - the sitar to India and the djembe to Mali and West Africa, for example. In that sense, they become more memorable as exceptions when separated from our associations with their spatial context. Like the 2-minute sitar solo in The Gaslamp Killer's "Nissim" track on the album, Breakthrough. However, these instruments rarely sound especially dated or especially contemporary.
Or maybe it's that the singer-songwriter is the fundamental building block of music in the same way that the high screen-and-roll is the fundamental building block of basketball. Once you've got a singer and an acoustic guitar good enough to provide background chords and rhythm to support the vocals, you've got a great start to music. Whatever it is, Nick Drake belongs to our ears somewhere outside the context of time - even though he recorded these three albums in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Close your eyes, listen to Pink Moon below and ask yourself when the album must have been recorded.
Now, lots of great music was recorded in the 1960's so when I think about what it would mean to sound "like the 60's," it occurs to me that I could easily miss the mark by leaving out an important soundmark from the decade. However, I think the sound signature of the 60's would have to be traced back to technology. Though the first electric guitar was invented in 1932 (in Hawaii of all places), electric instruments did not really come onto the pop music scene until the 1950's. By the 1960's, amplification and effects found their way into popular music in a way we had never heard before. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Doors. The Beach Boys. Jimi Hendrix. They defined our memory of the sound of the 1960's.
And with the constant turning and returning to the past - reviving fashion, home decor, and graphic styles in the name of retro - we now have young bands trying to recreate the sound signatures of the past. Enter The Villanovas. Also based in London where Nick Drake recorded nearly 50 years ago, this rock quartet just released their first EP.
The sound is crunchy guitars with relentless rhythm. Not quite rock lyrics but close. It's raw. It sounds like...the 60's. Their instruments are emulating the sounds of their predecessors from the 60's. Their image brings back the memory of The Rolling Stones. I love it. You might almost believe that you had entered a time machine listening to their EP.
Enjoy the contemporary sounds of the 1960's brought to you by The Villanovas from London...released in late 2014. Be on the lookout for them at SXSW in the next year or so. I have a feeling we may see them on this side of the pond soon! In the meantime, check out their EP.