MELLOW FELLOW

We are in a TV studio in London, and the aspirant Music Quiz champion in the spotlight has chosen Donovan’s sixties music as his special topic. Having already netted points for the musician’s birth name and place (Donovan Phillips Leitch, born Glasgow, May 1946) and his first album release (What’s bin did and what’s bin hid, Pye Records, May 1965) he nods at the next question, seemingly no more demanding than the first pair.

“What album did Donovan release in 1967?”

Smiling confidently, the answer comes without hesitation. “Sunshine Superman in June”. The contestant’s smile broadens as the audience applauds, then falters as a small contingent down the front boo loudly. “Horse hockey!” they bellow.

A tall figure in a dazzling stars and stripes waistcoat stands and addresses the Quizmaster.

Sunshine Superman,” drawls a voice redolent with New World authority, “was released in September 1966 on the Epic label and reached number #11 on the US charts”. Brief pause as audience, presenter and contestant absorb this data.

“In March 1967,” continues the informant firmly, “Donovan released Mellow Yellow, followed later in the year by the double album A Gift From A Flower To A Garden”. The figure sits, to brief applause from the surrounding Americans. Muttering trickles through the studio like iced water.

After a whispered conversation between Quizmaster and a hidden fact checker, the host grins unconvincingly and agrees, yes, the audience member is absolutely correct! Not only was Sunshine Superman released in the UK nine months later than the US, it wasn’t even the same album.

The British release (on Pye, with whom Donovan was in dispute) combined songs from Mellow Yellow and Sunshine Superman into a hybrid album. This time the locals boo. “We were gypped!” they shout. And they were.

Admittedly, the compilation was rather good, but it was still a rock ’n’ roll swindle, and Pye should have been ashamed of themselves.

So, sixties fans and 60s-curious, today we are going to talk about Mellow Yellow, the Donovan album that saw the completion of the folk singer’s transition to Pop princeling. Later, we’ll also talk about his mate Bert.

The title track and highly successful single, “Mellow Yellow” had a breezy psychedelic catchiness totally in keeping with the time. That it is still on high rotation at Gold FM radio stations the world over is not Donovan’s fault and we should forgive him for how tedious the song has become to anyone over the age of six. Did you know that the brass driven arrangement was done by John Paul Jones of (not-yet-conceived) Led Zeppelin?

Thereafter, I do believe it’s getting better, getting better all the time (couldn’t get no worse). “Writer in the sun” is a gentle reverie about, well, a retired writer in the, er, sun. There’s a restrained sadness permeating the song, giving it a melancholic edge. “Sand and foam” is largely acoustic; folky and postcardy in its images of Mexico. It might have been called “English Visitor in the sun”.

Some jive talkin’ moves are thrown in “The Observation”; it is jazzy, fun and lightweight. The next song, “Bleak city woman”, is cut from the same beatnik cloth and not especially memorable.

“House of Jansch” is another matter. Displaying fine finger-picking technique (skills he later shared with John Lennon during pauses in the meditation classes in India), this is a bluesy, languid song of enduring appeal. The title is a direct reference to folk guitar hero Bert Jansch whom Donovan admired. Mind you, he wasn’t alone in that. Young Jimmy Page was a regular audience member at Jansch gigs, watching the guitarist’s technique with rapt attention.

“Young girl blues” is not an gender-balancing reworking of the Mose Allison classic (covered by The Who) but a minor key lament for a sad female scenester (or should that be scenestress?). It’s observational and balances precariously between exploitative snapshot and compassionate insight.

It’s Saturday night, it feels like a Sunday in some ways

If you had any sense, you’d maybe go away for a few days

Be that as it may, you can only say you are lonely

You are but a young girl working your way through the phonies

It’s not unusual for a pop artist to recycle a successful song to generate more mileage out of a hit. “Museum” is a total retread of “Sunshine superman”. ‘Nuff said.

Fans of Nick Drake will enjoy the downbeat “Hamstead Heath”, a slow-swaying blues with added harpsichord. A sensitive orchestral arrangement builds then falls away to a harpsichord outro. At 4:40, it’s the longest song on the album. That same tinkly keyboard features on the last track too: “Sunny South Kensington” is another Donovan observation of the swingin’ London scene. Kind of cool sonically, kind of naff lyrically. But it swings and has an amusing musical quote from Manfred Mann’s “Pretty flamingo”.

Come take a walk in sunny South Kensington

Any day of the week.

See the girl with the silk Chinese blouse on,

You know she ain’t no freak

Even at the time, there was suspicion of Donovan’s mainstream success. In December 1966 Melody Maker magazine (UK) pondered the mellow fellow’s authenticity:

“Poet or poseur? A mod saint or a cynic who has stumbled on the way to sell a million records?”

His manager of the time was in no doubt. “I think Don can take over from where The Beatles have left off”. The Beatles had abandoned progress in ’66? Really?

Overall, Mellow Yellow is a mixed bag. If you want a Donovan album that shows his combination of folk roots and pop sensibilities more consistently, get the 1966 US album Sunshine Superman; it has held its value better.

Before the hits, the publicity and the scene-making, Donovan was out there plying his trade as a fair-dinkum troubadour. In July 1965 he wrote to Melody Maker from the United States:

“Well, I sang at the Newport Folk Festival and now I’m a folk singer…

On the concert (sic) I sang “Colours” with Joan Baez, otherwise I was out there on my own. I did some Bert Jansch stuff, and Mick Softly and some of my own things…

Everybody was knocked out by Bert Jansch’s songs and wants to do them — he doesn’t know about it yet, so I hope he reads it in the MM. He’s very talented.”*

You can read more about the very talented Bert Jansch here at Vinyl Connection, it the very next post.

Donovan — Mellow Yellow


Released: January 1967


Label: Epic


Duration: 34:17

 

* Quotes from Uncut: The History of Rock—1965

Feature image from the Uncut article (above) They Think I Fell Out Of The Sky (Melody Maker, 4 June 1966) Getty.

36 comments

  1. Obviously I am an old hippie, because I like the old songs of Donovan. It’s about a more peaceful society. And Atlantis is a symbol, a mysterious place beyond our material world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anything that channels peace and co-operation has to be worth listening to, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “I looking for a album from the sixties. I don’t know the title, but it has the words peace and love in it. Do you got it?” Record’s Ron: “Sure, we got it.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “How many you want?”

          Liked by 1 person

        2. 33 per minute !!! ( Sorry, but your links doesn’t work on my side)

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  2. I would love to have experienced just one day of that Swingin’ London/Carnaby Street scene. Ah yes…”I’m just wild about Saffron…” (That’s quite an image of her on the cover of the UK release!) You’re right, in that the song can get a wee bit tedious, but I *have* always liked how carefully he annunciates his ‘t’s when he sing/says “Quite rightly…” Donovan is yet another of the artists who pinged my radar screen at an early age, courtesy of my older siblings. I like the picture of him on the back of the UK LP, dapper in his double-breasted blazer. I can’t figure out if he’s just about to snap his fingers, or to gesture a la an irritated Italian. And what’s with that inset drawing of a naked woman trapped in a bubble? The fine print in the lower left corner notes that ‘The selection of sonnets were written by Donovan Leitch’….sonnets? And c’mon Bruce, you know the Beatles’ post-1966 material was pretty sub-standard, don’t you?! Trivia: Donovan’s daughter is actress Ione Skye. Last but not least (sorry for the ramble), I’ve learned a new word: naff! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. London, Summer of ’67. That’s where I’d program the TARDIS to head. There’s a record shop in Carnaby Street; meet you there?

      I found what I presume to be an outtake from the photo shoot for the back cover of the LP…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yet another interesting gesture/pose: this time, the ‘Napoleon hand tuck’. Actually, in the all-white ensemble, he looks like the man that drove the ice cream truck when I was a kid…..and yes, meet you in Carnaby Street: I’ll be wearing my Mary Quant miniskirt and Go-Go boots! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sounds wonderful.

          Do you know the incomparable Rutles? The project involved Eric Idle with songs by Neil Innes. The film was co-financed by George Harrison (who had a tiny walk-on part). This verse is from ‘Doubleback Alley‘ (the Rutle version of Penny Lane):

          We had a good time in Doubleback Alley
          With fences to climb and Father O’Malley
          To clip your ear and steer you clear
          Of the funny man in the ice cream van
          Who talked so queer

          BTW, the Scottish Island of Skye was where Donovan tried to set up a hippy community around this time.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Never much felt any real draw to Donovan’s sounds. Just a bit whimsical and I figured very much of their time.

    However, anyone who picks Donovan’s sixties music as his special topic and doesn’t know a bit of trivia like that deserves to be embarrassed on telly, I reckon.

    … and I did not know that about John Paul Jones!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Do your homework” is your message to quiz show contestants, then?

      Yes, for me Donovan’s music has dated more than some others, though mainly from Mellow Yellow onwards. As I mentioned, Sunshine Superman holds up better (though still ‘of its time’).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You betcha, Bruce. You can’t win if you don’t study, right?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A college roommate of mine used to refer to everyone as “Slick,” including his girlfriend. Of course, she never liked it. But then, I don’t think she ever really got the reference. 🙂 – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At least he didn’t call her Mondegreen! (Quite rightly)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hamstead Heath sounds right up my street: Nick Drake-esque + Harpsicord, I’ll take it!
    I believe it’s the US version of Sunshine Superman that’s on the 1001 list, and it sounds like they chose the right one.
    That poor manager – I suppose you’re supposed to hype up your own act, but that may have been a tad ambitious to say he picked up the relay baton from the Beatles!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have to admire that manager’s confidence, don’t you? And I think, if you give it a few spins to adjust to its 60s structures, you might admire ‘Sunshine Superman’ too. Look forward some a unique 1001Geoff take!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Man I grew up on this stuff, on my Mom’s jukebox. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stay mellow, dude!

      Like

  7. This was a great read–I love the bit about the quiz show. I think our opinions are more in line about this album.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I only knew Donovan by his made-for-the-sixties singles, which I liked well enough. No time right now to explore this album but I see the version on Spotify has “Epistle to Dippy” as track 11 and that reminds me …

    In the early seventies I was introduced to a board game called Diplomacy. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated war-game in which you command armies and fleets on a figurative map of Europe as it was around 1900 with the objective of taking control of the whole continent. The game requires 7 players plus, ideally, a gamesmaster and it takes at least four hours to play. All of that is difficult to organise unless you have lots of like-minded mates and plenty of spare weekends, so it spawned a player community that revolved around fanzines running postal games.

    I had joined the British Diplomacy Club a couple of months before when, out of the blue, I got a complimentary copy of the fanzine ‘Puppet Theatre News’ from a Scottish lad called Pete Mearns. It included an insert simply saying “Fancy a game of Dippy?” and giving the subscription fee for his ‘zine. I had no idea who Pete Means was and at first I couldn’t work out what this mysterious ‘Dippy’ was. Eventually the penny dropped, I took him up on his offer to play postal Diplomacy and continued playing happily for a decade or so, sending out diplomatic letters to the other players asking for alliances and planning campaigns.

    Donovan’s “Epistle to Dippy” made less of an impression on me. I guess it’s a ‘bonus’ track that’s not on your vinyl record and, frankly, it’s one you’re better off without.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your confusion was totally understandable. Many considered young Donovan a hippie and rather dippy.

      As for the song’s inclusion with Mellow Yellow, that’s not unreasonable: it was a non-album single in the US only, in 1967. If you ever do make time of a spot of Donovaning, I recommend ‘Sunshine Superman’. In the meantime, there’s a rumour of an alliterative alliance between Lapland and Latvia. The details are in the post.

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      1. Yep. (I looked up that Dippy song.) Incidentally, I saw Donovan at a free open-air concert in Hyde Park, London some time around 1970. All I remember is that he came across much as you’d expect from his chart singles, which I guess makes him a folk/pop artist worthy of our respect even if we don’t particularly like his material.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Donovan—Mellow Yellow […]

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  10. The only Donovan album that I really knew well back in the days was Cosmic Wheels.
    Otherwise I just remember a few “lose” tracks, “Mellow Yellow” & “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and most likely others if I hear them again – might be the time to dig deeper into his albums.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Donovan is an artist where a collection might suffice for many people. The 2CD Troubadour: The Definitive Collection 1964-1975 is a pretty comprehensive set.

      Like

  11. I’m so sorry Bruce, I can’t keep any Donovan down. Blame it on being overdosed with it as a small child – I didn’t like it even then! I just love the Donovan Dylan interaction in ‘Don’t Look Back’ – Dylan just puts him back in his box with ‘It’s all over now’.

    To me Donovan sounds like crayons. Does that make any sense at all?

    Plus he’s an appallingly self-important little sprite these days – taking the credit for, as you rightly point out, Sgt Peppers, the fall of the Berlin Wall, grindcore and the invention of the iPhone – okay so I might exaggerate a little.

    You can have any Donovan singles I one day (hopefully in the very dim distant future) I inherit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just between you and me, this one was a wee bit of a challenge to be positive about. I do have time for early ‘folk’ Donovan, but that is almost gone by Mellow Yellow.
      It is all very pastel and mannered.
      I have an ‘unofficial’ live recording from the 90s where he makes a HUGE ‘throwaway’ deal out of a verse George wrote for Hurdy Gurdy man:
      “And George Harrison he turned to me and he said, “I could write a verse for that song, Don”. And he did, but I didn’t record it. But would you like to hear the long lost…” etc etc. Self-important sprite indeed.
      I do like Season of the Witch, though (even if I prefer the Fairport version).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Season is great, I do concede that. I bought my folks his Sunshine Superman DVD documentary, my mum subsequently blames me for killing any nostalgic love she may have had for Donovan.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Reality hurts.

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  12. I’ve got a couple of his albums and I still dig listening to them. Of late his claims to be the driving force/inspiration/writer/best pal of folk like The Beatles can be tedious but he did capture the times back then. Didn’t know that Fairport covered Season Of The Witch. You got a link to that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, the perils of responding from work when you cannot fact check. It was Richard Thompson on an obscure soundtrack album, Paul. Sorry for the bum steer, but it is still pretty amazing.

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  13. That’s fine. Mr. Thompson works for me…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. That Thompson cover is perfect. What a great fit. He really cuts loose. Love it! I gotta have it! (TV soundtrack,huh? Sounds interesting). I was listening to my albums in chronological order a while back and the Donovan stuff still sounded good. The woman CB has been hanging with for an eternity has all Donovan’s albums including this one. Trivia : Where did CB file ‘Mellow Yellow’ in his record pile?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Under ‘Albums with a colour in the title’ within which a rainbow order is followed. That’s what I’d do, anyway. 😉
      The ‘Crossing Jordan’ CD is available for peanuts from WOWHD (under $8AUS).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m reading your comment and thinking “What the hell is he talking about?” Then I clue in and remember my smart-ass comment. I laughed. Yeah that Richard cover is dynamite. thanks for the info.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. PS An artist I like, Andy White (you might be familiar) has a Donovan Vibe going. Check out ‘Palace of Noise’ for a taste if you are inclined. (Still carrying the EVE thing with me).

    Liked by 1 person

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