We were very new to America and I had to do “Yesterday” on my own and I’d never done this—I had always had the band. So I was standing there and the floor manager--the guy on the curtain--came up to me and said: “Are you nervous?” I said, no. He said, “Well you should be, there’s 73 million people watching.”
-Paul McCartney on Late Nite with David Letterman
June 14 will mark the 53rd anniversary of the recording of Paul McCartney’s classic “Yesterday” in 1965 at Abbey Road studios in London. If you can imagine Rock and Roll having a human timeline, then perhaps you might consider the early days of Elvis and Little Richard as the genre's fevered adolescence, and the 1960s as its rebellious early adulthood. “Yesterday” was one of several introspective Beatle songs released in 1965-- among them “Help,” “We Can Work It Out,” and “In My Life”--that looked on adulthood with a vague feeling of ambivalence and dissatisfaction at what it might have to offer. "Yesterday" remains evergreen, slightly lush, and betrays the average Englishman's (which McCartney likes to consider himself) discomfort at revealing private thoughts. Like much of McCartney (and Lennon's) best work, it's a light song about 'heavy' (in 60s parlance) things.
"Yesterday" might not be everyone’s favorite Beatles song (including The Beatles themselves) but its popularity--especially among adults--was instant. It has since been covered by a vast array of artists ("Way too many!" McCartney told Terry Gross on Fresh Air) including guitarist Al Caiola, Sam Cooke's childhood pal Lou Rawls, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Sarah Vaughan, Brenda Lee, Jerry Butler, Ace Cannon, Tom Jones, Ray Charles, and Vince Guaraldi. After "Yesterday," The Beatles were still not liked by most adults, but they did earn their grudging respect. Two months after "Yesterday"'s release on the soundtrack to the band's second film Help!, The Beatles were knighted by Queen Elizabeth with an M.B.E.
"Yesterday"--as most Beatle fans know--was written (or "dreamed") in the upstairs attic of McCartney's girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, where he lived before buying his own London flat near Abbey Road which he still owns today. By 1965, less than two years in the public eye, The Beatles had gone from making £25 pounds a night in clubs and bars to finding themselves millionaires (at least on paper) as well as film stars. Since 1960, John, Paul, and George had spent nearly all of their time together; sharing meals, rooms, and a rickety touring van. Gradually, their success--financial and musical--allowed them more time on their own.
“I used to live in this little flat at the top of a house and I had a piano by the bed," McCartney recalled during the filming of The Beatles Anthology. "And I just woke up one morning with this tune in my head. I don’t know this tune...or do I? It’s like an old jazz tune or something—because my Dad used to know a lot of old jazz stuff. Maybe I’m just remembering it. So I went to the piano, found the chords. And I called it Scrambled Eggs…how I love your legs…so I wouldn’t forget it. I made sure I remembered it and hocked it around to all my friends. What is this? It’s got to be something. It’s like a good little tune but I couldn’t have written it---I just dreamed it! You don’t get that lucky. I looked at them (The Beatles) and went oops…solo record. And they said, “Yeah, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing we could add to it so do it.”
At the time of the writing of "Yesterday," the Beatles were actively using portable reel-to-reel tape machines at home to make musical sketches before going to the studio. There are no early recordings of "Yesterday" released to the public or on bootlegs, but the song's dreamy arrival perhaps inspired McCartney--and Lennon--to invest in home recording equipment to ensure great ideas didn't slip away in the future. “When we’re on our own and we have an idea for a song, the main thing is get it down so it’s not forgotten," John Lennon told The Beatles' fan magazine in 1965. "We’ve found the best way to do that is to use a tape recorder.”
The Beatles road manager and future manager of Apple Records, Neil Aspinall, talked about McCartney’s process a year later in 1966. “Paul’s greatest hobby at the moment is tape recording. He has a room which is stacked with recording equipment. It’s loaded with special devices and Paul spends hours twiddling complicated sets of controls, a great big pair of headphones strapped to his ears. He’s become an expert at recording and double tracking…When Paul wanted to show Ringo how “What Goes On” sounded like, he made up a multi-track tape. Onto this went Paul singing, Paul playing lead guitar, Paul playing bass, and Paul playing drums. Then Ringo listened to the finished tape and added his own ideas before the recording session."
“Yesterday” was recorded at Abbey Road on June 14, 1965, the week before Paul’s 23rd birthday. (To perhaps mitigate the awkwardness of bringing such a plaintive ballad to The Beatles, the fab four also recorded the garage-band rocker "I'm Down" later in the day.) Two live takes of "Yesterday" were made featuring Paul's voice and his new Epiphone Texan acoustic guitar (George Harrison is heard off-mic discussing Paul’s tuning, which seems to be down a whole step so he can play in the key of F using “G” positions).
“I told Paul that the only thing I could honestly think of to add to it would be strings, recalled producer George Martin in Recording the Beatles, “but Paul said, “Oh I don’t think I want Mantovani and Norrie Paramor very much…I suggested a small amount of strings, perhaps a classic string quartet." Using Martin's arrangement, a quartet was overdubbed the following week on the last day of recording for the soundtrack for Help. In England, “Yesterday” was not released as a single and appeared on the B-side of the LP, just before the closer, a burning cover of Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie.”
If you're a Beatle fan, there is no shortage of fascinating tidbits about the little song that took over the world, including an interview with John and Paul with Brian Matthews of the BBC, reproduced in Kevin Howlett’s The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962–1970 in which McCartney suggests that John should be credited the song's title.
Brian: "Give us the inside story on the song 'Yesterday.'"
John: "Ah well, this is John saying I don't know anything about that one. I'll hand you over to Paul."
Paul: "This is Paul, taking up the story in a holiday villa in Corsica, strumming away on a medieval guitar, I thought [sings] 'Scrambled Egg.' But I never could finish it, and eventually I took it back in. With the ancient wisdom of the east, John came out with [sings] 'Yesterday'."
Today, "Yesterday" is still on McCartney's set list when he performs. And though he would probably be happy to give it a rest once and for all, he has never forgotten he was once a young kid from Liverpool who discovered one morning that he had dreamed a song that would establish him for all time as a composer, which was, after all, both Lennon and McCartney's goal all along, to be remembered like Rogers and Hammerstein, Leiber and Stoller, and contemporaries Goffin and King. Perhaps there is still a good version of "Yesterday" still to be made by a younger artist on the cusp of adulthood who couldn't care less about where the song came from or the old fellow on stage who wrote it.
"Well, we all know about 'Yesterday." John Lennon told Playboy a week before his death in 1980. "I have had so much accolade for 'Yesterday.' That is Paul's song, of course, and Paul's baby. Well done. Beautiful-- and I never wished I had written it."