Day 270: “Yesterday”

When was it recorded?   Jun. 14 & 17, 1965

When was it first released, and on which album?   Aug. 6, 1965 on “Help!”

Who wrote it?   McCartney

Have I heard this song before?   Hasn’t everyone?

What my research dug up:

Head’s up – this is one of my favorites, there’s a lot of background, and a fair amount of me snarking/crying about the background, soooo, it’s a long post. You can turn back now if this isn’t your thing; no judgment. (Based on a lot of the comments I saw researching this bad boy I think I’m in the minority in my love of this song… whatever.)

Legend has it Paul heard “Yesterday” fully-formed in a dream one night and rolled out of his bed at Jane Asher’s family home to write it down.

“I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know this tune – or do I?’ It was like a jazz melody. My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes; I thought maybe I’d just remembered it from the past. I went to the piano and found the chords to it, made sure I remembered it and then hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: ‘Do you know this? It’s a good little tune, but I couldn’t have written it because I dreamt it.’” — Paul McCartney (Anthology)

Quoth Paul, “Eventually it became like handing something in to the police. I thought if no-one claimed it after a few weeks then I could have it.”  And have it he did.

Due to his self-described “hawking,” a lot of people have stories about hearing “Yesterday” before it was “Yesterday.” Of course, with lots of stories come conflicting dates of when the tune was originally conceived. George Martin said Paul played it for him in January 1964 (and was already thinking of calling it “Yesterday” at the time). Barry Miles wrote in Paul’s biography that Paul wrote the song in May 1965 while filming “Help!” He was definitely working on the song at the time, particularly the lyrics.

“We were shooting ‘Help!’ in the studio for about four weeks. At some point during that period, we had a piano on one of the stages and he was playing this ‘Scrambled Eggs’ [the working title for ‘Yesterday’] all the time. It got to the point where I said to him, ‘If you play that bloody song any longer have the piano taken off stage. Either finish it or give up!’” — Richard Lester (Steve Turner, A Hard Day’s Write)

Word of John claims, “The song was around for months and months before we finally completed it. Every time we got together to write songs for a recording session, this one would come up. We almost had it finished. Paul wrote nearly all of it, but we just couldn’t find the right title. We called it ‘Scrambled Eggs’ and it became a joke between us. We made up our minds that only a one-word title would suit, we just couldn’t find the right one. Then one morning Paul woke up and the song and the title were both there, completed. I was sorry in a way, we’d had so many laughs about it.”

Paul finally had his epiphany in late May/early June 1965 while vacationing at The Shadows’ guitarist Bruce Welch’s villa in Albufeira, Algarve, Portugal, with Jane Asher.  He finished writing the lyrics then and there.

Paul once claimed “Yesterday” was “the most complete song I have ever written,” but John wasn’t crazy about the finished product, saying, “She left and he wishes it was yesterday – that much you get – but it doesn’t really resolve” (David Sheff, All We Are Saying). If you’re of like minds as Dan from the Beatles Bible and I, there isn’t much resolution to be gained.

“I always hear the lyrics as being about the death of Paul’s mother. She died ‘suddenly’ of breast cancer and when told by his father that she had died, Paul replied, ‘what are we going to do without her money?’ She was a nurse who earned more than Paul’s dad. Paul said he always regretted that remark and his brother Michael says Paul left the kitchen crying. Paul was 13 at the time and kids make remarks like that to deflect the shock and pain. But this explains the lines in Yesterday: “Why she had to go/ I don’t know she wouldn’t say/ I said something wrong / now I long for yesterday”. In most situations people say something wrong first and then the person leaves. …She simply died suddenly and then Paul made the remark that he long regretted. Her death left a shadow over his life. A very powerful confessional lyric from Paul in 1965 (10 years after her death). Paul does not explain this publicly because yesterday is so accepted as a love song. It might be seen differently as a song about a mother dying. To me though it makes the song and the melody more poignant.” – Dan (11/16/2009)

Maybe it’s because I’ve been in those shoes (almost exactly those shoes), but that interpretation always seemed the obvious one to me. Even without all the details Dan mentioned, knowing Paul’s mom died unexpectedly when he was a teen made me see this song in a different light.

Alan Pollack pointed out in his notes, “As is often the case with the over-exposed war horses of any artsy genre, whether or not you ‘like’ this song, there’s some good reason why it became so over-exposed in the first place. …It’s a fine piece of work with something going for it in virtually every department: the unique arrangement, an attractive tune, even some asymmetrical phrasing and a couple of off-beat chord progressions. By the same token, one should not be fooled by whatever unique and interesting factors surround the song’s history and production into thinking of it as more unique and different than it is.” Walking a fine line there, Alan. He does go on to point out “Yesterday” has a lot in common with Paul’s post-“Sgt. Pepper” pieces.

Quoth Wikipedia, “The track was recorded at Abbey Road Studios on 14 June 1965, immediately following the taping of ‘I’m Down,’ and four days before McCartney’s 23rd birthday.” Paul recorded two takes. Take Two was chosen for the final version, but Take One appeared on “Anthology 2.”

According to George Martin, he and Paul didn’t initially see eye to eye on the arrangement. Martin’s suggested using a string quartet, an idea Paul hated. Quoth Martin, “I said, ‘Well, let’s just try it, and if you hate it, we can just wipe it and go back to you and the guitar.’ So I sat at the piano and worked out the arrangements with him, and we did it, and, of course, we liked it.” The strings were overdubbed Jun. 17.

According to Rolling Stone, “After the session, Martin took manager Brian Epstein aside and quietly suggested that since none of the other Beatles contributed to the track, perhaps the song should be issued as a Paul McCartney solo record. Epstein’s response, according to Martin, was, ‘This is the Beatles — we don’t differentiate.’” Another source claims Epstein’s response was, “’No, whatever we do we are not splitting up the Beatles,’” which seems harsher considering his death really contributed to their rift. (See, the more I poke at this song, the more morbid I make it. It’s my awful superpower.)

The Beatles declined to release the song as a single in Britain, claiming it wasn’t rock enough for their current image. On my side of the pond, however, “Yesterday” was released as a single Sept. 13, 1965. It spent 11 weeks on the Billboard Charts, four of those weeks at #1. The single sold one million copies in five weeks, certifying its Gold status with the RIAA. “Yesterday” also peaked at #1 in the Netherlands and Norway and charted in the Top 10 in Australia, Austria, Germany, and the UK. Oddly, the song also peaked at #5 in Poland… in 2010.

“Yesterday” won the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song of 1965 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1997. Other less prestigious awards the song earned are:

  • Best Song of the 20th Century in a 1999 BBC Radio 2 poll
  • #1 Pop Song of All Time by MTV and Rolling Stone
  • #4 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Beatles 100 Greatest Songs
  • #13 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time

I’m not sure I have to tell you this, but “Yesterday” is one of the most covered songs of all time. The Beatles Bible posits around 3000 cover versions exist and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) claims the song was performed over seven millions times in the 20th century. Wikipedia had another estimate but there was a footnote at the bottom that the sourcing equivalent of “… but not really,” so I don’t trust their numbers. Regardless, Richie Unterberger wrote, “The endless repetitions of the number, from contexts ranging from lounge jazz bands to TV variety shows and elevator Muzak, have dulled the senses as to how fresh it actually did sound when it came out in mid-1965.”

“We didn’t think it fitted our image. In fact, it was one of our most successful songs.” – Paul McCartney

Rolling Stone posits “Yesterday” was so immensely successful at the time because it showed unexpected development. Quoth the magazine, “The recording captures the Beatles’ inventive spirit, opening the door to a willingness to experiment with new sounds. ‘Yesterday’ signaled to the world that the Beatles — and rock & roll — had made a sudden leap from brash adolescence to literate maturity.”



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