Written by Paul McCartney, ‘Yesterday’ holds the record as the most covered song in history, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
Well, we all know about ‘Yesterday’. I have had so much accolade for ‘Yesterday’. That’s Paul’s song and Paul’s baby. Well done. Beautiful – and I never wished I’d written it.
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.’
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.
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!’
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’.
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.
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.
I took the song to the band, and although we did sometimes play it as a four-piece in concert, for the recording Ringo said, ‘I don’t think I can really drum on that.’ George added, ‘Well, I’m not sure I can put much guitar on it either.’ And then John said, ‘I can’t think of anything. I think you should just do it by yourself. It’s really a solo song.’ Now, this was kind of a big deal at the time, because we’d never recorded like that before. It had always been the band.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
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.’
The strings were overdubbed on 17 June 1965, and McCartney 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 on which ‘Yesterday’ first appeared. Rather than being a regular quartet, the other players were recruited by violinist Tony Gilbert especially for the session.
Another thing that happened around this time is that we realised the song would sound better in the key of F. But I’d written it in G. You can get used to playing a song with certain chords, and if you try to play them differently on a guitar, you have to relearn the song, which can alter the way the song sounds. If you want to go higher, you can use a little device called a capo. But if you want to go lower, it’s not always so easy; you can run out of room. So, what we did here was to detune the guitar by a whole tone. This means that when you’re playing the note G, what actually sounds is the note F. These kinds of different tunings are quite common now, but tuning all six strings down a whole tone was a new trick back then, and it meant I could play the guitar the way I’d written the song, but in the key that we thought sounded best.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present