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The Sonnets of Donovan

by Ade Macrow


The Sonnets of Donovan was the name given to a one-off concert at London's Royal Albert Hall on Sunday, 15th January 1967. This was a landmark concert for Donovan, who until then had tended to be booked into smallish venues in the UK (though not America). To be able to fill as prestigious a venue as the Albert Hall - a 5,000 seater - was to announce that you were up there with the largest of musical stars. It also marked the transition from straight folkie to blissed-out psychedelic love-merchant. True, there had been earlier gigs indicating Donovan's change of approach and direction but again, these had tended to be the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Donovan was modishly dressed in a yellow silk Chinese-style shirt, red trousers and flat white shoes and carried his acoustic guitar. He may well have worn beads but these were not apparent. Backed by The John Cameron Orchestra on some songs, Donovan kicked the concert off with the solely acoustic Lay of the Last Tinker, swiftly followed by Sand And Foam. Many of the songs were so new that reporters misattributed titles, and the latter was reported as being called Mexico, under which title Julie Felix recorded it for Fontana Records the next year.

Guinevere followed, aided by John Cameron on harpsichord and comment was made on his unusual way of stretching and pronouncing words, a la for-bow-ding. Adam Faith would have admired Donovan's resourcefulness.

Lantern slides were then projected onto a screen behind him (years before Pink Floyd et al, fact fans) and the entire Orchestra joined in on Young Girl Blues, reported as being Saturday Night, the title Marianne Faithfull used when she recorded her cover version. The John Cameron Orchestra grew used to this song, accompanying Donovan when he recorded it for one of BBC Radio's Top Gear music sessions too.

Bleak City Woman also utilised the band's various saxes, flute, drums, bass and electric guitars. More band work followed on The Observation (reported as Sidewalk) and Preachin' Love, which was somewhat bizarrely reported as a 'spiritual' in some papers! Oh, not a free-form jazz jam, then? Time for solo Donovan once more and Sunny Goodge Street and Sunshine Superman concluded a very 'bright' end to the first half.

The second part (or 'part the second' as Donovan would undoubtedly have preferred) began with a costume change, as Donovan now wore a long black cloak, which was colourfully embroidered all over its outer surface. The Tinker and the Crab and a song that was simply described as a very moody and beautiful piece, about a Chinese screen (aka Voyage into the Golden Screen) were performed.

John Cameron's people then joined in once more; now augmented by three violins and a 'cello. To Try For The Sun (reported as Who's Gonna Be the One?) followed. Hampstead Incident was given a very wistful reading and received huge applause. Writer in the Sun and the very lengthy Legend of A Girl Child Linda were next.

Donovan then introduced a long red-haired, trouser-clad, gypsy-looking dancer of Italian extraction, called Valli. With just his acoustic as accompaniment, Valli danced sinuously and sensuously as Donovan sang both Summer Day Reflection Song and an otherwise unheard and unreleased 12 minute piece called Gold Apples. The latter, Donovan announced, was to form the centrepiece of a ballet he was writing for The Ballet Rambert.

Like so many Donovan projects, this proceeded no further. What a crying shame no recording of this concert exists. The ballet project shouldn't be confused with another unrealised Donovan ballet, the anti-nuclear Boom!. This similarly never got far and shouldn't be confused with the Noel Coward penned Burton/Taylor film debacle of the same name.

Just Don and acoustic for something he announced as Ballad of Islay (Isle of Islay when he later recorded the number) and the orchestra again heartily joined in on Season of the Witch. This saw Valli dancing again and giving Donovan a very lingering kiss at the end of it!

Proving some things have never changed, the final number was Mellow Yellow and the encore was Bert's Blues (contemporary reports having Good Time as the final song). Eighteen songs, solo and band numbers, a nubile dancers, slides – how many of us would love to see another Donovan concert like that now.

Note that all material was drawn from the Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow and forthcoming A Gift from a Flower to a Garden albums. The first two were US-only releases - just about to be issued in their 'combined' UK Sunshine Superman format LP and the latter had yet to be released in Britain either, so to hear such material first-hand was a rare treat.

The A4-sized programme for the evening simply has the word 'Sonnets' on the front: the 'S' being the same one used on the UK composite Sunshine Superman LP and on the Songs For Sunshine People songbook. Inside, the next page states 'The Royal Albert Hall presents the first performance in London. SONNETS OF DONOVAN.' And only performance, as it transpired, although Donovan began a very successful 7 day residency at The Saville Theatre, London in April. The 'T' of 'The' was the one use to illustrate The Trip in the aforementioned songbook.

The picture of Donovan looking languid in his suit and cravat, as seen on the rear of the Mellow Yellow LP was next and then a new illustration - still by McCall/Taylor, of knightly figures slaying dragons, mermaids, playing cards and many other elements was printed above Perhaps. This was a 8 line stanza leading directly into the words of Mr Wind - itself yet to have music added to it.

The 'A' cartouche-like drawing from the songbook for The Fat Angel was used for a brief biographical note about Don by his old mate, Julian McAllister. Highly appropriate usage of this particular drawing too, seeing that Julian gets a mention in the song, viz the a silver bicycle you shall ride line.

A new graphic on the third-last page presages the 'psych art' style later used on many Donovan picture sleeves, for singles like Mellow Yellow and Jennifer Juniper. This informs the concert-goer that the concert was presented by Ashley Kozak, in association with Denny Cordell and Rik Gunnell. Southern Music and Pye Records get mentions and there is a 'FOR YOU' contained in the fretwork-style lettering within the drawing. Beyond that, the programme is entirely free of tiresome plugs: how different from times today.

The John Cameron Orchestra and Mickie Most are mentioned at the bottom of an otherwise entirely blank page and the last page is also spartan: a tiny area in the bottom right denoting artwork by Sheena McCall, Mick Taylor and Donovan (the 'psych-art FOR YOU piece? It is entirely different in style and execution to everything else) and giving the address of Donovan Ltd, along with the printer and printing firm's address.

Tickets were white print on a black background and bore the legend 'The Sonnets of Donovan will be sung by him at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday, January 15'. Doors opened at 7PM and ticket prices were 5/-, 7/6, 10/6, 15/-, 20/-(£1) and 25/-. Tickets could be purchased through most agencies, like Keith Prowse. The ticket differed in emphasis from the programme, as tickets claimed it was Rik Gunnell presenting the show, with Kozak and Cordell as associates.  Gunnell was a tenor sax player who played in the John Cameron Orchestra for this concert and also appeared on many radio sessions with Chicken Shack and the like.


Related links:

· The Sonnets of Donovan programme

· The Sonnets of Donovan transcription

· 15/01/1967: Concert at the Royal Albert Hall

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