In 1966, a Scottish folkie with beatnik affectations suddenly morphed into a pop music pioneer, segueing from “Catch the Wind” to “Sunshine Superman” in what seemed a matter of minutes. Richie Unterberger explores how and why a “new Bob Dylan” emerged as an innovative and influential force on the music scene, ‘the original flower-power psychedelic troubadour’, with commentary by Donovan and Mickie Most, the producer who pulled off the remarkable switch.
Rock history is full of unexpected transformations, when an artist suddenly makes a leap into territory wholly surprising to the audience, and maybe even to the musicians themselves. It’s been happening since the beginning of rock itself, when Elvis Presley metamorphosized from the lugubrious ballad singer who auditioned for Sam Phillips to the rockabilly wildcat Phillips caught fooling around with “That’s Alright Mama” during a break in the studio. There’s Paul Simon, morphing from Brill Building hack to top folk-rocker. There’s Lou Reed, churning out surf and hot rod imitations for a budget exploitation label one year, and founding the Velvet Underground with John Cale the next. Even on a cult level, there’s Nico interpreting songs by others in an off-kilter Judy Collins baroque folk kind of way on her first album, yet re-emerging as a proto-goth blasting chilling harmonium-drone songs of her own creation the following year.
One of the quickest, most thrilling lightning journeys was undertaken by Donovan. In 1965, he was a beatnik folkie. In 1966, he was arguably the original flower-power psychedelic troubadour. How do you get from “Universal Soldier” and “Catch the Wind” to “Sunshine Superman” and “Season of the Witch” in a matter of months?
As with other giants who seemed to shift with the flick of a light switch, there’s no easy answer. But like other flips that might have seemed instantaneous—such as Bob Dylan’s own move from folk to electric rock—it wasn’t as quick and easy as it might have seemed. Behind the scenes lay painstaking studio experimentation, business headaches, and legal hassles with both the police and the music business. And while the Sunshine Superman album that resulted was an unqualified artistic and commercial success, it never quite got the respect it deserved as an innovative, risk-taking exploration that helped expand the very scope of rock itself.
The First New Bob Dylan or the British Bob Dylan?
Some rock myths never die, even in the face of solid evidence they never happened. A fellow teacher in a Marin County adult education program recently asked me, in all seriousness, to explain how Marianne Faithfull did something with a Mars bar with the Rolling Stones (she didn’t). You still often read the Beatles blew their Decca audition by playing popular standards, even though the majority of their 15-song set there was devoted to the pure and hard American rock ’n’ roll the Beatles loved most, along with a few Lennon-McCartney originals. On the grandest scale, many media pundits still recite the falsehood that rock’n’roll died in the five years between Buddy Holly’s death and the Beatles’ arrival in the US, despite a mountain of proof to the contrary. And it’s still often stated that Donovan was just a subpar Bob Dylan imitator, though the phase in which he was heavily-Dylan influenced lasted for less than a year at the outset of his career.
Make no doubt about it: there were some similarities between the early Donovan and the pre-electric Dylan. Peter Eden managed Donovan at the outset of his career with Geoff Stephens, also (with Stephens and Terry Kennedy) producing the singer’s first two albums in 1965.
“I loved Bob Dylan, I thought Dylan was fantastic,” Eden told me in 2015. “I felt there was room somewhere here for there to be a kind of a British Bob Dylan.” In 1964 Cops’n Robbers, a British R&B/rock band he and Stephens were managing, “said, ‘oh, we know somebody who is the British Bob Dylan.’ So he came down to the Studio club [in Westcliffe-on-Sea] and did a couple of numbers. I loved what Donovan did, I thought it was fantastic.
“I really first of all liked his songs. Some of them were very much Dylan-esque; they were much, dare I say, nearly taken from Bob Dylan’s melodies and things. A lot of it was traditional as well. But he was writing lyrics that were very good. I remember the first time he sang me ‘Why Do You Treat Me Like You Do,’ and the line that I liked [about as many geese flying south as lies pouring out of a girl’s mouth]. That made me really switch on to what he was doing.” Although as Eden acknowledged, at the outset, “He was dressed very much like Bob Dylan, and he was a British version of Bob Dylan. I don’t think he’d like me to say that now. But I did think he was like that, and that’s what attracted me to him.”
One of the quickest, most thrilling lightning journeys was undertaken by Donovan. In 1965, he was a beatnik folkie. In 1966, he was arguably the original flower-power psychedelic troubadour.
Continued Eden, “He wanted to be like Dylan. In all the papers over here and on the radio, they were talking about who was the best, Donovan or Dylan? They suddenly saw a way to market it. That whole thing got so big it kind of took over. If it hadn’t have been for that kind of chatter about that kind of who’s the best, one or the other, Donovan wouldn’t have even existed. That did a lot of good for Donovan; people wanted to know him. In fact, dare I say this, because of that exposure, it made some people [who] had never heard of Bob Dylan look at him. It is funny that that exposure maybe did so much for Dylan.”
You could riff on the comparisons for a few more paragraphs if you wanted to pick on Donovan. There was the New Musical Express reader who highlighted the resemblance of Donovan’s first single (and a substantial Transatlantic hit), “Catch the Wind,” to Dylan’s recent “Chimes of Freedom.” There was producer Tony Meehan—formerly drummer in the Shadows, and one of several music business figures who’d cold-shouldered the Beatles when they were trying to get a record deal in early 1962—informing Record Mirror that “Donovan seems to be Dylan without the depth.” And there was Donovan’s wardrobe, with a cap and pseudo-hobo look much like the cover shot from Dylan’s debut LP. “A lot of people thought I was a fabrication,” Donovan told me almost twenty years ago. “They thought [his beatnik appearance, with peaked cap] was a costume!”
The capper was, of course, a sort of showdown between Donovan and the man himself in the Don’t Look Back film during Dylan’s British tour in spring 1965. In a hotel room before a small crowd of hangers-on, Donovan sang “To Sing for You”; Dylan responded with “It’s All Now, Baby Blue.” To historians looking for easy targets, here was the definitive instance of a new Dylan plying his wares, only to be shut down by the master himself.
So, sure, you can hear some Dylan in early Donovan. Here are a few mitigating factors:
1) Dylan was just shy of his 24th birthday when this sequence was filmed. Donovan was just shy of his 19th birthday. Dylan was understandably already in a far more mature phase of his career. When Dylan was 19, he didn’t even have a recording contract, and had, unlike Donovan at the same age, written little if any original material of note, recording a debut LP at the age of twenty on which he wrote just two songs.
2) As Donovan pointed out to me, “Bob sounded like [Woody] Guthrie for five minutes and I sounded like Bob for the same five minutes. We emulate our heroes, then find our own style.” Indeed, Dylan had emulated Guthrie at least as intensely as Donovan was emulating Dylan.
3) Most crucially of all, even at this early derivative-of-Dylan phase, Donovan already did sound like his own man. His vision was gentler—for which he’d be both admired and criticized—and his tunes more melodic, though he was also a good interpreter of contemporary songs by other folkies, like Buffy St. Marie’s “Universal Soldier,” Bert Jansch’s “Oh Deed I Do” and “Do You Hear Me Now,” and the far more obscure UK singer Mick Softley’s “Goldwatch Blues” and “The War Drags On.” He was prolific, laying down nearly three dozen songs, many original compositions, in his ’65 folk phase. And he was already looking into expanding his studio sound beyond his own acoustic guitar and harmonica accompaniment, if far more gingerly than he would on Sunshine Superman.
First Steps Toward a Folk-Rock Fusion
Unfavorable A-Bs abound when stacking Dylan vs. early Donovan, so here’s one that comes out to the latter’s advantage. Right from the start, Donovan started to expand his solo folk sound with additional instrumentation, something Dylan didn’t do at all on his discs (with the exception of his rare 1962 “Mixed Up Confusion” single and some light backup on his Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cover of “Corrina, Corrina”) until the electric side of the Bringing It All Back Home LP in early 1965. Even his first single, “Catch the Wind,” was dusted with, as he put it, a faint, almost ghostly string arrangement. In his brief spot in the televised NME Poll Winners concert on April 11, 1965, Donovan played “Catch the Wind” and the bluesier, gutsier “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” with a full electric band, albeit fairly clumsily. The latter number came off better in the studio, where it and a few other songs were graced by light, almost skifflish bass and drums. It wasn’t traditional folk, but it wasn’t exactly rock’n’roll either.
In all the papers over here and on the radio, they were talking about who was the best, Donovan or Dylan? They suddenly saw a way to market it. That whole thing got so big it kind of took over.
Some other songs evinced a rock attitude, but not quite rock volume, more hinting at rock than actually playing it. “Hey Gyp,” for instance, had a Bo Diddley-like rhythm, though it would take fellow UK groups the Belfast Gypsies and (to a much wider audience) the Animals to really make it a rocker. “When I listen to ‘Codeine,’ the Buffy Sainte-Marie song on [his CD archival release collecting demos from around late 1964] Sixty Four, I was realizing in ‘64 that I’m already biting into the guitar as if I’m hitting an electric guitar,” Donovan maintained to me. But then, much the same could be said about the energy with which Dylan attacked some of his folk songs, whether early covers like “Gospel Plow” or just-pre-electric originals like “It Ain’t Me Babe.” It would take more than playing folk guitar like electric guitar to make bona fide folk-rock.
For the one case in which Donovan truly ventured beyond folk prior to Sunshine Superman, he went about it much differently than Dylan had in 1965. Dylan had married folk to brash bluesy electric guitar rock, and of course that was important and radical. But Donovan didn’t emulate Dylan when he tried something as radical. Instead, he fused folk with jazz and even a bit of classical. The result was “Sunny Goodge Street,” a track from his second UK album, Fairytale (released October 1965), that wasn’t so much equal parts folk-rock as a new kind of baroque-folk-rock. With flute, horn, cello, double bass, and brush drums, it was almost like a cool jazz orchestra—but not jazz, blues, or folk. It might have been the sound he had in mind when he told Melody Maker in August 1965 he’d be “doing a modern jazz record. I will be singing blues over French horns and it will be a Charlie Mingus-style arrangement.”
About 35 years later, Donovan told me, “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. 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.
“I saw all these factions: the folk singer, the traditional folk singer, the folk-blues singer, the rhythm-and-blues singer, the jazz singer, the classical singer. They all stick to their own fields, and actually speak derogatory about all the other fields. And they didn’t bother me at all. I wanted to fuse them all. More important than the musical fusions was the platform that was being made for the lyrics—the meaning behind the song. The sentiment, the outrage, the protest, the mystical, the spiritual exploration. The big question—why? And why can’t we all be brothers?
“‘Sunny Goodge Street’ anticipates the spiritual journey which generations would follow,” he added. “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 splendor 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.”
In a hotel room before a small crowd of hangers-on, Donovan sang “To Sing for You”; Dylan responded with “It’s All Now, Baby Blue.” To historians looking for easy targets, here was the definitive instance of a new Dylan plying his wares, only to be shut down by the master himself.
As the previous quotes demonstrate, Donovan’s not the most modest of men, and his slightly pompous reflections on his work supply another target for hard-nosed critics. But it’s in line with an ambition that exceeded most of his competition. To fully realize his grandiose fusions, he’d link up with new management and another producer, causing unforeseen headaches even as he ascended to the ranks of rock superstars.
Enter Mickie Most
“‘Sunny Goodge Street,’ that’s the way we wanted to go,” Peter Eden remembered in our 2015 interview. “I wanted him to do more things going that direction. He was so at home on that. He wasn’t just thinking folk music. ‘Jersey Thursday’ [also on Fairytale], that’s got that feel as well, and we were gonna put other instruments on that, because he was going very much that way. We wanted him to get away from doing all folk music.” Which Donovan would—but not with Eden, Stephens, and Kennedy.
The backroom details could probably fill up a book, if they’re ever explained in full, which seems doubtful almost 55 years later. But around the time Fairytale was released, Donovan broke his management deal with Eden and Stephens; started looking into enlisting Mickie Most, already a hitmaker with the Animals and Herman’s Hermits, as producer; and also moved toward breaking his recording deal with Pye (in the UK) and the small Hickory label (in the US) so he could record for Epic, subsidiary of Columbia in the US—one of the biggest record companies in the world, and one which coincidentally had Dylan on its roster. He was already taping music in the studio with Most before 1965 was out, but simply switching gears and maintaining a steady release schedule wouldn’t be as easy as he hoped.
I saw all these factions: the folk singer, the traditional folk singer, the folk-blues singer, the rhythm-and-blues singer, the jazz singer, the classical singer. They all stick to their own fields, and actually speak derogatory about all the other fields. And they didn’t bother me at all. I wanted to fuse them all.
“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,” was Donovan’s lengthy explanation in one of our interviews. “Mickie was the best pop producer around, and he saw immediately I needed an arranger of experimental talent. His other works were probably 99 percent Mickie Most productions. But with me, we were a collaboration, and a very unique collaboration. I don’t suppose any other artists he worked with were as prolific as I am with the songwriting. He was looking for songs for his other artists, but he had a song-making poet, and that was me.
“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 [Cameron]. Like mini-movies, each song took the listener into the strange world I create in my art. Before the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album used film score arrangements to Beatle songs, I was doing it on my Sunshine Superman album 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.“It was like a movie soundtrack, blind man’s movie. I would be in the center with a microphone and guitar. John would be in front of me in Studio Two in Abbey Road. To the right of him would be the jazzers, all funky and laid back. On the other hand would be the classical straight ones with harps and violins, usually from the Royal Philharmonic or the London Symphony, incredible players who did soundtrack music as well. The session guys included people like Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones. Then me in the middle, with John Cameron arranging; he’d come with the arrangement all written from a session he’d had with me in my cottage. Mickie would be there too, and we’d lay out the map of the movie.
“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. 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.”
His other works were probably 99 percent Mickie Most productions. But with me, we were a collaboration, and a very unique collaboration.
Most and Donovan might have seemed an unlikely team. With Herman’s Hermits, the producer had landed his biggest hits with some of the most lightweight smashes of the British Invasion. The Animals were much heavier, of course, but even there, Most was noted for sometimes being insistent on bringing in commercial songs by other writers for his acts to record, especially on singles.
“Unlike nearly all the others at that time, Donovan was a writer,” Most pointed out in his interview with John Tobler and Stuart Grundy for the BBC radio series (and book) The Record Producers. “Nearly every song he did was one he had written, but most of the people I was working with weren’t writers, and they needed outside material.
“So when I started working with Donovan, it was good for him and good for me. I enjoyed working with him because he was very good at performing his own songs in the studio, and because he was a writer. I didn’t have to keep going to America looking for songs, all I had to do was go up to his cottage in Hertford, which was cheaper and much less aggravation.”
To start, “He’d had a couple of very big records and then he had a problem with two or three stiffs, and he was also getting labeled as a bit of a Bob Dylan copy, and he came to see me. Although we were very unlike, two unlikely people to get on together, we did get on very well from the start. He played me this song ‘Sunshine Superman’…I was happy with it because it sounded different, and it sounded as though Donovan had got his own sound, which I was pleased about, because it was away from his acoustic folk guitar sound—a mysterious electronic sound, which wasn’t just electronic rock’n’roll, and ‘Sunshine Superman’ was the start of that mysterious sound.”
The “Sunshine Superman” single was first titled “For John and Paul” in honor of the Lennon and McCartney. As those words don’t appear anywhere in the lyric, that tribute might be easy to miss. For that matter, the words “Sunshine Superman” aren’t sung either, but make a far better title for a song painting the singer as a superhero. This was not delicate folk-rock, but downright assertive, introduced by bongos and booming bass before unforgettable yelping guitar riffs (perhaps by then-session man Jimmy Page, or maybe by session player Eric Ford; both have been noted as contributors to the track). Harpsichord added a classical touch to a production that was full, and fully electric, yet not cluttered. And the confident vocal and boldly cheerful lyrics announced Donovan’s arrival as the super-cool bearer of good vibes.
I didn’t have to keep going to America looking for songs, all I had to do was go up to his cottage in Hertford, which was cheaper and much less aggravation.
There’s another vital area in which Most, unlike his wont with most of his clients, was willing to give Donovan his head. Most, like most of the rock industry at the time, was decidedly geared toward hit singles, not full-length albums. There were some good songs on the Animals’ LPs, but more time, creativity, and promotion was certainly poured into their 45s. For less imaginative acts like Herman’s Hermits, albums were almost an afterthought. That wouldn’t do for Donovan, and not just because the Beatles, Dylan, and others were raising the standards for what full-length rock albums could and should be from artists making significant artistic statements. His sonic and lyrical palette were expanding at such a fast and eclectic rate that they couldn’t be contained on just one hit single, or even two or three.
Sunshine Superman: The Album
Although Donovan’s two 1965 UK albums (chopped up piecemeal for US consumption on four LPs, as was the British Invasion custom) were fairly strong, the Sunshine Superman album would not just be electric and stronger. It was one of the first rock albums in which the style and arrangements varied from track to track, covering an enormous field by 1966 standards. The tunes might have been folk-based, but were embellished with sitars, violins, horns, high-energy blues-rock guitar, tinkling harpsichords, and buzzing organs. But Donovan’s mystical, at times fantastical songs and inimitable vocal burr—now bearing no debt to Dylan—were the main attractions.
There was almost medieval balladry (“Three King Fishers,” “Legend of a Girl Child Linda,” “Guinevere”); stream-of-consciousness go-go reportage from Sunset Strip (“The Trip”); introspective folk-rock (“Ferris Wheel”); some of the first rock to use sitar, hailing Jefferson Airplane before that group had even released an LP (“The Fat Angel”); and a jazz-blues with harpsichord (“Bert’s Blues,” named in honor of one of his heroes, the great Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch).
Most of the songs ran between four and five minutes, which though commonplace within a few years was unheard of in 1966 rock. “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” neared the seven-minute mark, in a setting closer to orchestral chamber music than rock, folk, or pop.
Shawn Phillips, who had already recorded a couple of folk albums in Britain as an expatriate American folk singer, was an especially important sideman on a number of tracks. “My influence with Don is that I would play the guitar, and create a set of chord structures,” he noted when I interviewed him in 2001. “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.”
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. 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.
Even in such good company, a few tracks stood out more than others. “Season of the Witch” was fierce blues-rock (with forceful organ as well as guitar) that, contrary to Donovan’s genteel image, aimed cynical barbs at the nascent hippie scene with “beatniks out to make it rich.” The hypnotic “Celeste,” perhaps Donovan’s most underrated song, brought the album to a close with as majestic and elaborately arranged folk-rock ballad as there ever was. The eerie high-pitched drone pacing the track almost sounds like an early synthesizer, but was an electric violin, possibly played by Cyrus Faryar of the Modern Folk Quartet.
In his memoir The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Donovan described “Celeste” as “a classical fusion of sitar, bouzouki, electric violin, celeste, harpsichord, drums, bass, and me on acoustic guitar. The ringing tones of the harpsichord were an homage to the wonderful sound of Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar. The low strings of the sitar from Shawn [Phillips] are particularly effective, too, a tamboura drone that would reappear later on ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man.’
”My producer, Mickie Most, excelled himself and gave a large orchestral ambience to ‘Celeste’ as I sang an aching lyric that said I was disillusioned with everything. The line ‘I intend to come right through them all with you’ was on one level about the changes my generation was going through, but on a deeper level I sang to Linda [Lawrence, his future wife, to whom he’s been married since October 2, 1970].”
The ruminative florid lyrics of much of Sunshine Superman might have seemed like a departure from his more straightforward early folk songs, but they’d been in Donovan’s repertoire even before “Catch the Wind.” An outtake from the sessions, “Breezes of Patchulie,” was much like “Celeste” in its fantasy-flecked words and nearly symphonic rock, complete with the same kind of eerie electric violin. Maybe it was cut from the final running order for being too much like “Celeste,” though it came out on the 1992 compilation Troubadour: The Definitive Collection 1964-1976.
Yet “Breezes of Patchulie” had been around for quite some time. According to the liner notes for Troubadour, Donovan wrote it at the age of 16, later noting that “the song encompassed all the traveling I wished to do.” Under its original title, “The Darkness of My Night,” Donovan had recorded it on a 1964 acoustic demo (eventually heard on his 2004 archival release Sixty Four) before signing with Pye Records. A 17-year-old simply billed as “Trisha” even put her version on a 1965 single, a release so obscure (with a vocal so exaggeratedly breathy it made Donovan’s seem almost stentorian) that few if any listeners would have seized on it as a clue to Donovan’s new direction.
Sunshine Superman: The Sessions
Although much of the album was recorded at Abbey Road in London, some of the later sessions were held in CBS studios on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard in the spring of 1966, including “Celeste,” “Season of the Witch,” and “The Fat Angel.” While the Abbey Road recordings were more structured, according to Donovan, “all the Hollywood sessions were head sessions, head arrangements with me and Mickie and the boys. Very informal, but structured. Because I’d already sussed how to compose a three-and-a-half-minute song, but we were gonna go beyond three-and-a-half on many of them. L.A., it’s a bit more sprawled, a little bit more relaxed. Time is open.”
As an indicator of how much more relaxed the sessions were getting, “I think Mickie said, ‘Let’s just go down to a club and find a guitar player and a keyboard player.’ We pulled them out, and they hadn’t recorded ever.” The keyboard player nonetheless summoned the memorable organ part on “Season of the Witch,” for which Donovan “bought a white solid Fender Telecaster. That was probably my first real electric guitar, and I played it like a drum—it was very spooky.”
Even the Beatles were sometimes having a hard time getting studio staff to cooperate with their equipment-altering ideas, and Donovan ran into some of the same kind of resistance. “I remember the bass line going down and Mickie saying, ‘We’ve got a problem. The engineers are saying that they can’t turn the bass up.’ I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Well, it’s going into the red.’ So he said to the engineers, ‘Look, you go into the red, I’m giving you permission to go into the red. Go in the red! That’s the bass sound I want. Very, very loud.’ And they said, ‘Well, we’ll have to have a meeting.’ So they went upstairs and had a meeting about whether the bass should go into the red. And they came down, they said, ‘No, I’m sorry, the equipment can’t stand it.’
“So Mickie Most said, ‘Look, I’ve just made a record deal with your boss Clive Davis [of Columbia Records in the US] for $5 million and seven bands. And he’s given me $1 million right now. So do you think if I phone him up, you’d give me a little bit more bass?’ And they looked at each other, and immediately realized that their jobs were on the line. They said, ‘Okay, you’ve got more bass.’ We got more bass, the needle went into the red, and the equipment didn’t blow up. And I guess next time they made that needle, they did that thing by just moving the red bit a little bit farther to the right, like in Spinal Tap: ‘My amp goes up to 11!’”
Sunshine Superman was taking Donovan not just into folk-rock, but into psychedelic rock as well. But the psychedelia wasn’t just a matter of adding some sitar and, most likely, drug-influenced lyricism. Psychedelia is not just or even primarily drug-fueled rock. Its most vital trademarks are experimentation and eclecticism. In its cinematic scope of arrangements and orchestrations, and in its astonishing variety of moods and textures, Sunshine Superman was both one of the first and one of the best psychedelic albums, even if the term “psychedelic” had barely entered youth lingo when it was released. Although, in a weird postscript of sorts to the sessions, the album almost wasn’t released, and wasn’t exactly released as it should have been.
Sunshine Superman: The Release
When Donovan broke ties with his management/production team, it wasn’t as simple a matter as putting out his next records a few months later on a different label without interruption. He might have kept recording without interruption, but those new and very innovative creations could not be released until the legal dust had cleared. The Who had a roughly similar situation around the same time when they broke off with producer Shel Talmy and co-manager Kit Lambert assumed production duties, accounting for the nearly half-year delay between the “Substitute” and “I’m a Boy” singles.
The “Sunshine Superman” single was recorded much earlier than most people realize, in December 1965. It was even slated for release on Pye in the UK in January 1966, but then canceled. Pye couldn’t issue Mickie Most productions, since Most was under contract to EMI. But Donovan kept on recording regardless. In the kind of music business complexities that are boring to laypeople but do affect what they can hear on the radio and their turntable, Most was under contract in the US to both CBS, who owned Donovan’s new American label Columbia, and MGM. That meant the Most sessions could at least come out Stateside.
In early 1966, Donovan not only did some recording for Sunshine Superman in Hollywood, but was also able to play live in the US, including a Carnegie Hall concert, a ten-day stint at The Trip (the inspiration for the song of the same name) on Sunset Strip, and an appearance (with Shawn Phillips on sitar) on Pete Seeger’s TV show, Rainbow Quest. It seems like it almost might have made sense for Donovan to relocate overseas at this point.
But even visiting the US became much more difficult after his London flat was raided in June, resulting in a charge for pot possession—the first rock celebrity drug bust of the British Invasion, predating even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ far more infamous one by eight months. He got off with a £250 fine, and was subsequently able to tour the US, but not always at his convenience. Due to his drug record, he had trouble getting visas for many years, and did not appear at the Monterey Pop Festival owing to his inability to get one for that occasion.
At least the path was clear for the “Sunshine Superman” single to see the light of day in the US, soaring to #1 there after its release in July 1966. The album of the same name hit the American market in late August, and if wasn’t quite the commercial sensation the single had been, it did plenty well, reaching #11. So all seemed well in Donovan-land. But was it?
No, not exactly. Back in his native UK, contractual problems continued to delay the appearance of any new Donovan product. It’s still hard to suss exactly what the roadblocks were, but the upshot was that the “Sunshine Superman” single didn’t come out there until December. It did make #2, but in the whirlwind of changes rock was undergoing in 1966, it would have seemed much more in the vanguard of psychedelia had it come out in July—or better yet in January, as originally intended.
Far worse, the Sunshine Superman album never appeared in the UK in the 1960s, at least in its original form. In a scenario that seems kind of nuts today, when an album titled Sunshine Superman reached British consumers in June 1967, it was actually a compilation of seven songs from the US LP, and five from its US follow-up album, Mellow Yellow. Such highlights as “The Fat Angel,” “Ferris Wheel,” and “The Trip” were missing. It didn’t even have the same artwork on the cover.
“The two artists Mick Taylor and Sheena McCall designed the cover for Sunshine Superman, an illustrated ‘S,’ but Epic in New York wanted a photo, which Barry Feinstein took,” is how Donovan explained the different artwork in the liner notes to the album’s expanded 2005 CD reissue. “In doing so Barry introduced my Romantic image to the world. But Epic also allowed an Art Nouveau design by Dick Smith, whom I did not know. So my art was vetoed for a photo and someone else’s art.” Nonetheless, most fans decisively prefer the far more colorful, striking, indeed psychedelic US cover, even Donovan acknowledging in those CD liner notes, “The Barry Feinstein photo was great though.”
Mickie Most said, ‘Look, I’ve just made a record deal with your boss Clive Davis [of Columbia Records in the US] for $5 million and seven bands. And he’s given me $1 million right now. So do you think if I phone him up, you’d give me a little bit more bass?’
You needed a scorecard to keep up with the alterations, especially as the Mellow Yellow album had itself already come out in the US quite a bit earlier (in March 1967). It was an almost unique happenstance in British ‘60s rock, where UK albums were infamous for being altered, shortened, and butchered for the US market to create more discs to market to American audiences. Here, however, we have an instance where the same thing happened in reverse. Even the cover was worse in the UK, although it did use the design Donovan had originally intended.
One could ask whether all this matters now, more than fifty years later. After all, you can easily obtain the original Sunshine Superman album if you’re in the UK, US, or anywhere else—with seven bonus tracks, including “Breezes of Patchulie.” But its belated UK release did contribute to an underestimation of Donovan’s achievements that, like the Dylan comparisons, continues to some degree to unfairly dog him to this day.
Sunshine Superman: The Legacy
Sunshine Superman was an important, classic album. For several reasons, it hasn’t quite been accorded as much respect as it deserves.
The first was that imbroglio that cost UK listeners the chance to hear it in its original form, at a time when import albums were difficult to come by. And when much of Sunshine Superman did get released almost a year later in a bowdlerized form there, it sounded like Donovan was riding the psychedelic wave instead of initiating it. Such things shouldn’t matter so much in the long run, as the music does sound the same whether it was heard in 1966, 1967, or 2019. In the short run, however, that meant he wasn’t properly appreciated in his homeland.
“A man or woman is always treated with more respect outside his or her own land,” mused Donovan in one of our interviews. “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.” As Most offered in The Record Producers, “Donovan was considered a class act in America and taken very seriously, although if it hadn’t been for the songs being good, those records would have meant nothing.”
Another was that Donovan’s live act wasn’t nearly as exciting as his records. It might have been difficult to re-create some of his arrangements on stage, especially those that used strings, horns, harpsichord, or for that matter electric violin. But in common with some other folk-rock pioneers, including Simon & Garfunkel, his concerts remained fairly folky and acoustic even after he’d ventured into elaborate arrangements on disc.
Surviving film clips of him performing “Celeste” and “Bert’s Blues” on Swedish TV at the time are solo acoustic, and while they’re an interesting unplugged contrast to the Sunshine Superman versions, they’re not nearly as effective, sounding more like mild folk tunes.
Certainly Bob Dylan, to bring up his old rival, was much more adept at bringing electric rock to live audiences, especially on his legendary 1966 world tour with the Hawks, soon to become the Band.
Agreed Most in The Record Producers, “America went berserk over him, and he became very hot, especially after his third big single, and his albums were very popular and his concert tours sold out. He played some very big places…But one of Donovan’s problems was that he never really had a band. He’d go on tour and say, ‘This is going to be a flute tour,’ and he’d take a flute player, an upright bass player, and he’d play acoustic guitar himself. And then he’d say he was going to do a rock tour, and he’d pick up some rock musicians, but he never had anybody he could bring into the studio, there was never that sort of working relationship.”
To bring up a more sensitive issue, Donovan made some more great records, but never an album as good as Sunshine Superman, though he was only 20 years old when it came out. Indeed, most of his really good post-Sunshine Superman output was on singles, and none of his subsequent albums were nearly as strong and consistent. As with many other acts who produce a classic when they’re young and never follow it up with anything on the same level, there’s no easy explanation. Maybe he’d exploded with so many different ideas at once that it was impossible to put out anything else with the same impact, uncharted territory having been successfully conquered and leaving nothing else to explore with quite the same effect.
Saintly Prophet or Mindless Hippie?
To strike an even more sensitive nerve, some critics put down Donovan for his florid imagery, fantasy worlds, and romantic optimism, finding him too airy-fairy to take seriously. Donovan could rock out and uncork some fairly hard-boiled cynicism, whether in “Season of the Witch” and “The Trip.” Later on, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” was downright heavy psychedelic rock. But such items were certainly in the decisive minority in his repertoire, and his image was certainly dominated more by hits like “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and “Jennifer Juniper.”
Did Donovan specialize in songs like that? Yes, though not exclusively. But another important point is often left unsaid when that observation is levied as a criticism. Did anyone else write, sing, and record such songs as well? No. And rock has room for such odes, along with the earthy rebellion and scabrous ferocity that’s historically gone down much better with critics.
In the decade or so following Donovan’s last big hit, 1969’s “Atlantis,” he sparked a series of extraordinarily mixed reviews by some of the earliest books that judged his standing in rock history. Here are a few:
“He appeared late in 1965 as a fairly shallow Scottish version of Dylan, and within a year had turned out some of the most engaging songs of the time…His songs are melodic and pretty, if occasionally filled with florid or inconsequential imagery…In all, Donovan’s work generally is unique and quite good. His 1966 material is the best. Too many gypsies and magic forests left many with the feeling that the Scotsman was a chocolate Easter bunny—tasty, but hollow.”—Mike Jahn, Rock: The Story of Rock from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones (1973)
“Once considered another Dylan, Scotsman Donovan Leitch failed to parlay an early plethora of exceptional love songs (‘Catch the Wind,’ ‘Colours,’ ‘Josie’) into anything more meaningful than the unjustly famous and explicably disastrous psychedelic and flower-power periods. If most of Mellow Yellow and Sunshine Superman seems merely silly today, the impact of that music on the mid-Sixties was significant. From the vantage point of the present, it is hard not to regard Donovan’s career as unnecessarily tragic, because even while he was floating away into the lilac, there were traces of a solid and uncommon talent.”—Paul Nelson, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1976)
“An original, he summed up the mindlessness of the hippie, but also the expansive delight of the hippie’s playful idealism. His precise evocations of Arthurian England, bad trips, and haute demimonde scene-making would have been nothing without the evocativeness of the settings provided by producer Mickie Most, who made each [Sunshine Superman] song the signpost of a different world. Those worlds were mostly benign—but not in the still-scary ‘Season of the Witch,’ where Donovan stretched out his syllables until they hung over you like a curse. This was as sure a warning as the horrors breeding within the idealism as the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter,’ and a lot more prescient.”—Greil Marcus, Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island (1979)
If it’s any vindication for both Donovan and his admirers, I’ve never found as much disparity between how critics viewed an artist and how he was appreciated by general fans and listeners with no official ties to music journalism. Championing Donovan was a lonely business in the 1980s, but soon afterward, quite a few friends came forth to declare they were fans too. His rehabilitation of sorts gained momentum, and by the 21st century it seemed cool, even in classic rock magazines, to hail his work. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is by no means the definitive arbiter of an artist’s significance, but for what it’s worth he was finally inducted in 2012, by which time his following was multi-generational.
A much less successful cult folk-rocker has achieved greater critical respect over the last few decades. Yet there’s no doubt about Donovan’s influence on the late Nick Drake, to take just the most prominent example of a notable figure who owes something to the Sunshine Superman—both the man and the actual album. This was confirmed about forty years later by a friend of Nick’s from their time together at the University of Cambridge, Brian Wells.
“Donovan!” Wells exclaimed in Gorm Henrik Rasmussen’s Pink Moon: A Story About Nick Drake. “I still think Donovan stays the distance. Listen to the early Donovan records and there you have the ’60s in a nutshell. There was one album in particular that Nick and I would groove to in Cambridge–Sunshine Superman. We would never tire of songs like ‘Hampstead Incident,’ ‘Celeste,’ and ‘Season of the Witch.’” “Hampstead Incident” was actually on Mellow Yellow in the US, so it’s obvious the pair had the British version of the LP, which did find a UK audience even in its truncated form.
Still, Donovan’s known to many only by his big hit singles, or as that guy pitted against Dylan in Don’t Look Back. For the real and whole story of Donovan’s depth and how he became his own man, Sunshine Superman is the place to start. Like it was for Nick Drake, for example.