Donovan – Playing Between The Notes
9th June 2021
[Here’s one from my archive, penned when the US-based record label Sundazed released a batch of the artist’s LPs in 2013.]
There are not too many music artists out there who are known by a single name, Donovan is one of them. Dylan is another. That the former should be labelled Britain’s answer to the latter was glib in the extreme. Donovan ploughed his own furrow, promoting the flower-power optimism through a series of decorative songs, many hits and a whole heap of albums.
Mellow Yellow (now reissued by the US-based audiophile record label, Sundazed: sundazed.com) came at a very productive time for Donovan. In the year of its release, 1967, he also released Sunshine Superman, A Gift From A Flower To A Garden (also released by Sundazed), For Little Ones and Wear Your Love Like Heaven (the third vinyl Donovan release by Sundazed, this month).
Mellow Yellow (released here in a glorious mono mix) took a wide range of influences as the basis for its content, far more than Superman, for example, as the album seemed to take more notice of what was going on around it while Donovan himself also reached back into his recent past to merge his own favourite noises into the project.
“I wanted to relate [create hits],” said Donovan of this creative period. “It seems to me that in the folk world they were dead against popular music. But I felt that they needed all this music that was coming out of bohemia: this was peace and brotherhood. It was important information. Dylan signed a deal with Columbia. He didn’t sign a deal with a folk label. He saw the possibilities in appealing to a mass.”
Hence, you hear that cusp of change where Donovan moves from being a folk balladeer to a pop artist. So, while the John Paul Jones’ (of Led Zeppelin) arrangement of Mellow Yellow, helped the song to become a hit, tracks two and three (Writer In the Sun and Sand And Foam) harked back to Donovan’s folk roots. The former was penned in Greece while the former was written in Mexico, both penned while the artists believed that legal problems were going to destroy his career. The album ends with Sunny South Kensington, an upbeat number driven by glowing lyrics.
As for the rumours that Paul McCartney sings on the Mellow Yellow track? According to Donovan himself, “No – when Paul came in the studio he was really just claps and good cheer and you can hear him saying “Mellow yellow,” but he didn’t do real word back-up.”
Mellow Yellow was significant because it was part of Donovan’s spiritual awakening and his move towards meditation and his meeting with the Maharishi, “Maharishi was on a tour of the world, at the time, introducing his newly developed technique which is a simplified form for the West given to him by his teacher Guru Dev. Pattie Boyd and George (Harrison) had been to India the year previous – he to study the sitar with Ravi (Shankar). And while he was in India the Shankar women put Pattie Boyd in a Sari and took her out and one of the things they took her out to was a lecture by a new Yogi on the scene called Maharashi. So when she went back to England, The Beatles had never heard of him.
“When she saw in the press that he was coming to Wales she said, ‘George, the teacher is coming to Wales why don’t we go down?’ George called me up saying, ‘We found the guy, he has got the meditation, he has got the mantra.’ So I met with Maharishi on the West Coast when he came over here, he initiated me down in the lower flats of Beverly Hills. Then George phones me up said ‘Now we’ve got it, we’ve been invited to India.’”
Sundazed has done all Donovan fans a great service by reissuing this and other albums. In fact, his music is more significant than you might think, “Thousands of people have said over the years that my poetry and music have helped them. I would like to be remembered as a living poet who now can be listened to. Even beyond my death, the music will go on. But, in a more frivolous mood, I would say on my headstone, ‘He played in between the notes.’ Powerful and highly skilled musicians are known for their music not because of the notes they play but for the spaces they leave in between the notes. The whole story of the doughnut is actually the hole.”