Wow In Music – Yesterday
Editor | On 15, Apr 2018
“I really reckon ‘Yesterday’ is probably my best song.” This humble statement from Paul McCartney typifies what many believe to be the typical of how McCartney has behaved throughout his career. Although when asked at different times through the years what his favorite original composition was, he came up with many answers. “Your songs are like your babies, it’s difficult to have a favorite,” he said in 2007. “Here, There And Everywhere” has been stated regularly, although “Hey Jude,” “Blackbird” and “Here Today” have been sited. He also once included “Maybe I’m Amazed” as one of his favorites, saying “that’s a nice song, I like that one.”
In 1980, Paul explained why “Yesterday” could be described as his best song. “I like it not only because it was a big success, but because it was one of the most instinctive songs I’ve ever written.” Concerning the song being a “success,” this understatement is evident in it being described as the most successful song in history. According to Chris Ingham’s book “The Rough Guide To The Beatles,” “It holds the record as the most recorded song in history, with over 2500 versions, and has been broadcast on American radio over seven million times.”
As to the song being ‘instinctive,’ Paul’s explanation of how it was written has passed into the category of legend, as we’ll investigate below:
The song was written at 57 Wimpole Street, London, the family home of Richard and Margaret Asher where Paul was living while dating their daughter Jane Asher. He slept in a small attic room of the house that was rather cramped without too much extra room for anything, although there was one thing that did manage to get squeezed in. “I eventually got a piano of my own up in the top garret,” remembers Paul. “Very artistic. That was the piano that I fell out of bed and got the chords to ‘Yesterday’ on. I dreamed it when I was staying there.”
Paul vividly remembers that morning: “I woke up with a lovely tune in my head. I thought, ‘That’s great, I wonder what that is?’ There was an upright piano next to me, to the right of the bed by the window. I got out of bed, sat at the piano, found G, found F sharp minor 7th – and that leads you through then to B to E minor, and finally back to E. It all leads forward logically. I liked the melody a lot but because I’d dreamed it I couldn’t believe I’d written it. I thought, ‘No, I’ve never written like this before.’ But I had the tune, which was the most magic thing. And you have to ask yourself, ‘Where did it come from?’ But you don’t ask yourself too much or it might go away…There are certain times when you get the essence, it’s all there. It’s like an egg being laid – not a crack or flaw in it.”
Speaking of eggs, so that his memory of the melody wouldn’t “go away,” he wrote some simple words to go along with the phrasing of the melody line. “It had no words. I used to call it ‘Scrambled Eggs.’ The lyrics used to go, ‘Scrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs…’ There was generally a laugh at that point – you didn’t need to do any more lyrics.”
Since we know where the melody was first conceived, many wonder when exactly this morning occurred. Barry Miles, co-author of Paul McCartney’s book “Many Years From Now,” explains this morning as having occurred in May of 1965. While this seems to be the final word, there is evidence to suggest an earlier date. “The song was around for months and months before we finally completed it,” recalls John Lennon. He continues: “Paul wrote nearly all of it, but we just couldn’t find the right title. Every time we got together to write songs or for a recording session, this would come up. We called it ‘Scrambled Eggs’ and it became a joke between us. We almost had it finished when we made up our minds that only a one-word title would suit and, believe me, 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 know it sound like a fairy tale, but it is the plain truth. I was sorry, in a way, because we had so many laughs about it.”
June 14th, 1965 turned out to be ‘Paul McCartney’ day in the recording studio. The Beatles were in EMI Studio Two from 2:30 to 5:30 pm recording two Paul songs in their entirety, namely “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and the rock’n’roll screamer “I’m Down.” After an hour-and-a-half break, they returned at 7 pm for another three hour session, the only recording accomplished during this session being two takes of “Yesterday” by only Paul on acoustic guitar and vocals.
“I brought the song into the studio for the first time and played it on the guitar,” Paul remembers, “but soon Ringo said, ‘I can’t really put any drums on – it wouldn’t make sense.’ And John and George said, ‘There’s no point in having another guitar.’ So George Martin suggested, ‘Why don’t you just try it by yourself and see how it works?’ I looked at all the others: ‘Oops. You mean a solo record?’ They said, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing we can add to it – do it.’”
The first take is interesting because of the somewhat lackadaisical approach Paul had in its’ recording. His awkward rhythmic chording in the introduction was dropped after the first few measures, replaced by what we’re used to hearing in the final product. He transposes two lines in the second verse, namely “there’s a shadow hanging over me” and “I’m not half the man I used to be.” Realizing he had done this, a slight chuckle can be detected. Also, he ends the first bridge with descending notes (“long for yesterday-ay-ay-ay”) and, when he gets to the second bridge, reluctantly repeats the process with a hesitancy that suggests he knows he shouldn’t do it both times. This take is a little rough but still beautifully performed.
Now that he had gotten his bearings, the second attempt is done far more professionally. The straightforward rhythmic chording appears right from the beginning, he sings the lines correctly in the second verse, and he holds out the last syllable of the word “yesterday” at the end of the first bridge, saving the descending notes for the second bridge. Two takes was all that was needed.
The next point of business for the rest of the evening session that day was what else could be done to the song. George Martin recalls how Paul “sat on a high stool with his acoustic guitar and sang ‘Yesterday.’ That was the master to begin with. Then I said, ‘Well, what can we do with it?’” Several different approaches were suggested and possibly tried out, reportedly even adding John on organ. George Martin then told Paul, “’The only thing I can think of is adding strings, but I know what you think about that.’ And Paul said, ‘I don’t want Mantovani.’ I said, ‘What about a very small number of string players, a quartet?’ (Principle 5) He thought that was interesting.”
Paul begs to differ. “George Martin had the idea to put the string quartet on it and I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ He said, ‘I’ve really got a feeling for it. I can hear it working.’ I said, ‘’Are you kidding? This is a rock group!’ I hated the idea…But he cleverly said, ‘Let’s try it,’ and I thought, that’s fair enough. ‘If we hate it,’ he said, ‘we can take it off. We’ll just go back; it’s very nice just with the solo guitar and your voice…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.” With that decided, the recording session was over for the night.
The next day, June 15th, 1965, Paul met up with George Martin at his house as suggested. As Paul remembers: “We’d sit down and it would be quite straightforward because I’d have a good idea of how I wanted to voice it. Or George would show me possibilities: very wide apart or very gungy and very close, and we’d choose. 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?’”
“There was just one point in it where I said, ‘Could the cello now play a slightly bluesy thing, out of the genre, out of keeping with the rest of the voicing?’ George said, ‘Bach certainly wouldn’t have done that, Paul, ha ha ha.’ I said, ‘Great!’ That was what we often used to do, try and claim our one little moment. I mean, obviously it was my song, my chords, my everything really, but because the voicing now had become Bach’s, I needed something of mine again to redress the balance. So, I put a (Principle 17) 7th in, which was unheard-of. It’s what we used to call a blue note, and that became a little bit well known. It’s one of the unusual things in that arrangement.”
Concerning this “blue note,” which is heard after the words “she wouldn’t say” in the second bridge, George Martin comments: “John listened to (the finished song), and there’s a particular bit where the cello moves into a bluesy note which he thought was terrific, so it was applauded.”
On June 17th, 1965, a 2 to 4 pm recording session was held in EMI Studio Two to record the string quartet overdub to Paul’s acoustic performance of “Yesterday.” Paul also had some say in how these musicians were to play. George Martin remembers: “He insisted, ‘No vibrato, I don’t want any vibrato!’ If you’re a good violin player it’s very difficult to play without vibrato. Paul told the musicians he wanted it pure. But although they did cut down the vibrato they couldn’t do it pure because they would have sounded like schoolboys. I think Paul realized in later years that what he got was right.”
One last overdub needed to be added, and this was to (Principle 5) double-track Paul’s vocals at the end of the first bridge in order to extent his final high note on “yester-dayyyyyyy.” The double-tracking begins on the words “something wrong” and then completes the bridge.
There are four other, perhaps more discrete, ‘wow’s on the song:
The song has two contrasting sections (Principle 3), differing in melody and rhythm, producing a sense of disjunction:
The first section (“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away …”) opens with an F chord (the 3rd of the chord is omitted), then moving to Em7 before proceeding to A7 and then to D-minor. In this sense, the opening chord is a decoy (Principle17) ; as musicologist Alan Pollack points out, the home key (F-major) has little time to establish itself before “heading towards the relative D-minor.” He points out that this diversion is a compositional device commonly used by Lennon and McCartney, which he describes as “delayed gratification”.
The second section (“Why she had to go I don’t know …”) is, according to Pollack, less musically surprising on paper than it sounds. Starting with Em7, the harmonic progression quickly moves through the A-major, D-minor, and (closer to F-major) B♭, before resolving back to F-major, and at the end of this, McCartney holds F while the strings descend to resolve to the home key to introduce the restatement of the first section, before a brief hummed closing phrase.
Pollack described the scoring as “truly inspired”, citing it as an example of “[Lennon & McCartney’s] flair for creating (Principle 5) stylistic hybrids”; in particular, he praises the “ironic tension drawn between the schmaltzy content of what is played by the quartet and the restrained, spare nature of the medium in which it is played.”
The tonic key of the song is F major (although, since McCartney tuned his guitar down a whole step, he was playing the chords as if it were in G), where the song begins before veering off into the key of D minor. It is this frequent use of the minor, and the ii-V7 chord progression (Em and A7 chords in this case) leading into it, that gives the song its melancholy aura. The A7 chord is an example of a secondary dominant, specifically a V/vi chord. The G7 chord in the bridge is another secondary dominant, in this case a V/V chord, but rather than resolve it to the expected chord, as with the A7 to Dm in the verse, McCartney instead follows it with the IV chord, a B♭. This motion creates a descending chromatic line of C–B–B♭–A to accompany the title lyric.
The verse is an unusual (Principle 16) seven measures long but, because of the rhythmic phrasing, it doesn’t come across as awkward at all. The thumping bass notes of Paul’s guitar work are deliberate in their strategic placements, showing that he was well rehearsed beforehand. He even fits the final word with a planned (Principle 2) syncopated beat (“yes-ter-day”) that breaks the rhythmic pattern found in the rest of the verse. The overall effect, lyrically and musically, is stunning – a vivid depiction of absolute loneliness as a result of an illusionary romance.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), the second seven-measure verse begins with the word “suddenly” just as we suddenly hear the string quartet arrive to add a deeper sense of heartache to the already dour landscape (a different kind of Principle 5). The instrumentalists stay relatively within the parameters of the chords with one notable exception (Principle 3) being the subtle melody line that dances as a harmony with Paul’s lyric “yesterday came suddenly.”
Some of the songs lyrics are statements of yearning for the past (“all my troubles seemed so far away,” “I’m not half the man I used to be”), while others are based in the present (“Now it looks as though they’re here to stay”). The past yearnings lines all follow ascending melody lines, whereas the ones in the present all follow descending melodies. Hello, again, Principle 3.
Finally, during the repeated third verse, the quartet pulls out all the stops (Principle 38). A violin holds a single high note for the first five measures and the viola joins in midway through the third measure to begin a subtle lower harmony to Paul’s vocal melody. A repeat of the final two measures acts as a conclusion for the song although Paul chooses to hum instead of sing (Principle 2). He also dispenses with the thumping bass notes (Principle 2) and sticks to a few higher strings played in a falling pattern. The quartet follows him down and then punctuates the final two notes as it then fades away. History is made!