THE RISE OF DONOVAN: Donovan shakes off all Dylan imitator tags for good and helps usher in psychedelia with his first full-out venture into electric folk-rock, Sunshine Superman

"The folk-rock fusion of the '60s was many-layered, and also ushered in a revolution, one of lyric and subject," believes Donovan. "The folk scene had the message, the pop scene had the media; 'the media is the message' was a phrase then. But really, the frivolous entertainment of pop music was infiltrated consciously by me and others who saw the potential to reach millions of youths who were not in the bohemian worlds of London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles." Thus, he continues, he and others were able to advocate "free speech, and put down bigotry, hypocrisy, and all the other sicknesses of western society which had been able to continue due to control of the media by post-war propaganda governments. Folk-rock would change all this."

    Donovan was unquestionably the greatest ambassador of folk-rock from the British Isles, and indeed the only one from the UK who could rightly claim a place in the pantheon of the greatest mid-1960s folk-rockers from anywhere. Certainly his three dozen or so recordings from 1965 had already established him as a troubadour who could deliver the message of folk protest and poesy with a sharper acumen for pop crossover than any other British singer. Those tracks, including the hits "Catch the Wind" and "Colours," were still largely in an acoustic framework, though the "Catch the Wind" single had light strings.

    Even at that time, however, he was starting to edge toward rock in the studio. Some basic, almost skifflish bass and drums are heard on cuts like "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" (which he had performed live, with an electric band, as early as April 1965, on the televised NME Pollwinners Concert). The truest indicator of the balance between old and new that would make him an international superstar, however, lay in "Sunny Goodge Street," from his second British LP, Fairytale (released October 1965). The full band setting drew in flute, horn, cello, double bass, and brush drums, owing much to cool jazz-blues as well as to pop, folk, and rock.

    "When I heard jazz, classical music, Billie Holiday and [classical cellist] Pablo Casals, and read poetry and new wave literature, I saw all these merging into one sound," he reminisces. "Musically, 'Sunny Goodge Street' was a jazz fusion even when I played it acoustic. The fusion of the musical styles announced the breaking down of barriers and categories in music. I not only introduced a Celtic-rock fusion. I absorbed and merged world music as a whole, in keeping with the truth that all music is one, as all humans are one race on the one planet." He'd given fair warning of his ambitions as early as August 1965, when he told Melody Maker he was "doing a modern jazz record. I will be singing blues over French horns and it will be a Charlie Mingus-style arrangement."

    "'Sunny Goodge Street' anticipates the spiritual journey which generations would follow," Donovan adds. "The lyric may just be the first mention of a spiritual path in popular music, with the lines 'the magician he sparkles in satin and velvet, you gaze at his splendour with eyes you've not used yet' -- referring to the opening of awareness which was growing in the generation of the late '50s and early '60s. Folk-rock is not only a sound. It is a manifesto of change."

    Donovan's utopianism would flower, and reward him with an American #1 single in the summer of 1966, when he made the jump from near-acoustic folk-pop to fully electric psychedelic folk-rock in nearly one bound on "Sunshine Superman." Originally titled "For John and Paul" in honor of the Beatles' principal singer-songwriters, it portrayed a protagonist as indestructible and omniscient as the Beatles themselves were regarded by this time. Bongos, booming bass, harpsichord, and scorching electric guitar swoops by then-session man Jimmy Page gave supercharged force to Donovan's new persona as super-suave avatar of good vibes. Hot on its heels was another hippie manifesto, "Mellow Yellow," which made #2 in 1966 and incited more experimental banana-peel smoking than any old wives' tale could. Just as "Eight Miles High" had wholly unshackled the Byrds from lingering suspicions that they wouldn't have gotten anywhere without Dylan's repertoire, so did "Sunshine Superman" finally lay to rest accusations that Donovan was a mere Dylan imitator. Donovan Leitch was now lord of his own realm, a magical fairyland-type kingdom that reached back to the prehistoric Celtic past and forward to a brilliant future, allowing for some harsh blasts of reality from time to time.

    The Sunshine Superman album, also released in 1966 (and begun in late 1965), was a keystone of both folk-rock and early psychedelia in its spinning wheel of musical colors and moods. At heart, Donovan was still a folk minstrel, with his odes to long-lost medieval fiefdoms ("Guinevere"), Ferris wheels, and three king fishers. But there were also cynical, hard-edged takes on the trendy exploitation of the burgeoning hippie counterculture ("Season of the Witch") and the breakneck pace of Sunset Strip ("The Trip"); swinging jazz-blues on "Bert's Blues," its title inspired by the great British folk-blues guitarist Bert Jansch; dreamy meditations on a mysterious psychedelic guru, "The Fat Angel" **(written for Cass Elliot),** which namechecked Jefferson Airplane long before that upcoming California folk-rock group became famous; and "Celeste," which was simply one of the most delicate, enchanting romantic songs in all of folk-rock, one that evoked a mythical muse rather than a real-life woman. At various points, the folk-based tunes were embroidered with sitars, violins, horns, crackling blues-rock guitar, tinkling harpsichords, and buzzing organs. Arranger John Cameron, producer Mickie Most, and sidemen like Shawn Phillips were instrumental to the beauty of the final work. But Donovan's songs and benign, breathy vocals were always the focal points.

    "I wanted a pop sensibility in my records which would appeal to the mass, and introduce my unique vocals and lyrics of a curious call to adventure," Donovan explains. "Mickie was the best pop producer around [Most also worked with the Animals, Herman's Hermits, and Lulu], and he saw immediately I needed an arranger of experimental talent. Shawn Phillips particularly was my sideman for the fusion of the sitar and my music; Shawn also is an excellent 12-string player. Mickie would choose the singles, and I would explore the albums with John. Like mini-movies, each song took the listener into the strange world I create in my art." A long time before Sgt. Pepper made film score arrangements to Beatle songs, Sunshine  Superman was doing it in my Abbey Road sessions I did with Mickie Most and John Cameron, in the same Studio One the Beatles would use for their coming masterpieces." In fact Donovan recalls Most asking him not to play Sunshine Superman to McCartney in advance of its release, fearing that the Beatles might be influenced by some of its ideas, though "of course I did.

    "There were folk purists who would not dream of plugging a banjo into an amp, let alone a guitar, [as] I did on Sunshine Superman in May of 1966. It would take Dylan and me to break the mold that year -- he with direct blues-gospel-soul organ and electric guitar, me with my Celtic-rock guitar fusion: electric violins, classical instruments, and Latin-rock-jazz grooves."

    "We decided that a change of style and appearance was necessary to start with," said Most of the Sunshine Superman era in 1968 in Record Mirror. "Off went the cap, jeans, jacket and harmonica in favor of more varied clothes. We continued the acoustic guitar sound, but gave Donovan more scope in available backings. The first session was really a sight. There were flowers and incense distributed throughout the studio, odd characters with zapata moustaches sprawled majestically in all corners of the room and Don right in the center. This was years before the San Francisco scene began [Most was exaggerating somewhat; Jefferson Airplane were already recording by this time and were only a year or so away from their first American hits], so these fellows were somewhat ahead."

    "My influence with Don is that I would play the guitar, and create a set of chord structures," says Phillips, who had already recorded a couple of folk albums of note in Britain as an expatriate American folk singer, and would go on to create his own eclectic body of work, though mostly after the 1960s. "I would be playing, and he'd start making up words. This happened five or six times. 'Guinevere,' 'Fat Angel,' 'Season of the Witch,' 'King Fishers,' that's the way they came about. Don sort of worked pretty much like I do. I have a basic structure, and then I go to the different people and say, 'Here's my vision. Now put your vision to it.' Because I only used absolutely the best players I could find, I trust their judgement implicitly. It was due to the producer and the arranger that a lot of those tunes turned out the way they did. Also, you know, they were definitely going for a commercial market. I have exactly the opposite problem. I keep going in the studio and going, 'Man, we gotta get commercial.' And it turns out so fucking esoteric. But I love it, so I leave it."

    Donovan would never make another album as consistent as Sunshine Superman. But it did establish the format he would explore in various shades throughout the rest of the 1960s: gentle, optimistic minstrelsy, embellished by imaginative florid production, sometimes leaving the songs to stand alone as acoustic works, other times unleashing some ferocious psychedelic hard rock guitars. Some revisionist critics have come down hard on his work, dismissing him as a doe-eyed innocent whose philosophies were not nearly as pertinent and enduring as those of the more hard-nosed, skeptical songwriters. It is important to realize, however, that not only is that stereotype inaccurate (as listening to "Season of the Witch" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man" verifies), but that at the time, Donovan was considered very much a big deal, revered almost on the level of Dylan. He ate up more ink than almost anyone else in the British music weeklies, which gave the impression of a Renaissance man of the counterculture.

    According to various reports in the last half of the 1960s, Donovan was writing music for a modern psychedelic love ballet, with choreography by Toni Basil (yes, the same woman who would have a bubblegum new wave hit with "Micky" 15 years later). Donovan was writing the script and entire musical score for a film in which he was to star, playing the role of a wandering minstrel, with Paul McCartney likely to make a guest appearance. Donovan was being invited to write the music and narration for a film about the Maharishi. Donovan wanted to do vaudeville in a West End Theater, with "a combination of musicians with me which would enable me to get virtually any sound which I wanted" (reported Record Mirror). Donovan was playing with a 28-member orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall. Donovan was everywhere. All the while he kept on scoring Transatlantic hits, with "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," "There Is a Mountain," "Jennifer Juniper," "Hurdy Gurdy Man," "Epistle to Dippy," and "Atlantis." And not everyone gave automatic precedence to Dylan's more misanthropic outings of the period, some finding in Donovan a more humanistic prophet. As Graham Nash, then of the Hollies, told NME in 1966, "Donovan's new compositions to me excel Dylan's because Don has this tremendous ability to transmit tenderness and kindness through his work."

    Donovan's reputation suffered somewhat in his homeland due to a complicated contractual/management dispute that found him unable to release any records during the first half of 1966. Unusually, "Sunshine Superman" (and the attendant album) were cleared for American release by the summer, but the singer remained unable to put out records in Britain until December 1966, by which time "Sunshine Superman" had already topped and left the American charts. "Sunshine Superman" did make #2 in the UK nonetheless, but both the Sunshine Superman (some of which had actually been recorded in Hollywood) and Mellow Yellow LPs were chopped up for piecemeal British consumption. (This was a reversal of the usual practice, where British LPs where chopped up for piecemeal consumption in America.) So fast was rock music on the move in late 1966 and early 1967 that the delay in release of some of his best material in the UK created the misleading impression in Britain that Donovan was following trends, rather than helping to set them.

    As a consequence Donovan's innovations were not properly appreciated in the UK, and he'd always be more popular in the States. "A man or woman is always treated with more respect outside his or her own land," he speculates. "I was appreciated in the States better than anywhere. It is known that to make it in the USA is to be truly arrived, as the varied eclectic musical tastes of America have trained American audiences to be very aware of what's really innovative, and what's derivative and shallow."

    "There is a simple answer to this," states Donovan when asked why so few of his British acoustic folk peers followed him into full-blown folk-rock. "In the States, Roger McGuinn was influenced by the Beatles and his own folk roots. McGuinn did not play the electric as an amplified acoustic. This allowed him to use electric guitar in a powerful way, while the fewer UK folk stars who went electric used the electric guitar as an amplified acoustic. I was the exception as I also heard what the Beatles had done in breaking the pop band mold in 1963, and the Kinks and the Who. I was not shy in developing a power-riff Celtic-rock fusion, while most other UK folk stars were not into raising the level like McGuinn and I would naturally do.

    "It is also true that to leave behind a tradition is a bold act, and the American folk-rock stars were brave enough to try it out and act the rock star with folk commitment. The radio is our friend, [but] many folk purists still had an aversion to governmental institutions, a kind of class consciousness that prevented them from actually leaving the folk club in their head and storming the establishment citadels to take over the radio media. Americans, with their revolutionary past, could do just this, and I did in Europe. It is a question of boldness and expression."

There's much more on Donovan and 1960s folk-rock from all over North America and the British Isles inTurn! Turn! Turn: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution.

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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