(Salvo/Union Square Music)
the early 80s when Frank Zappa added a new item to the long list of
"cultural objects" that were already targets for his pungent sarcasm:
people's "nostalgia" for the 60s and the "heroes" of that
time, up to and including their post-mortem exploitation. The song that best
illustrates Zappa's attitude when it comes to these matters is We're Turning
Again (a song that, with minor adjustments, will remain in Zappa's live
repertory for the duration of the 80s), though there are other Zappa songs from
this era - for instance, Tinseltown Rebellion and The Blue Light - that also
deal with this topic.
quite strange, for me, to read these lyrics: "You remember Atlantis/
Donovan, the guy with the brocade coat/ Used to sing to you about
Atlantis" (...) "That was back in the days when you used to/ Smoke a
of precision, Zappa mentioned the "brocade coat" and the belief -
quite common in the 60s - according to which smoking the inside of a dry banana
skin would get you high. Of course, due to a process of association, one could
not help but be reminded of the mysterious (but totally unrelated)
"electrical banana" which was one of the main characters in Donovan's
worldwide smash hit Mellow Yellow.
As a big
Zappa fan, I had to accept his provocation to think again about this
"cultural object". It was not Atlantis I thought about, however, but
Donovan: Who, at the time, still remembered Donovan? Did anybody still listen
to him? I certainly did - it was thanks to the hate towards "hippies"
on the part of "Punks" and "New Wavers" that I was able to
buy for just a little money some brand-new original US vinyl copies of his
albums on Epic. Also, an Italian original pressing from 1968 of my favourite album
by this Scottish artist: Mellow Yellow. Of course, those people who were in the
shop at the time when I bought those albums looked at me with great scorn,
given the fact that I was buying music that was totally out of the fashion at
the time (such a great thing, having an independent mind!).
the last time I heard somebody cover a Donovan song? In 1976, the year Steve
Hillage opened his second solo album, L (produced by Todd Rundgren), with a
cover of the Donovan classic The Hurdy Gurdy Man.
long time now, Donovan's name is the first one that comes to my mind every time
I think about those artists who, for one reason or another, still wait to be
"rediscovered". Which is a complex issue, not at all easy to solve.
Of course, just like it happens when it comes to human beings, there is simply
"not enough space" in the world to have all past objects stay as
living entities. But Donovan's case is quite different from, say, Blood, Sweat
and Tears. Who still remembers Blood, Sweat and Tears? Who would ever believe
that, once upon a time, their instrumental palette was seen as
"trendy"? Who would believe that by the time of their second album
(of same name), Blood, Sweat and Tears were one of the best paid groups in the
States, and one of the headliners at Woodstock, alongside Jimi Hendrix and
Creedence Clearwater Revival?
case is really different. For not a brief moment - the years 1965-1969 -
Donovan was a celebrity, a trend-setter, somebody who was at once
"underground" (due to the depth and variety of the music featured on
his albums, the "countercultural" attitude of his art, his
craftsman's skillfulness that welcomed outside contributions and a wider
instrumental palette, whose echo one can easily find on Traffic's early albums,
not to mention Nick Drake's) and "mainstream" (a dozen worldwide
hits, having The Beatles as friends, a million-selling Greatest Hits album, and
US concerts attended by 15.000 paying customers).
double CD titled Retrospective successfully tries to give listeners a summary
of Donovan's most fertile years. One hundred minutes personally chosen by the
artist, tapes and mastering that show no real faults (a topic I'll get back to
at the end of my review), liner notes to all songs penned by Donovan himself. The
CD is on sale at a cheap price, which should make one forgive the lack of
information about "who played what where", and a stingy-looking
booklet where the few images that can be found are all related to the early
stages of the artist's career: the phase of the "protest song" with
the old guitar and the famous cap (a look - that of "Donovan, 1965" -
that a couple years ago I happened to see in the pages of a magazine in an
article about a young musician which at first I mistook for a "young
Donovan's music doesn't sound "out of time" - "from another
time"? definitely! - at least, not like that of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
And if I think about those singer-songwriters I've listened to in the last few
years (many of whom appear to be listening quite a bit to John Martyn), I'd say
that maybe the moment has come for a wider appreciation of Donovan's most
fertile period. Stranger things have happened - who could have believed that
Nick Drake would one day become a world-wide celebrity due to one of his songs
being featured as the soundtrack of a car commercial?, the very idea sounding
like a very bad joke.
vulgar, now. Sometimes I happen to think - sure, we all feel great pleasure in
discovering something our predecessors unfairly ignored - that the fact of
Donovan not being "rediscovered", and the contemporaneous
"timely discovery" of "legends unfairly forgotten", might
have at least something to do with the "fire sale" price of certain
back-catalogues and the easiness nowadays one can press and distribute 2.000
vinyl copies of uncertain legal ownership.)
Donovan is the one who sings "protest songs", the
"anti-Dylan", the kid who in 1965 sang live on U.K. TV program Ready,
Steady, Go!, hosted by Cathy McGowan. The most famous "protest song"
from his repertory, Universal Soldier, was in fact penned by Canadian
singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte Marie. Donovan's big hits from that time are
Catch The Wind and Colours: acoustic ballads which soon became "blueprints"
for an instrumental style that sounded fresh, alongside such titles as Ballad
Of Geraldine, Turquoise, and Summer Day Reflection Song. Appearing on Donovan's
second album, Fairytale, the famous Sunny Goodge Street witnesses the complete
maturity of his "classic" singer-songwriting style, while adopting a
fuller orchestration which in some ways anticipates what's to come. The song is
also an important cultural item, those lines - "A violent hash-smoker
shook a chocolate machine/ Involved in an eating scene" - acting as a
thing about Donovan that one's ear notices is - of course - his vocals. A voice
that's quite personal and easy to recognize, and surprisingly versatile.
Practically perfect when it comes to story-telling, from his first "folk"
tales to the "modern myth" Atlantis to the "sound letter"
To Susan On The West Coast Waiting, it can also sound tense, as in the (once)
very famous track Season Of The Witch. But listen to the accumulation of
syllables in Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness) and Barabajagal (the latter sporting an
immortal guitar intro by Jeff Beck), the elastic subdivisions in Three King
Fishers, his versatility when singing both calypso - There Is A Mountain - and
swing - Wear Your Love Like Heaven.
a softness and an attitude that one can only define as innovative: his adopting
of a vocal approach that offered an alternative to the Blues-related
"macho" stance opened the door to a kind of aesthetic that, even when
not closely related to Donovan's style, could not really exist without him. I'm
talking about people like Ray Davis, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake - of course! -
also James Taylor and Elton John. Readers are invited to really ponder this
harpsichords, organs and pianos, saxophones, flutes and clarinets, not to
mention drums and double basses (an instrument, the double bass, which was
seldom recorded with such presence and clarity in the recordings of the time;
as a for instance, listen to Get Thy Bearings, a song that soon became part of
King Crimson's live repertory).
about the contribution of future Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page on guitar; of Tony
Carr on drums; of Danny Thompson on double bass; of Harold McNair on flute and
saxophone; of future star Shawn Phillips on guitar and sitar. But I still
wonder if the fine tom passages that add so much colour to To Susan On The West
Coast Waiting were played by Jim Gordon. And if it's really Gabriel Mekler, an
important collaborator on a few Donovan songs of the time, who sits on piano
and organ on Atlantis. What is certain is that, starting with the album
Sunshine Superman, Donovan's output greatly benefits from the contribution of
John Cameron's arrangements and Mickie Most's production, Most's
"commercial attitude" abstaining from having the albums become just a
collection of "potential singles".
the list of the titles featured on Retrospective had me quite doubtful, at
first, about my chances of really enjoying one hundred minutes of songs I
already know from memory. Well, I was really surprised to see that my listening
to this double CD gave me great pleasure. The juxtaposition of moods and a new
song sequence, so different from the original albums, made me appreciate things
I was already familiar with like they were almost brand-new.
part of his songs' construction, Donovan's acoustic guitar stems from the
tradition of US folk music, from the complex heritage represented by musicians
such as Davey Graham, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, and from the modal, eastern
climates that were an important part of the "underground" styles of
the time (his album The Hurdy Gurdy Man features a few pages that sound quite
related to the music of The Incredible String Band, a group that at the time
was quite famous in Europe). Guitar arpeggios that starting with his third
album become part of the orchestration, but which sometimes come to the
surface, two fine examples being the meditative Writer In The Sun and the tense
Hampstead Incident, which dramatically appears as the last track of the album.
only an unreleased track: the new, lively, One English Summer.
have liked to see Teen Angel - the b-side of single The Hurdy Gurdy Man - and
Sand And Foam - a song which is in my "Donovan Top 5" ("As I dug
you diggin' me in Mexico") - being included.
sources tell me of original analogue tapes and analogue "safety
copies" being used for this compilation, while I know next to nothing
about the mastering process (a side about which the booklet is quite reticent).
There's a tiny bit more volume to the music than I would have liked, and at
times (Superlungs (My Supergirl)) the electric bass sounds a bit
"bloated". On the first singles, and in general most of the tracks
from 1965, I thought I heard a bit more "digital ambience" than would
be plausible. And the version of The Hurdy Gurdy Man featured here places the
Tampura (a string instrument that I always mistake for a Sitar) quite in the
background of the stereo field, compared to the original 45 rpm single that I
often play... in my mind. All minutiae, if the main goal is having serious fun
with one hundred minutes of great music that can give us a lot without hurting
© Beppe Colli 2015
CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 2, 2015