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Album: Mellow YellowReleased: 1966Charted:
In an interview with the June 18, 2011 edition of the NME, Donovan was asked what the song was actually about. He replied: "Quite a few things. Being mellow, laid-back, chilled out. '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."
Donovan set out to capture the mellow vibe of the '60s with this song, adding what he called "cool, groovy phrases." These phrases were interpreted in ways he never imagined, as people came up with lots of ideas as to what the song meant. Most of these interpretations concerned drugs, but there were even rumors that the song was about abortion.
There is certainly a drug influence on this song, but it's about much more than that. In his Songfacts interview
, Donovan said: "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."
Paul McCartney appears somewhere on this track, but it's not clear where. He was rumored to be the whispering voice saying "quite rightly," but that was Donovan. McCartney dropped by the session and was captured on tape saying "Mellow Yellow" and doing some cheering. His voice is likely somewhere in the mix at the end of the song amid the revelry.
Donovan had recently helped out McCartney on another "Yellow" song: He provided the "sky of blue, sea of green" line in "Yellow Submarine
." Both songs hit #2 US in 1966.
When this song came out in 1966, there was a widespread rumor that it was about getting high on banana skins. The idea was that you scraped the fibers off of a banana skin and cooked them over a low fire. This was supposed to release the hallucinogenic qualities. Of course, it was never true!
Asked by the NME in 1967 why this song did so well in America, Donovan said it had to do with driving. "A great many of the discs are heard on car radios, and if the music is not sympathetic to the driver, one push of the button and he's on another station," he said. "You can almost change gear in time to 'Mellow Yellow.'"
This was used in a popular 1999 commercial for The Gap
titled "Everybody in Cords," promoting their corduroy pants, which come in shades of saffron and yellow. It was also used in a 1987 commercial for a product called Butter It, which is a "liquid butter alternative." In that one, the song was altered, with the line "quite rightly" changed to "just butter it."
Donovan pushed to get his songs in as many commercials as he could, since it was great exposure for them and a nice source of income. How he felt about a liquid butter alternative was immaterial.
In 1979, the Coca-Cola Company introduced a new soda called Mello Yello designed to compete with the Pepsi product Mountain Dew. This song wasn't used in the advertising, as oddly, it was marketed as "the world's fastest soft drink," not a "mello" one.
In our interview with Donovan, he said: "The story goes that they could use the title, but they didn't have to use the song. So I didn't mind. And they didn't want the song. But then it didn't sell, so maybe they should have used the song after all."