The Top 50:
47: Ferris Wheel (1966)
Featuring no chorus or middle eight, this hypnotic Sunshine Superman song uses just two chords throughout. Driven by Shawn Phillips on sitar, it bears a passing resemblance to the verse of Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo”, also from 1966. Apparently based on a true story about a girl who really did catch her hair in a ferris wheel.
45: Peregrine (1968)
Dedicated to George Harrison and taking its cue from the likes of “Blue Jay Way” and “Within You, Without You”, this song has a strong eastern flavour. It’s driven by a harmonium drone plus bowed double bass and bongos. Find it on the Hurdy Gurdy Man album.
43: In an Old-Fashioned Picture Book (1971)
Epic records declined to release HMS Donovan in America and so it was issued only in the UK on the Dawn label, Pye’s progressive rock imprint. Presumably Epic reasoned that an acoustic double album of children’s songs and nursery rhymes wasn’t exactly destined for the top of the charts. It was their loss, however, because HMS Donovan is a thoroughly charming record with much to recommend it. The delightful cover painting was by John “Patrick” Byrne, who also designed sleeves for fellow Scots the Humblebums, Stealers Wheel and Gerry Rafferty. ”Patrick” even submitted a design for the Beatles’ “White Album” which was held over until 1980 when it was used instead for The Beatles Ballads compilation. “In An Old Fashioned Picture Book” is a typically whimsical Donovan acoustic song from the period with a great tune and some lovely acoustic guitar work.
|*The House of Jansch itself (right)– 30 Somali Road, Cricklewood|
34: Celeste (1966)
“Majestic” is the only way to describe the closing track on the US Sunshine Superman album. It rolls along on a wave of stately church organ with added harpsichord and sitar. Like so many Donovan songs from this period it has an unforgettable melody, too. Covered by the “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)” hitmaker Scott McKenzie on his 1967 debut album and erstwhile Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones on Come Into My Music Box in 1969.
33: Coulter’s Candy (1971)
This lively Scottish children’s song opens side two of HMS Donovan. Written by Robert Coltart (1832 - 1880), “Coulter’s Candy” started life as an advertising jingle for the aniseed-flavoured confectionery he manufactured in Melrose and sold around the markets of the Scottish Border towns. In 2019 a statue of Coltart was erected in his hometown of Galashiels.
|*News story in Melody Maker, November 1966|
With Donovan on 12-string guitar plus Cozy Powell on drums, Chris Spedding on bouzouki and Clive Chaman on bass “Maria Magenta” was the second single from Cosmic Wheels. It failed to chart but works just fine as an album track.
The first two Donovan albums were recorded at Peer Music, a small studio located in the basement of Southern Music at 8 Denmark Street in London’s West End. In 1992 Southern Music became the last major publisher to move out of Tin Pan Alley amid the influx of guitar stores. “Candy Man” opens side two of Fairytale with a powerful acoustic performance.
23: Sunny Goodge Street (1965)
With jazz guitar chords, brass arrangement, cello and the legendary Harold McNair on flute (his first appearance on a Donovan record?) this gentle Fairytale track was a giant leap forward from the early acoustic folk material. The line “Violent hash smoker shook a chocolate machine” drew the attention of the notorious Sgt Norman Pilcher of the Drug Squad and in June 1966 Don was the first British rock star of note to be busted. Covered by Judy Collins and Marianne Faithfull among others, it was the earliest of several Donovan songs to namecheck a London location.
22: Colours (1965)
Donovan’s simple but catchy second single reached #4 in Britain, but only #61 in the US. He played the song in an open D tuning (D-A-D-F#-A-D) with a capo on the second fret, transposing it to the key of E major. The single version featured harmonica, which is missing on the Fairytale recording.
21: Legend Of A Girl Child Linda (1966)
A stand-out track from Sunshine Superman, this almost seven-minute song is basically a succession of 18 identical verses with no choruses, middle eight or bridge. The magic arrives via John Cameron’s quite amazing string and woodwind arrangement which grows, verse by verse, turning the simple tune into an orchestral tour de force. Written for Linda Lawrence, now Donovan’s wife of 50 years, but in 1966 the girlfriend of Brian Jones.
17: Sailing Homeward (1973)
16: Riki Tiki Tavi (1970)
After inventing psychedelia and heavy rock, Donovan then moved on to create hip hop with this Open Road track. Not really, but “Riki Tiki Tavi” does feature a thoroughly convincing proto-rap section, it must be said. The song is loosely based around Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book character although in the original story the name of the mongoose was spelled Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. A much longer 1969 recording, featuring only Donovan plus Harold McNair on flute, appeared on the 1992 career retrospective Troubadour.
Although authorship is credited to Donovan, this rhythmic two chord acoustic rocker is probably based on Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy’s 1930 recording of “Can I Do It For You” with the title changed in tribute to Don’s buddy Gypsy Dave. Eric Burdon and the Animals quickly picked it up for their 1966 album Animalism. In 2001 a generic recording was used in a General Motors TV commercial using the opening line of the song “I’ll buy you a Chevrolet”. As recently as 2019 Jack White recorded a version with the Raconteurs which captured much of the energy of Donovan’s original.
|*Kate Bush’s cover of Lord of the Reedy River with a tribute to Donovan in the runout grooves|
2: Epistle to Dippy (1967)
How to describe “Epistle to Dippy”? Let’s just say it’s Donovan at his absolute acid rock pinnacle. With a fabulous tune and delightfully nonsensical lyrics, this is British psychedelia 101. Did I mention that’s Jimmy Page on guitar, making his second appearance on a Donovan record? This non-album track was issued as a US single in February 1967 and later appeared as a bonus track on the Mellow Yellow album.
With so many classics to choose from, picking Donovan’s best track was never going to be an easy task, but after much deliberation I’m opting for this one. Written alongside the Beatles in India during their 1968 visit to study Transcendental Meditation under the Maharishi, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is a 3-minute psych masterpiece and one of the most original pop singles of the 60s. It combines elements of everything that made Donovan’s records so beguiling: psychedelic whimsy, eastern influences, otherworldly vocals and a killer guitar solo. Don originally wanted Hendrix to play on the record, but Jimi was unavailable and so was second choice Jimmy Page. Eventually the task fell to session player Alan Parker who, under the circumstances (no pressure, then?), played an absolute blinder. George Harrison wrote a few lines for the song which were not recorded and Donovan now sings the Quiet One’s 'lost verse' when he performs “Hurdy Gurdy Man” live. It's hard to think of another record this side of the Beatles which taps into the 60s zeitgeist so comprehensively. The song has been covered at least a dozen times by the likes of Butthole Surfers, Steve Hillage and even Neil from The Young Ones. But the version to look out for must surely be the 1970 recording by Eartha Kitt from her album Sentimental Eartha.