Tuesday, October 11, 2011

October 11: Donovan, "Sunshine Superman"

Artist: Donovan
Song: "Sunshine Superman"
Album: Sunshine Superman
Year: 1966

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One of the biggest "problems" with history itself is that any act that sounds like someone's previous recordings is instantly compared to that, and can rarely escape the shadow of the previous performer.  This can be seen all across almost every musical genre and era, and while it does work in the favor of some artists, one can see many musicians who have been "trapped" by such similarities, rarely receiving all the credit they themselves deserve.  However, there have also been a few artists that have been able to create their own image, even some who were heavily associated with some of the most famous names in all of music history.  Having been labeled as England's "answer" to the great Bob Dylan, it is nothing short of amazing to consider that in hindsight, Donovan Leitch is far better remembered for his own sounds and approach than his association with the man many saw as the inspiration for his sound.  Though his first singles were certainly extremely comparable to those of Dylan, it was during the middle of the 1960's that Donovan began to experiment with other sounds and styles, and it is these songs that stand as his most treasured, remaining fresh and relevant within the current music scene.  While there are a number of singles in his catalog that are nothing short of fantastic, there may be no better a definition of his sound, and few songs that better capture the spirit of the day than Donovan's 1966 classic, "Sunshine Superman."

From the moment that "Sunshine Superman" begins, one cannot help but be drawn in by the range of different styles that can be heard, and the song stands as one of the most memorable recordings that all under the "oh, THAT's what that song is called" category.  Yet it has become such an unforgettable recording due to the way in which Donovan's well-established folk style blends so seamlessly with a slightly psychedelic swing.  While the acoustic guitar serves as an excellent backbone to the song, it is the electric sting that makes "Sunshine Superman" so iconic.  The way that the two guitars seem to wind around one another is in many ways the very essence of the early psychedelic sound, and the track embodies the term "warm."  Though most are unaware, while Donovan plays the acoustic piece on this track, the electric guitar part is provided by a young session musician who went by the name Jimmy Page.  However, the most unique and unforgettable element of "Sunshine Superman" is without question the harpsichord played by John Cameron.  In terms of both tone and mood, the entire spirit of the song lives within his performance, and it is the swing provided by his playing that makes "Sunshine Superman" a truly irresistible piece of pop music.  It is the way that all of these sounds blend so perfectly that make it understandable why the song became such a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and in terms of fusing together the folk, pop, and psychedelic sounds, there has rarely been a more impressive recording.

Furthering the appeal of the song, the vocals that Donovan brings to "Sunshine Superman" are able to play to a rather wide audience, as they can be interpreted on a number of different levels.  Along with these multiple meanings, Donovan possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in music history, and one can note "Sunshine Superman" as the final step in his complete separation from the shadow of Dylan.  While there are still slight similarities in the voices of the two, it is the way that Donovan brings a more swinging, smooth sound that makes him so unique, and there is an upbeat tone all across the song that can still raise the mood of any situation.  The level of positivity that can be felt within his vocal performance is yet another ideal example of the entire idea of the "hippie" movement that was building at the time, and "Sunshine Superman" remains one of the most definitive songs of that culture and time period.  The level of "fun" within the track is perhaps best reflected within the lyrics, and few songs have been able to create as wide-reaching an appeal as one finds here.  The title implies its base in the world of comic book characters, and a handful are directly referenced within the song, and yet it is the far deeper and more endearing statements and subtexts one can find that turn the song into an absolute classic.  Largely sounding like a slightly ego-driven, good-natured "wooing," the track was written for Donovan's future wife, and the tongue-in-cheek swagger that comes forth is absolutely perfect.

In many ways far beyond that of any other recording in history, "Sunshine Superman" is infectious in every sense of the word.  From the brilliantly constructed melody to the almost whimsical lyrics to the perfect vocal deployment, there is not a moment anywhere on the track that is anything short of superb, and it is this reality that has enabled it to remain relevant to this day, with the song still finding its way into various parts of popular culture.  "Sunshine Superman" also stands as significant due to the almost startling wide range of later artists that have recorded their own versions of the song.  A number of hardcore and punk bands have taken their turn at the track, and there is no question that one of the most unexpected, and most impressive is that recorded by none other than later legends, Hüsker Dü.  Yet there are actually a handful of different versions that one can find, all recorded by Donovan himself with the same backing lineup.  The most popular version is the "radio edit," and yet for many who love the entirety of the song, there are two additional mixes of "Sunshine Superman" that exist, each fading out at different points.  However, since they were all pulled from the same session, each of these versions is just as fantastic, and it is largely a matter of how much of the song one wishes to experience.  Though it is a term used far too often, there is no question that when it comes to a perfect balance of musical styles and tone, there are few songs that are better than Donovan's iconic 1966 single, "Sunshine Superman."

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