Donovan Talks About His Psychedelic Masterpiece 'Sunshine Superman' on Its 50th Anniversary

One of the first examples of psychedelic music celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and it comes from what some may consider an unlikely source—the gentle folkie, Donovan.
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PHOTO: Harry Herd | Getty Images

One of the first examples of psychedelic music celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and it comes from what some may consider an unlikely source—the gentle folkie, Donovan. But when Sunshine Superman was released in the U.S. in September 1966, it not only topped the Billboard charts, it made Donovan a superstar, and introduced elements of world music, Celtic mythology, and swinging London into the mainstream pop universe.

“It’s very important to remember that love songs are very important,” says Donovan about his extraordinary musical achievement, “and the love story of Linda [Lawrence]—my muse and sunshine supergirl—and me is all over this album.”

How did the jazz elements seep into “Sunshine Superman”?
I was known as a folkie, yes, but my parents always played high-quality jazz at home, so that style was with me, as well. I was playing “Sunshine Superman” in a kind of funky Latin-jazz way, and [Sunshine Superman producer] Mickie Most said, “That’s the single! What do you hear on it?” I said, “A harpsichord, congas, bass, and a jazz guitar.” I didn’t have a band, you see, so Mickie introduced me to the jazz arranger John Cameron, and John said, “I love the song. Don’t worry—I know what you need.”

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What about “Season of the Witch”?
Bert Jansch taught me the descending pattern of the Am down to the G bass to the F# bass to the F bass, and also the shape of the D9 chord. I recorded “Bert’s Blues” on the album as a tribute to him, in fact. Bert always had players from all over Europe stay with him, and I was messing with the chords in his kitchen. John Renbourn was there, and also Shawn Phillips—who picked up a 12-string, and started doing some lines. The D9 helped me crack the song, and John said that I played “Season of the Witch” for seven hours straight, all night and into the dawn. I didn’t know what I had. I didn’t know that I had something that would last this long.

When we recorded it, I used my first electric guitar— a white Telecaster—and started chunking the chords. Mickie said, “That’s it!” Then, we added the spooky, Dracula- movie organ, bass, and drums. It’s funny—the engineers wouldn’t let us turn up the bass because the signal was going into the red. But Mickie said, “Listen, Clive Davis in New York just gave me three-million dollars to record three British bands. Do you think if I called him and asked for a little bit more bass that he’d give it to me?” The engineers looked at each other, and said, “Okay, Mr. Most, you can turn up the bass.” [Laughs.]

How did you decide to meld so many influences together—jazz, Indian, Celtic, folk, rock, jazz, classical, and so on—to craft such a psychedelic world-music album?
The idea was this, and it was very simple—bring all world music together. I wasn’t in one genre like all the other bands at the time. I didn’t have to do just jazz, blues, or pop. I thought, “If we’re really going to be talking about unity, consciousness, meditation, peace, brotherhood, and the coming together of all nations, this was going to have to be done musically. That was the concept.”

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