Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Spooktober Edition” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Season Of The Witch By Donovan, Album: Sunshine Superman 1966
One of the first songs to fit the “psychedelic” genre, Donovan recorded it in May 1966, shortly before his highly publicized arrest for possession of marijuana.
The genesis of this song goes back to an evening at folk music notable Bert Jansch’s house in north London, when fellow acoustic master John Renbourn showed Donovan a D ninth chord. From that Donovan built up a riff that, according to the memories of those present, he then played solidly for the next seven hours.
“There was a feeling, even then, that all was not perfect in the Garden of Eden,” he said of the song in an interview with Mojo magazine June 2011. “Dealers were moving into bohemia and hard drugs were on the fringes. The song was also prophetic. It was about the bust, although of course I couldn’t know that then.”
During Led Zeppelin’s soundchecks, they often warmed up by playing this. The song allows for lots of jamming when played live, which makes it a popular cover for many bands.
This song is ideal for long jams. The two main chords (A and D) are played during the verses, and during the chorus there are three chords (A, D and E). In Mojomagazine, January 2005, Donovan said: “Season of the Witch’ continues to be a perennial influence because it allows a jam – not a 12-bar or Latin groove, but a very modern jam. Led Zeppelin used to warm up every day to it on the road during the soundcheck. It makes me very proud that I’ve created certain forms that other bands can get off on, to explore, be experimental, or just break the rules.”
Donovan’s producer was Mickie Most, an interesting character who oversaw many hit records in the ’60s and ’70s (for more on Mickie, see our interview with Alan Merrill of The Arrows).
In the same Mojo interview, Donovan said: “I remember the bass line going down and Mickie saying, ‘We’ve got a problem. The engineers are saying that they can’t turn the bass up.’ I said, Why? They said, ‘Well, it’s going into the red.’ And so he said to the engineers, ‘Look, you go into the red, I’m giving you permission. Go in the red! That’s the bass sound I want. Very, very loud.’ And they said, ‘Well, we’ll have to have a meeting.’ So they went upstairs and had a meeting about whether the bass should go into the red. And they came down, they said, ‘No, I’m sorry, the equipment can’t stand it.’ So Mickie Most said, ‘Look, I’ve just made a record deal with your boss Clive Davis for $5 million and seven bands. And he’s given me $1m right now. So do you think if I phone him up, you’d give me a little bit more bass?’ And they looked at each other, and immediately realized that their jobs were on the line. They said, ‘OK, you’ve got more bass.’ We got more bass the needle went into the red, the equipment didn’t blow up. I guess next time they made that needle, they did that thing by just moving the red bit a bit farther to the right, like in Spinal Tap: ‘My amp goes up to 11!'”This song was covered by Al Kooper (Blood Sweat & Tears, The Blues Project) and Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash & Young) on the historically significant 1968 album Super Session. That gives us an excuse to tell a fun story: Stills was brought in midway through recording the album to replace Mike Bloomfield (Butterfield Band, Electric Flag). Now, Kooper was originally enthusiastic to play with Bloomfield, but Bloomfield had a habit of ditching at the worst possible time. So when he showed up at Al Kooper’s house, Bloomfield complained of an infected toe, then proceeded to use the most expensive crystal bowl in the house to soak his toe in.
A photo of this (the toe) ended up on the back cover of the Super Session album. Then Mike Bloomfield simply disappeared in the morning, leaving only a note saying that he’d had insomnia. It wouldn’t even be the last time he stood up Al Kooper!
In his memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, Al Kooper mentions that he’s been moved to cover this song after a trip to London, when he’d heard Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” coming out of every shop on King’s Road.
“Fast” Eddie Hoh played drums on this song. He also played drums on the Super Session cover. Eddie Hoh also played percussion for The Mamas & The Papas, The Monkees, and dozens of other acts.
Other covers of this very portable song include Vanilla Fudge on a 1960s single and several of their 2000s albums, Luna on a 1996 single, and Joan Jett on her Naked album of 2004.
Many came across the song for the first time in late 2010 after it was used in an ad for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.
This song plays during a pivotal scene in the 1973 George Romero film, Season of the Witch. The film is about a conservative Catholic woman who gets drawn into the ’70s occult craze.
Lana Del Rey recorded a spooky cover for the soundtrack of the 2019 horror movie Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Fabulous song. Great pick. Love Richard Thompson’s brilliant version of the song on the Crossing Jordan soundtrack CD.