Donovan’s impressionistic take on the London scene came out on his Fairytale album in 1965, two or three years earlier than one might imagine from hearing it now, when the assumption might be it was from the first Summer of Love. It was one of the first British records that mentioned drugs openly - ‘a violent hash-eater’- rather than in code. Rather appropriately, a few months later Donovan was the first high-profile British pop star busted for drugs, supposedly leaping naked onto a bemused policeman’s back in the process. In this imagery, Donovan’s recollection of an irate doper with an attack of the munchies trying to get his chocolate from a vending machine brings to mind Paul Weller’s portrayal of the character in Down in The Tube Station at Midnight (possibly Goodge Street) fumbling with a platform vending machine and ‘pulling out a plum’ (possibly a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate but the exact meaning is unclear, even to the Jam bass player, Bruce Foxton. For a full and at times surreal exploration of that song’s lyrics, see the debate at
Musically, it was a turning point for Donovan, shifting away from the Dylan-influenced folk of his early work to a more jazzy, dreamy feel that foreshadowed Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, with full group coffeehouse-jazz backing including flute, cello and brushed drums, before his more rock-based hits of the later sixties. The lyrics too reflected the changing character of the Goodge Street area, on the cusp between the beat culture and the Eastern mysticism of the flower children. The area in which Goodge Street is located - Fitzrovia - had been a hip part of London culture since the 1930s, a bohemian home from home for Dylan Thomas, Quentin Crisp, Aleister Crowley and George Orwell, who referenced the Newman Arms pub on Rathbone Street in 1984 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. By the late fifties/early sixties, there was a beatnik culture based round the cafes and pubs, particularly the One Tun on Goodge Street, which Donovan picked up on in the shift to flower power and hippies.
So the references locate it firmly in time as well as space, hence the time bubble effect with sunny Goodge Street fixed in the listener’s mind like a photograph, or like a sun-lit miniature scene inside a glass globe. In this scene, you might leave Goodge Street and head down Charlotte Street towards Soho, round the Square, past the strip clubs and bars to Berwick Street and Musicland, to sit on the cushions amidst the smell of patchouli and listen to the latest Country Joe and the Fish import. You might get your copy of International Times and Gandalf’s Garden before heading off past Ronnie Scotts, through Leicester Square where a couple of straggle-haired buskers with guitar and bongos are banging out Season of the Witch, a quick coffee and chips at the Golden Egg and on to Dobells Record Shop on Charing Cross Road to check out the latest jazz and blues offerings. On the way back to Goodge Street you might even catch Soft Machine at the UFO on Tottenham Court Road.
As a song of its time, Sunny Goodge Street is in many ways a period piece: for a contemporary capture of sixties London, a number of songs in the St Etienne back catalogue succeed perfectly. Sunny Goodge Street described a place in time, but it was a state of mind as much as a geographical location.