The high times were peaking in Britain, with the rock-star elite leading the psychedelic parade.
The bands celebrated their altered states in song, hesitatingly at first, then full blast. In 1966, for example, the Beatles profiled a Doctor Feelgood of their acquaintance in “Doctor Robert.” The Stones unleashed the pill-popping “Mother’s Little Helper.”
The Authorities took note. Then they took action.
Donovan Leitch was looking over his shoulder as the year began. A TV documentary had just caught the Scottish singer and some friends getting high.
In January, he recorded “Sunshine Superman,” an early psych-pop song that raised eyebrows — sunshine was slang for a popular type of LSD. The troubadour also debuted “The Trip,” about an LSD-illuminated night out in L.A. (“I got caught in a coloured shower …”)
In May, Donovan was back in the studio in search of new directions. He came up with an unsettling new song.
” ‘Season Of The Witch’ was kind of prophetic,” the one-time folk singer recalled decades later. “It was anticipating the (drug) bust, so it was a dark song for that reason. It was a chilling sound to come from me, and I didn’t know where it was coming from at first.”
Not long after, Donovan became the first of many British pop stars rounded up by the drug squad — with members of the Stones and Beatles close behind.
“Season of the Witch” wasn’t a drug song, really, but its stoner vibe and spooky-surreal lyrics caught the fancy of many of the era’s underground bands. The song also proved a terrific framework for jamming. The spell never was broken — “Witch” remains among the most covered songs of 1960s rock.
“How dare I be so cool? It’s a magic track,” the songwriter says of the song’s enduring attraction for musicians. He calls it “a very modern jam.”
Donovan’s own recording remains a classic, recorded in Hollywood and clocking in at 5 minutes. He played it with Bobby Ray (bass) and “Fast” Eddy Hoh, although the electric guitar work has been credited by fans to Jimmy Page, who worked on the album. (The Hollywood session notes do not indicate Page was present.) The organist is unidentified.
The next year saw a pair of superb “Season of the Witch” covers: The wah-drenched “Super Session” workout by Stephen Stills and Al Kooper, running 11 minutes and also featuring drummer Hoh. And the Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll & the Trinity take of almost 8 minutes. And then in 1968, Terry Reid belted out 10 minutes of potent “Witch”-craft.
The song is simple, two dark chords: A7 and D7 (A5/D5 and A7/D9 work, too). Donovan’s pal Shawn Phillips, who played on the Hollywood sessions, says he co-wrote the music, which makes sense given the textural drone. (“I would be playing, and he’d start making up words,” Phillips has said of the “Sunshine Superman” album.)
The song’s narrator has been cast as a schizophrenic (“so many different people to be”) or someone freaking out on acid. Paranoia permeates:
When I look over my shoulder,
What do you think I see?
Some other cat looking over
His shoulder at me
And he’s strange, sure he’s strange.
The supernatural may or may not be in play, owing to the title and these mysterious phrases:
You’ve got to pick up every stitch
The rabbits running in the ditch
“There’s something kind of ritualistic about it,” Donovan has said. “Maybe it is the first kind of Celtic-rock thing I was doing.”
The film and TV industries certainly picked up on the supernatural tone. “Season of the Witch” remains a go-to soundtrack number when a hip creepy vibe is required. At least three horror films borrowed the title. And several books, including the upcoming “Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock ‘n’ Roll.”