A kaleidoscopic trip into the craft of one of the most covered and influential songwriters of the 60s. Features eclectic readings of hits and deep cuts, including some never recorded by Donovan himself.
It can’t have been easy being Donovan. The Scottish singer, songwriter and guitarist lurched from popularity to neglect and back again following the first five years of his career – the golden period we celebrate on “Hurdy Gurdy Songs”. The body of work he wrote and recorded during this time has become one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful of any artist of the era, and continues to attract new listeners and demand constant reappraisal; proof beyond doubt that Donovan – the self-styled Sunshine Superman and psychedelic minstrel whose records coloured the late 60s pop landscape like few others – was one of a kind.
Painted by the pop press as a bandwagon-jumper and knock-off Dylan clone during his mid-60s breakthrough, Donovan could easily have submitted and contented himself with that opening brace of transatlantic hit singles, ‘Catch The Wind’ and ‘Colours’. Instead he began a startling reinvention that saw the Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott stylings he’d shared with Dylan jettisoned in favour of a poetic, experimental ideology inspired by his embrace of Zen Buddhism, esoteric writing and the burgeoning drug culture. “What I had given up was looking for the answer in social change,” Donovan told New Renaissance magazine in 1998. “The change was to be a spiritual change.”
What followed was a flood of songs that mirrored the thinking of the times while tugging at the boundaries of pop music. In December 1965, while his third UK single ‘Turquoise’ was struggling to crack the Top 30, he recorded ‘Sunshine Superman’ at EMI’s Abbey Road studios under the tutelage of producer Mickie Most and arranger John Cameron, utilising a band of crack UK session players. The template had been set and, give or take the odd change of musician and studio location, would prove to be a winning formula that birthed five studio albums and 10 hit singles over the next four years.
Donovan’s esoteric new agenda increased both his appeal and success instantly. ‘Sunshine Superman’ hit #1 stateside, and while a legal stand-off between his old and new record producers resulted in a potentially disastrous delay in his records appearing in the UK, his place at the vanguard of progressive pop was assured. His songs began attracting cover versions from practically every corner of the music world. High-profile folk artists such as Julie Felix and Judy Collins, rock bands such as Vanilla Fudge and Deep Purple, pop acts Herman’s Hermits and Marianne Faithfull and endless easy listening aggregations and faceless exploitation projects plundered Donovan’s catalogue with glee.
His songs became almost as popular as those of the Beatles, whose wide-eyed experimentalism he admired and absorbed. Let’s not forget that Donovan contributed to the lyrics of ‘Yellow Submarine’, while Paul McCartney made an uncredited appearance on ‘Mellow Yellow’. During their sojourn to study transcendental meditation in Rishikesh in February 1968, Donovan taught Lennon and McCartney the fingerpicking guitar style that both would employ extensively on many of their “White Album” contributions. McCartney and Donovan then collaborated on three songs for Mary Hopkin’s Apple Records debut in 1969.
Donovan’s popularity soared in 1967, particularly in the US where the groundbreaking “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” albums were released on time and in their intended form. UK listeners had to wait until the hybrid June 1967 “Sunshine Superman” set to hear key recordings such as ‘Season Of The Witch’, ‘Celeste’ and ‘Young Girl Blues’ for the first time. In December he released “A Gift From A Flower To A Garden”, a 22-track double album housed in a lavish (and expensive) box containing prints and lyrics. Four months later it appeared in the UK and would become his final UK studio album of the decade, the subsequent “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Barabajagal” long-players only seeing a US release due to the ongoing contractual dispute. A number of US singles also went unreleased at home during this period but “Donovan In Concert”, recorded in the US the previous November and containing a number of songs not otherwise available at the time, was a modest hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
A prolific writer, Donovan was able to gift a number of songs to other artists. ‘You Just Gotta Know My Mind’ and ‘Snakeskin’ appear on our collection by Dana Gillespie and Julie Felix respectively but weren’t recorded by their author, and also serve to illustrate the widespread appeal of his material to female interpreters as diverse as Eartha Kitt, Peggy Lipton and Bridget St John.
Donovan’s whirlwind journey through the second half of the 60s left him beaten and bruised by the business and still seeking peace and companionship (he would eventually marry Linda Lawrence, the muse behind many of his songs, in 1970) but the music he created – in which the eclectic influences of pop, spirituality, poetry, magic and the spirit of the age found their way into these unique and enduring songs – continues to thrill and beguile today.