After waking up one morning with a tune he couldn’t get out of his head, Paul McCartney (pictured) was sure he had heard the melody before—from his jazz-loving dad, very likely. But the more people he consulted, the more he realized he had something original that would insure his future and that of his group.
“Yesterday,” the title that The Beatles settled on, became more than just the band’s bestselling song since "I Want To Hold Your Hand." With an estimated 3,000 cover versions, it became one of the most popular songs that anyone would compose in the 20th century.
Yet, for all its staggering success, the song—released in mid-September 50 years ago in America—occupied a fraught place in the evolution of both The Beatles and the principal songwriters at the heart of it, McCartney and John Lennon.
Producer George Martin’s suggestion of strings gave the song a unique sound among rock ‘n’ rollers up to that time, but it also made the band question for some time whether they even could refer to themselves as rock ‘n’ rollers after this.
But back to that magic melody. It was as perfectly formed as an egg. Maybe McCartney thought it sounded too good, because he would only go ahead with it after being assured by such older musical pros as Oliver composer Lionel Bart that they hadn’t heard it before.
(A good thing that “Mecca,” as he has come to be known in the tabloids, was nervous as a cat about this; if only bandmate George Harrison, as soon as he had a chance at his first solo album, had shown similar caution, he might not have wound up on the wrong end of a plagiarism lawsuit over “My Sweet Lord,” which was eventually deemed by a court to be too close for comfort to the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.”)
Marking time until he had something more suitable, McCartney came up with some “dummy” lyrics. A good thing these were never heard by the general public, as their tone would have clashed with the melancholy sound eventually heard on vinyl:
Oh my baby how I love your legs
(Something similar happened with the genesis of Billy Joel’s “Honesty.” As this is, at worst, a PG-13 blog, I won’t reveal to you its original title. Look it up!)
By May 1965, as the band was shooting their A Hard Day’s Night follow-up, Help, McCartney was spending so much time on the piano, trying to come up with lyrics, that director Richard Lester jokingly warned him, “If you play that bloody song any longer have the piano taken off stage. Either finish it or give up!'
By the following month, McCartney had, indeed, finished. (In particular, it was while on vacation in Portugal that he came up with the title.) But now he had to translate it into sound. None of the other Beatles could see a spot for even a second guitar, let alone drums. An experiment with Lennon on Hammond organ also went nowhere. That was where George Martin came in.
The producer, more than a decade older than the group, was familiar with sounds from beyond the world of rock ‘n’ roll. As Tim Riley notes in his biography Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music, in his early postwar work at the Parlaphone division of EMI, Martin was exposed to “every mode of the era's recording practice: from soloists to orchestras, jazz groups to children’s choirs and remote recordings in Jimmy Shand’s country dance band using EMI’s mobile recording van.”
By decade’s end, due in no small part to the influence of Martin and the Beatles, classical-music instrumentation would be embraced by the pop-rock world, heard in such works as The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee,” and the Moody Blues’ LP Days of Future Passed.
But it was a decidedly different scene when Martin suggested widening the Beatles’ aural palette with strings for “Yesterday.” McCartney blanched: “I don’t want Mantovani,” he protested. After hearing a crack quartet of players brought in for the session, McCartney, still alarmed by the “gypsy-like” sound he heard, was adamant that the musicians could not resort to vibrato to fatten out the sound.
Since only McCartney, not the other band members, was featured with the string quartet, it also raised the question of whether the song should be released as a solo record. That concern was quickly disposed of. But when McCartney’s bandmates heard the tune with this instrumentation, they were not sure what to do with it. They were so “embarrassed” by what this might do to the band’s reputation as rock ‘n’ rollers, he later admitted, that they decided not to release it as a single in the U.K.
Well, at this point in the group’s career, who needed the Mother Country? America wholeheartedly embraced “Yesterday,” sending it to #1 on the charts.
The new chart-topper, however, for all its seeming simplicity, marked a quantum leap forward in musical maturity. While “I Want to Hold Your Hand” exuded the innocence of young love, “Yesterday” bore all the scars of a failed relationship. Like Lennon’s “Help,” it tried to recover loss of self-confidence, to come to an emotional accounting about one’s self and the people one could depend on—an increasingly uppermost concern for young men trying to find stability and commitment in a world where all the acclaim, money and women in the world were suddenly available.
If he noticed this affinity between the hit he wrote and McCartney’s, Lennon said nothing about it, at least publicly. As a matter of fact, “Yesterday” filled Lennon with deep ambivalence. “Lennon could not help admiring it, or enjoying the profits he would share in its extraordinary publishing returns,” writes Tim Riley. “But it was never a song Lennon would have written on his own, and if the Beatles had to put it on a record, there was no place for him to so much as harmonize alongside his songwriting partner.”
The song’s genesis, then, represented a slight but perceptible shift in the Lennon-McCartney collaboration. At the onset of Beatlemania, an individual song could feature roughly equal contributions between the two. “Yesterday,” though, marked the point at which each would bring nearly finished songs to the studio, requiring less input from their partner. (“A Day in the Life,” for instance, is an overwhelmingly Lennon tune, save for the McCartney bridge—“Woke up, got out of bed”.)
It also may well have also shifted Lennon’s perception of George Martin. "Of course, George Martin was a great help in translating our music technically when we needed it,” Lennon wrote in the early 1970s, bristling at his former producer for saying he had been “painting a sound picture” in recording Lennon’s “Revolution #9, “but for the cameraman to take credit from the director is a bit too much.”
The seeds of that annoyance may have been planted with “Yesterday.” “Imagine two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might,” Martin said of McCartney and Lennon. “The tension between the two of them made for the bond.”
One might be half tempted to say that Martin had to referee that tug of war, except that Lennon, the rebellious skeptic of the Liverpool streets, began to perceive that the band’s producer, of more genteel origins than the Liverpool quartet, was more temperamentally in tune with McCartney than himself. Asked, in a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, to explain the difference between Martin and the producer of his first solo LPs, Phil Spector, Lennon insisted it was “nothing personal against George Martin,” but immediately followed that up with, “He’s more Paul’s style of music than mine.”
Given the cold war that existed between Lennon and McCartney at the time, that last statement sure sounds personal. It’s rather easy to read between the lines, at points:“I always liked simple rock and nothing else,” Lennon said. (Classical instruments—the kind used by McCartney and Martin on “Yesterday”--would not really be simple.)
By his own admission, Lennon was annoyed when fans would ask him to autograph something related to a song he had nothing to do with. At one restaurant, “Yoko and I even signed a guy's violin in Spain after he played us ‘Yesterday’. He couldn't understand that I didn't write the song. But I guess he couldn't have gone from table to table playing ‘I Am the Walrus.’”
The divisions over “Yesterday” between McCartney and Lennon continued with the latter’s widow, Yoko Ono. In the 1990s, McCartney contacted her about revising the order of songwriting credits for “Yesterday.” He didn’t request the elimination of Lennon’s name, even though he could have if he wanted, since Lennon had admitted he had nothing to do with the song. Instead, McCartney simply wanted the order of the names changed, in this instance, to read “McCartney-Lennon.” Yoko refused—and, as with much else that happened with the Beatles, before and since, there were hard feelings for a long time over this.