Listening to Donovan (1965-70)

There’s an excruciating few minutes of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965  movie  ‘Don’t look back’  where Donovan and Bob Dylan encounter one another at a post-gig party in London’s Savoy Hotel.   Possibly, this wasn’t their first meeting but it comes across that way in Pennebaker’s movie.  The typically chauvinist British media had been baiting Dylan about this new British pretender to his ‘throne’ from the moment he first arrived in the country and Dylan was obviously curious.  Early in the film, he and his Sancho Panza / Tour Manager Bob Neuwirth are seen riffing on the whole ‘Donovan thing’ – quite clearly, they don’t have much idea about who he is, which could have been why the Savoy encounter was set up.

Donovan is ushered into a bearpit atmosphere like an unsuspecting  human sacrifice and performs two songs, only one of which made it into Pennebaker’s movie.  This is ‘To sing for you’, a typical early -period Donovan folk ballad; inoffensive but slight.  Dylan responds by grabbing the guitar and producing a sneering, powerful version of ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’; at that time a relative newcomer to his setlist.   And, as the man himself might have said, you don’t need a weather-man to see which way this wind was blowing.  Seen through Pennebaker’s lens and editing, the encounter ended Dylan 1 Donovan 0, and that’s pretty much the way  the world has seen it ever since, hasn’t it? 

Dylan looks the other way at the Savoy Hotel, 1965 

A less well-known story from this encounter is that Donovan’s other contribution to the cosy singalong was a new song he had written as a tribute to Dylan and entitled (ahem…) ‘My Darling Tangerine Eyes’, which apparently caused consternation in the room because it used exactly the same chords and  verse structure as ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.   Donovan had – allegedly – assumed that ‘Mr Tambourine Man’s’ melody was a traditional tune rather than something Dylan had written and that it was therefore ‘up for grabs’.  Dylan soon disabused him of the notion and ‘My Darling Tangerine Eyes’ was apparently consigned to the dustbin of history.  Also, significantly, Dylan apparently asked Pennebaker not to film this episode, yet ‘To sing for you’ does appear.  What seems more likely is that Donovan’s ‘Tambourine Man’ tribute/pastiche just ended up on the cutting room floor.

Whatever the case, there is a school of thought that suggests that Dylan knew plenty about Donovan’s music by the time they met and that he actually wasn’t scornful of Donovan at all.   He had probably listened to Donovan and correctly concluded that there wasn’t that much common ground between them lyrically and to say that Donovan was like Dylan because they both  played acoustic guitar is,  at best, facile.  

The fact that we still tend to see it that way is at least partly because of the way the media depicted it at the time.  The press loved nothing better than to set up ‘rivalries’ – usually involving The Beatles – where none really existed.  Beatles v Stones, Beatles v Beach Boys, Liverpool’s Beatles v London’s Dave Clark Five and so on.  When they emerged, The Byrds were America’s answer to The Beatles, so when a young guy with a beatnik look playing an acoustic guitar made it on to ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ and started to have some chart success with songs like ‘Catch the Wind’ , the Dylan v Donovan conflict was only just around the corner. 

The fact is, the press were being rapidly outflanked by what they were still referring to as ‘The Beat Boom’ and certainly didn’t know what to make of Dylan.  His lyrics were ellipitical and sometimes impenetrable, his singing voice was, let’s say,  an acquired taste, his attitude in press conferences was often combative and anatagonistic, he was smart, sharp and engaging – more like John Lennon than anyone else.  Donovan Leitch, meanwhile,  was almost a polar opposite – soft-spoken, slightly fey and without Dylan’s ‘edge’.   The results, however, were similar; where Dylan confounded the media with snappy wit and New York attitude, Donovan utilised rambling Celtic hippy platitudes to similar effect; both were intent on keeping the press pack at a safe distance wherever possible.  Still, Donovan played an acoustic guitar and sang the odd protest song, so for the lazy, outdated, bamboozled hacks of mid-60’s Britain, he would do as this month’s anti-Dylan – and he was British, too.

Quite what Donovan made of all this is unclear, but he is unlikely to have felt too happy about it.  The truth is, by 1965 he was probably savvy enough about the music business to understand the perils of becoming pigeonholed as a Scottish bloke with a denim cap and an acoustic guitar.  His late ’65 album  ‘Fairytale’ featured a self-penned song that clearly offered him one way out of his unwilling role as the ‘British Dylan’.  This was ‘Sunny Goodge Street’,  a wonderful, jazzy, impressionistic picture of bohemian London in the pre-hippy era.  Recorded in September of 1965, it stood out from the broad mass of his output mainly because it featured a discreet jazz trio – flute, cello and drums – playing behind Donovan’s acoustic guitar.

“Hope you like my new direction….”  Donovan in 1966.

Donovan’s unwillingness to be Dylan’s stooge was one of the factors that led to a radical change of approach which began when he started working alongside producer Mickie Most.   Most had gained a reputation as a dynamic producer with a gift for picking likely hit records, but had generally worked with pure pop acts like Herman’s Hermits.  His interest was purely in the singles charts – his disdain for albums was well-known – but Donovan’s desire to escape from the ‘folk ghetto’, not unlike Dylan’s,  led to this most unlikely of collaborations.   In Donovan, Most saw a songwriter capable of producing ear-catching melodies and  lyrics that tapped into the prevailing hippy zeitgeist, whilst in Most, Donovan had found a producer who knew how to frame his songs for the pop charts.  It’s perhaps also worth noting that whereas Dylan’s move from folk to rock & roll became a hotly debated topic among the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic, Most and Donovan headed in the same direction with only a fraction of the same ‘static’ from the public.

The first fruits of this new  electric collaboration came in January of 1966.  The song recorded that day was ‘Sunshine Superman’, which featured Jimmy Page on electric guitar.  Most had successfully persuaded Donovan to move away from folk and towards psychedelic pop and this was the first evidence of his change of direction.

Due to arguments about distribution between Most and Pye – Donovan’s record company – it would be nearly a year before the ‘Sunshine Superman’ single was released in the U.K. and by the time it emerged , Donovan had already recorded two albums of material which came out in the USA as the ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Mellow Yellow’ albums whilst, with typical industrial efficiency,  Pye compiled one album – the U.K. version (released in June 1967)  of ‘Sunshine Superman’ – from the two.

Donovan &  Most in 1967 – “LP’s, Mickie – like this, but bigger”

Donovan’s re-invention of his career under Mickie Most’s tutelage had established him at the hipper end of the pop/rock spectrum.  During 1966-7, he became a regular on shows like the BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ and it was his singles rather than his albums that drew most people’s attention and achieved most success.  All of which was a shame, because the two 1966 albums he recorded featured some seriously accomplished songs such as ‘Season of the Witch’, ‘Fat Angel’ ;The Trip’, ‘Young Girl Blues’ and a whole sub-set of ‘London’ songs – ‘Museum’, Sunny South Kensington’, and ‘Hampstead Incident’ to sit alongside ‘Sunny Goodge Street’. 

Donovan was really on the horns of a dilemma.  He had clearly hoped that his Faustian pact with Mickie Most and a move to a more ‘produced’ or ‘electric’ sound – utilising  imaginative  arrangements by John Cameron or John Paul Jones – would help him to escape the Dylan comparisons and bring his music to a wider audience.  On the other hand, the elongated dispute between Pye and Most was preventing him from releasing any albums in Britain at a time when he was in the midst of this risky strategy.  With hindsight, this had a hugely negative impact on his career in the UK – between 1965’s ‘Fairytale’ and 1970’s ‘Open Road’,  whilst numerous singles made him a chart regular, only 3 of the 6 albums Donovan recorded saw a UK release.

In truth, his real problem was that he was with the wrong kind of record label.  Pye had grown out of a Cambridge-based company who made radios and televisions.  To them, their record label was simply another asset  and they were content as long as it made them money.  However, their first instincts were always commercial rather than artistic and they probably had a minimum of insight into Donovan’s frustrations.  They had other artists – The Kinks, Petula Clark, The Searchers, Sandie Shaw – who seemed to churn out the ‘hits’ uncomplainingly, so they approached their dispute with Most with little apparent regard for the impact it was having on Donovan’s career.

To illustrate Donovan’s ongoing problems with Pye and Most, it is instructive to step back briefly and contrast his fortunes with those of another promising singer/songwriter of the same era and how he fared by comparison.  Across at Decca – another ‘old school’ record company – another young singer/songwriter, Cat Stevens, was enduring similar frustrations for different reasons.  Decca were trying to groom him as a pop idol in the way they had with other male singers such as Tom Jones.  After an initial burst of successful, highly-arranged singles (‘Matthew & Son’, ‘I’m gonna get me a gun’) and equally successful British tours,  Stevens had insisted on a different,  more folk-rock approach for his second album,  ‘New Masters’, (1967) which duly sank,  almost without trace.  Subsequently, he became extremely  ill with tuberculosis and after a lengthy convalescence of over a year was released from his Decca contract, eventually finding a home at Island Records, where he was treated far more sympathetically, paired with like-minded producers and musicians, effectively being allowed to make music the way he wanted.  The next few years offered a graphic endorsement of  Chris Blackwell’s artist-centred ideology as Stevens went from Decca’s forgotten prodigy to Island’s international superstar via a series of albums that almost defined ‘soft rock.’

Cat with dog; about 1966 at a guess.

By contrast, Pye and Mickie Most were more interested in maintaining Donovan’s position as a heavy hitter in the singles charts.  Most’s hostile attitude to long-players was probably mirrored by long periods of relative indifference on the part of Pye.  By the time Donovan and Most parted company in 1969, the long-playing album had begun its long period of market dominance, yet the Donovan albums with which most people in the UK were likely to be familiar were a series of budget-price compilations of his early, folky songs on the Marble Arch label.  Pye really didn’t know how to develop ‘album artists’ and Most didn’t want to, so through 1966 and 1967,  Donovan’s profile remained that of a singles artist. 

Eventually, Pye caught up with the growing impact of the long-playing format and, almost as though they were trying to atone for their laxity to that point,  issued the lavish two-album box set ‘A Gift from a Flower to a Garden’ (1968) and the under-rated ‘Donovan In Concert’  (also 1968).  Despite this, Pye’s  reputation as a pop label worked against them and both records under-performed, not only in terms of sales, but also in terms of their critical reception; the ‘In Concert’ album in particular is a superior example of the genre and places Donovan before an adoring Los Angelino audience with an accomplished backing band of seasoned UK jazzers.   Two further studio albums followed – ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ (1968) and ‘Barabajagal’ (1969), the former notable for the presence of three-quarters of Led Zeppelin plus Allan Holdsworth on the title track, the latter because of the presence of another Most act, the Jeff Back Group, on about half of the tracks.  Again, whilst singles were released and made an impact on the UK charts, these albums were only released outside the U.K.

Donovan and family in gypsy mode…..not too clever on the M25

Despite his success in the singles charts, Donovan was clearly totally frustrated by the impasse between Most and Pye.  He split with Most during the ‘Barabajagal’ sessions and formed his first proper ‘band’, Open Road.

Pye didn’t really sign any genuine rock acts until 1969/70 when they belatedly launched a ‘progressive’ offshoot in Dawn Records. This label ran (with decidedly mixed results)  for the next 5 years, but ironically – given that it had been set up to promote rock acts – Dawn’s greatest success was in the singles market with Mungo Jerry.  Open Road signed to Dawn, as if to signify a new era for Donovan.  However, the band only survived long enough to make one eponymous album before Donovan left to finish off  another project – a double album of children’s songs released in 1971 as ‘H.M.S. Donovan’.  Neither of these albums made any real impact, though the ‘Open Road’ album had its moments.

Donovan re-emerged in 1972/3 having ended his long and frustrating association with Pye.  He now signed to his American label, Epic, for the whole world and produced a series of albums (‘Cosmic Wheels’, ‘7-Tease’, ‘Essence to Essence’) which, whilst they didn’t disgrace him, certainly failed to make much of an impact.  Through the punk era, he became almost a walking watchword for hippy excess and stoned cosmic gobbledygook, only becoming partially rehabilitated when Gap used ‘Mellow Yellow’ for a TV ad campaign a few years back.  Now, all the ‘missing’ albums have finally seen a CD release in this country, with numerous extra tracks added and we can get a better picture of a guy whose career seems dogged by adversity – firstly dismissed as a poor man’s Dylan, then enmeshed in a business dispute that blighted his career in this country and finally written off as a hippy has-been.  It all seems a little unfair; the mid-period of his career from about 1965 to 1970  saw him writing a substantial number of interesting songs,  producing music of considerable quality and working alongside seriously talented session-men .  History could and should have been a little kinder.

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2 responses to “Listening to Donovan (1965-70)

  1. Isn’t the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame enough for you? You must have missed much of the partial rectification. The Albert Hall Sunshine Superman concert? But thanks for the interesting details.

    As far as the Donovan-Dylan thing, even the “expert” Griel Marcus got it all wrong, whereas a significant minority of others haven’t. Donovan ASKED Dylan to play Baby Blue, they hear. Many were as well put off by Dylan’s attitude in the film at large.

    • Not quite sure what’s bothering you here – I think the piece takes a pretty positive view of Donovan’s 60’s output, but the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame means very little in the UK and isn’t everyone in it anyway? As for the Albert Hall concert, I take it you’re referring to Donovan’s 2011 gig. If so, then what about it? By 2011 I think even hardline Donovan fans would have to accept that ‘the moment’ had passed for their man.

      If this is part of the same old weary Dylan vs Donovan argument then I have to say I really couldn’t give a flying fandango about it. I liked them both and continue to do so, but at the time Pennebaker’s film was made and for pretty much all of their respective careers, there can surely be no disputing the fact that most of us (rightly, in my view) considered Dylan to have the greater significance in terms of the social impact of his lyrics and the smart, aggresive stance he took with the media – none of which devalues Donovan’s considerable achievements in the pop/rock field.

      Unlike Dylan though, there was no ‘second coming’, no ‘Blood on the Tracks’ equivalent for him; the 1960’s were where it really began and ended for Donovan. You may disagree, which is of course your prerogative.

      Sorry if I’m coming across as a bit chippy here, but all these disputes – Dylan v Donovan, Hendrix v Clapton, Beatles v Stones, Ketchup v Mustard etc etc are just so tedious. In the end it’s about the music not the posturing or the media or the fake rivalries. Donovan produced some great stuff in the 60’s, Dylan produced great stuff in the 60’s and 70’s. They were very different in style and output, but each had a real talent and we are all enriched by what they brough to the table through the years. Isn’t that enough?

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