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Donovan

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There’s an incredible intimacy, isn’t there, about Donovan? Makes you feel you’ve known his things first since the first thing you heard in your cradle. Makes you feel as though you’ve known them all your life, or perhaps even before that. And makes you want to run naked and sort of unashamed through his songs – there’s something incredibly intimate about them. Beautiful. That was Writer In The Sun anyway. (JP on the Perfumed Garden, 18 July 1967)
Enter stage right the glamorous Miss Russell (not the full-figured girl herself but the Disc personality) and she is talking about seeing Donovan on the television last might. She says that he was very good - I can believe it.It is a bitter comment on our lives and times that so little is heard of Donovan now. I'd love to hear him singing on Top Gear or the other programme again. (JP in Disc, 1970-1, quoted in The Olivetti Chronicles, p.198)
...I pointed out to Boy Kershaw that although we older pop fans may be ugly and have sore bottoms, our age has enabled us to hear some magical stuff. That night we were back on the hill, talking TT racing again as the sun was sinking down, as Donovan once put it, "behind the tattered tree". Then Donovan started singing right behind us and we moved hurriedly back to the plain to drink beer in the night mist with Mixmaster Morris.... (JP at Glastonbury, 1993 - from The Olivetti Chronicles, pp. 102-103)

An improbable hero

Donovan-Guinevere03:10

Donovan-Guinevere

Although it may seem unlikely to listeners who discovered Peel's programmes during or after the punk era, there was a time when Donovan (b. 10 May 1946) ranked among his very favourite artists, regarded with the same awe as Peel's other late 1960s heroes, The Misunderstood, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and Tyrannosaurus Rex. While he seldom revisited his favourite Donovan tracks in later years, the intensity of his admiration (shown in the first of the above quotes) seems to contradict his later claim that his professed love for Donovan's music was a simple reaction to the widespread reverence for Bob Dylan.

The two singers were portrayed as rivals in the pop press of the mid-1960s and Donovan was sometimes written off as a Dylan imitator. In fact both singers were admirers of the group of older wandering bohemian folk singers headed by Woody Guthrie. While the young Dylan took Guthrie as his role model, Donovan, after leaving school at 16, embraced the beatnik lifestyle as described in Jack Kerouac's On The Road. He travelled down to Cornwall, a centre of beatnik activity,
Donovan (NME-1965)07:28

Donovan (NME-1965)

became a folk club performer and befriended one of Woody Guthrie's disciples, the singer and banjoist Derroll Adams (the subject of one of Peel's favourite Donovan songs, "Epistle To Derroll").

Given such a background, it was remarkable that Donovan, still a teenager, rapidly became a pop star after appearing in 1965 on the influential TV pop show Ready, Steady, Go!, and that he managed to sustain a high level of popularity (particularly in the USA) until the end of the decade. He owed this to his ability to write simple, catchy melodies and allow them to be transformed into pop chart material by producer Mickie Most. On his LPs he moved away from the Guthrie-Dylan acoustic style towards more complex arrangements incorporating elements of jazz and psychedelia. The albums Sunshine Superman (1966) and Mellow Yellow (1967), issued separately in the U.S. but edited down to a single LP when issued in the U.K. in May 1967, illustrated these developments and the dreamy, atmospheric moods of many of the tracks made them ideal material for Peel's late-night Perfumed Garden programme. It was rare to find a Peel programme on Radio London which did not include at least one Donovan track.

From folknik to flower child

Despite his chart success, Donovan had real underground credibility in 1967. A 1966 TV film, A Boy Called Donovan, portrayed his beatnik lifestyle, including a scene in which he was seen smoking pot. A few months later, he was one of the first 1960s pop stars to be "busted" by the London police. He also visited California when the hippy era was beginning, took part in one of the early London "happenings" which led to the founding of the UFO club and was part of the Beatles' social circle. He accompanied them to Rishikesh in India when they decided to follow the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and during their stay reportedly taught them the folk guitar styles which helped them write the material which was later featured on the double LP The Beatles.

In 1968 Donovan issued his own double LP, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, half pop songs, half acoustic songs written for children. Peel remained enthusiastic, praising the children's songs in particular, but some critics were more sceptical. Donovan, clad in exotic robes and bearing flowers in the cover photo, embodied a flower-power image which was already passé and was now calling upon his audience to turn away from drugs.
Donovan sings07:53

Donovan sings

On the Smothers Brothers show 1968

The hit singles continued, but Donovan's LPs were sometimes unissued in the U.K. because of a dispute between his British and American record companies.

Donovan thus began to lose some of his audience to more adventurous artists working in the same field, like Pentangle (whose guitarist Bert Jansch was honoured in two Donovan songs, "Bert's Blues" and "House of Jansch") and the Incredible String Band (In 1967 Donovan included Robin Williamson's "First Girl I Loved" in his live set). Both groups were regularly featured, on record and in session, on Peel's programmes, while Donovan only did two Top Gear sessions in 1968. He seemed to become more interested n the mainstream American pop audience, guesting on network TV shows such as those hosted by Andy Williams and the Smothers Brothers, and appearing less often in the UK. At one Royal Festival Hall concert in summer 1968 Peel, acting as compere, was shocked by a remark scarcely in keeping with the artist's gentle public persona:

I'll never forget hearing Donovan say "wanker" backstage st 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. [1]

This phase of Donovan's career ended in 1970, when he abandoned a tour of Japan and flew home to take a break. Later, in a BBC radio documentary, he stated that he had suffered a breakdown.[2] His career never recovered its original impetus and he did not succeed in finding a new audience in the 1970s. His new songs appeared too simple-minded and childlike for the largely adult public attracted by the singer-songwriters of the time, and he was too "pop" to find a niche in the folk scene. His records eventually vanished from Peel's playlists and he disappeared from public view, but he was able to enjoy revivals of interest in his work starting in the 1990s, performing alongside younger artists such as the Happy Mondays. However Peel, conscious that he had overpraised Donovan (he had even suggested in 1967 that the singer would be a suitable candidate for Poet Laureate[3]) never invited him to record a session for his show; the final comment above would seem to sum up his later attitude to an artist who had once been among his favourites.

Festive Fifty Entries

None

Sessions

  • 2 sessions. No known commercial release.

1. Recorded: 1968-01-16. First broadcast: 21 January 1968. Repeated: 25 February 1968

  • There Is A Mountain / As I Recall It / Lalena / The Tinker And The Crab / Young Girl Blues

2. Recorded: 1968-06-11. First broadcast: 16 June 1968. Repeated: 21 July 1968

  • Mad John's Escape / It's Been A Long Time / The Entertaining Of A Shy Girl / Lalena / Hast Thou Seen The Unicorn?/ Skip Along Sam (21 July 1968 repeat)

Other Shows Played

(The information below is incomplete and compiled only from the database of this site and Lorcan's Tracklistings Archive. Please add any missing details if known.)

1967
1968
  • 01 May 1968: Epistle To Derroll (LP: A Gift From a Flower to a Garden) Pye
  • 09 October 1968: Keep on Truckin' (LP - What's Bin Did and What's Bin Hid) Pye
1970s
1980s
1990s
  • 20 October 1990: The Tinker And The Crab (LP - A Gift From A Flower To A Garden) Pye
  • 22 May 1992: Song For John (LP - Open Road) Epic/Dawn
  • 03 July 1993: Tinker And The Crab (2xLP – A Gift From A Flower To A Garden) (Pye) (JP: ‘Well I still have a soft spot for the old boy.’)
  • 11 August 1998: Guinevere (LP - Sunshine Superman) Epic
2000s
(JP: '(The LP) had a rather coy little message on the sleeve saying, "dedicated to the bearer of the Eastern gift": I wonder what that could be. One of those things I used to rather enjoy when I was a more troublesome kind of person, more of a troublemaker, I used to try and argue that I regarded Donovan as a more significant artist than Dylan. This used to enrage people to an extraordinary degree and give me a great deal of rather less than innocent pleasure. But this is a song which I still like to hear.')

External Links

References

  1. JP interviewed by Nick Coleman in Time Out, October 19-26 1988, 20th Anniversary Supplement, p.14).
  2. Sunshine Superman - The Donovan Story.
  3. See 14 August 1967.

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