Yesterday

Help! album artworkWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 14, 17 June 1965
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Norman Smith

Released: 6 August 1965 (UK), 13 September 1965 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, guitar
Tony Gilbert: violin
Sidney Sax: violin
Kenneth Essex: viola
Francisco Gabarro: cello

Available on:
Help!
1
Anthology 2
Love

Written by Paul McCartney, Yesterday holds the record as the most covered song in history, according to the Guinness Book of Records.

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Well, we all know about Yesterday. I have had so much accoladde for Yesterday. That’s Paul’s song and Paul’s baby. Well done. Beautiful – and I never wished I’d written it.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Paul McCartney is said to have composed the melody in a dream while staying at the family home of Jane Asher in Wimpole Street, London.

The melody came to McCartney fully-formed, although he was initially unsure of its originality.

I was living in a little flat at the top of a house and i had a piano by my bed. 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

The song’s working title was Scrambled Eggs; its second line was “Oh my baby how I love your legs. George Martin claims to have first heard the song at the George V hotel in Paris in January 1964.

Paul said he wanted a one-word title and was considering Yesterday, except that he thought it was perhaps too corny. I persuaded him that it was all right.
George Martin
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

If McCartney did compose Yesterday in early 1964, it would have been left off two Beatles albums before they recorded it. McCartney’s authorised biographer Barry Miles put the date of composition at May 1965, during the filming of Help!, when he was known to have been experimenting with the song’s 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’ 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
A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner

The Shadows’ guitarist Bruce Welch recalled McCartney completing the lyrics in June 1965. McCartney took a holiday at Welch’s Portuguese villa, where he is said to have settled on the title Yesterday.

I was packing to leave and Paul asked me if I had a guitar. He’d apparently been working on the lyrics as he drove to Albufeira from the airport at Lisbon. He borrowed my guitar and started playing the song we all now know as Yesterday.
Bruce Welch
A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner

Although famously arranged for guitar and string quartet, McCartney considered having the BBC Radiophonic Workshop do a futuristic electronic version of Yesterday.

It occurred to me to have the BBC Radiophonic Workshop do the backing track to it and me just sing over an electronic quartet. I went down to see them… The woman who ran it was very nice and they had a little shed at the bottom of the garden where most of the work was done. I said, ‘I’m into this sort of stuff.’ I’d heard a lot about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, we’d all heard a lot about it. It would have been very interesting to do, but I never followed it up.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

In the studio

Initial recording for Yesterday took place on 14 June 1965, after the band completed I’ve Just Seen A Face and I’m Down. Paul McCartney recorded his guitar and vocals simultaneously in just two takes.

After attempting an unrecorded arrangement of Yesterday with John Lennon on Hammond organ, George Martin suggested to McCartney that they use a string quartet – a first for The Beatles.

McCartney was initially skeptical, and insisted the musicians perform without vibrato. McCartney and Martin worked on the score together, with the majority written by Martin.

Writing a song out with George Martin was nearly always the same process. For Yesterday he had said, ‘Look, why don’t you come round to my house tomorrow? I’ve got a piano, and I’ve got the manuscript paper. We’ll sit down for an hour or so, and you can let me know what you’re looking for’…

He would say, ‘This is the way to do the harmony, technically.’ And I’d often try to go against that. I’d think, ‘Well, why should there be a proper way to do it?’

Yesterday was typical. I remember suggesting the 7th that appears on the cello. George said, ‘You definitely wouldn’t have that in there. That would be very un-string-quartet. I said, ‘Well? Whack it in, George. I’ve got to have it.’

Paul McCartney
Anthology

The strings were overdubbed on 17 June, and Paul attempted the vocals again. He didn’t use headphones, and the original vocal track leaked from the studio speakers to the second recording, giving the impression of double-tracked singing.

The string players went uncredited on Help!, the album Yesterday first appeared on. Rather than being a regular quartet, the other players were recruited by violinist Tony Gilbert especially for the session.

Yesterday’s legacy

The Beatles never allowed Yesterday to be released as a single in the UK, fearing that it would affect their image. The song did, however, become a part of the band’s full live set during their 1966 world tour.

I wouldn’t have put it out as a solo Paul McCartney record. We never entertained those ideas. It was sometimes tempting; people would flatter us: ‘Oh, you know you should get out front,’ or, ‘You should put a solo record out. But we always said no. In fact, we didn’t release Yesterday as a single in England at all, because we were a little embarrassed about it – we were a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Paul McCartney
Anthology

In 1980 John Lennon explained how he was often mistakenly credited with having written the song.

I go to restaurants and the groups always play Yesterday. 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.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

In the same interview Lennon spoke of McCartney’s skills as a lyricist.

A couple of lines he’s come up with show indications he’s a good lyricist, but he just never took it anywhere. He wrote the lyrics to Yesterday. Although the lyrics don’t resolve into any sense, they’re good lines. They certainly work. You know what I mean? They’re good – but if you read the whole song, it doesn’t say anything; you don’t know what happened. She left and he wishes it was yesterday – that much you get – but it doesn’t really resolve. So, mine didn’t use to resolve, either…
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Yesterday was issued as a US single in September 1966. Newspapers at the time commentated that “Paul McCartney is number one without the other Beatles”. It swiftly became the most-played song on American radio, a position it held for eight consecutive years.

Since its release there have been over 3,000 cover versions of Yesterday.

15 responses on “Yesterday

  1. Flavio Mascarenhas

    Opposing to ‘lemmon juice’, here comes the master piece from the ‘pure oil’. Despite it came from a dream, only a genious mind could make such a beautiful song and lyrics full of love and memories. Fabulous.

  2. Dan

    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. In this case Paul’s mom never said goodbye or even explained her illness. 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.

  3. Mean_Mr_Mustard

    Yes, Masterpiece blah blah blah…
    I’m sorry, this tune is #1 on the Most Whiny Song Ever list. For fun, try singing it while `fake-crying’ and you’ll see what I mean.

  4. Bronx boy Billy

    Funny song when you break down the lyrics. The protagonist of the song is totally clueless as to exactly why his girl left him, claiming she wouldn’t tell him (“Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say..”). He does, however, know it was because of something he said (“I said something wrong…”). He has no clue as to what, exactly, he uttered that caused her to leave (how could he possibly not know?!). Finally, he whines about it, crying that, without her, he’s not “half the man I used to be.” Boy, this guy really needs to grow a pair!

    1. Ronnie SeCoy

      It is so poorly written it is the most popular pop ballad ever recorded & has been recorded over 3,100 times by various artists. It has been voted the most popular “secular” song ever written. Other than that it’s OK I guess. Regardless of what Lennon thought of it. The world loves it.

  5. carlos gutman

    Maybe I take another road, but I´m really fed up of “yesterday”, yes a masterpiece, but I prefer other geat songs of Paul´s (like “let it be” or “I saw her standing there” or “All my loving” or “Penny Lane”, etc)

  6. paulsbass

    Ok, since this is “Yesterday” it should be appropriate to have some more positive comments down here.

    Overplayed? Hell, yeah! This is one of the most often played songs on earth, so it MUST be overplayed.
    I skip it almost every time on “Love”.

    But when I don’t, I have the chance to listen to these incredibly mature, sensitive, expressive, intimate vocals Paul delivered here, live, while playing guitar (!), on the second take!!
    Yes, it took him 6 minutes to record THIS song (plus strings).

    So many other artists lined up to make this song their own or turn it into a power ballad, making this the most often covered song ever, with thousands of versions – and still not a single cover can touch the original. Not remotely.

    The way his vocals blend with the strings, and his down-tuned guitar (technical mistakes and all) with his unmistakable strumming, the little funny things he and George put into the string arrangement – but above all the SOUL in his voice.

    This was unheard then and it is still extremely rare.

    Fantastic recording, and when I play it live EVERYBODY still joins in.

    It also provided a very funny moment: Someone wanted me to play it for his friend who was going to get married soon. And when I started singing I realized who much this sounded like “I’m doomed” – “now it looks as though (my troubles) are HERE TO STAY” – “There’s a SHADOW HANGING OVER ME” – “I’m NOT HALF THE MAN I USED TO BE”…
    I broke out laughing several times…

    So this is obviously not a romantic ballad, it’s a very serious and mature song.

    And it’s a shame that this little masterpiece has become such a huge beast of a legendary work that it’s really getting hard to appreciate it for all his simple and honest beauty.

    Well done, Paul.

  7. appmanga

    There’s no overstating the impact of this song on The Beatles. “Yesterday” is the song that convinced the remaining holdouts that this was a group of very talented young men who had more to say than “yeah, yeah, yeah”. This song forced many who had yet to understand, the Fabs were serious artists. “Yesterday” also changed the dynamics of the group, emboldening Paul while also heightening John’s insecurities. While John remained the leader of the group (and when he felt the need, he could flex his muscles in this regard), he allowed Paul to have much more influence from this point forward.

  8. James Ferrell

    Like Dan above I hear the lyrics as being related to the death of Paul’s mother.

    It’s a beautiful song. But the big revelation to me when it came out was Paul’s guitar playing on the tuned down Martin. It’s such a great natural idiosyncratic strumming style and every time he reverts to it (e.g.Heart of the Country, Here Today) it really affects me.

  9. BILLY SHEARS

    Nothing Paul did while in Wings compares to this song. Wings produced mostly sappy gobbly-de-gook . Paul was what – 23 – 24 years old when he wrote this masterpiece? The PID folks can certainly use this song as evidence that that master is no longer with us.

    1. Clare Kuehn

      It is one of many evidentiary materials, yes. It is proof, but not the conclusive formal all-in-one proof which forces the case to be true, which it is. RIP Paul, John, and all who died for the lie.

  10. Johan Cavalli

    Important to know.
    1. the idea with strings was George Martin´s idea, not McCartney´s. Without the strings, the song would never been that success.
    2. The melody was inspired by Lennon´s Do You Want to Know a Secret? The same upclimbing melody.

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