Let’s have an argument about Nick Drake. I’ll chuck in Donovan for starters

After last week’s post about the excess of musical talent in my family, my friend Slavena posted on Facebook, “Well Paul, maybe you could excel in writing…..”

She was trying to cheer me up, and also, maybe, tell me that she likes the way I write.

Of course, what she doesn’t know – and neither do you – is that my dad, in addition to being a phenomenal pianist (and holding down a day job at the Southern Electricity Board) also wrote about 70 crime novels that sold millions.

Which is not to mention that my brother Dudley is now trying to get his first novel published.

So, no Slavena, my family won’t even let me have writing to myself!

But at least I have this blog, where I can talk about what I want to.

And this week I want to ask you:

So, where do we stand on Donovan?

Bit of a bore now? A bit full of himself? Talks self-importantly, making frequent references to his influence on The Beatles.

Certainly hasn’t made any music of note for a very long time.

Now, where do we stand on Nick Drake?

Beautiful young man, genius songwriter, brilliant guitarist, left a wonderful legacy. Tragic he died so young. So sad.

Given all that, where do we think we’d stand on Donovan had he died after 1968’s A Gift From A Flower To A Garden?

My guess? We’d all be bewailing a tragic loss.

But no-one listens to Donovan any more. His first two albums were incredibly influential on young starter-guitarists like me, and then, in 1966, Sunshine Superman took it to another level. But after 1970 – well, it’s a long way down.

Which just goes to show, as some mega-cynic once said, that dying young is a great career move.

This all came to mind because my friend John Howard mentioned he was reading Gabrielle Drake’s biography of her brother Nick. I found myself thinking “I’d like to read that”.

But then I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t you want to read a biography of Donovan?” And the answer was: actually, I would.

Just for context, Donovan had released five albums, one of them a double – before Nick Drake started recording his first.

What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid was released in May 65. For emerging folkies like me, it was a revelation. I didn’t want to sing sea shanties, but Bob Dylan was too intimidating. The Times They Are A-Changing held a definite message, but it wasn’t one you could hope to credibly carry at age 16.

Catch The Wind, on the other hand, was beautiful, simple and easy to sing. And the album which that song leads you into had at least five other songs you could incorporate into your set. Car Car was like a child’s nursery rhyme – but it was written by Woody Guthrie, so everyone would happily sing along; no credibility problems back then.

Six months later, Fairytale was released. Apart from the hit single, Colours, it showed – as was common back then – artistic and musical development from the first album.

In particular, Sunny Goodge Street was quite jazzy. It was also lyrically a little oblique for 16-year-olds from Wolverhampton with its references to hash-smokers, Mingus, and ‘smashing into neon streets in their stonedness’.

I would hazard a guess that this song was a touchstone for 17-year-old Nick Drake, still three years away from beginning to record his first album, which was eventually released in 1969.

Not to take anything away from Nick Drake, but back then singer-songwriters were ten-a-penny (as we used to say pre-decimalisation).

At Music Week, I was the only teenage staff writer. So all the folk, progressive, underground and far-out stuff came my way.

Before you even heard their albums, you would have been to see Al Stewart, Roy Harper and Cat Stevens. You could watch James Taylor, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Certainly, after their debut release there would be important showcase gigs.

It’s beyond doubt that at least one of Nick Drake’s albums came across my desk. What I said about it, what I thought about it I can’t possibly remember.

I might well have raved about his first, as I did about Joni Mitchell’s, Leonard Cohen’s, Kris Kristofferson’s, Randy Newman’s – it’s a long list.

But the thing about Nick Drake was, he didn’t follow through. He didn’t gig and he wouldn’t do interviews. In a maelstrom of emerging talent – it was an absolutely extraordinary time – he didn’t get lost; he actively hid.

You might say, “But it should really be about the music”. And I might reply: “Oh, get over yourself”.

Nick Drake’s albums emerged into an overcrowded world of pop, folk and rock music that was exploding in an unprecedented display of talent, the existence of which was previously unimaginable. Who knew?

But my main point today is not to knock poor benighted Nick Drake. Forty years later, we can all see that if he’d gigged, if he’d done the publicity rounds he might well have been a contender.

Or he might not. Many weren’t, for various reasons. But what is clear forty years later is that he made music that survives all fashions, all fads.

And it is also clear – to me at least (and I think John Howard) – that if Donovan Leitch had died after the release of his 1968 double album, A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, today we would all be talking about what a loss Donovan was.

The fact that he’s still around to bore us with his tales of how he taught Lennon and McCartney to fingerpick – resulting in songs like Blackbird, Julia, Dear Prudence and Mother Nature’s Son on the fabled White Album – only goes to say how damaging to your heritage it can be to live too long.

So, to somewhat redress the balance, here’s Donovan and Sunny Goodge Street. Have a listen, and then we can start the arguments about whether Nick Drake might have been influenced by Mr Leitch.

And, for comparison, here’s Nick Drake’s At The Chime Of A City Clock.

 

 

12 Comments

  1. I’ve been trying to get people to listen to Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street” for years! It’s an incredibly good track, and I completely agree – it could happily sit on a Nick Drake album, and easily be one of the stronger tracks.

    Donovan is horribly under-rated, but besides your observation that his career went downhill after a certain key point, it’s worth noting that your ex-colleague Clive Selwood has suggested that he was a difficult sod to work with as well, thereby alienating himself from several key people in the music industry. So perhaps it’s not just about “hiding away” – it’s about not shooting your mouth off too much as well. A case of polar opposites in attitude, even if they weren’t always entirely opposite in style.

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  2. My memory is that Clive brought Donovan to CBS, and when I turned up for work for the first time, it was really exciting that he was on the label. The album was Cosmic Wheels, which was ok. But, as you say Dave, he was his own worst enemy. He never really got over that early rush of success and the enormous buzz of mixing with The Fabs and so forth.

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  3. I like them both. However, I feel like I’ve known Donovan all my life (my parents used to play his early stuff to send me to sleep when I was a baby – it worked!) and I didn’t hear Nick Drake until around 1993, so there’s no contest really. I agree about “…Flower To A Garden”. The only other person I’ve ever heard enthuse about this album is Danny Baker.

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  4. Gift From A Flower is an amazing feat of its time, a double album in a cardboard box, a lot of the songs with a very jazzy/hip style, so ahead of its time and yet calling on the likes of Dave Brubeck for inspiration into the bargain. Not what pop music was about really in 1967/8. If Sunshine Superman had been released when it should have been in the UK, July ’66 as it was in America, and not held back until the winter of that year, there’s no doubt its pre-Revolver release would have had even more of an impact on British record buyers than it did (though No.2 ain’t bad for a summer song released under grey skies!). As a kid I don’t recall artists of thirty-odd years before my teenage years becoming newly discovered geniuses, in the ’60s it was all about tomorrow, the future, and what excitements it held. It’s ironic that something as revolutionary and ‘tomorrow’ as the internet has allowed us all to become nostalgic. My own failed 1975 release Kid In A Big World was rediscovered at the beginning of the new Millennium via the internet, ditto Nick Drake’s material. Luckily (for me) I am still alive (though at the time of the growing internet buzz about ‘Kid’ many bloggers were saying ‘Is he dead?’, ‘Who was he? Is he still alive?’. ‘What happened to him?’ etc, and indeed there are some music journalists who would have preferred the romance of my having passed away in my 20s, leaving one album behind for them to ponder over endlessly, rather than still being around in my 60s to bother them with new material!.). My aliveness meant I could take advantage of the rediscovery and start recording and gigging again, albeit for a niche audience, and happily much to the annoyance of those said journos. I wonder how Nick in his 50s and 60s would have responded to his material being rediscovered and newly judged? Bill Fay too has recently had something of a renaissance, he’s back in the studios recording lovely stuff, but it is on a low-key level, without any great fanfare-promoted comeback gigs (did he ever gig??). He is still an enigmatic figure, doesn’t do Social Media, still very much The Recluse the journos adore.

    So one doesn’t have to be dead to be reappraised, I think it’s more to do with how good your material actually was back then, forty years or so ago. I can think of several artists who recorded dire stuff in the ’70s, forgotten completely now, some dead, some still around performing or working in a bank, and their material will never be disinterred or re-evaluated. The romance of The Dead Before Their Time artists does have resonance with us all, the what-ifs etc, and we could all wonder at those regarding the ones who actually made it big and are legends in our lifetimes – what if Dylan had died in the motorcycle crash in ’66? What if McCartney had died in ’66 as the stupid rumours persist in claiming he did? What if one of The Stones (Mick or Keith) had perished just as Exile on Main Street had been released? We certainly wouldn’t have had to watch these people grow old, dyed hair aloft an aging visage which ruins our memories of their blushing gorgeous youthfulness, voices shot, touring endlessly when we wish they’d stop, recording very average albums (compared to their Brilliant Time) when we wish they wouldn’t. But that’s the Hollywood Film scenario. Real Life is never that neat. Look at Leonard Cohen, over 70, still recording and touring, still a legend we look up to, still full of style and panache. Voice two octaves lower but still fabulous. He is the exception. Regardless of how much in love Uncut Magazine is with Neil Young, the fact is he had an average voice and wrote a few great songs, but really his legacy is kept alive by aging nostalgic music journos who can’t let their youths go. Maybe if all he’d done was After The Goldrush then tootled off to Rock Star Heaven I may possibly look more kindly on him artistically.

    McCartney has had to deal with the Canonisation of Lennon because John died at 40. Maybe not in his late 20s, just after, say, Cold Turkey, which would have been the ‘perfect end’ to a short famous life, even more romantic and what-if-ish, but he was still a young man when he was killed (and of course the fact he was killed, such a sudden, and unexpected end, not through a long drawn-out illness adds to the lustre of Tragically Lost John).

    But let us return to Autumn 1980, just after Double Fantasy was released, Starting Over struggling up to No.6 (in the UK charts) then dropping like a stone thereafter. Lukewarm reviews for the album, not the return to form we had expected etc. John dies and suddenly Starting Over storms to No.1 along with Double Fantasy, and he is lauded as A Genius once more. Looking at Lennon’s solo career without rose-tinted glasses, it really wasn’t that hot, was it? A few great singles like Instant Karma, Cold Turkey, Mind Games, No.9 Dream, but none of his solo albums really were amazing, they were always just ok, full of fillers. A bit like his former songwriting partner. Paul has also released some fabulous singles in his long solo career, but, unlike John, some great albums too, Ram, Band On The Run, Flaming Pie to name three more than Lennon. (I am not one of those who consider John’s first solo album A Classic – though I know many do). But Paul will never have the enigma of Dying Young. Imagine how we’d view him now if we’d only had up to Revolver to judge him by, not even with Sgt Pepper to be amazed by. He would be considered probably The Greatest Ever, and would always remain The Coolest Man On The Planet, as he was back in ’66. Instead he lived on, married happily to Linda for almost 30 years, had an astoundingly successful career, brought up four children successfully, and kept his private life private until a certain Miss Mills decided to destroy that luxury for him. And then he got old and henna’d his hair. Calamity. As I say, life is never neat. What-Ifs always are.

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    • Yes, I am a lucky boy, Paul. I had no idea what would follow the reissue of Kid In A Big World ten years ago. Sorry my Comment went on rather longer than I had intended, I’m sure your other readers – if they could be bothered to read it – thought “Bloody hell, doesn’t he go on??!” but I blame you for making your Blogs so respondable!!

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  5. …finally, it’s likely if Nick had not passed away when he did that he would have ended his days rather like Syd Barrett, the only difference being that Syd was a huge pop star for a brief time in ’67 so people did notice his existence post-Floyd from time to time, his deterioration actually becoming the thing of legend and journalistic curiosity almost as much as his short time with Pink Floyd is now.

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  6. I just emailed a friend about this blog post. He went to see Donovan at the Lunar Festival last year. One of the events was Nick Drake’s records being played on his actual record player – when Donovan took the stage, he boasted during his set about what an influence he was on Drake.

    My friend comments: “It seemed unbelievably arrogant and I had to check [with my wife that he definitely said this]. I don’t suppose we should be surprised where Mr Leitch is concerned though”.

    But then again… maybe he’s earned the right to say it.

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  7. The difference between grace and grating, Dave, is perfectly summed up in that story. I don’t think you’ve ever heard Paul McCartney say, “Oh, I was a massive influence on….”. Donovan just seems so unhappy with his status that he tries to raise it with boasting, and ends up belittling it. Tragic, really. Did I ever tell you what a massive influence I had on……..

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  8. Reading Gabrielle Drake’s great book about Nick, Remembered For A While, it’s obvious Nick’s circle of friends while they were busking and travelling around France and Morocco ’66/’67 didn’t think much of Donovan – e.g. “having to play Catch The Bloody Wind” etc. Nick was apparently much more influenced by the likes of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. Nick actually played for The Stones in a restaurant in Tangiers, which kind of lays the lie that he was terrified of performing in front of people. He was a fairly frequent visitor to John & Yoko’s Tittenhurst mansion ’69 – ’71, when a friend of his worked as the Lennons’ P.A. (though there is no record of Nick meeting J & Y). His friend says that Nick’s (by then) ghostly presence fitted into the empty white rooms at Tittenhurst perfectly, especially once The Lennons had left for America, never to return to the mansion (or the UK), leaving the house even emptier of human presence. One of Nick’s favourite records of 1969 was Lennon’s Cold Turkey, which surprised many of his friends as it was so in your face, unlike Nick’s own songs, which were often decorated in a more poetic style – until Pink Moon of course, which was as confessional and stark as Lennon’s first solo album. If you love Nick Drake – or are even mildly interested in him – Gabrielle’s book is a fantastic read.

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