Thursday, 17 June 2021

Hurdy Gurdy Songs: Words & Music by Donovan 1965-1971 - CD Review


A CD review by Stuart Penney

Tricky things, cover version albums.  They seldom improve on the original recordings and yet they often give familiar material an entirely new spin, reminding us exactly why we loved the songs so much in the first place.  The Ace label are old hands at this, having compiled countless such collections over the years, each one put together with loving care and meticulous attention to detail.  

Hurdy Gurdy Songs is described in the release blurb as “A kaleidoscopic trip into the craft of one of the most covered and influential songwriters of the 60s.  Features eclectic readings of hits and deep cuts, including some never recorded by Donovan himself”.  That’s a fair description of what’s on offer here, with the track listing running the musical gamut from the sublime (Deep Purple) to the somewhat ridiculous (Eartha Kitt) and all stops in between.  If nothing else, it serves to demonstrate just how good the source material is, allowing itself to be moulded into virtually any style and genre without losing the inherent magic.  

Donovan is well overdue for a collection like this.  His material has been covered countless times (with varying degrees of success) since he first arrived on the pop scene in 1965.  These 24 songs are drawn from his most prolific period 1965-71, when he was writing and recording some of the most captivating and original psych/pop music of his generation.  This CD is the perfect companion to those timeless original recordings.  

Track Listing:

1. Museum - Herman's Hermits (1967)

Donovan and the Hermits were part of the Mickie Most production stable, so it was no surprise when Herman was gifted one of Don’s songs to record.  The lyrics of “Museum” were probably a little weird for the Hermits’ teenage demographic, however, and while the single limped into the lower reaches of the US top 40, it sank without trace in Britain where it became their first 45 which failed to chart.  It’s a great record though with an impressive big band arrangement and became the opening track of Herman’s October 1967 Blaze album.

The song was also covered in 1967 by Beverley Kutner (later Beverley Martyn) and Noel Harrison.  

Due to the well-documented legal wrangles which threw his UK releases into chaos, Donovan’s original version of “Museum” didn’t appear in Britain until the CD era when the Mellow Yellow album was belatedly released.

2. Superlungs - Terry Reid (1969)

The one thing almost everyone knows about Terry Reid is that he was Jimmy Page’s first choice as vocalist for Led Zeppelin.  He turned LZ down and recommended Robert Plant instead, which turned out rather well for all concerned, except Terry, perhaps.

It goes without saying therefore that he is a remarkable singer with a tremendous voice and, had the cards fallen differently, he might have been a huge star instead of just a respected footnote in rock history.  Reid makes this song his own and delivers what is surely the definitive version, aided by a typically great production from Mickie Most.  Lyrically the song sails very close to the wind, extoling the virtues of dope smoking 14-year-old schoolgirls but, hey, this was 1969, after all.  

Although it appears here as simply “Superlungs” the song started life as “Superlungs My Supergirl” on Reid’s self-titled second album (US title Move Over… For Terry Reid).  Donovan first released it officially on his 1969 Barabajagal album and a brace of earlier outtake versions also appeared as bonus tracks on the Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow CDs.


3. Sunny Goodge Street - Tom Northcott (1967)

Tom Northcott is a Canadian folk-rock singer who enjoyed brief success in his own country before dropping out of music in the early 70s for a career in politics and law.  

Possibly anticipating problems gaining North American airplay, Northcott’s recording of “Sunny Goodge Street” replaced the line “violent hash-smoker” with the more anodyne “fearless believer”.  Nevertheless, with the venerated Leon Russell and Lenny Waronker at the controls, this is a great-sounding record with a lush production and a complex arrangement. 

Northcott’s single made the Canadian singles charts, peaking at #20, but failed to gain traction in the US where it stalled at #123.


4. The Pebble and the Man - Bridget St John (1971)

There has long been confusion about the title of this song.  It first appeared on the 1968 LP Donovan In Concert as “The Pebble and the Man” with Don’s spoken introduction: “Here's a pretty little song that I don't know what it's called quite yet”.  It next appeared as “Happiness Runs” on Mary Hopkin’s 1969 Post Card album.  Donovan also released a studio version with that title on his Barabajagal LP the same year. 

So it was all a little confusing when, in 1971, the song turned up as “The Pebble and the Man” once again on Bridget St John’s second album Songs For The Gentle Man.  Produced by Ron Geeson, better known for his work with Pink Floyd, this version really brings out the melody and, whatever the title, few could deny the charms of this delightful, childlike ditty.


5. Sunshine Superman - The Standells (1967)

The Standells are probably best known for their 1965 hit “Dirty Water”, a garage band classic found on virtually every Nuggets-style compilation.  Their version of “Sunshine Superman” is more restrained and remarkably similar to the Donovan original in tempo and performance, leaving only a few rough edges as a nod to their garage roots.  It appeared on their third album The Hot Ones! released in January 1967 alongside covers of recent hits by the Troggs, Monkees, Kinks, Beatles, Lovin’ Spoonful, Rolling Stones etc.

Fun fact: In 1964 Gary Leeds was briefly a member of the Standells. But by the time they recorded this song he had changed his name to Gary Walker and was enjoying huge success in Britain as drummer with the Walker Brothers.


6. Hurdy Gurdy Man - Eartha Kitt (1970)

Those of a certain age will remember Eartha Kitt for her mid-50s hits such as “Just An Old Fashioned Girl” delivered in that tremulous, oh-so-sexy voice.  A decade later she appeared as Catwoman in the Batman TV series and more recently provided distinctive voiceovers for several Disney animations.  

With an eclectic CV like that it really wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine Eartha tackling one of Donovan’s pop psych gems.  Sure, it’s a bizarre version but the band are well up to the job, and she delivers an unforgettable vocal performance.  And if you thought it was a one-off, take a listen to Ms Kitt’s 1970 album Sentimental Eartha where, in addition to “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, she also covered Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and “Catch The Wind” with equal flamboyance.


7. Young Girl Blues - Marianne Faithfull (1967)

One of Donovan’s most personal songs, “Young Girl Blues” was split between the delayed UK hybrid Sunshine Superman LP and the US Mellow Yellow album.  Almost before Don’s version was in the stores, however, both Julie Felix and Marianne Faithfull had covered the song - Julie for her Flowers album (where it was renamed “Saturday Night”) and Marianne on Love In A Mist

Both girls recorded several Donovan songs in the 60s, so it was no surprise they jumped on this one with its sensitive narrative delivered directly from a female point of view.  While Donovan wrote the song in the third person, Marianne and Julie sang it in first person, giving the lyrics an sometimes uncomfortable intimacy.  Of the two versions, Marianne’s won out with its understated string arrangement, acoustic guitar and a delightfully dreamy vocal.  

Her Love In A Mist album featured no fewer than three Donovan songs.  Alongside “Young Girl Blues” were “In The Night Time” and “Good Guy” which were retitled covers of “Hampstead Incident” and “Bert’s Blues” respectively.  It would be Marianne’s last album for a decade.  When she returned, her image had changed and her voice had become decidedly huskier. 

8. Poor Cow - Noel Harrison (1969)

Noel Harrison, the son of My Fair Lady actor Rex Harrison, dabbled in both music and acting, recording at least six albums during the 60s.  He covered “Poor Cow” for 1969’s The Great Electric Experiment Is Over alongside songs by Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Fred Neil and others.  Harrison’s received pronunciation makes for an unusual vocal performance, but it works fine, aided by a solid arrangement and an array of big name LA session players.  

“Windmills Of Your Mind” from the film The Thomas Crown Affair was Harrison’s only major hit, yet he was clearly preoccupied with Donovan, as the B-side of that single was the self-penned “Leitch On The Beach”.  

"Poor Cow” was originally written as “Poor Love” for an aborted Lord of the Rings project.  The song was re-structured with slightly different lyrics for the soundtrack of the 1967 Ken Loach movie Poor Cow.  A different version then surfaced as the B-side of Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper” single.  A live version from November 1967 was included on the Donovan In Concert album, released in August 1968.

9. Celeste - Paul Jones (1969)

Original Manfred Mann vocalist Paul Jones quit the group in July 1966 to pursue a solo music and acting career.  His third UK solo LP (or his fourth in the US, where the Privilege EP was padded out to album length) Come Into My Music Box contained an ill-matched assortment of covers by The Band, Foundations, Marvin Gaye, Mama Cass and Procol Harum.  

“Celeste” is a gorgeous tune by any measure and Jones makes a decent job of it, aided by a lavish string arrangement from long-time Donovan collaborator John Cameron, who worked on the original Sunshine Superman album version. 

It was a case of: close, but no cigar for Paul Jones.

10. Season of The Witch - Lou Rawls (1969)

This is possibly Donovan’s most covered song with notable recordings by Dr. John, Al Kooper & Stephen Stills, Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger & the Trinity, Vanilla Fudge and a dozen more.  The languid A7 to D7 chord sequence provides a perfect launchpad for improvisation in almost any style, including the laidback soul funk of Lou Rawls.  

Lou’s version appeared on his 1969 Capitol records album The Way It Was, The Way It Is with a typically powerful David Axelrod production.

11. Translove Airways (Fat Angel) - Big Jim Sullivan (1967)

Thanks to the Beatles, Donovan and others, sitars became almost de rigueur in mid-60s pop/psych (witness the front cover of this very CD!).  Session guitarist extraordinaire Big Jim Sullivan, a veteran of countless chart hits (plus at least three Donovan albums) jumped on the bandwagon with his 1967 solo LP Sitar A Go Go (aka Sitar Beat).  

With generic tracks such as “Flower Power”, “The Sitar And The Rose” and the almost inevitable “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” the album bordered on kitsch lounge music at times, but with two Donovan covers (“Sunshine Superman” was also featured) and a brace of Beatles’ numbers it’s now a sought-after collector’s item.

You’d never know it, but this delightfully funky instrumental is a cover of “The Fat Angel”, yet another Donovan song which appeared on the US Sunshine Superman album but was unreleased in the UK until the CD era.


12. You Just Gotta Know My Mind - Dana Gillespie (1968) 

This superb version of a still-unreleased Donovan tune is almost worth the price of admission alone.  The song dates from his early Denmark Street days and had already been covered by US singer Karen Verros (1965) and Swedish band Steampacket II (1966) before Dana Gillespie gave us what is surely the definitive recording.  

All versions received the same stripped down, garage band treatment, and if you didn’t know, you’d never guess it was a Donovan song.  It’s thought that an uncredited Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones played on the Dana Gillespie session, making the record hugely collectable today.  It appeared on her US album Foolish Seasons and was also issued as a UK Decca single.  

Fun fact: Australian indie band the Hummingbirds recorded a retro version of “You Just Gotta Know My Mind” in 1992 which even featured a picture of Donovan on the CD single sleeve.

13. Oh Gosh - Sandie Shaw (1969)

Sandie Shaw’s 1969 album Reviewing The Situation was clearly an attempt to throw off her lightweight pop image and reposition her as a serious artist.  It featured some unusual reinterpretations of songs by the Beatles, Stones, Bee Gees, Lovin’ Spoonful etc.  It also included “Your Time Is Gonna Come” which is thought to be the first-ever Led Zeppelin cover version. 

Donovan could usually get away with recording a seemingly airy-fairy song such as “Oh Gosh”, but others needed to tread more carefully.  Sandie’s version walks a fine line between charming and cringingly twee and often ends up on the wrong side.


14. There Is A Mountain – Dandy (1967)

Released in November 1967, only weeks after Donovan’s hit single, Dandy Livingstone’s reggae take on “There Is a Mountain” remained faithful to the original, with just a couple of modifications.  On the line “then there is no mountain, then there is” Dandy changed the scansion, making it shorter, which sounds hurried and very wrong on first hearing.  He also doesn’t seem too sure of the lyrics in places.

Donovan’s original had a definite reggae feel to start with, so Dandy didn’t have to work too hard with his somewhat lightweight version.


15. Try And Catch The Wind - The Gosdin Brothers (1968)

Changing the tempo from the original 3/4 waltz time to straight 4/4 and giving it a country rock treatment transformed “Catch The Wind” into one of the strongest tracks here. 

Rex and Vern Gosdin are probably best known for their work with Gene Clark but this track, with its extended title, appeared on their 1968 album Sounds Of Goodbye.  Vern Gosdin went on to record solo under his own name after this.


16. Skip-A-Long Sam - The Sugar Shoppe (1968)

Toronto quartet The Sugar Shoppe were pitched as Canada’s answer to the Mamas & the Papas.  They released just one album and while the material may have been lightweight, the backing musicians, including members of the Wrecking Crew - Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel, Earl Palmer etc., - certainly were not.  

“Skip-A-Long Sam” was the opening track on the LP and it was also released as a single, reaching #73 in the Canadian charts.


17. Snakeskin - Julie Felix (1971)

American folk singer Julie Felix was resident in the UK from 1964 to her recent death in 2020.  During the late 60s she hosted her own highly regarded BBC TV series which included elite musical guests such as Jimmy Page, the Incredible String Band, Leonard Cohen and Fleetwood Mac.  Naturally, Julie drifted into Donovan’s orbit and she recorded at least seven of his songs across her albums.

The hard rocking “Snakeskin” was originally recorded by Donovan in 1968 but remained unreleased by him until 2005 when it emerged as a bonus track on the Barabajagal CD reissue.  The song was gifted to Julie Felix and in January 1971 it appeared in the UK as a non-album single on Mickie Most’s RAK label.


18. Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness) - Keith Shields (1967)

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 US album Animalism and other cover versions followed by the Truth, the Soul Survivors and this one by Keith Shields.  

Shields who, serendipitously or otherwise, really did hail from North Shields on Tyneside, appears to have released just three obscure singles for Decca before disappearing from the pop scene.  All of them were produced by ex-Animals guitarist and fellow Tynesider Hilton Valentine, including a vigorous freakbeat version of “Hey Gyp”.  So rare and highly prized has this single become that bootleg copies with fake Decca labels have been circulating among collectors.

19. Three King Fishers - Gábor Szabó (1968)

Hungarian gypsy jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó was no stranger to rock and pop.  Every track except two on his 1968 LP Bacchanal was an interpretation of a recent pop hit or movie soundtrack theme.  Donovan is represented twice with instrumental cover versions of “Sunshine Superman” and “Three King Fishers”, the latter a wonderfully atmospheric modal piece with a strong Indian flavour.  A third Donovan cover - “Ferris Wheel” - appeared on Szabó’s next album Dreams, also from 1968.  All three songs originated on the US incarnation of the Sunshine Superman album.

20. Hampstead Incident – Bojoura (1968)

A contender for the most obscure recording here, Bojoura’s version of “Hampstead Incident” seems to have been released only in her native Netherlands on her 1968 debut album Night Flight Night Sight (a UK CD later appeared in 2010).  It’s a decent arrangement, if a little overwrought vocally and adds little or nothing to a similar 1967 recording by Marianne Faithfull (which was titled “In The Night Time”). 

Far more interesting is Bojoura’s connection to the Dutch band Focus.  She played and recorded with vocalist/flautist/keyboardist Thijs van Leer and later married Hans Cleuver who was the group’s drummer in 1969-70.

21. Wear Your Love Like Heaven - Peggy Lipton (1970)

This is a strange one.  Peggy Lipton was primarily an actress who also recorded one album and a handful of singles between 1968-70.  She appeared in ABC TV dramas Twin Peaks and The Mod Squad and for 15 years was married to Quincy Jones.  

Starting with a rollicking Leon Russell style piano grab from “Sunshine Superman” before dramatically shifting gear into the slower tempo of “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”, this can only be described as sunshine pop, bordering on easy listening.  

Produced by Lou Adler (and released on his Ode label) this stand-alone single probably featured the same impressive line-up of musicians as Peggy’s 1968 self-titled album, including Jim Gordon (drums), Jim Horn (sax), Larry Knechtel (keyboards) and Hal Blaine (musical director).

22. Jennifer Juniper - The Sandpipers (1968)

Another generous helping of unashamed easy listening, this time courtesy of the “Guantanamera” hitmakers, The Sandpipers.  This is probably not how Donovan envisaged his February 1968 hit single would end up and, even allowing for the recent revival of (ironic) interest in lounge music, sitting through this syrupy version is like wading through aural quicksand. 

It originally appeared on the Sandpipers’ 1968 LP Softly, alongside similar MOR-tastic treatments of songs by Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Tim Hardin and the Beatles.

23. Legend of A Girl Child Linda - Joan Baez with Judy Collins & Mimi Fariña (1967)

This is taken from a 1967 compilation LP Save The Children on the Women Strike For Peace label.  WSP was founded in 1961 to protest US and Soviet atmospheric nuclear tests – their motto: “End the Arms Race – Not the Human Race.”

Joan Baez was no stranger to the anti-war movement of course and in May 1965 she was seen at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) march in London together with Donovan, Tom Paxton and Vanessa Redgrave.  A young pre-fame Marc Bolan (then still known as Mark Feld) was also present and managed to get himself in the photos of the event.

Individually and together Joan, Judy and Mimi had already recorded a number of Donovan songs (or performed them in concert) with excellent results.  However, with three such pure (and, at times, strident) voices fighting it out, this four-minute song with its succession of identical verses palls somewhat before the end.  

Providing accompaniment here is Bruce Langhorne, the respected Greenwich Village guitarist who played on virtually every Bob Dylan album from 1963-65. 

24. Lalena - Deep Purple (1969)

Before they fully committed to heavy metal in 1970 Deep Purple’s early records were littered with interesting covers of sometimes unlikely pop songs by the likes of Neil Diamond, Joe South and the Beatles.  For their self-titled third album released in June 1969 they tackled “Lalena” a US-only Donovan single which was then just a few months old. 

It would prove to be virtually the last cover version Purple ever recorded and within weeks of the album’s release vocalist Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper were replaced by Ian Gillan and Roger Glover and an entirely new chapter had begun.  

But this a masterful version of a great song with Evans’ operatic vocals and Jon Lord’s Hammond organ well to the fore and it makes a fitting closing track for this collection. 

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