Monday, October 3, 2011

Back to the Future: Donovan: "Sunshine Superman"

The term "psychedelic" comes from two Greek words - "psyche" (the soul) and "deloun" (to manifest). With this song the psychedelic era comes to this blog, though in truth psychedelic music had existed for at least a year if not more (Pet Sounds is psychedelic in the sense that it is a soul-manifesting album, for instance). It was recorded a year earlier but due to record company problems was a hit in the UK long after it got to #1 in the US. (Trust a Scotsman to be ahead of the curve musically.)

The term psychedelic was coined in 1957* - ten years earlier - to describe what LSD actually (they hoped) would do. It was never meant to be used outside of psychotherapy, originally, and many doctors and scientists did experiments to see what effect it would have on patients and 'artistic'** types. By the mid-60s they had determined that it was a drug with a rather unpredictable effect on people, and was much tougher to obtain, which didn't stop those in the know from getting it and giving it to those who felt they needed to go on their own trip. Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and other respected folks encouraged those who were disenchanted to take it and enlighten themselves - to see the world in a new way and thence evolve.

Suffice it to say this Utopian idea - tuning in, turning on and dropping out - appealed to many who felt that just about everything going on in the 60s was wrong - the war, racism, sexism, the boring straight world with its hierarchies and tragic lack of soul. Others took it to prove they were brave enough to do so - Ken Kesey's acid tests had turned many on the West Coast on in '66-'65 - though taking it was never supposed to be about posing or boasting. It is also true that musicians who took LSD had to have a strong constitution to survive doing so, and that many tried to get their experiences into their songs, via words and/or music. It naturally appealed to those who were bored, restless, experimental - John Lennon and George Harrison were the LSD heads in The Beatles, for instance, as opposed to McCartney (who by this time still hadn't tried it). In the UK it was an American import and was one of those scandalous drugs that led to drug busts, even though it was not a crime to possess it (other ones, such as pot or cocaine, yes).

If you are wondering why I am going on about a drug as opposed to a song, that is because this year is unlike any others. This is the crossroads; this is the tightrope moment when musicians - particularly UK ones - begin to break down barriers and experiment and really listen to each other. LSD has a way of breaking down barriers as well of course, of making what is there simply more intense or perceptible in a way close to a mystical experience. It's a Utopian time all right, but with drugs there is always the risk that something will go wrong, that the classic "good idea at the time" will evaporate and what seems to be glaringly obvious to the tripper will be fuzzy or incoherent to those straighter folk who are trying to understand what the heck is going on.

1967 is unlike any other years in that so many musicians did their best to express the inexpressible and give the world a chance to hear what they heard, see what they saw, with uniformly stunning results. Apart from the strobe lights, fluorescent posters and the like, the music is what really lasts from this period; that a huge generation experienced it and gave it its popularity in the first place means I have always known it, almost have over-heard it, if that's possible.

Donovan's proud boasting that he can outdo Superman and Green Lantern in his exploits in order to win his girl are one thing, but a video with no lip-syncing is another, not to mention those psychedelic hallmark: distorted pictures, kites and random wackiness (avec kitten). This is psychedelic courting, full of pearls and rainbows and a sly wink in the song that doesn't take away from its seriousness. I grew up in a house full of Donovan's records and so this is as familiar to me as The Beach Boys. That it could be heard as an invitation from the hip to the straights to succumb to the ennobling and beautiful world post-trip is also there, the appeal as warm and enriching as, well, sunshine itself. But as we all know, too much sunshine can be dangerous, and LSD was never meant to be taken for that long.

This is the sunny introduction to a year that will transform a great deal of what can be thought of as 'rock' (in just about every way possible). It brings Jimmy Page (electric guitar) into this saga as well, then just a session musician who was still (at the time of recording) to join The Yardbirds. A whole world is opening up, erratically but inevitably, as the counterculture/flower power movement moves in from the fringes and starts to get noticed; hippies spring up wildflower-like and the enchanting strangeness and startling humor - not to mention rebelliousness - give The Man plc a big headache. The laid-back mood of the year is set, with barely one or two club hits managing to make it to #2, and none make it to #1 (save "I'm a Believer"). The torrid excitements of '66 are fading, to be replaced by musicians who are starting to slow down so they can hear each other better, who are becoming - for now - a real community. Their souls, if you like, are staring to manifest.

*LSD itself was invented in 1943, though its psychedelic properties weren't discovered for a few years.

**My father was the subject of an experiment, along with another painter, in Los Angeles in 1959. Everything he saw was brighter than usual, so the painting he did was darker, just to give his eyes a break. He later saw Hollywood Boulevard and thought it was on fire. He didn't show any interest in LSD afterwards, though we had old Psychedelic Reviews around the house, so he must have been curious...

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