Once again it’s time for tough decisions, decisions. The letter “d” in my music library revealed artists I’ve featured repeatedly here like Roger Daltrey, Dion, Deep Purple, Dire Straits and The Doors, to name some. And then there’s Donovan who by comparison I’ve covered less, so Donovan Phillips Leitch shall be the chosen one for my weekly desert island exercise.
While I can’t claim to be a Donovan expert, I can safely say I know more than two songs by the Scottish singer-songwriter, so I actually had to make a true decision which one to pick. If memory serves me right, Colours and Universal Soldier were the first two Donovan tunes I encountered. At the time, I was actively playing acoustic guitar and taking lessons. Especially Colours with its three chords was easy to learn, even if you didn’t have the skill set of a Jose Feliciano or Paul Simon – and I didn’t, not even at my best!
Back to the task at hand, which is answering the existential question, if I had to move to a desert island and could only take one Donovan song, which one would I pick? I decided to go with Sunshine Superman. I’ve always loved how this tune combines folk, blues and psychedelic music. It also turned out there’s a back story behind the song I had not been aware of.
Donovan wrote Sunshine Superman in response to the break-up with Linda Lawrence at the end of 1965. After the couple had dated for a short time, Lawrence, the former girlfriend of Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones, ended the relationship, not wanting to repeat getting the attention of being a music artist’s girlfriend.
Sunshine Superman first appeared as a single in July 1966, leading up to Donovan’s third studio album with the same title, which was released the following month, except for the UK. The tune became his first big hit and his only song to top the Billhoard Hot 100 in the U.S. Due to a contractual dispute, the single didn’t appear in the the UK until December 1966. The album was pushed back as well until September that year. Sunshine Superman (the single) still did pretty well, climbing to no. 8 of the Offical Singles Chart. Sunshine Superman also proved to be popular in Australia (no. 4), The Netherlands (no. 2) and Germany (no. 7).
Following is how Donovan played Sunshine Superman in January 2007 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. This is taken from a DVD, Donovan: Live in L.A. at the Kodak Theatre, which appeared in January 2008. It’s a more funky version – not bad!
What else is there to say? Let’s take a look at Songfacts:
It’s not a normal love song, the singer told Mojo magazine June 2011. “On the face of it, the song is about being with Linda again. But sunshine is a nickname for acid. The Superman is the person capable of entering higher states because it’s not easy to go into the fourth dimension and see the matrix of the universe in which everything is connected. The line, ‘everybody’s hustling’ referred to the pop scene at the time, where you could lose yourself very easily. Gyp (Mills – Donovan’s lifelong friend and tour manager) would always keep my feet on the ground; we had left home at 16 to busk so we could see fame for what it is.”
Donovan was good friends with The Beatles, and they were both making very innovative and trippy music at the time. Donovan’s producer Mickie Most told him not to play the Sunshine Superman album to Paul McCartney under any circumstances, because he knew McCartney would be tempted to do something similar.
Donovan recalled to Uncut magazine: “My arse was being sued by Pye after Sunshine Superman so, my masterwork, sat on the shelves for seven months. If you date it, it was at least a year and a half before Sgt Pepper and I remember Mickie saying to me, ‘Don’t play it to McCartney’ but of course everybody was sharing with everyone else and nicking from each other.”
“I played it to McCartney anyway,” he continued. “But they were already there, anyway, and George Martin was doing something similar with The Beatles, working out arrangements from ideas they had in their heads. George Martin was The Beatles’ guy and John Cameron was my guy and they both had an appreciation of jazz which was key.” Originally, the “Sunshine Superman” single was subtitled “For John And Paul,” a reference to Lennon and McCartney.
A few additional tidbits:
A busy session guitarist called Jimmy Page played lead guitar on the recording of Sunshine Superman.
Sunshine Superman is considered to be among the first overtly psychedelic pop songs.
Apparently, the tune made The Beatles’ video for A Day in the Life, in which it supposedly can be seen to spin on a turntable. Of course, the nerd in me had to check it out. While there is very brief footage of a spinning record around the 4:00 minute mark, frankly, I find it impossible to name it. Perhaps you need to be on a controlled substance to see it! 🙂
The trippy clip also features other music artists like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. At around 38 seconds, there’s a guy on the left side, who could be Donovan, though I’m not sure – again, a mind-enhancing pill might help! 🙂
The story behind Sunshine Superman had a happy end. In October 1970, Linda Lawrence became Donovan’s wife, and they remain together to this day. How many other music artists can you name, who have been married for 50-plus years?
Donovan, now 75 years old, is still active and maintains a website, where you can listen to his most recent single Gimme Some of That, which came out in October 2021.
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Donovan website; YouTube