Thursday, November 27, 2008

'66: Donovan

Donovan -- Sunshine Superman

Finishing up the list of Number One hits of 1966, Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" was the first pop hit to mention the Man of Steel, though not the last: Herbie Man, the Ides of March, Dino, Desi and Billy, Donna Fargo and Five For Fighting would all follow on the Billboard Hot 100 with songs named "Superman", while yet another "Superman" showed up as the B-side of The Clique's Tommy James cover, "Sugar on Sunday" in 1969 (and that one turned up as a "hidden track" on REM's 1986 album "Lifes Rich Pageant.")

When "Sunshine Superman" hit in the fall of 1966, I'm reminded of how in the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, Calvin's father remarked one day "the world turned color in 1966." For me that statement was more or less correct: our family got its first color TV, a Philco, on Christmas of that year. As I recall about half of TV network programs were 'colorized' about that time, and soon after, networks went merrily kandy-koating TV shows with bright, garish costumes and backgrounds. "Sunshine Superman," to my knowledge the first "psychedelic" pop hit ("could've tripped out easy, but I've changed my ways") served notice that psychedelia was going to be a driving force in pop, as it was for the next couple of years. And, bear in mind that "Superman" was recorded a good seven months before it was released.

Donovan had been previously known as a Dylan-esque folk singer (but rather more wistful than Bob would ever allow himself to be); "Superman" was the beginning of a very successful 3-year collaboration between the Scotsman and British pop producer Mickie Most, which would see him through his most popular period in the USA on the Epic label. Future Yardbird and Zeppelin Jimmy Page can be heard on lead guitar,and arranger John Cameron played harpsichord. 

"Superman" has been covered by artists as diverse as Jewel, Hüsker Dü, Spirit of the West and yes, Mel Tormé, and made the Top 40 again in 1997 as a sample on Imani Coppola's "Legends of a Cowgirl" (though I remember reading at the time that Coppola didn't care for the original all that much).

Donovan -- Mellow Yellow

As it turns out, the Glaswegian also had the biggest Number Two hit in 1966, as his followup to "Superman" peaked in December 1966, stalling behind "Winchester Cathedral" and  "Good Vibrations." Donovan denies "Yellow" being about smoking banana peels (despite the phrase "electrical banana") but rather the relaxed, calm feeling after smoking pot; or a vibrator -- depending on what interview you read. "Yellow" employs future Zeppelin John Paul Jones supervising a horn arrangement that, at first, was a little to brassy for Donovan, who feared it came across too much like what would accompany a stripper. Applying mutes to the horns, Donovan got what he wanted. Rumor had it that Paul McCartney was whispering "quite rightly" throughout, but it later came out that that was Donovan himself (and I never thought it sounded like Paul, anyway).

The Coca-Cola company introduced a Mello Yello soft drink in 1979 to compete with Pepsi's Mountain Dew; Coca-Cola has by 2008 replaced it in most markets with Vault.

1 comment:

Frank Jump said...

Always loved Donovan. The best YES concert ever was in 1977 when Donovan opened for them. Truly incredible. I have since seen him in other venues but that night was electric. And YES's debut of GOING FOR THE ONE was also unforgettable.