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Review: Donovan, “The Essential Donovan”

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Dear Donovan: what’s it been like being you?

The enigmatic Scotsman born Donovan Philips Leitch has worn many colours since bursting onto the music scene in 1965: the guitar-slinging Woody Guthrie disciple of “Catch the Wind,” the mystical folkie of “Season of the Witch,” the lysergic hippie of “Sunshine Superman,” the sinister rock narrator of “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” Though he’s never retired, the poet/troubadour has maintained a low profile in recent years. He’s only sporadically emerged with new studio albums, devoting himself to non-musical pursuits as well as penning an autobiography titled The Hurdy Gurdy Man after his song. Indeed, one could have believed that Donovan Leitch disappeared along with flower power. Yet, just last weekend, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally turned its attention to Donovan, and to celebrate his long-overdue induction into that august (and controversial) body, Legacy Recordings has issued the second compilation with the title of The Essential Donovan (Epic/Legacy 88691 95868 2 4, 2012).

A single-disc edition in 2004 has been doubled in size, featuring 36 songs on two discs. Every one of the 18 songs Donovan brought to the Billboard Hot 100 and U.K. national chart between 1965 and 1973 is present, along with album tracks and four songs previously unissued domestically. More than half of the tracks on Disc One are heard in their original mono mixes, including all of Donovan’s acoustic-based tracks recorded for the U.K.’s Pye label (and released in the U.S. on the Hickory imprint) in late 1964 and 1965, as well as a number of Epic sides from 1966.

Co-producers Donovan and Bob Irwin have logically sequenced the collection in rough chronological order, which makes it easier to appreciate the threads running through the artist’s songbook despite varied musical settings. Beauty, empathy, simplicity, fragility: all typify a Donovan song. This is evident from his earliest compositions like “Catch the Wind” and “Colours,” from the period when the artist “sounded like [Bob Dylan] for five minutes,” in his own words. These two 1965 songs were re-recorded by the artist for his 1968 Epic Records LP Donovan’s Greatest Hits, but are heard here in their original Hickory Records mono single versions. (Those hippy-dippy reworkings are unfortunately difficult to find, as the most recent edition of GH substituted the original versions.)

Donovan didn’t take long, though, to ditch the drawling, laconic delivery of “Colours,” appropriate as it was for the song’s lovely sentiment, one that would certainly not have come from the mouth of Mr. Dylan: “Yellow is the colour of my true love’s hair/In the morning, when we rise/In the morning, when we rise, that’s the time/I love the best…” His style was evolving rapidly, and the same album (1965’s Fairytale) containing “Colours” also included “Summer Day Reflection Song,” with a very different vocal quality. Far from what the title would suggest, the song isn’t a wistful recollection by the light of the sun, but a poetic rumination of diverse images that come together as a portrait of youth. Donovan’s lyric takes in medieval imagery of rooks and dragons, the fairy tales of the album title (“Jewelled castles I have built/With freak feelings of guilt/And the words stab to the hilt/Pick the flower and it will wilt/Cat’s a-shifting in the sun”) and jabs at modern society, too (“Marionette dangles death/Insensitivity is fed/By the TV wizard’s wand/Once in the spell you’re conned”). Returning to the image of a cat sleeping, yawning, smiling in the sun, the song is open to a variety of interpretations, but heralded an original voice in popular music. “Summer Day Reflection Song” introduces the haunting undercurrent that would blossom fully on later hits like “Season of the Witch” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”

Donovan didn’t possess the bitterness or world-weariness of Dylan or many of his other contemporaries in the folk movement; or rather, if he did, he kept it hid. His impressionistic lyrics didn’t shy away from darkness, though, even if they were frequently filtered through a kind of wide-eyed observation. Like his contemporaries, though, he was acutely aware of the world around him. A highlight of the six Hickory singles that open The Essential is his rendition of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier.” Though mostly content to perform his own material, Donovan clearly identified with the song’s anti-war sentiment. Yet none of these songs could have prepared listeners for what was to come.

Hit the jump for more, won’t you?

The centerpiece of the first disc are ten songs that truly made psychedelia mainstream, five apiece from 1966’s American album Sunshine Superman and its 1967 follow-up, Mellow Yellow. (In the U.K., songs from both albums were combined onto one collection entitled Sunshine Superman.) These albums were produced by Mickie Most, who encouraged Leitch to pursue his most far-out muse. The likes of John Cameron, future Les Miserables orchestrator, and John Paul Jones, future Led Zeppelin member, were enlisted to craft exquisite arrangements around Donovan’s acid-tinged pop songs, which now incorporated blues and jazz influences in addition to folk. “The Trip,” inspired by a hallucinogenic visit to Los Angeles, name-checks “Bobby Dylan,” Merlin and Wonderland, and is heard here in its original single version. Most’s expansive productions of “The Trip” and the smash hits “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” might have, on paper, seemed at odds with the wispy and fragile nature of Donovan’s songs, but the juxtaposition in fact contributed to their unique quality.

Besides the mind-blowing title track, Sunshine Superman introduced the sinister “Season of the Witch,” one of Donovan’s most-covered songs, as well as the nearly seven-minute, stream-of-consciousness “Legend of a Girl Child Linda,” dedicated to Donovan’s wife. Mellow Yellow, with another groovy title track, stayed much in the vein of its predecessor, with a varied palette of songwriting and production, but was recorded entirely in London, whereas Sunshine’s sessions were split between London and Los Angeles.

The somber, baroque “Hampstead Incident” (with harpsichord, cymbals and a string quartet supporting the core rhythm section) was as moody as “Sunny South Kensington” was bright. The latter musically stays in a “Sunshine Superman” groove, and was, in fact, that song’s original intended B-side. Substitute Green Lantern for Jean-Paul Belmondo, and you get the idea! “Museum,” also from Mellow Yellow, too has the same melodic lilt as “Sunshine.” On the non-LP single “Epistle to Dippy,” an open letter to a musician friend, classical strings contrast with an unstoppable rhythm: “What’s it been like being you?,” he asks in song. (Our man gets points, too, for the wonderfully unusual title and the imagery it conjures up!) Donovan continued to push the envelope with “There is a Mountain,” based on a Zen poem (Zen teachings had also informed “Hampstead Incident”) and featuring a rocking flute in the jaunty, sing-along arrangement.

The ambitious, two-record box set A Gift from a Flower to a Garden included “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” another flower child anthem released just months after the Summer of Love. This song sounds as fizzy and infectious today as it must have in 1967. For Donovan, love was, indeed, becoming the answer, as the writer of so many LSD and pot-tinged songs began to denounce drugs after a well-publicized marijuana arrest. The Essential also makes room for “Isle of Islay” and “Sun” from A Gift, with the latter a standout thanks to its jazzy organ riff and perfect harmony-pop verses.

Chants, ragas and drones influenced Donovan on 1968’s Eastern-inspired Hurdy Gurdy Man album. With its distorted guitars and tambura, the song rocked harder than most that had come before, and despite the titular character arriving in dreams and “singing songs of love,” the song has an unsettling character. The lightness of “Jennifer Juniper” from the same album makes for a fine contrast. (Both songs were inspired by Donovan’s visit to Rikikesh with The Beatles.) “Get Thy Bearings,” with its sinuous sax solos, reflects the singer’s ongoing use of jazz styles, too.

Four songs appear from 1969’s harder-rocking Barabajagal, including the title track with the Jeff Beck Group, the atmospheric “Atlantis,” and “Happiness Runs” with Graham Nash, Mike McCartney and Lesley Duncan among its chorus. The Essential rounds out its selection with one track each from the artist’s next three Epic albums (Open Road, H.M.S. Donovan and Cosmic Wheels) and a brace of songs previously unissued in the United States. Best of these are a low-key live version of “Sunny Goodge Street” and “Sand and Foam,” both from a 1967 concert in Anaheim, California. A somewhat frenetic version of “Hey, Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” makes its American debut from a 1973 gig in Japan.

The fine, full-color booklet includes an introduction from the artist, a historical essay from Anthony DeCurtis and discographical information as well as testimonials from musicians including Arlo Guthrie, Rickie Lee Jones and John Mellencamp, who inducted Donovan into the Rock Hall. Donovan ticks off many of his friends and forebears in the intriguing sleevenote penned especially for this release, among them Buddy Holly, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, all four Beatles, Pete Seeger, John Sebastian, Roger McGuinn, Graham Nash, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jeff Beck. One can hear their strains in these 36 songs. Vic Anesini, who has remastered Donovan’s catalogue in the past for projects such as the 2005 Legacy box set Try for the Sun, repeats his duties here. The sound glistens. Most of Disc One is in mono (including those early Hickory singles and the tracks from Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow) and this AM-friendly sound is punchy and present.

As no song is more recent than 1973, Donovan’s story is, alas, still incomplete. The sound alone might be reason enough to upgrade to The Essential from 1992’s Troubadour: The Definitive Collection, another 2-CD anthology from Legacy, although that set made room for 44 tracks and covered the period through 1976. But as it contains virtually every key track of his, the thoughtfully-sequenced Essential Donovan makes a compelling case for the psychedelic pop troubadour, still singing songs of love.

Written by Joe Marchese

April 17, 2012 at 15:04

Posted in Compilations, Donovan, Reissues, Reviews

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9 Responses

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  1. Joe,

    A very good review. Donovan deserves much more recognition as a truly creative and distinctive artist.

    However, if you ever do a “second edition” of this review, I would delete the reference to Dylan and others as “bitter and world-weary”…I don’t think Dylan or most of his creative peers are fairly described this way.

    Wasn’t it Dylan who wrote, right during Donovan’s peak of popularity (1969) that “Love is all there is, it makes the world go round.” along with “Just like Old Saxophone Joe….Oh me Oh my, love that country pie!”


    April 17, 2012 at 15:45

  2. Can you confirm if in fact this compilation includes the extended version of Sunshine Superman? Everything I’m seeing (iTunes) shows its not the extended version…


    April 17, 2012 at 20:22

    • Maybe it’s just the album version, as opposed to the single version? I heard the single edit a few years ago, in this great old-fashioned soda fountain/diner I was in while on vacation somewhere, when I played it on their jukebox. It was definitely shorter than the usual album version (for instance, the “Superman and Green Lantern” line was only sung once, near the end of the song).


      April 17, 2012 at 20:39

    • Just listened again…I can confirm that “Sunshine Superman” is the 3:15 version, not the extended version that runs approximately 4:32.

      Joe Marchese

      April 17, 2012 at 20:46

      • I have the original “Sunshine Superman” CD (EK 26217) which features the title track in a 3:20 version, and the Sony/Legacy version of Donovan’s Greatest Hits (EK 65730) which has a “Sunshine Superman” version that runs 4:33. Is it possible the single version runs longer than the album version? I’m no Donovan expert- those are the only two CDs I own by him.

        Jason Michael

        April 17, 2012 at 21:13

      • Thanks for all the answers. I’ve been wanting to get a Donovan compilation for a while now. Just trying to decide which one to get.


        April 17, 2012 at 22:28

  3. It’s a shame the boxed set went out-of-print recently.


    April 17, 2012 at 22:11

    • Which boxset is out of print? The purple velvet box?

      I’d like to see a listing of the definitive set of Donovan reissues. There are so many variants, with various bonus tracks, mono versus stereo mixes, or various setlist sequences. Then there are some improved masterings and some with really degraded masterings.

      The UK Sutras with the extra track is rarely seen, Why aren’t the many songs recorded at the time of Sutras being released?


      April 18, 2012 at 07:50

  4. With only one cut from the excellent Cosmic Wheels, and none from Essence to Essence and Slow Down World…well, “essential” doesn’t quite seem to fit.


    April 22, 2012 at 09:58

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