17/06/2010

Sunny Goodge Street


Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street pre-dated Waterloo Sunset as a song in the key of London by nearly 2 years. There is, however, a crucial difference. Whereas Waterloo Sunset has a timeless quality that has provided relevance across the years, Sunny Goodge Street creates a little time bubble that the listener can only experience from a distance. A historical snapshot preserved in aspic where the past is a foreign country and Goodge Street isn’t somewhere you get off to go to Heals or Pollock’s Toy Museum or find a cheap electrical shop but the crossroads between bohemia and hippydom.

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.



15 comments:

  1. Wow Geoff, my whole life I thought the song was about a street in San Francisco - I was always watching out for Goodge Street when I walked around San Fran. I thought it described that period of time in San Fran so well, and it's fascinating that it was about a street in London!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great stuff. I used to get pot at the One Tun pub on Goodge Street, in 65 it was one of the only places where blokes with long hair were in the majority. ---------Ken

    ReplyDelete
  3. This description reminds me of how Greenwich Village was - beatniks and hippies, and a real city in of itself. A real bohemian enclave. I always wondered where that place was located in London. Sounds like it was Goodge Street. Thanks for this column Geoff.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I wonder if we can even think of it as a description of a utopia - describing a no-place / everyplace that summarises a whole generational vibe.

    ReplyDelete
  5. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lynsey_wells83/4642592311/

    :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Wonder what you think about his "Sunny South Kensington" from 1967. Another psychedelic gem, this time about the vibrant scene in South West London in the mid 60s. Lyrics such as “Mary Quant and Jean-Paul Belmondo/Got stoned to say the least,/ and Ginsberg ended up dry/So he too a trip out East.”

    ReplyDelete
  7. That would be another possibility-on the same album as Hampstead Incident too!
    Re Desiree's comment-I think Donovan at that time must have been ahead of the curve. The lyrics do sound like they could have been about San Francisco in 1967 but the song came out a couple of years before that-even before the term Swinging London was much in use.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks Geoff yes I think because of cover versions I always thought it was later than 65. I first heard it by Marianne Faithful maybe and then Tom Northcott and maybe then Judy Collins. Which I think were all later in the 60s. So it had a Summer of Love chronology for me. I love the Donovan version best though, thanks for reminding me of the original!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  9. It's strange (and good!) that the song wasn't censored or condemned a a drug tune. Like Paul Revere and the Raiders' song "Kicks." Or Phil Ochs' "Outside a Small Circle of Friends." Or Steppenwolf's "The Pusher." I know John Kay was warned in North Carolina by authorities to not sing "The Pusher" lyrics in a local concert (so the band did an instrumental and an enthusiastic audience provided the lyrics as they sang along:) So anyway, I wonder why Donovan escaped the Drug Warriors.... Maybe because of the surreal quality of the whole song, which Drug Warriors couldn't follow.....:)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Maybe it was just too early on to be picked up-or maybe the lyrics were misheard! I have even seen the line quoted on the internet as 'violent ash-smoker'!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I hadnt heard the Tom Northcott version, Desiree. I think the Judy Collins cover was the first time I heard the song, on the same album as Leonard Cohen's Suzanne (also the first time I heard that song)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great stuff.Keep updating such cool stuff..great job man.

    ReplyDelete
  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete