Thursday, 17 February 2011

Donovan - The Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968/ No. 4/ 10 weeks/ Pye)

This single acts as the precise realistion of a very specific moment in countercultural history - The point when the horrible underbelly of hippy Utopianism became apparent to wise participants, and sensible people realised that they should probably get out of there quickly. If you were to have met the Hurdy Gurdy Man in May 1968 and looked back over his shoulder to see where he'd come from you would have seen a journey of fun and playfulness, but if you could have seen where he was heading to... Well, that road would take you to addiction, exploitation and, ultimately, the bloody murder of The Manson Family and Altmont.

What is odd is that the song ostensibly holds the same pastoral sentiments and Utopian intention as Donovan's earlier, gentler, hits such as Colours or Atlantis. Wikipedia offers a dry precis of the song's narrative;

"The lyrics recount the tale of a nameless narrator being visited in his dreams by the eponymous Hurdy Gurdy Man and his close associate, the Roly Poly Man. Both men come "singing songs of love"".

- and lead the dreamer to a higher state of consciousness. This story doesn't necessarily have to be a frightening one, though the fact that the Hurdy Gurdy Man only manifests himself when the singer is asleep and unable to resist is perhaps a worrying sign.

The way that this single is performed and arranged (by John Paul Jones, about to form Led Zeppelin), however, is quite astonishingly malevolent, and leaves the listener feeling as though they've stumbled into a room filled of traces of saliva, spunk, blood and ectoplasm. Everything is phased, boxy-sounding, echoey and slightly too slow, casting an intense fug of sound over proceedings.

Two aspects in particular leave a shudder. Donovan's voice isn't just treated with echo - in itself, that could be an enjoyable pop trope - but has a wobbling hum that creates an actively physical reaction in the listener. The sensation this is most redolent of is of how a child will play with their voice, discovering that if they pat their hand against their throat when speaking it makes their voice sound inhuman, an experiment which inevitably results in the concomitant discovery that it makes the child feel giddy and ill;

(Humming) HmmMmmUmmUmmMmmMmmMuu...

Thrown like a star i-i-n my-y v-a-a-s-t s-l-e-e-p
I o-p-e-n m-y-e-y-e-s t-o t-a-k-e-a-p-e-e-p
To find that I-i was b-y-y t-h-e s-e-e-a
G-a-z-i-n-g w-i-t-h t-r-a-n-q-u-i-i-l-l-i-i-t-y -

- And then, a very slow rat-a-tat barrage of drums announces a disruptive presence;

(louder) 'Twas then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came s-i-i-n-g-i-n-g s-o-n-g-s-o-f-l-o-o-o-v-e.

This is really quite unsettling, an effect underlined by some wrong-sounding Indian tamburas that suddenly shhtanngg! into the soundscape. Donovan's chuntering description of the songs of love that he Hurdy Gurdy Man sang presage the second uncanny element of the recording;


This raggedy song of love is eventually given instrumental voice in the form of a remarkably aggressive grinding, choking, prolonged guitar solo from Alan Parker, often mistakenly attributed to Jimmy Page and composed by Donovan with Hendrix in mind.

Donovan wrote the song after his experiences on the fabled Rishikesh retreat with the Beatles, and the Hurdy Gurdy Man, who awakens a deep atavistic knowledge, is supposed to represent the Maharishi, so - should you wish to - you could listen to this song as a darker companion piece to Lennon's Sexy Sadie.

What I'd love to know is whether this single, which sounds uncompromisingly malevolent to my 2011 ears, and genuinely aware of the possibility of evil - a difficult artistic effect to pull off! - had the effect of freaking out its original 1968 listeners (who made this a top five chart hit on both sides of the Atlantic) as much as it spooks me.


  1. The song has never impressed me as sounding "evil" (to me, it sounds merely whimsical and drug-fueled), but you are not alone in your opinion. Several filmmakers have featured the song while introducing a devilish character onscreen. The indie film L.I.E (a gay cult classic) makes haunting use of the song as the film's avuncular pedophile (played brilliantly by Brian Cox) pulls up in his convertible. David Fincher also famously chose the song to open his film about the "Zodiac" killer.

  2. Interesting writing. I was listening to a program on making film scores and saw, for the first time, a man playing a hurdy gurdy. "What IS that?" I wondered. Down the internet bunny hole I went and, a half-hour later, here I am. Now off I go to further enjoy your musings archive.