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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


A very good friend and correspondent of this humble blog gets particularly excitable around the question of the greatest year in pop music and swears blind that it should be 1977 - his case revolves around the emergence of Punk, the domination of Disco and the first deep bass rumblings of mainstream reggae with a smattering of classic and yacht rock. His contention is that it is the year the 70s woke up after a post-Glam mid-decade slump.

It's a beguiling argument.

I honestly think that if you are a record fan of any description you find the greatest year to be one around the time you turn 17. So in my case, that's 1983 and there is barely a chart entry with which I am not familiar nor a Top Of The Pops performance I cannot recall. I played "The Luxury Gap", "Synchronicity", "Let's Dance" "Fantastic" and "The Hurting" to death on my cassette player and at the end of the year I had certainly purchased "This Charming Man" and been to see the same band at the Newcastle Mayfair. There was even a new Stones album but even to this day I don't play "Undercover" very often. Oh and there was "Thriller" of course.

What a time - but was it the greatest? It certainly has some of my favourite memories but I doubt the serious critics would say so.

David Hepworth is a writer I have referred to before and I recommend all of his books to you as well-researched and wonderfully incisive - particularly on genres and artists for which I have great affection. However, one of his books is called "1971 - Never A Dull Moment. Rock's Greatest Year" and fascinating though it is, a reliance on too many progressive rock albums leaves me a little cold - there was, of course, much to enjoy in his sturdy defence.

Another of the most enjoyable books I have had the pleasure to read on the subject is Jon Savage's mighty "1966 - The Year The Decade Exploded" and I think he might have got it just about right. Full disclosure I was born almost slap bang in the middle of that year and, coincidentally, Savage asserts that it really is the major pivot point of the sixties.

He has a point I think.

At the beginning of the year, The Beatles were #1 with "Rubber Soul" and "Day Tripper" and, still being primarily considered a beat group as such, planning their next tour; by the end, they had quit touring and were working on "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" as part of their new studio-bound existence. All of this with the mold-breaking "Revolver" in the middle.

And that's without "Aftermath", "Pet Sounds", "Blonde On Blonde" and Motown's first UK number one "Reach Out I'll Be There" (The Supremes had been released on Stateside for all my fellow anoraks). And right at the end of December, Jimi Hendrix brings out his first single.

Although Time magazine released their "Swinging London" issue in April 1966, by the end of the year, though the wide-eyed tourist kids were still visiting in their droves, California and the West Coast had really averted itself as the centre of youth culture.

Interestingly, although 1967 is normally termed The Summer Of Love with Haight Ashbury in San Francisco as its epicentre, by the time the media had caught on, that scene, like London, had already been usurped. George Harrison had a famously disillusioning trip there.

The "psychedelic" scene really starts earlier - back in 1966.

No record better sums up this year of two halves and the passing of the baton from the old world to the new than Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" album.

Now, Donovan is viewed as some kind of footnote in the history of pop music with a couple of hippy-trippy singles and yet his contribution is much under-rated. In the space of three years, he found himself in the very centre of two very significant musical events - Dylan's 1965 UK tour (the "Judas" one) and then in the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh with The Beatles, themselves, while they wrote the "White Album".

His influence on both is marked and that's without his own major contributions.

In Pennebaker's film account of Dylan's tour, Donovan is portrayed almost as his stalking horse. All the time, he is referred to as the 'new Dylan' and lauded for his more developed guitar-playing abilities. Dylan is obviously wound up by this labelling and there is a remarkably tetchy meeting between the two where they play songs for each other - Dylan pulling out all the stops for "It's All Over Now Baby Blue". Initially, nobody wanted any media or cameras there but despite its awkwardness it's a great piece of film. The rather awkward Donovan was only 18 at the time with only a couple of releases to his name.

Donovan was a very accomplished guitar player, having learned his skill from two folk greats John Renbourne (whose first album is magnificent) and Bert Jansch - celebrated in the album's "Bert's Blues". Their tradition was much more open in sharing techniques and so Donovan was happy to show his very best and most original chord changes to John Lennon and George Harrison whilst in India. George would later admit that Donovan was all over "The White Album" and you can here it in tracks like "Julia" and especially "Dear Prudence" whilst even George who never changed his style, still used some of the more melancholic chord changes for the classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".

Despite his career being only really a year old, Donovan had already reached something of a crossroads. After his initial breakthrough on 'Ready Steady Go' (championed in part by Brian Jones, no less and without a release in the first instance) and subsequent folk-laden hits with "Catch The Wind" and "Colours", the speed of change in the musical zeitgeist in 1965 meant that already he was looking a little out of touch - and still only a teenager!

A new management arrangement (with Allan Klein) and a new label introduced Donovan to producer Mickie Most, who had already found success with The Animals, Lulu and Hermans Hermits - a varied bag if ever there was one. He played his new producer a new song he had written - then at quite a slow folk-y tempo called "Sunshine Superman" and so began the story of what is acknowledged one of the first psychedelic albums.

Mickie Most knew that Donovan had star potential and saw much in his work but provided him with a canvas that allowed him to bring many of his influences into play. He had already

started to move away from the more simple Woody Guthrie derivations that you can witness in Pennebaker's film and had now branched out into bringing his experience in folk, jazz and blues clubs to bear.

But this was the Swinging Sixties and there were certainly other (more herbal) influences at play and this allowed Donovan to hark back also to his earlier dabbling with poetry. You can hear it in the rather monotonous "Legend For A Girl Child Linda" which can be explained as a real love ballad to Brian Jones's ex-girlfriend Linda Lawrence who had rather captivated the young singer - and four years later, after more than a few other dalliances he would marry.

Put that one down to a typically over-wrought teenage attempt to attract the attention of a new girlfriend.

However, the much purer "Guinevere" with its unusual intonations and vocal emphases could be mistaken for a medieval ballad updated for Swinging London. Whilst "Bert's Blues" is a very obvious and heartfelt tribute to his mentor Bert Jansch which although folkish in sentiment has a far more interesting sonic kaleidoscope backing to it than you might otherwise expect.

This is part of the beauty of this album is that it really is a snapshot of (in the first instance) London at its swingingest and the introduction of characters and textures that jumped straight out of the scene in which Donovan was very much a Pied Piper. The record becomes a melting pot of folk, blues, jazz and pop all sifted through a technicolour gauze thanks to Mickie Most's innovative production.

"Sunshine Superman" was not just a title track but the very sound of London in early 1966. Most produced the song at a much quicker tempo and added an acoustic but jazzy feel to it via his use of two basses - both acoustic and electric - which gives the memorable intro such a unique feel. Really this is an album where the bass has a lot of input in creating a new sound and panorama for all of Donovan's songs going forward.

However, just to spice it up there's also a beautifully poised guitar solo from the then-king of London session men, Jimmy Page. Indeed, it was working with Donovan that Page would link up with John Paul Jones several years before Led Zeppelin was formed.

However, having recorded the first half of the album at Abbey Road in London, Donovan took off to California to record the rest of the album. It's almost as if he picks up the 'scene's' shifting centre of gravity and magnetically conducts it westward. Musically, it uses an even broader palate, with harpsichords and sitars emerging throughout the record as Donovan hooks up with long-term collaborator, Shaun Phillips.

Having encapsulated London, Donovan set out to capture the spirit of the west coast too, way ahead of all of his other national contemporaries. He wrote "The Fat Angel" in honour (ironically) of Mama Cass Elliot who was regularly cited for her role as introductory hostess for so many visiting British musicians and had helped to make Donovan feel so special. But in this song not only do we hear of "happiness in a pipe" (Donovan never hid his use of drugs as would come back to bite him later in the year) but it also namecheck Jefferson Airplane a good year before they had broken through anywhere.

"The Trip" also picked up the West Coast vibe with its smoke-fuelled description of a night out at one of LA's most notorious clubs. However, the backing again emphasises the role of the bass in giving the record real effervescence with a walking blues line that the early Stones would have gladly used with some Pretty Things styled guitar attack. The lyrics are certainly the wrong side of naive with a lot of "poetic stuttering" but it just doesn't matter.

This is what Austin Powers would term as "groovy".

Finally, however, despite the optimism that is strewn across this record, the record takes a darker tone with another of its stand-out tracks "Season Of The Witch". It is as brooding and sinister as its name suggests.

Donovan recorded it with some local session musicians but it has the same tricks that have marked the rest of the album with the bass once more setting the pace until some more fiery guitar and some surprisingly blues-y vocals build to the crescendo of the chorus.

Its drama is often seen as a precursor to the rather unpleasant turn the psychedelic 60s were to take and its content has the same sense of foreboding as "The Eve Of Destruction" but far. more obtusely lyrical. However, the line "beatniks out to make it rich" certainly seemed to show his keen observation that the scene was changing and not necessarily for the better. One might have said he could have included himself but it is such a great record that I am more than prepared to excuse him.

Interestingly, around the time of the recordings, ITV decided to make a documentary film about the hottest of pop properties "A Boy Called Donovan" and thanks to some cajoling from the production crew (and the copious addition of alcohol) they managed to portray one of his 'parties' as the kind of an affair that would horrify Middle England. It also brought him to the attention of the infamous (and later disgraced) Sergeant Pilcher of Scotland Yard and he became the first of London's rock star drug busts.

Donovan is on record as believing that the song was prophetic of the turn of events that would beleaguer his comrades in rock. Right or wrong, there is no doubting the quality of the recording with its folk chord changes and full-on darkly psychedelic atmosphere.

Obviously, when heard out of context nowadays, a Donovan album might come across as nothing more than an interesting period piece. He can appear as the epitome of hippy-dippy flower power with his stoned nonsense poetry...

Unless, like me, you realise that his work and particularly his "Sunshine Superman" album is incredibly significant musically.

Firstly, there is the issue of its release because whilst the title track went to number one in the US and fell one place short in the UK, the release of the album in the UK was delayed for months as a result of legal wrangling over Donovan's label switch. Its eventual release in the following year was a synthesis of the American album (which I have reviewed here) and the follow-up "Mellow Yellow".

There is a wealth of sonic experimentation on this album thanks to the incorporation of so many differing styles and instrumentations. Sitars are used melodically and seamlessly - unlike their more laboured appearances in pop up until this point - whilst the bass effects would seem to borrow more from the RnB floorfiller catalogue than anywhere else.

Mickie Most was immensely proud of this album and its ability to push the musical boundaries in its production and hence Donovan's entire musical direction. Donovan tells a story of Mickie Most telling him not to play the album to his then regular drinking pal, Paul McCartney, knowing what musical magpies the Beatles had already proven to be.

Donovan of course ignored this advice - they were friends within the same crowd after all and George and Paul would supply the lawyer to help Donovan after his drug bust. But the spirit of experimentation that emerges on this album predates much of what you would come to hear in the following year from all manner of bands. The Beatles were of course already taking up a more experimental stance as "Revolver" would prove - Donovan inspired Paul to write the line "Sky of blue and sea of green".

My contention is that the first examples of this new kind of audio landscape are here on "Sunshine Superman" and all the former beat groups tried with very varied degrees of success to pick up on this - be it "Sgt Pepper", "Satanic Majesties" or even "Something Else By The Kinks".

I firmly believe that this delay in its release has diminished the role of "Sunshine Superman" in the history of 60s pop recordings and has been unfairly unshadowed because its release lost the power of the context of its original creation - and subsequently, its creator as well.

Interestingly, the same thing would happen again two releases later with the delay for "The Hurdy Gurdy Man" whose title track featuring Bonham, Jones and Page was one of the first really 'metal' sounding records. Again, others were able to leap into the space he created.

Whilst the album is full of "jingle jangle jesters" and "ravens that peep" if this had been put out by the Doors it would be feted as a counter-cultural classic. Listen again to "People Are Strange" with its slightly naive lyrics and tinkling honky tonk piano and imagine it sung by Donovan - I'm not kidding.

Its most interesting aspect however, is as a pivot between the exciting scenes of both London and California, which nobody can argue were two of the most evocative and influential centres of pop history. To swing, you need to be able to keep up a constant rhythm in opposing directions and if the 60s were so swinging then this is an album (listen HERE) that is absolutely central to that.

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Nov 29, 2020

Well, it so happens my 17th year was 1966, so who am I to disagree?

Very thoughtful piece about an artist who has indeed been underrated. Partly, I suspect, for the same reasons that his albums were always being delayed due to legal disputes over labels and rights: he was an awkward bugger!

An old Southend musical mate of mine called Peter Eden discovered Donovan playing in a Southend folk club, signed him and produced his early work including Catch the Wind. But Donovan soon dropped him, going on to fall out with many more in the business (although I won't hold falling out with Mickey Most against him, everybody did).

All this is not to minimise his pioneering spirit…

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