Donovan
Retrospective

(Salvo/Union Square Music)

It was 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.

It was 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 banana".

A model 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!).

When was 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.

For a 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?

Donovan's 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).

The 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" retrospective).

Today, 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.

(I'll be 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.)

The early 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 watershed.

The first 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.

Besides, 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 point.

Violins, 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).

We know 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".

Reading 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.

An integral 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.

There's only an unreleased track: the new, lively, One English Summer.

I would 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.

Reliable 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 our ears.

Beppe Colli


Beppe Colli 2015

CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 2, 2015