Welcome back, mono records; we’ve missed you so much

By Dave Thompson

We dedicate this installment of Spin Cycle 
to the latest releases in Sundazed’s campaign to, apparently, restore to the racks every significant mono album of the late 1960s, and the long-awaited arrival of three more releases from Donovan.

Sundazed Records“Sunshine Superman” is already in the catalog, opening the door now for the appearance of “Mellow Yellow,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” the latter originally released as one half of the “Gift from a Flower to a Garden” box set. And I will here confess my own fascination with these albums, not only as a lifelong Donovan fan (yes, even his ’70s releases), but also as a longtime mono collector.

My introduction to the format  as a collector — as opposed to a listener — came in my mid-teens, when I was newly introduced to the earliest Pink Floyd albums. A mile or so from where I lived, on the south coast of England, a store called Boscombe Electrics specialized in used record players, radios, amplifiers and records. Hundreds and hundreds of records. And there, one day, I turned up a copy of “Piper At The Gates of Dawn” for the princely sum of 50p.

In mono.

Now, I must confess I bought it not through any proto-music-geek insistence that it sounded better or was more true to the band’s original intentions (both of which turned out to be true), but because that was the first copy I found, with a badly stained back cover and a loudly clicking scratch through “The Gnome.” People were still actively getting rid of their mono discs back then, preferring to invest instead in the still-excitingly new strains of stereo. It had been only five years since the U.K. music industry commenced that particular changeover, and just as it took some people many years to supplant all their vinyl with shiny new CDs, so some people didn’t get around to buying stereo discs for a few years after mono was phased out.

Which was lucky for me. Or maybe it was simply the upside of shopping for old albums on a schoolboy’s budget, because equally antiquated copies of “The Who Sell Out,” the first “Crazy World of Arthur Brown,” and the second Floyd album also came my way. Damn, I wish I still had them.

Donovan Hurdy Gurdy ManOf them all, however, my prize was “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” because  not only did it sound so much better than the stereo mixes of the same songs that were appearing on sundry compilations, but it also was what we considered rare at the time: an album released only in the U.S. and positively bloated with some of Donovan’s finest songs. That belief still holds true today, long after that album (and most of my other mono prizes) drifted off into the ether.

As with so many mono albums, at least those that are devoid of total remixes or alternate takes, the actual sonic differences between Donovan’s mono and stereo releases are not something that can really be explained. It’s the nature of the sound, as opposed to what the sound does, that gives mono records their appeal. Across the course of the three Sundazed reissues, it is as if you are hearing the music with the same ears that experienced it the first time around, as opposed to those that long since became accustomed to, the stereo mixes, or even the (admittedly pristine) remasters released on CD a few years ago.

Donovan Mellow YellowSongs like “Jennifer Juniper,” “Museum,” “Mad John’s Escape” and the so fabulous “Young Girl Blues” simply rise up and beat the listener over the head, at the same time (somewhat paradoxically) of reminding us just how progressive a writer and performer Donovan was. It is so easy, after all, to peg him as a folkie, with hippie-dippy undercurrents, and leave it at that.

If that had been the case, though, would King Crimson have included “Get Thy Bearings” in their early live set? Would the Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger Trinity (and many more in their wake) have expanded “Season Of The Witch” (from “Sunshine Superman”) to leviathan proportions? And would “Hurdy Gurdy Man” have delivered such an acid-drenched guitar roar that even Steve Hillage, covering it a decade later, could only glance at the sheer psychedelic madness of the song?

He explained, “I wanted my ideas to go into pop culture, and so I made my songs more accessible by welcoming the relationship with the hottest pop producer in the business [Mickie Most]. The songs would appear frivolous, but when you listen to the lyrics, they would make you think differently about the world.”

SpinCyclePullout_WebIn fact, Most disliked albums intensely. His raison d’etre was the short, sharp pop single. That was what made sense to him, and that is where he excelled, as Peter Grant, his assistant at the time (and later, of course, Led Zeppelin’s manager) recalled.

“Mickie didn’t like making LPs to begin with — he did them with The Animals and Herman, because the American label kept asking for them,” Grant said.

But most did them with Donovan, “because Don was a songwriter; that’s what he did.” And in so doing, he created music that remains timeless, a sequence of albums cut not only with Most, but with future Zeppelin mainstays John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page both present in places.

Listen to these three albums in one sitting and marvel at their dexterity, the ease with which they encapsulate the sheer magnificence of Donovan at his peak. There is the pure gold at which Donovan was already a proven bard — the Top 40 hits that titled all three of these albums and kept him on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Donovan Sunshine SupermanElsewhere, however, Donovan flirts with smoky night club jazz, trips out pop that borders on nursery-rhyme precocity and immortalizes London with a ferocious eye for documentation. Across  these three albums — plus the earlier “Sunshine Superman” and one more to follow, the superlative “Barabajagal” — Donovan rendered the sheer magic, folly and whimsey of the late ’60s psych explosion better than any other period performer.

Years later, Donovan reflected upon this period of unparalleled creativity.

“I realize now that I wrote my best songs in response to events around me, which is why the 1960s were so perfect for me. There was an entire generation looking for a spiritual path and my music responded to that. It worked like a soundtrack to that search,” he said. More than that, though, his softly spoken insistence that a better world awaited everyone who cared for it established him as perhaps the most profound of all the rock philosophers whose world views shaped that era.

These albums, packaged in identical form to their mid-late 1960s forebears, epitomize that sentiment, both musically and visually. And if Donovan himself does occasionally sound a little twee to sensibilities raised on the rock of the intervening decades, then that is a small price to pay for having been so vital at the time.

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s“Record Album Price Guide, 7th Edition and Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition, Both are available online at www.krausebooks.com, or by calling 1-855-278-0403.

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