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The Story Behind The Song: Donovan’s trippy folk tune ‘Mellow Yellow’


In 1963, the patent for LSD expired. There was a three-year period after that where the drug was legal and, although it seems very un-sixties-like to mention admin, it was this logistical oversight that defined an era as the kaleidoscopic headwind of acid blurred the zeitgeist in a tie-die hue of peace, love and utter psychedelic mayhem. By 1966, even the ancient genre of folk was beginning to feel the heady effects. No song depicts the changing swinging style in the realm of dogeared acoustics and gingham quite like Donovan’s ‘Mellow Yellow’.

When Donovan was asked what the song was about by NME back in 2011, the folk star reflected and mused: “Quite a few things. Being mellow, laid-back, chilled out.” So far so obvious, but there is a lot more frivolity in the welter of the track. As he adds: “They call me Mellow Yellow, I’m the guy who can calm you down.’ [John] Lennon and I used to look in the back of newspapers and pull out funny things and they’d end up in songs. So, it’s about being cool, laid-back, and also the electrical bananas that were appearing on the scene – which were ladies vibrators.”

In short, the whole thing retrospectively seems like a snatch at seizing the zeitgeist. Aside from the ‘Chill out Dude’ vibe, even the subtle vibrator reference is a hint at the sexual liberation of the times as newly available contraceptives turned youth culture on its head or rather extended youth culture beyond the clutches of early parenthood. Thus, Donovan set about cramming as much of the 1960s iconography surrounding him as he could into one song, layering it with what he called “cool, groovy phrases” as he went along.

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Part of that iconography involved none other than Paul McCartney himself. His presence, however, is almost like some mystical lingering ghost of the 1960s as it is not immediately apparent how exactly he features. He was present in the studio during the sessions and both Donovan and ‘Macca’ himself are certain that he contributed something, but it is hard to decipher what that was exactly. This in of itself is also weirdly indicative of the laidback bohemian scene of the time. 

It was a laidback vibe, however, that Donovan has been quick to assert wasn’t exclusively to do with drugs. The Scottish folk star told Songfacts: “To be ‘mellow’ is to be cool, to be laid back, but it doesn’t have to be with a smoke. It can be through meditation. And it was meditation that became more serious for The Beatles and me and presenting that in our music.” Meditation was a touchstone of the era as the Maharishi began to rise, particularly, in the West Coast of America where oddly state LSD experiments were equally rampant. What’s more, the meditative angle also handily presents Donovan with another chance to shoehorn another big name drop into the mix, a favourite pastime of the stars. 

Now, thanks to all of the era’s idiosyncrasies that it managed to cram into its grooving melody, it is as emblematic of the mid-sixties as any other track you could think of. It forecasted the Summer of Love as though Donovan was in cahoots with a tie-dye oracle. However, this peace and love vibe would later go on to have a rather more capitalistic second life in Australia where the Coca-Cola Company launched the “highly caffeinated” citrus drink Mello Yello, a now-defunct beverage that many remember as being so refreshing it was physically excruciating.