Songs You May Have Missed #18


Donovan: “Celeste” (1966)

Smell the patchouli on this one…

If you saw the Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker you may have come away with an impression of Donovan as a mere Dylan imitator. And if you’ve heard only hits like “Mellow Yellow” you may have assumed he’d moved on to become a Beatles imitator. Both are inaccurate. Donovan was an artist with a unique voice and diverse catalog, whose career happened to have parallels to the two most influential artists of the 60’s. Like Dylan, he began his career as a folk singer, became restless, and eventually “plugged in” to more electric and eclectic sounds. Like the Beatles, he allowed Eastern mysticism to inform his songwriting, and studio experimentation to broaden his sonic palette.

In England especially the Beatles’ influence on Donovan’s music was overestimated as the result of the delayed release of the sonically adventurous Sunshine Superman LP. While in America the album charted in September of 1966 (with the title song going #1 the same month) in England the album’s release was delayed a full year due to a dispute between Donovan and Pye Records. Quoting from Mick Houghton’s 2011 liner notes:

“For Donovan it was most frustrating, particularly since, in the UK, Sunshine Superman now appeared after Sgt. Pepper, which overnight became the landmark pop album. Yet recording with Mickie Most had commenced on December 19th, 1965 at Abbey Road and the Sunshine Superman sessions were completed during the first week of April 1966…This makes Donovan’s achievements all the more impressive considering that, as Donovan was wrapping up his masterwork, the Beatles were just entering Abbey Road studios to commence work on Revolver.”

It is breathtaking to hear some of the arrangements on Sunshine Superman and to realize it was recorded at least a year and a half before Sgt. Pepper. “Celeste” is a great example. A bed of organ, sitar and mellotron (Donovan used one before the Beatles or the Moody Blues) is joined in the instrumental section (2:05) by harpsichord and glockenspiel.

Again: 1966. A sitar, mellotron, harpsichord and glockenspiel arrangement. On other songs it was clarinets, oboes, vibes or a small string section. This was as progressive as anything in pop at the time. Producer Mickie Most is credited with helping turn “Folkie Donovan” into “Groovy Donovan”, but Most’s strength lay in creating hits, and the truth is it was Donovan who heard the harpsichords in his head. So Most brought arranger John Cameron, who had jazz and classical sensibilities, on board to score the complex arrangements. At times it got so carried away it became Most’s job to thin out an overly ambitious arrangement, and make a commercial record.

For another example of the exquisite baroque-pop sound they created–pre-“Eleanor Rigby”–check out the 7-minute “Legend of a Girl Child Linda”. Even if you don’t fully follow the song’s storyline, you’ll surely agree this is not the work of anybody’s imitator.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rose
    Apr 04, 2013 @ 23:10:48

    How about Brother Son, Sister Moon?


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