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Donovan's 'Sunshine Superman,' The First Psychedelic #1 Hit: Facts And Stories

Donovan on the cover of the 'Sunshine Superman' album. Source: Pinterest

When the psychedelic revolution happened, Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" made history as the first trippy tune to top the Billboard pop chart. Hallucinogenic drugs and rock 'n roll were a match made in heaven, and in the mid-'60s the mind-altering substances were contributing to mind-blowing music. One can make the case for many acts as the "first" psychedelic rockers -- the Grateful Dead playing Ken Kesey's Acid Tests; the Beatles featuring a sitar on "Norwegian Wood;" the Byrds singing about being "Eight Miles High." Some rock historians have called the Yardbirds' "Shapes Of Things" the first real psychedelic-rock song. In May 1966, "Shapes Of Things" peaked at #11 on the US Billboard singles chart. Four months later, Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" reached the top spot.

Source: Goldmine Magazine

A huge cultural shift was occurring during the mid-1960’s which brought previously taboo topics into the public eye, and one of the biggest causes for this change was the use of recreational drugs. Musicians began experimenting with hallucinogens hoping to open their minds to new creative levels they might never have reached soberly. The psychedelic music written during this time represented the feeling of being high through its eccentric lyrics and colorful sound. Prior to this free-spirited decade, the general public was not accepting of music that promoted any use of narcotics. However, Scottish singer/songwriter Donovan Phillips Leitch (known as Donovan) transformed this attitude with his song “Sunshine Superman,” the first psychedelic song to become mainstream. 

The Psychedelic Motivation Behind Donovan’s Hit Song

Donovan’s inspiration for “Sunshine Superman” was directly linked to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a book he had recently read before writing the tune. The book (from which The Doors would take their name) examines the psychedelic experience and the psychological impacts that can result from the use of mescaline. Intrigued by Huxley’s findings, Donovan began indulging in acid, mescaline, and meditation hoping to discover “the invisible fourth dimension of transcendental superconscious vision.” Donovan’s new understanding stimulated some unconventional ideas that he implemented into the song “Sunshine Superman.” In fact, “sunshine” is another slang term for LSD. 

The Double Meaning: A Love Story with Linda Lawrence

“Sunshine Superman” dives even deeper beyond the depiction of psychedelia as it also involves a romantic love story. While spending time in the green room before performing on the pop music show Ready Steady Go, Donovan met a woman named Linda Lawrence who mesmerized him with her beauty and artsy demeanor. Lawrence was the recent ex-girlfriend of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, with whom she also had a son, Julian. Donovan has admitted he immediately fell in love with her after one dance, and they soon began a passionate relationship -- until Lawrence rejected his proposal of marriage. She was frustrated with the spotlight that comes with dating rock stars, so she decided to leave the fame behind her and move to Los Angeles to pursue a simpler lifestyle. Devastated, Donovan wrote “Sunshine Superman” for his lost love hoping to win her back in the future. The lyrics (below) acknowledge the time wasn’t right for them at the moment, but that Donovan was hopeful they would eventually find each other again.

The Lyrics To 'Sunshine Superman'

Sunshine came softly a-through my a-window today
Could've tripped out easy a-but I've a-changed my ways
It'll take time, I know it but in a while
You're gonna be mine, I know it, we'll do it in style
'Cause I made my mind up you're going to be mine

I'll tell you right now
Any trick in the book a-now, baby, all that I can find

Everybody's hustlin' a-just to have a little scene
When I say we'll be cool, I think that you know what I mean
We stood on a beach at sunset, do you remember when?
I know a beach where, baby, a-it never ends
When you've made your mind up forever to be mine

Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm
I'll pick up your hand and slowly blow your little mind
'Cause I made my mind up you're going to be mine
I'll tell you right now
Any trick in the book a-now, baby, that I can find

Superman or Green Lantern ain't got a-nothin' on me
I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea, yep
A-you you you can just sit there while thinking on your velvet throne
'Bout all the rainbows a-you can a-have for your own
When you’ve made your mind up, forever to be mine

Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm
I’ll pick up your hand and slowly blow your little mind
When you’ve made your mind up, forever to be mine
I’ll pick up your hand, I’ll pick up your hand

Society Accepts Psychedelic Music Into Mainstream Culture

Source: Rolling Stone

Not only was Donovan experimenting with drugs and meditation, but also with sound and production. His mind was now brimming with new ideas to make “Sunshine Superman” a unique piece of art with a sound that had never been heard before. Donovan’s initial idea was to fuse together contemporary music with classical music, first by having a harpsichord play through the intro. His producer Mickie Most understood exactly what Donovan was going for, and he did everything he could to make it happen. Most assembled arranger/harpsichordist John Cameron, a band of classical musicians that included Spike Heatley on double bass, and future Led Zeppelin members John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page to create the precise sound Donovan wanted. The recording took place in December 1965 at Abbey Road Studios with The Beatles recording in the room right next door.

Donovan and Linda Lawrence at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970. Source: Pinterest

When “Sunshine Superman” was officially released in 1966, it shot up the charts to No.1 in the United States, and No. 2 in the UK, proving to be the first psychedelic song to reach the Billboard pop charts. The song set off a new psychedelic revolution that would last for the rest of the decade, prompting hundreds of bands to incorporate psychedelic elements into their music. The fact that the public was now accepting psychedelic music was encouraging for those musicians who feared it was too abstract to try. Additionally, one of the most important impacts of the song was the beautiful love story that followed. Four years after the song’s recording, Donovan rented out his cottage to a woman named Lorey, who was a friend of Linda Lawrence. After a party at Eric Clapton’s house one night, Linda accompanied Lorey back to the cottage and was shocked to see her old fling walk right by. Donovan and Linda caught up and married two weeks later, and remarkably are still together this day.

Tags: Donovan | Jimmy Page | John Paul Jones | Linda Lawrence | LSD | Psychedelic | Sunshine Superman

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.