Sounds of Mellow Fantastic: Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street”

[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #51]

‘Sunny Goodge Street’ first saw the light of day in 1965, on Donovan’s second album Fairytale. While other songs on the album, such as the Top 5 hit ‘Colours, initially drew more attention, Sunny Goodge Street is perhaps Fairytale’s most memorable song. The contrast between its gentle waltzing instrumentation and its hard-edged lyrical urban vignettes was intriguing to listeners – especially those who didn’t know there was an actual Goodge Street in London, and thus for whom Goodge Street could have been some mystical place in an imaginative Lewis Carroll story.

Fairytale is generally acknowledged as a transitional album in Donovan’s career, representing the time when he moved from being the “British answer to Bob Dylan” into developing his own distinctive style of whimsy. The album was recorded with only a few backing musicians and minimal instrumentation to frame Donovan’s acoustic guitar playing and intimate vocals. ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ is slightly more elaborate than some of Fairytale’s other tracks, anchored by Danny Thompson’s droning bowed bass and Skip Alan’s steady brushed drums. And the bridge is an unexpectedly jazzy interplay between Harold McNair’s flute and Shawn Phillips’ electric guitar. But what most listeners remember about Sunny Goodge Street’ is its powerful imagery: the startling “violent hash smoker” shaking a “chocolate machine”, crazed stoners stumbling through “neon streets” and “doll house rooms”, and a satin and velvet clad magician who Donovan assures us is “Love, Love, Love”.

What’s the song about? The explanations range from “IT’S ALL ABOUT DRUGS!!!” to it being Donovan’s impressionistic experiences of London as a young man in the early 60’s. Donovan himself has described ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ as being “not just spiritual but [a] bohemian manifestation of change”. The “DRUGS!!!” interpretation is perhaps not surprising, given that ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ was likely one of the first pop songs to explicitly mention drugs, with its reference to the “hash smoker” – a reference that allegedly got the song banned from several radio stations. (Puzzlingly, the South African Broadcasting Corporation censored two other songs on Fairytale – ‘Candy Man’ and ‘Ballad of a Crystal Man’ – but found ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ acceptable for airplay.)

‘Sunny Goodge Street’ was released as a single in the US, France and the Netherlands, and on an EP in the UK. It did not reach the charts, but it did not go unnoticed. Barely six months after Fairytale was released, ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ was recorded by Marianne Faithfull for her 1966 album North Country Maid. A haunting harmonica wail and graceful guitar support Faithfull’s trembling vocals, and it’s definitely one of the stronger tracks on one of Faithfull’s more overlooked recordings.

‘Sunny Goodge Street’ also went multi-national. Artist and writer Harrie Geelen translated its lyrics into Dutch, giving it the title ‘Draai weer bij’ [‘Turn Again’]. The Dutch-language version was recorded by singer/songwriter Boudewijn de Groot on his self-titled 1966 debut album.

Like many of the songs on that album, the arrangement closely resembled that of the original; ‘Draai weer bij’ also appeared on de Groot’s Apocalyps, a 1970 re-release of the 1966 album, which, according to de Groot , only differs from the 1966 album in that he is wearing a trendy Afghan coat in the cover photo.

In 1969, a considerably different version of ‘Draai weer bij’ appeared on Liesbeth List’s album Pastorale. While at times this version is a little lounge-lizardy, List’s appealing vocal and the swinging horn arrangement show that the song can stand up to more than an acoustic-folkie interpretation.

Somewhat more confusingly, in 1969 French chanteuse Véronique Sanson released a single entitled ‘Le Printemps Est Là’. While Sanson was listed as the song’s creator, and the lyrics bore no resemblance to Donovan’s words, the melody was similar enough that the song’s credits were subsequently modified to name Donovan as the composer.

However, where ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ likely had the most impact – ironically, for a song so closely associated with the UK – was in North America. In 1966, Judy Collins covered the song on her album In My Life, which was a groundbreaking album in several ways. It included songs by composers that at the time were relative unknowns (most notably Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman), and it moved away from Collins’ earlier simple musical arrangements into a dizzying blend of orchestration and styles that some critics labeled “baroque folk”. Collins’ interpretation of ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ reels through loopy carnival-esque arpeggios and plucked harps that make the mood of the song even more fantastical.

However, the other North American version of ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ is the one that should have been huge – the version by Tom Northcott, which seems to be the only version of the song that ever charted as a single anywhere (#20 in Canada in 1967). It’s recognized as a Canadian pop-psych classic, and a lot of us who grew up hearing it never realized that Donovan did the song first. And Northcott’s version is probably also the version with the most intriguing back story.

Starting in the early ‘60s, Northcott was an active singer and musician in the Vancouver music scene – and, unusually for that time, he also ran his own record label, whose releases included several singles of his own compositions. A local DJ who acted as a “finder” for legendary producer Lenny Waronker sent Northcott’s records to Waronker, who was intrigued enough to sign Northcott to Warner Brothers Records in the United States. Northcott’s version of ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ was recorded in Los Angeles in 1967, co-produced by Waronker and Leon Russell, and arranged by Russell. According to Northcott, several members of the famous Wrecking Crew played on the single, including James Burton, Glen Campbell, Larry Knechtel, and Jim Gordon.

Northcott’s version of ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ bears some similarities to Collins’ version with its harp arpeggios, but Russell’s orchestrations of tootling recorders and lilting, waltzing guitars and harmoniums take the song into psychedelic dreamland. And Northcott’s vocal makes the song exceptionally memorable: his strong and powerful tenor is confident, but with a dark and almost desperate tone. (There were actually two versions of the Northcott single, with a “fearless believer” replacing the “hash smoker” on chocolate-machine-shaking duties in the more radio-friendly version.)

In a 1988 interview, Northcott described being in San Francisco on the day that the record was launched – which happened to be a day during the week that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the US. He delightedly heard his song becoming the most requested song on San Francisco radio, and gleefully anticipated that popularity spreading across the US and eventually the world. But, gradually, sadly, Northcott watched his record disappear – it only barely troubled the US charts at #126. Northcott recorded several other singles with Russell and Waronker, but the only other one to make even a brief appearance on the US charts was his version of Harry Nilsson’s ‘1941’. Warner Brothers never released a complete Northcott album, but Rhino Records’ 2012 compilation Sunny Goodge Street: The Warner Bros. Recordings includes all of the Warner Brothers singles, in addition to previously unreleased tracks from Northcott’s subsequent recordings in London with producer Tony Hatch.

Meanwhile, Donovan’s own version has gone on to become a key song in his mid-60s canon, routinely popping up on Best Of retrospectives, reminding us of that blissful moment when his muse became the psychedelic minutiae of life in swinging London and the music took a turn into the impressionistic.

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