Donovan's 10 greatest songs ever, ranked

20 September 2022, 10:10

By Mayer Nissim

From 'Mellow Yellow' to 'Hurdy Gurdy Man', Donovan lit up the 1960s with his psychedelic folk rock.

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Wrongly regarded by some as a Bob Dylan clone, or dismissed as second-fiddle to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (who wasn't?!), Donovan was one of the shining lights of the 1960s.

He taught John Lennon how to finger-pick for The White Album, he was pals with Brian Jones and Joan Baez, and he played with the Jeff Beck Group and future members of Led Zeppelin.

More importantly, he put out a run of songs in the 1960s and beyond that have more than stood the test of time.

From his earlier folky beginnings through a psychedelic revolution, Donovan's very best tracks easily rub shoulders with his contemporaries.

It's been difficult, but we've whittled down Donovan's impressive back catalogue to just ten songs, ranking them all the way from amazing up to peerless.

  1. Please Don’t Bend

    Rick Rubin played a key part in helping to resurrect the career of Johnny Cash when he stripped it all down for the American Recordings series of albums.

    When Rubin was in the studio with Tom Petty, he mentioned that he'd love to work with Donovan. Petty urged him to do just that, and Rubin and Donovan made the Sultras album for the American Recordings label.

    It didn't have the success or impact of his collaboration with Cash, but it's still a great folksy album that recalls Donovan's earliest years, and this lead single was one of its standouts.

  2. I Am The Shaman

    After a decade away, Donovan has been making music pretty consistently since the mid-1990s.

    In 2010, he hooked up with the equally meditationally-minded David Lynch. The groundbreaking TV and movie director produced 'I Am The Shaman' with his own regular musical collaborator Dean Hurley, and last year he made a music video for the song, too.

  3. Mellow Yellow

    Like many of Donovan's biggest hits, 'Mellow Yellow' was produced by Mickie Most.

    Recorded and released in October 1966, and if you listen closely you may be able to hear Paul McCartney in the background somewhere. while an uncredited Donovan had helped out with the same year's 'Yellow Submarine'.

    It went top ten on both sides of the Atlantic, going as high as number 2 in the US.

    As for what the song's about, it's not smoking banana skins. Instead, it's something much racier.

    "It's about being cool, laid-back, and also the electrical bananas that were appearing on the scene – which were ladies' vibrators," Donovan told the NME in 2011.

  4. Colours

    A number four hit in the UK, 'Colours' was one of Donovan's early songs that got him that "Bob Dylan-esque" tag that he so struggled to shake off.

    It's a great bit of folk-pop in its own right though, either in its original version, the re-recording with Mickie Most or the live duet version with Joan Baez at Newport in 1965 (Joan covered the song the same year).

  5. Jennifer Juniper

    One of those late-1960s Donovan classics that proved that he had more than shaken off the unfair Dylan comparisons.

    Apparently inspired by a heroin overdose suffered by Jenny 'sister of Pattie' Boyd, it's an emotionally open, wide-eyed classic elevated by an array of non-rock instruments (Oboe! Flute! French Horn! Bassoon!)

  6. Universal Soldier

    While Donovan wrote nearly all of his best-known songs, 'Universal Solider' is a rare exception.

    Originally written and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1964, the song didn't make a big splash till the following year when Donovan brought it to the masses.

    In the years that followed, artists as diverse as The Highwaymen, Glen Campbell, Chumbawumba and First Aid Kit also put their spin on the anti-war classic.

  7. Catch The Wind

    Donovan's very first single made him an overnight success. 'Catch The Wind' went to number four in the UK, and perhaps more impressively for the young Scot all the way to number 23 in the US.

    As well as being used in a squillion TV shows and movies, it's one of Donovan's most-covered songs, with Johnny Rivers, Chet Atkins, Cher, Peter Fonda, Ertha Kitt, Sammy Hagar, Joan Baez and Bonnie Tyler giving it a go.

  8. Hurdy Gurdy Man

    This psych rocker was written by Donovan in Rishikesh where he was hanging out with The Beatles learning Transcendental Meditation – Donovan even plays a four-string tambura that George Harrison had given him on the song.

    The song would end up being a massive hit for Donovan, going to number 4 in the UK and number 5 in the US, but was almost recorded by a couple of other artists.

    Word is that Donovan wanted to give it to Jimmy Hendrix, while it was also rumoured to be for the band Hurdy Gurdy, which included his old pal Mac MacLeod, before Donovan decided to record it himself.

    Produced by Mickie Most, there's still disagreement to this day on who actually plays on it, with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones possibly doing their bit.

    George Harrison wrote a whole verse for the song, but it was snipped out in favour of a guitar solo.

  9. Season of the Witch

    Donovan's very best song wasn't even released as a single, instead just opening the second side of his Sunshine Superman album (both the original 1966 US version, and the 1967 UK version that actually combined that album and the previous Mellow Yellow).

    It's a paranoid, twisty, trippy tale that shows that the psychedelic era was much heavier and darker than the flowers and rainbows it's sometimes (mis)remembered as.

    Covered by artists like Vanilla Fudge, Lana Del Rey and Joan Jett, Donovan's stunning original is never far away from a spooky movie or TV show, either.

  10. Sunshine Superman

    Maybe Donovan's ultimate psychedelic rock moment, 'Sunshine Superman' – taken from the 1966 album of the same name and backed with 'The Trip'– went all the way to number 2 in the UK singles chart and did one better in the US, becoming his only chart-topper there.

    Produced by Mickie Most, the song features future Led Zep stars John Paul Jones on bass and Jimmy Page on lead guitar.