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.