Classic Music Review: Sunshine Superman by Donovan

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My readers know that I’ve often expressed the wish that I had timed my birth so I could have hit the legal drinking age in the 1960’s. My image of the 60’s is one of liberation on multiple fronts, people fucking with abandon, the greatest explosion of creativity in the history of popular music and no goddamned smoking restrictions! I have a DVD of 1,001 television commercials, so I know for a fact that everyone in the 60’s was walking around smiling and showing off their Lark packs or proudly wearing black eyes for refusing to switch from Tareytons. I’ve always thought that the 60’s would be a perfect environment for someone with my carpe diem attitude and unimaginably free spirit.

After listening to Sunshine Superman, I’m rethinking my position.

Where Dylan goeth, Donovan shall follow, so now he’s got a rock band backing him up. Where The Beatles leadeth, Donovan shall follow, so the album is loaded with sitars. If he had used the rare opportunity of a public open to new musical possibilities to expand musical boundaries (like The Yardbirds, The Beach Boys, Love and so many others did in 1966), I’d have a different take on the album, but the truth is these are largely very dull, simple songs dressed up in funny instruments and hippie regalia. The best songs on the album are elementary three-chord patterns, no more complex than “Louie, Louie.” Even worse, some of the songs are pathetic examples of pandering to the hippie movement and embarrassing episodes of name-dropping in an effort to show the hippies how cool, hip, groovy, out of sight and in-the-know Donovan had become.

It worked. What Mickie Most had done for Herman’s Hermits, he did for Donovan. The single made it to #1 in the states and the U. S. album sold well, proving that even those who had tuned out and dropped out were still susceptible to effective marketing tactics.

My readers also know that my father manipulated me into reviewing two Donovan albums when I was under the influence of the grape. Lots of grapes. I’m now at that uncomfortable point in the process where I realize that I can’t blame him anymore and that getting myself into this mess was my own damned fault.

Fuck! Okay, let’s get this over with.

Let me start with a positive comment. Sunshine Superman is the perfect soundtrack for a hippie-themed soirée as long as you play it in deep background and prevent your guests from attempting to make sense of the lyrics by feeding them plenty of Alice B. Toklas brownies. The patchouli-scented women can dress in headbands and beads and the guys can wear paisley Nehru jackets, moccasins and eau de hashish until the time comes to strip and get down to the love-in.

Translation: it’s a relic that belongs in the Smithsonian basement.

The title track opens the album. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are listed in the credits, a bit of recognition I hope they find thoroughly embarrassing. If that’s Page on the lead solo, it’s the worst thing  he ever did. “Sunshine Superman” is a catchy song but certainly nothing special unless you lived during that period and it formed part of your summer soundtrack. The lyrics are peppered with period clichés (“tripped out” and “blow your little mind”) and a couple of references to superheroes. Yawn. At least the lyrics express a coherent and ebullient expression of love for future wife Linda . . . but if a guy had sung these lyrics for me, I would have laughed him right out of the bedroom. “And take your piece of shit guitar with you,” I would have shouted as his bony ass disappeared through the beaded curtains.

Donovan’s love for Linda takes a medieval turn in the tortuously boring “Legend of a Girl Child Linda.” The only value of this song is in its possible use as a lullaby, because it can put even the most extreme insomniac to sleep in less than a minute. The lyrics primarily consist of absurd combinations of visual effects. The first verse:

I will bring you gold apples and grapes made of rubies
That have shone in the eyes of a prince of the breeze
Bright cascading crystals, they danced in the sand dunes
On the beach of no footprints to harpsichord tunes

There’s absolutely zero poetic discipline or Keats’ negative capability in these lyrics: they’re a goulash of shiny baubles with no meaning. How do you eat a grape made of rubies? What’s a prince of the breeze? Wouldn’t the roar of the ocean drown out an unamplified instrument like the harpsichord? It gets worse. Completely oblivious to the concept of cruelty to animals, Donovan sings proudly of “a throne of white ivory.” Later, another fucking seagull appears (see my review of Fairytale for my comments on this despicable image) and children dance and scratch their heads . . . either because they’re entirely confused as to what the fuck Donovan is singing about or because they’re trying to get the seagull poop out of their hair. This self-indulgent mess goes on for almost seven minutes!

I knew it wouldn’t take long for the raga dudes to show up, and sure enough, a sitar accompanies Donovan’s vocal on “Three King Fishers.” Still fascinated with baubles, he gives us the inexplicable line: “Oh, I dreamed you were a jewel/Sitting on golden crown on my head, my head, my head.” I think he should have seen a shrink about that dream. Predictably, Donovan expands the predictable melody with a touch of Indian dissonance, giving the song an aura of mystical meaning. Not a bad idea, since there is no meaning in the lyrics.

Magicians call that technique “sleight of hand.”

“Ferris Wheel” is sort of a faux Caribbean-Indian tune with bizarre lyrics that tell of his girl getting her hair caught in the ferris wheel. Ouch! His comforting words for the girl are anything but comforting:

Far off as it seems your hair will mend
With a Samson’s strength to begin again.
Take time and dry your pretty eyes,
Watch the seagull fly far-off skies
To build its nest in the ferris wheel on top.

Enough with the fucking seagulls already! I leave this song with horrid images of the poor girl with a bleeding scalp in the comforting arms of a devilishly grinning Donovan. Yuck.

“Bert’s Blues” is the bluesy-jazzy song on the album, completely ruined by the incredibly poor decision to spice it up with a harpsichord. Yes, that famous blues-jazz instrument, the harpsichord! Donovan threw in one or two of these songs on every album; this one’s reminiscent of the earlier “Cuttin’ Out” at first, then turns into “Sunny Goodge Street” with cellos in the middle. The fucking seagull shows up about halfway through, a string quartet (or approximation thereof) pops in with no particular place to go, and Lucifer makes a guest appearance on his way to Hades. All the marijuana in the world couldn’t save this turkey.

Finally (thank God!) we get to “Season of the Witch,” easily the best track on the album with its blessedly uncomplicated arrangement and excellent groove. The lyrics aren’t much in terms of meaning or significance, but they work with the feel and are a kick to sing. I’ve seen the song criticized for having only two chords (no, a third chord appears in the chorus), but that’s like criticizing a blues song for sticking to a twelve bar pattern. The song has been covered a billion times, but Donovan’s version holds up surprisingly well in comparison. Listening to it made me wonder what he might have become if he’d explored his R&B side a bit more instead of becoming a flower in the garden; “Hey Gyp” was a pretty good song, too (though I like Eric Burdon’s take better).

Oh well, that didn’t happen because Donovan just had to be the hippest of the hipsters. The horribly lame “The Trip” allegedly describes an acid trip in LA, but his references to Fellini and “Bobby” Dylan tell me he made the whole thing up. Further evidence is the jarring inclusion of a verse of medieval images, which tells me he had some song fragments lying around and decided to throw them together to create a psychedelic stew. This loser is followed by full-blown indulgence in his medieval fantasies in “Guinevere.” Here (as he did on Fairytale) he substitutes colors for thought (maroon, indigo, white) and paints a rather incomplete image of the lady in question. I should add that at this stage, his manipulation of syllable accents is becoming quite tiresome. I cringe every time he sings “foreboDING skies.” Was he attempting a bit of onomatopoeia to emulate a bell? Why not use a real one? This phonic manipulation would become a common Donovanian stylistic choice in the future, another indication of a poor lyricist who lost his copy of Roget’s.

The most offensive song in the lot is “The Fat Angel,” where Donovan practically begs for a place in the pantheon of hippie heroes. Once you get past more accent manipulation (“consenTING”) and irrelevant use of color (why a silver bike?), you find a song full of gratuitous drug references (“happiness in a pipe,” “blow your mind,” “Captain High at your service”) written by a trend-seeking missile (“Fly Trans-Love Airways,” “Fly Jefferson Airplane”). Donovan said he had Mama Cass Elliot in mind when he wrote the song, but since there’s no mention in the lyrics of a disgusting fat broad who made no meaningful contribution to music whatsoever, I have to conclude that this another example pandering to the trendy.

Dad, if you ask me to review a Mamas and the Papas album, I’ll cut your frigging nuts off.

The album thankfully closes (hooray!) with “Celeste,” a song I adored when I was an innocent pre-pubescent. Sigh. Well, it’s still a pretty song and features one of the more coherent arrangements on the album, with celeste and harpsichord complementing the medievally-tinged story line. The medieval tinge is probably what fascinated me when I was a little girl (I thought I deserved to be a princess until my mother cleared that shit out of my head), but now I see how the Arthurian references detract from the main theme of expressing empathy for someone going through a difficult period of change. What could have been a moving piece of musical poetry (à la “Hey Jude”) is sapped of its power by too many Donovanian clichés: crystals, princesses, magic wands (but thankfully no fucking seagulls). There is one moment in the song where it sounds like he might be getting sick and tired of the fantasy he’s peddling:

There’s no magic wand in a perfumed hand,
It’s a pleasure to be true.

Unfortunately, that proves to be wishful thinking, as he follows that couplet with more fairytale fluff:

In my crystal halls a feather falls
Being beautiful just for you.

“Celeste” is still a keeper, though, and a nice way to end this medieval relic of an album.

Donovan was likely extremely gratified when Peter, Paul and Mary mentioned him in the same verse with The Beatles in “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” their hopelessly corny attempt to show they were still relevant. They mentioned Mama Cass, too, the poor dumb bastards. Anyway, my whole take on Donovan is that when the schoolmaster told him, “Leitch, be a leader not a follower,” his brain reversed the word order. That’s probably why it took him so long to get into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, an institution known for its exceptionally low entry standards.

This ends my brief (not brief enough) fling with Mr. Leitch. I will not do Mellow Yellow (and “Sunny South KensingTON”), the pretentious A Gift from a Flower to the Garden, The Hurdy Gurdy Man (tip: you can imitate his voice on the title track by jiggling your belly with your fingers just below the diaphragm while singing), Barabajagal or whatever the fuck he did after that. I have fulfilled my obligation to my father and have maintained my status as an honorable woman. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Oh, one more thing . . .

Peace!

11 responses

  1. […] Donovan, Sunshine Superman […]

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  2. Ha ha ha!!!! Funny stuff!!! I don’t hate Donovan, I like a couple of songs, but I always find the reviews on his stuff hilarious, and yours was particularly funny. Keep up the good work!!!!!

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  3. Splat!

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  4. Was there a restaurant where producers like the late Mickie Most and Don Kirshner
    Killed time, like sharks looking to feed off the next not so talented musical act ?

    Altrockchick is spot on pointing the way to this nexus of thin reedy talent , money and
    Marketing ….

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  5. As I promised in my last response to you on the Village Greene Preservation review, I have read your Donovan review here. Let me say, I am immediately impressed by someone who can use Keats’ wonderful “negative capability” in an appropriate context — hell, I’m impressed by anyone who can refer to Keats’ letter at all! I think there needs to be an article written on pop lyricism in the 60s and negative capability. With that said, Donovan rarely works in negative capability. I agree that “Season of the Witch” is a great song, which is followed by the ubiquitous and, hence, lame “here I am arriving on the hippy scene and meeting all the hippy kings and queens while stoned” of “The Trip.” (Although I like the idea of the whole wide world being on benzedrine.) Supposedly Donovan claimed the song “Sunshine Superman” was his psychedelic response to the Beatles boy-girl songs. I don’t know how on earth the Beatles tolerated his presence!! At least Lennon bitched about him a lot. The Girlchild Linda, or whatever the title is, is an atrocious song. The ONLY thing I like about the song is the split second opening burst of strings. “Berts Blues” is just plain weird in a bad way, and a disgrace to blues, or lounge cool-cat music, or whatever. Why is Lucifer calling his legions? Why are seagulls calling their legions? Why are seagulls doing anything in his music?? I do like “Celeste,” sort of. Sort of. One song I do like by Donovan that might have redeemed some of this album is “Retired Writer in the Sun.” I like the melancholy waltz–I’m a sucker for melancholy waltzes–and some of the woebegone observations that remind me of bittersweet days I spend lying on the soft rocks by the water in Nice and looking wistfully at all the beautiful breasts. And “Epistle to Dippy” too, which I kind of like, particularly the fact that its found art of sorts – a letter he wrote to a friend, although, as usual the song is marred by horrible images of monks sitting on misty mountain tops. Except for the atrocious first and last songs, I think his Wear Your Love Like Heaven album is sweet and understated – give it a whirl. He reduces the instrumentation and the bombast. Its tolerable. The second album for children is hideous – and I find it hard to believe that any child would listen to thirty seconds of it. I’ll put it this way – I think Donovan missed a big opportunity not going the route of “Sunny Goodge Street,” which is a pretty good song, good instrumentation, fairly good lyrics, and wasteland sort of landscape that doesn’t topple over into crystal balls, magicians, feathers, and innocent children who are the wise ones who, for some reason, like seagulls. My feeling is that Donovan’s literary education began and ended with reading Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps up When I See a Rainbow in the Sky,” and then he built his career entirely around what he horribly misread as a simple “statement” in that poem, and was too lazy to continue and read “Intimations of Immortality,” the real great poem by Wordsworth. That is my final assessment of Donovan. He entered as England’s possible answer to Dylan, ALMOST made it his own with “Sunny Goodge Street,” and then went ass over teakettle into the most embarrassing excesses of psychedelia. Amen.

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    1. My parents always treated me like a little adult, so I was fairly well-versed in classical and modern literature before I went to college. I really went off on negative capability in my review of Sinead O’Connor’s last album, as she’s a classic example of an artist who consistently ruins her music with excessive emotion about a cause or some other bullshit in her head.

      Love the song “Writer in the Sun,” and “Sunny Goodge Street” was definitely the direction Donovan should have taken. I’m a bit more forgiving in the “Fairytale” review, which, curiously enough opens in Nice. That’s where my parents live now and where I’m trying to steer my career.

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  6. A very funny and devastatingly accurate summation of not just this album, but Donovan as a whole. I can only tolerate two songs by him – the title track and the later “Hurdy Gurdy Man” since for once his bizarre staccato warbling comes off thanks to it being an OK song and a beefy sounding band behind him.

    Whilst there’s no denying he was – and remains – a one man hippy cliche factory, I do give him some credibility marks for the title track which was slightly ahead of it’s time when he recorded it in December 1965 at Abbey Road. Had it been released then, history would had been a little kinder to him as he was being hippy dippy ahead of everyone else BUT legal hassles meant that he was unable to release anything for nearly a year so by the time it came out in the UK, 1966 was almost over so Donovan found himself OF the time instead of ahead of it. “Hurdy” apart, practically everything that came after “Sunshine” was full of shit. I don’t rate “Season Of The Witch” at all… just drones on and on for me. I’m glad he DIDN’T explore R+B any further… he dropped a major clanger at the 1965 NME Pollwinners Awards gig when he came on with a band and went into some long dreary R+B monotony that bored everyone to tears and wondering why they’d voted for him as being the best new act in town.

    One big mystery – why wasn’t he at Woodstock? He’d have fitted in perfectly amongst the mud sodden bullshit and just imagine what might had been had he teamed up with John Sebastian… Donovan and Sebastian, now that’s a marriage made in Hell which could had given us an ARC review the world would never forget!

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    1. I would have died of toxic shock before finishing that review.

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  7. This review supports my decision to NOT buy any Donovan albums. I considered it at one time because I like most of his hits, but when I’ve youtubed album tracks by him I’ve been disappointed. However, I do enjoy occasionally listening to the Donovan compilation that I own, a two-CD set called Troubadour. Obviously that would not work for you because you don’t even like his hits, but others might be interested.

    I think Donovan has a good voice, is basically likable, wrote some good melodies, and dressed his songs up with some clever and effective arrangements. The hippie dippy stuff can get way too silly, no doubt about it, and I think you are right that Donovan was more of a follower than a leader. At one point I was excited when I realized that a song on my compilation called “Maria Magenta” includes a lead vocal by Donovan that sounds just like Bryan Ferry. I thought I had discovered a precursor to Ferry’s unique singing style, but when I checked the dates I learned that Donovan’s song came out one year AFTER the first Roxy Music album. There is another Donovan song, though, called “Clara Clairvoyant,” that came out in 1970 and sounds like the T. Rex of Electric Warrior, which came out in 1971, so maybe Donovan was an influence there. Also, when Donovan was in India with the Maharishi he taught Paul McCartney and John Lennon the finger picking style that they used on “Blackbird” and “Julia.” That’s not nothing.

    In spite of his music being badly dated in some ways, Donovan does appear to have some cred with musicians who came along later. There have been lots of cover versions of his songs over the years.
    When I listen to my Donovan compilation, I feel like I have opened a time capsule from the 1960s or early 70s. Music that does not transcend its era is less valuable overall than the very best music from that era, but it is often more valuable as a historical artifact.

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    1. Yes, I’ve been pretty hard on Donovan, as much for his pretensions as for his music. He did not lack talent as much as judgment, and some of his musical ideas were interesting. I will give him credit for not sounding quite like anyone else, and as you pointed out, I think he did have some influence. Thank you again for your insightful comments.

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  8. Christopher McQuale | Reply

    Here’s the thing, if you come at something or someone with a particular bent, unable to see the forest for the trees, like the bit of nonsense about Donovan copying Dylan or the Beatles, maybe it suits your image of being a rough and tough, no pussy-footin around critic to say those things but it doesn’t give your assessment much credibility with a seasoned musicologist.
    I had a short discussion with Taj Mahal at the gala blues concert for the reopening of the Howard Theater in DC a few years back about who was influencing who when it came to slide guitar work between, his lead guitarist, Jesse Edwin Davis, and rhythm guitarist, Ry Cooder, on his first album “Taj Mahal” (1967) one of the greatest all-time albums in Blues genre). Ry having made such a name for himself as a phenomenal slide guitar player with Captain Beefheart, The Stones (listen to the soundtrack for the movie “Performance” starring Mick Jaeger), but mostly his own recordings, and then the Buena Vista Social Club (more as producer than musician). Taj was very clear on this subject. Jesse, who died young in his career, was an experienced guitarist who had played and toured with Conway Twitty for years all over, especially the southern part of the country. While there are always things that musicians and singers can learn from each other, Ry he believed got more out of the learning experience with Jesse. Things are not always what they seem.
    Folk music has its origin not in the United States but in the traditions of Scotland, Ireland, and England going back to the troubadour days and further, as well as other European influences. So again, Donovan runs away from home with his friend and travels around Scotland, England, and Ireland picking up songs and experiences along the way, so who is influencing whom. Sure we Americans have made it our own, and mixed it up with other musical traditions, like the blues and ballads, ethnic stuff. All the early folkies had similar influences. But the next thing you will be asserting is that Bert Jansch (whom Neil Young reportedly described as the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar) copied Dylan too. Maybe Clapton copied J.J. Cale and Jesse Edwin Davis, both whom he played with and whose phrasing sounds very similar, maybe we just blame in on Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers.
    The songs, Bert’s Blues and House of Jansch were both tributes to his friend and the girlfriends they vied for and whom he lived and played out with at the local cafes, along with Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band (maybe Williamson was copying Dylan too, as well as the Beatles with his and Mike Heron’s use of sitar. Those were the days when certain of us started traveling to Morocco, the Middle East, and India, staying in ashrams, listening to Eastern instruments, Ravi Shankar, and reading poetry and books by the Beats, Donovan was as much part of the Beat as the Hippie scene originally.
    Donovan didn’t arrange his own music, John Cameron did for Micky Most. Cameron was a classically trained/educated musician, arranger, and composer, keyboardist, piano, organ, and harpsichord. He is the one who played the jazz harpsichord in Bert’s Blues that you railed on, and it was and still is quite avantgarde to play jazz on what is clearly a baroque instrument, his use of woodwinds, blending with Eastern Music is completely unique. (You are so busy being negative, or narrow-minded in your musical tastes, that you miss all this.)
    When Jimmy Page sat in as studio musician with John Paul Jones and double-bassist, Danny Thompson (another mutual friend and calibrator with Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Pentangle), he was an unknown rhythm guitarist playing behind Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds after Clapton left. He was lucky to land the gig with the primitive almost nondescript lead he did on the popish “Sunshine Superman” and other songs on the album. (As it was, those albums didn’t give credit to any of the musicians at the time, that information came out decades later.)
    Dylan’s manager flat out admitted to him, after meeting with Donovan just before Dylan did, “Well. he plays guitar better than you!” Except for the early days where they were influenced by similar old school folky/bluesy singers and players, their music and temperaments are quite different, Dylan is more abstract, Donovan more psychedelic and dream state in their imagery. My parents had friends in the West Village and so I have been listening to Dylan (first) and then Donovan, as well as the Weavers, Burl Ives, etc, since they both came out. Dylan being four years older had at it for awhile longer. I don’t see how he couldn’t have been an influence on Donovan.
    Donovan touches on elements of life that I believe Dylan is too narcissistic to have been able to embarked upon. And you missed how Donovan uses his voice in a way that it almost perfectly mimics a bow on a cello.
    Hendrix’s whole look changed when he got to London, not just own way of expressing himself, but the ruffly clothing style of the period, Mary Quant, Mod and Rocker, flamboyant, effeminate, and wildly colorful. The movie “Wonderwall” that George Harrison produced the soundtrack for (one my favorite recordings). Depicts the Mod world that Hendrix fell into, and Donovan was also a part of this world, not Dylan. There is some speculation that he tried to get Hendrix to do the lead guitar work on “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, other’s suggested it was Jeff Beck, which I still suspect might be true, maybe even a more seasoned Jimmy Page, the technique itself being similarly flamboyant.
    The point is you missed a lot. It is one thing to not like a particular style of music or artist, it is another to feel the need to ridicule it without fully comprehending what was accomplished in it and what its contribution is both to the period and music in general.

    CMcQ

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