Classic Music Review: Sunshine Superman by Donovan

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See usage instructions below to prevent an overdose. 

My readers know that I’ve often expressed the wish that I had timed my birth so I could have hit the legal drinking age in the 1960’s. My image of the 60’s is one of liberation on multiple fronts, people fucking with abandon, the greatest explosion of creativity in the history of popular music and no goddamned smoking restrictions! I have a DVD of 1,001 Television Commercials, so I know for a fact that everyone in the 60’s was walking around smiling and showing off their Lark packs or proudly wearing black eyes for refusing to switch from Tareytons. I’ve always thought that the 60’s would be a perfect environment for someone with my carpe diem attitude and unimaginably free spirit.

After listening to Sunshine Superman, I’m rethinking my position.

Where Dylan goeth, Donovan shall follow, so now he’s got a rock band backing him up. Where The Beatles leadeth, Donovan shall follow, so the album is loaded with sitars. If he had used the rare opportunity of a public open to new musical possibilities to expand musical boundaries (like The Yardbirds, The Beach Boys, Love and so many others did in 1966), I’d have a different take on the album, but the truth is these are largely very dull, simple songs dressed up in funny instruments and hippie regalia. The best songs on the album are elementary three-chord patterns, no more complex than “Louie, Louie.” Even worse, some of the songs are pathetic examples of pandering to the hippie movement and embarrassing episodes of name-dropping in an effort to show the hippies how cool, hip, groovy, out of sight and in-the-know Donovan had become.

It worked. What Mickie Most had done for Herman’s Hermits, he did for Donovan. The single made it to #1 in the states and the U. S. album sold well, proving that even those who had tuned out and dropped out were still susceptible to effective marketing tactics.

My readers also know that my father manipulated me into reviewing two Donovan albums when I was under the influence of the grape. Lots of grapes. I’m now at that uncomfortable point in the process where I realize that I can’t blame him anymore and that getting myself into this mess was my own damned fault.

Fuck! Okay, let’s get this over with.

Let me start with a positive comment. Sunshine Superman is the perfect soundtrack for a hippie-themed soirée as long as you play it in deep background and prevent your guests from attempting to make sense of the lyrics by feeding them plenty of Alice B. Toklas brownies. The patchouli-scented women can dress in headbands and beads and the guys can wear paisley Nehru jackets, moccasins and eau de hashish until the time comes to strip and get down to the love-in.

Translation: it’s a relic that belongs in the Smithsonian basement.

The title track opens the album. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are listed in the credits, a bit of recognition I hope they find thoroughly embarrassing. If that’s Page on the lead solo, it’s the worst thing  he ever did. “Sunshine Superman” is a catchy song but certainly nothing special unless you lived during that period and it formed part of your summer soundtrack. The lyrics are peppered with period clichés (“tripped out” and “blow your little mind”) and a couple of references to superheroes. Yawn. At least the lyrics express a coherent and ebullient expression of love for future wife Linda . . . but if a guy had sung these lyrics for me, I would have laughed him right out of the bedroom. “And take your piece of shit guitar with you,” I would have shouted as his bony ass disappeared through the beaded curtains.

Donovan’s love for Linda takes a medieval turn in the tortuously boring “Legend of a Girl Child Linda.” The only value of this song is in its possible use as a lullaby, because it can put even the most extreme insomniac to sleep in less than a minute. The lyrics primarily consist of absurd combinations of visual effects. The first verse:

I will bring you gold apples and grapes made of rubies
That have shone in the eyes of a prince of the breeze
Bright cascading crystals, they danced in the sand dunes
On the beach of no footprints to harpsichord tunes

There’s absolutely zero poetic discipline or Keats’ negative capability in these lyrics: they’re a goulash of shiny baubles with no meaning. How do you eat a grape made of rubies? What’s a prince of the breeze? Wouldn’t the roar of the ocean drown out an unamplified instrument like the harpsichord? It gets worse. Completely oblivious to the concept of cruelty to animals, Donovan sings proudly of “a throne of white ivory.” Later, another fucking seagull appears (see my review of Fairytale for my comments on this despicable image) and children dance and scratch their heads . . . either because they’re entirely confused as to what the fuck Donovan is singing about or because they’re trying to get the seagull poop out of their hair. This self-indulgent mess goes on for almost seven minutes!

I knew it wouldn’t take long for the raga dudes to show up, and sure enough, a sitar accompanies Donovan’s vocal on “Three King Fishers.” Still fascinated with baubles, he gives us the inexplicable line: “Oh, I dreamed you were a jewel/Sitting on golden crown on my head, my head, my head.” I think he should have seen a shrink about that dream. Predictably, Donovan expands the predictable melody with a touch of Indian dissonance, giving the song an aura of mystical meaning. Not a bad idea, since there is no meaning in the lyrics.

Magicians call that technique “sleight of hand.”

“Ferris Wheel” is sort of a faux Caribbean-Indian tune with bizarre lyrics that tell of his girl getting her hair caught in the ferris wheel. Ouch! His comforting words for the girl are anything but comforting:

Far off as it seems your hair will mend
With a Samson’s strength to begin again.
Take time and dry your pretty eyes,
Watch the seagull fly far-off skies
To build its nest in the ferris wheel on top.

Enough with the fucking seagulls already! I leave this song with horrid images of the poor girl with a bleeding scalp in the comforting arms of a devilishly grinning Donovan. Yuck.

“Bert’s Blues” is the bluesy-jazzy song on the album, completely ruined by the incredibly poor decision to spice it up with a harpsichord. Yes, that famous blues-jazz instrument, the harpsichord! Donovan threw in one or two of these songs on every album; this one’s reminiscent of the earlier “Cuttin’ Out” at first, then turns into “Sunny Goodge Street” with cellos in the middle. The fucking seagull shows up about halfway through, a string quartet (or approximation thereof) pops in with no particular place to go, and Lucifer makes a guest appearance on his way to Hades. All the marijuana in the world couldn’t save this turkey.

Finally (thank God!) we get to “Season of the Witch,” easily the best track on the album with its blessedly uncomplicated arrangement and excellent groove. The lyrics aren’t much in terms of meaning or significance, but they work with the feel and are a kick to sing. I’ve seen the song criticized for having only two chords (no, a third chord appears in the chorus), but that’s like criticizing a blues song for sticking to a twelve bar pattern. The song has been covered a billion times, but Donovan’s version holds up surprisingly well in comparison. Listening to it made me wonder what he might have become if he’d explored his R&B side a bit more instead of becoming a flower in the garden; “Hey Gyp” was a pretty good song, too (though I like Eric Burdon’s take better).

Oh well, that didn’t happen because Donovan just had to be the hippest of the hipsters. The horribly lame “The Trip” allegedly describes an acid trip in LA, but his references to Fellini and “Bobby” Dylan tell me he made the whole thing up. Further evidence is the jarring inclusion of a verse of medieval images, which tells me he had some song fragments lying around and decided to throw them together to create a psychedelic stew. This loser is followed by full-blown indulgence in his medieval fantasies in “Guinevere.” Here (as he did on Fairytale) he substitutes colors for thought (maroon, indigo, white) and paints a rather incomplete image of the lady in question. I should add that at this stage, his manipulation of syllable accents is becoming quite tiresome. I cringe every time he sings “foreboDING skies.” Was he attempting a bit of onomatopoeia to emulate a bell? Why not use a real one? This phonic manipulation would become a common Donovanian stylistic choice in the future, another indication of a poor lyricist who lost his copy of Roget’s.

The most offensive song in the lot is “The Fat Angel,” where Donovan practically begs for a place in the pantheon of hippie heroes. Once you get past more accent manipulation (“consenTING”) and irrelevant use of color (why a silver bike?), you find a song full of gratuitous drug references (“happiness in a pipe,” “blow your mind,” “Captain High at your service”) written by a trend-seeking missile (“Fly Trans-Love Airways,” “Fly Jefferson Airplane”). Donovan said he had Mama Cass Elliot in mind when he wrote the song, but since there’s no mention in the lyrics of a disgusting fat broad who made no meaningful contribution to music whatsoever, I have to conclude that this another example pandering to the trendy.

Dad, if you ask me to review a Mamas and the Papas album, I’ll cut your frigging nuts off.

The album thankfully closes (hooray!) with “Celeste,” a song I adored when I was an innocent pre-pubescent. Sigh. Well, it’s still a pretty song and features one of the more coherent arrangements on the album, with celeste and harpsichord complementing the medievally-tinged story line. The medieval tinge is probably what fascinated me when I was a little girl (I thought I deserved to be a princess until my mother cleared that shit out of my head), but now I see how the Arthurian references detract from the main theme of expressing empathy for someone going through a difficult period of change. What could have been a moving piece of musical poetry (à la “Hey Jude”) is sapped of its power by too many Donovanian clichés: crystals, princesses, magic wands (but thankfully no fucking seagulls). There is one moment in the song where it sounds like he might be getting sick and tired of the fantasy he’s peddling:

There’s no magic wand in a perfumed hand,
It’s a pleasure to be true.

Unfortunately, that proves to be wishful thinking, as he follows that couplet with more fairytale fluff:

In my crystal halls a feather falls
Being beautiful just for you.

“Celeste” is still a keeper, though, and a nice way to end this medieval relic of an album.

Donovan was likely extremely gratified when Peter, Paul and Mary mentioned him in the same verse with The Beatles in “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” their hopelessly corny attempt to show they were still relevant. They mentioned Mama Cass, too, the poor dumb bastards. Anyway, my whole take on Donovan is that when the schoolmaster told him, “Leitch, be a leader not a follower,” his brain reversed the word order. That’s probably why it took him so long to get into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, an institution known for its exceptionally low entry standards.

This ends my brief (not brief enough) fling with Mr. Leitch. I will not do Mellow Yellow (and “Sunny South KensingTON”), the pretentious A Gift from a Flower to the GardenThe Hurdy Gurdy Man (tip: you can imitate his voice on the title track by jiggling your belly with your fingers just below the diaphragm while singing), Barabajagal or whatever the fuck he did after that. I have fulfilled my obligation to my father and have maintained my status as an honorable woman. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Oh, one more thing . . .

Peace!

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thanks a lot, ARC. I used to love this album; now, after reading your typically perceptive, beautifully written and laugh out loud review, I start to giggle when Don starts singing about the seagulls…dammit…

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