The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Earthly Delights: Unpacking Donovan's A Gift From A Flower To A Garden Boxset
Ben Graham , November 30th, 2023 13:03

As the state51 Conspiracy reissue Donovan's double-album box set on mono vinyl, Ben Graham looks back at the artist's most ambitious statement and finds a post-psychedelic message that's still relevant today

In 1967, Donovan was at his creative and commercial peak. His last two albums, Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow, had broken new ground in terms of both folk rock and psychedelia, and each album’s respective title track had been a Top 10 hit in both the UK and US, with 'Sunshine Superman' topping the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1966. Donovan had a huge audience of young pop fans hanging on his every proclamation. In Britain, he sold out the Royal Albert Hall, while in California, he was playing arenas.

There were clouds in the sky, however. Due to a contractual dispute with his label, Pye, the two albums previously mentioned weren’t initially released in the UK at all, and in mid-66, Donovan was the first high-profile pop star to be arrested for drugs. His cannabis conviction (resulting in a fine and temporary denial of a US visa, forcing him to pull out of the epochal Monterey Pop Festival) was followed by a scathing News Of The World exposé. Perhaps pragmatically, in 1967 Donovan publicly denounced all drug use, instead championing the meditation techniques of his new friend Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

It's in this context that Don conceived A Gift From A Flower To A Garden. A self-produced double album – only the third in pop – with the first disc consisting of mostly electric, full band songs for Donovan's own age group and the second, acoustic numbers dedicated to "the dawning generation": the young children of his twenty-something peers, who rebelled so dramatically against their elders but were now becoming parents themselves. Even more lavishly, Donovan insisted that the two albums be presented in a box set, something that was commonplace in the world of classical music and occasionally considered for jazz or folk releases, but which was unknown in the more ephemeral pop marketplace. It would also contain a folder of 12 A4 sheets, printed on special paper, containing the lyrics to the album's second disc and illustrations by Sheena McCall and Mick Taylor (all lovingly recreated in state51's new reissue). It was clear that with this album, Donovan wanted to make A Serious Statement, one that would stand the test of time and outlast the psychedelic fad, even as the over-saturated cover photo and musical content made it emblematic of the genre.

In the US, Epic Records hedged their bets and also released the set as two separate LPs in December 1967. The first, Wear Your Love Like Heaven, was a continuation of the jazzy folk-psych-pop Donovan had become known for, and was considered the safer bet. The Mickie Most-produced title track was the sole single, a swinging, dreamy groove carrying an allusive lyric that seemed like a magical incantation or prayer, and which Donovan described as a "directional poem" giving a constructive focus for the burgeoning flower-power youth movement with which he was widely associated. The second LP, For Little Ones, saw Donovan return to his acoustic roots and was billed as a collection of children's songs. It's actually the more interesting and least dated of the two discs. Curiously, as single albums, neither troubled the charts, but the full box set entered the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic.

By the end of that pivotal year of 1967, psychedelia was already a widely recognised musical style. Indeed, by the time Gift received a full UK release in April 1968, the more fashion-conscious artists of the day were already preparing to move on, and an earthier, rootsier, more stripped-back sound and look would come into vogue by the end of the decade. The relatively swift reaction against the first wave of psychedelia was a rejection of its most superficial trappings: the perceived over-reliance on studio gimmicks, the dandy costumes, the form's emphasis on immediacy and gaudy surface flash rather than lasting substance. As musicians and audiences started to take pop, and themselves, more seriously, they yearned for work with depth and meaning, increasingly thinking in terms of albums rather than the transient buzz of the three-minute single. Reconnecting with older musical traditions was a part of this drive, be it blues, folk, or even classical music, both to expand the parameters of what could be achieved in what many were now calling rock, rather than pop, and (more cynically) in the hope that an aura of seriousness and authenticity would rub off on their efforts as a result.

Donovan anticipates this shift on For Little Ones, reconnecting with his pure folk roots by playing mostly solo acoustic guitar on self-penned songs that sound traditional, even ancient. For Little Ones showcases his dextrous finger-picking guitar playing and demonstrates his ability to write convincing lyrics in the bardic tradition as well as the wonderful Polaroid pop art imagery of older songs like 'Sunshine Superman' or 'Sunny Goodge Street'. 'Epistle To Derroll' pays playful tribute to US banjo player Derroll Adams, a friend and early mentor. Donovan sidesteps the authenticity trap however by giving his back-to-basics folk songs lyrics that are original flights of fancy, full of talking starfish and magical voyages, while the more obviously psychedelic songs on Wear Your Love Like Heaven are grounded with verses about transport cafes and gigging in St Albans. That said, there's not a clear distinction between the material on the two discs, and many songs could feature on either.

'Mad John’s Escape' is a standout on the first set. The title evokes 19th century working-class poet John Clare fleeing an Essex asylum to walk back to Northamptonshire, or even the many traditional folk songs dealing with 'Mad Tom O’ Bedlam'. But the song is the true story of a borstal runaway joining up with Donovan’s beatnik set in Torquay and is grounded in gritty kitchen-sink reality (around the same time, Donovan had recorded the title song for Ken Loach's Poor Cow). The songs on For Little Ones aren’t necessarily children's songs, either: the words aren’t patronising, dumbed down, or tailored to what adult writers think children either want to hear or should be told, and there are none of the bludgeoning jolly hooks and repetition that small children apparently find endlessly irresistible, but grown-ups swiftly find unbearably irritating. The music is gentle enough for the album to work as a collection of lullabies, but the main reason these are songs aimed at "the dawning generation" is that they take the form of fables and fairy tales, of the kind common to both the 19th century folk revival and the Victorian children's literature of the same period: a canon with a unique combination of faded innocence and haunted strangeness (plus a deep undercurrent of sublimated sexuality) that the psychedelic songwriters of the 60s saw as a rich well to draw from.

Donovan’s own childhood wasn’t especially privileged. Born into a Scottish-Irish family in the working-class Glasgow suburb of Maryhill, he contracted polio at the age of five, leaving him with a lifelong limp. His father was a factory worker who moved his family to the 1940s new town of Hatfield in Hertfordshire before Donovan turned ten. Many of the baby boomers who grew up to become 60s rock royalty had relatively hard childhoods in the immediate aftermath of WWII, their early years defined by austerity, bombsites, continued rationing and often broken homes scarred by undiagnosed PTSD. The upper-middle-class Victorian world of nursery teas and golden carefree days wasn’t something they necessarily experienced first-hand. But it’s hardly surprising that they would later reach back to the idealised depictions of childhood, or childhood's dreams, in the work of Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne, when trying to recreate a vision of arcadian innocence glimpsed in the afterglow of an acid trip or stoned reverie.

Donovan wasn’t the first to link flower power and psychedelia with the often-surreal canon of classic children’s literature, fairy tales, nursery rhymes and childhood fancy in general. Such tropes were all over the pop airwaves in 1967, not only in the form of enshrined classics like 'Strawberry Fields Forever' 'Itchycoo Park' and Syd Barrett’s deep dive into Carroll, Grahame, Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc on Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, but also Keith West's 'Excerpt From A Teenage Opera' (AKA 'Grocer Jack'), a #2 hit in July, and numerous lesser examples of what future collectors would label 'toytown psych'. Over in San Fransisco, Jefferson Airplane may have invoked the White Rabbit, but in the UK, Jonathan Miller's BBC adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, broadcast on December 28, 1966, came complete with a Ravi Shankar soundtrack that made an implicit connection between Carroll and the counterculture.

Donovan’s songs on For Little Ones however are mostly devoid of the twee whimsy that seems to be a key ingredient in most English toytown psych. Perhaps it's his Celtic roots that let him channel something haunting and mythic, closer to genuine folk tales or William Blake than sickly Enid Blyton pastiche. At the time, the only other artists doing anything similar were an upcoming Edinburgh psychedelic folk outfit whose second album, The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion, was a modest hit in July 1967. Donovan made no secret of his admiration for The Incredible String Band, singing their praises in interviews and even playing their songs to journalists on an acoustic guitar, and if any of his albums could be said to be influenced by the ISB, it's surely A Gift (especially 'Little Boy In Corduroy' with its slightly grating call-and-response chorus). It's more likely though that Donovan was empowered rather than directly influenced: that the success of such a leftfield yet uncompromisingly folk album as The 5000 Spirits gave him confidence to follow his own muse deeper into bardic storytelling and free folk musical deconstruction, as opposed to the often wonderful but more tightly arranged and conventionally commercial songs he’d been crafting with producer Mickie Most.

'Psychedelic' remains a current buzzword and descriptor in 21st century music and culture, one that's almost, if not quite, shed the retro associations of its 60s origins. The related term 'flower power' on the other hand, remains a quaint, half-understood, slightly embarrassing relic of a bygone age, and perhaps too an unwelcome reminder that psychedelia once had an intrinsic ideological component, one that to contemporary sensibilities can seem ridiculously naïve, unworkably woolly, and either dangerously passive or frighteningly revolutionary (too easy, or too hard). It's the belief in Love as both first and last principle in any dealings with the world or other people, absolutely superseding self-interest, politics, religion, nationhood or past grievances. As the defining song of 1967, and of the whole decade, put it, 'All You Need Is Love'. Even at the time, many pointed to the mounting evidence that this was far from the case (though others would ask if we'd ever really tried it), and flower power soon fell from favour. We grew up and never quite got back to the garden, if there ever was a garden to get back to.

Nevertheless, Donovan's ground-breaking double-album box set is a time capsule from that brief cultural moment when a wide-eyed hippy folk singer could earnestly entreat his audience to "wear your love like heaven" and be taken seriously. It's also a reminder that the window of opportunity for such a worldview has occasionally reopened in pop culture, most notably in the ecstasy rush of late eighties rave, but also to a smaller extent in the freak folk scene of the early noughties (both of which saw a revival of interest in Donovan’s own work). What is the gift that a flower gives to a garden? It's a seed. Almost invisible and unnoticed, but one that, if planted deep enough, will bloom again and again.

A Gift From A Flower To A Garden is reissued by the state51 conspiracy on Friday