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The Story Behind the Song: The sexual innuendo of Donovan's 'Mellow Yellow'

Donovan is a Scottish singer-songwriter and guitarist. He emerged from the influential British folk scene of the 1960s. Initially, his early fame in the UK stemmed from his live performances on the pop television show Ready Steady Go!

Subsequent to his newfound fame, he signed to now-defunct label Pye Records in 1965. He then recorded a handful of folk singles and two albums for the label, with US label Hickory Records putting them out stateside. After the success of the two albums, What’s Bin Did and What’s Bin Hid (1965) and Fairytale (1965), Donovan signed to major Epic Records in the US. He was the first signing by the company’s new vice-president, the influential Clive Davis.

This move was to be a turning point in Donovan’s career. He shed the obvious Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie influences that had coloured his early work and embraced the nascent “flower-power” movement. He became one of the first British musicians to adopt the US-countercultural movement and west-coast psychedelia. He became influenced by the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. 

Another Donovan made song would also culminate in his star rising exponentially. He began a long and highly successful partnership with prominent British record producer Mickie Most. The influential independent producer had recorded a string of smash-hits with the likes of Lulu, The Animals and Herman’s Hermits. 

Furthermore, this relationship would bring him into contact with a handful of future legends, who at the time were plying their trade as some of London’s most sought after session musicians and would at points play in his backing band. These included John Bonham, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, soon to be of Led Zeppelin fame, Jack Bruce of Cream and the Jeff Beck Group.

In adopting psychedelia, and all things bright and beautiful, Donovan’s sonic palette expanded greatly. He would develop an eclectic and distinctive style— this blended elements of folk, jazz, pop, psych-rock and world music.

Along the way, Donovan would become as famous for his friends as for his iconic music. His friendship circle included Joan Baez, Brian Jones, and, yes, the Beatles. In 1968, Donovan even taught John Lennon a folk style of finger-picking that the Beatles frontman would employ in ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Julia’ to name but a few.

One of the hits that culminated in Donovan’s ubiquity was 1966’s ‘Mellow Yellow’. The title track and solo single from Mellow Yellow, the song is a psychedelic trip in of itself. It was arranged by none other than John Paul Jones, the only member of the future Led Zeppelin we have not mentioned till this point. Showing that Donovan’s illustrious list of friends did not end there, his quintessential song features an uncredited Paul McCartney.

The Beatles bassist lends his hand to the song with a clap and the cheer at the end. It is also alleged that McCartney played bass in parts of the album Mellow Yellow but was uncredited. Therefore, this claim is hard to verify. It was also rumoured to have been McCartney whispering the slightly creepy “quite rightly” in the chorus. However, Donovan has dispelled this myth.

In fact, ‘Mellow Yellow’ was steeped in myth almost instantly after release. Initially, the song was rumoured to be about smoking dried banana skins, which were rumoured to have psychedelic properties in the ’60s. This rumour sounds so ridiculous, even today. Of course, that theory has since been debunked, so don’t be getting any ideas. According to the liner notes for Donovan’s Greatest Hits, the rumour asserting the banana’s medicinal properties was espoused by Country Joe McDonald in 1966. In fact, Donovan claims to have heard the rumour only three weeks before ‘Mellow Yellow’ was released as a single.

Donovan has since cleared away the forest of rumours sourcing the song’s provenance. The song’s mentioning of an “electrical banana” gives it away to anyone born before 1960. For anyone born after then, this is a slang term for a vibratorIn 2011, Donovan claimed the song is “about being cool, laid-back, and also the electrical bananas that were appearing on the scene — which were ladies’ vibrators.” So there we go; the quintessentially Donovan song was indicative of the era, just not in the way we thought. Although trippy and hallucinogenic in composition, lyrically, ‘Mellow Yellow’ touches on the era’s other hottest topic, sex.

Additionally, Donovan had helped devise the Beatles ‘Yellow Submarine’s lyrics from earlier in ’66. This might possibly have influenced his decision to feature his song’s titular colour. Furthermore, the words “mellow yellow” appear on page 719 of the first American edition of James Joyce’s classic, Ulysses. Here, it also carried a sexual nature, referring to Mrs Marion Bloom’s derriere.

It is clear then, that Donovan’s classic was a product of its time. Influenced lyrically and musically by the contemporary themes that abounded in the countercultural movement.