A couple of my erstwhile acquaintances have recently been bad-mouthing Donovan, and them’s fighting words for me. Yeah, yeah, I know, hippie-dippie, limpid, Dylan wannabe, yadda-yadda. They know not of what they speak. Donovan Leitch is one fine artist, with an admirably muscular aesthetic that his maligners would easily recognize if they’d just lay aside their preconceptions for a moment and listen to the right music.
The “Rolling Stone Record Guide” says, “Listening to Donovan’s albums is like being consigned to relive the most insipid parts of the Sixties. Pretentious falderal.” Gee, he should listen to the music before he writes. And if he did, he should stop writing.
I wrote a very similar lament about the very widespread misapprehension of James Taylor, so many people judging him by his Greatest Hits. Why would anyone let the record companies choose what songs of an artist to listen to? Okay, I do so on occasion for initial exposure, but I certainly wouldn’t stop there, not with a serious artist. Donovan may not be an artist of JT’s breadth, depth or stature, but there’s some stunning stuff beyond the best-known dozen.
Donovan Leitch (b. 1946, Glasgow) broke onto the charts in 1965 as ‘the British Dylan’, with some very fine sensitive-soft acoustic neo-folk hits, ‘Catch the Wind‘, ‘Colors’. But even on his first two LPs, the gems were hidden underneath these hits. Try ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, a dreamy jazz/folk amalgam years ahead of its time. (For extra credit, this also beautiful stripped down live solo treatment.)
Then came the two big hits, ‘Sunshine Superman‘ and ‘Mellow Yellow’, each of them charming or annoying, depending on your mood (or State Of Mind, as it were). For me, the charm certainly wore off by the 3-millionth listen.
Not so with the LPs that spawned them. “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” each contains ten songs, with nary a dud among them. Both are beautiful, intelligent, solid and memorable. Both are drug-inspired, but there’s not a vapid, self-indulgent note in either. Each song is finely crafted, with a hard core of intelligent artistry.
After these two albums Donovan went on to record more hits (‘There Is a Mountain’, ‘Lalena’, ‘Atlantis’), and then to wallow through decades consigned to the periphery. But he did some fine, fine work, and deserves to be remembered for that.
Much of the credit for the sheer beauty of the sound of “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” must go to producer Mickie Most. I’m not usually one to rave about studioship, but the recording here is a work of art in itself. Every instrument, every sound, is a pleasure to listen to – especially Donovan’s acoustic guitar itself. The sitar is employed far more convincingly than any contemporary, including George Harrison. Strings and brass embellish the palette with the greatest of restraint and the finest of taste. The acoustic bass and brushed drums are often employed even on the grittier cuts, providing an utterly entrancing mix of jive and resonance. (Give a listen to how ‘Sunshine Superman‘ mixes acoustic and electric sounds so effectively.) Admittedly, these are sounds created in and for a marijuana cloud. But they stand just as tall and proud in the clear light of day, over half a century later.
Take for example ‘House of Jansch’, a tribute to folk/jazz legend Bert Jansch (pronounced ‘Yansh’), partner of John Renbourne in Pentangle.
It’s based on a fun, off-beat acoustic guitar riff with a seventh jabbing you in the chest at the end of the sentence. The cast includes ye olde standup bass, percussion provided solely by brushes on cymbals, a flute or two and a saxophone, and what I think is a celeste, which is a keyboard version of the glockenspiel (but I’m not betting the family farm on that one.)
Don’t ask me what the song ‘means’, I have no idea. Just sit back, take a toke or not, and enjoy the trip.
For your further listening edification:
From the sitarish, trip-drenched “Sunshine Superman’: the seemingly carefree ‘Ferris Wheel‘ (with the warning “Take time and tie your pretty hair, the gypsy driver doesn’t care if you catch your hair in the ferris wheel’); the hippie-hipster ‘Bert’s Blues‘, ultra-cool but replete with baroque strings, appears on “The Queen’s Gambit”soundtrack. Or even one of the weaker cuts, the soon-to-be standard (Kooper-Bloomfield-Stills Super Session, Vanilla Fudge, Brian Auger) ‘Season of the Witch‘.
From the brassier and brasher “Mellow Yellow”: the allegory-laden ‘Three King Fishers‘ (the bongo/sitar/violin/acoustic guitar combination in the break is worth the price of admission), (For extra credit: coool live version); “, the naked, harrowing ‘Young Girl Blues‘; the recreation of a trip in minor in ‘Sand and Foam‘.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree
Swaying in a summer breeze,
You’ll never change what has to be.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.
Sometimes I don’t know what I said till I did,
I want to be the father of your kid.
Dragonfly he sleeps till dawn,
I knew I’d be here when love has gone.
Crystal ball is what I wish for you,
Get it straight, I love the both of you.
Someone’s goin’ through a cold turkey.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.
I give your baby a contact high
I love another is what I sigh -ha-
Looks like rain, I do declare,
Your baby wants to take my chocolate eclair.
I couldn’t cry, I could not laugh,
Incident about a silken scarf.
I know what a jealous trip can be.
Girl ain’t nothing but a willow tree.
I’ll concede that Donovan has not often been taken seriously, but for me, listening to his music is more nostalgia than inspiration. I’m sorry, that’s the effect it has on me. Kind of like hearing Colin Blunstone or something by Blood, Sweat and Tears. Thanks for the ‘trip’ down memory lane, though (pardon the expression).
Yeah Jeff, try to tell people about Donavan… Might as well try to catch the wind.
Kol HaKavod Jeff for standing up for Donavan. You didn’t mention his amazing minimalist folk album. “A Gift from a Flower to a Garden”.
I prefer these two by a long shot, but there are some really nice moments on that one, as far as I remember. But that’s going a loooooooong way back. These two have stayed with me all the years.
Yes, Americans tend to block out cultural influences that don’t originate in America,
hence Donovan is not taken seriously by Dylan fanatics,
and most people don’t realize that the fine guitar licks Paul Simon played in the mid 60’s were influenced by the the likes of Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and even Donovan.
I still cherish those old LPs of Donovan’s early work – he did some ragtime blues numbers in those days (Blind Boy Fuller’s Keep On Truckin Mama for example).
I loved Donovan’s “Josie”, “To Sing For You”, and “Why Do You Treat Me Like You Do” – classic young-man-deep-in-love songs.
This will sound like sacrilege to all the Dylan die-hards, but Donovan actually has a much sweeter and clearer voice and nicer guitar playing than Dylan.
So there, I’ve said it, now you can stone me in public…
by the way, the Glockenspiel is just an older form of a xylophone,
but a celeste is a keyboard instrument that may sound like a Glockenspiel, but has a much larger range and is played sort of like an organ.
Nah, you’re ok. Nobody ever maintained that Dylan’s guitar playing is sweet. It’s competent at best. There’s a pirate recording of Donovan and Sir Paul playing together. Someone noted interestingly that while Paul was a much more versatile and accomplished musician, Donovan was a better acoustic guitarist.
I came across your post on Donovan. Thank you. I just wanted to add ‘Open Road’ is a very fine album.
Try “HMS Donovan”, the Children’s Album. Some very fine guitar playing there and beautifully dark interpretations of nursery rhymes. A masterly performance, greatly over-looked!
When I was a teen, Donovan’s Mellow Yellow album was a real mind blower. The way it merged, folk, jazz and classical elements was something. I’d give pianist John Cameron, who did many of the arrangements, more credit than producer Mickie Most.
Thank you for this. I loved Donovan’s music from the beginning. Around 1971-2 “HMS Donovan” was sent to us in Canada by my mother-in-law in England who was also a fan. My little girls were raised on it. Background music to their childhood.
Donovan was meteoric in his advent and his burnout. Thrown like a star indeed. It appears that someone induced him to exile himself from Great Britain at the height of his popularity in order to improve his tax status, and being so young and sensitive he wound up in a kind of collapse– I believe he called it a “gentle breakdown”– and never recovered his full creative powers. He published an autobiography, terribly edited (it says “Norman wisdom” for “Norman Wisdom”), called The Hurdy-Gurdy Man. It covers his early years and explains why he’s mad about saffron among other interesting details. And there’s a further autobiographical volume which as far as I know is available only as an e-book.
I totally agree with Your praise of Donovan’s music. Unfortunately, the commercial “hits” deflect from the slew of masterpieces he has left behind. When I got the Fairy Tale record in the 60’s he lead me to Bert Jansch, Renbourne, Davy Graham and everything else I still cherish as a musician ( largely influenced by folk and jazz) and a listener. Just now digging the Vince Guaraldi take on Sunny Goodge street. I give up on turning people on to the essential great Donovan pieces because they have set up a mental; roadblock. Thank You for your words here….