By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Yellow is a curious colour. It carries some interesting symbolism: although it’s a ‘warm’ colour associated with brightness and joy and hope, it can also carry connotations of sickness and pallor: having a ‘sallow’ complexion isn’t usually a good sign, and sallowness denotes a pale yellowish hue.
It’s perhaps of little surprise, then, that songwriters down the decades have sought to reflect the ambiguous symbolism of the colour yellow. Below, we find yellow taxis and diggers, yellow roads, even yellow ‘feelings’ and ‘moods’, all reflected in our pick of some of the best-known and most beautiful songs about ‘yellowness’ of various kinds.
1. Elton John, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’.
The yellow brick road, of course, originates in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the novel which inspired many film adaptations (most famously, the 1939 one starring Judy Garland as Dorothy).
In this song, Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s songwriting partner, draws on his upbringing on a farm, and a desire to return to those roots which helped to make him who he is. The song is about not following the ‘yellow brick road’ – or the road paved with gold? – and turning one’s back on fame in favour of a simpler, homely existence on one’s farm.
The album on which this song was the title track was a childhood favourite of George Michael, who would later duet with Elton John on the latter’s ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’.
2. Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’.
This is probably Joni Mitchell’s best-known song. In many ways a song about not taking things for granted until it’s too late and we’ve lost them, it’s also an example of an environmental protest song. Mitchell wrote the song in 1970.
The ‘yellowness’ of this song may be rather incidental: the big yellow taxi of the song’s title is not mentioned until the final verse. But the song is an iconic one, so merits a mention on this list. We have discussed the meaning of this classic song in more detail in a separate post.
3. Dolly Parton, ‘Yellow Roses’.
This song from the queen of country music is from 1989. It topped the country music charts, becoming Parton’s 23rd song to achieve that feat.
The song recounts how someone successfully asked the singer out when he made a gift of a single yellow rose to her. The song’s chorus celebrates yellow roses, which are the colour of sunshine, while also acknowledging that the flowers have taken on a melancholy meaning for the singer now, since her beloved left her (and is probably busy making a gift of a yellow rose to his new sweetheart).
4. Donavan, ‘Mellow Yellow’.
A 1967 song by the Scottish singer-songwriter Donavan, ‘Mellow Yellow’ shares its title with a phrase which appears in James Joyce’s 1922 modernist novel Ulysses, where ‘mellow yellow’ is a description – of all things – of Molly Bloom’s buttocks.
Amazingly, though, the song’s actual inspiration was a kind of sex toy: an electrical banana which Donavan read about in the newspaper. This vibrator was known as ‘a mellow yellow’; a later rumour attributed the song’s meaning to the hallucinogenic high brought on by smoking dried banana skins, but this rock ‘n’ roll song was about sex rather than drugs.
5. Coldplay, ‘Yellow’.
‘Yellow’ was very much this British band’s breakthrough hit in the summer of 2000, and is perhaps the best-crafted song on their debut album, Parachutes.
The ‘yellow’ in this song was simply a piece of serendipity: Chris Martin, who wrote the song, was reportedly inspired by a copy of the Yellow Pages directory which he saw in the recording studio.
6. Dawn (ft. Tony Orlando), ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree’.
‘Dawn’ was in actual fact the backing group for the American singer Tony Orlando, so this is a song recorded by a trio, Orlando and his two female backing singers. The song was a big worldwide hit in 1973. It’s about someone who’s been discharged from military service and is uncertain of the welcome he’ll receive upon returning home.
The idea of a yellow ribbon as a symbol of remembrance predates the song, with some American women reputedly wearing a yellow ribbon in their hair to signify their devotion to a husband or lover serving in the U.S. Cavalry.
The song would go on to play a curious role in the political history of the Philippines: the song was the origin of the yellow colour of the Liberal Party of the party which ousted the Marcos dictatorship in the People Power Revolution of 1986.
7. Pharrell Williams, ‘Yellow Light’.
Williams recorded this song for the film Despicable Me 3. The song’s title refers to the yellow sunlight, which, the song reminds us, is ‘the best disinfectant’, shining a spotlight on the ‘stupid’ in the world and exposing it for all to see.
8. Pearl Jam, ‘Yellow Ledbetter’.
This song was an outtake from the Seattle band Pearl Jam’s landmark album Ten, which was released in 1991 (which was very much Seattle’s year in the sun so far as music goes; another Seattle band, Nirvana, released Nevermind in the same year).
As outtakes from classic albums go, this is up there with the best. The song’s title was inspired by frontman Eddie Vedder’s friend Tim Ledbetter, and the song is often interpreted as being about a man receiving a letter informing him that his brother has died while fighting overseas.
9. Nizlopi, ‘JCB Song’.
Also known simply as ‘JCB’, this 2005 song by the English folk duo Nizlopi (the unusual band name came from the name of a Hungarian girl one of the band members fancied at school) may not feature ‘yellow’ in its title, but the colour does appear in the lyrics to the song.
The song describes how bandmember Luke Concannon was once picked up from school by his father who was driving a JCB digger. It’s a touching song which may have been something of a one-off for the band in terms of big chart success, but it was also unlike much other music which was topping the charts in the noughties.
10. Bing Crosby, ‘The Moon Was Yellow (And the Night Was Young)’.
In music as in poetry, the moon is often pale silver or white; occasionally, as in at least one memorable song, it is blue.
But in this song from one of the classic crooners, Bing Crosby offers us a yellow moon and a message of hope for him and his sweetheart. Will their romance continue? What matters is that the night is young …
The song was also recorded by Frank Sinatra.
11. The Beatles, ‘Yellow Submarine’.
Is this track – one of the few Beatles tracks to feature lead vocals from Ringo Starr – glorious nonsense or embarrassing doggerel? It appeared on the band’s 1966 album Revolver, often hailed as their finest album, when ‘Swinging London’ was in full swing and psychedelia was starting to take off.
It was written by Lennon and McCartney as a children’s song, and would lead to an animated film featuring the band in 1968. Curiously, given his appearance on this list of yellow songs, the singer-songwriter Donavan provided the line ‘Sky of blue and sea of green’ (to continue the colour theme).
12. Brian Hyland, ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini’.
The teenage singer and heartthrob Brian Hyland may be remembered for such early 1960s songs as ‘Sealed with a Kiss’, but it was this piece of catchy nonsense with a yellow theme which hit the charts in 1960 and became the earworm of the day.
The track was memorably brought to the attention of a new generation when Bombalurina – named by Andrew Lloyd-Webber after one of the cats from his hit musical Cats – released a cover version in 1990, with the children’s TV entertainer Timmy Mallett providing vocals. One of the girls in Bombalurina, Dawn, would go on to marry Gary Barlow.