(via Dangerous Minds) by Paul Gallagher

You may not know the name John Byrne, but you will have certainly seen his art work on the covers of albums by artists as diverse as The Beatles, The Humblebums, Stealer’s Wheel, Donovan, Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly…

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Original album art concept for The Beatles’ ‘A Doll’s House’, later released as ‘The Beatles’ (“The White Album”).

Songs You May Have Missed #179

Kaleidoscope: “The Sky Children” (1967)

Settle in, children. It’s time for psychedelic folk hour. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Kaleidoscope, who later morphed into Fairfield Parlour (Songs You May Have Missed #113) were fancifully dressed purveyors of trippy, fantasy-laced–if compositionally repetitive–music with a strong purple streak. Exactly like Nicki Minaj, come to think of it.

Not only was 1967 the height of the Beatles’ influence on popular music, but J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings became a cultural phenomenon at about the same time. British folk and rock acts like Donovan, The Moody Blues, and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd soaked up the vibe of both. And Kaleidoscope were no different.

“The Sky Children” in fact bears strong resemblance to two Donovan tracks…

the wondrous “Legend of a Girl Child Linda”


…and the gentle ballad “Voyage of the Moon”

If you’re a fan of fantasy and narrative folk song (and have a decent attention span) you’ll appreciate both. If you’re not, they make a nice introduction, along with “Sky Children”, to a genre that’s about as far removed from contemporary pop as Nicki is from sensible clothes.

…and the children stayed children/and they lived in their dreams…

Recommended Albums #16

HMS Donovan

Donovan: HMS Donovan (1971)

Come take a look with me

In an old-fashioned picture book…

Donovan beckons thusly on this 1971 two-LP, 28-song treasure, as he leads you back to the long-ago childhood in the English countryside that you never had. This album finds Donovan boldly following his muse away from chart-oriented pop (he’d never have another Top 40 single) toward fanciful folk aimed at children and adults who remember how to be child-like. While it appeared to be (commercially speaking at least) a counterintuitive move, Donovan had spent most of a decade at the center of the pop music universe and was seemingly content to forget moving product in favor of moving the imagination. The less travelled path led to a truly beautiful, timeless creation.

HMS Donovan is a collection of English poems, nursery rhymes and children’s literature set to melody, alongside Donovan’s originals. The work of Lewis Carroll, Sydney Carter and W.B. Yeats is at home next to Donovan’s own beguiling “young Folk”. Where he marries melody to existing material, his tunes suit the lyrics perfectly, as if the two had been penned by the same hand–a mark of true songwriting genius. The acoustic guitar performances are sublime throughout. It all combines for a truly magical listening experience, evoking childhood innocence and the wonder of an age when there seemed to be a bit of magic in the world beyond the garden gate.

Epic, Donovan’s label at the time, wanted no part of releasing HMS Donovan, so Pye’s “underground” Dawn imprint did so. My copy looked like ordinary black vinyl until you held it up to light and it turned a rich ruby-red color as the light shone through it. This is one of the most unusual albums ever released by a major pop star, and I treasured my deluxe gatefold vinyl copy with its beautiful artwork and enclosed poster. Each song on the record was referenced somewhere in the double-sided cover painting, making it a treat for the ears and the eyes.

Stylistically, the stripped-down acoustic arrangements ideally suit Donovan’s simple, beautiful songs. In fact, it was the albums which followed HMS that failed in this regard: Donovan’s subsequent (pop) albums in the 70’s suffer, without exception, from overproduction. He’d come back to a more folk-oriented songwriting style than in the Sunshine Superman 60’s, but allowed producers to clutter the mixes with extraneous horns, keyboards and percussion that only detracted from the purity of the gorgeous finger-picked folk melodies he was putting across. Concurrently, though, he was releasing live albums that were among his best output, because he stuck with spare arrangements for the live performances–acoustic guitar, vocal, harmonica and occasional flute or cello. Donovan is almost matchless as a musician in terms of his capacity to entertain solo with only an acoustic guitar. The studio albums where he stuck to this formula are naturally among his best.

The children’s music theme of this album ensured that it would never be a big seller. Its 19th century English sensibility guaranteed it would never chart in America. But its charm and musical quality have given it cult classic status and many of Donovan’s most devoted fans cite it as a favorite.

Listen to: “Jabberwocky”

Listen to: “The Seller of Stars”

Listen to: “The Song of Wandering Aengus”

Listen to: “Lord of the Dance”

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.

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