Saturday, 15 July 2017

Donovan "A Gift From a Flower to a Garden"

Following on from the first pop triple album, we have the first pop box set ("A Cid Symphony" originally came in a bag rather than a box). Two records in a box together with an envelope of 12 inserts containing song lyrics and illustrations. The two records were thematically separate, one being comprised of group accompaniment and the other being solo acoustic numbers. Additionally, the second record was presented as being comprised of compositions aimed at younger listeners. Later, the two records were released as separate lps entitled "Wear Your love Like Heaven" and "For Little Ones".

Apparently, this was an expensive package to put together with the slightly psychedelic cover art requiring a complex print process. It is another example of musicians using a double album to make a STATEMENT both in terms of length at which they expound and also in the presentation of the finished package.

The hippie ethos is well present in this artifact. First, the title of the package. It is presented as something given from one to the many. It implies hippie collectivism, in that Donovan is but one flower growing amongst a multitude. This is self-deceiving on many levels. It is not a gift but a product. Donovan is not giving away his music for free but presenting it for commercial consumption. This does not make him evil but does make him no different from all other recording artists of this time. Yet Donovan is trying to make himself appear separate from the other musicians and also part of a movement (cynics may also view this as a commercial decision) - look, I am different from these other peddlers of exploitation - I am one of you. Compare this approach with that of Dylan who has always been aware of his part in a commerce-based industry and has never indicated that he thought of his work as a gift to his audience.

Second, the sleeve notes, which are a call to youth both to abandon drugs (an admirable exhortation when taking drugs to establish one's hipness was at its zenith) and to turn on to something else. Peace and love, basically. He also signs himself of as "thy humble minstrel" - ye gods! You are a pop singer, for fucks sake, not a wandering minstrel. You do Top of the Pops and interviews with teen pop magazines. You do concerts that people pay to see. You do not wander from town to town with a guitar strung across your back and a piece of straw in your mouth. You make records with Mickie Most who also produces Herman's Hermits and Lulu. Twat.

This is all so much hippie twaddle. Incidentally, there is also an accompanying short form video to this album (which appears to have been filmed, at least in part, at the Minack open air theatre in Cornwall) which features some of the songs and Donovan and others larking about in dressing up clothes.

Donovan himself is, of course, musical marmite. From Dylan copyist to babbler of pseudo-psychological bullshit, to ashram/guru following layabout, to fey wandering minstrel. His lyrics sometimes literally comprise meaningless syllables and he affects deliberate mispronunciations of words as well as speech impediments that he does not have. He tries to sound coy and unassuming and shy and abashed when in fact he has a massive ego and is hugely ambitious. His songs deal with inconsequential nonsense. He, along with Richard Branson, is the ultimate example of someone wearing hippie style to effect a capitalist outcome. He is a prat of the first order.

But, as with marmite, there is another view. Donovan once was a wandering minstrel who took his acoustic guitar with him from Scotland to wander around the South coast of England and further afield. Unlike, say, Dylan he never had to lie about working carnivals and riding for free on the trains, nor indeed did he have to change his name. He is the genuine article. His early Dylan soundalikes could be seen as the youthful musical tributes of an artist looking for his own style and sound and one which he very quickly found.

In his autobiography, Donovan claimed to have invented psychedelia and other sounds of the sixties and he was much mocked for this. The problem is that the chronology shows that Donovan was often there first. He put out an anti-war record in August 1965, he released "Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)" in October 1965 and having released this laidback groove wrote "Season of the Witch", a magnificent downer anthem. His first fully psychedelic lp was released in September 1966 (having been recorded in part as early as 1965) with full hippie accoutrements present and correct - from songs with girls names in the title to songs about mythical people and unusual instrumentation such as sitars and celestes being featured throughout as intrinsic to the sound rather than as ornamentation. He was one of the first to popularise setting songs specifically in London such as "Hampstead Incident", "Sunny Goodge Street" and "Sunny South Kensington" establishing London as a) sunny (??!!) and b) the epicentre of the soon come swinging world.

His influence is widespread. Many pop artists of the 60s copied his songwriting style. Marc Bolan took his childish, mystical schtick and turned into a career. Syd Barrett was influenced by Donovan's specificity. I think that The Incredible String Band arrived at their extraordinary music separate from and independent of Donovan but it is the case that Donovan got there first. Donovan's drawn-out, fey, specifically British enunciation was copied (along with Syd Barrett's) by first Ray Davies and then on into glam rock bands and then punk. All of British psychedelia's fascination with Alice in Wonderland and Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris etc. can be laid at Donovan's door along with that of The Beatles. He had an impact on the emerging American West Coast bands, specifically Jefferson Airplane with the whole "fly trans-love airways" thing, to the MC5's trans-love energies. There is a case that could be made that, other than The Beatles, Donovan was the single most influential artist of the late 60s (especially with Dylan effectively out of the picture).

"A Gift From a Flower to a Garden" was Donovan's fifth album in 3 years. That he had enough songs for a double album is tribute to his productivity and creativity during this time. He was also just 21 years of age. It feels like a classic case of an artist wanting to put out the material he had ready while it was still hot rather than wait for staggered release dates. Donovan had previous experience of this when his masterpiece lp ("Sunshine Superman") was finished in 1966 but not released in the UK until a year later, and then in corrupted form. It was the middle of the fastest moving decade for popular music. The Beatles had released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and The Beach Boys had put out "Pet Sounds". Dylan and Zappa's double albums were over a year old. You can understand Donovan worrying that the Summer of Love was happening without him, and without him receiving the credit he felt he was due for creating its soundtrack two years earlier. He must have wanted to make a statement. So what sort of statement does he make?

The group lp focuses on a jazz influenced, swingy sound. The instrumentation is relatively sparse but made to sound full. Lots of organ work and double bass and drums played with brushes. The opening track, "Wear Your Love Like Heaven", well illustrates one of Donovan's key gifts to psychedelic music - it is a move away from the verse-chorus-verse of pop songwriting. Although both Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson brought new and innovative chord structures and juxtapositions into the mix, it was Donovan who seems the first to move into individual lines in songs leading to other lines without having to reach a chorus (a technique that Lennon was to perfect on pieces like "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Strawberry Fields Forever"). The verse in "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" moves independently of the chorus and there is an unrelated musical segment that regularly appears in a different metre.

The songs on the first record are less ambitious in their scope and range than some of Donovan's earlier forays into psychedelia. There are references to rose carmethene and to alizarin crimson but also to Birmingham, Torquay and double eggs, chips and beans and the telly. Again, a bit of a Donovan trademark: linking the fanciful with the prosaic.

The second lp, although seemingly aimed at younger listeners, does not feature what might be termed childlike songs, certainly in comparison with his later kids lp "HMS Donovan". It sounds more like a straight folk lp featuring Donovan compositions rather than trad. arr. material, especially on the lovely "Isle of Islay". For the most part, the songs suit their unadorned settings. There are, now and then, some sound effects to make it sound like Donovan has recorded himself singing en plein air. Some slight additional instrumentation breaks out occasionally as on the calypso-flavoured "Lay of the Last Tinker" which contains the slightly strange lyrical invitation to "break cheese with me". Donovan sings all of the songs straight without any of his enunciation affectations, perhaps he sometimes over-emphasises his Scottish accent to try and sound more authentic but then again he is, like, Scottish. References to the natural world abound, from the naturalist's wife to the starry starfish and the herring shoals. Again, Donovan is master of that hippie trope that children and nature are good, ideal symbols of innocence and virtue compared with just about everything else.

Overall, it is not Donovan's best album but does maintain interest through its length and without there being any obvious inferior songs. It is an enjoyable listen.

No comments:

Post a Comment