“Bob Dylan is the poor man’s Donovan.” John Peel.
“I’ll never forget hearing Donovan say “wanker” backstage at the Albert Hall about somebody. I mean, I was absolutely…I almost dropped to my knees…it was like being punched in the face. A terrible, upsetting shock.” John Peel.
“If I can wend my way through the flowers here… Welcome to the phenomenon of Donovan. I say “phenomenon” for various reason which you’ll see tonight. Uh… in particular, a few weeks ago KRLA was proud to present Donovan at his first concert at the Hollywoood Bowl, some of you were probably there, right? If you were there you’re well aware the story, for those of you who weren’t there, I think you’ll find it interesting: Donovan came out on stage and it started to rain. And he said “If everybody claps their hands, it will stop raining“, so everybody applauded and it stopped raining, when he left the stage it rained again.” Radio personality Rhett Walker, introducing him “In Concert”.
Part 1 – How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Donovan.
I’ve said previously that I don’t have, and never had, any male friends who were into The Smiths. In a way, that doesn’t surprise me very much. What does surprise me is that I’ve known a lot more males who are fairly happy to admit to liking Donovan. Not that many, to be honest, but more than none at all.
The first I heard of Donovan was from my old man, who told me that he had a friend who had a couple of his early EPs and that he liked him. That was unusual in itself – my old man’s not particularly into music. Well, hardly at all to be honest. My Mum’s told my daughter about how she used to have a Dansette and that she was into The Beach Boys and The Beatles, which is news to me. She certainly didn’t keep hold of either her Dansette or any records.
I’ve written at length about my naivety as regards buying records goes and how I was about fourteen before I realised that anybody could go into a record shop and buy a record. When I realised you could buy records, most people had begun to sell their vinyl and started buying compact discs which meant that most of the records I bought were second hand because I was into, basically, Indie and the sixties.
Lacking older siblings or parents with much musical insight, I didn’t have anybody to ask about what I might like. What I did have though, was The Wonder Years which I first saw in around 1988-89.
The Wonder Years was an American programme that, mainly, was about a little kid called Kevin growing up in the hippy era in America. He had two older siblings, a hippy big sister and a jock big brother. He fancied a girl at school and his geeky mate turned out not to be the future Marilyn Manson. It was alright, certainly it’s remembered fairly fondly among people around my age but the reason I liked it was because, at some point during every episode, a record of the hippy era got played as Kevin mooned over Winnie, or when his hippy sister had a row with their parents about Vietnam or something. I suppose The Wonder Years was my older sibling because I mainly watched it to get introduced to an old band who were new to me. At that point, I was theoretically doing a YTS plumbing course due to having crap mock O level results but actually spending three days and two evening a week at college in town doing A Levels because I’d pulled my finger out and done pretty well in my actual O levels. As I was in town three days a week, that meant I had an hour or so to wander around record and bookshops at dinner time, when I’d usually buy new releases by the indie bands I was into at that point (The House of Love, The Primitives, The Stone Roses for example) and second hand sixties records from Steve at Spin-It in the indoor market.
I remember The Byrds’ Turn, Turn, Turn getting played and buying their worst Greatest Hits records (History of The Byrds) after that because it was a double and the cheapest one. Other records were by bands who were more or less one hit wonders, so I also had quite a few Various Artists records, often with a variation on The Summer of Love as their titles.
One week, the song on The Wonder Years was Donovan’s debut single, Catch The Wind, which I enjoyed immediately. At that time and, to be realistic, at most times, if Donovan was mentioned at all, Bob Dylan’s name would follow in the same breath as being the real deal because Donovan was just a Bob Dylan rip off and worse in every respect.
I realised later that, actually, I had been exposed to Donovan on a regular basis.
Diversion – Saturday Morning Children’s Television Programming.
In the days before satellite television and dedicated channels to every kind of flannel under the sun, Saturday mornings meant three or four hours, on both BBC and ITV, of children’s television. When I was at junior school, it was Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, with Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin on BBC and TISWAS, with Chris Tarrant, Sally James and Lenny Henry. Retrospectively, significance has been attached to which one you watched and what it said about you. Swap Shop was meant to be more prim, proper and prissy, whereas TISWAS was delirious, deranged and disorderly. It was exactly the same thing, although – again – retrospectively, to a lesser extent, as Blue Peter and Magpie, the twice weekly teatime magazine programmes on BBC and ITV, respectively. ITV was always cooler than BBC in terms of kids’ programmes, not least because some kids weren’t allowed to watch ITV and, as everybody knows at one point but that most forget by middle age, the forbidden fruit is always more appealing than what’s on your plate. Which mast did MiddleRabbit pin his colours to? Well, that’s it, isn’t it? I was exactly the same as everybody else I knew: I flicked between both of them, depending on what they had on them at any time. I had no loyalty to either and I liked and disliked bits of both of them.
Even though both Swap Shop and TISWAS were aimed at kids, plenty of adults watched them, especially dads and only partly to ogle a revolving cast of attractive young women who seemed like they were perpetually in a good mood. Starting with Sally James with her short skirts and big boots through to Cat Deeley arising about on SM:TV in the 90s, there was always a nod to the grown ups who were watching the only thing that was on at the time.
And it wasn’t just perving over good looking, pleasantly disposed girls with a sense of humour that appealed to the adults. The camera and sound operators were often heard laughing. The format was basically adopted for adults in the late 1980s with This Morning With Richard & Judy. If you want to know what Saturday morning kids’ television programmes were like in the 1980s, watch reality television and chat shows interspersed with cartoons and pop videos because that’s what most of it is. The only part missing are the phone in competitions and interviews, and you can get that from things like This Morning which currently has former Going Live presenter Philip Schofield co-presenting articles on the menopause to, in all likelihood, exactly the same people to whom he co-presented phone ins about puberty.
The names of the programmes changed and the wrapping paper, so to speak, was stripped and thematically replaced with ideas that occasionally worked for a while and then didn’t. Going Live seemed to work and didn’t have a concept, like its ITV rival at the time, Number 73, even if it wasn’t much of a concept – it was meant to be at a house where a family would be visited by various regular and special guests.
One of the regular guests on Going Live was comedic duo Trev and Simon who were juvenile enough for primary school kids but also winked an eye at the adults with references that children wouldn’t pick up on. Not sophisticated references, mainly just out of date popular culture. And that’s where Donovan – finally – comes in.
Trev and Simon portrayed a pair of old hippies collectively known as The Singing Corner who, the joke was, were overly gentle and positive groovy people who said ‘psychedelic’ a lot and sang songs about and wore (initially) unfashionable flared trousers. By about 1989, flared trousers really had come back into fashion along with psychedelia which made the joke even stranger as they persisted with it.
Neither of the two hippies in The Singing Corner was really based on Donovan, but the overly gentle and psychedelic pair took enough of what he was all about to end up pastiching one of his more obscure album tracks – I Love My Shirt as they’d swing their pants. The Singing Corner’s popularity peaked with their 1990 release – with Donovan – of his hit, Jennifer Juniper, which was a re-recording of Donovan playing it straight and Trev & Simon joining in, making daft comments and dropping their catchphrases in. I’ve mentioned that flares had become fashionable again and that was due to The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays – and the whole Madchester scene that took off not long after The Singing Corner had been taking the piss out of hippy ideals and clothes. I’ll come back to Happy Mondays later, but some of their lyrics were mentioned on the recording too. The b side featured The Singing Corner playing the same song but with different, comedy words, called Geraldine Tangerine.
I don’t know the extent to which Trev and Simon were familiar with Donovan but if they were were reasonably well informed, that title might, in itself, be a slightly more barbed dig at Donovan, who made a twat of himself in front of Bob Dylan in 1965 by playing him a song he’d just written called, “Darling Tangerine Eyes” with exactly the same chords and melody as “Mr Tambourine Man“. Without disappearing too far up my own fundament, it’s not actually as bad as it sounds because it’s not like Bob Dylan was averse to taking other people’s songs and writing new words to the melody and chords and claiming it as his own. His Masters of War is his words to the traditional for song Nottamun Town. Girl From The North Country takes a lot from Scarborough Fair, both of which he learned whilst visiting England when Blowin’ In The Wind had been just released. On the other hand, Mr Tambourine Man wasn’t a traditional song and Donovan assumed it was, hence leaving with egg on his face. This episode isn’t actually on D.A. Pennebaker’s film of Dylan’s 1965 tour, Don’t Look Back, but Donovan appears in it a lot and he doesn’t come across very well most of the time, including making the claim that “I knew a girl called Baby Blue once,” to precisely no interest from any of the crowd in a hotel room after Dylan sings It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue to them (I’ve linked the section of the video below). Did Trevor & Simon know all that? I don’t know, but part of me likes to think so.
Anyway, I thought I Love My Shirt must have been just another comedy pastiche of hippy-dippy fluff, I didn’t realise that Donovan had actually released it, and not as a joke.
So, in my usual, long winded manner, that’s how Saturday morning kids’ telly introduced me, unwittingly to Donovan.
End of Diversion.
I wasn’t bothered about that though, I just wanted more records and I wasn’t bothered about what was supposed to be cool because I’d pretty much given up on chasing that. The first Donovan record I got was Greatest Hits (And More).
What I didn’t realise then was that there were two distinct periods in Donovan’s career – and that’s just the sixties – the folky, acoustic Donovan and the psychedelic Donovan. Greatest Hits (And More) focused exclusively on his psychedelic period and contained none of his acoustic, folky recordings at all. Which was unfortunate because what I wanted was his acoustic, folky version of Catch The Wind. Greatest Hits (And More) had Catch The Wind on it (I wouldn’t have bought it if it hadn’t) but, as it turned out, it wasn’t the folky or acoustic because it was a re-recording.
I’d been burned before with re-recording of classic sixties hits before. There was a series of Hits of The Sixties that boasted “Original Artists!” on the cover. Indeed, the versions of a lot of the songs were the originals but a lot of the recordings were obviously done in the 1980s, replete with atrocious gated drum sounds and shitty synthesised keyboard sounds all over them. The claim on the cover was technically accurate but often it was only the original bass player or tambourine player who was on the re-recording, so disappointment all round, really.
However, Donovan’s re-recording of Catch The Wind (and Colours, too) had been done in 1968 and, get this, they were fucking great. In fact, I liked them even more than I liked the originals.
If The Byrds’ Greatest Hits that I’d bought had been a bit disappointing – about a 50% hit rate as far as I was concerned – Donovan’s Greatest Hits was a joy from beginning to end, even though I’d not managed to buy the only song of his I actually wanted to listen to.
Back to Spin-It a couple of days later and I splashed out about £1.50 on The Golden Hour Of Donovan which, Steve assured me, contained only his acoustic, folky recordings from the sixties.
Playing that one in my bedroom drew the attention of my old man, as had Turn, Turn, Turn on The History of The Byrds. He reminisced about Colours, in particular and told me again how he was into Donovan before he got married. He asked me to tape it for him so he could listen to it in the car on the way to and from work. The first – and last – time that happened.
Previously, having accidentally discovered and bought The Beatles albums in mono for peanuts from John at Joey Boy Records (actually Golden Oldie Records) after being irritated by the crappy stereo versions on The Red and Blue albums when I taped them to listen to on my walkman on the bus, I thought I’d look into getting hold of some Donovan albums, seeing as I’d liked practically every last note I’d heard on two of his Greatest Hits records.
Steve at Spin-It didn’t have anything apart from Greatest Hits records so, when I had a bit more money, I walked from town to Princes Avenue to get hold of a load of Donovan albums for next to nothing from John, like I had with The Beatles.
What I learned was that getting The Beatles’ albums in mono for practically nothing in the mid-late 1980s was a piece of piss, Donovan was an entirely different matter. First, The Beatles had sold millions and millions of albums and Donovan hadn’t. Second, it turned out, Donovan’s recording contracts had been subject to such a balls up in the 1960s that even at the time, about half of his albums hadn’t ever been released in Britain at all. Third, of the albums that had been released over here, John didn’t have any of them – only a load of Greatest Hits, most of which I’d turned my nose up at Spin-It previously.
In those pre-internet days, life as a music lover was a different kettle of fish entirely. If I’d been born thirty years later, I’d have been able to listen to everything Donovan ever recorded straight away on YouTube. Not only that, I’d have been able to buy reissued compact discs of his albums with hours of b-sides and unissued recordings on them. Had I been a vinyl junkie, I’d have been able to order originals off Discogs and EBay or bought brand spanking new issues – mono or stereo – and had them in my sweaty hands the very next day, courtesy of Amazon Prime.
Thirty years ago though? No chance. The closest you could get to even finding out what had been recorded and released was in Record Collector magazine, which generally I didn’t buy. On the back of Greatest Hits (And More) there was a brief track-by-track description of what was on it and it was credited to being taken from a Record Collector article. I sent off for the back issue and found out what I’d been missing. Or, to be more accurate, found out the titles of what I’d been missing along with some descriptions of the songs and styles and critical evaluation of what I’d been missing.
With hindsight, in some ways, I liked it better then. There were records I was dying to listen to that I had to wait for years to even hear, let alone own and, like they say, the anticipation is often better than the reality and at least I had plenty of anticipation. Exactly the same thing went for books and films and, even though it’s a lot easier to get whatever you want in these internet days, I’m not sure that’s necessarily better in a lot of ways, even though it sounds daft to say it.
Anyway, I’d learned a little bit about Donovan from the Record Collector and his albums were added to the bottom of the ever expanding list I carried around in my wallet for years for when I was mooching second hand shops on my travels.
Not that I had much joy. As I said, most of his albums hadn’t even been released in England, so they weren’t exactly clogging up the second hand racks in the late 80s – early 90s.
Donovan, I found to my surprise, had been a really big deal for quite a while, especially in America. In England, he’d been a very big deal in 1965, but after that, he was much more famous and popular in America. Apparently, you couldn’t move in second hand record shops – I mean stores – in America in the late 80s for copies of the albums Hurdy Gurdy Man and Barabajagal, neither of which were released in England at all. Pah.
Autumn, 1989, I was called for interview at York University. I had a car at that point and drove there. Again, here goes my perpetually flashbulbing memory because I know what I listened to on the way there – it was a tape of The Golden Hour of Donovan. As I was accepted, early, folky, acoustic Donovan makes me think of successful interviews and, superstitiously, I make a point of listening to early Donovan on the way to any interviews I’m called to, to this day. The last one I went to was the first one I’d remembered to listen to Donovan on the way to and I was successful at that, so the superstitious persists. It’s daft, isn’t it? Still, I’m sure Donovan wouldn’t agree with me and why would he?
By 1990, Happy Mondays had released Pills & Thrills & Bellyaches, which was their big album, the third track of which was called “Donovan” and lifted significant elements of (one of his) big hit(s) Sunshine Superman (and, for no good reason that I could gather) a bit of (Come Up & See Me) Make Me Smile, the (great) Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel song. He supported them in concert and Paul and Shaun Ryder were briefly married to two of his daughters, so even though he didn’t really make a comeback as such, he was exposed to a new audience.
I went to see him in Summer 1990 at Hull Truck Theatre which was then a pretty small venue. I’d started going to see bands at the Hull Adelphi the year previously and had followed The Stone Roses around for most of 1989 so going to gigs wasn’t a new thing for me, but the Donovan live experience wasn’t something I’d really experienced previously. For starters, despite his re-introduction via Trev & Simon and Happy Mondays, I was easily the youngest person there. Second, it was a theatre and consequently a seated venue which was handy because most of the audience were knocking on a bit. Actually, I say that but thinking about it, 1990 was 25 years after he’d first hit the scene in England when he was 18, so he’d have been 43, five years younger than I am as I write this. If his audience had been a bit older than he was at the time – which I doubt – there wouldn’t have been many people over about fifty there. I remember them as being ancient. Pfff, eh?
Anyway, I was in my Stone Roses’ Lemon t shirt and everybody else was in cheesecloth and smelled of patchouli. It was a solo gig which disappointed me because I was hoping for a psychedelic experience, like a lot of the other gigs I’d been to had been, and it wasn’t.
The main things I remember, apart from viewing the audience as geriatric when they weren’t, are that his in-between song patter was delivered in what I now realise is Donovan’s speaking voice which can sound a bit pixie-like, and that when he played Catch The Wind, about twenty of these OAP hippies form the crowd prostrated themselves at his feet and began taking photographs of him from alarmingly close proximity. I remember thinking how odd it seemed: it wasn’t as if the photographs would have shown what song he was playing at the time their photographs were being taken, so why did they all do it during Catch The Wind? Beats me. He didn’t seem to mind and didn’t miss a beat, so fair dos, eh?
At the end of the concert there was a merchandise table with a sheet you could sign to get onto the Donovan’s Friends mailing list, so I wrote my name and address down and, over the next few years, without paying a penny, received a sort of officially sanctioned fanzine that blew smoke up his backside and credited him with pretty much everything good that ever happened. I assumed it was being written by one of these geriatric hippies and that they were entering a period of senile dementia. It was alright, but it smacked a bit like the Watchtower magazines that George tried to get me to read at Dave and Gill’s flat. I got Dave into Donovan too and, like John Peel and me, given the choice between Bob Dylan and Donovan, he’d pick Donovan if he could only listen to one of them.
Part 2 – The Phenomenon of Donovan – The Records (i) Acoustic Troubadour.
The Golden Hour of Donovan had been, it transpired, more than just an introduction to Donovan’s acoustic, folky recordings because it had – pretty much – everything he recorded during that period which were from a couple of albums that had been released in England – What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid, and Fairytale, and a bunch of EPs. Typically, it was possible to buy both of those records and I liked the sleeves, so I got hold of those anyway, shallow as I am.
What’s Bin Did… is the weakest of the two, and I’m not going to write anything about any of the songs on it, even though I like them. All I will say is that, as far as the Bob Dylan comparisons go, I think Donovan pretty much had it coming.
As time’s gone on, Donovan’s constructed a reasonably well thought out defence as to why he wasn’t The English Bob Dylan, as his detractors (Bob Dylan fans, who are both more numerous and who can (and do) take themselves more seriously because they don’t have to defend anything as silly as I Love My Shirt) labelled him. Donovan’s defence goes like this: Bob Dylan (to start with, during his protest song era) was himself, just copying Woody Guthrie and Donovan isn’t English because he’s Scottish so he now just says, “I was the Scottish Woody Guthrie.” Which is a snappy sort of line and sounds reasonable. In his autobiography, Donovan goes further and claims he’d never even heard of Bob Dylan until he started getting famous, which is a daft claim for a folksinger to make. By 1965, Bob Dylan was leaving behind the protest movement and began what would be a year of writing almost nothing but finger pointing songs. He was famous and had been for some time – The Beatles had talked him up and John Lennon was doing his own impersonation of him during the Help! era. Perhaps Lennon would have called himself The Scouse Ramblin’ Jack Elliot or something, had he thought of it, I don’t know. What I’m getting at is that Bob Dylan had been famous for singing Blowin’ In The Wind since 1963, even though Peter, Paul & Mary had the big hit with it.
In short, Donovan’s full of shit – which is a theme that is going to crop up repeatedly here – but don’t let that fool you because I can understand why and I’ll do my best to explain it – and why it’s fairly reasonable – as I go along. Donovan might have got his foot in the door as a Dylan-lite troubadour, but once it was there, he soon showed there was a lot more to him than that.
Finally, if you don’t want comparing to Bob Dylan, maybe don’t write a song called “Catch The Wind” for your first single in 1965 when Bob Dylan got famous with “Blowin’ In The Wind” in 1963, eh? It’s asking for trouble, isn’t it? Even though I like Catch The Wind a lot more than I like Blowin’ In The Wind, yeah. Both versions. Yeah. I’ll come to the 1968 re-recording later though.
The first thing to say about this is that it’s live at (I think) the NME Pollwinners concert of 1965. I’ve picked a live version to emphasise how he sang, which changed radically over the next three years. His voice here sounds pretty natural to me. Unaffected, which didn’t last too long. It’s bordering on talking, but more like Lennon’s take on Dylan than Bob himself, he’s a lot smoother and, as Alan Price bluntly told Dylan in Don’t Look Back, Donovan’s plays better than Dylan can.
He’s a bit slack jawed which, I suspect, is to cover up his underbite which can give the impression of gormlessness. Unfortunately, a slack jaw has much the same effect. Credit where it’s due, the psychedelic path he took shortly after that made, in some ways, a virtue out of gormlessness, even if it was only superficial, which it was. To an extent…
It’s a sweet song though and not the sort of thing that Dylan have written which brings me to the other thing. In the comments to this video, somebody’s written, “When you compare him to Dylan its like comparing a boy to a man (Dylan).” Which, although I’m sure is meant as an insult, speaks a certain truth that’s not necessarily all that unpalatable. Donovan was, and is, a Flower Child. In a lot of ways, most ways actually, he’s the Flower Child. Punk gets credited or blamed for, depending on your point of view, killing off Prog Rock but it didn’t really. Prog continued to be popular during and after 1976: Punk might have sneered at it – and not without cause – but it didn’t kill it. What Punk did kill off, at least for a long time, was Folk music. Prog, in being a genre that includes electric guitars and lyrics about Dungeons & Dragons has the option of heavy, overdriven sections at least. A sort of visceral anger can fit on triple albums with Roger Dean sleeves with lizards crawling near spaceships but Flower Children can’t do anger for obvious reasons. If Punk was a sound, that sound was a cynical “Rrrrr!“. If Donovan was a sound, it’d be “Ahhh!” but really gently, breathily murmured. With undercurrents of smugness. Anyway, naive Flower Child Donovan is what he is, and Bob Dylan might have been a man – meaning lyrics that could mean something deep and complicated in a clever way – but that’s not necessarily better than a child. I don’t want children to grow up too fast and I don’t want Donovan to either. I don’t listen to music because I’m looking to hear manly men showing me how manly they are. Not necessarily, anyway. Not all the time…
The record of this has, in addition to fancily flat picked guitar in open D, double bass, and banjo and it’s mellow as hell, isn’t it? It sounds like the sun rising over a field, which I suppose the lyrics intend quite explicitly. I read – another – disparaging comment about Donovan which said something like, “He threw away his best line (Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinking…) like it didn’t mean anything.” which is a bit unfair. This isn’t a song that needs singing through clenched teeth. Maybe it doesn’t fit that critic’s view of how it should have been delivered, but the end of the line is, “…without thinking of the times when I’ve been lost.” And that changes the meaning of the first half of the line to a suggestion that there might be a lack of direction in freedom. Sometimes it’s good to have responsibilities, freedom from which is another form of freedom, isn’t it? Freedom’s not all about not being in a prison of some description.
This was my dad’s favourite Donovan song and I think of him when I hear it, and I’m happy about that. He’s not dead or anything but when he does toddle off, I know I’ll think about him when I hear this. I don’t mean I’m looking forward to it or anything because I’m not, but I am thinking about how to think nice thoughts in the future. And I don’t get that from Bob Dylan too much.
Colours was on Fairytale, his second album but this, even though it was recorded at the same time as that album, was a standalone single and it’s great, even if it really is throwing itself right into the deep end of the Flower Child pool.
Donovan didn’t start out his recording career as an out and out folkie, his first album has double bass, string sections and banjos as well as the obligatory wheezing Dylan-esque harmonica which meant it was folk, but Pop folk, as opposed to Folk Folk.
Like Like A Rolling Stone, it’s about Joan Baez, although it’s the total opposite of that. To be fair, it could be about anybody. Anybody who’s a Flower Child girl at least, not Johnny Rotten – although maybe it could, thinking about it.
If somebody wanted to point out what a pansy Donovan was painting himself as, they need only quote my favourite line in the song, “Take my hand and hold it as you would a flower.” Donovan was always all about whimsy and when you’re all about something, sometimes you’re going to be a bit too much of whatever that is and this is as close being a bit much as you can get for me. Not that I don’t love it because I do. It’s about vulnerability and fragility which aren’t traditionally masculine topics to sing about but Donovan’s not for traditionally masculine consumption and, while I can see it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to say in public too often, maybe that’s the point – it’s about being prepared to get hurt even though you know you’re vulnerable.
Fun fact – This was in John Lennon’s personal jukebox, so I’m not the only one who’s a big enough fanny to enjoy something as gossamer light as this.
Sunny Goodge Street
This is on Fairytale, the cover of which is on the video which quotes lines from this song, as well it might because they’re great. And it’s not just the lyrical content and imagery that take a radical diversion for Donovan, the entire musical backing bears no resemblance at all to anything he’d done before this. This is jazz. Man.
There might be an acoustic guitar buried somewhere among the bowed double bass, the brushed drums, jazzy electric guitar and flute but if there is, it’s inaudible. The effect of the combined instruments of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club is soporific which suits the lyrical theme perfectly.
Donovan, a year or so later, was the first pop star to be busted for drugs by the now infamous Sgt. Pilcher of the yard who was convicted in 1973 for perverting the course of justice and sentenced to four years imprisonment for, essentially, planting drugs while searching for them at pop stars’ houses in the sixties. George Harrison, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were all found to have vast quantities of illegal drugs in their properties by Pilcher and I can only wonder what Sgt Norman Pilcher must have been thinking when he decided that he needed to take a pile of drugs to Keith Richards’ house in case he didn’t have enough to get him prosecuted at the time. There’s neurotic over preparedness, and there’s Pilcher.
However, Donovan, it could be argued, brought his bust on himself by writing a song explicitly about people who were stoned on marijuana getting the munchies and finding themselves incapable of operating a vending machine in a Tube station and attacking it in order to get their bar of chocolate out after it took his last ten pence.
I’m reducing it for the purposes of a cheap laugh and that’s a bit unfair because Donovan’s lyrics are – as they often were – poetically concise and evocative of not only a place but a time as well. Check it out:
“On the firefly platform on Sunny Goodge Street
A violent hash-smoker shook a chocolate machine
Involved in an eating scene
Smashing into neon streets in their stonedness
Smearing their eyes on the crazy coloured goddess
Listenin’ to sounds of Mingus mellow fantastic
My, my, they sigh
My, my, they sigh”
I know, I’m a big pansy, but those are fantastic lyrics. Every line has something to enjoy in it and, taken as a whole, paints a picture as clear as anything before or after in popular music. Yeah, it’s of its time, but that’s part of the appeal. “Involved in an eating scene,” might not have been an expression on the lips of anyone after about 1970, but so what? It’s like a photograph, of course you notice the period details – that’s why photographs are taken – to remind us of a moment in time that will pass.
Remember, this is 1965 and Donovan’s written the lyrics, “Love, love, love,” two and a half years before The Beatles wrote All You Need Is Love. Donovan had a limited shelf life in terms of being culturally relevant, as opposed to being someone you might look to in order to evoke a particular era, but that’s alright by me. If you want to know about the swinging sixties in London, you need to listen to the music of Donovan, as much as The Beatles, as much as The Kinks and The Small Faces. You also need The Rolling Stones and early Pink Floyd , but they managed to move and change with the times and consequently aren’t as closely associated with 1965-9 as those in the previous sentence.
As with a lot of Donovan songs of the sixties, there are a lot of cover versions of this song, the worst of which is by The Clevedonaires, who manage to lose the references to the violent hash smoker and the languid, lolloping jazz groove because they replace all that with a sort of generic Greek oompah stomp, which suits the song like a leather jockstrap would have suited Donovan in 1965. Oddly, Tom Northcott in 1967 took the Clevedonaires’ arrangement and lyrical amendments and decided to do a straight cover of that, Grecian bouzouki oompah and all. Other versions play it straighter, as well they might. My favourite is a French translation by Zouzou, whoever she is, called C’est Samedi Soir. Donovan’s is better, but at least this one doesn’t sound like the music in Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch.
Next time: Part 2, featuring Donovan’s psychedelic explosion.