Half a year passed between the recording of “Sunshine Superman” and its US release. Another half a year passed before the single came out in Donovan’s native UK. Within those 12 months, the concept of mainstream pop that reflected the psychedelic experience had gone from obscurity to full-blown trend. (The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” often cited as the first psych-rock song, was actually recorded a few weeks after “Superman,” though released first.) But even if legal hassles kept “Sunshine Superman” from being the bolt out the blue that Donovan had hoped for, nevertheless there’s a freshness to the single that keeps it from sounding like psychedelia by rote. The collage of classical Indian instrumentation, Baroque-era harpsichord and electric guitars isn’t merely the product of checking boxes on a psych-rock template. Instead, this impossible soundscape untethers the song from any definable time or place, situating the song somewhere found only in the imagination (with the assistance of certain chemicals, perhaps). This detachment from reality is aided by the shifting bass, continually knocking the record off balance, and by the disguised instrumentation: the conga subbing for a tabla, or, in the song’s greatest hook, the swerving electric guitar sting masquerading as sitar or even siren.
The delayed release of “Sunshine Superman” might have even served to its benefit. Its title made the song as apposite a warm weather number-one as “Summer in the City,” albeit one that presents an idealized acid dream of beaches and sunsets rather than The Lovin’ Spoonful’s noisy, grimy realism. In addition, its mid-1966 release placed it in context with psych-leaning records by bigger, more musically progressive acts like The Beatles and The Byrds. In the US, Donovan had previously only notched a few minor hits with the earnest acoustic folk of “Catch the Wind” and “Universal Soldier.” “Sunshine Superman” singlehandedly raised his American profile and transformed his persona from denim-capped balladeer to fey, benevolent mystic. On top of the eclectic production and rainbow-and-velvet-strewn imagery, Donovan’s jazzy phrasing adds a newfound bit of swagger to his delicate tenor, as befitting the refrain “’cause I made my mind up/ you’re going to be mine” – though Donovan’s inherent gentleness makes it more of a mischievous tease than a Jaggeresque leer. The production by Mickie Most, with whom Donovan would collaborate steadily over the next few years, is brisk and breezy in keeping with the song’s carefree spirit, but grounded enough to avoid either the ponderousness or overt whimsy that would often come to mark psychedelia, particularly as the decade progressed.
A historical note: session musicians Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones met at the recording of this single. The band they would form a few years later, while never troubling this blog directly, would have a huge impact on rock music from the late ’60s onward. While “Sunshine Superman” represented a fresh start for its singer and an inspired example of its burgeoning genre, it also contained the seeds of the future sound that would render both obsolete. 8
Hit #1 on September 3, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
167 of 1021 #1’s reviewed; 16.36% through the Hot 100