Story of the Song

Story of the Song: Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

From The Independent archive: Robert Webb on ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Joni Mitchell

Friday 18 June 2021 21:30
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<p>Joni Mitchell in London, January 1970</p>

Joni Mitchell in London, January 1970

It’s 1969. In Hawaii, Joni Mitchell steps on to her balcony and squints at the waving palms. She glances down at the concrete car park in the grounds. “I thought, ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,’” she recalled in the early Seventies. “And that's how the song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ was born.”

Mitchell said she also thought of another hotel, the Garden of Allah, a swish Los Angeles stopover for stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra, torn down in 1959 to make way for a bank and its parking lot. The song’s ecological message turns out to be a red herring. What she’s really saying is that her old man’s left her. In the final verse, the screen door slams and off he goes in a big yellow taxi. But the moral’s the same; look after what’s yours, you don’t know what you've got ‘til it’s gone.

Mitchell took the song to A&M Studios in Hollywood for her third album, Ladies of the Canyon. Her swooping vocal delivery, one of the few 22-note melodic spans in popular music, is backed by an open-tuned acoustic guitar, congas, a gourd and finger cymbals. Stripped of any ornamentation, Mitchell once said it had “too much melody”. Covers came quickly. A group called The Neighborhood first made it a US hit, and Dylan cut a version during sessions for his 1970 album New Morning (although it wasn’t released until 1973). Janet Jackson lifted a sample for “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”, with Mitchell’s blessing because, allegedly, Jackson spoke well of her album Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.

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