Remembering Donovan's Mellow Yellow - singer-songwriter's coming of age
A blend of psychedelic pop gems and unorthodox, plangent acoustic folk that set the template for generations of singer-songwriters, Mellow Yellow captured one of 1960s pop's top artists in a fascinating transitional stage. On his fourth album, released when he was just 20 years old, Donovan was clearly both intoxicated and jaded with the pop scene he'd already conquered.
Donovan, who seemed to have an affinity with the colour yellow (he had a hand in writing The Beatles' Yellow Submarine), emerged from the vibrant British folk scene of the time and initially was thought of as a sort of Scottish Bob Dylan. But by the time he recorded Mellow Yellow, a far broader palette of influences was evident.
Produced by the phenomenally successful Mickie Most, who worked with Donovan during his most creative period in the latter half of the 1960s, and arranged by John Paul Jones, then a renowned session player and later the bass player of Led Zeppelin, the album draws on everything from jazz (The Observation, which prefigured Van Morrison's Moondance by three years), to blues ( Hampstead Incident), to Broadway ( Bleak City Woman), to South Asian music.
But the album's main bifurcation is between the fully instrumented, fairly mainstream psychedelic pop songs with which Donovan made his name, and a new line in acoustic, downbeat and philosophical pieces that blend breathtaking beauty with off-kilter tunings and constant swerves into unexpected directions.
Shot through with a plangent regret, Writer in the Sun, inspired by problems getting the album released that had Donovan contemplating retirement, comes across like Ray Davies on hallucinogens. Sand and Foam sounds as if it inspired a great deal of the career of fellow singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who was on record as a fan of the album. And the deeply sad Young Girl Blues shows how jaded the London pop world had made Donovan. His lyrics were mature for a 20 year old, full of world-weary cynicism, smart observations and inventive wordplay.
That was equally true of the pop songs, which channelled a similar line in wacky, wonky pop as early Syd Barrett (Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released a few months later), with more head-nodding, toe-tapping groove than you might expect from a man so associated with the hippie movement.
The title track, Mellow Yellow's opener, swung along like a seductively laid-back jam (one of the voices yelling in the background belonged to Paul McCartney). Inspired by the notion that dried banana skins were intoxicating when smoked, it also, rather daringly for the era, referred to an "electrical banana" - ie, a vibrator.
Museum, meanwhile, was a fabulous collision of mid-'60s bubblegum vocals overlaid with dusty flute and proto-funk, and Sunny South Kensington, the album's closer, was an assemblage of Swinging London references set to a suitably swinging soundtrack, with honky-tonk piano and a Doors-esque keyboard interlude.
Mellow Yellow was Donovan at his most eclectic, the high watermark of a five-year period during which he flowered from a maker of great pop songs into a fully realised songwriter of startling ambition.